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Not Enough

 

Harry had only been back at the Dursley's for four days, and he was already sick of it. Dudley seemed to become stupider and more belligerent every summer. This year, school had managed to take a bit of weight off him, but that only made him a slightly more dangerous fighter, because it now took him a minute or two to run out of breath. He was still wide enough to trap Harry in the hall. Harry avoided him as much as possible, dodged when necessary, and reminded himself that he would be able to use magic at the end of the month.

"I told you, I don't know who you're talking about!"

Uncle Vernon's bellow brought Harry out of his reverie, and he darted to the top of the stairs to look though the railing supports to the front door. Professor Lupin was standing there, dressed quite competently as a Muggle, with Snuffles on a lead. The dog surged forward as he spotted Harry.

"Snuffles!" Remus scolded, after recovering his balance. "Behave."

"Get that filthy animal off my property!

Harry came down the stairs. "Hi, Professor Lupin!" he said brightly.  

"Professor?" Uncle Vernon roared.

"Now, Harry!" Lupin reproved, removing one hand from the lead to wag a finger playfully at Harry. "I haven't been a professor in years. You know --"

Sirius, taking advantage of his handler's laxity, launched himself at Harry, who staggered back against the hall table from the weight of the dog's paws on his shoulders.

"Yes, Snuffles, I'm happy to see you too. Now get down."

The dog sat, tongue lolling out happily. Uncle Vernon was ranting at Lupin about not being able to keep his mongrel under control, and ordering him off the property without giving him space to leave. Finally, Lupin gave up on his spurts of words abating and turned away from him. He tugged on the lead. "Come along, Harry."

"Harry is not going anywhere with some vagabond who waltzes in off the street --"

"His godfather sent me." Lupin smiled thinly as Vernon fell completely silent. "And he will come with me."

 

Harry was laughing as they climbed into a waiting car -- an old grey banger whose mere presence must have given Uncle Vernon fits. Lupin, to his surprise, climbed into the driver's seat.

"Get in," he said cheerily. "Don't worry about the lack of belts; it has less confining safety features."

As they turned the corner, the dog changed to a man, who grinned back at Harry.

"Just say 'charms,' Moony."

"Not when he has the door open!"

Harry laughed. "I knew what he meant, Sirius."

They drove along an assortment of roads, through a day that Harry had suddenly noticed was sunny and fresh. He sat in the center of the back seat, and leaned forward to talk between them.

"This car is perfect! Uncle Vernon must have hated it!"

Remus laughed. He seemed to be in one of his careless moods today. "He wasn't terribly pleased with my dog either," he said. "Especially when he got loose."

"A pity I didn't have time to chew on anything," Sirius volunteered, and they all laughed.

"I take it you don't hate me, then?" Harry said hopefully, as Remus pulled into a parking space alongside a high wall.

Sirius and Remus glanced at each other.

"Of course not, Harry--"

"However," Remus continued for Sirius, but in a much firmer tone, "we do need to talk."

His wand was out, but rather than casting a privacy spell, it shot out a net of bluish light at Sirius. The man's features wavered, and became rounder and more open, and his black curls shrunk back towards his skull and turned blond. Harry stared.

"How did--"

"It's a glamour, Harry," the stranger who was Sirius said. "There are ways to undo it, but someone would have to try. We should be safe enough for a couple of hours."

Harry nodded, but Remus looked back at him with a soft, speculative sound. Finally, his turned his wand on Harry. "You too," he said.

Harry felt a wash of disorientation, but it was nothing like the discomfort of a portkey. "Um ... okay?" he tried, as the world steadied.

The man who was Sirius shook his head. "No. I'm not going to know what any of his expressions mean. Can't we just take him back to our place, Moony?"

Remus frowned. "No. Too likely--"

"The Shrieking Shack?" Harry suggested. Remus grimaced, but Sirius laughed.

"That's what it always comes to, isn't it?"

Remus had to smile at that, even if it was a bit ragged at the edges. "So it does. Hm. Or perhaps our place via the Shrieking Shack. Can you take three Side-Along Apparations, Harry? I'd like to muddy our tracks a bit."

"Sure."

Harry wouldn't have refused for the world, but afterwards, he thought it was just as well that he hadn't known what he was agreeing to. Remus seized his arm, and after a moment of horrible pressure, they were all three sprawled on the floor of the ramshackle house. As soon as Harry stood, Remus took his arm again, and Harry found himself in a dirty alley, stumbling in the dirty rain. When Sirius grabbed him, Harry thought it was just to keep him from falling, but then he was being compressed again, and then he was in the front garden of a tiny stone cottage.

"Switching the apparator slows tracking," Sirius volunteered, with a grin. "Remus will lay a trail that would make a fox green with envy, and then he'll join us." He led the way in the door, ducking to clear the lintel, and into a little room.

Even with the bright sunshine outside, the room was dark, but Sirius, with a flick of his wand, set a cheery fire burning in the grate, and hung a kettle over the flames. With a little more concentration, he removed their disguises. "Welcome to The Den -- Darkmoon Den, if you ever need to Floo call. It's an old croft from before the Clearances, but we've expanded on it a bit -- mostly underground, where it doesn't show. Three rooms, and the outhouse is quite cushy. Would you like some milk? Only hours from the cow!"

Harry found that a bit strange to contemplate, but he nodded, and soon found himself with a glass of milk that tasted like the milk at Hogwarts or the Burrow -- good, but not at all like milk at the Dursley's. He looked up and found Sirius drinking some as well.

"Do wizards do something to milk?"

Sirius shrugged. "Preservative spells, sometimes, but not on this, because we get it fresh each morning. Muggles cook it, though, from what Remus says."

"So this is what it tastes like really?"

"I suppose it does!"

At that moment, the kettle began to whistle, and Remus, as if summoned by the sound, popped into the space outside the window. "Ah, good," he said, as he walked in the door. "You started tea."

When the tea was brewed, and cups of it had taken the place of the glasses, Remus sat, and Harry's nervousness returned full force. It was cozy and pleasant to be with the two of them, but they still hadn't said anything of import. In the time he'd had alone with Sirius, they had talked about milk, for heaven's sake!

"Er, so...." Sirius began.

Harry rubbed the back of his neck. "Um... where do you want to start?"

"Well, first...." Sirius looked rather lost. "Er, you thought I might be upset that you kissed a boy?"

"Oh." Harry felt his face heating. "Well, I didn't realize, then, that the wizard-raised students weren't as bothered by it, mostly, and--" His voice caught.

Remus shifted his teacup and cleared his throat slightly. When Harry looked at him, he raised his eyebrows and smiled mischievously at him. "I gather we haven't been too obvious as a couple, then?"

"Wha--?" Harry's jaw dropped. He looked over at Sirius who was changing from rolling his eyes to laughing.

"Remus!" he choked.

"What?" Remus asked innocently. "Might as well just get it out there."

"You're, um ...." Harry scrambled for a word. "... involved?"

"Since about your age," Sirius said, and at Remus's huff, added airily, "with a few minor interruptions, of course."

"But..." Harry stared at them in turn. He'd known they were close, of course; that had been obvious from the start. But lovers? "Why didn't you come here right away, then? Once you escaped?"

They both looked unhappy at that.

"Well," Sirius offered, "this was a place the Aurors would look, right?"

"We'd been living together when Sirius first went to Azkaban," Remus explained. "I was raided rather regularly. After I left Hogwarts and returned here, when it was known that Sirius Black had eluded capture near my location...." He raised his arms in a helpless shrug. "Well. I think it was six times in the first month." He took a sip of his tea. "It died down eventually."

Sirius cleared his throat. "Also, though ... well, I wasn't sure I'd be welcome."

Harry looked at them wildly. "Why not?"

"Well, I had ... lied to him."

Remus reached out a hand over the table, and Sirius took it in a tight hold. Remus nodded. "He had. And it was painful in a way that darkened a significant portion of my life. However...." He shrugged. "I understand what he was trying to accomplish. I was certainly angry, but it was not difficult to forgive."

"But when I didn't come by...."

"I decided he wasn't interested in revisiting that relationship."

Sirius grinned. "Fortunately, old Dumbledore eventually stuck his nose into it."

With a reproving look, Remus tsked. "Fortunately, Professor Dumbledore did place us back into daily contact. Without that, I might have spent the rest of my life assuming he was no longer interested, now that I was no longer an attractive young man--"

"Because I'm so untouched by the years!" Sirius exclaimed, winking at Harry.

"-- or that Azkaban had deadened too much of his feeling."

"Because I'm so calm."

Remus smiled. "His positive feelings, then."

Listening to them together, Harry wasn't sure how he'd missed their connection. Of course.... "I haven't seen much of you together."

Remus nodded. "Understood. I was actually less surprised than Sirius was that you didn't know."

"It was a bit upsetting," Sirius confessed, "but only in the sense of making it obvious how little we know each other." At Harry's quick nod, Sirius reached across to set a hand briefly on his shoulder. "We'll have to work on that," he said sincerely.

"As much as is possible while you are a fugitive," Remus amended. "Which may not be much. We can't risk this often, Harry."

"However, we've intelligence that there's a big Death Eater meeting going on ri--"

"Enough!" Remus said sharply. "The letter."

Sirius sent him a look that promised argument later, but he did refocus. "The letter. Yes. You said there were ... other things that might upset me?"

Harry took a deep breath. "Yeah," he admitted. His tea had gone cold, and he topped it up to warm it. "Um ... can we start with the one I think you shouldn't be angry about? I mean, you probably will be, but you shouldn't."

Sirius and Remus shared another one of those looks.

"Yes, Harry?" Remus prompted. Harry clenched his fingers around the handle of the teacup.

"He's a Slytherin. The other boy, I mean."

Again, that look.

"Malfoy," Sirius said darkly, but he didn't seem surprised.

"Mm. We'd discussed that, and thought him a likely candidate."

"You can't trust him, Harry!"

Harry shrugged. "Well, I do, actually."

"He's a Malfoy!"

"Yeah, but...." Harry tried to rein in the threads of wild magic that he could feel coalescing around him. "He's left. He's going to testify against his father."

"Then he thinks you're a better bet, that's all that means."

"Sirius! His father -- Lucius -- is trying to disinherit him! He's risking a lot more than he's comfortable with, and he's worked with Hermione, and he saved my life!"

"Did he?" Remus asked, as if it was light gossip.

"When I flew off to fight Bellatrix, he didn't need to follow me! Slytherins aren't expected to do things like that!"

"Ah."

Sirius had sat back, brow creased in puzzlement, but Remus nodded and poured more tea. "He loves you, then."

"Slytherins don't fall in love, Moony."

"On the contrary," Remus countered evenly. "Everyone falls in love. A Slytherin, however, would need to be in order to do something so selfless." He looked over at Sirius. "Come on, Padfoot. You have to have a touch of sympathy for a young man who's trying to gain some independence from his vile family."

Sirius grimaced. "Enough of that." He turned to Harry. "You're clearly arse over teakettle for the Malfoy boy, and we're not likely to change your mind until the hormones subside. So, what else?"

"Okay." Carefully, Harry let go of the teacup. That was as good as he was likely to get about Draco, and better than he'd expected. "I've ... I've studied a bit-- a few spells -- well, one, mainly -- of Dark Arts."

"WHAT!"

"Not from Draco," Harry added quickly. "Draco was shocked. It was on my own." Snape wasn't something he felt required to confess to, especially with his godfather already upset.

"Oh dear," Remus said. "Well. Which, if you will tell us? And does Dumbledore know?"

"He knows," Harry said quietly. "I, uh, told him. I'd been practicing on snakes -- thinking of Nagini -- and I used the Imperius curse on the dragon, the one Bellatrix was riding."

"Harry," Remus said softly.

"Sorry."

"You damn well should be!" Sirius exclaimed. "There'll be no more of that, now, understand me? Your dad would be horrified -- his own son using Unforgiveables!"

"Sorry," Harry repeated. "I won't again -- unless it is Nagini, and I need to. I wouldn't on a person."

Sirius sat back with a huff, half-mollified. "You shouldn't at all," he said, but less angrily, now.

Harry nodded, but didn't promise anything.

"Very well," Remus said, still sounding greatly displeased. "Is that all you have to tell us?"

"Yeah." Harry looked up and smiled tentatively. "Enough, isn't it?"

"Quite. However...." He let Harry sweat for a few breaths before continuing. "There is another issue that Albus did see fit to inform your godfather about ... some matter of showing up drunk to Professor McGonagall's office?"

"Eh, Moony!" Sirius tried to wave that off, but Remus was having none of it.

"Harry?"

"Professor Dumbledore gave me points for it," Harry exclaimed angrily. "For Bellatrix. I was trying to lose them as fast as possible, and she'd been so angry before--" He looked away. There was silence.

Lightly, Remus cleared his throat. "Well. That's a better reason than I had expected."

"I'm all right, okay? Really."

"I hear you." Remus did not agree, he noticed. "However, it is your godfather's job to worry about these things, and if he won't, I'll do it for him."

Harry, amused despite himself, turned. "I hear you," he repeated back. "After all, that's what partners are for, right?"

"Of course," Remus agreed. Sirius smirked.

"Among other things."

 

When Harry got home, he was not surprised to have Uncle Vernon glower at him as he came through the door.

"Have a good visit, boy?" he asked, managing to make the question vaguely threatening.

"Brilliant," Harry said. "Saw my godfather and everything."

Uncle Vernon's eyes narrowed. "Why don't you go live with him, hm?" he asked shrewdly. "If he's your guardian, you shouldn't be sopping off us."

"Yeah, but he's a fugitive," Harry reminded him. "So he's not my guardian, although he should've been. And his partner is a werewolf, and they're--."

"That's ENOUGH!"

Harry tried not to smirk at the predictable bellow. "Okay. I'll just go up to my room then, right?"

With a disgusted expression, Uncle Vernon motioned him at the stairs. "And stay there!" he called, when Harry was half-way up the stairs. "You're not getting dinner tonight!"

Harry kept going. He had a greasy pork pie and an apple balancing his jacket pockets, and he didn't want to risk his uncle seeing his smile.

 

When he got to his room, he found a barn owl sitting on the far side of the room from Hedwig, who was sitting puffed out atop her cage. He immediately called for Susara. Although he'd never heard of a messenger owl attacking a pet, he couldn't keep from worrying about it.

"Here, master," she hissed sleepily, and then, belatedly, raised her head. "You are happy?"

"Yes," he confirmed. "Happy."

While she was waking, in her slow snake way, he crossed to the strange owl. Immediately, he recognized the writing on the letter -- it was from Draco! The owl shifted impatiently from foot to foot while he got it a treat, and then flew off clutching it, still untasted, in his talons, apparently unwilling to eat under the glare of a territorial snowy owl.

"Sorry about being gone so long, Hedwig," Harry said soothingly, although he wasn't really. He gave her a treat, too, and then sat down with the letter.

Dear Harry,

Hogwarts is dull without any other students here, and especially without you. We could have such fun if you were here! Like over the winter holidays, but better, because now it's light all the time, and warm some days. I was lying in the grove by the lake, this morning, in a patch of sun, dreaming about making love to you there.

This is the first time I've ever wanted summer to be over as soon as it began. I spend my mornings alone, and in the afternoons, I help Snape or visit with the quiris. Horsyr is leaving soon, and I dread losing them. I've been spying on the staff and wheedling Snape, but I haven't found out a thing about the new Defense professor. I'm not entirely sure that Dumbledore has found one. At least the mystery provides me with some diversion.

Let me know about life with your least-favorite Muggles!

Love,

Draco


Harry smiled at the memories of December, but his breath caught at the thought of lying in the sun with Draco, slowly baring his pale skin to the golden light. He'd never be able to write anything that sexy, he was certain; he hoped Draco didn't expect it. Still, he fetched parchment and a quill immediately and began to write.


Dear Draco,

The Dursleys are as horrible as ever, but today was brilliant. Professor Lupin showed up and bullied Uncle Vernon into letting me leave with him. It turns out I needn't have worried about S. disapproving of me having a boyfriend; the two of them were together from sometime their sixth year until S. went to my parents died. I can tell you more about it when I see you -- it isn't really suitable for a letter.

That really was as detailed as he could get, he thought. It would be too dangerous to let on that he had seen Sirius, or that Lupin and Sirius were still involved.

It's been the one bright spot so far. Dudley still thinks I'm a punching bag. Fortunately, he's easy to outrun. Even if I were at the Burrow someplace fun, though, I'd still miss you.

The grove sounds I'd like to be in the grove with you.

Love,

Harry


As Hedwig carried the letter off into the fading light, Harry reflected that he still hadn't written to Ron, or Ron to him. He was unwilling to be first, though of course, Ron probably was too. He'd give it until his birthday, he decided, and he emptied his pockets, and lay down on his bed to picture the grove by the lake.

 

Chapter Text

 

Harry distributed the sausages he had just cooked to the plates on the breakfast table, and then returned the pan to the kitchen. When he got back, Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon were enthusiastically talking about taking Dudley to a boxing match. Dudley was replying to their questions in short grunts.

Eventually, Harry's aunt and uncle ran out of effusive things to say, and a silence descended. Harry swallowed his last bite of toast and cleared his throat.

"I'll be leaving for London in a few days," he commented, as if this was the most natural thing in the world. "On Saturday. I might be gone for a bit."

"London!" Uncle Vernon snarled. "And how do you expect to be getting there?"

"There's a bus I can call," Harry said. "The bus for my sort."

"You are not going anywhere!" Vernon fumed. "Those ... freaks can threaten us all they like – trips are an indulgence that you are not entitled to take."

"I have a court summons," Harry said flatly. "I think defying it would cause trouble for all of us." With satisfaction, he watched Uncle Vernon's face pale. "If the Mag-- the people who enforce these things showed up, and I said you wouldn't permit me to go...." He let the sentence trail off ominously.

Uncle Vernon attempted a sneer. "Ended up in court, did you? What did you do?"

Harry bristled. "I'm not the defendant. I'm a witness for the prosecution."

"One of your friends get caught?" Dudley taunted.

Harry had a brief surge of anger, which he suppressed with the thought that it was a wonder none of Dudley's friends had yet ended up in court. Harry found himself pushing down the impulse to say "my boyfriend's father." The backlash wouldn't really be worth the minute or two of entertainment, he thought.

"A man named Lucius Malfoy." Unable to resist hinting, he added, "His son and I are quite close."

"But you're testifying against him anyway," his uncle said darkly.

"So's Draco -- his son. Lucius is real homicidal bastard," Harry said. "Perhaps you'll get lucky, and he'll have one of his mates off me," he continued gleefully. "It's more your sort he usually likes to kill, though."

There was something perversely satisfying about terrifying the Dursleys.

 

Harry took the Knight Bus to the Leaky Cauldron, persuading Stan and Ernie, through combined gratuities and flattery, to let him leave it with his invisibility cloak on. Stan actually held the door to the pub open, allowing Harry to haul his trunk inside. Harry left the unwieldy burden by the door and slipped into the warm front room. He was struck, suddenly, by the memory of when he was thirteen, and he had lived here for two marvelous weeks. It wouldn't be the same now, of course. That was before Voldemort had regained his body, and even with the supposed threat of Sirius Black, escaped convict, he had been free to roam Diagon Alley as he pleased. Now, even if no one was telling him it was too dangerous, he would be aware of how dangerous it had become. The smell of beer washed over him, and incongruously, he found himself longing for tomorrow's breakfast, when the crowd would be thin, and that scent stale and bitter and comfortable.

Tom was behind the bar. When he stepped back into the kitchen, Harry followed. Once out of view of the patrons, he lowered the hood of his cloak.

"Tom?" he called softly.

Tom turned his head and dropped the bowl he had been about to fill with stew. It clattered on the countertop, but did not break. He was no taller than Harry, now.

"Sorry," Harry said. "I didn't want all of that lot to see me arriving."

"Understood, Mr. Potter! My pleasure!" Tom looked uncertainly at Harry's head, which Harry belatedly realized must appear to be floating in mid air. Harry set a hand to his hip, parting the cloak a bit, so he would have at least a column of his body showing. Tom seemed set at ease by this. "I should show you the Floo for private arrivals, sir."

"But I didn't come by Floo. My guardians are Muggles, you know."

Tom perked up. "You should have them put on the network! It can be approved for family, and it would make it easier for you to visit them."

Harry grimaced. "Why would I ever want to visit the Dursleys?"

Tom looked taken aback, and Harry tried sound calmer. "Look, remember the last time I'd stayed here? After I'd blown up my aunt? I have better control of my magic now, but we don't like each other any more than we did then. After I turn seventeen, I don't expect we'll ever talk, never mind visit. Besides, they hate magic, and they wouldn't allow a Floo connection even if they had a fireplace, which they don't."

"Ah." Tom scratched his head, as if uncertain how to fit this information into his concept of Harry Potter -- or, Harry realized belatedly, he might just be wondering how a household managed without a fire.

"My trunk is in the hall," Harry told him, eager to change the subject. "Shall I get it?"

Tom waved a hand in dismissal. "I'll have it sent up. Close up that cloak, Mr. Potter, and I'll show you to your room."

"Thank you," Harry said, and covered himself once again.

Tom brought him into a good-sized, pleasant room, with a window overlooking Diagon Alley. Harry wondered how that worked.

"Now, this is our protected hallway," Tom told him. "Dumbledore requested it for you, but I would have known, I wager, the times being what they are! Remember to carry your key, or you'll run afoul of the Confundus hex on the stairway. If you want anything brought up, the slate on the door copies to the kitchen, but I don't have extra servers, so you may need to wait." He nodded formally. "Will you be needing anything else, Mr. Potter?"

"Do you ... Will you take a message to another guest? Confidentially?"

"I will that," Tom said confidently, accepting the coin Harry passed him with good cheer.

"If Draco Malfoy is here, please tell him that I have arrived, and would like to have dinner with him, if possible."

"Draco Malfoy!" Tom looked shocked.

"The son of one of the defendants? In my class at Hogwarts?"

"But you...!" Tom stopped himself. "Of course, Mr. Potter. I'll let him know straight away."

"Thank you."

Tom, rather than leaving, looked hesitantly at Harry.

"What?" Harry asked.

"Professor Dumbledore and Mrs. Weasley both asked to be informed when you arrived. Do you wish to see them as well?"

Harry was surprised to find himself annoyed. He wanted a bath, he wanted to walk in Diagon Alley, and he wanted some pleasant time with Draco.

"Could you put it off till morning, Tom?" he pleaded. "Professor Dumbledore will have more elaborate schemes than Draco, and Mrs. Weasley --" He stopped. "Don't tell her at all," he said decisively. "It's none of her business where I am."

Tom looked uneasy. "I don't need to tell Mrs. Weasley, of course, but Professor Dumbledore reserved your room."

"He's not paying for it, though."

"Isn't he?"

"No. Even if he planned to, no. I won't have it." Especially as you'll take that as giving him authority.

"Still, he may wish to know you've arrived safely."

"I don't expect you to lie if he asks."

"But I did promise...."

And there was the problem, of course. Harry sighed. "Then tell him I'll meet him for breakfast or lunch, no earlier than ten. Not tonight."

Tom nodded, relieved. "Very good, Mr. Potter. And I will enquire with Mr. Malfoy first."

 

Before Harry had finished unpacking, a knock came at his door. Anxiously wondering if it would be Draco or Dumbledore, he opened it, only to find Tom had returned.

"Oh, hello, Tom."

"Mr. Potter." Tom nodded, rather distantly, Harry thought. "Mr. Malfoy says he should not be seen with you in public, but suggests dinner in his room, at seven."

"Not be seen...!" Harry had imagined a warmer reception than that. He frowned. "Oh, fine! Tell him I accept."

Tom nodded again. "He also asked me to tell you that he is in room fourteen, just down the hall."

 

It wasn't fine, though. Alone once more, Harry wondered what it meant. He was a secret again? He couldn't be, really. Too many people had seen them together at school, and they must have told siblings and parents. It was a wonder it hadn't been in the Daily Prophet. Harry thought about that for a moment. It would be more likely to be in Witch Weekly, he decided, in one of those "Rumors" sections that Lavender sometimes read aloud in the common room. And maybe it had been; without Lavender around, he wouldn't know.

Still, what was the point in Draco trying to pretend there was nothing between them? Harry bit his lip. Perhaps Draco had agreed to break up with him in return for some favor from an ally? Or in his absence -- and Snape's presence -- he had become more dissatisfied that Harry wasn't a pureblood? Perhaps he was inviting him to his room only to tell him that he was ending it.

Harry was tempted to run straight down to room fourteen, but he didn't want to show up smelling of the Knight Bus and the artificial scents of Petunia Dursley's air freshener. Draco valued appearances, and if Draco was going to tell him to leave, he would at least do it with regret. Instead, Harry bathed and dressed as nicely as possible, in clothes he had bought while in Hogsmeade with Draco. He chose the loose-legged black trousers, and the silk shirt that had once been red and gold, but was now green, black, and gold. Susara flowed reassuringly around his neck before disappearing under the silk to settle around his arm. When he checked the clock, it was quarter to seven already. He went back to the mirror, and tried to decide if he was ready for dinner with Draco.

 

After composing himself a final time, Harry knocked on the door. It swung open. On the far end of the room, to one side, Draco stood with his wand out.

"Come in," he said.

The distance, after his warm letters, could mean nothing good. Harry, in the beginnings of a defensive fury, strode in and turned to shut the door. He heard Draco moving towards him. When he turned back, the blond was only a few steps away.

"It's wonderful to see you, Harry," Draco said. His voice was uneven with emotion. Harry felt his anger turn to churning confusion.

"Is it?" he snapped. "Well you certainly had me fooled!"

"Harry?" Draco took a step closer. "Look, idiot, don't be angry --"

"You won't see me in public! You won't even open the damn door!"

"I've had death threats against me. I wanted to be sure it was you."

"Oh."

Draco closed the distance and put his arms around Harry. "It's wonderful to see you," he repeated soothingly. "Even better to touch you. And --"

Harry didn't let him continue. As soon as Draco had raised his face, he had moved to kiss him, and not a word was he letting out. Harry doubted Draco's tongue could produce any speech more eloquent than its eager dance in Harry's mouth. Harry pressed hard up against him, and made no objection, this time, when Draco began to shift his hips suggestively.

Harry whined into the kiss. Tonight, he decided. I'm not holding back, tonight. And we'll see how Lucius Malfoy likes watching me comfort his son in the gallery.

But that's public, noted a harsh voice in his head. And you are only for private enjoyment. Harry pulled away.

"Nice to know it's mutual," Draco said cheerily. "You wouldn't believe how I've missed you! I've been protected into utter boredom at Hogwarts --"

"Better than my Muggle relatives," Harry retorted sharply.

Draco frowned at him. "You're still angry," he accused disbelievingly.

"I'm tired of being your secret!"

"It's just for another two days," Draco wheedled. His expression was very serious, all of a sudden. Harry thought it was odd how that made him look younger. "I'm sorry I couldn't explain in advance, but it wasn't until this afternoon that the matter came up. My solicitor is certain that my father's defense team will see our relationship as something to use to their advantage. He believes they have focused some of their strategy on revealing me as your lover. If you walk into the trial and openly sit with me, they'll be disarmed, and need to modify tactics in midair."

Harry thought through the implications of this. "So, rather than revealing myself as your boyfriend to increasing circles of friends, and have the idea distribute slowly, you want me to reveal myself as your boyfriend in the middle of a media frenzy, complete with photographers?"

Draco turned pink. "Sorry."

Harry sighed. "Well, at least it will be funny." And I'll get to watch the look on his face.

"You'll do it?"

"Better that than to have you refuse to meet me in the public room," Harry said. His tone was embarrassingly petulant.

Draco relaxed. He caught at Harry's hand and let him to the chairs. "Once it's underway, I promise -- dinner anywhere you like. For tonight, I've ordered a good meal -- as good as this place can manage, at least -- to share in private."

"I don't care if it's a ploughman's lunch, as long as it's with you," Harry said plaintively. He sat down. When Draco tried to step away, he tugged at his hand. "You're not going anywhere."

"Can't I sit?"

"On my lap, you can."

They kissed again, for a very long time. Harry enjoyed the way Draco shifted against him, but he was careful not to respond too enthusiastically. He didn't think he'd be able to stop if they really got going.

"So, how was summer at Hogwarts?" he asked, trying to distract himself. "I've always wished I could stay."

"Boring mostly. I'd have died of loneliness, if it hadn't been for the Quiris."

Harry snorted. "Still messing about with those, are you? What a good little boy! When does Horsyr leave?"

Draco ducked his head in response to Harry's sarcastic comment. "She already has." He laughed nervously. "Two of the Quiris stayed with me: Cheefi and Tuktuk."

Harry stared. "You allowed this? It was Dumbledore's idea, I presume?"

"Horsyr's, I think. It's not permanent -- she just wasn't sure they'd be safe where she was traveling, so she only took the older two, who have more control and are easier to conceal." He bit his lip for a moment. "And she said Cheefi didn't want to leave me. I may regret it, but I had been missing them in advance, and she asked me in front of them, so of course I jumped at the chance."

"But she'll take them before term starts."

"Maybe." Draco's brow crinkled as he looked at Harry. "What does it matter to you?"

Harry stared back. "You don't think that's a little suspicious? You're suddenly the ideal person to leave them with? Dumbledore arranged it, I'm sure. Either I break up with you, or he knows if I've been doing Dark Arts."

Draco's astonishment hardened to anger. "And people say I'm conceited. Everything is all about you, isn't it?"

"I don't know whether or not Dumbledore wants to control you. History has shown that he likes to have me loosely, but decidedly, in hand."

"I do appreciate that it restrains me, but you! Why should you care? I thought you weren't going to do Dark Arts, anymore."

Harry looked away. "Look it's--" He wasn't sure what it was. The loss of an option? "I don't like being controlled," he decided. "And what if I need to?"

"Need to," Draco repeated.

"Draco, don't get moralistic on me! You know better. I am going to win, do you understand? I kill Voldemort. I don't care if I survive it, and I don't care if my soul survives it. I win." He dared a glance at Draco. He had his forehead resting on one spread hand. Harry couldn't tell if his eyes were open or shut.

"Draco," he said gently, "I'll try."

"I don't know why I care!" Draco snapped. He pushed away, getting to his feet. Harry's lap felt cold where he had been. He watched Draco take a restless step clear of him and then turn back angrily. "I've done more Dark Arts than you've heard of. I can imagine situations where I wouldn't care what you used, but ...."

"You understand, then. But Dumbledore won't. You know that."

"Look," Draco said. "You can still use Dark Arts without him finding out, if we arrange things correctly."

"Can I?"

"Yes. You simply aren't with the Quiris often enough for a four week gap to show -- assuming I even still have them, which I might not. I'll still know, but if you convince me you need to, we can keep it from everyone else."

"I'm still being watched, I just have a more flexible guard."

"If you can't convince me, what the hell are you doing?" Draco protested.

The question cut through Harry's anger. "I suppose that's a point," he admitted.

While Harry was still catching his breath, there was a knock on the door. Both of them froze. "I'll answer it," Harry volunteered.

It was dinner. When Harry opened the door, Tom stepped in, still looking rather wary, with a laden table floating behind him. He set it down by the window.

"Will there be anything else, Mr. Malfoy?" he asked politely.

"That will do, for now," Draco answered, instantly shifting into an imperious manner. "We may want dessert or drinks later. Check back in an hour."

"Of course." Tom nodded, and backed out of the room. Harry's presence had not been acknowledged in the entire conversation. He felt curiously unreal.

Draco let out a long breath and sent Harry a friendly smile. The whole room seemed to lighten. "There. Let's move to the table. Had we finished our argument?"

"I suppose," Harry agreed. The food smelled delicious. Lunch had been an apple, he realized, and the table held roast beef, and thick slices of dark bread, and a dish of butter, and a jug of gravy, and mashed swedes, and a vegetable mix of green beans, yellow beans, and long slices of carrot. There was also a carafe full of garnet wine. Draco poured them both glasses of it and raised his in a toast.

"To Now," he said firmly, and Harry echoed him and clinked his glass against Draco's.

By unspoken agreement, they kept their conversation at light as possible, given the circumstances, although weightier matters crept in from time to time. Draco gossiped about the staff at Hogwarts and about various of his relatives, but he also related that he had exchanged several tense letters with Pansy. Harry couldn't fully appreciate the food without remarking how good it was not be given the worst pieces of everything, and he admitted that he and Ron had not been in communication at all. For all the unpleasant elements, Harry felt his anxiety melting away. Spring hadn't been some sort of hopeless fantasy; being with Draco was really that good.

 

Harry tugged Draco a little closer to him. The room had no seating intended for two, so he had settled on a carpet on the floor with his back against the base of a stuffed chair, and Draco was sitting between his legs, leaning back against his chest. Draco sighed and relaxed further into Harry's embrace, and Harry stretched forward to kiss him.

"Certain you don't want more dinner?" Draco teased.

"Completely."

"More wine?"

"We finished it."

Draco giggled. Harry moved to tickle him, but then changed his mind. He started undoing Draco's thin shirt, instead.

"Ah!" Draco's head tipped back. "Harry, don't tease," he pleaded.

"Who said I'm teasing?" Harry heard his own voice drop to an unfamiliar growl. "Term is over."

Draco's pale eyes widened. "Oh!"

He twisted further, and Harry moved to take his mouth again. He felt a ferocious welling of desire that made him want to bite those bright lips, but kept his assault to a fierce pushing of mouth and tongue that made Draco whimper.

Someone knocked at the door. Draco looked uncertainly at Harry. "Want dessert?"

"Besides you?" Harry didn't stop to consider it. Nothing was worth the time away from Draco's lips. "No. Not waiting."

"Mr. Malfoy?" Tom called from the hallway. "Will you be wanting anything more?"

"Not tonight, Tom," Draco called. "I'd rather not be disturbed."

"All right, then," Tom answered. They heard him retreat down the corridor.

"Mm," Draco said. "Where were we?"

"On the edge of new territory."

"Ah. So we were."

Draco got to his feet. Harry had only time for a moment's confused hurt before Draco reached a hand down to him. "Come to bed?" he asked, his voice low.

Harry followed readily. He was trembling with excitement and uncertainty, making it hard to control his movements. Draco seemed the epitome of grace as he turned back the covers and beckoned Harry to lie down.

"Are you cold?" he asked.

"No," Harry muttered, blushing, and Draco responded with visible delight.

"Oh! My Harry." He reclined next to Harry and pushed him gently back to the mattress. "Lie down. I want to undress you."

Harry didn't know when he'd lost control, but he wasn't going to argue. He wasn't entirely sure he could speak. He lay back and let Draco unbutton his shirt and cuffs, and kiss at the skin underneath, resisting only long enough to push Draco's shirt off, so he could touch Draco's pale skin with whatever hand he had free.

"So lovely," Draco sighed, kissing along Harry's shoulder and down his arm. "Curl up a moment; I want this off."

Harry raised his torso, but couldn't help staring at Draco's soft trousers while he held that position. With the concealing drape of his shirt gone, it was obvious that Draco was hard beneath them. Harry felt a surge of panic. What if he didn't know what to do? What if he didn't like it, after all? He shook harder as he reached to touch. He had intended a caress, but it was with more a grab when his hand closed on that cloth-covered shaft. Despite that, Draco closed his eyes and arched in apparent bliss.

"Sorry I'm so clumsy." Even his voice was shaking.

"You're a virgin," Draco retorted. "It's sexy, the way you're trembling. Be graceful for me some other day, when it makes sense."

"I ..." Was this normal? Harry wondered. Before he could decide what to say, Draco was opening his trousers and lightly returning the touch. "Draco! God."

"Mm. Let me slide these off, right? I want to make you feel so good...."

Harry raised his hips and the last of his clothes were gone, dropped carelessly on the floor by the bed. Draco paused to remove his own as well, displaying a long, slender cock that rose hard from pale curls of hair. Harry reached for it again, but Draco knelt across his legs, taking it out of reach.

"Get back here!"

"Shhh." Draco kissed Harry's stomach, then lifted just his head, his hair falling straight along his face. "Patience."

"Please?"

"Mm." Draco kissed lower, first next to Harry's cock, and then on it. "No," he said lightly. "I want to be right here."

When his mouth closed over the head, Harry couldn't claim he disagreed.

 

Chapter Text

 

Before he was completely awake, Harry had a feeling that something was strange. Not bad, he thought, just strange and perhaps pleasantly confining, but that put him in mind of the Imperius Curse, and he forced himself to wake, determined to deal with whatever danger threatened.

None did. Draco lay close against his side, creating a line of warmth, with his head resting on Harry's shoulder, and his hand on Harry's chest. The unusual sensations had probably combined into the feeling of being restrained, Harry thought contentedly. Of course, he was also naked, so it was no wonder something had seemed wrong to his sleep-fogged mind. Carefully, he stroked a hand over Draco's bright hair. Draco twitched. For a moment, his body tensed, and then it relaxed again, and he opened his eyes. In the morning sunlight, they were a soft, misty grey.

"Hey," Harry said softly.

"Finally awake, are you?" Draco replied.

"Finally?" Harry teased.

"Well, I woke earlier, but you didn't, so I went back to sleep." Draco yawned slightly. "We must have been up late. I can't, usually." He smiled slowly, that strange, new smile that seemed to be only for Harry. "Or maybe I've never had such a fine pillow."

"This is great, isn't it?" Harry replied, delighted. "Well, once I'd decided I was safe."

"Safe?"

Laughing slightly, Harry traced up Draco's fingers, still resting on his chest, to cover them with his own. "Well, between this and the nudity, before I quite woke up, I thought I was trapped."

"Oh you are," Draco said happily.

"Am I?"

"You don't think I'm letting you go, do you?"

Harry knew it was meant as flirtation, but the claim still irritated him. "Actually, I thought that was the plan. Scheduled and everything."

"Harry!" Draco complained. "Must you bring that up? You're spoiling Now, you know." He came up on one elbow and frowned down at Harry. "Promise me you won't talk about it?"

Harry hesitated. He had spoiled the mood, he realized, but he wouldn't have if Draco hadn't reminded him. "I think I'll have to. But I promise not to talk about it again when we're lying together feeling content. Just--"

"Just what?"

"Just don't bring it up like that, all right? No saying that you're going to keep me or going to stay. If you do that, I think about it, and then I'm not happy."

"Silly, literal Gryffindor," Draco answered. "All right. I didn't mean to bring you down, you know."

"I know."

"Hm." Draco traced the hand on Harry's chest down his torso. "Could I bring you up?"

"That should be easy."

 

Harry stopped to change into robes before going to meet Dumbledore, but he could still smell Draco's scent on his skin, and he felt so light and warm that he thought he must look different. Still, there was nothing for it but to stand across from the man and produce a flawlessly even "Good morning, Professor."

They were in a private parlor to one side of the pub. In comparison to the public room, it was small, but still too large for only the two of them. Their places had been set at one end of a dining table intended for ten or twelve. The one high window, grey with London grime, let in little light, but a cheery fire crackled in the grate.

Dumbledore looked up with a smile, but there was also something of evaluation in his gaze.

"Good morning, Harry. Please have a seat." He paused. "You are looking very grown up today."

With a wry smile, Harry settled in the offered chair. "Is that a euphemism?"

Dumbledore's evaluation sharpened. "I had not intended it that way," he mused. "Ah. Tom said you would not meet me, last night. Were you indulging other interests?"

Well, that was certainly vague, Harry thought, and it had a tinge of disapproval that he disliked. "I was with Draco," he answered boldly.

"I see." Dumbledore sat back. "May I remind you that you are not of age? You have a room here so that you can easily confer with other people involved with the trial, not to provide you with unsupervised time with young Mr. Malfoy."

Crossing his arms over his chest, Harry glared back at the headmaster. "I'll be 'of age', as you say, in less than three weeks. If you give me enough trouble, you probably could keep me out of his bed this week, but there's no point, unless you want to irritate both of us, and you had implied that I'm here to keep him happy."

He thought he saw Dumbledore's eyes widen slightly, but then the moment passed, and the headmaster's face smoothed to placid concern. "You do not feel obliged to rush matters, I hope?"

"God, no." Harry relaxed back into his seat. If that was what Dumbledore was worried about, he would be fine. "Waiting through last term was enough."

"Did you?" Dumbledore's mouth quirked in a brief smile. "I must say, I'm somewhat surprised. Perhaps you are gaining some control over your impetuous nature, at last." He sat forward, and poured Harry a cup of tea. "Very well. If I hear no complaints as to your behavior, I will not interfere. But I do not want you drinking, Harry, and I expect you to comport yourself with dignity and restraint in public. By this time tomorrow, Wizarding London will have reporters and photographers on every corner."

"I suppose I'd better get my shopping done today, then," Harry said lightly, trying not to show his relief.

"Had you planned on shopping?"

Harry shrugged. "I'd need formal robes, I thought. I mean, if you want me on display."

"Ah, I see." Dumbledore refreshed his own tea while he considered that. "Yes, formal robes would be best. Your school robes are not really appropriate, and Muggle clothing might enhance the mistrust of those members who will be inclined to treat Lucius Malfoy leniently." His raised an eyebrow at Harry. "Do recall, however, that I am allowed the eccentricities of my age. Your own clothing should be more sedate, as befits the solemnity of the circumstances."

Harry smiled. Dumbledore was currently wearing purple and silver robes with silver embroidered stars all over them, and long tassels on the sleeves and collars. More sedate was a given. "I'll keep that in mind, sir."

"Good."

That settled, Harry took a bite of his sausage and belatedly realized that he was starving. Dumbledore let him eat for a few minutes before raising the next issue. Harry was buttering toast when the headmaster next spoke.

"Mrs. Weasley is in the area, you know. She worked at Beatrice's Bits and Bobs during the school year, and Beatrice wanted some extra help this week. She was hoping to speak to you."

Harry put down his fork. It was suddenly difficult to swallow his food. He got it down and cleared his throat with a mouthful of tea. "I am not interested in speaking to Mrs. Weasley," he said stonily.

"Harry. You can't blame her for being concerned --"

"And how did she find out about that, anyway?" Harry shot back. "You'd no right to tell her. She's not family. She's not my guardian. She's not staff."

Dumbledore sighed. "I had been of the impression that she was virtually family, Harry."

"No. If she was family, I would have been at the Burrow last summer. She can't have it both ways."

The headmaster steepled his fingers above his plate. "This grievance predates her unfortunate response in June, then," he said carefully.

Harry held back a snapped 'yes' and tried to answer logically. "That made it a grievance. Before that, it was a matter of understanding my place." He glared down at the remains of his beans. "Now, I expect her to understand hers."

"Oh dear," said Dumbledore softly. "Very well. I will relay your feelings about the matter."

"Fine."

After a moment of awkward silence, the headmaster cleared his throat. "Well. That aside, I believe we should discuss the trial. We wish you to be present, Harry, and seen, but whether or not you are called will depend on the flow of the proceedings, understood?"

"Yes, sir."

"If the defense calls you, it will be entirely in an attempt to make you look unreliable. You must keep your temper and answer questions thoughtfully and honestly."

"Really, I'm not stupid!" Harry caught himself and sighed. That was exactly the sort of response that he could not make at the trial. "Yes, Professor."

"Good. Now, is there anything you wish to ask?"

Harry didn't know where to start. He wasn't all that sure how the Muggle courts worked, and his only sense of Wizarding trials was what he had seen in Dumbledore's Pensieve during his fourth year. Certainly, Dumbledore was far more qualified than he to get Lucius and his cronies thrown in prison for the rest of their lives.

A daydream from several days ago asserted itself in his thoughts. "Do you think Pettigrew might come up, sir?" he asked hopefully. "If he's mentioned, we might be able to clear --" Despite the private room, ingrained wariness made him stop, his godfather's name unsaid.

With a discouragingly compassionate look, Dumbledore met his eyes. "I know how much you wish it, Harry, but it is unlikely."

"But maybe during questioning, someone on our side could ask who else was there. Or Snape --"

"Any mention of Peter will damage our credibility, Harry. You must remember, he is known to be dead. Such a maneuver would increase our chances of losing the case without much hope of helping Sirius."

That shocked Harry out of his disappointment. "Lose? How can we lose? They followed Draco to your office!"

"You would be surprised at what Lucius Malfoy can cast in a favorable light," Dumbledore warned. "Make no assumptions. He has evaded incarceration before."

 

Rather than returning to his room after breakfast, Harry stepped out to Diagon Alley and went straight to Madam Malkin's. The salesgirl who greeted him ran to get Madam Malkin herself, and the matron came breathlessly to meet him.

"Good morning, Mr. Potter! What can I do for you, today? A bit early for new school robes, I expect?"

Harry nodded. "I'm a witness -- well, potential witness -- in the trial."

Her expression grew somber. "Ah. I'd heard rumors to that effect."

"So I need something to wear," Harry went on. "Something a bit more wizardly -- and a lot nicer -- than most of my clothes."

"Understood." She eyed him appraisingly. "Any other requirements?"

Harry sighed. "It should probably scream 'Gryffindor,'" he admitted.

"Hm," she said. "Yet properly dignified. You do wish to be taken seriously, I expect?"

"Oh. Yes, of course."

They discussed parameters for a while, while Madam Malkin measured Harry. "Go and do your shopping," she urged. "In two hours, I'll have some pieces for you to try."

"Wonderful!" Harry hesitated. "Could you have something done by three?" Afraid of seeming too demanding, Harry amended that. "I mean, I don't need you to do, but I have an appointment then, and if you can, it would be useful to be able to ask if they were okay."

Madam Malkin smiled. "We shall see. If the first fitting goes well, then yes."

"Thank you!" Harry returned the smile as warmly as he could manage. "I appreciate that."

 

The robes -- deep maroon trimmed in harvest gold, and cut wider over the legs than he was used to -- were ready by three. Harry threw them on over his jeans before walking down to Draco's room. The wide folds of the bottom swung with his stride, and did his best to tell himself that someone wizarding-raised would not think of it as a skirt. Recalling Draco's unease the night before, he followed his knock with calling, "It's Harry."

A man he had never met before opened the door. Harry was flexing to release his wand before he caught sight of Draco behind him. Draco did not look distressed, so Harry let his hand relax.

"Please come in," said the stranger. Harry looked to Draco.

"Yes, please do, Harry," Draco confirmed. "This is my solicitor, Mr. Aloysius Clark. Mr. Clark, this is Harry Potter."

Harry shook the man's extended hand and entered the room.

Clark nodded. "I'm pleased to meet you, Mr. Potter." He ushered Harry towards a small, round table that had been set up in the space left beside the bed. "If you will forgive me speaking frankly, you seem rather more presentable than I had expected."

"I bought these robes for the trial; I just wore them down so Draco could see them."

"Ah. They will certainly do." The solicitor's sharp eyes flicked over him like a blade, as they took their places at the table. The seating reminded Harry uncomfortably of their tea with Dumbledore in the greenhouse, but Clark couldn't have been less like the old headmaster. He was dark-haired and sharp in features and language, and dressed conservatively in charcoal robes with black trim. Nothing about him soothed or amused.

"Have you considered something a little brighter? After all, reminding people of your past impressive deeds, and your Quidditch--"

"Enough," Draco snapped. "I have told you that I will not play up Harry as a loose cannon. Even for purely practical reasons, it would be short-sighted at best. Harry, ignore him. Those robes are perfect." He sat back from the table. "Mr. Clark," he said to Harry, "is, obviously, not involved with the trial, nor in any way working with the prosecution." That, Harry thought, was a warning. "He is, however, advising me on issues affected by my involvement."

Harry nodded acknowledgement. He wondered if Dumbledore knew about this arrangement. Probably, as he had wanted to host all of Draco's floo calls.

 

The meeting was less than comfortable, but at least it was short. Harry suspected that most of Draco's business had been concluded before he arrived, and he had been invited in only for display. Afterwards, he and Draco were summoned down to the parlor where he and Dumbledore had eaten breakfast. This meeting was not just with the headmaster, but included Severus Snape; a black Auror whom Harry vaguely remembered from the investigation after Mr. Weasley's death; a Wizengamot member named Amelia Bones; a pleasant Indian gentleman named Ravi Yallapragada; and other, quieter people. They used the full table, spreading out papers between empty plates, and most of the discussion went over Harry's head. He wasn't entirely sure whether Yallapragada was a barrister or another Wizengamot member, but he got the impression that Bones was the leader of a faction of the Wizengamot and keenly wanted to cement an alliance with Dumbledore. They all seemed to know the minutiae of applicable laws, though Harry couldn't imagine why they were bothering with trespassing and coercion when they had treason and attempted murder to work with.

He sat and practiced looking attentive and well-behaved until the food arrived, at which point he gave up and ate.

 

Afterwards, he and Draco went up the stairs together, and by silent agreement, to Harry's room. "You know," Draco said, as the door closed behind them, "if you want people to consider you to be the dumb warrior, you're doing a very good job."

"What do you mean?" Harry demanded, outraged.

"That meeting. You weren't even trying to understand what Shacklebolt was saying."

"Shacklebolt was the Auror, right?"

Draco rolled his eyes. "The senior Auror. The large, black, senior Auror. The bland, slightly small, watery-eyed man in poorly cut blue pinstripe robes was also an Auror, as you might have noticed."

"Er, no."

"I didn't think so. If you'd like them to think of you as more than a tool, you need to try a little harder."

"I couldn't understand any of that!"

"Of course you could have -- you just didn't care to try."

"Why do we need to do all this planning and review obscure laws for charging him with? He -- they were obviously working for Voldemort! They had the masks on! And your father tried to kill you!"

"So? He's been caught red-handed before."

"I just don't see how he could possibly get out of it."

"Then just trust us, will you? And try to follow along when we're reviewing 'obscure laws', because they may make the difference between getting him in prison or having him free."

"Fine!" Rubbing the back of his neck, Harry sighed. "Really. I'll try. Will you stay, tonight?"

Draco hesitated. "I don't think I could ... do anything, you know? I mean...." He gestured helplessly out at the darkness beyond the window, and Harry nodded in understanding.

"That's okay. Just stay." Harry reached out to take his hand. "Like that night in Gryffindor," he whispered.

 

Draco was very quiet the next morning. Harry dressed for the trial, and then escorted Draco to his room to do the same. Draco, before they went to breakfast, cast repelling charms on their clothing in case something spilled. Harry watched, fascinated, as toast crumbs bounced off the dark fabric of his robes.

"Are you going to eat, or just dribble bits of food and admire my charm work?"

Harry looked up and put the toast down.

"Like you're eating."

Draco gave a small, tight shrug and poked at his mutilated egg. "Can't."

Auror Shacklebolt flooed into the parlor. He was followed by last night's junior Auror and by a cheery-looking pink-haired witch. To Harry's surprise, the witch was also wearing Auror robes. He would have expected, had he ever thought about it, that the MLE would be too conservative for hair like that. To Harry's embarrassment, she spotted his stare, flashed him a grin, and walked directly over. Harry was afraid that she would make a fuss over him, but instead, she gave Draco a brisk nod and a bright smile.

"Hullo," she said. "I'm Auror Tonks; I'm part of the official protection for you, so I thought I should introduce myself."

"Tonks?" Draco's brow furrowed. Any relation to ..." His eyes went over her shoulder to look at nothing, and Harry could tell he was thinking furiously. "Um, Ed or Ted or something?" He shook his head in frustration, but his attention was back on her. "Sorry. I'm usually good with names, but--"

She laughed. "But you only heard that one in whispers?" she suggested. "He's my dad. My mum is Andromeda Black."

"Oh!" Draco stared outright for a moment, sweeping her up and down with a calculating gaze, until, recovering himself, he held out his hand. "Pleased to meet you, cousin. I'm afraid I was previously unaware of your existence." His mouth quirked in a slight smile. "And it was shouts, actually, but distant ones."

She took a step back, at first, as if she had not been expecting his response, but then, with a slight laugh, moved forward again and shook the extended hand. "Pleased to meet you also, cousin."

That settled, she finally let her gaze drift back to Harry.

"Hi," he said. Unsure of what to do, he held his hand out also. "Er, Harry Potter."

"I'd guessed," Tonks said solemnly, but then giggled as they shook hands. "I'm honored."

"Is everyone ready?" Shacklebolt called loudly. "Aurors, stations. Everyone take hold of the portkey."

That was relatively easy, for once, as the portkey was a length of rope. Tonks positioned herself next to Draco, so he was between her and Harry. Dumbledore was near Shacklebolt at the front. Together, they went to the Ministry, arriving in an otherwise empty chamber. The walls were dark stone, and there were no windows. They gathered into a tight group, and when the door opened, Shacklebolt stepped outside. "Clear the way!" he called, and bright yellow bolts shot from his wand. A moment later, they were crossing a corridor between two barriers of light. People shouted questions to Dumbledore and Draco and Harry, but they were quickly left behind for the muted hubbub of many low voices in a large chamber. Harry decided this must be the courtroom. It looked very like the one he had seen in Dumbledore's pensieve, during his fourth year, except the center of the room now had four chairs and a wood-paneled pen to either side. The rest of the room was full of well-dressed wizards and witches, their whispers combining into a low roar as they settled on the benches that rose tier upon tier from the floor. Set apart from the others was a row of five, with their clerks clustered behind them. He recognized the wizard in the center, Valerian Cabot, from pictures in the Daily Prophet. The new Minister for Magic, Gilbert Ramsley, had appointed him as Special Inquisitor, within weeks of Ramsley taking over from Fudge. The post reminded Harry of Crouch, which did not incline him kindly towards Cabot. To the Special Inquisitor's right sat Minister Ramsley, and to his left, Amelia Bones.

The pens also had tiered seating. Harry's group was led to one of them. He and Draco sat together, three rows up, and Dumbledore sat directly below them, at the floor. Harry supposed that was easier, if the headmaster expected to be called frequently. "Catch you later!" Tonks whispered in passing, and she drifted up to the top of the box, another row above them. When Harry looked up, she was standing against the back wall, scanning the room.

"Cousin?" he asked Draco at a whisper.

"Her mother and my mother and Bellatrix were sisters. Her mother was disinherited for marrying a Muggle -- or possibly a Muggleborn wizard; I was never clear on that."

"Bellatrix Lestrange?"

"Nee Black, yes."

"She was your aunt?"

"Well, yes, but we'd never met. I suppose she saw me when I was a baby, but you must remember that she had spent most of my life in prison."

Like Sirius, Harry realized. Sirius Black. "Black? Any relation to--" Not his sisters, he prayed.

"Cousins, also. First cousins, but Mother says Sirius was a bad sort -- always in trouble." Draco gave him a little wink as he spoke, and Harry suddenly felt better. "The old pureblood families are all intermarried, of course."

"I didn't know Sirius was from an old pureblood family!"

"You didn't?"

Harry only just bit back a "he never told me." Horrified at nearly having revealed his contact with his godfather, he sat silent for a moment, and in that moment, Minister Ramsley rose to his feet. He gestured to a clerk, who pointed his wand at his throat and bounced quickly to his feet.

"14th July, Nineteen-ninety-seven, special meeting of the Wizengamot, Special Inquisitor Cabot presiding. The Wizengamot will now hear this case."

It wasn't until he heard the declaration in a familiar, fussy voice that Harry realized the clerk was Percy Weasley. He had muted his hair by darkening it and wearing a hat. Harry bit his lip. Even now, when Harry was avoiding Mrs. Weasley himself, Percy's rejection of his family still raised his ire, and that he would reject them still more by changing his appearance seemed even worse.

Indignation proved to be the only excitement of the morning. Percy had sat, and Special Inquisitor Cabot stood, bowed to the people on either side of him, and then to the assembled members of the Wizengamot, and then sat again. He gestured to another clerk, who called the defendants, one at a time, out to the chairs. Once all were seated and chained, he read out the names of their accusers. Draco was not included in the latter category. Harry wondered if that was because he had not been of age at the time of the attack, or if it was some sort of tactical maneuver. Dumbledore was included, and stood in acknowledgement, but did not need to leave the box. After him came a member of the Board of Governors of Hogwarts, and then another, and then Professor Sprout, and then Mr. Yallapragada, who turned out to be another member of the Board of Governors. When he sat, Cabot stood again and made a long statement about justice being the solemn duty of the Wizengamot, and how no one should make his or her judgment in haste. By that point, Harry guessed an hour to have passed, and "haste" was the last word he would have associated with the proceedings.

After that, it was back to the clerk, who read one name: Dennis Avery. He followed that with a long list of charges brought against the man. Harry wasn't terribly surprised when Avery stood and declared that he was innocent. He had escaped, after all, and it was only Snape who could say that he had been among the six who had pursued Draco. Lucius Malfoy came next, and the clerk read out his name and a similar, if slightly longer, list of charges. He also, declared that he was innocent, causing Harry to twitch forward. Draco, at his side, sat ramrod straight and silent. The next defendant was Nott, who in contrast, stood and ranted for five minutes about how he had pursued the ungrateful brat, blood traitor that he was, and would do it again in a heartbeat. He eventually wound down, and Cabot cleared his throat.

"May this body assume that you plead 'guilty' then?" he asked, and people laughed uneasily.

"Guilty," Nott growled, and that was that.

Talbot, on the other hand, also professed innocence. At lunchtime, Cabot called a ninety minute recess, and the witnesses found themselves dismissed.

"I'll keep you in sight, Malfoy," Tonks assured them, "but you can go where you want."

"Back to the Cauldron?" Harry suggested, and Draco nodded agreement. Tonks brought them to a private grate and flooed ahead.

"We could shake her," Harry pointed out.

"Do you think we should?"

"Not really."

Draco nodded and tossed in powder. "The Leaky Cauldron."

 

 

The moment Harry stepped out of the floo, he saw the Weasleys. With that much red hair in one place, it was impossible not to notice them.

To his embarrassment, Mrs. Weasley looked up just at that moment and their eyes met. He pretended they hadn't, and walked for the stairs, although he had intended to have lunch, and ignored his name being called behind him.

Normally he would have turned with his wand out at the sound of people jogging up to him from behind, but this time he just counted on Draco's worried glance to mean that it was nothing unexpected, and Tonks, looking casually from near the bar, to intervene if it was. Hands closed on his shoulders.

"What's the matter, Potter?"

"Too good for us, now?

"Or have those Seeker reflexes--"

"-- finally failed?"

Harry flushed. He hadn't thought of it that way, but he probably did look snooty to them, walking off with Draco Malfoy, and in his new formal robes, as well.

"Look," he protested, "I've nothing against you. You're welcome to join us for lunch, if you want. I just don't want to deal with your mother."

Fred shook his head. "No deal, Harry."

"You don't get to treat her like that."

"I know we're not the well-behaved sons --"

"-- but we don't even treat her like that."

"Though sometimes we want to."

Harry crossed his arms over his chest. "I don't care. I won't talk to her."

Draco sighed. It wasn't loud, Harry thought, just very obvious.

"What?" he demanded.

"Nothing," Draco said airily. "Really, if you don't think she will be useful in the future, there's little point in wasting time on her." Harry felt a slow expansion of rage about to boil, but before he -- or the twins -- was quite there, Draco continued. "Of course, there's the matter of whether she was helpful in the past, but that's much more a Gryffindor issue, so really, I wouldn't bother appraising it."

"You're a prick."

"That's the pot calling the kettle black, if anything is," Draco said nastily. "Have you even told her that you're angry at her?"

"It's not--" Harry began, but fell silent at the look Draco shared with the nearer twin. "Fine!" he snarled, and marched back to the table.

He stopped in front of her, feeling coerced and angry, and managed a tight nod. "Mrs. Weasley."

She stared back at him in shocked dismay, and he felt a bit ashamed. After all, even Draco thought he was behaving badly. "How are you?" he tried awkwardly.

She frowned. "Is there a reason you didn't want to stop and say hello?"

Ron snorted. "That git with him, you think?"

"Oh, honestly, Weasley!" Draco shot back contemptuously. "He wouldn't have come over here at all if I hadn't intervened."

That was true enough, Harry realized, wincing. He tried to think of how to start this, but there didn't seem to be a good starting point. It was all a coiling fire in his mind. He forced himself to speak anyway, and let what would come out.

"You had no right to send me a Howler."

"Oh, Harry!" Mrs. Weasley seemed almost to relax at that. She smiled a little as she shook her head. "Someone has to look after you. I know that no one else will!"

"That's NOT true." Harry managed to pull himself back down from a shout at the thought that they were in a public place. He didn't want to look around to see who was staring. Auror Tonks, certainly. "I have Remus Lupin," he said fiercely, wishing he could say who else he had. "But even if I didn't, I'm not one of your sons, and you can't treat me like one when it suits you."

"Harry, love, you're practically family --"

"I AM NOT." He wasn't, Harry noticed ruefully, doing too well at the 'not shouting' thing. "If I was family, I would have been at the Burrow last summer."

"It wouldn't have been any fun--"

"Don't you think I know that? I knew you were mourning. But I didn't get to mourn with you. I got stuck with people who said 'oh, that horrible man who covered our living room with plaster dust -- good riddance!'"

For a moment, even the twins were silent.

Molly's eyes looked suspiciously wet. "Harry, it's just--"

"Just that you needed that time to be only family," he said softly. "I get that, as much as I wanted to be there. But you can't have it both ways."

Ron cleared his throat. "It was embarrassing, mum. Most people thought you were just one of those nutters who thinks he's public property, but a bunch of the other Gryffindors know your voice."

"Oh, Harry." Molly started to reach a hand out to him, and then changed her mind. She clicked her tongue nervously. "I didn't mean to hurt your feelings. I didn't even know that I had."

"I know," Harry answered. He felt a little better. Shyly, he sat at the end of the bench across from her. "I ... I still like you, and everything, Mrs. Weasley, and I appreciate everything you've done for me, but if you act like I'm yours again, I'll--" His mouth quirked into a smile. "I'll set my dog on you," he said suddenly, grinning.

She laughed, a little raggedly, and dabbed at her eyes. "Poor dear. Did Remus really talk to you?"

"Yes. Did Professor Dumbledore ever tell you that what I was trying to do was to lose a hundred house points in one afternoon?"

"No, he didn't--."

"Although Ron has certainly mentioned it since," George broke in.

"Repeatedly."

"Loudly."

"And we agree that it was --"

"-- treasonous," they finished together.

"It was points for Lestrange, and Draco faced her with me, and I would have died if he hadn't, and Slytherin deserved to get just as many."

"That may be true, as far as it goes --"

"-- but how many points from Gryffindor were unfair?"

"I can't fix everything. This was just wrong."

"And you're a hero to the younger years for it," Draco said placidly. "Not the first years; they were naive enough to believe that as it was obviously a mistake, it would be corrected, once someone brought it up to the right person."

Ron snorted. "True enough. The right person happened to be Harry."

Draco's lip curled. "Yes, but they still thought it would be Professor Dumbledore."

Harry shrugged. He couldn't blame Draco for not trusting Dumbledore. The Leaving Feast of his first year, such a wonderful surprise when he was eleven, now disturbed him when he remembered it. "At least it was a Gryffindor," he said. "That means something, I think."

"That you're mental," Fred said, and Ron agreed loudly.

"Boys!" Mrs. Weasley reproved. She smiled at Harry, and patted his hand. "Harry is right. Fair play is more important than winning a silly award."

"It's the House Cup, Mum!"

Harry laughed. "Look at it this way," he said. "All my ability to play unfair, I'm saving for the war, okay? I'll cheat to put one over on Voldemort -- not on a bunch of kids who are mostly younger than me."

"Ooo, Harry!"

"All grown up, are you?" The twins sniggered.

Ron started forward. "Mum, let's--" Clamping his mouth shut, he sat back. "Never mind," he muttered. Harry was almost certain he had nearly suggested something for his birthday.

He looked at Mrs. Weasley, who was now smiling at him, and the twins, who just seemed to be making the normal amount of trouble, considered how much better he felt, and made a decision.

"I still like you too, you know," he said.

Ron shot him a suspicious look.

"Even if you are a git," Harry said, and that seemed to be the right tack. Ron rolled his eyes, but he was smiling, now.

"Will you stay and have lunch with us, dear?" Mrs. Weasley asked. "Your friend too, of course."

"Oh, sure." Belatedly, Harry thought to look at Draco, who appeared alarmed at the idea. "Um, you know he's my, um, boyfriend, right?"

"It might have been mentioned," George said dryly.

"Possibly less than a thousand times."

 

Lunch with Weasleys was somewhat embarrassing. Harry could tell it was worse for Draco, who wasn't used to considering the twins' jibes in a friendly light. Fred and George had to rush back to work after a little while, however, and Harry, at least, belatedly appreciated how they had filled every awkward silence.

At last, they could reasonably say that they needed to freshen up before their return to the trial, and they stood to leave. Draco bowed slightly to Mrs. Weasley and said he was pleased to have met her, and they made their escape while she was still blushing.

They didn't make it far. Bulstrode and Parkinson, who had apparently been waiting for Draco to be free of Weasleys, intercepted them halfway across the floor.

"Draco, darling!" Pansy exclaimed. "We've been hoping to see you!"

Telling himself that he would only be in the way, Harry attempted to wave a farewell to Draco and move on, but Draco caught his arm in a tight grip.

"If I have to treat yours decently," he whispered viciously, "you have to treat mine decently."

His voice was low, but not so low that the others couldn't hear. Pansy tittered, and Harry felt his face heat.

"Sorry," he said. He nodded at the girls. "Hello."

Draco and Parkinson made almost identical eyerolls at his lack of breeding, but Bulstrode gave a nod that looked something like approval.

"Unfortunately," Draco said, once Harry was standing properly at his side, "we are in a bit of a hurry. We need to wash -- and other necessaries -- and have about ten minutes before we need to start back to the courtroom. Will you be in town long?"

"I'm here for the whole trial, but Millicent leaves tomorrow." Parkinson frowned slightly.

"Dinner, then?" Draco suggested.

"Oh, lovely! There's a marvelous new place down Fortune Row called the Grand Game -- you'd love the rabbit confit."

"Excellent!" Draco indicated Harry with a quick motion of his eyes. "Dinner for four, then? At eight?"

"Dinner for four," Parkinson confirmed, beaming.

"Don't look so horrified, Harry," Draco whispered on the stairs.

"I was just hoping for a pleasant evening at the end of this."

"Oh, you'll get one." Draco smirked. "I may make you be nice to my friends, but intend for you to find it well worth your while."

 

Chapter Text

 

If the morning session of the trial was unsettling, the afternoon one was outright disturbing. Avery did as Harry had expected and claimed that he wasn't present. However, two of his witnesses were not available, so his matter was tabled and the trial moved on to Lucius Malfoy.

There were chains on the three remaining chairs -- Nott was no longer present -- but none of the defendants were restrained with them. When his name was called, Lucius stood with quiet dignity. He was impeccably, but sedately, dressed in robes of soft grey, and he held his head high.

"Witches and wizards of the Wizengamot," he said, bowing politely, "I do not deny that I was present at this gathering of supporters of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, nor that I followed those of his servants who pursued my only son and heir. However, my presence was not willing, and I followed Draco only to protect him."

Harry repressed a snort only out of a sense of the dignity of occasion. He looked towards Draco, expecting to share a moment of amusement -- surely no one would believe such tripe -- but Draco sat stiffly, lips pressed in a tight line.

"As you all know, I received the Dark Mark in my youth, while under the Imperius curse." Lucius grimaced. "That, unfortunately, gives He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named the ability to maintain an approximate idea of my movements, and of course it is difficult to know which of my companions who claimed the same are sincere, and which are hiding behind lies.

"Giles Goyle has been a friend of mine nearly all my life. When he invited my son and me to a social gathering, it was only natural to accept. But then, his portkey brought me to an unexpected location, and I was obliged to watch, hopelessly outnumbered by his loyal servants, while He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named attempted to similarly brand my son." Lucius took in a hard, painful breath, and Harry watched with growing hatred a performance that might have convinced him had he not known better.

"When Draco escaped, I was, of course, relieved, but then several of those gathered turned to pursue him. I followed through the portkey trace and attacked Giles as he expanded his broom -- he'd got us into this situation, after all -- and he disarmed me, but I was too frantic to be sensible. Whatever his crimes may have been, he wasn't so far gone as to do an old friend real harm, and I followed. I could not do anything less for a child of my blood.

"Wandless, I could be of little help. Giles fought with both my wand and his own, leaving, no doubt, damning evidence. I swear, though, that I did nothing to endanger my son."

For minute, the room was silent. "Please continue, Mr. Malfoy," a man on the floor said levelly. He was standing in front of the facing box. Harry thought he might be part of the defense team.

"I -- it's hard to know what to say," Lucius continued, his voice just slightly unsteady. More than one listener was dabbing at her (or even his) eyes. Except for Voldemort, Harry had never wanted to hurt another person so badly as he did Lucius Malfoy now.

"Draco -- my own son believes that I would try to kill him! I -- it's Potter's influence -- it must be! The boy is unbalanced, and Dumbledore has encouraged his paranoia rather than helping him, and he's been filling my son's head with his own delusions of persecution." Lucius closed his eyes for a moment, as if mustering his resources, and then opened them again. "It pains me," he said, with quiet dignity, "that we must be victims to such experiments in education as to turn our own sons and daughters -- our future -- against us." He glanced down at his unused chains, for just a second, and then raised his head to look again at the Inquisitor. "That is my statement," he said levelly, and sat.

"Bastard," Harry muttered, but Draco shushed him. Harry would have worried had Draco not also gripped his hand tightly, the contact nearly hidden under the wide sleeve of his robes.

The clerk had asked Lucius Malfoy if he wanted to call any witnesses, and Lucius waved the matter wearily over to his barrister, who took a few steps from the chairs towards the box Harry and Draco were in.

"Professor Albus Dumbledore," he called.

 

The defense questioned Dumbledore as to who had cast the Cruciatus curse, and while he said that he believed that it was Lucius Malfoy, he of course had not seen the curse cast. Draco had already been on the floor of his office before he had caught his first glimpse of the interlopers. He did use that word, and Harry, for the first time, began to appreciate the potential value of the trespassing charge.

Dumbledore wasn't even able to testify that he had seen Lucius with a wand. When he had first emerged from the school, several of the Death Eaters had rushed towards him, and Snape had fired off Disarming spells from behind them. Dumbledore had been dueling Nott, and hadn't seen whose hands the wands had flown from.

Harry knew that this wasn't good. Snape had been cleared without a hearing, due to private testimony from various people -- including not only Dumbledore, but unnamed officials in the MLE -- that he had been working as an informant, but he still wasn't what most people would consider a reliable witness.

The prosecution, he thought, would probably have called Draco next, since he might have seen something definite, even while fleeing, but it wasn't their turn yet. The defense, instead, called Theodore Nott.

He wasn't the best witness either, Harry thought, as the pale young man rose stood and stepped out of the witness box to face the inquisitors. He had a strong resemblance to his uncle, whose hateful confession must still be fresh in everyone's minds. Still, he had a quiet, serious look that professors liked, and which Harry imagined that people in government might like as well.

"Now, Theodore," the man said, "you go to school with Draco Malfoy, don't you? Would you say he's a reliable witness?"

Nott hesitated. "He used to be dependable," he said.

"Ah. And what happened?"

Nott grimaced. "He started hanging out with Potter, and Potter's always in trouble. He's been drunk at school, and he spent half of last spring being punished for leaving the grounds, and everyone knows --"

Harry tensed, and he could feel Draco, beside him, do the same. Whispers spread through the Wizengamot. Dumbledore's voice cut through them.

"Objection," he said. "Mr. Potter's reliability is not relevant to the matter at hand. Furthermore, he is a minor, and any disciplinary action to which he may have been subject is therefore not admissible at a public hearing."

Harry didn't feel any less like cringing at that, but the defense barrister did not dispute the point. Instead, he consulted with his clerk, giving the assembly more time to speculate among themselves. Draco reached over and squeezed Harry's hand. "Sorry," he muttered.

After a moment, the man cleared his throat. "Theodore, please continue, but restrain yourself to the matters relevant to Draco."

Nott nodded and sent Harry -- or perhaps Draco -- a vicious look. "Well, Draco used to be around the common room most evenings, but in December, he started going missing. He'd be gone almost every other night, and we found out later that he was meeting Potter. They both stayed at the school over the Christmas holiday, and when we came back, it was even worse -- sometimes he'd be out well into the night, and come back smelling of alcohol. About a month into term, he started saying negative things about his family. I think it was to impress Potter, you know -- that he was too well-bred for Potter and had to play that down. In March, we started seeing him with more vulgar students, even--"

"Mr. Nott," the barrister interrupted, before Nott could say anything to damage his own case. "I'd like to review a few of your points. You feel that young Mr. Malfoy may have used animosity toward his father to impress Mr. Potter?"

"Oh, definitely. They fought about politics once, in public, and after that, Draco would make a show of being annoyed when he received letters from home. And he'd make trouble in other ways. When they were caught exchanging messages in Transfiguration lessons, Draco set their notes on fire. Potter was impressed with that one."

Draco nudged Harry. "You're so easy," he whispered, but there was a savage tension below the joke.

"And he would stay out drinking with him?"

"That's certainly what it seemed to be."

"Did he do anything else to impress Potter?"

Nott answered slowly, his attention going back to them. "Bought him presents," he said. "Clothes. And a torclinde."

Harry had left Susara at the Leaky Cauldron, afraid he might give in to the temptation of whispering to her. Now he knew he had made the right decision. His fingers brushed along his arm, where she should be, and Draco caught at his hand.

Conscious, suddenly, of the stares on them, Harry took a long breath, smiled as best he could at Draco, and folded his hands in his lap. What he needed to do was look well-behaved. Sadly, he'd never been any good at that, even when it was true.

 

Crabbe and another, older Slytherin -- ex Slytherin, Harry supposed -- gave similar testimony, talking about Draco's slide from responsibility, and never missing an opportunity to mention Harry's bad influence. Harry grew increasingly angry and embarrassed, and Draco, although silent beside him, was recognizably fuming. Harry could tell by the way his fingers slid against each other, as if missing the smooth strength of his wand. When the testimony ended and the court adjourned for the night, Harry didn't know where to look.

"Sorry," Draco whispered again.

"It's not your fault."

Draco shrugged. "It depends on how you think about it."

Tonks came down to meet them, and Harry felt an embarrassing rush of gratitude when she looked at him with ironic sympathy rather than curiosity or censure. "Come on, loves -- I can chivvy you past the press." She leaned closer. "And I'm bloody glad that my least friendly classmates were never invited to go on about my escapades in court."

As promised, Tonks escorted them back to the Cauldron, fending off a few intrepid reporters who had staked out the back corridor, and with an admonition to Draco that he was on his own until she came to walk him to breakfast, left both of them at Draco's room. Draco dropped into the room's only chair.

"The conniving bastard. 'Delusions of persecution' indeed!" He raised his head to look at Harry. "I can't believe he had the gall to try to cast you as the corrupter." With a groan, he sagged back against the worn cushions. "Except I can."

"The problem is," Harry said slowly, "that my friends can't deny the drinking, or the staying out late, or the sneaking out of school...."

"Gryffindors," Draco growled.

Harry was wondering whether to laugh or to take offence when a knock sounded at the door.

"Mr. Malfoy?" Tom's voice called. "Mr. Clark is here to see you."

Draco sighed and levered himself out of the chair. "Give us a few minutes, Harry? I'll come to your room when I'm done."

"Of course."

At the doorway, Harry and the solicitor walked past each other as if the other didn't exist, but Harry didn't make it far. Fred and George Weasley were waiting outside his room.

"How did you get here?" Harry demanded.

"We have a message from old Dumbledore."

"Which is enough to earn us an escort up."

"Where's the toff?"

Harry scowled. "Draco is with his solicitor, and I want you gone by the time he comes out."

"Ooo! Was that his room you came out of?"

"Fred...." Harry said warningly, but both twins were ignoring him. They parted to walk past Harry on both sides, which disconcerted him enough that it was a moment before he realized where they were going.

"Hey!" He hurried after them. "Draco's in a private meeting! You stay out of there!"

"Oh, we will!"

"Of course."

Fred's voice dropped. "We plan to stay--"

"-- out here."

In front of Draco's door, George drew his wand and whispered a spell.

"-- your mother," Mr. Clark was saying, his voice now clear in the hallway.

"Inadequate," Draco retorted, his voice brittle. "Even were she not, Harry is non-negotiable. I will not say it again."

Harry had his wand drawn and pointed at George. "End that."

"Do you have some better strategy?" Clark said dryly.

"Don't try it, Harry," Fred warned.

Draco's reply was drowned out by competing incantations. Fred went crashing into the door, and Harry felt a stinging lash across his chest. He pressed forward anyway, standing over Fred. Footsteps clattered inside the room, and George hastily ended his charm.

"What is this?" Clark asked, at a vicious hiss, while Draco, behind him, glared.

"Just a little disagreement," Harry said, not lifting his eyes or his wand. "I said Draco wasn't to be disturbed."

Fred scooted back more tightly against the wall. "Damn it, Harry, it was just a message from Dumbledore."

"Urgent?" Harry asked sweetly.

"Private."

"Most of this business is too private for a public corridor, isn't it?" Harry retorted.

The twins looked at each other, and it was George who spoke. "Sorry, Harry. You're right. Let Fred up, now, will you?"

With a roll of his eyes, Harry did. Draco looked searchingly at him a moment, and then nodded.

"Harry, take these two back to your room, would you please? If the message is too private to be given to you, they will need to wait." His glance raked scornfully over the twins before returning to Harry. "Of course, anything too private for you, I would hope the headmaster would have the sense not to tell to them."

"Er...."

"We'll talk to Harry then."

"We wanted to do that anyway."

 

Back in his room, Harry rounded on the twins. George was casting a spell on the door.

"What is that?"

"Privacy charm. Our own."

"So my business doesn't end up in the corridor?"

"Exactly." The twins looked at each other.

"We didn't mean...."

"We just thought he might be plotting against you."

"Well he wasn't, now, was he?"

"Not that we heard."

"Probably not."

"We won't do it again."

"I love him," Harry said angrily.

"All right, all right!"

"We're just looking after you."

"I don't want looking after!"

Another shared glance, and George spoke. He sounded uncommonly subdued. "No one does."

"And we don't usually."

"Look, what are you actually here for?" Harry demanded. "Is there a message from Dumbledore or not?"

"Yes." George cleared his throat. "Er, he wanted to remind you to keep your temper, and to tell Draco that the prosecution will call on him in the morning, and that you should both join the group for breakfast."

"That's it?" Harry gaped. "That's ... that's hardly worth mentioning!"

"Ah. But we volunteered to carry messages, as we had intended to speak with you anyway," Fred explained.

Harry crossed his arms over his chest and waited.

"Maybe some other time," Fred said hurriedly.

"Oh since you're here," Harry said bitingly, "you might as well tell me."

The twins, amusingly, looked as if their mother had caught them at mischief. "Well...."

"The owl order business is doing really well," George blurted out.

"That's good."

"And we were hoping to open a shop."

"There's a place available right here on Diagon Alley."

"Just past Knockturn, but closer than Gambol & Japes."

Harry looked at their forced cheer and made a guess. "You need money."

"Profits are good," George said hurriedly.

"Just not good enough," Fred confessed. "They will be though, Harry, we know it."

"You won't regret it."

Harry stared at them. "Bad time to attack my boyfriend then, wasn't it?"

"It wasn't an attack--"

"You could have endangered him. You could have given away strategy for the trial. You didn't know what you were damaging, and you didn't care!"

Fred let out an exasperated sigh. George bit his lip. "You're serious about him, aren't you?"

"Yes."

"Well, we thought it might just be..." George shrugged. "Good sex?"

"I was serious about him when we were still just friends, prat. And when we were involved and not doing anything."

George shook his head like a muddled dog. "Why bother with that?"

Fred nodded. "Right. Not like he can get pregnant."

"I wanted to be sure it--" Harry stopped. One didn't discuss feelings with Fred and George. He shrugged. "I'd never thought about blokes. I wanted to think it over a bit, and try snogging first, and make certain that liking each other wasn't just ... just not knowing what to do with wanting, you know?"

"And it wasn't?" Fred asked incredulously.

"Not by half." Harry smirked. The twins looked at each other.

"So, this shop--" Fred started doggedly.

At that moment, however, there came a knock at the door, and Draco's voice calling "Harry?"

"Come in," Harry called back. He looked back at the innocent expressions on the twins' faces and his anger returned. "Fred and George were just leaving."

 

When the twins were gone, and Harry had closed the door and cast his own privacy spell, he had to decide what to tell Draco. Not that the eavesdropping spell had been cast, he decided. As annoyed as he might be at the twins right now, he generally liked them and wanted Draco to get along with them, eventually. That much information might set things back too far.

"They wanted to spy on you," he said, in compromise.

Draco rolled his eyes. "And you settled things the Gryffindor way?"

"More or less. I did try talking first."

"Good of you."

"They said they didn't trust you and it was for my own good."

Draco scowled at that, but Harry pressed on. "Then they had the gall to ask me for a favor."

"I do hope you refused."

Harry shrugged. "Not outright, although I did give them the impression I would. The last thing that I told them was that insulting my boyfriend was a bad move."

"I would hope so!" Draco exclaimed, but the word 'boyfriend' seemed to mollify him some.

With a sigh, Harry sat down on his bed. "The thing is, I'm not sure I want to refuse."

"Oh? Is it good?"

"Well, I'm part owner of their business."

"The owl-order joke shop?"

"Yes. I gave them my winnings from the Tri-Wizard tournament, and they made me a silent partner in return."

Draco blinked. "They just ... happened to," he said slowly. "You didn't make it a condition."

"I just wanted to get rid of the money!"

"Why would you want to do that?"

"Because Cedric had died! And I shouldn't have won! Barty Crouch had done his best to throw me the victory. I would have failed the Second Task completely if he hadn't arranged for me to get gillyweed."

Draco shook his head. "I will never understand you. So, you attempted to throw this money away, and they insisted on giving you something of entirely hypothetical value in return."

"Right, except it's not that hypothetical anymore. They're making good money. I get reports, and anyway, I see their wares around Hogwarts."

"Oh, so I have I. You will note that I knew what 'their business' is." Draco crossed the room and sat next to Harry, but twisted to face him. "So, what do they want? A public endorsement?"

"As if I would!"

"More money then."

Harry winced and nodded. "A shop's come available in Diagon Alley, but they don't have the reserves." Draco eyed him sternly, and he sighed. "Look, I'll turn them down, if you want me to. The problem is that they don't respect anyone -- or nearly -- so expecting them to respect you--"

"Put a sock in it," Draco said brusquely. He grinned at Harry's surprised look. "Listen for a moment. I don't want you to refuse them--"

"Really?"

"Hush. I want to negotiate the deal for you." He smirked. "Tell them it's penance."

At that, Harry had to laugh. Fred and George would be horrified. "Don't take too much," he warned. "I'm rich, and they're not."

Draco shook his head. "Don't worry. They will be." He sat down on the bed. "Was that all? I'd like to tell you some about my consultation."

"Fine." Harry sat next to him. "Let me guess -- ditch me?"

"Mm. Of course, but not only that. He feels that my father is offering to reconcile with me, and providing a path; it wasn't my fault, of course -- you seduced me."

"Did I?" Harry said flatly.

"Well, of course not! The entire idea is absurd. You'd have no idea how to go about such a thing." Draco waved the matter off. "Anyway, I said no, of course, and he asked what else I could do, and I said I would tell the truth -- that got a laugh." His lips compressed for a moment. "I meant it," he said petulantly. "He doesn't understand. Father has a temper, and it sometimes overrides his discretion. It doesn't always, but I believe that arousing his anger is my best play, and the truth -- properly approached -- will do that. With luck, he'll react, and tarnish this 'concerned father' image he's creating."

With a long sigh, Draco straightened against the sag of the mattress. "Merlin, but this is miserable!"

"Yes."

Draco sighed. "Well, we might as well get ready for dinner."

"Do you still want to do that?" Harry remembered Auror Tonks that afternoon and Draco's nerves when he arrived, and hoped that perhaps Draco would decide that they should stay in. For his part, Harry wasn't too worried, but he would far rather an evening in with just Draco than out with a group of Slytherins. Any reporters who saw them would probably assume he was dating Bulstrode. Or, he thought, smiling to himself, that Parkinson is.

Draco hesitated, but when he replied, his voice was firm. "I miss my friends, Harry, and this is the friendliest that Pansy has been since I fled back to Hogwarts. And she chose Millicent, who's not one of her usual set, but is a neutral. That means something. I need to talk to her while she's willing to listen. I wouldn't risk going out alone, or during business hours, but I've stayed in for the past two nights. No one will be expecting me to leave now, and there are no crowds of shoppers for an attacker to hide in. And I'll have you with me."

Harry couldn't keep from feeling flattered. "All right. I'll play bodyguard, then."

"My Gryffindor," Draco said, with mock adoration. He took in a breath and let it out, ending with a bright smile. "So. Do you know what you're wearing?"

"What's wrong with what I have on?" Harry thought his robes from the trial would do for any good restaurant, but Draco shook his head.

"Nothing, per se, but they're today's clothes. You want to get rid of that and start afresh, so you can enjoy yourself."

"I don't need to --"

"I insist then. I refuse to think of that horrible trial every time I look at you."

 

Once Draco had put it like that, Harry had no choice but to cooperate. To his surprise, he did feel marginally better once he was in fresh clothes. He thought he might even understand what Draco had meant. The change placed his day more firmly in the past. With more cheer than he would have expected, he stepped out into Diagon Alley, Draco at his side. Draco did not take his hand -- or his arm, as Harry could suddenly imagine him doing -- but he walked intimately close. Even dinner with Parkinson and Bulstrode -- Pansy and Millicent, Harry reminded himself -- seemed worthwhile just to have dinner out with Draco.

The summer day was still bright, but shifting to the golden light that presaged sunset. By that, he spotted a cluster of redheads a few shops ahead of them. He hesitated. It was Fred and George, with Ron walking between them. One of the twins turned to walk backwards for a few steps, gesturing and speaking. If he spotted them, he gave no sign.

"Weasleys," Draco whispered.

"I noticed."

The Weasleys, however, remained ahead of them as they walked further. Aptly, Fortune Row turned out to be the street that came out onto Diagon Alley by Gringotts. Harry didn't think that was all that there was to the name. Smooth plank walks provided a raised path on either side of the street. The first building in, across from the side of the bank, was nearly as richly attractive, with marble pillars supporting a gate wrought of copper and something silver-bright. Further down, Harry could see what appeared to be a shop, closer to the street and ornamented with carved wood flourishes cleverly painted.

"Pansy said that it's past the first crossing," Draco elaborated, as they took the turn.

Harry nodded. He wondered if the Grand Game would try to express a hunting theme through its facade, and if so, how. He could see a few hanging signs out, but most were too tastefully ornate to be readable from a distance. He was peering forward, trying to decide if the furthest one showed antlers or a strange tree, when something came hurtling down from above, and Draco screamed and shoved him so that they fell away from each other. Harry hit the ground already rolling and came up to a crouch with his wand in hand. He didn't see an attacker, but thick ropes were winding around Draco's torso. Draco had his right arm upraised and was waving it back and forth, keeping it from being trapped. No noise came from his wide open mouth.

"DRACO! Libero!" The spell was a dueling standard and came easily to Harry's tongue. The ropes fell from Draco. As they did, however, something else came from above, landing heavily behind Harry. He whipped around and found himself facing someone masked and cloaked as a Death Eater.

His Petrifaction hex was blocked, and the man advanced, his left hand wielding a knife that was fully as long as the wand in his right. With Draco behind him, Harry was afraid to dodge. He threw up a shield spell of his own, hoping to block whatever his opponent tried next.

"Av--"

A fist-sized missile hurtled past his head and caught the man in the chest. He fell back, the curse unfinished, and Draco grabbed Harry's arm and pointed to his own throat. Footsteps pounded from Diagon Alley as Harry undid the Muting hex on Draco. Immediately, Draco pointed his wand over Harry's shoulder and Harry whipped around to defend them, only to find that they now had two attackers to deal with.

"Ossum--" Draco stopped. "Expelliarmus!" He growled in frustration. "Bloody hell!"

The Disarming spell had worked, sending both wand and knife flying, but the second Death Eater hit Draco with a tripping hex, and he went down. Harry retaliated with Impedimenta, darting to the side so that Draco would not be in the line of fire. As he did so, he realized that he had miscalculated. The disarmed man was lunging for Draco, hands outstretched. Inches away from his goal, he was suddenly knocked backwards in a flash of light.

"HARRY!

The twins and Ron were running over, wands out. Harry's opponent fell in a flash of pink. For several seconds, he thrashed under what appeared to be a coating of bubblegum, and then, with a sticky pop, he vanished.

The remaining man dove for his wand and followed.

The street was quiet, except for their panting breaths. Harry helped Draco to his feet, and they kept their arms around each other. With the Weasleys, they stood in the suddenly quiet street, looking warily around. A few shreds of bubblegum, an abandoned knife, and a displaced chunk of flint were the only signs of the battle. Harry saw a curtain edge flick down in the nearest house. He let out a shaky breath.

"Thanks."

"No problem." Fred sounded equally unsettled. His freckles showed darkly in his pale face. "As it turned out. You okay, Malfoy?"

Draco nodded. Harry could feel him trembling.

"Sorry," Harry said. "Guess I'm not much of a bodyguard."

Draco laughed slightly and leaned into him. "Oh, you did pretty well. Just need training up, I think."

"I wasn't expecting him to keep going for you when he was disarmed."

"Neither was I."

Ron, who had been looking stunned, finally found his voice. "Looked like he was trying to grab you."

"Yes." Draco straightened. "In hindsight, I think the goal was abduction."

"But why?"

Draco grimaced. "The trial? They don't want me talking?" He hesitated. "Though they could have killed me, easily enough. They must have more complicated plans."

Everyone understood that wasn't a good thing. Ron shuddered.

"Thanks for saving him, Ron," Harry said finally, since it seemed that Draco wouldn't.

Draco twitched. "Was that you who knocked him back? Yes, thank you."

"No problem," Ron said, echoing his brother. Harry thought he couldn't quite manage 'you're welcome,' but his shoulders settled at having the matter out of the way. "Look -- maybe we should come along with you two."

Fred nodded. "A larger group never hurts."

"Except when sneaking," George amended.

"But you obviously aren't."

"We were going out to dinner," Draco said. "Now, though, I think we should return to our rooms."

"Do you think Par-- Pansy set us up?"

"She wouldn't." Draco scowled. "I'm sure she wouldn't do that to me. But we've been seen here, in any case. Going on with it would be reckless."

Harry nodded grimly. He didn't find it nearly as unbelievable that Pansy had betrayed them, especially if she had been promised that Draco wouldn't be killed.

"We need to tell her, though," Draco said. His trembling, rather than easing, was growing worse. "I won't have her thinking that I stood her up."

"Wait!" Ron protested. "What if she did set you up? If Harry thinks so--."

"I think it's a possibility," Harry clarified. "That doesn't mean--"

"If she did, she won't show her hand by attacking a messenger," Draco interrupted. Abruptly, he twisted out of Harry's hold and sat down on the plank walk. "One of you can go and tell her."

"You want us to bring a message to a Slytherin?" Ron countered, disgust sharp in his voice.

"I want one of you to bring a message to one of my closest childhood friends," Draco retorted through clenched teeth. Harry moved forward.

"Enough. Ron, go and tell Pansy, please? But one of the twins should go with you, in case those bastards come back."

"Or someone's waiting with her," Ron said darkly.

"Right. And if she acts off, let us know."

Ron nodded. "All right. Where?"

"The Grand Game. Just past the first corner, we're told."

Ron nodded again, and set out with Fred. As soon as they were moving, Harry dropped down by Draco.

"Are you okay?"

"No." Draco grimaced. "But I can make it back."

George dropped down on Draco's other side. "What hurts?"

"Everything." Draco probed his ribs gingerly before pulling his hands back to his sides. "But mostly my ankle. Damn cobblestones."

"Mm. I'm not bad with healing charms. A necessity, really, considering our line of research. May I check it?"

"Go ahead."

After a few spells, George announced that the ankle wasn't broken, and cast one spell to reinforce where it was strained and another to dull the pain. Draco came gingerly back to his feet.

"Perhaps we could just apparate in?" he tried.

George shook his head. "Not into the building itself. We could to the entrance, but I can't take both of you, and I don't think either of you should be alone."

"I can apparate."

"But it's still before us or after us, right?"

"Oh. Yes, I see what you mean." Draco set his shoulders back and lifted his chin. "Walking it is."

They walked.

 

"We make a pretty good team."

"Mm." Harry snuggled against Draco's side. George had helped remove visible bruises from both of them before he left, but Harry was still sore all over from the fight. Not moving was good. Warmth was better.

"So, I have a plan."

Harry's eyes opened, much as they might have had someone said "look -- a charging dragon!"

"I'll take over Slytherin," Draco confided, "and you take over Gryffindor. That gives us --"

"What?"

"I take over Slytherin; you take over Gryffindor," Draco repeated, as if this were simple. Harry sat up. It hurt.

"Nobody runs Gryffindor!" he protested.

Draco rolled his eyes. "Not because it can't be done, though. Just because Gryffindors don't usually do that sort of thing. But you could."

"You think so, do you?"

"Yes," Draco said boldly. He rolled onto his back, pulling Harry on top of him. "Because you're that good."

Harry rubbed up against him. He wasn't so sore after all. It was hardly noticeable under the effect that Draco was having on him as he rocked into him, back, and in again. Draco's loose trousers were intended to be worn under robes, and didn't hold much in. "I am, am I?"

Draco smirked. "You got Ron Weasley to run a message for me."

"So I did." Harry kissed him. He had to.

"And--"

"Later."

"Mm?" Draco prompted, failing to look innocent.

"Plan later. I want to try something."

"Something that doesn't require planning?"

Harry pushed a hand down between them, rubbing awkwardly along the hard line of Draco's erection. "Yeah." He moved his knees, pushing up a little to give his arm more room, and managed to get his hand into Draco's trousers, letting out a little moan at the brush of his knuckles against smooth skin. "God, yeah."

"I'm sure you've done that before," Draco said, but his voice was ragged.

"A little." The first time, Draco had been so close when he had come into reach that Harry had hardly had time for a few strokes. It had been gratifying, but hardly educational. The next morning had been more of a languid rubbing together, supplemented by inefficient, but pleasantly mutual, touches. Draco reached for him, but Harry shifted down, out of easy reach.

"No. Stay."

"I'm not a dog," Draco complained, but the words came with a wicked smile, and he pulled Harry's pillow a little further down under his head. He looked so satisfied that Harry was worried that Draco expected him to suck him. He wasn't sure that he could do that -- not now. It still seemed weird.

"I want to see what I'm doing," he remarked, to clarify things without stating that he was.

"Go ahead. I'm not shy."

Eyes narrowing at the challenge, Harry stripped off the trousers and the pants below them. As he had two nights before, he found himself staring at Draco's cock, longer than his, he thought, but more slender. I could take that, he found himself thinking, evaluating the width against what came out of his arse, which should have been a gross comparison, but was somehow merely setting aside a fear he had never acknowledged. The thought didn't linger. It wasn't like he wanted to try that now, anyway.

Instead, he trailed his fingers through pale curls and to the base of that cock, and then slowly up, making the thing twitch in response.

"Oh," he breathed. On himself, that didn't feel like power.

"Please."

"Yeah."

He wrapped his fingers around the base and pulled up, loosening his hold enough to move over the skin. Draco moaned. It wasn't quite like feeling a touch on himself, but it was feedback enough. Draco's head was tipped back, emphasizing his throat. Harry remembered exploring that with his tongue the morning before, tracing the lines of tendon and the rise of that Adam's apple. It was tempting even now, but so was the hard length in his hand.

Looking down, Harry thought he might see the appeal of doing oral sex. He at least wanted to trace the lines with his tongue, just as he had with Draco's throat. Instead, he brushed his fingers over a wide collar of foreskin to touch the pink head that pushed through them.

He moved closer, to watch in detail the rough skin of his fingers against the smooth skin of Draco's most protected of places. It was too close for his glasses, so he took them off. Here, he could smell the musk of Draco's skin, and he found himself bending close to lick. It wasn't gross at all, really -- salty, but that was good, and the way that Draco shuddered was better. More deliberately, he did it again.

"Harry. I didn't think you'd--"

He took the head of Draco's cock in his mouth, and Draco's words ended in a soft wail. Pleased, Harry ran his tongue around the edge of the soft-skinned tip, and felt a surge of satisfaction when Draco grabbed at his hair.

Draco didn't pull or try to keep him in place, just held on, and touched, and occasionally moved his fingers in little circles over Harry's scalp, teasing at the locks as if he'd leave him looking like a hedgehog. He also made high, desperate sounds and low, lustful sounds and everything in between. As Harry discovered he could move lower, taking more of the shaft into his mouth, Draco began to rock just a little, not thrusting, but suggesting a rhythm, which Harry picked up gladly. He settled down against the mattress, pushing into it every time his lips moved down, and one of Draco's legs curled behind his shoulder, encouraging more movement.

That grew faster, and then frantic and graceless, spurred on by Draco's rising response. Harry's jaw began to ache, and just as he started to fear that he wouldn't last until Draco came, the tone of Draco's sounds changed as his throat opened, and with a choked "now" that might have been a warning, he raised his hips higher than before and began to spurt thickly into Harry's mouth.

The texture was bizarre and the taste bitter and musky, and Harry swallowed quickly. For a moment, his eyes watered, and he had to open his mouth to move his tongue more, and Draco's softening cock slipped out and down to his abdomen. Regretful, Harry swept up it with a slow lick, and was fascinated to see another white drop form at the slit. Of course, he had known that happened, but it was different to cause it on someone else. Deliberately, he drew the point of his tongue up that spongy path, his eyes taking in the emergence of a white line of semen, and then, bravely, he took it on the tip of his tongue ... where that small amount tasted unaccountably better than a quantity of it had deeper in his mouth.

He lifted his head, grinning at Draco's woozy smile. He was still desperately hard, but he'd ceased to push against the mattress during his fascination with Draco's climax. The urgency began to rise again.

"Okay for a first try?" he asked smugly, as he crawled up Draco's body. With an affirmative moan, Draco fell back into the pillow. His face was pink and sweaty, his eyes dark with the wideness of the pupils, and his hair was as messy as Harry's own, pale locks pointed in competing directions. He looked gorgeous. Harry settled in to kiss him, pleased at the thought of how he must taste. Within seconds, Draco's hand had wrapped around his erection, and was moving up and down it, in time with the kiss.

Harry could feel his mind overloading, thought drowning under sensation. He was only vaguely aware of breaking the kiss, first to breathe, and then to roar with a rising surge of pleasure that blinded him like lightning.

He lay there afterwards, regaining his breath. Draco tipped him to the side and then came up on one elbow beside him.

"That was marvelous." His mouth twitched in a sly smile. "I'm ridiculously pleased at the thought that the whole floor may have heard you."

Harry couldn't feel upset at the idea himself.

 

Harry stayed sprawled out on the bed and watched lazily as Draco pulled on a shirt -- which he left unbuttoned -- and began to arrange his hair.

"If we're going to do this...."

Draco made an inquiring sound and Harry realized that "this" was highly ambiguous, under the circumstances.

"Take over our houses, I mean. If we're going to do that, being together will be a problem."

Draco set down the brush. "How so?"

"Well, it rather undermines our credibility, doesn't it? In our own houses?"

Draco's cheeks raised in an unguarded smile. "Not at all. We just need to be sure that the Gryffindors believe that you are in change, and the Slytherins believe that I am."

"And how do we do that? Orchestrate scenes? I'm not much of an actor, if you'll recall."

"We take advantage of house differences in perception." Draco sat on the bed and bumped Harry lightly on the nose with one finger. "If you give me orders, and I take them, the Gryffindors will think you're in charge, correct?"

Harry twitched his head to the side and back to nip at the finger. "Mm-hm."

"But if I give you advice, and you take it, the Slytherins will know I'm in charge."

Harry laughed, dislodging the finger, which he had started to suck on. "Take charge, then, Draco! I clearly need all the advice I can get." In a sudden move, he grabbed Draco and pulled him over onto the mattress.

"Hey!"

Harry's voice dropped to a low growl. "Make it work." Because I'm not giving you up for anything, he wanted to say, but that wasn't really true, of course. Both of them knew he would give Draco up for a wife, someday. Having forbidden Draco to ignore that, he shouldn't do so himself. Instead he held Draco close and kissed him with a need that had not been at all abated by sex.

 

Chapter Text

 

Breakfast had even more people in attendance than the day before, but the additions were all from Hogwarts. Harry saw Professor McGonagall tuck a section of the Daily Prophet in her bag as he entered the room. He didn't ask to see it. The sick dread in his stomach probably left him better able to behave than the anger that would replace it.

He kept waiting for someone to scold them about last night's activities, but after both Auror Tonks and Dumbledore had greeted them without their excursion being mentioned, he decided they must not know. He and Draco should tell the Aurors, he knew, but he didn't want to. They couldn't identify either of their attackers -- or even prove they had been attacked -- but someone would question his judgment, and Dumbledore might put him under guard.

After Dumbledore continued on his circuit of the room, Draco leaned close to Harry. "Your Weasley friends kept quiet," he whispered approvingly, and Harry nodded.

Breakfast hadn't arrived yet, so Draco, with a brush of his hand along Harry's shoulder, left to talk to other people in the room. Harry tried not to watch him. When Dumbledore stood at the head of the table, cleared his throat, and asked for people to take their seats, Harry was surprised to see Draco speaking to McGonagall. He was perhaps less surprised to see him passing back a section of the Daily Prophet.

"If I may have your attention, please," Dumbledore said clearly. "For the benefit of those not familiar with the structure of this type of hearing, I would like to review the basic schedule. Today, it is our turn to select and question witnesses. That may continue until the end of the day. After that, they may question our witnesses, and we may question theirs. After that, the Inquisitors will begin direct questioning, and at the end of that, both sides will be allotted a certain time, at young Mr. Cabot's discretion, for final statements, and possibly, additional testimony. After that stage concludes, they will deliver a verdict, and we will continue on to Mr. Talbot. We must remember that today's testimony is on the matter of Lucius Malfoy's actions only."

Draco, at Harry's side, was sitting with his lips pressed tightly together. Harry thought he looked paler than usual.

"We will start our testimony with Severus Snape," Dumbledore continued. He raised his hand to quiet murmurs around the table. "With his many unique advantages and disadvantages, for they are substantially intertwined." Snape, Harry noticed, looked no better than Draco, though his mouth was tight with a scowl. "After that, we will call either Minerva McGonagall or Draco Malfoy, as the situation warrants. From there, there are more paths yet.

"If you are called, keep the following facts in mind. One: you are testifying against Lucius Malfoy, no one else. Two: your testimony may be effective not only by revealing facts today, but by leading the Inquisitors to probe in particular directions in their turn. Three: you must at all times seem respectful and willing, even if you must deflect a particular line of questioning." He smiled benevolently around at them. "Although I would hope that our preliminary discussions were complete enough that such an action would only be necessary after today." Another smile and a slow nod. "We have twenty minutes until our portkey leaves for the Ministry. Please enjoy your breakfast."

 

In the courtroom, Harry watched Severus Snape stalk out onto the floor. The man looked like a vampire in a Muggle suspense flick. Harry felt his stomach clench. He leaned toward Draco.

"No one will believe him," he whispered.

"A few will," Draco whispered back. His voice was unsteady, and Harry regretted raising his doubts. "I may be next, and I doubt I'm better."

"Of course you are."

Draco smiled at him uncertainly, and then, to Harry's surprise, settled an arm around Harry's shoulders and tugged him close. "Cuddle," he said, in quiet command.

Harry found it unnerving to be suddenly in the role of the protected -- and he couldn't help but think of it that way -- but they were almost of a height, and it worked as well as the reverse position. It wasn't at all like being a girl, he decided, but it did make him worry that people would think Draco was in charge. Still, it was a relief to be claimed, and he could understand if Draco needed to feel in charge today. He leaned against his boyfriend slightly, and relaxing wasn't as hard as he had expected. He wondered how Draco felt about it when he did that.

From that comfortable position, he looked up and saw Malfoy senior's glare. Spontaneously, he grinned back. Snape, waiting for the signal to speak, saw him and pinched the bridge of his nose as if holding back a headache. Harry didn't pull away from Draco, but he did try for a more solemn expression.

Draco's breath touched the side of his neck. "Mine," he whispered, and Harry shivered.

"Mr. Snape." The speaker was Professor McGonagall. Apparently, the questioner didn't need to be a barrister after all. Harry wondered how much of the trial he was misunderstanding by trying to impose a Muggle structure on it. "Please summarize how you know Lucius Malfoy and Draco Malfoy."

Snape nodded curtly. "Lucius Malfoy was Head Boy when I was in my second year at Hogwarts -- and, of course, a prefect in my house the year before that. When I was sixteen, mutual friends brought me to his house to discuss support of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. Over--"

"Objection," a wizard for the defense barked out. "These matters were reviewed in court in 1982. Since that time, witnesses have died or vanished, and evidence decayed. For Mr. Snape to revive these allegations --"

"Sustained," Cabot clipped out.

"Mr. Snape," McGonagall said coolly. "Please minimize your references to events prior to 1982."

Snape nodded curtly. "I became," he said, sending an odd look at Lucius Malfoy, "a friend of the family." His gaze turned to Narcissa in the gallery, who looked coolly back. "I was present in the house when Draco was born, and accepted the position of his spellfather, so I do not believe that assertion is at all tenuous."

Snape's voice shook slightly. Harry had realized how difficult this situation was for Draco, but it had not occurred to him that Snape, despite the resentment of years of hidden opposition to Lucius, might also be similarly torn. Indeed, Snape kept his gaze on Narcissa, like a dog waiting helplessly for some sign of belonging.

"Please continue," McGonagall said, incongruously gently.

"When Draco started school, he was, of course, in my house," Snape said, his attention finally shifting to the young man at Harry's side. "I began to communicate with Lucius again, as teacher to parent, although we had largely fallen out of social contact in previous years."

"So you saw him only as a parent of a student?" McGonagall prompted.

Snape hesitated, but then nodded. "Until Headmaster Dumbledore requested that I return as his spy to the service of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. There, of course --"

"Objection!"

"Denied. Continue, Professor Snape."

Snape nodded acknowledgement at the Special Inquisitor. "As a Death Eater, I of course saw Lucius more frequently, and we slowly resumed some contact outside of the Dark Lord's service and his son's education."

Beside Harry, Draco nodded, as if to himself. Across the floor, Lucius Malfoy managed to look disbelieving and offended.

"Was it your impression that Mr. Malfoy wished his son to join him in service of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named?" McGonagall asked.

"Yes, of course. We discussed it frequently over the last year. Lucius feared the boy was too soft, and felt he should be brought in as soon as possible. I hoped to delay the matter until Draco had acquired more political independence, so I argued for after he left school, saying it would be awkward if Draco and I often vanished at the same time. I had believed I had persuaded him to at least wait until Draco was of age."

"That was recent, was it not?"

"A few weeks ago, yes. I was surprised to see him presented in April." Snape hesitated. "However, I was far more surprised to discover that he was unwilling."

"You expected that he would want to become a Death Eater?"

"Yes. Though as he pointed out to me later, he knew me as someone in his father's circles as a fellow servant of the Dark Lord, and he was quite careful to give me no reason to question his loyalty." Snape's mouth twisted. "When he started to become friendly with Harry Potter, Draco went out of his way to convince me that he was gaining Mr. Potter's trust in order that he might betray him later. That caused me much unnecessary anxiety, especially as Potter -- who was equally certain of my opposite allegiance -- blithely told me that Draco would never harm him, and merely didn't trust me." He shrugged. "His opinion was correct, perhaps, but also unwarranted."

"What happened at the meeting? Did you see Lucius and Draco Malfoy arrive?"

Snape scowled. "No. Since people arrive already masked and cloaked, and the Dark Lord -- quite wisely -- discourages socializing before meetings, I did not see them until Draco stepped forward and dropped his hood. He had not been masked, of course, but he had kept his face hidden, nonetheless."

"And what did young Mr. Malfoy do?"

"He spoke a few polite words, with all of his father's charm. He then said that before he could take the Mark, there was a slight complication of something that a 'companion at school' had given him. He opened a small pouch at his neck, as if to show what was inside to He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, but it was a portkey, and when he touched it, he vanished."

"What happened then?"

"Lucius was furious -- and, no doubt, terrified of retribution. He leaped forward to begin the portkey trace even before He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named shrieked at him to do so."

"Giles Goyle did not do it, then?"

Snape sneered. "I doubt Giles was capable of performing a portkey trace. No, Lucius cast it, and emerged in the Shrieking Shack in full possession of his wand, with five of us accompanying him. We saw a flash of light through the boards on the windows, and apparated outside to see a silver dragon hanging in the sky, and by its glow, the boy flying away, already out of hexing distance...."

Harry had never heard this story from Snape, and it filled in gaps between his vision and Draco's arrival. He could imagine it: Draco bent low to his broom, fair hair white under his own silver light, black robes flapping behind him as he strove for yet more speed.

A flash of gold shooting towards him fitted into thoughts of flying. Doubt came fast, but not as fast as honed Seeker's reflexes. Harry was already snapping his arm out to grab the tiny Snitch, his body moving too quickly to stop. The arm around his shoulders tightened, and Draco threw his weight back, pulling him away. Harry crashed to the ground on top of him, kicking Professor Flitwick in passing and bruising his shoulder on the edge of the bench. Around them, people were shouting and moving. An orange hex shot overhead.

"NOBODY MOVE!" roared a deep voice. The clatter of footsteps stuttered to silence. Harry stared down at Draco and found him drawing in deep, desperate breaths, as if he had just outrun a manticore. "TONKS," the voice added in a more even tone, only the enhancement of the Sonorus charm keeping it loud. "REPORT."

Tonks, from a few steps away, answered. "THE POSSIBLE TARGETS ARE BOTH HERE AND ALIVE. THE OBJECT IS SECURED."

"GOOD. I STILL DON'T WANT ANYONE MOVING AROUND, BUT YOU MAY ALL SIT IN THE NEAREST SEAT.

 Carefully, and with belated regret, Harry extricated himself from Draco's hold and moved back onto the bench. Tonks had the Snitch in a magical net that sparked slightly when fluttering wings dragged against the purple lines of it. Harry looked across the room to where he thought the Snitch had come from, and saw the forgettable Auror moving along the back wall, his attention on the spectators below him. It was possible he was a plant and a threat, but it seemed more likely that he was looking for the source of the trouble. A far more obvious movement was the large, black Auror striding across the room. He opened the gate of their enclosure and was up beside Tonks in three great strides.

"What did you find?" he said, his voice hushed now, but clearly the one that had been giving orders before.

"A Snitch, with randomization and evasion charms presumably deactivated. It's also a portkey," Tonks replied.

"Huhn. We should get someone from Artifacts in to trace it." The Auror looked over at them. "Potter, Malfoy -- are you all right?"

"Just bruised, sir," Draco answered.

"Draco pulled me down, so yeah," Harry said, appreciating what a narrow escape that had been. "Bruised, but okay."

The Auror touched his throat with his wand.

"A Snitch portkey, sir. The boys are both Seekers -- either might have been the target."

In front of Special Inquisitor Cabot, a quill scribbled on a paper. He read the message and stood. "Under the circumstances, I think we shall call a recess--"

The bland Auror was moving down through the tiers, now. Harry jumped up onto the bench.

"No!" he shouted. The Inquisitors looked taken aback. Unable to cast a Sonorus charm, Harry had to settle for just projecting. "No one was hurt. Someone tried to take me out, or to take Draco out, and we should not give them time to make new plans. Let's get on with it."

There was some scattered clapping, and even more scattered laughter. The Inquisitors leaned towards each other. Draco tugged at Harry's hand, and Harry, suddenly embarrassed at his own presumption, sat. Eventually, Percy Weasley stood up.

"This hearing will continue while we await the arrival of additional Aurors. Professor McGonagall? You may continue to question the witness."

Professor McGonagall cleared her throat. Harry thought she was trying not to smile. "Severus? You were telling us about the chase?"

Snape straightened. "Yes. I had expected the boy to land at the doors, but he stayed high, heading for a tower...."

Snape told about how a window had opened just in time to admit Draco, and how, with no time to pause, he had bent down and tucked up his feet to go straight through, and how someone -- either Lucius, whose hood was down, or the person directly behind him -- had struck him with the Cruciatus curse as he passed over the window ledge. He talked about landing on the lawn, and the attack by the staff, and how, in a split-second judgment, he had attacked his companions from behind, rather than fighting with them against his patron, Professor Dumbledore. His painfully tense delivery did nothing to rob the account of its excitement, and many members of the Wizengamot were on the edge of their seats. Still, Harry wasn't sure they believed him the way they did Lucius.

 

Snape's testimony went on until the lunchtime recess, when Tonks once again escorted them -- or Draco, really, Harry reminded himself -- from the courtroom. Before they made it through the doors, a spectator -- not in somber Wizengamot garb, but in elegant robes of soft cream that were both feminine and modest in cut -- moved down the seats to intercept them.

"Mother," Draco greeted her.

"Mrs. Malfoy," Harry said neutrally.

She nodded at him, the gesture gracious enough to surprise him.

"Mr. Potter. So good to see you again. You would not mind, I hope, if I deprived you of my son's company for the next hour?"

Harry looked querulously at Draco, but despite his lover's obvious pleasure, he couldn't make himself step back. He knew that Draco trusted his mother, but was less certain that such trust was deserved. The Auror came to his rescue.

"You can't take him anywhere without me, I'm afraid," she said cheerily. "But I can stay at a discreet distance."

"Oh, yes." Draco looked torn. "Mother," he said neutrally, "this is Auror Tonks, who has been assigned to protect me. And she's quite right -- I wouldn't want anything to happen to you, and I have been attacked twice."

"Of course, dear." Narcissa nodded regally. Harry felt a flash of indignation at the way she acted as if the Auror's name meant nothing to her.

He finally managed to speak. "As long as you have adequate protection." He nodded at Mrs. Malfoy, including her in his consent, but spoke to Draco. "Enjoy your lunch."

 

That left him alone, wondering morosely how he would make it anywhere without being mobbed by reporters. A black robed figure stalked by.

"Are you coming, Potter?" it called in passing. "Or are you planning on a repast of stray memorandums?"

Harry hurried to catch up. Not surprisingly, Snape was also accompanied by an Auror, although this one gave the impression of trailing awkwardly after the intimidating professor.

"Thanks," Harry said, as they were hustled down a back corridor. "Draco and Auror Tonks went off with Draco's mum--"

"Idiot." Snape's disapproval was too mild to be alarming. "She loves him, but that should not be enough to give him confidence. The Auror was on her guard?"

"Yes."

"Good."

Snape's Auror escort stepped through the Floo, and Snape followed without a word of farewell. Harry expected him to be gone when he stepped out at the Leaky Cauldron, but Snape was hovering near the grate, and immediately seized him just under the elbow.

"If I may have a moment of your time, Mr. Potter?"

"Okay."

Harry tried to pull loose without appearing to struggle, but Snape pretended not to notice. Trailed by the guard, they went up the stairs to the secure rooms, and Harry found himself released into a bedroom much like his own, while Snape told the Auror guard to remain outside in the corridor.

The first thing Snape did was to write "Tureen soup, two bowls, one cup" on the slate by the door, an amenity that Harry had forgotten. That settled, he transfigured his trunk into a chair, floated it over to another chair of unknown origin, and motioned Harry to sit. Harry leaned against the back of it, instead.

"What is it?" he asked pointedly, and Snape, who had set up pacing in the narrow space between chairs and bed, paused to roll his eyes.

"Your sense of self-preservation still leaves much to be desired, Potter," he announced, and for a moment, Harry was afraid that he knew about last night's attack. If he had heard from his fellow Death Eaters.... Belatedly, Harry remembered that Snape was now known to have betrayed Voldemort, and the Death Eaters were unlikely to be telling him anything.

Snape was continuing, apparently oblivious to the direction of Harry's thoughts. "This morning's scene could not have been better if we'd orchestrated it. An apparent attack on you will restore much of the public's good feeling for you. However, you are a complete idiot. If they had waited until Draco was testifying, you would be dead."

"It's a reflex!"

Snape turned and sneered at him as if he had just said something abysmally stupid. "And everyone knows it. Seekers have been assassinated that way before, you fool!"

"Really?"

"Yes."

Severus thumped down into his chair. "You'll survive this. We will survive this. You have kept your temper admirably, Potter. Continue to do so."

"I'll try my best." Harry looked down. "I, uh, decided not to look at the papers this morning. I was afraid it would make me, um...."

"Angry?" Snape suggested. "Defensive? Yes, probably. They've picked up on the idea that you are an out-of-control mess." He shrugged. "By the end of the week, you will no doubt be a healthy young lad having a bit of fun."

Harry frowned. "I think I'm something in between, really."

"Of course you are." Snape turned to stare at him, dark and intense even in the strangely intimate room. "People love to talk about darkness and light, but truth is always grey."

Harry laughed. There was nothing funny about it, he just felt strangely lighter at the pronouncement.

"I don't think I'm supposed to agree with you."

Snape settled back, a slight smirk curving his lips. "Yet you do." At a knock on the door, he flicked his wand at it, and a young woman came in with their soup.

"Well, let's keep that between ourselves, shall we?" Harry suggested. The surreality of lunching with Snape was catching up with him. Snape had a flash of that young, sly look that Harry had seen during their lessons.

"Indeed."

 

Lunch with Snape bordered on pleasant, and afterwards, Snape insisted that Harry share his escort back to the trial. While they were crossing the public room, however, a familiar figure moved to intercept them.

"May I have a word, Potter?" Blaise Zabini asked coolly.

Harry glanced at Snape. "I'm getting a lot of that."

"If you wish to converse, I believe we have five minutes leeway." Snape frowned briefly at Zabini before returning his attention to Harry. "I was not aware that you had other connections in my house."

Harry shrugged. He wasn't sure Zabini qualified. "Wait then. I'll stay in sight."

He led Zabini to the wall, moving out of earshot. "Go ahead."

Zabini glanced nervously at Snape, but he didn't ask questions. "I want you to know that I haven't forgotten my obligation."

It took Harry a moment to sort through the formal words and recall that the Slytherin had offered to send him a bottle of something.

"Oh, that. I thought you hadn't figured out Muggle post."

"I hadn't realized you were underage." Blaise bit his lip. "I thought it advisable to wait."

Harry laughed. "God. When I'm old enough, I can buy it myself." At Zabini's tense look, he recalled Draco's opinion about Harry's tastes being over Zabini's budget. "Look, don't worry about it, okay? If you feel like you need to do something, you can just owe me a little favor."

Zabini looked uneasy. "How little?"

"I'll ask when I think of something, and if you tell me that the thing is too much, I'll let it go, and you'll still owe me."

Zabini nodded stiffly. "Accepted."

"Good."

They shook hands, the action formal and strange, and Harry returned to Snape.

"An agreement?"

"That he'll do some unspecified thing for me at some unspecified time in the future. Nothing to worry about."

"Oh?" Snape's eyebrows came up. "Worry, no. Keep an eye on? Perhaps."

The Auror cleared his throat impatiently, and the three made their way to the Floo.

 

Snape was conservative in his timing, and members of the Wizengamot were still trailing in when they reached the enclosure for the defense. Draco had his head lowered in a sullen manner that Harry recognized all too well. He jumped when Harry slipped in beside him.

"Problems?" Harry whispered.

"I'll tell you later. For now, don't get upset at my testimony. I've arranged something with McGonagall."

Indeed, as soon as everyone settled down, Professor McGonagall called Draco to testify. Harry was apprehensive, but at first, Draco hardly mentioned him. He talked about his father's expectations for him, and how he knew he was supposed to swear fealty to Lord Voldemort, and about the unusual summons home and the list of Dark curses that he was to study. Only then did he mention speaking to Harry, and Harry's insistence that he could get out of it.

"Of course, we had to bring Hermione Granger in on it, as by then, I had got Harry in enough trouble that he couldn't go anywhere without a prefect." Draco straightened and set his shoulders back. "And yes, I do mean that." He looked nervously at McGonagall. "He didn't get in that sort of trouble without me to instigate it. Not that I wanted to get him in trouble, but he can be such a grim hero. I felt that he needed some time as a wild young man."

McGonagall hesitated. Harry thought she was likely to agree with the first point, if not the second, but then she pursed her lips and lifted her head to look down her nose at him. "As I recall, you were not responsible for that particular punishment, Mr. Malfoy. You were at Hogwarts when the Muggle village was attacked."

 "Oh." Draco bit his lip, and then tossed his head in a way that seemed guaranteed to look guilty. "I was there at the start, whatever he said. I'd got us the cognac and even brought goblets. Can you imagine if the Death Eaters had known? Harry Potter, right by the village green, too drunk to fly, never mind fight, when they displayed the Dark Mark?" Draco cocked his head to the side, a slight smile on his face. Harry thought he didn't need to look so entertained by the idea. Whispers spread through the gallery.

"I am not amused, Mr. Malfoy."

"Oh, neither was I. I got him away, of course."

"You what?" Lucius Malfoy had jumped to his feet and nearly shouted the question. Hands grabbed at his sleeves.

Draco put on a sullen pout. "He's mine. I don't want your lot getting their hands--"

"You TRAITOR!" His father's ivory face was red with rising blood. "I'll diso--"

Another two people helped the defense counsel pull Lucius down to his seat, and he silenced abruptly, sagging forward into his hands as he realized how much he had said.

"Temper, temper, Father." Draco smiled thinly. "But yes, it could have been that easy, if I'd still approved of your murderous pursuits." Decisively, he returned his attention to McGonagall. "Should I tell you about the list of curses? It might be better if Aurors asked us individually for specifics. Harry and Hermione won't remember all of them, but I showed the list to both of them, and Professor Snape received another copy from my father."

McGonagall studied him for a minute. The staccato hisses and pops of whispers continued to come from scattered locations around them. This time, Harry enjoyed speculating on what those whispers must be. Traitor, is it? Did you see his face? Didn't sound so unwilling to be a Death Eater, did he? On the other hand, more than one member of the Wizengamot was rubbing his or her forehead as if to stave off a headache.

McGonagall lifted her head. "I have many more questions for you, Mr. Malfoy, but few pertain to the trial. No, take your seat, for now."

She's giving them time to whisper, Harry realized, smiling proudly at Draco as he watched him make his way back to the empty place beside him. Their hands met and clasped immediately, fingers intertwining.

"I'm so glad that worked," Draco whispered. "I was afraid it wouldn't, and then you'd be angry--"

He looked up. Someone poked Harry, and he realized he had heard his name.

"If you have finished your conversation, Mr. Potter?" McGonagall asked tartly.

In front of the Wizengamot, that was worse than in lessons. Harry straightened, alarmed, and tried to play back the seconds that he hadn't been paying attention. She couldn't have called him as a witness, could she?

She had. Harry slunk down the stairs, but then, noticing his manner, straightened. It was just McGonagall, right? And she wanted him to look good, really. It wasn't like he was being called by the defense. His dress robes swung around his legs, first one way, then the other, as he crossed the floor to the witness chairs.

 

It was clear that the tide of the trial had turned. When people whispered, their eyes went to Lucius more than to Harry. While Harry was talking about waiting for their arranged signal, he saw a note flutter down to the prosecution's box. Dumbledore caught it, and when Harry's testimony was over, he beckoned McGonagall over, and stood to take her place.

"Next, the prosecution calls Narcissa Cassiopeia Black Malfoy."

Harry's head turned of its own accord to see Narcissa rise to her feet in the gallery. She floated down the stairs in her cream robes, looking innocent and flawless as an angel. A quick glance at Draco showed him sitting still, hands folded in his lap, knuckles white from the force of his grip.

Dumbledore nodded gravely at her. "You wished to speak, Narcissa?"

"Please." Narcissa stood straight. She looked pale and slender against the dark wood and stone behind her. It was easy to imagine that she was frail, but Harry suspected her slight form was no more yielding than a steel blade.

"I would like to say that my husband honors his family and his heritage." As Harry silently cursed the woman, her head lifted still further. "But it would not be true."

That produced a buzz of reaction. Harry wondered what she was playing at.

"It is how I remember him. I have hoped and striven for the return of the gentleman that I married, but the Dark Lord has infected him with some madness more insidious than compulsion, and his decline is now more than I can conceal, with my son at risk."

Dumbledore stroked his beard. "To the best of your knowledge, did Lucius take Draco willingly to be Marked?"

"Yes, of course. He had started to prepare him the previous summer. He spent much of August instructing Draco in Dark Arts." Narcissa sighed. "Including, I am afraid, at least one of the Unforgivable curses. When Draco had ... difficulty mastering the Cruciatus curse, and I protested the tutelage, he demonstrated it on --" She looked down, and her shoulders bent. "On both of us."

That was it, Harry realized, as mutters of disbelief competed with gasps of outrage. Unforgivable meant just that. If she made this charge stick, the trial was over. He wondered if it was actually true. He didn't doubt Lucius had cast that curse on Draco -- after all, Draco had told him so last winter, and in a late-night confession, when people often spoke truths under the cover of darkness. To commit such a crime on a proud, adult woman seemed far riskier, however, than to do so to an underage dependant.

On the floor, Narcissa straightened. "A gentleman does not so heinously mistreat his heir or his well-born wife. I can no longer trust his judgment. That in one of his rages he would be mad enough to pursue Draco to Hogwarts Castle itself, I do not doubt."

"You consider, then, Professor Snape's account to be more reliable than your husband's?"

Delicately, Narcissa hesitated. "I cannot claim to trust either," she answered finally. "Severus Snape, I find, has deceived us for years about his loyalties, so I can hardly expect honesty from him. However, I know that Lucius took Draco to that meeting to be Marked for service to the Dark Lord, and that he had planned for that event with pride, so his testimony starts with a lie. No, in all of this, the one I believe is Draco, my son." Her eyes sought out her son in the crowd and she gazed at him lovingly. Then, to Harry's surprise, her attention moved to him, her look growing more speculative. "And, though I would never have thought to say it, Mr. Potter, who seems a more thoughtful young man than certain people would have us believe."

 

Testimony continued, through a steady buzz of background conversation, but Harry doubted any of it mattered. Draco sat ramrod straight, jaw clenched, as the talking continued. When the day was over, Harry was relieved to lead him back to his room. He scarcely noticed Auror Tonks beside them, even when she tripped over a dog lying by someone's chair in the Leaky Cauldron.

When they were alone, he took Draco's hands, but Draco didn't look at him. "Is there anything--"

"No!" Draco pulled free. "No, there is nothing you can do. I'm angry and hurt and humiliated, and winning isn't helping at all, because he's my father, and I don't want--" He stopped abruptly, his cheeks burning red.

"Yeah," Harry said quietly. "I can see ... there's no way it could end that you'd like, is there? But this is better than him staying at large."

"Is it? I'm seventeen, now. A legal adult. He can't demand I return."

"That wouldn't keep him from sending his thugs after you, would it? He's vicious, Draco. You know it."

Draco turned away, as if the grey sky outside his window was fascinating. "I know. That doesn't make it easier. Talk about something else, Harry. Do you have plans for your birthday?"

The sudden false brightness of that query was dismaying. Harry sighed and sat down on the edge of the bed. "It's complicated. Will you keep a secret?"

That got Draco to look at him, even if his expression was scornful. "Of course."

"All right. It's like this. Supposedly, living with my mother's family protects me somehow. Dumbledore told me that when I tried to get out of it."

Draco nodded. "Thus the presents -- just like you have to live there, they have to give you a Christmas present each year, so the spell believes that you are family."

Harry shrugged. "If you say so. I'm not, really, but-- Well, I suspect this protection will end when I legally become an adult." He waited for Draco's nod, and when he had received it, continued with more confidence. "Voldemort probably knows it too, so I think that he'll attack as soon as it's my birthday, and that Dumbledore will see to it that I'm not there."

Draco's mouth twisted. "But no one has told you anything?" he guessed.

"Of course not. Dumbledore will spring it on me right before, I'm sure." Harry hesitated. "I plan to be gone before then."

"Really." Draco stepped closer. His expression was unreadable. "And where will you be?"

"Well, that's the problem." Harry stood. He didn't like Draco looking down at him. "Originally, I had thought here, but Tom would tell Dumbledore--"

"But you'd die," Draco amended fiercely.

"I wouldn't go out except under the cloak."

"Even so--"

"Since I can't get around Tom, it doesn't matter!" With a huff, Harry leaned against the wall. "You don't have a spare flat in London, do you?"

"If I did, it would have been my father's, and his associates might have ways into it."

"Do any of your friends--"

Draco laughed. "And I'd tell them what?"

"I might be able to rent a place in Muggle London, if you'd do the Confundus charms and such for me."

"No." Draco bit his lip. He settled into the chair. "Harry, anything could happen to you there."

"I won't stay!"

"Calm down, Potter, will you?" Draco pushed his hair back. "Harry. Have you considered confronting Dumbledore? Tell him it's Hogwarts or nothing? Or the Weasel's place, if you'd rather."

"He'll still keep me there as long as he can!" Harry protested. "And I won't have the Dursleys killed. They deserve something, but not that. And we can't feed Voldemort information through Snape anymore, so I'll need him to know that I'm missing, and there's no point in going to Little Whinging."

"But then they'll look for you! You can't stay any place he'd expect! Except Hogwarts, I suppose." With a huff of annoyance, Draco stood. "Let's order dinner. I could scarcely manage a bite at lunch, and it's been an exhausting day."

"You're changing the subject!"

"Yes, I am. Do you think this place can manage pheasant? Perhaps if they send someone out to poach it...."

"Stop it. I want you to help me."

"I will not help you get killed, certainly not to protect some Muggles that even you despise."

Harry glowered. "And to keep me sane?"

"Don't be dramatic."

"Two more weeks at the Dursleys, I can take, but if it ends up capped by one or more of them dying...."

"We will ask Dumbledore if you might come to Hogwarts. It is worth trying, Harry. It would be simple, safe, and give us time together. Surely you cannot object to that?"

He couldn't object, Harry knew. He also knew that he wouldn't stop there if Dumbledore said no.

 

Chapter Text

 

In the morning, the defense waived further testimony on Lucius Malfoy, and he was found guilty of treason and three counts of using an Unforgivable curse. The attempted murder charge was dismissed. Draco gripped Harry's hand so tightly that Harry wondered if his bones would break. Draco's hold slowly loosened as the trial moved on to Talbot, but Harry wasn't sure if that was through acceptance or tedium.

While the new defendant spoke, there was nothing to do but listen. Harry had no personal knowledge of Talbot, so he didn't even have indignation to bring him energy. The man insisted that he had been coerced through threats against his family, and Harry found himself wondering if that was true, at least in part. Certainly Voldemort would do such a thing, but would anyone who needed that level of coercion be summoned by him directly, to something like an initiation? Harry remembered Draco, when they first spotted Bellatrix, referring to the Death Eaters as an 'inner circle'. Talbot talked about Lucius casting the portkey trace -- they certainly had no compunction about throwing him to the wolves now -- and Harry mentally placed the question of Death Eater status on his list of things to ask Snape about in September.

Whether or not Talbot was telling the truth, his testimony turned Harry's thoughts to a related problem. Even if he didn't stay with the Weasleys after his birthday, they could still be attacked to flush him out. On the other hand, that had always been true, hadn't it? Visiting the Weasleys would give Voldemort a more concrete reason to attack them; it made sense to stay away. And leaving the Dursleys should keep them safe -- certainly Voldemort would know that he didn't love them, wouldn't he? And Voldemort -- Tom Riddle -- had hated his own Muggle relatives, so there, at least, he should not invent affection where it didn't exist.

Harry wondered if there was anyone he could stay with whom Voldemort wouldn't suspect. An older friend, perhaps? The problem was that he hadn't known most of the older students well enough to trust them with his life. Oliver, for example, was only his former Quidditch captain; Harry didn't even know if he was a pureblood or not, much less his thoughts on blood purity off the pitch. The only ones he could count on -- mostly -- were the twins. His thoughts spiraled down through a cataloguing of prospective hosts. It was only when he heard Percy's voice that he realized that they had reached the end of the morning session.

"My room?" he whispered to Draco, and Draco nodded. But when they reached the floor, that plan was thwarted. Dumbledore was waiting for them.

"Mr. Malfoy, Mr. Potter," he greeted them cordially. "Please join me for luncheon. We have matters to discuss."

 

The old wizard led them to the Floo and sent Auror Tonks ahead. After a few seconds, he offered the Floo powder to Draco. "Dunhorse Cottage," he said, and Draco nodded.

"Harry?" Draco prompted, rather than tossing the powder on the grate. Harry nodded and took some as well. If Dumbledore was trying to separate them, it wouldn't work. He tossed the powder down immediately.

"Dunhorse Cottage!"

 

He stumbled out into the low-ceilinged kitchen of an old farmhouse. The beams over the stove were black with the smoke of centuries, and the mingled scent of stone and cooking was solid and warm. By the window, Tonks was talking with an older woman. They looked over at Harry's arrival, and Tonks waved. Draco stepped through behind Harry. Immediately, he started over to the window, snagging Harry's arm in passing. Harry suspected that he had wanted to look outside, not to socialize, but the view was of a walled garden that could have been anywhere.

Before Harry could say anything, Dumbledore arrived.

"Ah, Petra! Thank you for hosting us."

"My pleasure, Professor Dumbledore," the woman answered, dropping a slight curtsey. "Lunch is on the table, with tea and pumpkin juice. Shall Miss Tonks and I leave you to your meal?"

"That would be welcome, Petra. If you don't mind, Nymphadora?"

Auror Tonks hesitated, but then gave a brief nod. "Under the circumstances, I could wait in the next room."

"But--" Draco protested. Dumbledore motioned him to silence.

"She knows this place and our hostess, Mr. Malfoy, and rightly believes that I can keep you safe here."

"And I did check for anomalies," the Auror added. "Don't think I'm just taking their word for it. This place is even blocked against Apparation, in or out. Oh, and sir?" She grinned cheekily at Dumbledore. "You'll understand if I lock the Floo. Kingsley would expect it of me."

A flick of her wand towards the grate, and she left.

 

Once they were alone, Dumbledore sat at the table, checked the teapot, tsked, and then gestured to the platter of sandwiches.

"Please help yourselves," he urged. "I vouch for anything Petra made to be both safe and tasty. Now. I thought both of you might want to know how we expect the week to progress. Each guilty verdict makes our further cases easier, as you might imagine. Harry, unless something unexpected happens, I don't believe that we will need you to testify again." The old wizard checked the tea a second time, and found it ready to pour. He filled Harry's cup, and then Draco's, while Harry fidgeted impatiently. "Draco, you may take this afternoon off. However, since you can speak of the defendants' visits to your father, we will need you to stay for the remainder of the trial. After that, I believe you have some post-trial legalities to attend to?"

Draco nodded. "Yes. I'd like to retain my inheritance -- what the Wizengamot doesn't take as 'reparations'. Under the circumstances, Father's move to disinherit me is suspect, and my solicitor believes we can have it overturned, but I will need to speak to a few people in person, at best."

"Yes, of course." As if contemplating the matter, Dumbledore leaned back in his chair and stroked his beard. "I should tell you, my boy, that Severus has expressed some concern about your safety. At his behest, I have spoken to the head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, and I have persuaded her to extend your Auror protection for a week past the end of the trial, or until you return to Hogwarts, if that is earlier. I do not think you need worry about your next departure -- by then, your potential attackers will no doubt have moved on to more recent adversaries."

"About returning to Hogwarts," Harry advanced. "Could I come back there too? Rather than spending more time at the Dursleys'? I don't want to endanger the Weasleys, but the school is safe, and--"

Dumbledore held up a hand, and Harry, not without resentment, stopped.

"Your aunt's house is still the safest place for you, Harry, if just for a little longer. I don't want to sacrifice that protection before we absolutely must."

"I think waiting until the last minute--"

"Harry. No." Dumbledore sighed. "I am sorry, but no."

 

After lunch, Dumbledore returned to the trial, and Tonks escorted Harry and Draco back to the Leaky Cauldron.

"I'm on until six," she said. "Is that to be active duty, or sitting in the hall duty?"

Harry glanced at Draco before looking back at her. "We need to talk privately," he said. "My room. After that, I think we'll want an escort in Diagon Alley."

Draco's eyebrows came up. "Will we? I suppose I'll see." He nodded at the Auror. "His room, then. I'm afraid you'll need to wait outside."

"I know excellent cushioning charms," she said archly. "An unsung specialty of field Aurors."

 

"So," Harry said, once the door was shut and the privacy charms cast. "Hogwarts is out. But I have an idea."

His eyebrows rising, Draco leaned back against the bed. "Do tell."

"The twins--"

"Absolutely not. Don't you think people will look for you--"

"But the new place!" Harry interrupted excitedly. "That shop they want to buy! It won't be ready to use yet. They'd still ward it though, right? Because they'd want to protect their secrets and the things that they're moving in, and it would be perfectly normal for them to come by at strange hours with takeaway and odd bundles--"

Draco's eyes lit up. "Now that could work. Wait a moment. Let me think." He paced back and forth, while Harry took his place at the bed. Finally, Draco stopped. "All right. Don't ask them directly, though. I said I was going to negotiate this deal for you, and I will. Wait until I've given them terms they can't quite accept, and then you come in and say you want to hide there for August, and I'll ease up on something else to compensate. If it's part of the contract, even vaguely, we can bind them to secrecy."

"Contract?"

Draco rolled his eyes. "You were planning to do this on verbal agreement and a handshake?" He sighed. "Oh dear. You were."

 

When they told Auror Tonks that they wanted an escort down to Fred and George's flat, and then privacy once they were there, she cheerfully shook her head. "I can stay out of earshot," she said, "but I need to have you in sight."

"You left us at lunch time."

"With Albus Dumbledore," she said firmly. "In a known and warded house. Sorry, but this wouldn't be the same."

Harry wasn't about to discuss his summer plans in front of her. In the end, he ended up writing to the twins and requesting that they come to Draco's room at the Leaky Cauldron within the hour.

Fred and George showed up within minutes. George looked around the room and his eyes narrowed. "Where's the fire, Harry?"

"Dumbledore may send me home today. I needed to talk to you before that."

The twins still looked put out. Draco stepped forward. "I understand you were interested in estate capital?"

"Estate..."

"Yes."

"Harry?"

Before Harry could formulate an answer, Draco had stepped in front of him. "Since my lover has a highly generous nature and several appallingly obvious weaknesses, and the two of you are capable of getting people to pay for sweets that make them break out in spots and vomit, I will be handling the negotiations. Harry, please stay out of the way."

Harry, much to the distress of the twins, nodded.

"Harry!"

"What has he done to you?"

"You can't be leaving us--"

"-- to a Slytherin."

Harry smiled. "As the Slytherin, I think this is more his sort of job than mine. Don't mind me; I have some summer assignments to work on." With that, he sat down in the armchair to peruse Draco's Charms text. The first time one of the twins appealed to him, he looked up, but let Draco wave him off. After that, he ignored them. It was surprisingly amusing.

Finally, it was Draco who said his name, and Harry put down the book and walked over. Fred was looking mutinous and George worried.

"Having trouble?" he asked.

"If we take his terms, you'll own more of the shop than we will!" Fred exploded.

"Well, he has provided most of the capital, so far," Draco said, as if this were eminently reasonable.

"And they've provided all the research and ideas," Harry objected mildly. "I'm not sure I'm due a third, Draco."

Draco rolled his eyes. "Which is why you should not negotiate the price of a polishing charm, never mind a business contract."

"Harry, really! We can't afford what he's asking."

"You'd be stuck supporting us for years."

"We can't ask Mum to, you know."

Both twins had turned beseechingly towards him; behind them, Harry caught Draco's amused look. "Okay," he said amiably. "Let me look at the terms so far."

The contract as Draco had drawn it up wasn't too bad, until he got to the item that gave him sole ownership of the property, and laid out a high rent -- optionally payable in increased shares -- for any month that shop profits dropped below 15%. While his finger rested under that item, Draco's nails pressed significantly into his back.

"Draco, this bit seems unreasonable."

"Thank you, Harry!" George exclaimed.

"Because it is!" Fred added.

"We could lower the percentage," Draco said doubtfully.

"No, you're missing the point," Harry protested. "I don't want to be the owner of record. That's just trouble. Actually ... I have an alternative proposal."

"Harry...." Draco warned.

"No, listen. You can argue it with me if you like, but I want you all to hear this."

"If you must. We did start with a secrecy binding for the negotiations."

Harry had heard them, but he was grateful that Draco would point it out.

"Good. Here it is, then," Harry said. "Much more than all this extra money, I would like a secure and secret place to stay from a few days before my birthday until school opens in September. This would be perfect. I'm willing to strike this item altogether in return for living -- unofficially -- in the shop during that time, with the two of you bringing me food when needed and keeping my location absolutely secret -- including from Dumbledore and members of your family, no matter how worried they might be."

"I'm not sure it's of comparable value," Draco objected.

"Draco, Voldemort is trying to kill me. It's comparable. Fred? George?"

The twins exchanged a glance, and then nodded.

"We knew you'd be reasonable, Harry."

"Once we could get your attention."

"We'd have to get the shop ready while you were there, though."

"I'm counting on that to make it look natural," Harry said. "I'll even help. Just make sure the loo works, as soon as possible. Draco, draw up the contract, and we'll all sign it."

"Now?" the twins asked together.

"You want to get your money before Dumbledore sends me back to the Dursleys' right? If we do it now, we can go down to Gringotts while Draco's bodyguard is still on duty."

Another, longer look passed between the twins, but they agreed. Draco set about preparing the contract.

 

"I don't know how I'll survive six weeks without you," Draco murmured, as he brushed sweaty hair back from Harry's brow. After leaving the twins outside Gringotts, Harry and Draco -- with Draco's Auror guard -- had returned to Draco's room, where Draco had sent Auror Tonks away for an hour, and without delay, led Harry to bed.

"Is it six?" Harry had to stop and calculate the days. It was hard to keep track of weeks without a calendar.

"More. Seven weeks from Monday last."

"Damn. And there'll be no way to visit; you can't leave Hogwarts and I can't go there." Harry propped himself up on one elbow. "Maybe they won't send me back right away?"

"You don't believe that."

"No. Not really."

Draco sighed, but this time it was more theatrical. "Back to my lonely existence at a deserted school!"

"Better than sharing a three-bedroom house with people who hate you," Harry said darkly.

"Tedious, though," Draco protested. "Even Severus isn't always there, and regardless, he can't abide the Quiris, so I've taken a room up the corridor from his."

"The Quiris, right." Harry hadn't given the creatures any more thought. They might not be any trouble at all, he reflected. After all, he didn't plan to do any more Dark Arts. But there was still the matter of what he was going to do about Voldemort, and there were so many people to protect. He knew there was nothing he wouldn't do, if it came down to a question of Draco's life. After all, Lucius Malfoy was right, in a way. He had seduced Draco away from his family and into danger. What Lucius hadn't seemed to understand was how little it had taken to do that.

"So," he asked, trying to sound merely curious, "how long is 'not permanent'? You never said."

"Unclear," Draco answered. "Madam Horsyr expects to be back in a few weeks, but she may not be able to take them with her at that time, either. If so, I could have them for several months more. Also, if this arrangement works, I've said I might take them again later." He laughed at the expression on Harry's face. "Really, now! They're a Potter creation; you ought to be proud to be reunited with them."

"They've addled your brains."

Draco shrugged gracefully. "Possibly. They do decrease my options in some ways, but they expand them in others -- I doubt there is any other way I would have the headmaster's trust -- and that is arguably of more current value than the option of using Dark Arts." He shrugged. "Though I rather miss sitting with Severus in the evenings, even if we hardly said a word to each other.

"Why didn't you?"

"He doesn't like frivolous conversation."

"But the Quiris can't answer."

Draco nodded, but didn't say anything. Harry sighed. "You're more social than I am. I wouldn't mind as much."

"I don't know why I do. I was often alone during the summer, but it was different in my home and my gardens." Harry could see a twitch at the side of Draco's jaw. "I hope I'm back in Slytherin in September."

"Why wouldn't you be?"

"Because I'm a traitor, of course," Draco said flatly. "For understandable reasons, perhaps, but I still am."

"Draco! You are not."

"Traitor," Draco recited, "one who betrays a cause."

"But it implies faking loyalty to do people in," Harry objected, "and I think it's usually used for countries, and anyway, you have a right to change your mind, and to tell the truth about being in danger."

"I know I do," Draco answered, but his head was too high, and his face too empty. "I just don't know if Pansy still wants to have dinner with me. She never replied about rescheduling. And I want to go back to my dormitory, but I don't want to be murdered in my sleep."

"I'll sneak in and protect you; how's that?" Harry suggested.

"Mm." Draco's coolness began to recede. "Perhaps you should lie on top of me to shield me from attacks."

"As long as you don't expect me to stay still!" Harry answered with a laugh.

They had just begun to kiss, and Draco was rocking suggestively against Harry, when they heard a knock on the door.

"Damnation," Draco muttered. Grabbing his wand, he dropped the silencing charm that he had put in place hours ago. "What is it?"

"Professor Dumbledore is here to see you," Auror Tonks called. "He seems to be genuine. Professor Snape is with him."

After a panicked glance at each other, Harry and Draco jumped out of bed and began scrabbling for clothes. "Just a minute," Draco called. Their garments were confusingly intermixed, and Harry couldn't find his shirt. When Draco straightened the bedclothes, it fell clear of them. As soon as they were both presentable, Draco patted down his hair, cast an air freshening charm, and walked over to the door.

"Hello, Sir," Draco said brightly. "Please come in. Severus," he added, with a polite nod of greeting.

Harry leaned back against the table and crossed his arms over his chest. He had an idea what was coming.

Snape looked around the room with notable suspicion, but Dumbledore, in contrast, had a slightly questioning air, which Draco ignored.

"To what do we owe the pleasure?" he asked blandly.

"As it happens," Dumbledore replied, "I was looking for Harry, but it is probably for the best that you were together. Harry, Professor Snape expressed a willingness to escort you home."

"To the Dursleys', you mean."

"Do not be difficult, Potter," Snape snapped. "Whether you like it or not, it is your home, and it is my time that you are wasting with this pointless defiance. You will be packed in ten minutes."

Professor Dumbledore shook his head slightly, but did nothing to intervene. Harry got the impression that he would gladly have used another ten minutes of Professor Snape's time to get to the point gently.

"Fine," he said sullenly. "Come on, Draco."

With a bland smile, Draco gestured his guests back to the door. "If you don't mind...? We will meet you at Harry's room in ten minutes."

"Excellent," Dumbledore replied, as if everyone had been cheerful about the arrangements. In the hallway, he briefly laid a hand on Harry's shoulder. "I appreciate your maturity and cooperation, Harry. I know that your Aunt's house is not your first choice of dwelling place."

Harry nodded silently, afraid of how his voice would sound if he spoke. He knew that the praise would have made him feel guilty, even six months ago. He now realized that it was intended to influence him to cooperate, and instead of guilt, he just felt anger, and a surge of satisfaction at the escape he had planned.

Draco followed Harry into his room and watched while Harry changed back into his jeans, and then gathered things from chairs and the floor and threw them hodge-podge into his trunk.

"Oh, stop that!" Draco said finally, and with a wave of his wand sent everything flying back out of the trunk and onto the bed.

"Draco!"

"Use a spell."

"I'm underage still, remember? I try to reserve magic for when I need it."

"Oh." Draco smirked. "Not at school, you don't."

"Right. And I don't think twice in a fight."

Draco nodded. "All right. Colligio!"

He gestured at the things on Harry's bed and then at the trunk. Books settled at the bottom, clothes folded themselves neatly and formed piles on top, and miscellanea clustered on top of the clothes.

"Thanks," Harry said. "I'll have to try that in a few weeks."

"It helps if you've gathered everything in one spot," Draco said. "Otherwise, the charm may try to pack things you don't want. And the first time I tried it, I was too forceful, and it packed the bedclothes as well as everything on the bed."

They looked at the door.

"Well," Harry said lamely, "This is it, I guess."

"Yeah." A light pink crept up Draco's cheeks. "Thank you, Harry. For being here, I mean. For the things that weren't fun."

Harry bit his lip. "Any time. Look, don't worry about Pansy, okay? She'll get over it, or if she doesn't, she isn't really a friend. That shouldn't depend on you doing what she wants in politics."

"You want me to share your political outlook."

"Yes," Harry said stubbornly, "and we fought, and I understand fighting, but I was willing to go on with you even if you didn't."

Draco looked absently past him, at the light of the window. "I know you were under a lot of pressure from your friends not to."

"Yes."

"She's not as good with that. Status among her friends is very important to her."

"You said Buls-- Millicent was a neutral."

"Millicent isn't a usual companion for her, though. That's why it was significant that they approached me together. She spends much more time with Daphne and Cassandra."

"Cassandra?"

" Cassandra Vere. She's a year younger than us. Dennis Avery is her mother's cousin."

Harry hadn't ever thought about Death Eater relatives who might not share a name with the ones he knew. "Does Avery have any kids in school?"

"Not anymore. Both of them are older than us. I think one is work--"

There was a sharp rap at the door. "Time's up, Potter."

"One moment!" Draco called back, as Harry grabbed him. "Fuck!" he whispered. "We forgot a silencing charm!"

"Too late now," Harry said, and pushed into a kiss. They kissed fiercely until a voice outside the door began to count.

"Ten. Nine. Eight--"

"Hell," Harry growled. "I'll write, I promise. It'll be okay."

"Five--"

"All right!" Harry shouted, and opened the door. "Honestly! Can't we say goodbye?"

"You have had ten minutes to do that."

"I had to pack!"

Draco smirked. "He was doing it by hand, Sir. Since he is underage."

Snape glared at Harry. "What a curious time to begin obeying rules, Potter."

Harry reddened. "It's not like I knew any packing charms anyway."

"But you are ready now?"

Harry looked over at the trunk. After a moment's scan of the room and one look under the bed, he got back to his feet and nodded. "Yes, Sir."

"Let's go, then." Snape nodded at Draco. "Leave the room first. The locking charms require that."

"As you wish, sir." With a smart bow to both of them, Draco left the room, closing the door behind him. To Harry's surprise, Snape then gripped his arm as if about to drag him off somewhere.

"Sir?"

"I will apparate both of us. Take hold of your trunk."

 

 

Harry was glad he had apparated with Remus and Sirius previously. He didn't stumble, but he still felt a little queasy as he appeared with Snape behind the rubbish bins at the Dursleys'. They stepped out from behind the wall just as Vernon's bellow of "What was THAT?" roared out through the open dining room window. Snape looked questioningly at Harry.

"My uncle," Harry murmured. "So, um, thanks for the lift, but I can take it from here." He hefted the heavy trunk and started to walk towards the door. To his surprise, Snape continued to walk with him.

"Look," Harry puffed, "Uncle Vernon doesn't like strangers. Especially our kind. Or even, you know, Muggles that dress weird."

"How unfortunate for him."

Harry grinned at the cold humor. "I don't much care if it's bad for his heart, Professor. I'd just rather he didn't take it out on me when you leave. And you are dressed weird."

"Am I?" Snape asked coolly. "The Muggles won't notice. I am surprised that you do."

They had stopped on the top step before the front door. Harry looked over at his professor. He could still see Snape as he knew he was -- cleaner than usual, and in formal robes, with his hair pulled back in a tie -- but overlaid on that was Snape in an impeccable black suit, over a silver-grey shirt.

Harry's eyes widened. "Excellent, Sir!"

"But you can still perceive the robes?"

Harry nodded. "I can see the suit if I look, though."

"Absurdly strong-willed," Snape muttered, but before he could continue, the door opened.

"Who's skulking out on my--" Vernon began, and then froze. His face twisted into a scowl as he recognized Harry. "Oh, you. Back already, is it?" Without waiting for an answer he turned to Snape. "I'll take him from here," he said. "Get inside, boy, before the neighbors see you."

Snape stepped smoothly forward, blocking Harry from entering the door.

"I am afraid," he said to Uncle Vernon, "that I must confer with young Mr. Potter before I leave."

Vernon eyed Snape, clearly weighing the expensive-looking suit against the man's association with his nephew. "And who are you?" he snarled.

"I am one of Harry's professors, and the Head of Slytherin House."

"Oh, no, you don't!" Vernon roared, his face growing red with anger. "I don't allow your sort in my home. This is a decent house, you know, and I won't have my wife and son exposed to more abnormal freaks from That School. Bad enough that we have to house the boy --"

Vernon silenced suddenly. His mouth kept moving, but no sound came out. With a look of terror, he fell back, and Snape stepped inside, pulling Harry after him.

"I do not recall saying that you had a choice."

"Vernon?" came Petunia's high voice. "Who's there?" He head appeared around the wall, and her eyes widened.

"Your nephew's escort," Snape said coldly. "We will go to his room. If you do not complain or interfere, I may restore your husband's voice before I depart."

 

"Okay," Harry said, as the door closed behind them. "Here's my room. Why are you here?"

Snape looked around at the nearly empty space, but did not comment on it. "I wished to talk to you," he said baldly. "Why else would I arrange to be the person who escorted you home?"

"What?" Harry asked.

"Have you heard that Draco Malfoy will be keeping the Quiris?" Snape asked.

"Two of them."

"Two too many. You realize the intent?"

"Dumbledore will know if Draco practices any Dark Arts, and he expects to know if I do."

"Precisely."

Harry looked incredulously back at the scowling potions master. "You can't think you needed to come here to tell me that."

"No." Snape raised his eyebrows. "I came to ask if there was anything you wished to learn before the first of August."

Harry stared. "Oh," he managed finally.

"You don't have much time," Snape pointed out.

Harry nodded absently while counting in his head. He had only a fortnight, and he expected to be hiding for some of that. "What could you teach me?"

"What do you need to know?" Snape countered. "There are thousands of spells that will never be mentioned to you at school. The Praetermissius Charm is one you would find useful. You cast it on yourself to go unnoticed. It does not make you invisible, and will not guard you against people who are seeking you, specifically, but someone who sees you pass will not notice you are Harry Potter. It is good for hiding in crowds."

Harry swallowed. He could travel, walk through Diagon Alley, sit anywhere at school.... "Don't teach me that," he said.

"Oh?"

"I would never stop using it. I would use it to go to dinner at school. I would use it to walk into the Leaky Cauldron. I would spend the rest of my life hiding."

"I see." Snape looked curiously at him. "How unlike your father."

"Well, he probably had the option of not being famous. What else?"

"There are many spells which block off or enhance feelings in yourself or others -- jealousy, anxiety, recklessness, caution -- almost anything but hatred or love."

"I've heard of love spells."

"A misnomer. Such spells cause or enhance lust, devotion, sentimentality, or receptivity. They do not cause real love."

"Why would I want to affect my own feelings?"

"It is less common, but I have, for example, used immisericors on myself when I thought I might be tempted to show mercy at a time when I must not. In such a case, you need to remember to use a compound incantation that ends the spell at some preset time or condition."

"Is the Killing Curse the only one that kills, or is there one that would get me in less trouble?"

Snape smiled thinly. "It is the only one that kills without a cause. There are many spells to do things that will cause death."

"Like burning someone's bones."

"Yes."

"Anything more subtle? Could I cause a severe stroke?"

"A ... what?"

"A rupture of blood vessels in the brain. Or heart failure. Or failure of some other vital organ or function, like breathing."

"All of those. None kill immediately, however, and all can be blocked, deflected, and countered. A trained Auror could also detect all as magically induced."

"Huhn." Harry sat back and tried to think. Morals aside, what would be the most effective way to destroy Lord Voldemort? The problem was, he realized, that he had no idea. He didn't even know if he could. Naturally, there were hundreds of ways he could fight the Death Eaters, with or without Dark Arts, but he had no idea what, if anything, would work against Voldemort. Choosing Darker weapons would not necessarily make him more successful.

"Is there a spell to find a person's weaknesses?"

Snape's eyebrows shot up. "There, you are talking about Divination, which is not one of my strengths."

"Well, don't send me to Trelawny. She's useless."

"Predicting the future is unreliable from anyone, but seeing that which is present and hidden is another matter. I could guide you to someone of more skill."

"Someone who won't betray me?" Harry asked warningly.

"Yes, at least not willingly. Of course, learning Voldemort's weaknesses will be difficult. Many people have tried. At minimum, you need some bit of him."

Harry nearly laughed. "Will my blood do?"

Snape hissed in surprise. "Oh yes." His eyes gleamed. "That would do indeed! But then the Seer can find your weaknesses, as well."

"I suppose I need to risk it."

Snape hesitated, but rather than the caution that Harry had expected, he extended another warning. "By using blood as a component, you will make the divination legally Dark Arts. There is some ... thaumaturgical basis for that, as well. You should expect to compensate the Seer well for the risk. And you may wish to keep it from the Weasleys -- even yours."

Harry looked intently at Severus Snape. "And any other training from Draco."

Snape raised his eyebrows. "Would you hide such a matter from your paramour?"

"I don't know. I mean, I think I'll probably tell him when we're together. But for now, you did not make me this offer, and I certainly did not consider it. Anything further that may happen therefore did not. Agreed?"

"I am not completely certain I should be doing this," Snape confessed. He nodded. "However, that only leads me to agree with you. This did not happen, so there is no reason to mention it to Draco."

"I will tell him about the divination, if it is useful, but I'll tell you beforehand what I plan to say, so that our stories agree."

Snape's mouth twisted. "Forewarning would be appreciated, this time."

 

Chapter Text

 

Harry spent most of the next two days thinking about what to ask, not just of the Seer, but of Snape. He had expected Snape to return at night, but it was ten o'clock on Monday morning when he heard the front door slam violently closed, and then, equally violently, slam open. Aunt Petunia shrieked. He ran to the stairs, his wand out, only to find his aunt cowering in front of Professor Snape.

"You!" she shrieked, but with a touch of desperation, as soon as she spotted him on the steps. "Tell this man to leave immediately!" Her face tightened. "And put that thing away!"

Harry shrugged and sauntered down to the first floor, sliding his wand out of sight with deliberate slowness. "Can't see why," he said. "He never listens to me, either. And any way, he's much better company than you and Dudley."

"How dare you say such a horrible thing!" Aunt Petunia gasped. Snape stepped forward.

"Indeed, it is damning with faint praise. I expect I am 'better company' than a Blast-Ended Skrewt, in that case." His eyes raked Harry up and down. "Put on some decent clothes, Mr. Potter, and I will escort you to our meeting."

"Robes?" Harry asked.

"I did say 'decent', did I not? Of course, robes!"

With a sidelong glance at his aunt, Harry snorted, nodded, and headed back upstairs.

 

They apparated to a windswept field that overlooked the ocean far below. Curls of white speckled the grey water, and Harry's robes whipped about his calves. He felt a spiral slide up his arm as Susara moved further from the draught of his jacket cuff.

"Atmospheric," Harry commented. "When you showed up in the middle of the morning, I thought we might be apparating into an office block."

Severus turned back from starting down a faint path. "You expected a Seer to receive you in the dead of night?" he asked, his eyebrows rising.

Harry shrugged. "Seems more mysterious. Who would have guessed Seers worked business hours?"

They walked together down the mild inland slope. Harry watched the ground to avoid sheep droppings.

"You may, perhaps, have taken the wrong impression from my warning that this divination will be Dark Arts. There is nothing particularly Dark about the witch we will be seeing; she is merely practical enough to know all her tools."

"Ah." Harry wasn't quite sure that he understood the distinction. He himself, he decided, was moving towards that line, but he was under very special circumstances. He wasn't sure he would trust many people who knew Dark Arts. Well, Snape, of course, but that's different, too. I sort of think of him as someone who was a Dark wizard, but isn't really anymore. Harry looked sidelong at Snape. Perhaps he thought of it that way because Snape was more ambiguous than he wanted to deal with. "So -- have you told her who she'll be seeing?"

"Of course not! She is a half-blood and no friend to the Dark Lord, but the temptation -- and the risk -- is too great." Snape rolled his eyes. "And it's 'whom.'"

"You brought the money, right?"

"As we agreed. I trust you will repay me promptly in September."

"Of course."

 

The witch's house was a grey stone cottage with larkspurs blooming by the gate. An enormous grey cat greeted them just as they stepped onto the garden path, and wove between Harry's feet, purring loudly. The door opened as they reached it, and Snape pushed forward to enter first, his wand drawn.

"Professor Snape," said a pleasant, lilting voice. "Please sit down. There's tea on the table."

A grandmotherly witch was sitting by a table, turned so that her hands were visible where they lay in her lap. She smiled at Harry warmly, without even a flicker of surprise. "And Mr. Potter. So good to meet you. I am Madam Langston. Pardon me for not offering my hand -- I cannot touch anyone until after the reading, and I'm afraid one of you will need to pour, as well. Sit."

The table was square and sized for four -- two places, at one corner, had teacups. Snape sat next to the witch, leaving Harry to take the chair across from her.

"I suppose you cannot drink the brew, either?" Snape said sourly, suspiciously raising the knitted tea cozy to peer at the teapot underneath. From the rest of the decor, Harry expected English porcelain, but instead, it was a beautiful Chinese pot, ornamented with a coiled dragon. Ignoring Snape's disapproval, he lifted it and poured for both of them. As if this ended introductions, the witch turned her chair towards the table, and the grey cat leapt into the remaining chair and sat there, looking curiously at Harry.

"Er, is that a cat?" Harry asked, and then at the looks he got, winced. "I mean, full time?"

The witch laughed. "Unlike your head of house, you mean? Yes, my Greyling is a cat, but also my familiar, and so he has a genuine interest in the proceedings." She cocked her head and looked at Harry. "You don't have a rat. What interests him?"

"I have a snake. A torclinde."

"Ah. An unusual thing to wear concealed."

Harry was about to say that he sometimes discussed things with the snake, but Snape cut him off.

"The boy's pets are not your affair. You cat will know not to attack an animal carried by a wizard, correct?"

"Yes, of course. As long as the snake stays on Mr. Potter's person, it will be safe." She focused on Harry. "Now. Professor Snape did not tell me who would be visiting, but he did say that you wished me to perform a blood divination on He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named -- one to search for weaknesses. Is that correct?"

"Er... More or less."

She frowned. "In what way 'less'?"

"Well, the blood is--" Harry swallowed. "A servant of Volde--"

The cat hissed.

"I must ask you not to say that name here," Madam Langston said, frowning.

"Right. Um, so the Dark Lord's servant made him a new body from, among other things, my blood. Since that blood is also his now, we hoped that you might be able to do the divination with blood from me."

"I see." The Seer looked thoughtful. "That would explain why I-- Well, it's of no matter now." She tapped a dirty fingernail on the table. "It is possible that it will work," she said, "however, I cannot guarantee it, and the risk...."

"You will be compensated for divination by Dark Arts," Snape cut in, "whether or not the results we hope for are achieved."

"Good. To start with, I must have the payment. You brought it?"

"In silver, yes. I trust there is some reason for that bizarre request?" As he spoke, Snape removed a small pouch from each of his side pockets. From the way they pulled down on their strings, they were heavy, and Harry was not surprised when Severus tapped the first one with his wand and it quadrupled in size. He did the same with the second.

"Spill it on the table."

"Would you like it counted too?" Snape sneered, but the Seer merely smiled.

"No. Spilled into a small heap. I will know if it is enough."

"I hardly think that shows talent in farseeing," he answered disdainfully, but spilled the coins out as instructed. One landed on its edge and rolled off the table, but the grey cat leapt from its chair in pursuit, and then returned with the Sickle in its mouth. Delicately, it placed it on the heap, before returning to its seat.

Madam Langston drew her wand, which was pale and wavy, and moved it over the pile of silver, muttering under her breath. Slowly the coins blended into a single mass, which she then drew out into a shallow bowl. The more tarnished coins left lines of grey and black that marbled the surface as it hardened.

"Now," she said, "we have the vessel." She levitated a flask over from the sideboard, bringing it to rest beside the bowl. "Next, we need the blood. Mr. Potter, please tell me where on your body you were bled, and by what means."

"I..." Harry felt a trembling start deep in his gut, and tried to keep the surface of his body still. He could remember the details all too well: how tightly he was bound, the flat headstone unyielding against his back.

"Inside the right elbow." He took a quick breath. "With the point of a knife." He pushed up the arm of his robe to bare the skin. His hands, to his disgust, were shaking.

"I could restrain you," Snape offered, drawing his wand.

"No!" Harry knew he must look wild with fear. "No. I mean, that would make it worse. More like-- I'll stay still."

"While being cut?" Snape sounded a little incredulous.

"Yes." It was calming, somehow, to have the horror reduced to physical matters. "I can take pain."

"I see."

Madam Langston had drawn a little knife. Harry could see the ground edge of the blade, where the polish changed. Snape's wand came down between his eyes and the bright metal. "I will do the bloodletting," he said.

"No," she said firmly. "I must wield the knife."

He snarled audibly. "Fine," he replied. "However, I keep my wand out and on you, understood?"

She nodded serenely. "I understand why you protect him. It is not needed, but I do not take offense. Your arm, Mr. Potter?"

She put out her hand, and Harry, although conscious of each lost inch between them, still extended his arm in one steady motion. His dread spiked as her fingers closed around his wrist.

"No!" he said, and she looked up, surprised. "No restraint," he explained. "You can steady my arm, but don't hold it."

Snape snorted. "I now know one thing that you and your paramour don't get up to," he commented slyly, and Harry, taken by surprise, laughed in quick, rough breaths.

"I can't believe you said that!"

"You are breathing now, are you not?"

He was, Harry realized, and he nodded gratefully. "Go on," he told the woman, as she pulled his arm over the bowl. "I'm ready."

The actual pain was bearable. He wasn't sure that either of them had believed that he would stay still, but he did. He stared down at the knife point and imagined that he was alone, floating forward onto it, because it would bleed Voldemort out of him. Slowly, the point touched, pressed, penetrated, and he exhaled into the pain, willing the blood out with his breath.

He might have overdone it, because he didn't think blood should bubble out like water at a spring, but with only a slight yelp, she tilted his arm to the side so the blood flowed into the silver bowl.

"Damn it!" Snape exclaimed. "That's enough!"

"Cover the bottom," she whispered. "Cover...." For three heartbeats more she steadied his arm, and the blood dripped red and warm, and then, with a soft breath out, she folded his forearm up. "Done."

Feeling suddenly real again, Harry looked into the bowl. That was a mistake. His head swam at the sight of so much of his blood, displayed in that vessel like some garish punch, and he was only vaguely aware of the warm itchy feeling of a healing spell on his arm.

"Here." Smooth glass was pressed to his lips. "Blood Replenisher. Drink. I will not have you wasting my time by fainting."

The voice helped him look away. "Er ... thanks, Sir." After the first awful swallow, his head slowly began to clear. It was reassuring to think that his dizziness had not been entirely emotional weakness. Harry tried not to look at the bowl again, but the motion of the Seer lifting her flask drew his eye. She tipped it over the bowl, and a muddy liquid flowed out of it and dripped down to collect in a green-grey puddle in the dark blood. With her wand, she stirred the air above the bowl.

"Blood of man, blood of vine, blood of earth, all combine," she chanted, and the two thick substances mingled in ugly swirls, spiraling fully around the vessel before she lifted her wand. As they stilled, the change started. The grey lines blurred into the red, and together they altered, becoming a single liquid, transparent and ruby-bright. Once again, Harry could see the lines of tarnish in the silver at the bottom of the bowl, but now they seemed to move and twist, almost as if they were about to form into a picture. If he could just get a little closer....

"Master?" Susara's uneasy voice hissed, and he jerked his head up.

"Try not to look," Madam Langston said soothingly. "It will not spoil the divination, but you will find it unpleasant." She cleared her throat. "Now I must anoint myself. Once I have done that, you may ask me one question, and one question only. Do you understand?"

"Yes."

Harry took a deep breath. He and Snape had discussed questions by owl, but they did not have enough information to identify anything specific. They would start, this time, with a general inquiry, and hope it provided them with some sort of lead. Snape had said that if this worked they could return to ask a more targeted set. Harry watched the Seer. She dipped the tip of the middle finger of each hand into the blood mixture, and then touched them to her eyelids, leaving a bright red spot on each. Despite its clarity, the potion was still thick enough not to drip. Next, she extended her index fingers, and dipped those. With them, she traced just outside her lips, outlining her mouth in scarlet. Harry shuddered.

"As I see," she said distantly, "so I speak."

With that, she leaned forward to look into the bowl.

Harry looked nervously at Snape, who nodded. He cleared his throat.

"What is Voldemort's greatest weakness?"

He remembered, afterwards, that he was not supposed to use the name, but that hardly seemed possible to avoid in this context, and indeed, even the cat did not chide him.

Madam Langston stroked the sides of her bowl as if it were the face of a lover.

"Pure blood, mixed blood," she said, her voice sing-song. "Mingled blood, the enemy within. Could have been an ally, would have been, might have been, but the move was wrong. You must know your enemy before seduction."

Harry nodded. The time he had talked to young Tom ... well, if Tom had understood him better, and he hadn't known about his parents, and Ginny hadn't been lying there dying ... well, then it might have worked.

"Seduction, sweet," she continued. "Grey eyes, laughing, and a ghost cries. A monster rises from the cauldron...." There was a longer pause, and then, her voice still vague and dreamy, Madam Langston commented:

"That would be Him. I'm getting more of you than Him, I'm afraid. Mixed blood, shared blood, not something to sort like corn from chaff."

The cat shuddered all down its body, as if it had been picked up against its will and had just escaped. Madam Langston crumpled down in her chair moaning. Severus scowled. With a sigh, Harry leaned back, crossing his arms over his chest.

"So much for that."

Madam Langston raised her hand wearily. "Wait. A cup of tea. A moment."

Nodding, Snape refilled Harry's cup. "We will give her a few minutes to recover. Still, I did not find it promising."

"Well, the first part was about him," Harry protested. "Or him and me. The first time we talked to each other."

"Talked?"

Severus sounded incredulous. Harry felt his shoulders tighten. "He wasn't fully corporeal, so it was all he could do," he explained, "and he did try to, well, win me over."

"Ah. Don't tell me more here, but I want the full story later."

Madam Langston straightened. For a moment, she just stared straight ahead, and then, shaking herself much like the cat had, summoned a cup of water.

"Not entirely successful," she said.

Snape snorted. "Useless, you mean."

The Seer was not cowed. "The vehicle was too ambiguous, but I did see Him, at the start. Not as he is now, but as he was, years ago...."

"Which does not convince me that this could work."

She lifted her head. "Not with me, not with this blood. There are other ways we could try."

"Other than my blood, you mean?" Harry asked. He thought she still sounded a bit strange.

"Yes, of course." She looked away. "None so pleasant...."

That was a horrifying idea, Harry thought, recalling the swell of his blood.

Snape was not so put off. "What would you require?" he asked.

"Best would be the body of a victim," she said, still looking blankly past them, "someone he took power from killing. Not my Calvin, no, he was only killed by servants, let him rest--"

"No," Harry said, horror turning his voice to iron.

"But it is no harm to the dead. The other is worse -- unicorn's blood, I Saw that it might--"

Harry jumped to his feet. "I will not!"

"Hush, Mr. Potter," Snape said quietly. "I quite agree." He also rose to his feet. "Have you any tenable suggestions, Madam Langston?"

She looked at them hesitantly. With a soft "wow!" the grey cat jumped to the table, and from there to his mistress's shoulder.

"You truly intend to slay him?" she asked Harry. For the first time since the Seeing, she sounded rational.

"Yes."

She nodded. "Because of that, and because I value your trust, I will tell you: there is nothing more I can do." Quickly, she held up a hand to stop him from leaving. "However, one who knows you well might be better able to filter your presence from their Sight. He is of your blood; you were right about that." With that, she rose to her feet. The cat swayed slightly, but stayed on her shoulder. "I advise you to look closer to your heart for guidance, Harry Potter, and I wish you the best of luck."

"Evanesco!"

Harry and the Seer both jumped at the incantation, and the cat hissed. Snape was just tucking his wand away. Madam Langston sputtered in indignation.

"I trust you to a certain point," Snape said coolly, "but not, my good witch, with Potter's blood. You will find your pretty new bowl unharmed."

Turning, he seized Harry's arm, and before Harry knew what was happening, he was being squeezed unbearably by the inward force of Apparation. When they popped out on the other side, Harry stumbled, tried to catch himself, and crashed into a bush.

"Yes, I can see why your grace is so widely admired, Potter," Snape said dryly.

"Oh, piss off!" Harry snapped, as he brushed leaves and twigs from his robes. "I'm only graceful in the air."

"Do you think so?" Snape asked idly. He didn't sound like he expected an answer, so Harry didn't give him one.

"Why didn't we just apparate to my room?" he complained.

"It's--" Snape stopped for a moment. "It's just not done," he said finally. "Of course, neither is apparating out of someone's house, but I didn't want both of us to have our backs to her."

"So she creeped you out too, huh?" Harry asked. "At the end?" He had recognized where they were, now -- between the shed and the bushes at the edge of the park. He pushed his way out into the sunlight, Snape following behind him. A vaguely familiar woman stared at them, wide-eyed. "Crap!" he said at a whisper, looking down at his robes.

"Don't worry," Snape said, his voice low. "I cast a weak glamour. She should see your usual clothing."

"Good." Harry relaxed. "Come back to the house? I think we need to talk that over."

"Unquestionably."

 

 

They discussed the divination, and Harry told Snape about what had transpired in the Chamber of Secrets, and why he thought that was what the Seer had drawn on. Snape concurred, especially as Madam Langston had said that the Dark Lord had appeared in his original form.

"Still, that event, as a weakness, only tells us that he is arrogant, and we knew that."

"Arrogant and not a pureblood," Harry pointed out. "I've mentioned that to a few of his more dogmatic followers." He sat down on the bed. "Feel free to transfigure yourself a chair, by the way."

Snape studied him. "Draco?" he asked. "Early on?"

"Not so early," Harry countered. "And even so, he didn't believe me. I think he does now."

"So you believe it may have been of use?"

Harry considered. "Possibly." He grimaced. "He had other reasons to lose faith."

"Hm." Snape looked down to where he was running his fingers along the edge of the small table by the bed. "Another thing about which I am curious, Potter...."

"Yeah?"

"Blaise Zabini." Snape's eyes snapped up and bored into him, and Harry couldn't keep from laughing slightly. Of all the things for Snape to latch onto!

"It's nothing, really," he said. "He was around when I, you know, lost all those points, and he appreciated it, and I've decided I should get to know the Slytherins better."

"You should?"

"Well it's a bit of a waste, isn't it, just assuming they're all enemies? I'm still cautious." Harry bit his lip for a moment, thinking, and then looked up. "I'm going to need them. Gryffindor courage is all well and good, but it won't be enough."

For at least a minute, Snape studied him silently. Finally, he turned slightly away.

"You could ask for re-sorting, you know. It's not common, but there's a spate of it every hundred years, or so."

Harry shook his head. "That would ruin everything," he said lightly.

Snape scowled. "Ruin?"

"Think about it. If I'm in Slytherin, what have you got? Another house member -- powerful, I suppose, but capable of losing points by the hundreds -- and a lot of media attention focused on your house." Snape still hadn't sat, which made Harry uncomfortable. He got to his feet and began to pace. "But if I'm in Gryffindor, then you have an ally." Snape's eyes flashed up as he understood. Harry continued anyway. "An ally with some portion of Dumbledore's favor, some sway with Gryffindors, and more of the community trust. Also, many opponents will underestimate my guile, and how far I will go to win. Isn't that better than another Slytherin?"

Snape nodded. "When you put it that way." He relaxed enough to lean back against the wardrobe. "But what do you want in return for this alliance, Potter?"

"The craft of your house," Harry replied baldly. "All that I can win over." He grinned. "And your willful ignorance when I sneak into Slytherin to shag Draco, of course."

Snape coughed.

"Well?" Harry demanded.

"There are ... certain things of which I am always willfully ignorant, Potter -- part of the arrangement between myself and my house. Any matter of willing sex is beneath my notice."

"Drinking?" Potter guessed. "Dark Arts?" Snape nodded to the first, then hesitated at the second. "With either," he said. "I may have a little talk, or several, with the student in question, depending on how I see the matter developing." He looked archly at Harry. "However, as you are not re-sorting, none of that should affect you. You will still need to deal with McGonagall, and with anxious Gryffindor prefects."

Harry shrugged. "Anxious, yes -- but not, I think, as aware."

 

Chapter Text

 




July 21, 1997

Draco,

On the recommendation of the person who brought you this letter, I went to a Seer, hoping to get some information that would help us with strategy. The divination was less successful than we had hoped. We used my blood, for obvious reasons, but that caused the Seer to pick up more information about me than about the target, because of the mingled blood. She said we might be able to work with the blood of a fresh victim, or maybe with unicorn's blood. Neither, obviously, is acceptable to me.

Once she was convinced that I would not return to her with either of those things, she made one additional suggestion -- that someone with the Sight who was personally closer to me might be better at filtering me out of the divination. Are you any good at that?

Harry




July 21, 1997

Dear Harry,

Divination has never been one of my skills. As you know, true divinatory abilities are rare, and frequently when they do manifest, it is at levels that can go unnoticed.

Have you considered Ron Weasley? I have oftentimes recalled the divination that he performed last spring -- quite informally, and without any belief in his own skill. I think you rather can be regarded as having pissed on the House Cup, and your House was certainly divided. Might he be persuaded to venture into blood divination? I would be happy to research potential scrying potions and rituals.

Incidentally, drop the absurd attempts at circumlocution. I've included a few strands of my hair, so you can charm letters to only appear to me. I, of course, long ago took the precaution of collecting a few of yours. Anyone else who picks up this parchment will see a very boring account of the weather in Scotland, and of how I tossed off into the lake.

Kisses,

Draco




July 21, 1997

Mr Potter,

I know we have never been on such familiar terms as to exchange correspondence, but I need to communicate with you about Draco. I know that you believe he is happy with you, and for the moment, he seems to believe he is happy with you, but you must understand that this is not a healthy relationship for him. In order to please you, he is behaving contrary to his nature. For the moment, he may find this worthwhile, but he will eventually come to resent you. Surely you can see that as a Gryffindor, you will eventually either overpower him, completely subsuming his personality to yours, or fall victim to his manipulations and lose your own?

I beg you, if you care for him as you have claimed, to end this relationship now, while you are still apart and may both have time to heal.

Regards,

Miss Pansy Parkinson




July 22, 1997

Dear Draco

If Ron really has the Sight -- and that's a frightening thought -- well, he knows me about as well as anyone. The problem is that it would be Dark Arts. I'm not sure how I'd convince him, and I'm not sure what we'd need. Have any advice?

Did you really wank by the lake? Or are you just trying to drive me mad with imagining it? I haven't done anything at all sexy -- they don't even let me take long showers, so I just get off under the covers, fast and hard. I think about you, though.

On another subject, I've included a letter I received from Pansy Parkinson. What the hell?

Love,

Harry




July 23, 1997

Dearest Harry,

Please disregard Pansy's well-intentioned interference. I told her about the Quiris, and she can't believe that keeping them would be my decision. We, in contrast, know how little I am pleasing you with that act. Also, as I had no difficulty performing when she had sex with me, she cannot believe that I am genuinely attracted to my own sex. I am, Harry. As you know, you are not even the first man that I physically indulged in, and I preferred even him to her, so you need not worry that you are somehow inducing this 'unnatural' reaction by force of will.

You may laugh, Harry, but don't be angry at her. She sees how I love you, and it frightens her. She feels she must protect me, since I will not protect myself from you. Accept it, as I accepted Hermione's suspicion, and she may learn to trust you as Hermione trusts me.

As to the other matter .... You know Weasley better than I do, of course, but the approach I would consider is to emphasize that your life is at stake, and the safety of his world is at stake, and to perform a blood divination for you would therefore be a heroic (Gryffindor) disregard for the rules, rather than a selfish (Slytherin) disregard for the rules. That is, as far as I've ever been able to determine, how your lot think about it. Of course, Gryffindors are just as selfish as anyone else, so also stroke his ego (delicately!) with how rare such a skill is, and how impressed you would be if he succeeded. I am sure the promise of your admiration would entice him to do almost anything.

Also, of course, avoid the phrase 'Dark Arts' for as long as possible. Tell him that it is 'illegal', that it has 'elements of Dark Arts', that it is in the 'nebulous area of Grey Arts', that it is 'somewhat Dark.' Emphasize the risk, rather than moral judgments, if you think that will entice him as it does you. If he enters the act not fully understanding, he will forgive you. You forgave me, after all.

I want you. I am remembering all our fights from last year, and more so, each time we reconciled. I remember after I found out what you had done with Snape -- what I required, and how you looked at me, kneeling shirtless in the cold Chamber, hot with changing emotions. I would demand a different forfeit now. I'm imagining that, imagining pushing aside your shirt and sitting on that low table in its place, so close to those lips you are biting to full redness. I part my robes and banish my trousers and tell you to win your forgiveness with submission to my pleasure. You, of course, are wide-eyed and shocked, but brave above all, and lean forward to take my erection in your mouth, but you keep your eyes up, watching me. Absorbing me, and how my face changes to the motion of your tongue. (I'm so hard, Harry -- I'm lying in bed with a hand down my pants in the most undignified rut, using a damn dictation charm to capture words.) You are beautiful sucking me, and your eyes close as you find your own pleasure -- so surprised, Merlin! I tell you to touch yourself for me. I want you to enjoy this, and you do, squirming until I pull you up to writhe against me and

You

Aaaaa. Gods.

Fuck. You're so

Harry!

Hm. There are drawbacks to a Dictation charm, obviously.

Really, I think you would have hit me with a Stinging hex and run away. Tell me a fantasy instead.

Love,

Draco




July 24, 1997

Ron,

This letter is not for anyone but you. If you're not alone, wait until you are, and don't tell anyone about any of this.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Still there? Okay. I went to a Seer. Not to the kind that makes prophecies, but someone who tries to see things far away. We gave her some of my blood (told you you couldn't tell, but that makes sense, right? Think back to the Tri-Wizard Tournament) for her to try to see something about Voldemort, so I could find a way to defeat him.

The thing is, she couldn't quite. The blood idea worked -- she got bits of things about him -- but she got more about me. She thought that someone who was close to me would do better, because they could filter out me without even thinking about it much.

Annoying, really. Now I have to figure out if anyone I know could do that -- and would. The use of blood makes it illegal, of course, though really, it's my blood, and I think I should be able to say who can use it. Don't tell Hermione, though -- you know how she can get about stuff like that.

How are things at the Burrow?

Harry




July 24, 1997

Dear Draco

You drive me mad, you know. Reading your last letter, imagining what you wrote about, and then picturing you touching yourself while you spoke for the quill -- absolutely mad! I spent so much time wanking that I fell asleep right after, and didn't get anything else done last night (like replying to you). I had really good dreams though. You were in all of them.

Sometimes I think about last winter, and the times I missed you trying to let me know you were interested. Nothing would have happened in your room -- I was far too drunk -- and I didn't get why you were worrying about which bed to use in my dormitory. But remember when you talked me into jumping out the window? I flew back in all elated, expecting you to be impressed, or at least amused, and instead, you shouted at me about how stupid I was. After the night in your room, I was certain that you didn't intend to kill me, but that was the first time that you sounded like you cared.

I was confused and you were frustrated that I didn't understand, and sometimes I imagine that -- that instead of looking away, you grab my shoulders, and when I'm bracing for a push, yank me close and kiss me. And then it all makes sense, and I don't have to think about it, because Gryffindors can do that afterward, you know. And your mouth is sweet, and your lips are strong, and I won't break free to say yes, so I pull you down, and we tumble to the carpet, and I pull you close, and your body is light and hot, and I move against it while I kiss you back, because I don't know what else to do.

When we pause for breath, you take the lead, ever so lightly, and lead me to the fire and begin to undo my shirt. We start out slow and deliberate, undressing each other, and your skin is so beautiful in the firelight that I want every inch of it bare. I kiss the smooth inside of your arm, where the Dark Mark isn't, and I tell you no one but me can touch you there. You don't promise, but you pull me down for more kisses, until our touches turn frantic and haphazard, and we push at each other, grasping for skin, until we come on the carpet, and stray clothes, and each other, and you laugh at my inexperience, but not in a bad way, and I tell you I'll learn, but all the time, we're tangling up in each other again, and we fall asleep there, in the warm flicker from the flames.

I love you.

(But I can't write it, see? Perhaps I can learn that too, but I'd rather just be with you.)

Harry

P.S.: (And believe me, I'm adding this rather later!) What would we need to do a blood divination at school? Snape's been in on it here, but he would rather not know details when it happens there, I think, so the more supplies that I can get in advance, the better.




July 26, 1997

Fred and George,

Would it be possible for you to come and fetch me on the 28th? I could get there on my own, but I think you could do a better job of obscuring my trail than I could on my own.

Harry




July 26, 1997

Harry,

You have no idea how much has been written on the subject of scrying with blood, and how hard it is for me to access any of it. If you were here, I would borrow that cloak of yours, but I won't risk having you without it for days. I'm longing for the library at Malfoy Manor!

Be warned, therefore, that this information is based on the most cursory of preliminary investigations. I expect that we will studying the subject for all of September, at least. So far, however, I have identified several substances that appear to be frequently used in a blood-enhanced scrying, and encountered many warnings about how more common scrying liquids are often ruined by the addition of blood. For example, hazel is useless. Here is my current list:

-- Beryl (even with blood), but I don't know what color yet.
-- Spring water
-- Pomegranate seeds (from a whole pomegranate)
-- Sphinx feathers (or, less powerfully, Great Eagle feathers)

I also think that in your particular case, something from a Red Cap (bone or hair) might strengthen the work, because of the multiple murders he has committed in attempts to murder you. Using Red Cap elements could draw power and focus from his blood guilt. Actually, now that I think about it, it may also provide a means to integrate the actual blood to less compatible substances. We can look into that once you're here.

Spring water and some varieties of beryl are readily available from the student cupboards, and you could probably get a pomegranate from the house-elves, but the others you will need to obtain through some other means. Red Cap parts, of course, are restricted items associated with Dark Arts, and will present the most difficulty, but Sphinx feathers won't be easy (or cheap!), and Slugg & Jiggers would make you sign for them, if they can get them. Perhaps you will be able to sneak down Knockturn Alley, at some point? Caligula's Cauldron (I know it sounds like some sort of dodgy club, but it's really an apothecary), past the Troll and Club, will sell anything to anyone, given enough incentive, and would probably be able to obtain Red Cap parts. I'd advise against stealing from there -- the proprietor has protections that don't rely on seeing you -- but you'll need a glamour to avoid the risk of blackmail. He doesn't violate charms that alter your appearance; he wouldn't have any customers if he did. Other people in the shop might try anything, though, so be careful. Actually, you might want to use the glamour to get someone else to go for you, or something even more convoluted.

your Dragon

P.S.: I like your writing. Now I want you in front of a fire. Maybe next Christmas?




July 26, 1997

Mr. Potter,

Hi, Harry! (If you can't place the name, I'm the Auror who was watching Draco Malfoy, and happened to be his cousin.) I had the honor to be one of the questioners for Lucius Malfoy's Veritaserum interview, and a little bird told me that I should be sure to ask for names. I cannot tell you what unexpected name emerged, but a trusted source informs me that you would know, and would find this information encouraging.

If anything else is declassified, I'll let you know.

Cheers,

Auror N. Tonks




July 27, 1997

Harry,

We can talk when you're at the Burrow. Mum wants you here for your birthday, though we can't have a party, really. I wish we could. It's not right that you miss that when you're coming of age, even though it's during the summer!

Things have been mind-numbingly dull here, except for when they've been utterly mad. Charlie showed up unexpectedly, with some girl that no one had heard of before, and some Romanian chap that we had heard of before, but who was piss-poor at Translation charms. (Not that any of us are great, mind, but we're not the ones traveling to some other country.) We never knew what he meant, because what he was saying couldn't have been it. They stayed for three days, in a tent outside, with Charlie refusing to take his room, and Mum desperately trying to suss out if he was involved with the girl, and Ginny desperately trying to suss out if he was involved with the bloke. I'd say you corrupted her, but she has a point. With Charlie, it's hard to tell -- he hugs everyone. It's bizarre. After three days, they left, and then everything was boring again.

I think those laws were to keep people from taking other people's blood, but then they wanted them harder to get out of, you know? Anyway, I'll see you on the 31st, I'm sure!

Ron




July 27, 1997

Harry,

Your seventeenth birthday -- a momentous occasion -- is approaching, and you have doubtless been awaiting some communication in regards to the invitation extended by the Weasleys. I assure you that I have not forgotten the matter, but there are still factors in play that delay my decision. However these settle, you shall see me soon, and you will not remain in your Aunt's house past July 31. All else, I must tell you in person.

On a more cheerful note, we may be making progress on your godfather's exoneration. I believe you have heard news from a certain Veritaserum session. That has given our friends in the Department of Magical Law Enforcement the justification needed to reopen certain cases that had previously been closed as resolved.

I hope that you are enjoying your holiday as much as possible under the circumstances, and taking no unnecessary risks.

Best regards,

Albus Dumbledore, Headmaster
Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry




July 27, 1997

Harrykins --

We'll be there. You can't complain if we make you dizzy! Be packed.

--F&G G&F

Fred

George

Fred

Weasley & Weasley

The Terrible Two




July 27, 1997

Harry,

Good luck.

Draco




July 29, 1997

Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon,

On my birthday (July 31, if you don't know), I will become an adult in the Wizarding world. At that time, certain protections on me end, and I think if I'm still here, you and Dudley will probably be killed. Oddly, I don't want that, so I'm leaving now. I will not be returning. To be safe, I suggest that you go somewhere else from July 30 through August 1. Here's a little gold to help you with the expense.

Harry




July 29, 1997

Sirius and Remus,

Please don't be alarmed when Dumbledore tells you that I'm missing. I know my protection at home will end in a few days, and it seemed like a better idea to get out early than to wait for an ambush. I'm being careful, I have the cloak, and I'm as safe as I can be -- and the Dursleys and the Weasleys are a whole lot safer than otherwise.

I'd meet with you if I could, but I'd need a promise that you won't betray me to Dumbledore or Mrs. Weasley or anyone else, and since I expect owls can be followed, I'm not receiving them, so there's no way for you to give me a promise, even if you would. I'll write to you, though. I know you'll feel better if you hear from me regularly. I think I'll make it every other day, though some of them will just be 'Hi, I'm alive' notes.

Don't worry. I'm being careful.

Harry




July 31, 1997

Ron,

Sorry about not showing up today, and I hope your mum's not having fits, but I didn't want to wait until the last minute to leave and endanger everyone. Even the Dursleys don't deserve what they'd get from Death Eaters.

I'm safe, I'm lying low, and I'll see you on the Hogwarts Express. Don't try to reply -- I'm not accepting owls.

Best wishes,

Harry




July 31, 1997

Dear Hermione,

I know what I'm doing. I promise.

See you in September,

Harry




Chapter Text

 

Harry yawned, stretched, and pulled out some fresh clothing from his trunk. He started to pull on the jeans, and then, wrinkling his nose, cast a cleaning charm on himself. The shop had a loo, but no bath or shower, and he probably ought to visit the twins' flat soon; cleaning charms could only do so much. On the other hand, he was finally an adult wizard, and could at least cast them unnoticed.

Once he was dressed, he finished last night's Thai noodles, wrote a short note to Remus to have the twins send later, and then conjured a mirror to set a glamour on himself. Susara rippled across the table to look at the new object.

"Hi, beautiful," he said softly. "You were asleep."

"Now, I am awake," she answered simply. Her scarlet tongue flickered out. "Why this ice?"

The mirror, she meant. Harry smiled. "I am going out, but I cannot be seen, so I am changing my appearance. I can see what I am doing in the ice."

Curious, Susara circled behind the mirror and then back in front of it. She didn't seem to notice her own image. Harry brought his hand to the surface and touched his fingers to their reflection. He could feel her understanding. It reminded him of light returning as the sun emerged from a cloud.

"Clever, Master," she said approvingly. "After this, will you change your scent?"

Harry laughed. "People are not good with scent."

Her upper third twitched back in surprise. "How sad! Even you?"

"Even me," Harry informed her. "So I only need to change what I look like. It would be easy, if I did not have this scar."

She reared up, coming strangely close to his eyes to look at the scar. He could feel her distaste as she tested the air in front of it. "It feels like another man." She sent a flash of frustration. "Not scent, exactly...."

"It was left by an enemy," he explained. "My enemy. Magic cannot change it, but if I make my hair look like just the right red...." He found the color in the mirror. "There! Now the lines of it look like the hair above. It becomes hard to notice."

That done, Harry made himself look heavier, especially in the face. When he was satisfied with his appearance, he extended his hand to Susara. "Do you want to ride?"

With a flicker of tongue and a warm feeling of agreement, Susara spiraled onto his wrist and up his arm. Harry put on his Invisibility Cloak and slipped out the deliveries door into the narrow walk between the twins' future shop and the next building. It was time to scout Knockturn Alley.

In a hidden alcove a few doors down, he took off the cloak and stowed it in his bag. From what Draco had said, he gathered that some shops had security charms that would detect an invisible person entering. It was safer to be seen.

The people on the street were just as unpleasant as he remembered, but from an adult perspective, he found more of them pathetic than frightening. Of course, he amended to himself as he sidestepped a grab from a hunched man with sharply pointed teeth, the scary ones might actually be more frightening now. What he found himself watching for was not hags or half-trolls or wild-eyed addicts, but the people who were a little too well dressed and too focused for the area...

"Come inside, good sir," a voice invited him. "We have the most eager young girls--"

... a class that apparently included him. Harry shot the speaker a contemptuous look and kept walking.

The Troll and Club was a rowdy, dirty pub, with dried vomit on the street in front of it and streaks on the walls. Without it, Harry would not have seen Caligula's Cauldron. The entrance was discreet, the windows darkened, but the stench, when he entered the place, horrific. All apothecaries smelled odd, but this one smelled like dead things, and Harry tried not to think too much about what 'anything' could include. Susara tightened around his arm.

An old man, two stray teeth lost in his wrinkled mouth, grimaced at him from behind the counter.

"And who are you?" he spat.

Harry tensed. "A potential customer," he huffed. For a moment, the man looked him up and down, and then he gestured at the shop, which ran in one narrow room, bisected by waist-height bins and barrels, from front to back. Harry glanced at the bins and the dimly lit shelves, but had no desire to look more closely at them. Instead, he stepped up to the counter.

"I'm looking for--" Something from a Red Cap, he meant to say, but the words wouldn't come out. "-- Sphinx feathers."

The man's eyebrows, which were thick and tangled, came up. Harry got the feeling that they didn't do that often. Indeed they descended back into a scowl almost immediately.

"You could look a long time," he said. "Sphinxes are rare enough. Winged ones?" He spat on the floor. "Vicious besides."

Harry narrowed his eyes at the man. "I was told that you could get things. Rare things."

"For those that has the gold, yeah, I can."

"I expect I do."

"Don't dress like it."

"You expect me to walk down Knockturn Alley in silk?"

"Toffs don' walk down the Alley." The man sneered at him. "They floo in straight."

Harry rolled his eyes. He had to work to keep his head still, so that his scar would stay covered. "How much," he said clearly, "for two sphinx feathers?"

The man snorted, but he looked more interested now. "Sixty G apiece," he answered. "If I can get 'em. All up front."

Harry knew he should talk the man down, but being treated as too poor to deal with rankled. "Forty-five," he countered. "None up front."

"So you can steal 'em when they come in? Get out o' here."

Harry took out his purse. He had fifteen galleons in it, and another fifteen hidden in an inner pocket of his robes. It was enough, he hoped, to impress. "I'm good for it," he said, spilling money into his hand.

"That's not ninety."

"I don't carry ninety on a scouting trip."

"Well, I don't order without prepayment. Give me your name and address, and I might consider it."

"Give me your floo name, and I might come back with more."

"Caligula's Cauldron."

Harry nodded. "Simple enough. If I order, what surety will you give me?"

 

After he left Knockturn Alley, Harry still felt like the grime of it was clinging to him. He needed to go somewhere normal, he decided, and settled on Flourish & Blotts. He could get a book on far-seeing or possibly something on hexes. As he entered the shop, he wondered where he could find information on Red Caps. Draco's theory on their usefulness made sense; he knew it did. The problem was, that he couldn't help thinking of them as sort of people-like -- too much so to use parts from. Were they really, though, or were they just people-shaped, like doxies? They were vicious, he knew, and he wouldn't mind killing one in a fight. Buying parts, though, seemed macabre. Bones, especially, might look like the bones of a child. He shuddered, remembering the apothecary on Knockturn Alley. A place like that might actually try that counterfeit, if they thought the customer couldn't tell the difference.

Flourish & Blotts had a Dark Creatures section at the top of the Magical Creatures shelves, and there was an adults-only section at the back of the shop that he had heard was more Dark Arts than sex -- maybe that would have information on potions. Feeling uncomfortable, he ducked into the empty Household Charms section and swung his cloak on.

As Harry was hurrying towards the restricted section of the shop, a large bulk suddenly cut into the stacks in front of him. He dodged as best he could, but there was little leeway. He didn't fall down, or lose the cloak, or crush Susara, but he crashed into the other person, who lurched forward, spilling books on the floor around him. She dove down to gather them -- it was Millicent Bulstrode, he realized -- slammed bruisingly into his legs, and froze.

"Watch it," he whispered, crouching. Remembering his promise to Draco, he thought he ought to help with the books. He decided it was safe to let his hands emerge. "Sorry, Bulstrode. I'm wearing an invisibility cloak."

"Go away!" One of her large hands grabbed at the book he was holding, and the motion startled Harry into looking down at the cover. Permanent Sex Change with Potions it read. Harry was still staring when it was pulled from his hands.

"Tell me who you are, now!"

"Harry." He pulled his right hand back to ready his wand. "Harry Potter."

"Oh fucking hell! Look it's just research, got it? If you say a word to anyone --"

"What?" Canceling the glamour, Harry pushed back the hood of his cloak to meet her eyes. "Look, why would I--"

Breathing heavily, like someone about to attack, she stared at him, her small eyes sharp in her heavy face. "Name your price," she said flatly.

"No price." Harry shrugged. "It's all right, Bulstrode."

"NO, IT ISN'T!" Bulstrode dropped her voice. "Perfect little Granger will send me witch's empowerment pamphlets, and my parents--"

Harry was distressed by the near-hysterical tension behind the words. "I won't tell. I swear." He looked down at the more generic Dark Draughts, picked it up, and handed it to her. "Look ... can you maybe do me a favor? If you're planning -- oh hell, this is awkward. Come somewhere where we can talk privately?"

She looked at him grimly. Harry wondered if he was going to be hit, but she merely stood and nodded. "Let's go."

She was still expecting him to name terms, he realized suddenly. He could blackmail her. Embarrassed, he flipped the hood of his cloak back over his head. "Come on, then. Buy your books and we'll go. The Leaky Cauldron will do."

 

Bulstrode walked silently down the street, her wrapped purchases clutched to her wide chest. She didn't say anything as she entered the Leaky Cauldron, and he whispered for her to wait while he spoke to Tom. When they were in the back salon, and Harry slipped his cloak off, she remained silent, staring straight ahead like a soldier on review. Harry was still wondering how to begin when Tom appeared with a platter of cheeses, breads, sausage, and apples, and a pitcher of ale. Harry nodded, thanked him, and threw in an extra five galleons with his payment, hoping that was enough to keep the man silent, at least for the hour. Tom tugged respectfully at his cap and closed the door behind him when he left. Harry cast his own privacy charm at it.

He sat down and cut a slice off one of the apples. Bulstrode was still standing. "Sit," he said.

Stony-faced, she sat. "Your price, Potter."

Irritated, he let out a harsh sigh. "Will you listen? I won't tell. Have some food, will you?"

"If it was that simple, you wouldn't have paid for a private room." Despite her words, she poured herself a mug of the ale and sliced a chunk off the sausage.

"Look," Harry hazarded, "I don't have any idea of how magical sex-change works, but I saw you had potions books. Shouldn't there be a charm for that?"

She laughed harshly. "Dozens, Potter. They work in seconds and can be undone as quickly."

"Is that a problem?"

"Yes, it's a problem! If my parents can just grab me and change me back, don't you think they will?"

He shrugged and took some of the cheddar. "No idea. Raised by Muggles, you know." He grinned at her. "Enlighten me."

"My parents have money, but because of my grandfather, not status. And despite efforts that I hear far too much about, I'm an only child. They want me to make a good marriage."

"Couldn't you marry a girl?" The look she sent him was so withering that he had to qualify. "As a man, I mean."

"I understood that." She scowled. "No. It's unacceptable. Scandalous. I'll be considered damaged goods. The only reason for anyone to marry me would be for me."

She smiled slightly at that, despite her fear, and in that instant, Harry knew that he would help her in any way he could. He had to take a swallow of ale to clear his throat.

"Do you really want to be a man, though?" he asked. "Or just to avoid being married off?"

She sighed and stared at the bread in her hands. "Look, I'm a horrible girl, and I'll be even worse as a woman. The troll blood shows too much. And I don't like it, either. I'm much happier as a Slytherin Beater, where I'm treated as one of the boys....."

Troll blood. That's true, then. "If you're a man, though, you'll still...." He trailed off, realizing that he had left no tactful way to continue.

"Be a hulking, coarse-featured goon? Yeah. Sometimes people don't mind that in men, though."

"I--" He looked at her -- really looked -- at her rough face and broad torso and muscular arms and intimidating height, and tried to imagine that she didn't have breasts the size of melons. "Okay. I can see what you mean. You wouldn't be my type, as a bloke, but you'd be impressive."

She sat back, looking relieved. "Thanks." Her face screwed up in a sour smile. "So...."

"So it looks like you're planning to do something with potions."

She nodded. "Somehow. I've heard there's a six month course that would take years to reverse...." Trailing off, she shrugged. "I'm still researching, though. Now why do you care? If, as you claim, you won't tell?"

This was it. Harry realized that he was nervously turning a piece of cheese into crumbs, but he couldn't manage to stop. "Look, I need to obtain some proscribed ingredients, and I expect that you do too, is that right?"

She sighed. "Obviously."

"It's occurred to me that those purchases may actually be less suspicious made together. I mean, the things I want may indicate what I'm doing, and the things you want may indicate what you're doing, but if one of us buys both...."

"I'm not taking your risks for you, Potter. I haven't even figured out how to get what I need myself."

"I'm one of 'us' too, you know, and I have potential connections." He traced the grain of the tabletop between them. "What do you need?"

"Not from Professor Snape."

Harry sighed. "No. Well, I'll get some things from him, but no, I wouldn't risk anything of yours, and most of mine can't be through him, because Dumbledore might find out, and curiously, I no longer want Snape fired. Other connections."

Her eyes narrowed. "You're offering to help me."

"Yeah."

"What do you want, Potter?"

He had to answer that with something, he realized. She would never stop being suspicious if he didn't. "Well," he said, "look after Draco for me? I mean, I can't protect him in Slytherin, and you're strong...."

She nodded thoughtfully. "I can do that. Not in his dormitory, obviously, but in the Common Room and in the corridors. Will you keep him from reporting me? If I need to be out late brewing?"

Harry nodded. "I can arrange that. I might even be able to get you a safe place to do it."

"Yeah?"

"I've brewed long term potions on the sly before." He grinned at the look on her face. "Okay, I've helped Hermione do it -- better?"

At Hermione's name, she made a face. "Less frightening at least."

Calmer, now that she thought she knew his price, she topped off her ale and leaned back in her chair. "So, did you mean it about buying for me?"

"Possibly. Why don't you do your research, and we can discuss what you need next week?"

She nodded. "Meet here, same time?"

Harry wasn't sure it would be safe to come back here, now that he had revealed himself to old Tom, but he considered it. After a minute, he shrugged. "It might be safe; it might not. Just come to Diagon Alley, okay? And I'll send you a message."

She snorted. "Paranoid much, Potter?"

"It's not paranoia if they really are out to get you," he returned with a grin, and got back a laugh in response.

"True enough. Same time next week, then."

 

Harry finished his beer, put on his cloak, and left the Leaky Cauldron on the Muggle side. He came back an hour later, in the guise of the red-haired man, with provisions for three, and made his way back to the shop. He found Fred and George there, busily setting up their workroom.

"Hi. I brought food."

"We found your note."

"Are you supposed to be out?"

"I was careful."

One of the twins snorted and looked meaningfully at the food that Harry was laying out on the top of a crate.

"Not enough," the other said. He peered at the round, glossy buns. "What are those?"

"The label said 'pork bun'. They're from Chinatown -- in Muggle London, and I used a glamour."

"Why were you there?"

"I've never been. And I was bored, and I'm not likely to be noticed, there." He grinned. "And the gate has a Gryffindor color scheme."

"So you bought food you couldn't identify?" George picked up one of the buns, bit into it, and twitched.

"Isn't that the point?" Harry countered. "Is it awful?" He picked up another one.

"No -- good, really."

"That's not what your face said," Harry observed, but took a small bite off his, anyway.

"I was just startled. It's sweet."

"Let me try." Fred pounced on the remaining bun. "Mm."

"Anyway," George said, "glamours are chancy."

Harry shrugged, the motion tight. "I can't stay here all the time, though. And I have things I should buy."

The twins came up, one to either side of him, one swallowing quickly.

"We were talking about that..."

"... and when it would happen."

"And we have an idea."

"Oh?" Harry asked. "What?"

"We have some polyjuice--"

"-- though we'll only give you one dose at a time --"

"-- and only if you promise not to do anything we wouldn't do."

Harry grinned. "I think I can manage that. After all, my boyfriend is at Hogwarts."

The twin on his left -- Fred, he thought, though he'd lost track when they moved -- laughed. "Quite right."

"Neither of us would snog a Malfoy."

"Though he's not that bad --"

"-- for a Malfoy."

Harry rolled his eyes. "I'll settle for that, I suppose."

"Oh, and speaking of your boyfriend...." George said, in a singsong voice.

"You have a letter."

"Does he write to you every day?"

Harry shrugged, trying not to look too eager as he reached for the thick envelope. "A couple of times a week, usually," he answered, and ignored their sniggers in favor of extracting the thick parchment.

 

The first thing that Harry noticed about the letter was the bookmark contained in the folds of it. It was a thin wooden bookmark, carved into a lace-like pattern at the curved top, and it was encased in a vellum sleeve. On both sides of the sleeve, someone had written "Read letter before opening". The hand was not Draco's, but it looked familiar. Harry turned to the letter.


Dear Harry,

Mr. Lupin contacted me yesterday. At first, I couldn't think how he made it into the school, but then I remembered -- he knows about one of the tunnels, so he may well know about the others. At any rate, it was quite a shock to see him in the back corridor by the bust of Sir Belduf.

I told him I didn't know where you were, and he quite amiably informed me that he didn't believe me. He then swore a fairly simple but powerful oath to me, binding him to keep your secrets of your location and my collusion if you came to him of your free will. (It explicitly left him free to do as he pleases if he finds you.) He also gave me the included bookmark, which he says is a two-way portkey to and from his home. I leave the decision up to you. Please let me know if you believe I should inform Professor Dumbledore of his intrusion into the castle.

Professor McGonagall, who has been on holiday, returned to the school, today. It is apparently time to start planning for the new students. As you might expect, she had some questions stemming from my testimony. I have tried to stay to matters that she already knew about, but hearing about it again has put her in a strop. The problem reminded me of our plans last spring -- do you think an independent study project with her might get you back in her good graces, and perhaps improve her opinion of me? We would need to think of something that we would actually like to learn, of course. I had been thinking of your foray into metalworking before Easter. That's on the edges of Transfiguration, of course; do you know if she has any interest in that area?

The Council of Birthright and Family Affairs will be reviewing my case next week. Wish me luck!

Love,

Draco

Harry smiled as he refolded the letter. "Well." Looking up, he found both twins staring at him with identical expressions of confusion on their faces. "Lupin sends me a portkey and swears secrecy, McGonagall is irritated, and the Ministry is considering overriding Draco's father disinheriting him," he summarized. At that, they looked even more confused.

"We read that letter --" George admitted baldly.

"-- and it didn't--"

Harry burst out laughing. "Oh, but you have to be me to read the real letter!" he crowed. "Was his substitute entertaining?"

They glanced at each other. George ducked his head.

"Oh, it was about us --"

"-- and how nosy and ill-mannered we are."

Harry laughed more. "And he so got you!"

They seemed okay with that, so he took a real bite of the bun, his heart lifting. He could visit Remus -- and, he hoped, Sirius.

 

Chapter Text

Harry wanted to go to Remus -- and Sirius! -- right away, but after he had eaten, he forced himself to spend some time planning his visit. While he helped the twins set shelves into place in the front room, he examined the idea, thinking about what could go wrong. Sirius, he realized almost immediately, had not sworn to secrecy. Mulling this over, he found himself unable to believe that his godfather would betray him for taking matters into his own hands and leaving. If he kept his head and sounded sensible, he should be able to trust Sirius.

On the other hand, he and Remus could have guests. Harry didn't have any way to see who was in the cottage before he arrived, but if he wore the invisibility cloak to portkey in, he could leave again immediately if anyone else was present. That should be safe enough.

He would have to explain his reasoning for leaving, of course, and he expected Remus to think he should trust Dumbledore more than that, but Remus wouldn't go back on his word. They would want to know where he was, and he couldn't tell them that. He wondered if there was something he could tell them, by way of a distraction.

Susara moved slightly, reminding him that the snake might disturb his godfather, and with a soft hiss, he greeted her. As one, the twins stiffened, causing the charmed shelf they were lifting up along the wall to attach itself at the wrong height.

"Harry...."

"I need to talk to her. Should I go in the back room?"

They looked at each other. "Please."

 

 

Harry sat on the bed, and invited Susara out. She curled affectionately around his wrist.

"Yess?"

He smiled. "I need to go out," he said. "Alone."

If a snake could frown, she would have done. He could feel her distress. "You should not travel alone."

"I will not travel alone long. I will visit my...." 'Godfather' didn't translate. "Elder."

"I could come, yes?"

He shook his head. "Sorry. He disapproves of snakes, I think." Before her little kernel of hurt could grow, Harry stroked her shining scales. "I do not plan to hide you, beautiful, except for whilst I hide. I need that he not doubt me while I am not safe." Things still, he thought, came out oddly in Parseltongue sometimes.

Trustingly, she flowed once around his wrist before moving to the worn blanket. "I will hunt. You will be back before night?"

"Yes."

As she left, Harry wondered if all pets were as protective. It was sweet, if a little amusing. She was such a tiny thing! Still, she was busy for now, and there was no time like the present. He called out a goodbye to the twins, donned his Invisibility Cloak, and slid the Portkey out of its protective sheath. Immediately, he felt the familiar tug behind his navel and the room around him vanished.

 

Although the floor in the cozy kitchen of Darkmoon Den was uneven, Harry managed to maintain his balance while the room settled around him. Sirius was at the fire, frying a mess of mushrooms, and Remus was sitting at the table, reading a letter. No one else was visible. Harry began to cross the room to check the doorway to the next, but as soon as he took a step, Remus's head shot up.

"What's--" Sirius began, but Remus snapped a hand up and shushed him.

Before matters could escalate, Harry shook his hood back. "Just me."

Sirius barked out a laugh, and Remus rolled his eyes. "Spying on us, Harry?"

"I wanted to be sure you didn't have guests," Harry corrected, swinging the cloak off completely. "You promised, and I trust Sirius, but--"

"You don't trust me?" Remus interrupted.

"Not if Professor Dumbledore's in the room." Harry shrugged. "I expect you don't approve."

"I don't necessarily disapprove," Remus countered gently. "It depends on how well you have hidden yourself."

"Well enough, I think."

"Will you tell me, so I can decide for myself?"

Smiling, Harry shook his head. "Sorry, but no. The fewer people that know the better."

"Draco Malfoy knows."

"Yes. And he shot down the first two plans as not safe enough."

"Mm." Remus folded his hands on the tabletop in front of him. "And what if something happens to you? Will anyone know to raise the alarm?"

"Yes," Harry said firmly. "I am in frequent sight of someone else -- someone I trust not to betray me."

"And do you think I would betray you?"

"Not to Voldemort." Harry cocked his head. "Maybe to Dumbledore."

Sirius laughed, but Remus did not look amused. "I do not consider Dumbledore your enemy, Harry. Do you?"

"For the next three weeks, yeah."

"Harry," Remus said steadily, "I don't disbelieve that you think you're safe. But at your age, you know, it is common to feel as if you are immortal --"

"Believe me, I know I'm not!"

"-- even when you know you're not."

"I'm being careful, sir. Really."

"Last spring --"

"Look, I worked it out, then, okay? Why I'm so important. And I talked to Dumbledore about it, and he told me what my parents had done...." Harry trailed off, unable to continue. Remus looked stricken.

"What we had done too, Harry," Sirius said firmly, taking the pan off the heat and stepping over to lay a strong hand on Harry's shoulder. "We were all involved. We got caught up in it, you know, and it seemed like such a clever idea. That's the sort of thing that has Remus worried."

"That I'll be too clever, you mean?"

"Right." Sirius smiled engagingly. "In the manner of young men."

"All of you...." Harry considered that. "Wormtail, too?"

At their nods, Harry sighed. "So Voldemort knows."

"Yes," Remus said heavily. "He knows."

"Here, now!" Sirius reproved. "What's done is done." He grinned. "And another thing that's done is the mushrooms. Will you eat with us, Harry?"

"I just ate, really," Harry said. "Though those do smell good."

"Well, I'm putting them on a pork roast, but there are extra for toast, if you want some now." Sirius nudged him. "I always make about twice what I need, or we don't end up with enough."

"I didn't know you cooked," Harry said.

"I didn't have the chance on the run," Sirius pointed out. He shrugged. "Actually, I didn't cook much before; eating scrounged food for that long changed the idea of cooking from a chore to a treat."

Remembering the desperate hunger with which Sirius had attacked the leftover chicken he and his friends had brought out to his cave, years ago, Harry nodded. "Yeah, I can see that."

Belatedly, Remus summoned the spare chair from the side of the room to the table, and gestured to it. "Sit down, then," he invited.

Harry did, and did not protest when Sirius set a small plate down in front of him. "So," he said, "about this spell on me...."

Remus shook his head. "It's not on you now. It was cast on you, and you still have the effect."

"Whatever."

"The distinction is not unimportant. If the spell were on you now, it could be dispelled or detected."

"Okay. I'll try to be more precise. But anyway, I don't really understand why you did it. I mean, wouldn't that be too long to wait? It turns out not to have been, I suppose, but I can't imagine putting that much effort to something that would kill him fifteen to twenty years from now. Isn't that like saying you'll live with it until then?"

Remus sighed. "It did mean that none of us could defeat him earlier...."

"I sometimes wonder if that was why Peter betrayed us," Sirius interrupted. "Was that the point where he just couldn't live with the risk? We hadn't given up, though. Other people could have defeated him -- other people can still, you just have a better chance."

"But why not choose one of you," Harry persisted, "or your strongest ally?"

Shaking his head, Sirius went back to the stove. "You can't do that to an adult," he explained over his shoulder, as he took toast from the oven, "or even to a baby, really. We changed your essential ability to manipulate energy -- his energy -- and we gave you luck, besides. A developed human can't handle that level of alteration."

"Lily wasn't willing to risk it too far into the pregnancy, actually," Remus volunteered. "The source spell we built on advised casting before the seventh month, and she insisted it be by the fifth."

"Here," Sirius said, setting a rack of toast and a bowl onto the table. "Mushrooms." He sat down and took a slice of the toast. "Enjoy."

Despite taking a slice of toast and spooning some mushrooms onto it, Harry couldn't let the matter drop yet. "How did you link it to him?" he asked.

Remus and Sirius looked at each other uneasily.

"I ..." Sirius cleared his throat. "I feigned interest. In the movement. We ... met; I had a Portkey. As he leaned close, I cut him, and then portkeyed out."

"Between the blood on his knife and what had soaked into his sleeve, we had enough."

"So am I linked to the sleeve too?" Harry wasn't sure why that, of all the questions he could have asked, came out. Predictably, Sirius rolled his eyes.

"Yes, Harry," he said. "Should my second-best dress robes have ever magically attacked you, you could have rebounded that magical energy -- of which they had none -- upon them."

Harry chuckled. "Okay. Um, do you think that made it easier for random people to believe you'd been working for him?"

Again, a look passed between the men. Harry frowned at it. Sirius poked at his toast with a fork.

"I suspect that was more my family background," he said blandly.

"Oh, yeah!" Harry exclaimed. "Draco says his mother is one of your cousins; he was shocked that I didn't know you were from an old pureblood family. He thinks I'm woefully out of touch."

"Harry," Remus said wearily, "there is nothing about being from an old pureblood family that should interest you."

"Well family interests me," Harry retorted, "and don't you dare say it shouldn't." He pushed ahead, unwilling to listen. "Oh, Sirius, I met another cousin of yours -- an Auror, you wouldn't know her--"

"Tonks?" Tension melted from the room as Sirius, who had been looking worried, smiled. "I've heard of her."

"Where did you--" Remus began, and then his face cleared. "Oh. The trial."

"Right! She was Draco's bodyguard."

Sirius snorted. "He must have loved that."

"They got along quite well, actually," Harry said hotly. He tried not to think about how Mrs. Malfoy had ignored her niece's name.

Remus cleared his throat. "Well," he said. "Good."

"I still think he's going to get you into trouble." Sirius growled. "From his testimony at the trial, he already has."

"Trouble I went into willingly," Harry pointed out.

"Oh, I don't doubt that."

"Harry." In comparison to Sirius, Remus was gentle and mild. Harry didn't believe for a moment that he was easier to dissuade. "We do worry about you, and you cannot say that it is without reason. If Draco Malfoy -- or anyone -- gives you advice that you find suspect, I would be grateful if you would give us the chance to contribute an opinion."

Harry hesitated. That was very delicately put. And he had been worrying about Red Caps, not that Remus or Sirius was a Potions expert, as far as he knew-- He nearly laughed at the thought as he recalled what Remus had taught. He was an expert in Dark Creatures, which was even better.

"Actually...." he said slowly.

Although Sirius sat back in obvious surprise, Remus didn't blink. "Go ahead, Harry."

"Well, it's.... He even pointed out it was a bit dodgy, but Draco's very good at Potions, you know, and he thought that we might be able to brew something protective from Red Cap parts--"

Sirius snorted. "Not a protective creature."

"Yes, but Voldemort has tried to kill me multiple times, and did kill my parents, and he was talking about harnessing blood guilt."

They made no immediate outcry. A shared look, an uneasy shifting of position, and Sirius started.

"That would be, er, Dark--"

"But not a bad theory," Remus concluded. "You should keep it to research for now, of course -- you're not to confront him. You need to learn energy manipulation--"

"Let's discuss it when you leave school," Sirius said.

"Okay," Harry said. It wasn't lying really; they could discuss it then. "But Red Caps ... they're not intelligent, are they? They seem sort of humanlike."

Remus shook his head. "Only in form. They are entirely a magical manifestation of violence, with any thought or will borrowed from the hatred left by the dead. A Kneazle is closer to human."

"Okay." Harry relaxed back. "I just wanted to be sure, before I let him look into it." He made a face. "Actually, I can't stop him, and he probably already is, but before I agreed."

Another shared look, and Remus and Sirius both smiled. "I'm glad that you asked," Remus said. "You're a good boy, Harry."

"A fine young man," Sirius corrected.

Harry ate his toast and was glad he had reason to blush.

 

When Harry returned to the shop, the twins had left, but on the crate by his bed were two doses of Polyjuice, a few ginger hairs caught in folded parchment, and a note:


You should only go out as one of us while we are working in here. (Of course! It wouldn't do for us to be seen in three places!) Until then, these are only for an emergency.

See you tomorrow!

 

The next afternoon, while the twins were working, Harry took advantage of the offer. He was surprised to find that Polyjuice Potion with Fred's hair wasn't disgusting, just hotly spicy and a bit odd. It was the perfect time, he decided, to return to Gringotts and get the money he would need for sphinx feathers. He stuffed his Invisibility Cloak in his bag, just in case, and headed out.

He had already been to the bank, to Flourish & Blotts, and to a confectionary, when he spotted a familiar face. Blaise Zabini was sitting out on the patio at Fortescue's, eating ice cream and reading from a small book. The tables near him were empty.

Harry stopped and considered. He had wanted to talk to Zabini. Of course, now he was Fred, whom Zabini had no reason to talk to, and no one with a drop of sense would believe Fred if he said he was someone else on Polyjuice. Harry checked the time. He had less than ten minutes until his own form returned. Perhaps he could send Susara over with a note to ask for a parley?

At the thought of his snake, he reconsidered. Quickly, he crossed the street, went up the steps to the patio, and slid into the chair across from Zabini.

Zabini looked up, and the nascent welcome on his face turned to disgust. "Get lost, Weasley."

"I'm not a Weasley," Harry replied, his voice low. "I just grabbed a hair last time I was visiting."

Zabini rolled his eyes. "Right. And I'm Merlin's lost bastard."

Harry laughed. "Really? Brilliant." He turned his thoughts to his snake. "Susara!"

Zabini twitched at the sound of Parseltongue. When a torclinde wove its way from the sleeve of Harry's robes and wrapped around his arm, he sucked for a moment at his lip.

"Ah. What was my previous debt to you?"

"A bottle of cognac," Harry answered.

Slowly, Zabini nodded. He scraped up some ice cream with his spoon. "Well. What can I do for you, Weasleyish?"

Harry smiled. He could feel that it looked a little hesitant. Zabini was a real person to him -- more than Bulstrode had been when she had run into him -- and he felt shyer with him. "I want a parley. Meet me in five minutes, in the alley behind Flourish & Blotts?"

Zabini shook his head. "Too damn obvious, P-- pet. Tell you what -- there's a nightclub down Nimue Close."

"It wouldn't be open at this hour."

"Exactly. And I'm very good with locks."

Harry grinned. "Yeah? Me too."

Zabini shot him an odd look, but didn't ask. "I'll meet you there, then. Ten minutes, because I'm not leaving my ice cream, and it's a longer walk than Floor and Bore."

After agreeing to the change, Harry ducked around a corner and put on his cloak. Invisible, he returned to watch Zabini. The boy didn't seem to have moved in the few seconds he had been out of Harry's sight, and he made no move to contact or signal anyone, as far as Harry could see. When he left Fortescue's, Harry followed.

Zabini walked directly to Nimue Close. He opened the wrought iron gate at the front and stepped inside. Harry had to move quickly to get inside with him, and he was pulling in his breath to fit past Zabini in the narrow way.

There were four doors off Nimue Close, two with hanging signs. Blaise immediately set to casting charms at one, and then to working at it with two devices from his pocket. When he got it open, Harry slipped in ahead of him and looked around. He was in the front of a large room, with carpet at the edges and a smell of long-stale beer. The furniture looked solid and hard to move. On the other side of the dance floor stood a bar, bottles of liquor arrayed behind it. From a shimmer in the air before it, Harry judged it to have stronger protections than the door. He cast a quick charm to detect living mammals, and it picked up nothing other than himself and Zabini, and a few little speckles of mice.

The slight glow caused by the charm was invisible to anyone other than the caster, but it did draw his attention to Zabini, who was standing nervously at the slightly open door, presumably waiting for him to arrive. Harry put his hood down and parted the cloak.

"You might as well shut--"

Zabini whirled, wand out, and then sagged in relief. He closed the door. "Honestly, Potter! Couldn't you have warned me?"

"And not seen if you sent an owl?" Harry returned. Zabini sighed.

"A point," he said, walking towards Harry. "And don't think it hasn't occurred to me, after you came to me so readily during the trial. But I've thought about You-Know-Who, and the state of people like Malfoy and Nott, and I've decided I can do without that sort of favor." A few yards from Harry, he threw himself down on a wide cushioned seat that looked like a giant's footstool. It could have held half a dozen people if they all faced outward. Blaise leaned back, holding in one knee to balance. "So. That parley. Did you track me here?"

"No. I was just shopping. I've disappeared, you know."

From the interested flicker of Zabini's eyes, he hadn't known, which to Harry meant he was allied with neither the Order nor Voldemort -- at least not actively.

"Shopping?" Zabini asked lightly. His eyes dropped to Harry's invisible body. "Or stealing?"

Harry rolled his eyes, and settled on another of the strange seats a few feet away. "Please. I always leave money. Ask Draco if you don't believe me."

Zabini snorted in amusement. "He doesn't."

"Well." Harry shrugged. "It's something we fought about, early on. He couldn't see why I did, and I said it was important to me that shopkeepers have money to live on. He has trouble understanding how that matters, unless someone makes him think about it."

"I can't see that he'd care," Zabini retorted. His look grew more wistful as he studied Harry. "But maybe he does for you."

"Sorry," Harry said, feeling his face heat.

"No, you're not."

"Well, not that I have him. But ..." Harry dropped his eyes for a moment, but then, remembering the danger, raised them again. "I think you were at the wrong time for him. He hadn't grown up enough for you, yet. You might do for after me, but I don't want anyone after me." He knew he sounded fierce at the last, but it was half frustration. He wouldn't get what he wanted any more than Zabini had, and that already rankled.

"Don't worry about it," Zabini answered. "He was fun, but he doesn't matter to me much, in that way. I wish it had ended better, but not that it didn't end."

"Okay," Harry said with a nod. "So."

"So." Zabini smiled wryly. "That's sorted. You want that favor, now?"

"Um..." Harry shrugged. "Not really. More the other way round."

Zabini cocked his head to the side. "You want me more in your debt."

"Slytherin," Harry taunted. "Look, I'm making an apothecary purchase in Knockturn Alley, and since I saw you..." He shrugged. "Anything you want me to pick up for you?"

Zabini blinked. "You're ... what?"

"I'm going down Knockturn for potions ingredients, and there's no need for all of us to do it. I'm already picking up a few things for one of your housemates. Want anything?"

"Excuse me. Who are you?"

Harry made a face. "Harry. Take it or leave it."

"Fine. I'd like a pint of unicorn blood."

"Not on your life."

"Well, that's a relief. So you'll pick up anything that you find acceptable, is that it?"

"Yes. Tosser."

Blaise grinned. "Well, as I'm currently lacking a gorgeous lover, yes. Hm." He leaned forward, his feet coming to the ground. "Why? If I may ask."

Harry shrugged. "Well, I need some things. I expect other people--"

"Potter, I don't actually believe that you are a gormless idiot. Why?"

"If I buy things for multiple people, what I might be doing doesn't show."

"Ah." Blaise straightened. "Well, then... would you buy me a quarter-ounce of gargoyle dust?"

Harry cocked his head to the side, trying to recall anything he had heard about gargoyle dust, but nothing came to mind. "What's it for?"

"A few things, but I want it for memory enhancement."

"Is it dangerous? I mean, I don't know anyone else ...."

"If you use it constantly, yes, but the proscription is more that true gargoyles are rare. I'm not planning to take it all term -- just for a few key sessions and for N.E.W.T.s."

"Isn't that cheating?" Harry reddened as he heard the words come out of his mouth. That was a stupid thing to say to a Slytherin.

"What, do you think it would be fair otherwise?" Blaise scoffed. "I don't have a name, Potter. I don't have a family that endows places. I don't even have custom-tailored dress robes. When I leave school and look for a job, all I've got is my O.W.L.s and N.E.W.T.s. I'm buggered if I pit merit against a Malfoy or a Parkinson. We won't even mention you."

Harry tensed. "Actually, I've worried about being too much of a security liability."

"Huh." Blaise shrugged. "All right. You're a special case, but you do see what I mean? And it's tempting to support You-Know-Who, because in theory his lot wants that I'm a pureblood to count for something, but looking at what they do, and who they kill, I'm not so sure they bear that out in actions." He scowled. "So was that a no?"

"No, just a question. I mean, I'll look it up, but if what you say seems right, fine. I'll get it. What is it likely to cost?"

Zabini laughed uneasily. "I don't know. I'll go up to 20G; don't get it if it's more than that."

"Okay. Would a smaller quantity be useful if it is?"

"Hm." Zabini's knee came up again as he rocked back. "Yes. For half that I'd go up to 15."

Harry nodded. "All right. Payment on delivery?"

"That's fine. Hogwarts Express if we can?"

Harry nodded. "Right. Some dungeon corridor if we can't."

Zabini shook his head. "Care of Magical Creatures. We can duck behind a rhododendron and no one should notice."

 

When Harry got back to the shop, the twins were waiting for him. They had apparently stopped working, unless they were doing the planning sort of working; he found them at the table in the back room, with two mostly empty pint glasses of dark beer. Whatever they were saying was cut short by his arrival.

"Harry!" One jumped to his feet, grinning broadly.

"Thought we'd have to come after you, mate." That was George, Harry decided, now standing too. He downed the remainder of his beer.

Harry shrugged. "Nah. I ran into a ... an acquaintance and put on my cloak to see what he was up to."

"Mm."

"Friend, enemy, or just fit?"

Harry laughed. "None, really. Well, maybe fit, but not my thing. One of the Slytherins."

"Right."

"Good to know you're not into all of them."

"One's enough, thanks. They're exhausting." Harry dropped down to a crate and yawned. "So ... I was wondering something."

"How two such witty and gorgeous men as ourselves manage to stay unattached?"

"The load-bearing capacity of jelly?"

"What's for dinner?"

"I frequently wonder what's for dinner."

Harry laughed. "Look, just ... after I go back to Hogwarts, I may need some things. Would you be willing to buy me potions ingredients and owl them to me?"

"Ah!" Fred exclaimed. "The source Outside."

"You can owl-order from apothecaries, you know."

"Yeah, but--" Harry ducked his head. "I'm likely to want a few things I won't want my name attached to."

Fred nodded knowingly.

"Any particular things?" George asked.

"Well ... Red Cap parts? Skull dust would be best."

Silenced, the twins looked at each other. Harry felt suddenly awkward. "It was -- Draco feels I can use Voldemort's blood guilt against him, and build a protection. Remus thought the theory was sound, but he doesn't want me to do it until I leave school. He's afraid I'll go looking for trouble, or something, but really, Voldemort has found me enough times that I'd like to be prepared."

Slowly, the twins relaxed. George nodded. "That would be...."

"-- reasonable," Fred concluded. "Anything else?"

Harry shrugged. "I don't know, yet. Draco's still researching how to do it. And since I'll have to be nice to some of the other Slytherins--"

"You do not!"

"Harry! Think of the principle of it!"

"The principle, as Draco says, is that if he has to be nice to mine, I have to be nice to his." Harry shrugged. "He has a point. I do expect him to be civil to Hermione and Ron and Neville, so I can't really go after Zabini, right?"

George crossed his arms over his chest. "And what does this have to do with apothecary purchases?"

"Well, I don't want to seem too well-behaved. I mean, it's not natural, right? And besides, it will be stressful."

"Mm?"

"So I'll have to play some tricks on someone, whether it's Ravenclaws, or Hufflepuffs, or Slytherins that Draco doesn't like."

"Slytherins," Fred said promptly.

"Whatever. So I may need things for projects I haven't devised yet."

"Dear little Harrykins," Fred said, looking past him at George.

"I'm so proud of him."

"Don't get ahead of yourself," Harry said, heating. "You're willing to consider it, though?"

"Oh, absolutely."

"Just tell us what you want."

 

Chapter Text

 

Dear Harry,

School letters have more than the usual information this year, and Professor McGonagall was distressed at yours being returned. She has distributed copies of your letter (sealed) to a number of people. All of us have assured her that we cannot contact you, of course, but she is hoping that you will initiate contact with one of her chosen list. It might seem simplest for me to send you mine, but considering that the headmaster has a certain amount of authority over me whilst I am in residence, it would not do for my copy to be the one that reaches you. As the werewolf has proved trustworthy, and I am quite certain that he has a copy accessible, I suggest that you pay him a visit.

In other news, the Council of Birthright and Family Affairs found in my favor, although we expect at least one challenge. Despite the theoretical return of my theoretical fortune, I am still bored, and want school to start. Above all, I look forward to your return. I may, perhaps, even be anticipating the challenge of managing my housemates again. I hope your August has been as tedious as mine, as if it has not, either something has gone wrong or you have failed to take adequate care.

Your owl disappeared for two days, and when she returned, she deigned to sit near me, but would not accept a sausage. I believe she is looking for you, and hopes you will return to me.

With longing,

Draco

 

Harry wanted to reply immediately, but he held back. Draco would not approve of him meeting with Bulstrode, he was certain, so it would be better to have that done before he replied. However, there was nothing to keep him from an immediate visit to Darkmoon Den.

 

He wore the cloak again, but he stumbled this time. By the fire, Remus looked up.

"Harry?"

Chuckling, Harry opened the cloak. "Got it in one."

"Oddly, I don't have many invisible visitors. How is life in hiding?"

"Dull," Harry said, almost honestly. "I miss having people to talk to. It's better than the Dursleys' though, and I won't risk the Burrow." He shrugged. "So, I thought I could visit you again before school started. Where's Sirius?"

"Out having a run." Remus chuckled. "He doesn't like being cooped up, I'm afraid. I imagine you're rather the same."

"Yeah." The room had a sofa as well as the one chair. Harry sat on the end nearest Remus. "I have a new appreciation of what it must be like for him. And I've been doing this for less than three weeks." Speculatively, he looked at the door. "I wish I could turn into a dog."

"You could probably learn to turn into something, with proper effort. You're a talented pupil, as I recall."

"Thanks."

"I mean it quite sincerely." Remus set his book aside. "Now, I expect you are actually here for a letter?"

"Letter?" Harry widened his eyes innocently, but then ruined the effect by grinning. "I am so bad at that! Yes, I heard there was a letter." He laughed. It felt good to be here. "You should be flattered, you know. Draco described you as 'trustworthy.'"

"Really?" Remus's brow creased as his eyebrows rose. "Well. I'll be happy when the feeling is mutual."

"Remus," Harry warned.

"What? I am entitled to my opinion. You would do well to have friends who keep their own and express them honestly."

Harry rolled his eyes. "I do, I think."

"Really."

"Really. I may have had too much influence on Ron, at one point, but not in the last three years."

"And Draco?"

"He says what he thinks." Harry considered that. "Well, mostly. Sometimes he's too subtle for me."

"Subtle. Would you give me an example?"

"Well, he thought I knew he was interested in me, for example. And I didn't, but I'm kind of clueless sometimes. I mean, it was Seamus that told me, and I think Hermione knew, so he can't have been exactly unreadable." Harry didn't want to be taking about this. "Do you know who the new Defense against the Dark Arts teacher is?"

"No. Why would I?"

"I don't know. You know people." Harry shrugged. "I'll find out soon enough, I suppose."

"You don't look happy."

"Well, most of them have been awful. Four out of six."

"I gather I am one of the exceptions?"

"You and Horsyr."

"Professor Horsyr, Harry."

Harry grinned. "Not any more, but okay. Professor Horsyr."

Still looking rather disapproving, Remus stood and opened a drawer in a small table. "Your letter," he said, handing it to Harry. "I'll tell Professor McGonagall that you received it, shall I?"

Harry nodded. He fingered the letter, which was thicker than usual. He wondered if it had some personal message added --telling him to behave himself, no doubt -- or if the added bulk was all due to the extra information for seventh year students. "And that I won't be visiting you again."

Remus raised his eyebrows. "Would you if I don't tell her?"

"During the next twelve days? Probably not."

"Ah. But later?"

"Of course! When I'm out of school. Of course, Remus."

"All right."

While Harry was wondering if he needed to say more, there was a bark at the door, and then Remus went to open it. Only when the dog was safely inside the cottage did he change form.

"Harry!"

Then it was hugs and friendly conversation, and Harry tucked the letter away for later.

 

Back at the shop -- and it was starting to look like a shop, now -- Harry drew the letter from its envelope and unfolded it. On the first of two sheets, he read the following message:


Dear Mr. Potter,

August is drawing to a close, and it is time to consider your return to school. At least, I earnestly hope you will be returning. As school owls were unable to deliver your original letter, I have taken the liberty of distributing copies of this one to several people who believe that you may contact them before September. Should you read this, please do me the courtesy of acknowledging its receipt.

Seventh year studies are taxing and require dedication, effort, and focus. As for all seventh-year Gryffindors, I have reviewed your O.W.L.s in comparison with last year's marks in order to evaluate what changes to your schedule might optimize your performance in your N.E.W.T.s. Please give serious consideration to my advice, whilst remembering also that as an adult wizard poised to enter wizarding society, it is your duty to remain true to yourself.

Recommended:

Charms: As it forms the core of magical practice, I recommend continuing with this course to all but those most dedicated to narrow specialization.
Defense against the Dark Arts: I need not tell you this is your shining talent. Continue with it.
Transfiguration: As your professor, I believe that this class challenges you to develop a theoretical understanding of magic, establishing a valuable counterpart to your natural strengths in intuition and will.

Questionable:

Care of Magical Creatures: This course is likely to be of little use to you professionally, but it is also only a minor drain on your schedule. If you feel the time outside benefits your overall outlook, it may be worth continuing. Use your own best judgment.
Potions: Although your Potions marks improved greatly last year, this is a time-consuming course of study and a difficult N.E.W.T. to obtain. Continue in it only if you are likely to pursue a career which requires or weights in favor of this N.E.W.T. (e.g., Auror, Mediwizard, Magical Pest Controller).

Not Recommended:

Divination: I see no reason whatsoever for you to continue with this course of study.
Herbology: Due to the effort involved in replenishing stocks lost in last year's incident, Professor Sprout has asked that only truly dedicated N.E.W.T.-level students sign up for Herbology this year. Continue in it only if you are likely to pursue a career which requires or weights towards this N.E.W.T. (e.g., Mediwizard, Landscaper, Herbologist).
History of Magic: While it is my hope that you will someday acquire some understanding of the history of our culture and knowledge, you clearly will not learn it from Professor Binns.

 

For each two courses that you drop, you should consider adding an optional course. I recommend the following options:

Cursebreaking: The incoming Defense Against the Dark Arts instructor plans to teach an introductory Cursebreaking course for sixth and seventh year students. As one of our best Defense against the Dark Arts students, I believe this would be a natural fit for your talents.
Symbology: Professor Sinistra offers this as a one-year overview in runes, glyphs, and other symbols for seventh-year students who have not taken Ancient Runes.

While there are years of experience behind my recommendations, you know yourself best. Consider your interests and aspirations, and come prepared to discuss your final schedule with me on the second of September.

Best Regards,

Professor Minerva McGonagall
Head of Gryffindor and Deputy Headmistress, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry

Harry stared at the paper. Cursebreaking? He couldn't help wondering if Bill was the new Defense instructor. In any case, he knew he wanted to take that course. He would be happy to be rid of all the Not Recommended courses as well, so that gave him one free slot. He looked back up at the word "Potions," and the strong line beneath it and shook his head. "Any other year," he muttered.

There was a tickle of motion across his collarbone as Susara, coiled comfortably around his neck, raised her head. "Master?"

"I have schedule recommendations from school. Any other year, I would have been thrilled to drop Potions. Now I want to stay in it."

"You should do what you please," she replied placidly, and he laughed.

"The professor said the same."

He moved on to look at the second and third sheets. Because exact schedules for his year were not set until the first day of school, it listed the supplies for all the lessons he might take, with a reminder that most would be available by owl order once at school. Of course, this also gave him a way to get a better sense of what the options might be like. He should go to Flourish & Blotts and look over the required and suggested texts.

Once that plan was set, he recalled the matter of Millicent Bulstrode. He was due to meet her tomorrow, although he had deliberately not set a place. The book shop was a natural location for her to look for him, as that was where they had run into each other before. It would be simple, if he trusted her.

He didn't. Draco had said she was a neutral, but that didn't make her an ally. He didn't doubt she could get a good deal of money for betraying him. On the positive side, money didn't seem to be what motivated her. He thought over everything she had said, trying to get a grasp on what did. Respect, perhaps, but while she wouldn't get that from Voldemort, she might be misled into believing she would. Freedom -- which had the same problems. He wished he had at least made their second meeting closer to the first of September, so his secrets needed less protection. On the other hand, that would have given him less time to make purchases.

And once he found her, where could he take her that was private, but didn't give those secrets away? He considered reusing the nightclub, but he hadn't asked Zabini what protections he had dismantled, and getting caught by Aurors would be not only dangerous, but embarrassing. He had thought up and discarded a dozen schemes before the most useful modification of Zabini's occurred to him -- he would lead Bulstrode out into Muggle London and make similar use of some Muggle place. The protections would be easier to disable, and if he by some ill chance failed, he could deal with Muggle police easily enough.

So he scouted out the far door of the Leaky Cauldron, questioned the twins (who had not, to his surprise, dealt with Muggle alarm systems, but were impressed that he had), and made a quick trip to the book shop to look for information. It occurred to him, as he settled down with a copy of Living within the Invasion -- How to Ignore Muggle Intrusions to wonder how other readers used this information, but he quickly pushed that thought away. Wizard thieves were the MLE's problem; Voldemort was his.

After lunch the next day, armed with a hip flask of Polyjuice, his Invisibility Cloak, his school list, and a fresh knowledge of how to tie Muggle alarm systems in knots, he went down to Flourish & Blotts to check out the required texts for Cursebreaking and Symbology.

Millicent was there, as he expected. As Fred, he even gave her a long look as he was paying for his purchases, but outside, he ducked out of sight, tossed on his cloak, and waited. Approaching her in the bookshop would be efficient, but dangerously predictable.

He caught her on the street, walking towards the Leaky Cauldron.

"Hi."

"Shove off, Weasley."

He grinned. "I've been told you should go through. To the Muggle side, you know."

She sent him a suspicious look, which quickly turned contemptuous. "In these clothes?"

"Can't you cast a glamour?" Her shuttered expression told him that she couldn't, and he silently berated himself for thoughtlessness. "I'll do it for you."

She snorted. "I may not be brilliant, Weasley, but I'm not a fool."

He frowned. He couldn't actually blame her for not wanting one of the twins to change her appearance. "Well, is there anyone you would trust?"

"I'm here alone. Your friend should have told you that. I doubt he'd see me elsewise."

"Look, what if you conjure a mirror, all right, and then I do the glamour? We can do it in the space behind the pub."

The bins were just as smelly as Muggle ones, the overly hopeful grass that poked between the stones just as pathetic, but they did have a modicum of privacy in the space between the brick wall and the back door to the Leaky Cauldron. He changed only her clothes, so that she appeared to be wearing black chinos, a light blue shirt, and a loose, dark blue, sweatshirt jacket. She frowned at herself in the mirror, conjured a new one and frowned again, patted her hands down her sides to feel that her clothes were actually unchanged, and then, with a sigh, nodded.

"All right. Lead on, Weasley -- and no tricks."

He led her through the pub, and a few streets away from it on the Muggle side, to a nondescript door that led to stairs up to several offices, all of which should be empty for the weekend. The outer door had a simple lock, easily dealt with by Alohomora, but the individual businesses had better protections. He tested several for alarm systems, opened the first one without, and turned to usher her into the Muggle space.

She had her wand out, but pointed to the side, as her arms were crossed over her chest. "Is he in there, Weasley? I'm not going any further until he shows himself."

He could see her eyes flick to the side, calculating her escape path -- a short, straight run, and then a dive down the stairs with a cushioning spell was how he'd do it. Smiling, he leaned in the doorway. "I'm Harry, Bulstrode. It's Polyjuice." He managed a laugh. "I thought I'd be Ron, which might cause a bit less suspicion...."

She snorted. "Ronald Weasley talking to a Slytherin? Not a bit of it."

"Point."

She scowled. "And I still don't move until it wears off."

"It should be any moment now."

"But you're good with glamours."

"I still need a wand for them."

"Of course." She frowned. "What were you sending at the other doors?"

"Oh -- looking for alarm systems. This one doesn't have one."

"Harry Potter knows how to detect Muggle alarm systems," she said, a touch of sarcastic disbelief in her tone.

He shrugged. He could feel his form about to take hold, and had to stay alert through it -- he didn't distrust her, really, but he didn't trust her either. "Wouldn't I just?" he countered. "You know I never stay where I belong."

She snorted. "True enough." Her body tensed, but she held her position, wand pointed away, as he clenched his teeth through the change, trying not to double over from the pain. In a few seconds, it had passed, and as he caught his breath, she slipped her wand into her sleeve, slightly hampered by not being able to see it. "Okay, Potter. Let's go inside."

 

The office had the sort of look Harry had expected, with matching furnishings of a regimented fashion -- flawlessly executed, but not truly attractive, just as his Aunt Petunia's precise flower beds would never be beautiful. He sat in the swiveling padded chair behind the blond wood veneer desk and put his feet up on it. It was a comfortable position and one that allowed him to keep his wand at hand without appearing to. Millicent pulled up the solid chair beside the desk and sat in that, her feet flat on the floor and her elbows on knees. She also was prepared to move, Harry recognized, but in a very different way. However, the first thing she did was to swing a bag from her shoulder and pull out of it a sheaf of notes and a half-sized bottle of wine, which she handed to Harry.

"I brought refreshments. You can unseal it."

Slytherin manners, he thought, and grinned. "Sure." He dumped the pens from a pencil cup, and transfigured that and a blown glass paperweight into glasses. The seal on the wine was intact. He slit it with his pocketknife and uncorked the bottle with a charm.

"Never knew you were so good at that sort of thing," Millicent said, taking the glass of wine that he handed her. "Transfiguration, I mean. They almost match."

"Yeah, well." He shrugged. "I got a lot better at Transfiguration last year, when I was going over things with Draco."

"You're good at glamours, too," she said flatly.

"Self-preservation, really. You'd be good at them too, if your life depended on it."

She sighed. "It might."

"Oh?"

"Well, not like yours does." She took a swallow from her glass, put it down, and lifted the papers. "So. I've finished my research -- the first round, anyway."

"And?" he asked, belatedly taking a sip of the wine. It was good -- clean and somehow giving an impression of spice.

"Well, the first set isn't so bad. That one is to make changes in my bone and muscle structure -- I'll get slightly taller, and my hips will change, for example. The sources all say I'll be a bit achy through it, but the components are all ones used in healing potions. I still don't want to buy them openly, of course, because no one's going to think anything good of a student needing that many unauthorized healing potions, but that's the worst of it." She took a quick breath. "If I start that in late September, I should be done with the course during December, but as that is also the point at which it can be paused for a few weeks, I plan not to start the second course until after the Christmas holiday."

Harry studied her. "These will be visible changes."

Her shoulders sagged. "Yes. I'll need glamours."

"And over Christmas?"

"Oh Merlin! I hadn't thought of that. Maybe I can stay at school." She closed her eyes for a moment. "No. My mother will expect me to attend all the balls and parties...."

Harry sighed. "Well, we have until December to teach you to do your own glamours, then. Or maybe if you saved hairs from before you started the course, you could polyjuice into your former self?"

Shaking her head, she sat back. "I don't know. It's worth trying, I suppose." She shrugged. "Anyway, the next set of potions is taken for nine weeks, and then a slightly different formula for nine days. You won't like that one."

He braced himself. "Don't say unicorn blood."

"Oh, Merlin, no! No, it's satyr's hooves -- well that's the difficult bit."

"Rare?" he asked.

"Not so much, as trimmings will do, though they need to be fresh, but it's mostly used for, uh, getting it up." Her face reddened. "For blokes that can't, you know."

"Oh!" Harry found himself heating at the idea. "Um...."

"Of course, the quantities I'll need would be enough to supply half a dozen men for that time."

Harry bit his lip. "Um ... I'm throwing marathon orgies?"

She threw back her head and laughed. "Maybe."

"Well, I might want to consult Draco; he's good at alibis. Would you mind if I told him, once things are underway?"

She frowned. "If you swear him to secrecy.... Oh, give me a while to think about it. I'll tell you during September."

"Okay."

"You can back out of this whenever you like, of course," she added brusquely. "But if you do, my side of the deal is off, too. That's not a threat; I just won't protect him."

"Understood." Harry took another swallow of the wine. "What does this potion do for you?"

"It will make me more masculine. I'll get facial hair --" she rolled her eyes -- "well, more of it -- and my breasts will shrink, and my, um, one of my female parts will become more like a penis. The final formulation will add blood and semen from a man, and that will complete that change."

"So that's it?"

"No. There's one more potion that I need to take for two weeks. That will get rid of my female organs."

"Is that as nasty as it sounds?"

Millicent looked slightly green. "The things inside shrink down and then come out through my cunt, which will seal behind them. So, yeah -- nasty. And I'll be bedridden for the last day and night."

Harry winced. "Okay. So...."

"That's the potion which will need the dodgiest supplies. As you can expect, the main components are Dark, and best known for some horrible poisons. The suspicion will be of causing harm, not hiding it."

"Understood." Harry wondered what other sources he had if the twins balked. "Well, I'll do my best." He set his feet down on the floor. "Can you give me more specifics?"

"Better than that," she said. "I made a copy of my notes." She handed him the sheaf of papers she had been holding, and Harry took it without thinking. It wasn't a portkey, apparently, and his hand didn't shrivel up when he touched the parchment, so he shrunk the lot and tucked them in his pocket.

"All right, then. I'll look over the components for the first set, and if I can, I'll get them for you. If I can't, I'll let you know by owl as soon as possible."

"Good enough." She drained her wine and stood, holding out her hand. "A pleasure doing business with you, Potter."

"Bulstrode," he said in acknowledgement, shaking her hand. "Can you find your way back to the Cauldron?"

She shook her head. "Through that mess? I'll just apparate, thanks. See you in September!" With a grin and a clap of collapsing air, she vanished. Harry left quickly, locking the door behind him.

 

He took his time about getting back to the shop, doing some shopping and taking advantage of the press on the Tube to collect some stray hairs from forgettable-looking Muggles of roughly his size and build. He was just putting his cloak away when the twins came into the room.

"Harry!"

"What've you got?"

Embarrassed, Harry looked back at the box on his bed. "Er ... cognac? Mostly? I was out on the Muggle side, today."

They walked over. Fred opened the carton and pulled out a bottle. He frowned at it for a moment and then let out a low whistle. "Rather dear, isn't it?"

Harry sighed. "It's made from champagne."

George leaned against the wall, his arms crossing over his chest. "So, Harrykins, why are you buying that?"

Leaning against the bed, Harry took the bottle from Fred. "Because my introduction to drinking was from the Malfoy heir? Why, would you suggest something else?"

"Er, beer?" George said.

"I don't think a year's supply of beer would fit in my school trunk."

"Ah. Well, I had wondered about the volume."

"We may still be wondering about the volume."

"But you should try firewhisky," George said more brightly.

"Or even Muggle whisky."

"You'll be in the heart of Scotland in another week."

"Why bring French booze from London?"

"Er..." Harry shrugged. "Can I buy whisky in Hogsmeade?"

Fred sat down. "You are of age, you know."

"I suppose. I figured everything there would get back to Dumbledore."

"Ah."

"Well, a lot does."

"But we recommend the Hogshead. Anything the barman serves, he'll sell you by the bottle."

"Discreetly."

Harry thought about this, and then nodded. "All right. For now, would you like to try some French booze from London?"

George grinned. "We're always open to new experiences, aren't we Fred?"

"Especially ones with a fifteen Galleon price tag, offered for free," Fred agreed. He summoned three mismatched glasses from the kitchen. With a snort, Harry turned them into snifters.

"There," he said, handing the first to George. "Now it looks expensive too." He gave a second to Fred and then poured one for himself.

"I have to say...." Fred began.

"We were wondering..."

Fred, who had just taken a sip, coughed.

"Hm?" Harry said. He was still inhaling the fumes off his.

"Definitely whisky. Bloody strong, that is!"

"Oh. Um, when I said 'made from champagne,' I meant 'distilled from.'"

"So, as we were saying...." George resumed, having tasted his more cautiously.

"We were wondering if this drinking thing was entirely made up."

"Not having seen any of it--"

"In over two weeks."

"Oh. Well, exaggerated." Harry shrugged. "Though we did overdo it sometimes. Especially me, I suppose."

They shared a glance. "Malfoy didn't keep you company?" Fred asked.

"He wanted control more, I think." Harry grinned. "Afraid he'd tell me I was hot, maybe."

George snorted. "Think much of yourself?"

"Well, it's what he says now." Harry stuck his tongue out at George. "Which gives us a few better things to do when we hide out together."

Fred laughed. "I think you may have over-packed, then!"

"Well, Draco won't have been out, so it's for two." Harry tried not to look embarrassed. "Okay. Maybe. But I need bribes too."

"Now you're just making excuses," George said, shaking his hair back.

"Probably. Can we say we're done?"

"Probably," Fred mimicked. He lifted his head. "Actually, we wanted to ask you a favor."

"Oh? Don't you know better than to hassle me beforehand, yet?"

Fred waved off the objection. "Just -- it will make sense."

"See, this weekend, and the next--"

"The two before Hogwarts starts."

"Are the biggest shopping weekends of the season."

"And the shop's almost ready."

"Would you mind moving to our flat?"

"For a few days?"

Harry stared. "I came here to avoid--"

"But that was then!"

"The enemy's already scoped it, don't you think?"

"Just for Saturday and Sunday."

Harry sighed. "Oh..." On the verge of agreement, he stopped. "Look, part of why I felt this was safe was it wasn't widely known to be yours."

"Just next weekend, then? The Hogwarts Express is on Monday."

Harry considered this. It wasn't too dangerous, and it would make a big difference to the business. "Okay, you can open. I won't move to your flat, though. This is the office. No one should see it."

"But what if someone notices?"

"You can't be entirely quiet."

"Yeah, but what if I just take a flask of polyjuice and leave for the day? I can go the zoo, or something."

"As us?"

"Nah. While I was out, I picked up a few hairs from passing Muggles. It should be safe enough."

"All right."

"But you need some way to signal us."

"In case it's not."

"We can charm a set of rings."

"If you take yours off, ours will burn."

"And you need to bring the portkey that Lupin gave you."

"Okay." Harry grinned. "Sorted."

 

That night, he wrote two letters.

 

Professor McGonagall,

I received your letter from Remus Lupin. I would be happy to meet with you when I return to Hogwarts, but I'm fairly sure that I want to take these courses:

Defense against the Dark Arts
Transfiguration
Charms
Potions
Cursebreaking
Symbology

I've bought all the books already. I'll see you on the first of September! (I wouldn't miss it for anything.)

Regards,

Harry


Dear Draco,

I miss you terribly. I miss you every night, and I miss you when something interesting happens and I want to tell you about it, and I miss you when nothing's going on, and I know that together, we'd have fun somehow.

I probably haven't been as bored as you, though -- I have the twins to entertain me. I've also been out a few times, and I've met up with Bulstrode and Zabini (separately), so, yeah, probably not as careful as you'd like, but I promise I was very careful with both of them.

Do you want to take Cursebreaking with me? The texts look interesting, and if the professor is at all competent, it should be a great class. I'm also staying in Potions, though I'm sure Professor McGonagall would rather I dropped it.

Should we meet in our place after the Welcoming Feast, or maybe after lights out that night?

Love,

Harry

 

The next two weeks passed slowly. Harry acquired sphinx feathers, gargoyle dust, and the first batch of the harmless components for Millicent's first potion. Some components had to be fresh; he estimated that he would need two deliveries from Fred and George. The quantity required for a three-month course was also more than he could walk into an apothecary and buy anonymously, but the twins, as commercial producers, should have an easier time with that. He decided he would tell them that he had formed an unofficial dueling club with some friends, and that they needed to make some custom healing potions in order to avoid notice. Fred and George would approve of that sort of thing.

The weekend that the shop was open passed without incident, except for Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes making a lot of money. It was the day before that, on Friday, that Harry spotted Ron and Hermione coming out of Slug & Jiggers. He managed to keep from revealing himself, but he followed them all over Diagon Alley, feeling lonelier by the minute, and longing to be back at Hogwarts, where he could both talk to them and be with someone the way they were with each other.

 

Chapter Text

 

King's Cross was a simple Tube ride. With agreement from the twins, Harry used a last dose of the Polyjuice potion and a hair from a random Muggle that he had bumped against the day before. He enjoyed the anonymity of traveling as this unknown man, but he wasn't entirely sure that the barrier would admit him, so he had to time the dose carefully. It turned out that there was no problem crossing through, whatever his body looked like.

"Oi!" called out a voice, as he set his foot on the train steps. "You sir! Students only!" Bustling into conversational range, Ernie Macmillan returned to his usual self-important tone. "Regulations, my good man, you understand -- for the children's safety."

Harry moved to the side of the steps and leaned back against the vibrating train. It didn't quite obscure the strange, queasy feeling of the Polyjuice starting to wear off. "How do you know I'm not the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher?" he challenged.

Ernie's chest puffed out. "I, sir, am a prefect. We have been informed as to all the staff members that will be traveling today."

Harry started to reply, but the potion didn't give him time. With a sickening wrench, his body warped back to its accustomed shape. It was a relief to have his trousers fit comfortably, again.

"Potter?"

"It seemed the safest way to get here. May I board the train, now?"

"Can't you ever be normal?" Ernie huffed.

Harry shrugged and hoisted his trunk. "Probably not. See you!"

"Oi, Potter! Wait up!" With a wide grin, Blaise Zabini skidded to a halt beside them. His trunk bumped into the side of the train. "How did you get past me?"

"He was using," Ernie said, with audible offense, "Polyjuice Potion."

"Brilliant!" Zabini maneuvered his floating trunk onto the train. "Did you brew it yourself?"

"Nah," Harry said modestly. "Some friends of mine did." He followed Zabini up the iron steps, only absently noticing how Ernie was staring. "Let's find an empty compartment."

"No Gryffindor friends this year?"

Harry grinned. "Last I saw, they were snogging in an alcove. They probably won't start looking for me until the train's in motion."

They hadn't seen any empty compartments by the time they reached one that Harry considered to be as good -- the sole occupant was Millicent Bulstrode. He caught Zabini's arm. "Bulstrode okay with you?" he asked.

Zabini looked startled. "Fine with me," he said significantly.

"All right, then." Harry slid open the door. "Hi, Bulstrode. Mind if we join you?"

Her already small eyes narrowed for a moment, heavy brows coming ominously down. "Can you mind your tongue?" she asked tartly.

Harry winked at her, hoping she took it as understanding. "Wasn't I all right last time?" he coaxed.

Rolling her eyes, she sat back, but her scowl faded. "You can't blame me if it's hard to get used to, Potter. Fine. Have a seat."

With a laugh, he settled across from her. Zabini, to his surprise, not only sat next to him, but twisted to face him.

"So, Potter...."

"Mm?"

"Before your friends show up...." Zabini's head lowered in stubborn uncertainty. "Have you got what you said you would?"

Bulstrode snorted, which made Harry want to laugh, but he kept it to a smile. "The whole thing," he said. He took a small packet out of his jeans pocket. "Eighteen Galleons."

"And it cost you?"

"Eighteen Galleons."

Zabini eyed him balefully. "It would be so easy to hate you."

"For not charging extra?"

"For it just not mattering to you." He cocked his head to the side. "Why don't you give it to me for free, Potter?"

Harry rapidly thought through several replies. Should I? No, it would probably make him resent me more. And then it's a present, and that makes me more responsible, and we're not that close. "Because that wasn't our deal," he said. "And besides, eighteen Galleons? It matters some."

"All right," Zabini said amiably. "Can't blame me for trying." He dug out a small purse and held it out towards Harry. Harry suddenly thought of Portkeys, and what Zabini might do for money or favors. While he was hesitating, Bulstrode reached across the space between the seats and grabbed Zabini's wrist.

"Shall I check it for you, Potter?"

He couldn't not think of Cedric. "But if it's--"

"I'll be fine," she said.

"Cedric--"

"Didn't socialize with the Parkinsons and Notts," she replied, rolling her eyes.

"You're wasting your time," Zabini protested. "But go ahead. It's not a bad precaution."

Bulstrode dumped the contents of the purse out into her lap, and then ran one of her thick fingers all around the inside of it. That done, she picked up a coin and touched the entire surface of it before placing it back in the purse. In this manner, she checked all twenty coins. Zabini, meanwhile, opened his packet and examined the contents. With a wetted finger, he picked up a few grains of the grey stuff and tasted it. He made a face like he had bitten a lime, but afterwards, he smiled. "Excellent. Thanks."

"You're welcome," Harry said, accepting the vetted purse from Bulstrode and handing two coins back to Zabini. "And thank you for checking it, Bulstrode."

She grinned at him. "You can call me Mill, if you like."

"Okay." He felt a flush of accomplishment at that. "And you can call me Harry, you know."

She laughed. "That might take some getting used to, but thanks."

Blaise opened his mouth, but whatever he had intended to say was interrupted by the slide of the door. Harry looked up. Ron was standing there, looking shocked. Behind him, Ginny had her lips set in a thin line and her hands on her hips, managing to look remarkably like a younger, slimmer version of her mother.

"Well," Blaise said, coming to his feet. "Weasley has finished that snogging session, I see. I think I'll be moving along. Coming, Millicent?"

Her eyes fixed on Ron, Bulstrode stood up. In the doorway, she paused, and after meeting Harry's eyes, inclined her head briefly. Expressionless, she turned and left.

"Slytherins bowing to you?" Ron remarked, coming through once the door was clear. "Something you want to tell us, Harry?"

"Bowing?"

"Subtly. That 'not quite a nod' thing."

I thought it was just a polite goodbye." Harry shrugged. "She's not much for talking."

"And you know this," Ron challenged.

Harry shrugged. "Ran into her a couple times over the summer. Where's Hermione?"

Ron's eyes narrowed. "Off being Head Girl, and don't change the subject. You hid out with some friend of Malfoy's, didn't you?"

"What?" Harry shook his head. "Are you mad? I wouldn't trust any of them -- he wouldn't trust any of them!"

"But you saw Bulstrode."

"She collided with me when I was wearing my Invisibility Cloak. No, I stayed with the twins."

"WHAT?" Ginny shrieked.

"Well, not in their flat, you know? I'd expect Voldemort to have that checked. The new shop."

"I was open!"

"Only for the last two days. I took a flask of Polyjuice Potion and spent the time in Muggle London."

"How can you say the Burrow is too risky and then take a chance like that?"

"I'm not going to endanger your family!" Harry shouted. He bit his lip. "The Burrow was too risky for you. For all of you. It's about the same for me."

Ron sank to a seat. Ginny's scowl turned more pensive. "And the twins?" she asked wryly.

"What they were doing was unlikely to be noticed. Ginny, if I'd gone to your house, Voldemort would have known. You know he would've."

She nodded, and sat also, looking between the two of them before selecting the spot beside her brother. "You should write to Mum. She was hurt."

"I told Ron--"

"And he said. But you should write to her."

"She's not my mother!"

"True, but that doesn't mean you don't owe her anything."

Harry sighed. Draco had said -- or rather, implied -- much the same thing. "All right. I'll write to her tonight." He slouched back and kicked at his trunk, which was still on the floor. "Since Draco won't meet me anyway."

"Has he lost interest?" Ron asked, just a little too eagerly. Harry responded with a rude gesture, which made Ginny laugh.

"So eloquent, boys."

"If you must know, he says he'd love to see me, 'but Slytherin doesn't work that way.' Apparently the first night back is too socially important for him to disappear."

"Is he back in the Slytherin dormitories?" Ginny asked.

"Yes."

"Is that safe?" Ron asked. "They can be a nasty lot."

Harry shrugged, trying to ignore the implied criticism of Draco. Did Ron think Gryffindors couldn't be? "He says Snape has put some protections in place, and Crabbe isn't coming back, since Goyle isn't. Nott is, but you can't have everything."

"But they'd be sharing a dormitory! How safe can he be?"

"Malfoy has always had his own room, actually. His father used to pay for it, and apparently Snape decided he should keep it this year 'for security reasons.'"

Ron rolled his eyes and looked away.

"Still dangerous, though," Harry continued. "I've asked Bulstrode to keep an eye on him for me."

"Oh! Was that why she was here?"

"Well, it's why I talked to her this summer. We have a deal."

"And that other kid?"

"Zabini. He's been friendly since last spring." Harry decided to push ahead. "You know, since the House Cup."

Ron glowered. "Yeah. I can imagine."

Ignoring Ron's darkening mood, Harry continued conversationally. "Draco thinks you may have the Sight, you know," he said.

"What?"

"My brother?" Ginny chimed in incredulously.

Harry chuckled. "Well, he said if that wasn't pissing in the House Cup, nothing was."

For a moment, Ron just stared at him. Then he burst out laughing, rough and tight, as if it were choking him to find that funny. A moment later, he was lying on the train seat, punching the back rest. After the fit passed, he lay there, grinning at the luggage rack, with the atmosphere in the room considerably lightened.

"You're mad, Harry. You know that, don't you?"

"Could you fill me in?" Ginny asked. "What about, um, in the cup?"

"It was Ron's off-the-cuff-interpretation of a divination picture," Harry explained. "Last spring. Draco had things to say about it."

"He'll be disappointed," Ron said obliquely.

Harry snorted. "He didn't seem to be. Really, if I was that, er, large--"

Ginny giggled.

"What, have you done it?" Ron exclaimed, offended. "I thought you weren't--"

"Over the summer."

"So you met up with him, while Hermione and I get pushed off?"

"At the trial, you prat! In his room. I slept there."

"Figuratively, as well as literally?" Ginny suggested.

"Right."

"Could we not talk about this in front of my sister?"

"You started it!"

"Yes, but she was supposed to be embarrassed."

"Oh, I don't know. She looks fairly red."

"So do you," Ginny replied tartly. "And you haven't even given us any details!"

"I'm not going to tell you details!"

"Lavender does."

Before Ron could get out more than an indignant "Ginny!" they were interrupted by the door opening. Ron hastened to sit up.

"Hello?" Neville said tentatively.

"Hi, Neville! Come in." Harry shifted over in invitation, and Neville came in and sat beside him. Harry tried to pretend he wasn't flushed. "Have a good summer?"

Neville nodded nervously. "Pretty good. Glad to be getting out of my Gran's house, though. How about you?" He blushed. "I mean, I know about the trial, but --"

"After that, I went back to the Dursleys' until right before my birthday, and then I went into hiding."

"With Fred and George," Ron protested.

"Yeah. They were pretty good about it. Gave me Polyjuice Potion, even, so I could get out a bit." Harry glanced around at them. He didn't want Ron to start talking about Bulstrode. "So, has everyone decided what they're taking? I want to pick up Cursebreaking. I've skimmed through the text a bit, and it looks brilliant."

"You've skimmed through the text?" Ron repeated.

"I didn't read it!"

"Heaven forefend!" Ginny commented, rolling her eyes.

"Well, he has gone a bit odd!" Ron insisted.

Neville looked nervously among them. "I read anything I can in advance," he said, and Harry immediately felt guilty. Ron didn't want him to be too studious, but it was a sort of showing off, wasn't it, for them to say they could manage without studying?

"That's good of you," he said awkwardly. "I should probably do that."

Neville shrugged. "It doesn't help me much in lessons. I forget everything when I'm called on. It helps with essays, though."

"Have you ever tried memory enhancing potions?" Harry asked. "I was reading about gargoyle dust, this summer...."

Choking, Neville sat up. "That can be really dangerous, Harry!"

"Yeah? I thought it was okay if you didn't take it more than twice in a month."

"Right, but what's the point of that? I think if I could remember sometimes, but not--" He broke off as Hermione entered.

"Hi?" she tried.

Harry tried to greet her, but his voice wouldn't work.

"What's up?" she asked, puzzled.

"They were talking about memory enhancers," Ginny told her.

"Mnemonics?"

"Gargoyle dust," Neville explained, "but I think that--"

"Neville!" Hermione protested. "Do you have any idea how dangerous that is?"

"Er, yes?"

"I think that's what he was about to tell me, Hermione," Harry said. "Go on, Neville."

"Well, as I was saying," Neville resumed, darting nervous glances at Hermione, "you can't take it more than twice a month, and I think it would be worse if my mind worked that way twice a month. More frustrating, I mean. And I'd be ..." He looked down. "You know. Tempted."

"What about just for tests, though?" Harry suggested.

"Harry!" Hermione, who had sat beside Ron, jumped to her feet again. "Really! I would hope that none of us would ever do something so unethical, even if it were safe, which it is absolutely not!"

"Calm down, Hermione!" Harry protested. "It's just something I read about, that's all."

She sniffed. "I know you. You do not 'just read about' things."

"Well, life as a fugitive is kind of boring, okay? I promise you, I have no intention of using gargoyle dust."

"Good." Her expression softened as she looked across the aisle at him. "You don't need it, anyway. You'd be an impressive student, if you just applied yourself."

He smiled. "Yeah. I think I got a taste of that studying with Draco, last year."

Her nose wrinkled with distaste. "I don't think you were applying yourself last year."

"Well, I was sometimes! More than I ever had before, really."

"Well. You're doomed, then, with the Head Girl as a friend, and the Head Boy as a boyfriend."

"Head-- He's Head Boy?"

"You didn't know?" Hermione winced. "Oh. Maybe I wasn't supposed to tell you. It's a nuisance, though, because he isn't on the train, and I had to lead the prefects' meeting by myself."

"No, he hadn't...." Harry trailed off, thinking. Draco had often spoken of Hermione as a rival. "I suppose that makes sense."

"Except that he spent most of last year breaking rules!"

"But if he's the top boy in our class, that doesn't matter so much, does it?" Harry retorted. "Especially if the headmaster is pleased with him now."

"Just for politics."

Harry stared at her. "And aren't you?"

"Yes, but that doesn't change-- Oh, never mind! The Head Boy just ought to behave, that's all." She laughed. "I may feel better about it once I see him again."

"I don't see why," Ron said crossly.

"Well, if he's friendly, still." She sighed. "I know I liked him at the end of last year; it's just hard to remember over more than five years of hating him." She glanced over at Harry. "And my parents saw one of the Daily Prophet issues during the trial; I had to say that yes, that was my friend Harry that it was talking about, and yes, he was romantically involved with this other boy, and yes, that was the same Malfoy who was calling me names and making threatening comments during earlier years."

"Ah." Harry felt himself blush. "I didn't read the papers."

"What?"

"My job was to keep my temper."

"But afterwards--"

"I was too busy planning my escape." He shrugged. "Anyway, it wasn't all his fault, you know. I don't do what he wants unless I want to. He's just a lot of fun."

"Well. There's a lot I don't like about your recent ideas of fun."

Ron snorted. "Not to mention his recent ideas of friends."

"Harry?" she asked. "Who have you been with?"

Ginny sniffed. "Slytherins. There were two of them in the car when we arrived. My brother was horrified, of course."

"Zabini and Bulstrode," Harry volunteered, as Hermione looked at him. "They're both neutrals."

"Since when are you friends with neutrals, Harry?"

He stiffened at the accusation in her tone. "Since I grew up enough to realize it could make a difference!"

"Do you think you're mature?" she challenged. "Whatever you may think, your behavior last year was anything but. What was in the papers was anything but."

"I spent the last month making my own decisions about my life," he protested, "and making them work. I'm learning how--"

Ron snorted. "You were living with the twins."

"Not in their flat. In the shop."

"Did you pay rent?" Hermione challenged.

Taken aback, Harry frowned for a moment. "Sort of," he said.

"How 'sort of'?"

"I supplied the money to buy the place, partially in exchange for the right to stay there. We drew up a contract and everything. Draco insisted on that, so he could put in a secrecy clause that would keep them from telling anyone."

"Oh, so they couldn't tell?" Ron said, sounding relieved. "That will make Mum feel better."

"But what if you were seen?" Hermione persisted.

"I was careful. They supplied me with food, and when I wanted to go out, I used Polyjuice Potion and left as one of them while they were both working on the place."

She frowned for a moment, thinking, and then surprised him by smiling at him. "That's really quite clever."

"Thanks. The Polyjuice was their addition."

"Well, good. I thought you might have been off on your own." She sniffed. "Really, I was terribly worried about you, Harry."

"Not so much so as to track me down when you got on the train."

She blushed and smiled. "Oh, I ran into Ernie, so I knew you were safe. He was so offended!" She paused. "And he did mention a Slytherin boy."

"Zabini," Harry said. "Look, I think it's important--"

"They are not your friends."

"They could be allies!"

"Draco was a special case," she warned.

"Forget Draco! I told you, they're neutrals."

"So they can't be trusted," Ron said sharply. "Stay away from them."

"Think about it!" Harry insisted, looking between them. "There are two sides to a conflict that you haven't made up your mind about. One side talks to you, and the other one doesn't. Which way will you drift?"

"They're Slytherin!" Ron answered, throwing up his hands. "They'll go to whichever one gives them a better deal."

"Great! Then all I have to do is be better than a sadistic madman. I think I can handle that."

"That's not exactly the choice," Hermione answered warningly. "You're not going to be Minister for Magic, Harry."

"Neither is Voldemort!"

In the moments of silence that followed, Harry saw everyone steadying him or herself in some way -- Ron pulling at his hair, Neville chewing at his lip, Ginny smoothing her skirt, Hermione closing her eyes. It was Hermione, almost timidly, who spoke first.

"I don't want you as Dark Lord, Harry."

His breath came out in a whoosh as he suddenly understood the tension. "Of course not! But it's not about that, or even about who's Minister -- it's about influence."

"See, he even sounds like a Slytherin," Ron complained.

"This is why we don't get anywhere!" Harry said hotly. "You think it's a virtue not to negotiate or compromise, or even to figure out what people think -- and it's not just you you, I mean -- that's typical! And I'm trying to learn, and it's working, and I really think I can get somewhere. And with a good portion of Slytherin as allies, we could bring him down permanently."

Again, there was silence, lasting until Ginny smiled brightly at him. "Good enough for me," she said.

 

While the Hogwarts Express was pulling into the station, Harry watched out the window to see the platform move into view. Hagrid's great bulk was obvious as he waited for the first-years, but beyond him, Harry saw the glimmer of blond hair over black student robes.

"Draco's here!" he exclaimed.

Ron rolled his eyes. "I suppose I can let him into our carriage."

Draco, however, had other plans. By the time Harry joined him on the platform, he had a sixth-year girl by his side. After a moment of confusion, Harry placed her as the girl that had been with Zabini and the aggressive boy -- Cecil something, or maybe something Cecil -- last spring.

"There you are, Harry!" Draco said, stepping forward to give him a frustratingly chaste embrace. "Will you ride with Linnet and me?"

Harry eyed the girl for a moment, trying to push down his resentment. "Of course," he said, managing a smile. "Hello, Linnet."

Ron snorted. "Come on, Harry."

Harry waved him off. "I'll see you at the Welcoming Feast."

"Oh, get your brain out of your prick, will you?" Ron snapped.

"Ron," Harry warned.

With a rude gesture, Ron stormed off, and at a glance and nod from Harry, Hermione followed him, and Neville followed her.

"Well." Draco motioned to the carriages. "Perhaps we should discuss that inside."

Just as they opened the door to one of the carriages, Millicent Bulstrode stepped up to intercept them. "Room for one more?" she asked companionably.

Harry looked at Draco in silent question, only to find Draco looking at him in much the same manner. He shrugged. "Mill's okay with me," he said cheerfully.

Draco's eyes widened, and Millicent sniggered. Theatrically, he sighed. "I see you were not a good boy over the summer."

"I think he may be incapable of it," Millicent volunteered, as she hoisted her trunk into the carriage and then turned back to get Linnet's. Harry lightened his and nudged it into place. "But he was reasonably careful. I would have had to have been devious and determined to carry him off."

"Have you met with anyone else of questionable loyalties?" Draco asked Harry.

"Zabini, but only once, by chance."

"They came onto the train together, though," Millicent said.

"Mm. And thus Ron's temper." Uneasy and not wanting to show it, Harry slung an arm over Draco's shoulders, and Draco cuddled down to let him. "Well, that and you." The other occupants of the carriage didn't seem like an adequate reason to hold back from kissing Draco, so he did, pinning him back against the seat when he seemed as if he might be easing away. Only when their vehicle had lurched into motion did he let up.

"We're not alone, you know," Draco said wryly.

"Obviously. If we were alone, I'd be doing a lot more than kissing you. Sneak out tonight, Dragon, please?"

Draco smiled at him fondly, but still shook his head. "No. I'd love to, but I have responsibilities. I'm Head Boy."

He looked terribly proud of himself, and Harry had to grin back at him. "Yeah -- I heard on the train. Congratulations."

"Thank you."

"I didn't think that involved plans this evening, though."

"Of course it does. I am staying in Slytherin to listen to Professor Snape's welcome, and to review the prefects, and beyond duties, to see my friends. And you are going back to Gryffindor to show Weasley that you still are friends, and to show Finnigan that you're still worthy of his protection. Is that clear?"

Answering with an exasperated sigh, Harry thumped back against the stiff cushions. This was in keeping with their plans, but that made it no less frustrating. The carriage rocked and creaked beneath him, and he found himself looking into the evaluating study of the girl on the facing bench. "I'm on display already, apparently," he remarked. "Hello, Linnet. Sorry about ignoring you."

She was already smiling with amusement; now she attempted to rein it in. "Quite all right," she said politely. "Who is Finnigan?"

"Irish Gryffindor boy, my year?" he responded, and she smiled again.

"I just can't imagine anyone your age who could protect you."

"Oh. Well, he's the closest of us to Dean, and Dean's Muggleborn, and had a bit of a fit about me liking blokes, you know. It's nothing big, except that we share a dormitory." He glanced to the side, his mouth brushing blond hair. "Not like Draco and Nott."

Draco rolled his eyes. "Oh, so you don't think he was one of the lot that attacked you?"

"If he was, he got over it. We were on decent terms by the end of the year. Though like a lot of people, he assumed what I did about the House Cup was vengeance on my housemates, and that really had nothing to do with it."

Millicent's heavy eyebrows lowered. "He forgives you even though he thinks that?"

"As far as I could tell, he forgives me because he thinks that -- he feels they treated me badly, and I was entitled."

Draco sniffed. "Gryffindors are strange."

"Isn't everyone?" Harry shot back.

Linnet, who had been watching with wide eyes, giggled. Harry winked at her.

They were coming up the last curve of the drive, and he still wasn't sure why Draco had wanted him to meet this girl, but Draco wasn't leading the conversation. Instead, he snuggled contentedly into Harry's side. "This isn't enough of a reunion. Let me know when you're done meeting your Head of House tomorrow?"

"If you promise to sneak off with me," Harry returned. "Well, once you're done with yours."

"Already had it," Draco answered. He straightened suddenly, reaching into his pocket. "Oh -- I nearly forgot! Here's my schedule. Match it as much as you can."

"Great!" Harry glanced at the paper. He saw "Cursebreaking", but had no time for more. The carriage was rolling to a stop. They exited into a milling crowd of students, and were quickly separated.

 

The Great Hall decorated for the Welcoming Feast was still a sight to take Harry's breath away. Just inside the door, he paused for a moment to look, and listen, and feel, smiling as the crowd flowed past him. When he had acclimated enough to continue, he made his way to the Gryffindor table and settled next to Hermione. Seamus shifted over to close the gap on the other side of him, and Dean gave him a self-conscious nod. Ron, on Hermione's other side, leaned forward.

"Have a nice ride?" he asked.

Harry shrugged. "Privacy would have been better, but I guess it was okay. I've no idea why Draco wanted me to meet that girl, though."

Ron might have responded, but at that moment, the doors opened, and McGonagall led in the new first-years. Hermione shook her head. "Can you believe we were that young?"

"Weren't," Seamus answered jovially. "They're taking them at six now, haven't you heard?"

People all about them stifled giggles as the Sorting Hat began its song.

 

In Ancient Days four comrades
set out to work as one
To ensure their people's future
through the training of the young
The pupils best inspired
varied for them each
So in one school four houses
they formed to help them teach

Ravenclaw was learned
-- some did call her cold --
and favored those who knowledge loved
apart from base reward
Seeking ever more to know
Throughout all the world below
Raven ride the wind

Gryffindor was fearless
-- reckless, if you will --
and favored those who moved ahead
trusting strength and skill
With courage bright unquestioned
the charge they choose defended
Lion blaze the way

Now Slytherin was canny
-- some did call him sly --
and favored those who saw all paths
both the low and high
To each reward selected
all action best effected
Serpent flow unseen

Now Hufflepuff was steady
-- boring, some might say --
And favored those who persevered
until they found a way
Willing, true, and diligent
'Do our best' their full intent
Badger dig the den

The whole that was once broken
Must be made again
Perhaps it will in this year
Perhaps in ten times ten
Wherever you are summoned
Whoever loves you best
Remember you may still
Have worth to all the rest.

The hall was quieter than usual after the Hat's song. Harry wasn't sure anyone else had liked it, although the last verse had given him a thrill of satisfaction. The staff, especially, looked put out, to a one -- except, perhaps, for a stranger, who appeared to be hiding a smile behind his cup.

For his own part, Harry wished he had been sitting with Draco. He knew exactly how Draco would have nudged him at "reckless," and how he would have retaliated at "sly," and how their hands would have joined at the conclusion. He looked over, just as Draco finished saying something to Pansy and looked back. Their eyes met. Harry wished they could whisper to each other.

"That must be the new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor." It was Hermione, instead, who whispered to him, as "Atlinger, Ogden" was sorted into Slytherin. "He looks awfully young -- for a professor, I mean."

Distracted, Harry looked back at the stranger at the staff table. After a quick scan across the others, he decided Hermione was right. This had to be the new Defense professor. He was at least a few years older than they were, but almost certainly still in his twenties. His hair was a sandy brown, and he seemed to be in constant motion, first fidgeting with his fork and then shifting restlessly in his chair. Only infrequently did he pause long enough to take in a bite of food, which might explain how thin he was.

"Grant, Samuel" was sorted into Gryffindor, requiring Harry to return his attention to the Sorting. He clapped for the boy, whose cheeks burned pink as he crossed the hall to the cheers of his new housemates.

After that came a nervous-looking girl with a honey-gold ponytail bound up with pink ribbon. "LeFay, Gentian," McGonagall read. The Sorting Hat took some time about it before sending her to Slytherin. Harry clapped politely, though he thought he was probably the only non-Prefect in Gryffindor to bother.

After that, "Miller, Graham" was sorted into Hufflepuff, and "McDuffie, Robert" into Gryffindor. "Mello, Yolanda" followed. By the time the Sorting was over, Gryffindor had eleven new members, six boys and five girls, and Harry thought Slytherin had nearly as many.

 

 

"My dear friends," Dumbledore said, as the last first-year student settled at the Ravenclaw table, "students and colleagues, let me welcome you to Hogwarts. Some of you are returning to a second home, while some have just crossed the threshold of a new adventure. Welcome, all!

"Before we begin the marvelous feast that awaits us, I have a few announcements. First, I would like all of you to still be here at the end of the term. Therefore, please remember that the Forbidden Forest is, as the name clearly states, forbidden. Second, the girls' lavatory on the second floor is closed for repairs. Third--"

Harry didn't hear the third item. The blood in his ears drowned out everything around him. He stared across the room at Draco, and Draco stared back, but they did not spontaneously develop telepathy. The second-floor bathroom! If they couldn't get in there, how would they get down to the Chamber of Secrets? Harry didn't believe it was chance. Dumbledore must know what he was doing.

Despite his worries, it was impossible not to enjoy the Welcoming Feast. While he sampled delicious dishes, Hermione was cheerfully babbling about what options to take for her final year. A stranger might have called it fretting, but Harry could tell she was enjoying every tortured choice. Some of the younger students were looking at him and whispering, but everyone in his year seemed to be fine -- even Dean gave him a quick smile. Further down the table, Damian, one of the Gryffindor Beaters, pointed to him and said something to the younger girl with him. Harry felt his relaxed mood fade. Hermione tsked.

"I wish the younger ones wouldn't gossip about you. It's not as if they can't speak to you in the common room. Do you see how they're staring?"

"Mm, yeah." Harry pushed his nearly empty dinner plate a few inches away. "I'm wondering if I should have brought my hip flask."

"You have a hip flask?" Hermione asked, scandalized. Harry was aware of the conversations around them fading.

"Of course," he said. "Hermione, I practically lived on Polyjuice Potion--"

Seamus sprayed pumpkin juice halfway across the table. Dean and Ron burst out laughing. Hermione laughed too, the sound tight and high with nerves. "You're awful," she said, when she could.

The spattered juice vanished and desserts appeared. Harry grinned and pounced on the treacle tart. "Let them stare."

 

After dinner, the seventh-year students stayed together on the walk up to Gryffindor. Harry said hello to Parvati, who blushed and made polite conversation for a flight of steps, and to Lavender, who gave him a flirtatious look and then resumed her conversation with a sixth-year boy. Hermione left them to attend to the first-years, so when they got to the tower, the boys continued up to their dormitory. There, they settled down, Harry and Ron on Ron's bed, and Dean and Neville on Seamus's bed, and Seamus on the window seat between. Harry floated his trunk out as a table and brought out Muggle ginger chews, and Ron chocolate frogs, and Seamus some sort of oat thing that wasn't half bad.

For a while, Harry just listened to the others chat about their summers, and at first, they let him stay out of it. It was Dean who finally looked his way.

"So, Harry," he began. His voice was carefully neutral, and Harry tensed, expecting an attack about Draco. "One of the Slytherins came by our carriage, can you believe that? Didn't even try to pick a fight. He was asking about you."

That was interesting. Harry tried to keep his voice as light. "Really? Do you know who?"

"Zabini," Seamus said.

"Wanted to know how you spend your money, how you treat your friends, that sort of thing."

"Ah. What did you tell him?"

Dean shrugged. "You and Ron are either best friends or not speaking, but it's all straightforward, and you're fair more than not, and I didn't know you had money until Malfoy got to you."

Harry couldn't keep from looking at Ron, who was turning red. He thought he must be himself.

"That is," Seamus added, shrugging, "not more money than it took to buy a sackful of sweets to share, but what else would we have bought at that age?"

"How did he react?" Harry asked, worried.

Dean sniggered. "Like a Slytherin."

"Considering it," Seamus qualified.

Dean twitched, and for a moment, Harry thought that something about the account bothered him, but then he reached into his sleeve. "Splotch woke up," he explained, and with an apologetic dip of his head, reached into his sleeve. When he drew out a rat, Ron visibly flinched.

"Sorry," Ron said quickly.

Harry tried not to let his own tension show. At least the rat was nothing like Scabbers. It was a young, sleek animal, its body mostly white, and its head mostly brown, but with a glossy brown patch on one white flank, and a white blaze down its brown face. Its pink nose twitched curiously, vibrating white whiskers. On his arm, Harry felt a tightening, just as Susara's curiosity nudged into his mind. He gave her silent permission to move, and she wound down his arm and peeked out, testing the air with her tongue.

Dean's rat, now on the bedspread, raised its back and rattled its tail, producing an uncharacteristic hiss from Susara.

"Pet!" Harry scolded. "He is too big for you to fight."

"I want it to leave," she retorted sulkily.

"He belongs with--" Names would not translate. "My den-friend. He will not leave."

"It –" Her tongue flickered again. "She belongs with your friend like me with you?" she asked uncertainly.

"Yes."

"Ssss." With a contemptuous flick of her tail, Susara went up his arm, this time setting possessively around the back of his neck. Harry stroked her and chuckled at the sight of Dean similarly soothing his rat.

"Care to translate?" Seamus suggested, raising an eyebrow.

Harry shrugged. "What do you expect? He's my roommate's; he lives here too."

Dean smiled weakly. "She, actually, but yeah. That's about what I'd tell her if I could."

The silence grew too long. Neville cleared his throat. "So," he said bravely, as if Ron wasn't rigid with tension, and Dean visibly uneasy, "what are people going to ask for? Tomorrow, I mean. For lessons."

"I'm dropping Potions," Ron said quickly.

"Me too," Dean agreed, and they shared a quick, relieved smile.

"I wish I could," Neville said mournfully.

Ron nudged him. "Your gran won't let you?"

Neville looked offended. "That's not her decision now. No, it's Herbology. I know that's what I want a career in, and I need supplemental Potions knowledge for most options. It doesn't have to be a high NEWT -- I can get a tutor and retake a qualifying exam in many cases -- but I need to have attempted the NEWT to qualify for that."

"Rough," Ron sympathized.

"At least I can drop Transfiguration," Neville said. "That will give me more time. I'm still deciding about Charms."

"I'm dropping Care of Magical Creatures," Harry said, glad to be talking about something safe. "And I'd better tell Hagrid before someone else does -- first thing tomorrow probably."

Ron looked sympathetic. "Can't say as I blame you, but he'll take that hard."

"Well, I want to take Cursebreaking and Symbology, so I had to drop four."

"Let me guess: Divination, Potions, and Herbology?"

"Divination, Herbology, and History of Magic."

Ron stared. "Not Potions? Are you feeling all right in the head, mate?"

Trying to pretend he didn't notice Seamus's intent study, Harry focused on Ron and shrugged. "Well, you know. Like Neville, I think I may need it."

"Ah." Ron sat back. "Yeah, I suppose if you want to try for the Aurors or something...."

Harry nodded. Or something. "Right," he said. "I'd like to keep my options open."

Seamus was still watching them.

 

Chapter Text

 

Harry had planned to look for Draco after his conference, but there was no need. When he stepped out of McGonagall's office, Draco pushed off from the opposite wall of the corridor. "Shall we walk?" he said, by way of greeting.

"Um, fine. How did you know--?"

"Hermione told me, of course. Let's go outside. It's a pleasant day." Draco led the way to the staircase and down the broad steps. "Schedule all set?"

Outside would provide some chance of privacy, which the tricky echoes of Hogwarts corridors made difficult. "Yeah," Harry answered. "It looks good." We're mostly in lessons together. "Professor McGonagall was surprised that I wanted to keep Potions, but it's a requirement for some jobs -- Auror, for example. I told her I wanted to keep my options open."

Draco shot him a hard look, but then nodded. "And it would be a pity to waste my spellfather's expertise. But for the political situation, you wouldn't have a brewer of his measure teaching anyone but his own apprentice." They crossed the Entrance Hall. "Any surprises?"

"Mm. That Professor Dumbledore didn't ask to see me." Harry pulled the door open, and they crossed into the sunlight. It was fair, but chilly. "I was expecting words about crossing him." The door shut behind them, and Harry breathed more easily. No one else was in sight.

"Perhaps you had them by proxy," Draco said, striding quickly away from the walls and any potential open windows. "The second floor girls' bathroom?"

"Yeah," Harry said grimly.

"And I expect you noticed that we received exactly nothing that we were promised."

"It would be hard to miss."

"Do you suppose the headmaster thinks we will have forgotten?"

"I have no idea." Harry let out a quick breath. "I'll talk to him. I mean, unless you want to."

Draco pursed his lips. "No. It had better be you. Attempt to be civil, however."

Nodding, Harry set the matter aside. "Now, about the Chamber...."

Looking back nervously, Draco made a chopping motion with one hand. "Later. I want to know what you promised Snape."

"What?"

Draco raised his eyebrows in a scornful look that Harry thought came more from his spellfather than his father. "What was your end of the deal, Potter?"

Potter? Harry stared. "What makes you think there was a deal?"

Draco huffed. "Don't think I'll fall for that. You're trying to decide what lies might work."

Harry rolled his eyes. "And you don't actually know anything. And I don't know what you're talking about, so I can't answer."

"If it's more lessons, I'll catch you out, you know. I have the Quiris."

Harry stared at him incredulously, and Draco's sneer dissolved into a sigh. They were a good distance from the castle, now. "When Professor Snape talked to the house last night, he said that you should be regarded as a potentially valuable resource, and as such, were to be considered as under his personal protection."

"Oh." Harry bit his lip. "Um, I didn't consider that anything so formal as a deal, but yeah. He offered me re-Sorting, and I said I'd be more valuable to him as a Gryffindor."

"Ah. Well, he's helped you significantly. You still won't be safe in Slytherin, but your potential attackers will be fewer. Did you promise anything in particular in return?"

Harry shook his head. "An alliance. I asked for things, really -- that he let me try to win support in his house, and that he look the other way about us."

Thoughtfully, Draco nodded. "For you to use Slytherin, though ... That would be a benefit to us in itself, in some ways."

"I suppose. And he badly wants Voldemort destroyed, I expect."

"So he knows about you."

Harry couldn't remember if he and Snape had discussed his extraordinary potential to destroy Voldemort. On the other hand, Dumbledore may have told any number of people. "I think so. Not from me, but ...." Harry shrugged. "He seems to. We've certainly discussed how I might go about it."

"Not surprising, really."

"Yeah."

Draco looked over his shoulder again, and then led the way to some nearby rocks, in a middle of a clear space. "Let's sit. I think we're safely out of earshot of anything visible."

"Any visible human, you mean."

Sniffing, Draco rolled his eyes. "Most people don't think of that, you know."

"Most haven't been bitten by it twice." Harry cast a spell that Snape had taught him. He and Draco glowed briefly, but he didn't see any other bright spots. "We seem to be the only magical beings in range."

"Clever." Draco did not sound as if the cleverness pleased him. "Who taught you that one?"

"Snape. He said it's not Dark, even."

"It's not," Draco said flatly. "However, it is considered rude among wizards and witches, and doing it in front of Muggles would violate the Statute of Secrecy."

"It was just in front of you," Harry protested. "We know who we are, right?"

"Did Snape explain all that to you?" Draco persisted.

"Yes. Well, the rude part seemed like more around strangers who might be Squibs...."

"That's how it became rude," Draco corrected.

"Ah." Harry ducked his head. "Should I ask next time, then?"

"Please do." Draco finally stopped frowning. "It was the right solution, though. And it's a good one for you to know, I suppose. So, let's talk."

Harry thought back to when Draco had cut him off. "The Chamber?"

"Exactly."

"Dumbledore might just be trying to force me to come and talk to him."

"Mm. Or he might want to be sure we're not together alone."

"Then he should have come through with the Uncommon Room, shouldn't he?"

Draco laughed. "The thought did occur to me. At any rate, don't mention the girls' bathroom when you talk to him. He's only guessing, and it would confirm the guess."

"What do you suggest we do, then?

Draco shrugged. "There must be spells to cut doors. We need that spell and a way to determine which rooms are directly below Myrtle's bathroom, on either side of that chute, so we can gain access to the tunnel."

"And if that doesn't work?"

"Then we will try the ones below that. The dungeons go over that far. The chute needs to be between rooms on each level. There must be some way to get into it."

"You don't think Salazar Slytherin would have put protections on it?"

Draco shook his head. "You can't protect every square foot of something that large. Traditionally, one concentrates on the entrance, and has a sequence of them, as he did."

Harry nodded. "All right."

"So. We get to spend our afternoons together ... in the library."

"I'd much rather spend them in your bed."

Draco bit his lip. "Don't. I don't dare yet, and you'll tempt me."

Harry felt a surge of relief lessen a tension that he hadn't known was there. "Will I?" he asked, reaching out to touch the side of Draco's face. Draco closed his eyes and leaned into the touch.

"Merlin, yes."

"Are we done talking?" Harry crossed his foot over one of Draco's, rubbing their ankles together with a subtle motion. "Shall we find some place a little more visually private?"

Draco hissed in surprise. "Yes."

"The birch grove by the lake?"

"In the hemlocks would be more concealing." Draco smirked. "But I prefer the symbolism of birches. Yes."

They started to walk again, angling over to the lake, this time. "That doesn't make any sense to me, you know. But I am taking Symbology, this year."

"Good! You could use it." Draco's hand stole into his. "Though your intuition is good. Hemlocks are death and sorrow. Birches are birth and creativity."

Harry laughed and gave his hand a little squeeze. "Well, birth is out of the question, but I enjoy your creativity."

"Ah, but it can be a symbolic birth -- the birth of a spell, of a plot, of..." Draco stopped and shrugged. "Anything."

He sounded almost sad at the last. Harry didn't know what to say at the turn of mood, so they walked in silence all the way to the trees. When the leaves veiled them to all but the keenest eyes, he decided there were easier things than talking. He stopped, and tugged Draco's hand, and when Draco turned towards him, covered any question with a kiss.

To his relief, Draco returned it, first with warmth, and then with increasing desire. Harry set his hands at the small of Draco's back and pulled him close.

"Oh," Draco sighed, pressing into the contact. "Mm." Harry wondered if this was a good idea. He was hard already. Then Draco pushed one hip forward, dragging his erection over Harry's, and Harry knew it was a splendid idea. He dragged Draco's robes to the side so he could open the front without needing space between them. Draco lifted his head.

"Let's lie down. No should be able to see us in that hollow."

Harry's heart was racing. "Sure." He let Draco lead him a few yards further, to where the ground dropped a couple of feet. Draco cast a quick charm on it and sank gracefully down, Harry following more clumsily after.

"We have to leave our clothes on though," Draco whispered. "In case someone comes here, like Cecilius, last year."

 "Damn."

"Oh here -- let me push your robes up." In a few seconds, Draco was fumbling with Harry's zip, his knuckles brushing haphazardly over Harry's cock. "In an emergency, just do the button and drop your robes into place."

"Done this before?" Harry asked, nipping Draco's ear, while he worked a hand under Draco's robes, bunching them up and getting in his way. Draco panted harshly at the contact.

"Last autumn, yeah. In the dormitory."

So, Zabini, then. He was too thoroughly out of the picture for Harry to be jealous.

"That must have --" Harry had no idea what he'd been going to say. Draco had his hand in Harry's trousers and wrapped around Harry's cock, and his brain wasn't bothering with anything else. "God." It took him a few fumbling tries to get enough access to reciprocate. "Not enough."

"It'll do for now."

"Yeah." He sucked at the edge of Draco's ear, and then at his neck. It took the edge off the need to have something else. Draco's cock in his mouth, he remembered. That, maybe. He tightened his grip around that hard shaft. How could that feel so good, just in his hand? "Fuck. Want you."

Draco laughed shakily. "I won't let you fuck me yet. And not here in any case."

"Didn't--"

"I know."

 

It was over far too fast. Harry had to bite hard to hold in the noises his body wanted to make, and the world went black at the edges, narrowing to a section of skin and hair. Slowly, it widened again, and he realized he was lying limply on the ground, with quite a lot of mess in and over his robes.

"Oh."

"Mm. Did that take the edge off for now?"

Harry groaned. "For a few hours, maybe."

Draco ran a finger over his lips. Harry nipped at it, and then flicked his tongue over the pad.

"Hm. Well, consider this my vengeance for last spring. I won't tease you nearly as thoroughly as you did me, I promise."

"Obviously." Harry sucked the tip of the finger in and watched Draco's eyes close. He continued with that for a minute, moving his mouth up and down it in a mimicry of fellatio, until Draco was squirming. That accomplished, he lifted his head away. "For how long?"

Draco sat up. "Until we're back in the Chamber. It will give us incentive. Cleaning charms, now."

 

After lunch, Harry went to talk to Dumbledore. It took him only four tries to guess the password (ice mice), and then he was rising up the spiral stairs. As he had almost expected, the headmaster called him in immediately.

"Mr. Potter," he said. "What a pleasant surprise."

"Is it?" Harry shot back. "That's hard to believe."

"I'm always glad to see you."

Harry shrugged, but relaxed enough to sit down. "Even if that's true, I don't believe you're surprised."

With a sideways nod that seemed to both acknowledge and dismiss the remark, Dumbledore resettled himself behind the desk. "You feel we have something to discuss?"

"Mixed house social space. Pick-up Quidditch. You promised us both of those, but you didn't mention either of them."

"I see." Dumbledore didn't seem in any hurry to answer. "I had expected a different inquiry. Is that all?"

"Yes." Harry glanced down for a moment. "From my side, anyway."

Stroking his beard, Dumbledore leaned back. "I should point out, of course, that you have hardly been cooperative yourself. I was very concerned, you know, by your disappearance."

"Which was why I let Remus know I was okay."

"An appreciated accommodation, but still not what you were instructed to do. It would have been better if you had waited."

"No," Harry said stubbornly. "I don't believe that. The Dursleys would have been in danger."

"I had made arrangements for their protection--"

"Which weren't necessary, were they? As I managed things, that is."

"True, Mr. Potter, but that was not my primary concern." Dumbledore straightened, looking at him over steepled hands. "Your safety is of the utmost importance--"

"I was safe enough."

"Perhaps, but I have far more experience in evaluating and mitigating risk. I had hoped that you would trust that."

"I do trust your experience! Of course you have a better idea than I do what can be done. What I don't trust is your priorities, and you won't listen to what matters to me."

For a moment, Dumbledore was silent. When he spoke, his voice was querulous, as if he were puzzling over the matter. "You have never expressed any affection for your mother's relatives."

"I don't have any! I just don't want to be the cause of any more deaths, even if they aren't really my fault. And you probably would have had me go to the Burrow next, and then the Weasleys wouldn't have been safe."

Dumbledore relaxed back. "Ah. I see. Harry, none of the guilt for Cedric's murder, or Arthur's--"

"I know that! It's not guilt. It's just ..." Harry tried to think. "Determination. My personal goal for this year, all right?"

Dumbledore's mouth lifted in a quick smile. "I believe Professor McGonagall had been hoping for something more academically oriented." He peered at Harry over his half-moon spectacles. "You do remember that you have N.E.W.T.s this year, I hope?"

"Between Hermione and Draco, am I likely to forget?"

Dumbledore laughed. "Ah, yes! I had not considered it in quite that light." All trace of reproach had vanished, leaving his manner as cheerful and guileless as he had seemed when Harry first saw him. "Well. Let us return to your original question then, shall we? I have not forgotten, and I hope that by now you would know that my word is good. The first week of school, however, seems a bad time to implement changes, and several of the professors were none too happy when I introduced these ideas last spring. After everyone has settled in, I will bring the matter up again." He smiled. "I must tell you, Professor McGonagall's support will be much easier to come by if you and Mr. Malfoy manage to stay out of trouble."

Harry did his best not to show his growing rage. "Professor Snape's too, I expect," he said, almost lightly.

"Perhaps, perhaps. Although with Severus, one never can tell. And his support may lose you that of your own head of house."

"Understood, sir." Harry got to his feet. "Thank you for seeing me."

"My dear boy, not at all!" Dumbledore replied, beaming, as he rose to shake Harry's hand. "You are always welcome to visit. Is there anything else you wish to discuss?"

"No," Harry said steadily. "Nothing."

 

He wasn't going to fall for it, he decided, as he descended from the office. Professor Dumbledore could put him off forever with stories of disagreement among the staff, but what he could have wasn't defined by what the headmaster would give to him. He had made his own way before, and he would do it again. Feeling strangely cheerful, Harry started off down the corridor. Ron should be back by now. They could compare schedules, and maybe he could start to sound Ron out on the divination.

Turning the corner, he saw a group of small students by the stairs. Two of them were pointing in different directions, and one had hidden her face in her hands, and the last had sat down on the floor in a despairing huddle. Harry quickened his pace.

"Lost?" he called cheerfully, when he was near. Arms came down with guilty speed. The boy on the floor scrambled to his feet. Familiarly wide-eyed stares fixed on him, but Harry suspected that any seventh-year would have produced almost as strong a reaction.

"No, we're just--"

"Sammy!"

Harry laughed. "If anyone here tells you they didn't get lost as a first-year, they're lying." He studied them for a minute. All four were Gryffindors. He recalled the dusky-skinned girl as having an odd name, and one of the boys as being Mc-something. With a smile, he held out his hand to the closest boy. "Hi. I'm Harry."

The wide-eyed look returned, perhaps at the reminder of who he was. "Er, hello, Mr.-- um, Harry. I'm Rob, Rob McDuffie."

"Pleased to meet you, Rob," Harry said, and went on to the girl, who gave her name as Yolanda. When introductions were finished, he looked around at them all. "Okay. First thing, don't be embarrassed about getting lost. Not for at least a couple of weeks, anyway. Now, why don't you all follow me? I'll show you how to get back to the tower, and we can make a stop at the library on the way, so you'll know where that is." He grinned. "And then next time you get lost, you don't need a Gryffindor. Anyone can tell you how to get to the library, and you'll know how to get to Gryffindor from there."

They looked at each other. "But don't ask a Slytherin, right?" Sammy said. Yolanda looked despairingly at him, her thick, dark braid swinging with the motion. Harry met her eyes and gave her a quick smile.

"Well," he said, "the Slytherins aren't all bad, you know. But there is a good deal of house rivalry between Gryffindor and Slytherin, so you should take anything they tell you with a grain of salt. I'd say ask, but be polite when you do it, and cautious about the answer -- don't just blindly do what you're told."

"If we can't trust the answer, why ask?" Rob demanded.

"Well, if you do, maybe it won't get as bad in your year as it is in mine."

"But people from other houses won't know where Gryffindor tower is?" Sammy cut in.

"Most won't." Harry started up the steps, moving at a leisurely pace, so they could still talk easily. "I don't know where Hufflepuff is, and I'm not exactly sure of Ravenclaw, though I could probably find it. I do know where Slytherin is."

"Because Draco Malfoy is your sweetheart, right?" Yolanda said quickly. Sammy turned and stared. She giggled. "It said so in Witch Weekly."

"Well, yes and no," Harry answered. "I mean, he is my, um, boyfriend, but that's not why I know. The thing is that we hated each other up until last year, and one time -- when I was in my second year -- a friend and I followed him down there, because we were certain he was doing something awful, and we planned to catch him."

"Oh!"

"Anyway, this floor is the library. Let me show you; we'll go to the door, and then walk back."

They didn't ask him any more questions about his relationship with Draco -- Harry suspected that the boys were too young to understand, and it was clear that Yolanda had the idea only in a vague gossip-column sort of way. He got them talking about their first classes instead. They had had Herbology, which Sammy said didn't seem so magical. He was delighted with Charms. Potions had terrified all of them.

"Have you had your first Flying lesson yet?" Harry asked Sammy, and Sammy had made a face.

"Don't. I won't believe anything, you know, just because my parents are Muggles."

"What?" Harry looked at him in surprise.

"People don't fly. Professor Flitwick said so."

Rob and Jeremy burst out laughing. Yolanda clapped her hands over her mouth.

"People don't," Harry answered cheerily. "But brooms can. You will have a few flying lessons, and it's brilliant! I play Quidditch, which is a Wizarding sport played on brooms."

"He's really good at it, too," Rob said, eager to talk about something he understood. "He was mentioned in "Young players to watch" in Quidditch Review last year."

"I'll bring down an issue or two for you, when we get back to Gryffindor," Harry offered, in sympathy. "I know it's confusing; I was raised by Muggles too --"

"You were?" Yolanda asked. "I thought your parents were magical."

"Well they were, but Voldemort killed them. And my mother was Muggleborn, and I went to her sister when I was still a baby." He shrugged. "Anyway, don't worry, Sammy. You'll learn your way around."

 

Once inside the tower, the first-years split, the boys disappearing up the boys' staircase, and Yolanda running over to two other first-year girls. Harry looked around for Ron, didn't see him, and started over to the sofas by the fireplace.

Just as he was leaning back against the cushions, a girl plopped down into the place beside him. Startled, he twisted to find Parvati looking at him.

"Hi!" she said.

"Er, hi?"

"You looked almost tall, you know, walking in with a gaggle of first-years. It's good to see you're still my size."

"Oh, thanks!"

"Don't mention it. Did they get lost?"

"Yeah. They'd fallen into despair at one of the third floor landings. I told them it happens to everyone."

She chuckled. "They were probably mortified, just the same." She glanced down. "Well ... how was your summer?"

He had to think about it for a moment. "A lot better than usual, and you probably know about the worst moments. I mostly hid out, after the trial."

"Ah." She shrugged. "So, I heard Hermione and Ginny arguing about what you said on the train."

"Oh? Which thing I said?"

"About the Slytherins being able to help. The Ravenclaws could too, you know."

Harry nodded. "Right. Remember the Interhouse Common Room project?"

Parvati nodded. She and her sister had been part of the group that Harry had invited to discuss the matter last spring. They had only met twice. Dumbledore had showed up to the second meeting, listened carefully, and said that he had sufficient information.

"Well, you've noticed it wasn't mentioned at the Welcoming Feast, I expect. So I went to talk to Professor Dumbledore."

"And?" she prompted, when he hesitated.

"Well, he said he wants everyone to 'settle in' first, but I'm not sure he'll actually do it."

"No?" Her brow furrowed. "But why wouldn't he?"

Harry grabbed at air, trying to form his vague suspicions into words. "He likes to be in control. If we actually start to cooperate, it will diminish his control."

Parvati laughed. "I don't disapprove of Draco, Harry, but you're spending too much time with Slytherins. Give him a few weeks before you suspect the worst."

He sighed. "All right. You're probably right -- but it's not Slytherins, I think, just a month of hiding from everyone."

"I'll bring it up with Professor McGonagall," Parvati offered.

"That would be great."

Seamus wandered over then. "Why the conference?" he asked.

"Oh, it's that interhouse common space issue," Parvati said, stretching back. They kissed, long and deep, making two nearby fifth-years giggle. Harry wondered if he should leave, but when they finally finished, and Seamus had sat at the other side of Parvati, he looked at Harry. "That still on?" he asked.

"What?" Oh, the common room. Does he realize how long they were kissing? "We hope so, but not right away."

"Too bad," Seamus said. "Of course, it doesn't matter when the weather's good."

Harry nodded, remembering that morning, and hoped he wasn't blushing.

"Harry?" came a tentative little voice. He turned to see Yolanda standing beside the sofa. "One of the third-years told Evie that Professor Snape is a vampire, and now she wants to go home. Will you come and talk to her?"

"Course," Harry answered, standing up. He grinned at Seamus, who was trying unsuccessfully to muffle a laugh, and Parvati who was managing an almost convincing concerned expression. "Catch you two later."

 

He didn't see Ron until dinner, when he finally showed up, Hermione's hand held firmly in his.

"I was wondering where you were," Harry said quietly, as they sat down. "Catching up, huh?"

"Don't I wish," Ron muttered.

"Ah," Seamus said. "T'was a fond reunion with her darling library, was it, then?"

Ron whooped, and Hermione looked offended. "It's important to--"

"Hermione," Harry said urgently. "Together again, right?"

"I know, but ...." Her shoulders twisted in a helpless shrug. "This is our N.E.W.T. year!"

"Hermione," Harry said again, "September."

"But it's so easy to fall behind...!" For a moment, she lifted her hands in front of her face. "I know," she said, her face still hidden. "I know I shouldn't panic yet, but...."

"It's our N.E.W.T year, yes," Harry completed. "But you'll do fine." He looked over at Ron. "Make her relax tonight, okay?"

"And if you can't," Seamus added, "get another girl."

Harry couldn't help laughing. Seamus appreciated it. Ron and Hermione did not, but they accepted his apology, and dinner went on.

 

Throughout the meal, Harry found his eyes straying to the Slytherin table. They no longer seemed as intimidating -- nor as alike -- as they had in years past. Draco was sitting between Linnet, whom Harry had found pleasant enough, and Zabini, whom he thought he rather liked. Millicent was sitting further down, in seemingly friendly argument with a younger boy that Harry didn't recognize, but who laughed with almost Gryffindor abandon. Pansy Parkinson, looking as unpleasant as ever, sat with Daphne Greengrass and two younger girls, one of whom kept glancing uncomfortably away. Near them was Theodore Nott, the only one that Harry was still sure of as an enemy, now that Crabbe was gone.

Perhaps he should go down to Slytherin after dinner and see what happened. He had planned to wait until further into the term, but now that plan reminded him unpleasantly of Dumbledore's delay on his promises. Tonight, he decided. He didn't need the Slytherins settled. He didn't want them settled, and their alliances negotiated. Just a quick visit, to see how they reacted. And I can stop by Snape's room on the way back and pay what I owe him for the divination. He had been carrying the money since morning, but on his one trip down to Snape's office, had found the door closed. After that, other things had distracted him.

Accordingly, he lingered at the dinner table until most of the students had left, and Hermione was starting to look restless, and then got to his feet.

"Back to Gryffindor?" Ron said eagerly, rising as well.

Hermione shook her head. "I still haven't found half the recommended texts for Ancient Runes."

"You're not supposed to find them all before the class starts, Hermione," Harry said patiently.

"I've been trying to tell her that. Maybe if we both take an arm...."

Grinning, Harry shook his head. "No. I have other plans."

"Harry..." Hermione warned.

"Nothing elaborate," Harry said. "In fact, they may even involve the library, but I have to go down to the dungeons first."

"Do you think that's safe?" Ron asked, his brow furrowing.

Harry shrugged. "Maybe not, but I'm a Gryffindor, aren't I?"

"Strange way to put it," Ron groused.

"Do be careful, Harry."

"I will."

 

He walked down to Slytherin openly, no cloak, no subterfuge -- not that there was anyone to see, for most of the way. In the last stretch, he heard light footsteps racing behind him, and turned to see two small children whip around the corner. He recognized one as the first-year girl that the Hat had taken so long to sort. They clattered to a stop beside him.

"What are you--" the girl began, but then the boy took off again. "Not fair!" she shouted, as she pursued him. Harry chuckled to himself. Definitely a Sorting problem. He lengthened his stride, and caught the shifting section of wall before it could close behind their argument. The stones stopped in mid slide, much like the door to a lift, probably due to much the same safety considerations, however differently fulfilled.

"You can't--" the boy tried, but Harry poked his head in, checking those closest for people he knew.

"Zabini!" he called. "Is Draco around?"

Silence shot outward from his voice, a few words at the edge of the room briefly audible in the central quiet. Everyone stared. Shrugging, Harry stepped through the door. "Please?" he asked, half-jokingly, and there was a strangled laugh from someone.

"You are not supposed to be here, Potter," came a harsh voice. Nott. Harry pretended to be unconcerned.

"Really?" he said, leaning back against the now-closed door panel - for safety as well as a pose; no one could come at him from behind. He flexed his arm slightly against the length of his wand. "I'd heard a rumor that Snape implied I could visit."

"I believe," said Draco's voice from the door to the right of the fireplace, "that he expected you to be somewhat circumspect." He sounded amused as well as exasperated, and Harry smiled at him as he came into sight through the crowd around the fire.

"Why would he expect that?" he asked innocently. "I'm a Gryffindor." People were still staring, but less as if they were waiting for him to die on the spot.

"Excuses!" Draco scoffed. "You're perfectly capable of sneaking, Harry."

"But why bother?" Harry returned. "I'm just here to ask if you want to come to the library."

"Why? Do you need help already?"

"Ha! Not until lessons start, at least."

"Hm." Draco looked thoughtful. "I did have a few things I'd wanted to look up...."

"So you'd mentioned. Thus the invitation."

"All right, then. Just let me get something to take notes with."

As he walked back into the boys' dormitories, Millicent moved forward, shielding Harry from Nott as if by accident. He suspected otherwise. As a Beater, she knew all about interference.

"How's Gryffindor?" she asked.

"Eh, fine. Ron had calmed down by the time we got to the Welcoming Feast."

"He runs hot, doesn't he?" she asked, frowning.

"You might say that, yeah. And he didn't think much of me sharing a carriage with Slytherins."

Draco showed up, a mostly-empty school bag over his shoulder. "Let's go!"

"Right." Harry grinned at his protector. "Later, Mill."

She stuck her tongue out at him. "Yes, Harry."

 

"That was idiotic," Draco said, as they headed up the stairs.

"Why? Better to do it now than later. I took them by surprise."

"Well, you won't next time! We need some safer way we can find each other."

"If I'd just wanted your company, I could have caught you before you left dinner."

"Oh, that was an excuse to walk into the Slytherin common room?"

"Well, I couldn't just say 'I'm here to see what you all do,' now, could I?"

Sighing, Draco rubbed his face. "Gryffindor."

"But they didn't do anything," Harry protested. "Nott wanted to, but I think most people were just shocked."

"Millicent protected you."

"Yeah, I noticed." Harry grinned. "Just like a Beater."

"Ha! Yes."

 

Chapter Text

 

"At the end of this year," Professor Snape declared. "You will take your N.E.W.T.s."

The entire class was silent. Harry thought they had probably all forgotten how intimidating Snape could be. He certainly had, during July's almost friendly chats and private tutoring sessions. The Snape who had loitered against his bedroom wall was gone now, replaced by a looming, sneering, contemptuous bat that Harry had prematurely categorized as a figment of childhood trauma.

"You are the best and most dedicated of your year--" He paused to sweep them all with a disdainful glare -- "which means far less than you think it does. The Potions N.E.W.T.s are rigorous and demanding examinations, and the prospects of many of you are abysmal. However, I will do my best to provide you with the opportunity to do well. The onus to realize that opportunity is upon each of you. If you do not complete your readings, put thought and effort in your assignments, and concentrate meticulously upon your practical work, your chances remain ... abysmal.

"Today, we begin work on elementary Healing Potions. You should all have read Chapters 1 and 2, and pages 58-65 of Chapter 3...."

One by one, students in the lesson began to breathe again. Draco's quill scratched lightly over a page in his notebook. He shifted his arm back in invitation for Harry to read.

Another intimidating first day speech. I think this is his favorite part of teaching.

Harry nodded, but he didn't write anything back. Draco, as a Slytherin, could get away with that. He was a Gryffindor, and could lose points for his house.

 

After class, Draco lingered, waiting for Harry to finish his deliberately slow job of packing his equipment. Harry made subtle shooing motions with the hand behind his bag, and Draco frowned.

"I'd wanted to talk," Draco said quietly.

"Meet me in the kitchens then."

"Why do you--"

Snape appeared at their side. Everyone else, it seemed, had left. "Are you unable to place your scales in your school bag, Potter?"

"I wanted to talk to you about --"

"If you need special assistance, Potter, come to my office during my scheduled hours, as other students do. I intend to go to lunch -- but not until I have secured my classroom."

"Right, sir. Thank you." Harry jammed the rest of his things in his bag and left the classroom, Draco on his heels.

"I do rather like the idea of the kitchens," Draco said, gracious now that Harry's plans had been foiled. "Shall we take a picnic?"

"I'd like that," Harry said blandly.

Draco shot him a challenging look, but didn't argue. Fifteen minutes later, they were outside the wall of the rose garden, too close to it to be seen from the castle windows, spreading out the loot from an over-laden basket. Harry wasn't surprised at the first word out of Draco's mouth.

"Snape?"

"What about him?"

"Don't pretend to be as stupid as he's claimed you are. What did you want to ask him?"

"I wanted to ask him about the Uncommon Room -- about what Dumbledore had told the staff." It wasn't a lie; that was something he wanted to ask.

"If it was that, I wouldn't have to leave."

"Look," Harry argued. "He tells me more when you're not around."

"That was last year -- when he thought I was working for the D-- Voldemort."

"Still." Harry sighed. "I know it doesn't make sense. Maybe it's -- I don't know -- image in front of a Slytherin student? In front of his spellson? But he does." He shrugged and reached for a sandwich. "What had you wanted to talk about?"

"I don't half-believe you, you know."

Harry stuck out his tongue. "Slytherin. Of course you don't."

"Don't show that off unless you intend to use it."

"Any time, love. You're the one holding out now, remember?"

Draco laughed, and the mood lightened. "It's for our own good."

"Of course it is," Harry answered, rolling his eyes.

"Well it is!" Draco leaned forward, his eyes sparkling. "Here's my idea. Last night, when you came down to Slytherin, I was thinking that we should make proximity detectors, so we can find each other."

"But I--"

Draco waved the objection away. "Yes, I understand that now. And your instincts may have been good -- you are the talk of the house, this morning, and it's not all bad. But it occurred to me that the same tool could be helpful for identifying the rooms below the bathroom."

"How so?"

"Well, the entire corridor isn't aligned. We know that -- if it was just a matter of counting doors, it would be easy. But we can estimate a general area. If we make a proximity detector and reproduce the notebooks -- finally -- then one of us can stand outside the bathroom door while the other walks around below, and the person next to the bathroom can tell the walker when they are closest."

"Like a game of 'button, button'."

"Pardon?"

"Warmer, warmer, warmer, cooler," Harry tried.

"Ah, yes!" Draco sat back. "We call that 'seeker'."

Harry choked. "Perfect!"

For a few minutes, they caught up on eating. Harry had started off thinking about where they would go to enchant the new notebooks, and how they would keep from having them confiscated. Having thought of a place to work, however, he found himself devising other uses for it. "About the Uncommon Room?" he said.

"Yes?"

"If Dumbledore doesn't come through, I want to make an unofficial one."

"Where? The Shrieking Shack is a bit out of the way."

"And too good to lose," Harry agreed. "But there are a couple of blocked secret passages. I've been checking them out, and the one on the fourth floor has a large, dry, flat area before you get to the caved-in part. We could expand that, and just bring people in on it individually."

"A 'by invitation only' Uncommon Room?"

"Well, if we just tell everyone, someone will rat."

"True." Draco looked thoughtfully off into the distance. "I'll need to think about candidates."

"Not just people who agree with us."

"No, of course not. But neutrals will need to be carefully selected."

"Tested, perhaps?" Harry suggested. "We could have invitations to some other place first."

"And see what they do?"

"Right."

Draco nodded. "That may be part of it."

 

Their next lesson was Transfiguration, during which Harry and Draco sat together, but made it a point to behave exceptionally well. Ron and Hermione, two tables in front of them, talked more. Harry didn't want McGonagall to have any chance to criticize his behavior with Draco. He had even left Susara back in the dormitory, partially to make it easier not to whisper, and partially because he wasn't sure how dangerous Cursebreaking would be. He didn't suppose he and Draco could maintain this level of behavior for long, but a good start might make a difference in the professors' attitudes later.

After Transfiguration, Hermione headed off to Arithmancy, and Harry and Draco started off to Cursebreaking. Ron was taking the class too, Harry knew, and it was strange to know he was behind them. Inside the room, he and Draco settled -- as always -- near the back. Ron paused in the aisle beside them and gave Harry a measuring look.

"Would you like to sit with us?" Draco offered suddenly, making Harry blink in confusion. "We can edge over."

For a moment, Ron looked grateful, but that changed suddenly to a scowl. "No thanks, Malfoy. I'd rather sit with someone sane." With a dirty look at Harry, he walked up to the very front of the room and an empty seat next to Padma.

Harry expected Draco to be furious, but he just leaned close. "You ask, next time. He was offended that it was me."

"Why ask?"

"Because we need him, which means he needs to stop thinking of me as a rival."

Just then, the instructor dashed into the room. His brown hair was mussed, and his robes askew. He tugged them quickly into place and gave the class a quick smile.

"Hullo, everyone! I'm Professor Hecksban, and I'll be teaching this class, as well as Defense Against the Dark Arts. My previous teaching experience is entirely seminars for professional curse-breakers, so let me know if I move too fast or use jargon that you don't know. Oh, and don't expect me to remember names right off." He grinned at Ron. "Except for you. You must be Bill's brother Ron, right?"

"Um, yeah."

"Brilliant. All right, let's go around the room. Tell me your name, whether you have any experience with cursed objects, and how comfortable you are with-- No, on second thought, just name and experience. Let's start with you."

He pointed to a table in the back corner. The first student was a Hufflepuff, Susan Bones, who mentioned a few family curiosities. Justin Finch-Fletchley, next, confessed he had no experience at all. That brought matters to Draco.

"Draco Malfoy," he drawled. "My father made quite a hobby of cursed objects, but I confess that I know next to nothing about breaking curses." A few nervous giggles rose throughout the room, but Hecksban just nodded.

Harry, realizing he was next, shrugged. "Harry Potter," he said. "I've been at the wrong end of a few cursed objects."

Ron outright laughed at that, the sound familiar, and a few others followed. Hecksban grinned and let the whispers die out before continuing on to a Ravenclaw that Harry didn't know. Beside him was Blaise Zabini, whom he had previously not noticed.

When they had all introduced themselves, Hecksban cleared his throat. "All right. Let's go over a few scenarios. There are no right or wrong answers here -- or, well, there are, but you're not expected to know the difference yet. I just want to get an idea for your styles."

Hecksban opened a package of colored chalk. Doodling a little house on the board, he continued. "Okay, let's say you've been sent out to a cottage that everyone says is cursed." He added jagged green grass in a line under the yellow house. It was a typical child's representation, with a peaked roof, a centered door, and two windows. "You check out the front door, and don't find anything. You open it and check out the door jamb, and something seems odd, but you can't pin it down and aren't entirely sure it's malevolent. What do you do?"

Zabini raised his hand.

"Yes, Blaise?"

"Make the same checks on a window."

"Oh, very good!" Hecksban outlined the door and windows in orange. "Let's say it's the same. Harry?"

"Um, bring a friend to wait outside with his wand out, and walk in, staying alert."

Draco's hand shot up.

"Draco?"

"Pull my idiot boyfriend away from the door, summon the nearest small animal, and toss that through instead."

Some of the sniggering that followed that was rather high-pitched.

"But what if it needs to walk in to be affected?" the Ravenclaw objected.

"Oh!" Ron exclaimed. "Then a friend could float you in."

"How about Apparating?" Susan suggested. Everyone turned and looked at her. "Well, if the curse is on the doorway...."

"Clever," Hecksban acknowledged. "Justin?"

 

 

After the lesson, Harry told Draco that he was going to walk up to Gryffindor with Ron. Draco, as he expected, approved of that, since he now saw a use for Ron. Once he was there, however, Harry ditched half of his books, replaced them with a small bag of gold, invited Susara to ride, and started back down to the dungeons and Snape's office.

"Master?" Susara hissed in his ear as they walked. "Must I stay alone tomorrow?"

"Was it too long?" he asked guiltily. He'd been hoping for a few more days to reassure people.

"I miss your warmth."

"Is not your lamp warm enough?"

She coiled uneasily down and up his arm. "The lamp has adequate heat," she said, confusion flowing from her. "You are warm."

The answer was sweeter than she could understand, and he immediately decided he would just have to be circumspect.

"You can come with me," he promised. "We cannot talk during lessons."

"I will be as still as pure gold," she assured him, and he paused to run a finger down the warm gold of her scales.

"I am sure you will."

 

There were young voices coming from Snape's office, so Harry waited around the corner for the students to leave. When he heard footsteps moving away, he peered around, and then walked to the open door.

"Professor?"

"Ah, Mr. Potter. Shut the door."

With a grin, Harry did that. When it was closed, and muted, he flopped down into a chair, and took the bag of gold out of his school bag. "Here," he said, tossing it Snape. "Thanks for the loan."

Snape caught the bag neatly, and gave it an experimental bounce in the palm of his hand. "You're welcome," he said politely. "Knowing you, I believe I can count it later." The bag was swept into a drawer. "From the way you have made yourself comfortable, I suspect that is not your entire business."

"No, not really." Harry shrugged. "There are a few things."

"Then please start."

"Well, first, I thought we didn't need to be secretive, this year."

"It rather depends about what, doesn't it?" Snape asked. "Voldemort will not call me to account for not killing you. A number of people might still want to know what I have to talk to you about."

That made sense, actually. McGonagall, for example, might take it amiss if Harry were to be seen disappearing into Snape's workroom for long periods. In fact, hadn't Dumbledore warned Harry that seeking Snape's support would cost him others'? "All right. So you may still need to give me detention, now and then."

Snape smiled evilly, showing his uneven teeth. "I rather expect I will have cause, as usual."

"Right, but if I want to talk--"

"You will misbehave? No. Seventh-year potions are not toys."

A tightening of Susara's hold gave Harry an idea. "What about Susara?"

"Pardon?"

"My snake -- the torclinde. If I wear her around my neck in your class, go ahead and overreact to something."

"I never overreact," Snape lied baldly. "But yes -- an excellent signal. Those students who notice will likely assume I am angered by your presumption."

"Okay," Harry said, nodding.

"The next item?"

"Draco."

"Ah. What about Draco?"

"Well, he knows that you took me to the seer, of course. If you're willing to consult with me on divinatory potions, may I let him know?"

"I cannot obtain proscribed ingredients for you."

Harry waved that away. "Sorted."

There was a flash of something in Snape's eyes -- approval? interest? -- but his voice was bland. "I will consult on theory, discreetly."

"Equipment? Space?"

"Let me consider how it might be done."

"Okay." Harry shifted uneasily. "Er, last spring, Draco and I discussed something with the headmaster."

"Something," Snape repeated with amusement. "Might you be more specific?"

"Mixed-house social space."

"A frightening thought."

"He said he'd discussed it with the staff."

Snape's brow tightened into bands. "Discussed, no. It was mentioned and laughed off, as I recall."

"So, he's not really doing it."

Snape waved the matter aside. "This is Albus Dumbledore we are talking about. I would make no assumptions. He often approaches things with levity."

"All right. Will you let me know if it's mentioned again?"

"Certainly. Anything else?"

"Well, in general, I wanted to ask you about Talbot and Death Eater status--"

Snape cut him off. "Adequate treatment of that subject would require a lengthy discussion. Some other day, yes, but not during my office hours. I can only leave the door closed for so long."

"Fine. Should I go?"

"No." Snape's voice was suddenly harsh. "Tell me, rather, what you were thinking when you walked into the SLYTHERIN common room?"

"Uh." Harry wet his lips. "Um, I wanted to see what they'd do."

"What who would do?"

"The Slytherins. The ones who don't know me. If they'd attack or watch. If it would make me more real. If it would make me less of an enemy."

"Ah." Steepling his hands, Snape sat back. "So this was a deliberate risk?"

"Yes."

Harry waited to see how that would be received. Slowly, Snape nodded. "It was not entirely moronic, then. And it may make you less of an enemy to those who formerly had no opinion."

Harry nodded. "I'll do it again, I think, but I'll be careful about when, and who's there."

"I suggest bribes, also," Snape nodded. "Unopened sweets, or other indulgences."

"I may have a few things that will do."

"I am unsurprised," Snape said dryly, coming to his feet. "Go then. And leave the door open."

"Yes, sir."

The Slytherin first-year girl from the night before was waiting in the hallway. Harry gave her a smile as he waved her in.

 

 

Draco still had the copper mirror from last year, and the magical ink for charging the notebook was not difficult. They started it that evening, in the collapsed tunnel behind the mirror on the fourth floor, and by Saturday afternoon, they had a new Liber Geminus.

"We'll need to be more circumspect this year," Draco confided, as they headed up the stairs. "I suggest we don't use them in Transfiguration at all, and probably not in Potions, either. Charms should be safe, if we're not disruptive."

Harry nodded. "Defense and Cursebreaking, too. I get the feeling Professor Hecksban won't mind that sort of thing."

"Less distracting than passing notes, really." Draco agreed. "Ah. Here we are." He gave Harry a friendly nudge. "Your floor. I'll go up to the bathroom door."

Harry set off down the corridor. At first, it went in the same direction as the one on the floor above, but then it ended in a T. He turned left, and then right, and then entered some sort of storage room. There, he stopped and took out his book.

How's this? he wrote.

You could be closer. Move a few steps in some direction, and I'll tell you what changes.

Harry went to the far corner of the room.

Warmer. Can you go mor

The writing stopped. Draco? Harry queried. There was no response. Someone must have come down the hallway, he decided. Draco had hid the book. He would just wait here.

After a few minutes, he began to worry. Nothing too horrible should happen in that corridor -- well, barring odd monsters loose in the school -- but what if Nott had drummed up some support and gone looking for Draco? He decided to head back to the stairs, but he kept the book out, just in case Draco wrote to him again, and shared his attention between the page in front of him and the corridor ahead.

Before he saw writing in the book, he saw Draco. He was leaning against the wall, just around the corner from the stairs, and pulling out his quill.

Curious, Harry looked at the page.

Had to leave. Meet m

Not waiting for the rest, Harry hurried forward. "How about here?" he asked. Draco jumped, splotching the page.

"Harry! What are you doing here?"

"I decided to go looking for you, in case you were in danger."

Draco scowled. "Only of exploding from frustration. This won't work."

"Why not?"

After a quick glance around the corner, Draco pulled his quill back out again.

We shouldn't talk about it here. "Shall we go get some chocolate?" he asked aloud.

Harry had to puzzle that out for a moment -- the passage to Honeydukes. "Good idea," he answered.

When they were safely in the hidden space, Draco cast a privacy spell.

"It was Dumbledore," he said. "I hadn't been at the door a minute before he showed up. He has to be watching the place, somehow."

Harry grimaced. "Damn."

"Yes. Interfering old coot."

"We'll need to use the Shrieking Shack."

"That's far more dangerous."

"Not to mention a nuisance. It takes half an hour to get there."

They looked around at the cramped space around them and both decided it wouldn't do. Harry could see it when he met Draco's eyes.

"Too small."

"We don't need to share the one on the fourth floor--"

Draco shook his head. "The fumes might leak out into the corridor." He frowned. "I wonder if there's a place we could send your snake through."

"I won't send Susara into the walls! What if she gets lost?"

"Well, maybe we could send a phantom through the wall," Draco said. "I expect Myrtle is terrified of-- Oh!"

"What?"

"Ghosts can go through walls. And floors. Moaning Myrtle could tell us what's below her bathroom."

"Brilliant!" Harry exclaimed. "Except...."

"Do you have a problem with that?"

Harry scowled. "Neither of us can cast Control Spirit on her. We've both done it once, remember?"

Draco stared at him in surprise for a moment, and then rolled his eyes. "True," he said, "but there are other methods."

"Oh?" Harry asked, interested. If there was a second spell that would enable them to control ghosts, he could--

"We could ask," Draco snapped.

Harry bit his lip at the obvious reprimand. It wasn't as if he hadn't thought of that, he just didn't think it would work. "After last year, I doubt she'll--"

"She loves attention; you know that. She may not tell us outright, but we should be able to get enough information, given a little time. Now come on!"

"Where are we going?"

"The Prefect's Bathroom. There probably won't be anyone there this early, and with any luck, she'll be taunting the mermaid."

 

Draco entered the room first, and then, after confirming that no one else was there, opened the door for Harry.

"No Moaning Myrtle," Harry pointed out.

"True, but she likes to watch," Draco said loftily. "Sometimes she notices when you run the water."

He turned on a tap, releasing steamy water and the scent of jasmine. For a few minutes, they just sat on the bench, watching the water fall and the steam rise. Harry wished they could take their clothes off and slide in.

"We should come here some time," he whispered, his hand inching closer to Draco. "Really late at night."

A familiar giggle came from the drain in the floor. Harry jerked back. Moaning Myrtle shot out of the drain in a silver blur.

"Oh!" she exclaimed in dismay. "You have your clothes on!"

"Yes, actually--"

"We were looking for you," Draco interrupted, beaming at the ghost as if she were his best friend.

"Don't make fun!" she answered, stamping her foot even as her eyes brimmed with silver tears.

"We were!" Harry said hastily. "I wanted to apologize, er, for my behavior last year."

"Oh!" she cooed, as if he'd handed her a dozen roses. She swooped closer. "You don't have to worry. I understand."

"You do?" He couldn't see how she could.

Myrtle giggled. "Well...." she said suggestively, and Harry tried not to shudder. "Harry!" she said sweetly. "You know I hear all the school gossip. You should have told me you were safe, and then I wouldn't have been so forward. I'm not mean, you know, not like some people."

"Er, safe?" Harry asked. He couldn't imagine when he'd been safe.

"Bent," Draco clarified. "You know -- not about to take advantage of an innocent young woman."

"Oh!" Harry blushed. He had a brief impulse to protest that he was bi, but if thinking he was gay would stop Myrtle from throwing herself at him, he could live with it. "I don't think I've ever heard, um, that one. Maybe Muggles don't use it now."

"Mm." Myrtle still looked alarmingly and ineptly coquettish as she leaned her head to the side. "Is it true that the two of you are boyfriends?"

For a moment, they looked at each other. Then Draco reached over and took Harry's hand. "Yeah," Harry said.

She squealed. "I want to see you kiss. A real kiss, not a peck."

"Well...."

"Hush," Draco ordered. He turned to Myrtle. "If we kiss for you, do you promise to tell us what room is directly below the second floor girls' bathroom, and what is directly below that?"

She nodded. "Uh-huh."

"In a useful manner that we can understand," he warned.

"Well." She pushed up her glasses. "How can I tell what you'll understand?"

"If we find what we want," Harry said, "we'll kiss for you again."

"Ooo!" She giggled. "With your shirts off?"

"We wouldn't want to get caught," Draco said smoothly. "However, I'm willing to add touching."

"Below the waist?"

Draco scowled. "Above the waist."

"Hmph." She pouted. "Are you really homosexual?"

"Yes," Draco answered sharply. "However, I am not an exhibitionist."

Harry grinned. "I think that's the best you'll get out of him," he told her. "Malfoy pride, you know."

"Oh, all right." She sat on the edge of the tub. "So. Kiss."

"Promise first."

"I promise, yes. I'll tell you what rooms are directly below my bathroom."

Hesitantly, Harry leaned forward. He needed to not think about Myrtle, he told himself, as his lips touched Draco's. He needed to think about something else. Sliding into that tub, perhaps, late at night, with the drains blocked to ghosts. Draco's arms came up around him, interrupting the thought, and suddenly he didn't need to imagine anything. Draco's mouth was soft and warm, his lips pressing just as Harry liked, his cheek not yet scratchy, but not quite as smooth as a girl's. Harry played the tip of his tongue along the line of slightly parted lips, and they opened further, inviting. He moaned into the kiss....

Someone squealed. Harry's eyes went from barely closed to squeezed shut. With a warning brush of contact, Draco lifted his head, and Harry opened his eyes.

"Oh," Myrtle said. She fanned her face with one hand. "You look so sexy together! You'll do more next time?"

"A little more," Draco said firmly.

"I want five minutes."

"Agreed. If you give us enough information for us to find what we want, we'll kiss for you for five minutes, next time."

"Okay. Well," she simpered, "there are two rooms under my bathroom, one under most of it, and the other under just the end of the sinks."

Harry nodded. That made sense. The passage would drop down between them.

"I don't know what either is called, but one is full of odds and ends of old furniture. I've only been in there for a moment, because it doesn't have any plumbing, but I appeared in a disconnected bath there once, when I was startled. A terrible bath -- it was lined with seashells, and horribly uncomfortable to even think of sitting in! It's all things that no one wants, I think -- cobra candelabras, and crocheted pink and green antimacassars, and a folding bed carved to look like crocodile jaws."

"Lovely," Draco said dryly. "And the other room?"

"A caretaker's room," she said. "I'd call it a cupboard, but it does have a sink -- a plain, deep one, that always smells of dirty floors."

Harry grinned and got to his feet. "Great. Thanks, Myrtle. You've been a big help."

"Will you come to my bathroom?" she asked. "No one comes there now."

"It's been put off limits," Harry explained. "By Dumbledore."

"We'll meet you here," Draco said, "in a week's time."

"Ooo!" With a little shiver of delight, she looped up into the air and down again. "In a week, then!" In a quivering flash, she was gone down the drain.

Chapter Text

 

Harry had wanted to start right in on looking for the room after dinner, but Draco pointed out that they had spent all day with each other, and probably both had housemates to placate. "Besides," he said, "I need to get some work done. I have another five inches to write for my Ancient Runes essay. I suggest tomorrow morning, before breakfast. No one else should be about then."

That, Harry decided, as he heard a distant meow, had not accounted for the strange schedules of cats. Draco met his eyes. There was a door up ahead -- perhaps even the one that they were looking for -- and they hurried to it and checked inside. It was the storeroom, cluttered with hideous junk, just as Myrtle had described. They stepped in, Harry cast a freshening spell down the corridor, and they closed the door.

"Harry, if you don't mind my asking...."

"Removing our scent. To a creature that's used to wizards, it should seem like we took a portkey."

"Oh." Draco looked a bit put out. "Good thought," he said, without much enthusiasm.

Harry grinned. "Thanks, but not mine. It's something Snape taught me."

"Why would Severus wish you to evade Mrs. Norris?"

"We were discussing Nagini, actually."

"Ah. That makes more sense." Draco perked up a little. "Now that I think of it, that may explain your claim that he tells you more when I'm not present."

"Oh?"

"Well, he fears what I will do with it, of course."

"Do?"

"You're expected to use such things against the Dark Lord."

"Oh, right. That could be it." Not, Harry added to himself, that Snape is under any delusions that I don't evade school rules as well.

They spent a minute just looking at the room. It was dimly lit by a single high window on the far wall. Harry spotted the bath Moaning Myrtle had mentioned, and the folding bed, which was near the wall to their left. He pointed. "Along that wall, do you think?"

Draco frowned. "It depends on whether the cupboard is the next thing down this corridor, or along another corridor. Get out your notebook, and I'll go and find it."

"You're volunteering to risk Filch?"

"I," said Draco grandly, "am Head Boy."

Harry sighed. "Right."

 

The cupboard turned out to be along a perpendicular corridor, but still backed up against the left wall. Warmer, Draco wrote, as Harry started towards the back of the room. As Draco used the proximity spell to detect any change in his distance, Harry worked his way along the wall, stepping around random things on the floor. The worst was a mummified kappa in a candle-holder cage, but there was also a lectern of piled skulls -- the top two of them human-looking -- and a bronze chandelier in the shape of intertwined cobras, hoods raised and glass eyes glittering. Next to that, oddly, was a child's table shaped like a big, sparkly pink daisy. He was just past the crocodile-head folding bed when Draco wrote cooler. Harry stepped back. That's it, Draco confirmed, and Harry touched the wall. Draco was right here. The chute could be right here. Or, he realized, the chute could be to one side or the other of the cupboard, in the corner made by the cupboard and room.

Draco returned, and they began their investigations. Draco used a hole-cutting charm that they had found the previous night. A section of wall about an inch and a half in diameter came out in an even cylinder, but it was nearly a foot thick. They couldn't see anything through the hole.

"Lumos?" Harry said doubtfully.

"The wand will just block more. Besides, will yours reach? Mine won't."

Harry drew his doubtfully and laid it against the cylinder. "About the same length," he said. "I couldn't really keep a grip on it if I put it far enough in."

Draco snorted. "And you have a long one," he commented, which made Harry smirk.

"That? Haven't you seen Ron's?" He held a hand several inches past the tip of his own wand, making Draco snigger.

"Never looked in that detail," he said. "Not that I want him poking it in our business," he added.

Harry looked at the hole again, his expression sobering. "Susara could look."

"I thought you weren't willing to send her into the walls?"

"Well, not to, you know, explore. But this would just be looking with me here."

Susara had begun to move sleepily at the mention of her name, and now she spiraled down his arm and slipped her head out the sleeve. "Master?"

"Hello, beautiful. Would you do me a favor?"

"Of course," she answered, but he could feel a little uncertainty behind it. He raised his hand to the hole so she could see.

"We have formed this hole, but the wall is so thick that we cannot see through it. Could you go until you can just see out the other side, and tell me what is there?"

With a wordless feeling of consent, she slithered into the hole until just the tip of her tail -- curved to one side -- showed.

"Is there space?" he asked.

"It is dark."

"Hold still. I will make light." Carefully, he slid his wand in above her, as far as he safely could, and then cast a mild, focused Lumos. Her tail-tip flicked.

"Some space," she said. "Would you like me to go further?"

"No. I want to know if there is enough space for me."

A wave of constrained motion came down her body. "There is a large metal basin. If you made the hole in another place, there is space in this room."

Harry sighed. "Okay. Come back." As she coiled around his wrist, he turned to Draco and shrugged. "This goes straight to the cupboard, apparently, behind the sink. The chute must be to one side or the other."

Draco sighed. "Well, I suppose we can't expect to get it on the first try."

Suddenly, his head snapped to the side, and in a sudden move, he pushed Harry against the wall, just by the crocodile bed.

"Wha--"

"Shh!" Draco's hand covered Harry's mouth, and Harry realized he must have heard something. That was disappointing; there were better reasons, Harry thought, to be in this position. After several seconds of nothing happening, Draco began to relax. Harry stretched his tongue out and dragged the tip of it against Draco's palm. With a strangled sound, Draco stepped back. "My mistake," he said coolly, his expression haughty. Harry, who could recognize that as discomfiture, tried to repress a smile.

"So," he said, to cover for it, "which way along the wall?"

Draco looked back and forth, and finally pointed to the bed. "Behind that," he said. "It would be the most convenient, anyway."

"To hide a door?"

"Yes, exactly."

"It doesn't look like anyone comes in here," Harry pointed out. "The further we get from the door, the dustier everything is."

"Which is why we want a place not visible from the door."

They slid the cylinder back in the wall and rejoined it with a repair charm, and moved further down. There was room for only one of them behind the bed.

"Let's move it a few inches further out," Harry suggested. "That shouldn't be obvious from the door."

"Is there room?" Draco looked doubtfully around the bed.

"Sure. We just need to shift this chandelier--" Harry reached over. As his hand closed on one of the wrought brass cobras that formed the chandelier, it softened in his grasp. Then it hissed.

"Shit!"

"Petrificus!"

"Stop!" Harry tried, in Parseltongue, as Draco's target clanged to the floor. The snakes had all unraveled from their ornate knot, and were advancing menacingly. They paused at his command, raised heads wavering uncertainly side to side, but then slowly began to descend. The fastest one resumed its approach. Harry glanced at Draco, who jerked his head to the side. Understanding, Harry began to back into the center of the room, while Draco retreated along the wall. That caused a little more head waving, and they both got off another Petrifaction hex. The problem was, there were a lot of cobras, and their uncertainty lasted only a moment. Each serpent -- darkened bronze with streaks of verdigris -- slipped across the floor towards one or the other of them. Seeing one aimed for him twining through two snakes headed towards Draco, Harry tried a Corrosion hex.

As he had hoped, the three snakes stuck together. Their untangled parts still moved, if jerkily, producing a horrible clanging as they banged together. The tangle slowed the advance of another snake behind the mess, but cost Harry the time to cast a Muffling charm. He risked a desperate look at Draco, who was standing on the pink daisy table, his wand raised, while at least four snakes wove around it, trying to get high enough to strike him over the wooden petals. That was all that Harry had time to see before he had to fall back and petrify another snake that was after him.

No sooner had the petrified snake fallen than it rose in the air, a frozen squiggle. Harry ducked its tail and watched open-mouthed as it joined back into the chandelier construct with most of the others. His three corroded ones couldn't detangle and shape properly, but Draco cast another two spells, and soon they were back where they belonged. Carefully, Draco levitated the chandelier a little back from its original location, and just as carefully, Harry levitated the crocodile jaw bed a foot back, to where he had wanted it. They looked at each other.

They were too far apart to speak without being audible from the corridor. By silent agreement, they met back by the wall.

"We will need to redistribute the dust," Draco remarked. His eyes widened as he continued. "D-U-S-T, dust."

Harry choked back a laugh.

"Prat!" Draco snapped. "P-R-A-T, prat."

Harry bit his lip to restrain a snigger. It was only funny if they could stop it. "Try a sentence," he suggested.

Draco glared at him. After a moment, he raised his head. "The fucking table is fucking cursed. C-U-R-S-E-D, cursed. Ouch. O-U-C-H, ouch."

"Ouch?" Harry asked. "Oh, never mind."

Draco pulled out their notebook. My tongue hurts when I swear, he wrote.

Harry couldn't hold back the laugh. "Sorry," he gasped. "Curses for tots, damn!"

Fix it, Draco wrote, and glowered.

"How?" Harry asked. "I mean, I'd love to, but I haven't the faintest idea what to do. Madam Pomfrey--"

Draco shook his head. She might recognize the curse, he wrote.

"Point." Harry could not seem to stop his mouth from twitching. "It is rather memorable."

There must be something that stops it.

"Saying you're sorry?" Harry suggested. "Oh -- what happens if you try to spell something?"

 Draco frowned. He straightened, standing as if he were presenting something in a lesson. "C-H-A-R-M," he said, and then his mouth opened again. His lips twitched and twisted, and he grabbed on to Harry's arm. "NO!" he shouted, then shuddered, and then relaxed. "I think...." He paused, waiting, his breath coming hard. "I think that did it."

"Great," Harry said, "Now let's hope no one heard you. I didn't bring my cloak."

Draco caught Harry's hand and pulled him behind the bed. "Don't touch it," he warned at a whisper.

"You're thinking that everything in this room is cursed?"

"Yes. I gather you've reached the same conclusion?"

Harry nodded. "It seems likely. How did you stop the snakes?"

"Reparo."

"That's it?"

Draco looked smug. "It took me a moment to think of, but yes. Repaired, they were again a chandelier."

"That's clever!"

For a minute, they were silent. Harry watched Draco -- his cheeks flushed pink, his eyes dark in the dim light, his smile sharing a secret accomplishment -- and wondered what would happen if he leaned forward, inviting a kiss. Just as he was about to try, Draco turned away.

"We're safe, I think. Someone would have come in by now -- or at least run by in the hallway -- if anyone had heard. Let's get back to it."

They made a new hole in wall behind the folded bed. This time Susara said Harry might fit, if he got in sideways.

"Do you mean on my stomach?" he asked.

"No." She had come back out and now her tail trembled in frustration. "It is not as big as one of your doorways. It goes down between the walls like the down-hole to the den you used last year, but it is narrower, and with no slope."

"The--" Harry figured out what she meant. "That is what we are looking for. The down-hole."

Her upper body drew back. For a moment, she hissed. "Silly master! You should tell me what you need! It is there." She turned her head and stretched it out towards Draco. "Put me down, and I will show you."

Embarrassed, he put her on the floor. She slithered through the dust, past Draco, and to the very edge of the bed. There she reared up, and flicked her tongue out at the wall. "Here," she said. "Or a little further."

"How can you tell?"

"It still smells of the great snake," she said matter-of-factly, "and of you, and of your mate. And I saw the slant of it from below, in the last place."

"Thank you," he said, and turned to Draco. "One more test hole. She thinks she knows where it is."

She was right. At the next hole, she told them that she was at the edge of the chute. Harry punched the air, and Draco sagged back against the wall in relief.

"Brilliant!" Harry said.

"And now for a door," Draco said, his eyes closing. "I have the notes on two spells. We should do a second review bef--"

Harry pinned him against the wall and kissed him. Draco's eyes flew open. "Mmph--!"

Harry decided that if Draco really minded, he would make it clear, and he concentrated on Draco's warm mouth and firm body against his own. For at least a minute, the only sounds were the soft whispers of skin on skin and fabric on fabric, and increasingly loud breathing.

Then Draco reached out and grasped Harry's arm, stopping him. "Harry." His eyes were promisingly unfocused, but he closed them and took a deep breath. "We cannot get caught here. We should always be in this room as briefly as possible."

That made an irritating amount of sense. Harry drew back with a scowl. "Let's get to it, then."

 

After debating the two spells, they settled on the one that would make a section of the wall temporarily intangible -- though still visible -- at an assigned word or phrase. After they had discussed several possibilities and discarded them as being either too obvious or favoring one of them too much, Harry suggested "bats", and Draco agreed. That made "snitch" (or rather, Draco corrected, "snitches") the obvious counter-incantation.

That done, they opened the passage down to the chamber.

It was, after everything, that simple. Draco pointed his wand, zigzagged it back and forth, and said a two-word incantation, and then met Harry's eyes.

"Bats," they said in unison.

The wall looked just the same. Of course, it was supposed to. Harry reached a hand out to it. His fingers disappeared into the stone.

"How does it feel?" Draco asked.

"Cold. No, cool. Like mist, not like a ghost."

He brought his hand out and looked at it. It was fine. Shrugging, he put his head through. He couldn't see anything. Of course I can't! he chided himself, pushing back alarm. It's dark. He cast Lumos. It was the chute, slanting steeply down from the left, their vine ladder still lying against the rock wall. At a tug on his ankle, he pulled back through the wall.

"Well?" Draco demanded.

"We're here. It's one of the more slanted sections. Our ladder's still there, by the way."

Draco covered a smile with a sniff. "I wouldn't trust it, at this point. We should Vanish it and cast a new one. That will keep us from climbing too high, as well."

"Good point. Shall we go?"

Harry vanished the ladder. Before he could cast a new one, Draco had done it. "Not as severe a change of energies," he explained. "It wouldn't matter if we were just using it for a day or two, but...."

Harry nodded. He hadn't heard that before, but it made sense.

Draco looked hesitantly into the gloom. "Perhaps you should go first," he said. "Coming in not through the official entrance might trigger something, and--"

"And you'd rather I faced it?"

"And I expect it will require a Parselmouth, like the other tests."

Harry frowned. "Isn't it sort of risky, relying on the same trick for all the entrances?"

"It's a very rare talent." Draco hesitated. "And there was the basilisk."

"I suppose." Harry couldn't help thinking that was yet another Parselmouth trick. He might be able to sway a basilisk now. "I suspect he just didn't know much yet. He was only sixteen."

 

Draco turned out to be right. They descended the ladder unmolested, but as soon as Harry set foot on the corridor, there was a creaking of stone, and a large, black snake slithered out of either wall.

"Who comes?" they hissed, in stereo chorus, each staying to its side.

Harry thought quickly. Claiming to be Tom might trip him up -- he was reluctant to lie at all -- but he had better sound like he belonged here. "The heir to the Chamber of Secrets."

They hissed and writhed and tested the air with flickering tongues, but slowly settled. "You did not use the door."

"It is watched. I made another."

They relaxed further, coming together so he might have taken them with one blow. Harry settled himself, trying to project confidence. "I no longer need your services," he said firmly.

"Are we released?" The question was eager enough to give Harry second thoughts. Still, he did not want them.

"You are released."

They hissed with harsh pleasure, coiled about each other ... and crumpled under the contact. As Harry stepped forward, the last withered remains fell into dust. He froze.

"Harry?" Draco's voice wavered. Harry couldn't blame him. "What did you do?"

"I ... I said they were released."

"Merlin and Morgana." Draco shuddered, but stepped forward. "I'm so glad I didn't join that madman."

"Yeah. Me too."

 

The rest of the walk was uneventful, and they met nothing larger than non-magical spiders. Still, Harry felt a thrill of fear when he commanded the great door to open. Draco, apparently similarly nervous, held his wand forward, and lit the torches as soon as there was enough of a crack to point through. Flames flared to life, showing still water and grand stone, but amidst the vast space, a green and orange plastic sofa, shaggy throw cushions, a stone coffee table, and two folded blankets. Scattered rubbish littered the ground beside the sofa and the surface of the table: crumpled parchment, empty bottles and sweet wrappers, and a broken quill or two.

Harry grinned. Draco sniggered.

"We left rather a mess, didn't we?"

"Yeah," Harry admitted as they stepped in. "It didn't occur to me to clean up, for some reason."

"Or to me," Draco pointed out, with a shrug. "The perils of doing without House Elf service." He looked around critically. "Collect the empty bottles," he said, "and I'll show you something Severus taught me."

Harry grinned. "That's what you want to do first?" he asked, raising his eyebrows. He turned and sealed the door behind him. "Here?" he asked, leaning against it. "Together?"

Draco sucked on his lower lip. Harry licked his upper one. "How about showing me how good you are at transfiguration?" he suggested huskily. "Maybe that sofa would make a nice bed."

Turning his face to the side didn't stop Draco from keeping his eyes on Harry. "I have something better," he said suggestively.

"Oh?"

"Yes." Draco reached into his pocket. "I've been exploring this summer," he said. "And practicing size changes." From his pocket, he pulled what looked like a dollhouse version of a Hogwarts bed -- a four poster with blue curtains. "I hope you don't mind Ravenclaw colors -- it had the best mattress of the surplus ones. Where should we put it?"

"You expect me to make design decisions when you're holding a bed?"

"Well, it's not good to shrink and expand something too many times."

"All right. Past the next pillar?"

"As if it's another room?"

"Yeah, I guess."

Draco smirked over his shoulder as he turned away. "Are we playing happy families, then?"

"Mm." Harry caught Draco around the waist as he straightened from putting the bed down. "This is the part where the children are busy somewhere else."

With a bright laugh, Draco stretched back to give him a kiss. "Very busy," he agreed. "Let me just...." With a quick spiral of his wand, he cast an expansion spell, and the bed wavered and whooshed out to its full size.

"Brilliant," Harry said. When he reached out a hand to Draco, he could feel that he was trembling. Twining his fingers through Draco's helped. He had to swallow before he could speak again. "Shall we?"

He led Draco to the bed as if they were walking on eggshells. Draco sat down and tugged his hand, so Harry sat, half-facing him. For a long moment, they just stared at each other, and then both of them laughed tensely.

"Circe!" Draco's face was pink. "This is worse than the first time."

Harry nodded. "Well, we'd been sitting and kissing for a while, then, right?"

"Right," Draco said decisively. He toed off his shoes and scooted back against the headboard. "Come on, then. Let's kiss and not worry about it."

Harry tried to crawl up to join him, but his school robes got in the way. He pulled them off as casually as he could, and in trousers and a jumper, joined Draco at the top of the bed.

"Very nice," Draco said, running a hand covetously over his shoulders.

"The jumper?" Harry teased.

"No, the jumper is horrid."

Harry kissed him.

Draco's lips were soft, but moved hard against his own. Harry pulled him closer as they went on. This, at least, was familiar to the point of safety. He had to pull back a moment, afraid of laughing in Draco's mouth.

"What?"

"I was just remembering...." He had to think how to phrase this so Draco would understand he wasn't reluctant to do more. "The first time we kissed, it felt so dangerous. And now it doesn't."

"Good," Draco said fiercely, drawing him back.

Kissing was good, but very soon, it wasn't enough. Harry worked a hand between them to undo Draco's robes, and Draco immediately responded by sliding his hands up under Harry's jumper. Unease fell away in a surge of lust, and having opened Draco's robes, Harry went straight for the front of his trousers, and when he couldn't get them open, started working his hand under the waistband.

"Harry--"

"Want you."

"Let me...." Draco's trousers were apparently held closed with hooks, which he undid with two practiced pinches of fabric. Harry immediately pulled them down to Draco's knees. He was distracted by the sight of Draco's hard cock and traced his finger up it, feeling his heart speed up as it twitched under his touch. An uneven pitching of Draco's hips turned out to be Draco kicking trousers and pants off the rest of the way.

"Yours now," Draco insisted, reaching ineffectively. He pouted. "It isn't fair if I'm the only one undressed. I can't even reach your trousers."

"All right." Harry moved back off the bed and stood to push the offending garment down. He was very aware of how his body displayed his eagerness, with his erection parting the placket of his shirt under the hem of the jumper. "Better?"

After a shaky exhalation, Draco lifted his chin and pretended he hadn't been staring. "Yes. Now come back here."

Harry crawled back onto the bed, but only as far as he'd been before. He nudged Draco's legs apart to kneel between them, and returned to staring openly.

"Want to touch you."

"Go ahead."

Other sounds became loud in the absence of words: Harry's breathing, long with control, and Draco's, growing quicker and higher; the whisper of skin on skin; the unmistakable squelch of wetter contact. Harry wondered if Draco's prick would make as vulgar a sound pumping in and out of a girl, in the properly romantic breeding union.

"Harry," Draco implored, stopping all thought but the need to please him more. Harry adored him desperately through his cock, picking up the rhythm of his breathing and moving his mouth to match. Draco's cries grew in response, until Harry could hear him on the edge. He pushed his hands up Draco's sides and grabbed his nipples, squeezing tight, and Draco cried out, arched up, and flooded his mouth.

Harry stilled his motion, only then realizing that he had been rutting against the mattress as he worked. He moved his mouth off Draco's cock slowly, trailing his tongue up it as he withdrew. Shakily, Draco tugged at his arms, urging him up.

"Here. Wann' touch."

It was immensely satisfying to have broken Draco's diction. Harry grinned as he crawled up to lie beside Draco. There wasn't much room on the bed for two, but they didn't need any space between them.

"Good," he said quickly. "Want you to touch me." Draco hesitated, so Harry caught his hand and moved it to his own hard prick.

"Just that?" Draco asked, pulling up and then shifting down again.

"Yeah." It took Harry a moment to find the breath for more. "Do that."

"As you wish." Draco wrapped a leg over Harry's, pulling their lower bodies closer together. "You look so hot with my cock in your mouth. Like that, don't you?"

Harry moaned and started sucking on Draco's neck, which he supposed was response enough. Draco had a sexy voice, when he was in that mode.

"Love the feel of your cock," Draco continued, as a satisfied whisper. "Love getting a grip around this, long and hard in my hand, and knowing I did that; you're like that for me; you're like that from taking me in your mouth. Love the way your control dissolves, and you thrust and moan...."

He didn't get to say more, because Harry's control went to nothing at that. He grabbed Draco's arse and pulled him tight in to a motion he couldn't stop until he came, roaring, and everything slowed to a blissful overload. He dissolved down, still tangled with his lover.

For a moment, they just breathed.

Draco shifted to a slightly more comfortable cuddle and Harry moved to accommodate him.

"Mm," Draco commented.

"Happy?"

"Exceedingly."

"Me too." Harry squeezed him briefly. "If anyone had told me, last September, that the place I would feel safest was in this room, I would have thought they were raving." He kissed the most accessible part of Draco, which was somewhere near his shoulder. "And if they'd said in Draco Malfoy's arms...."

Draco's breath went pleasantly shaky at that. "Then?"

"Oh, protests that nothing but the foulest of Dark Arts....." Harry kissed again, a suddenly tightened muscle. "And it's something so simple as love," he whispered, and Draco melted against him.

"Harry."

"I love you."

"I love you too." Draco rolled towards him. "I'm so glad to be back here."

"Our place."

"Yes." Draco sighed. "But we'll have to bring others, this year, I suppose."

"We'll find somewhere else," Harry promised recklessly.

"No. If Weasley's going to do divination for you, for example, this is the only place I'd trust."

Harry sighed. "Can we blindfold him for the entrance?"

"I find that idea entirely agreeable." Draco frowned. "If we're going to discuss this, might we get out of bed?"

"We don't need to discuss it."

Sitting up, Draco shook his head. "No. We ought to. Let's get dressed and collect the rubbish, and then we can sit properly and strategize."

"If you insist," Harry answered, rolling his eyes, but he realized Draco was probably right.

Draco walked about incinerating bits of paper, and Harry collected empty bottles -- one cognac, a large number of butterbeer, and to his surprise, one of orange fizz. When did I bring that in? Draco dumped out their rubbish, which had another two cognac bottles and perhaps a dozen of butterbeer. "Those too," he said, as he magically separated the burnable items out from plastic. "Put all the clear ones on the table."

Curious now, Harry did as he was instructed. Draco came over to sit on the sofa. "Hm," he said. "That's quite a lot of glass. Let's see...."

Drawing his wand, he began to rotate it next to the bottles, which rose, spun, and melted together into a liquid blob. At a word from Draco, the blob stabilized in the air, and he used his wand to draw out a smaller ball of it. He lengthened that to a rod and expanded one end into a bubble, slowly pushing the space down. When he was finished, he had a glass mug that he settled on the table.

"Not crystal," he said smugly, "but not transfigured. It will be perfectly stable, even under a Reversion hex."

"That's brilliant!"

Draco flushed with pride. He made four clear glass mugs and a glass ewer, and then swirled the rest of the clear glass in with the brown and green to make four plates and a number of floating candle holders which he levitated over to the reflecting pool.

"You have plans to entertain?" Harry asked pointedly, and Draco lifted his nose into the air.

"One should always be prepared for company."

"Huhn." Absently, Harry reached under the table and pulled out a bottle. "Shall we--"

"Where did that come from?"

"Um." Harry blinked. "The usual place?" he tried.

"But...." Draco stared at the bottle. "How is there cognac here? We didn't leave the grounds after Easter, and we haven't been--"

Harry shrugged. "Not until the day of the Leaving Feast. What did you think I'd got drunk on?"

Draco's stare lifted and bored into him. "You went to the Muggle village? Alone? During the day?"

"Well, yeah."

"You IDIOT!"

"I was very careful, Draco. I used a disillusionment spell, and kept the cloak on--"

"So you stole that?"

"I left money."

"Why not do it in Hogsmeade, then?"

"I'd be much more likely to get caught--"

"But less likely to get killed!"

"Draco," Harry said soothingly. "It was months ago. I lived."

"Merlin!"

Harry lifted the bottle slightly. "Would you like some? It's not as good as usual, but it's not bad."

"Promise me you won't be that careless again."

Harry snorted. "I wouldn't even believe that!"

Draco's eyes narrowed. "To be more specific," he said clearly, "if you are going to leave the Hogwarts grounds, talk to me first."

Harry bit his lip. "If you can afford to be involved, okay. I'd rather. But that one had to be mine."

After a long, audible breath, Draco responded. "Because it wasn't your house that would benefit."

"Yes."

"That wouldn't matter to mine."

"Well it mattered to mine a great deal." Harry looked away. Carefully, he poured two small portions. "And I believe it mattered to the Hufflepuffs, as well. The ones that were civil to me last year are still." He extended a glass to Draco. "Drink?"

"Wait," Draco said, even as he took the glass. "Don't drink any yet."

"It wasn't poisoned, Draco. I sealed the room when we left."

"I know! Just ... we should have a toast. For the year."

"Oh!" Harry sat straighter. Draco closed his eyes for a moment, his brow furrowing in concentration.

"Here," he said finally. He took a deep breath and opened his eyes. "To our first year of adulthood and our last year of protection; to working and playing together; to victory."

Meeting his eyes, Harry smiled. Draco made a toast like he was casting a spell. "To us," he said simply, his glass meeting Draco's, and they both took a ritual sip of the amber liquid.

Draco's face scrunched up a little when he swallowed. "I'd forgotten," he said.

Harry laughed. "Snape didn't let you drink as much as your parents did?"

"Wine, often, but nothing distilled." Draco frowned. "And it's nowhere near as good."

Harry nodded apologetically. "It's the only time I bought something just to get drunk. I couldn't bring myself to get the cheapest thing available, but I also didn't want to drop what could be a week's rent on something I was going to waste a third of."

"We'll need to get something better in Hogsmeade."

"Oh, I have a lot of better stuff in my trunk; I'll bring some of it down."

Draco covered his face with one hand. "A lot of...."

"Not-- Just-- Look, some is for us, and some is for gifts, okay? I was out in Muggle London under Polyjuice, and I went shopping."

Draco studied him. "I ... I don't mean to sound fussy," he apologized, "But I do want to know -- how much did you drink this summer?"

Harry frowned. "Just once, really. When I came home with this stuff, Fred and George were freaked out, so I gave them a bottle and we all had some. That's all. Nothing like before Easter."

"All right."

"Before Easter was because you pushed me, you know."

"I'm frighteningly aware of that. But in the steeple...."

"It wasn't that much either."

"Good, then." Draco took another sip. "Yes, you should bring something better down -- but I did mean it about finding more constructive things to do with at least some of our time, this year."

"Well, we have a list, don't we? Divination, war strategy, winning over our respective houses...."

Draco made a face. "You might have better luck with mine."

"Oh?"

"Well, it's not bad, really," Draco demurred. "The house is split, though."

"Over you?"

Draco gave him a look. "Over the Dark Lord, Potter. I'm just a symptom."

Harry grinned. "Ten minutes out of bed, and I'm 'Potter' again," he lamented.

"Only because you're being dense."

"So Slytherin is all either anti or pro-Voldemort?

Draco shrugged. "The upper years, at least." He thought. "Well, no. Pro or neutral, mostly. I can only think of a few who are genuinely opposed to him. Of course, Millicent seems to be firmly pro-you -- I'm just not convinced she's noticed the corollary. Her family is neutral." With a sigh, Draco turned slightly away from Harry, but only to settle back against him. "Do you know what's up with Hermione? She's ignoring me."

"Oh." Harry wondered how to explain.

"You're not surprised."

"No. Well, disappointed, maybe. Have you really tried speaking to her?"

"When we first got back. I said 'good morning' and she nodded and said it back like someone was holding a wand to her throat."

"You may have to try a few times."

"Why? We were friends in June. I haven't done anything since then." Draco's voice grew sharp. "Did she expect letters?"

"No, it's-- She gets the Prophet at her parents' house--"

"And?"

"They read some of it. About the trial. And she had to say yeah, that was me, and I'd been in a lot of trouble, and yeah, you were the boy she'd talked about before...."

"Why would she talk about me?"

"Because you called her names? Because you wished awful things on her?"

"Oh." Draco went pink. "That before."

"Right. So you may need to remind her you actually have changed. She may have convinced herself that you were just using her, last spring."

"Well, I was using her," Draco pointed out, "but not just. I mean, I became fond of her during it."

"If it makes you feel any better, I'm having trouble with her too."

"Hm. Maybe I should bring her to see the Quiris." Draco shot Harry a challenging look. "You too."

"I'd expected that earlier."

Draco nodded. "I couldn't. It was too disturbing for them when everyone returned."

"Yeah?"

Horsyr said they were like this with even small groups of wizards, at first. They get used to the energies -- She's managing to take Keeba and her daughter through city neighborhoods, now."

"Interesting. So do they become less sensitive to Dark Arts?"

"At a distance, yes, they learn to ignore some of the residue. But she doesn't think the time aspect changes."

Harry nodded. That was interesting, but not useful. He sipped his drink. Draco sighed, and leaned back, relaxing against him again.

"All right," he said. "Special projects. Do we have time?"

"Bleh. It depends how seriously I take Hermione's study schedule."

"Hm. Perhaps we should ask her advice on projects. It might kill two birds with one stone. "

"Then she's with us."

"Yes, but we can be alone here. And if we do a project with McGonagall, that might be three birds. I'm sure she'd soften a bit if she saw me working with Hermione."

"True, but a project with Snape -- without her -- might give us time to consult with him without it being questioned."

Draco waved the thought off. "You forget, he's my spellfather. We can go to his rooms."

"Professor McGonagall won't approve if I start visiting there."

"Ah." Draco tilted his head. "Hm. Can we do one with each? Perhaps the one with Severus could be largely fictitious."

"He won't allow that."

"Oh, all right. Conceded. But he would agree to something easy, if he understood the purpose."

"Maybe." Harry laughed at his own doubt. "I suppose you'd know better than I would. We shouldn't meet more than once a week, I think."

"If that. Very well. Let's both think about it and discuss it again on Tuesday."

"Tuesday?"

"I had thought every other day, again?"

"All right. But it will have to be after my Quidditch practice, so we'll miss dinner."

"I'll bring food," Draco said promptly. "Next item -- Weasley. When?"

Harry groaned. "Give me at least a week or two."

"Your relationship is still tenuous?"

"Yeah. Better than last June, but ... shaky." Harry smiled wryly. "At least they've changed the damn match rotation. Gryffindor's up against Ravenclaw first. Worst case, I should be fine with him after that."

"Early October?"

"Yeah." Harry wrapped an arm around Draco's chest and pulled him close. "But I mean that about 'worst case.' I really think a week or two should do it, if I don't do anything he hates."

"We'll need at least that to complete research on the first potions, and I suspect at least a weekend to make them."

"Oh, right -- what do you have for that?"

 

They discussed the divination potions until Draco noticed that it was time for lunch, and then raced upstairs, pausing only as needed -- for Harry to seal the chamber behind them, and once for Draco to set a monitoring charm in front of their new entrance to the passage and close it, and for Harry to blow the dust around to hide their tracks. They walked into the Great Hall late and together.

 

Chapter Text

 

"Where have you been?" Hermione asked, as Harry squeezed in beside her. Seamus edged over to give him more room. "You've been gone all morning!"

Harry shrugged, and reached for a ham sandwich. He had forgotten it was morning. He supposed he associated the Chamber with late nights. "Out with Draco," he said. Hell. I had half a glass of cognac for breakfast. No wonder it was making me queasy. That must have been a couple of hours ago, now, though. No one should be able to tell.

"All night?" Seamus suggested. "Your bed was already empty at dawn."

"Why were you looking in my bed at dawn?" Harry asked indignantly.

"I just noticed, that's all. Had to use the loo."

"I must have just left," Harry countered quickly, scooping up some mustard. "We'd been meaning to go to breakfast; we just forgot."

"Distracted by your pretty boy?"

"Yes, if you must know."

"More to the point," Hermione interrupted. "Why were you up at dawn?" Her expression gentled. "Couldn't you sleep?"

That was, Harry supposed, his usual reason for getting up early. He smiled at her. "Nah. We wanted to explore, and we decided Filch wouldn't be skulking around that early." He yawned. "Though now it feels like evening, and I haven't done any schoolwork."

"That's all right," Ron said. "I haven't started mine, either. Of course, I just got up."

"Yeah," Harry agreed, slumping.

"Until he came down, I assumed you were sleeping in," Hermione added.

"She was all set to mount a hunt," Ron said cheerfully, taking an egg mayonnaise sandwich from a platter. "But I said this was the most likely place to find you."

"Though I was starting to worry," Hermione said reproachfully.

Ron laughed. "Don't believe her, mate. She's been worried for an hour."

"Sorry," Harry said.

"You missed announcements, you know. Next Saturday is blocked for Quidditch tryouts. You need to settle our slot with Hooch."

Harry nodded. Zoe and Damian were gone, leaving him with a Chaser spot and a Beater spot to fill.

"Are you trying out?" Neville, who had kept his head down during the interrogation, asked the question innocently. Ron tensed.

"I'm not that great a Chaser," he said. He glanced down the table, to where his sister was talking with one of her friends, and Harry could see him evaluating his chances and finding them lacking. "Probably not."

"Oh." Neville blushed. "Well, you look brilliant to me, but I don't know, I suppose." Seemingly aware that he was digging himself in deeper, he made an uncharacteristic grab for an orange, and busied himself with peeling it.

 

Harry managed to catch most of his teammates as they were leaving lunch. From the way that Jason's attention stayed on Lindsey, even while he answered Harry's question about schedules, Harry thought the younger boy might have taken a fancy to her. She didn't seem to mind, but Harry resolved to keep an eye on the matter. It wouldn't do to have it interfere with their relationship in the air. It wasn't until he was looking around for Ryan that Harry realized Ron had slipped away. Hermione was still lingering by the door. Harry waved her on and went back to his search.

 

"Hi," Harry said, slipping onto the end of the sofa nearest Ron's chair. His friend was staring at a Charms text, but didn't appear to be reading it. From the facing chair, Hermione watched anxiously. Ron responded with a neutral grunt.

"Look, about tryouts...."

Angrily, Ron looked up. "Drop it, Harry," he said sharply. "I know my limits. I'm not the best you've got. Ginny's been faster on her broom for at least a year. I'll just have to settle for being the second Weasley not to make the house team." He grimaced down at his book. "Me and Percy. Ugh."

"But I wanted to tell you," Harry said urgently, "Cornelia wants the Beater slot. Keeper's position is open now."

Ron looked up, astonishment wide on his face. "Keeper?" Slowly, he began to smile. "I might have a shot at that."

"Right." Harry cleared his throat. "Someone could do better at trials, of course. I mean, I need to choose the candidate who's best for the team. But you should get in some practice."

"Right." Ron closed his book with a snap, tossing it to the table as he surged to his feet. Harry saw Hermione wince and hold her mouth shut tight. Ron didn't notice; he was calling for Ginny as he crossed the room. With a grin, Harry patted the cushion beside him, and Hermione scooped up her schoolbag and came over to join him on the sofa.

"He should study," she said faintly, ducking her head.

"True," Harry allowed, watching Ron's animated explanation to his sister, over by the windows, "but he wasn't, really."

"It will take up so much time."

"Hush. He'll be fine."

"He doesn't do nearly as well as he could!"

"He does well enough," Harry soothed. "If you wanted ambitious, you're looking in the wrong house."

She laughed at that, and settled. Ginny and Ron had parted quickly, in good cheer. Harry suspected they were off to get hats and gloves.

"Did you want ambitious?" she asked.

"Not really, but it seems to be what I've got." He thought about Millicent. "Though there seem to be all sorts of ambition."

"Oh? What makes you say that?"

Harry waved nebulously at the air. He would need to keep this vague. "Just ... I know a few more of the Slytherins, now. What they want isn't always so simple as money or power."

"Recognition?" she guessed.

"Or independence. Or...." he shrugged. "Other things like that."

"Abstractions."

"Sometimes."

She sighed. "I don't really like you spending time with Slytherins, Harry. I can't forget that one of those abstractions is pureblood dominance."

He shrugged again, trying to keep his shoulders loose. "Well, there's no danger I'll be spending too much time with that sort of Slytherin. I'm not really their type, if you'll recall."

Her mouth tightened. "Draco was that sort. I'm not sure he still isn't, under other ambitions."

Harry snorted. "He could find a pureblood lover, I'm sure. No, Draco was already questioning that when we became friends. If he hadn't been, it wouldn't have lasted long." He shifted to face her. "He misses you, by the way. He asked me why you were snubbing him."

"I am not snubbing him!"

"He feels like you are." Harry bit his lip. "You have to be careful with Slytherins. Sometimes they're too subtle -- too used to subtle. They interpret things."

Hermione sat back with a huff, but she looked like she was thinking.

"Keep it in mind, anyway."

"Oh, all right." She sighed. "You really should start your schoolwork, Harry."

"I suppose." He would rather have followed the Weasleys out to the pitch and watched them practice. "Keep my place; I need to get my books."

 

Harry was on his way to Tuesday's practice when he spotted Rob, Sammy, and Jeremy over by the windows playing Exploding Snap. He detoured over to the game.

"Harry!" Jeremy exclaimed, seeing him approach. Rob waved a hello, and Sammy looked nervously at the Firebolt resting against Harry's shoulder.

"Hi," Harry said. "Want to come watch a Quidditch practice? We'll talk for a while, since it's the first one, but I plan to start with a little warm-up." He grinned at Sammy. "You can see some good flying."

Rob was already scrambling to his feet. "Could we?" he asked excitedly, apparently unable to believe his good fortune.

"Of course. Go and get cloaks, now; it will get chilly."

Rob dashed off, with Jeremy close behind. Sammy stood more slowly. "Rob showed me some magazines," he advanced.

"All right." Harry leaned back against an upholstered chair so he didn't have to look down so far. "Are you interested in the real thing?"

Sammy chewed on his lower lip. Harry wondered if he still thought this was all some elaborate joke. Eventually, the boy shrugged. "I guess I'll take a look," he said.

"Great. Cloak, now."

With a last look at the broom, Sammy nodded and left for his dormitory.

 

The three boys maintained their moods for the walk down: Sammy cautious and distant, Jeremy moderately pleased, and Rob bouncing with excitement -- except for occasional puzzled looks back at Sammy. From outside the stands, Harry could hear other players, but no one was high enough to be visible over the walls. He led the kids up to the seats. Being the tallest, and in front, he was the first to come in sight of the players -- Jason and Lindsey were in the air, and Cornelia on the ground, pinwheeling her arms in a warm-up exercise. As the boys emerged into the open air, Harry looked back at Sammy. His eyes widened, and his mouth fell open, and he came to the present moment in an instant.

"Wow!" He darted forward to the rail, leaning out to watch. "That's brilliant!"

"I showed you my magazines," Rob said reproachfully. Harry laughed.

"Muggles have lots of ways to create pictures of things that aren't real," he explained. "It's not like wizards. We just change what's real and then photograph it."

Sammy's head whipped around, and after a second, he gave Harry a tentative smile. "Was it like this for you?"

Harry nodded. "Yeah, mostly. Except I was really ready to believe it."

"Oh." Shoulders tightening, Sammy looked away.

Harry joined him at the rail. "No offense intended. Just ... is there someone who usually lies to you?"

The shoulders came down a little as Sammy nodded. "M'brothers."

"That's too bad," Harry said sympathetically.

"And everyone believes them," Sammy continued indignantly. "Just because I said I'd got Wolverine down from the tree."

"Wolverine?" Harry asked.

"A kitten. And I did get him down."

"Ah." Harry nodded. "Yeah. I remember how far I got trying to explain that I had no idea how I'd ended up on the shed roof."

"But wouldn't they--" Rob stopped. His eyes widened. "Oh. Muggles."

"Right. I think it happens to a lot of kids with Muggle families." Harry shook off the thought and the memories that came with it. The Dursleys had hated him before any of that. "Anyway, you can all watch from here for as long as you like, and you can go back to the castle when you're bored. No going into the changing rooms, though, and no stepping out onto the pitch, got it?"

"Yes, sir!" Rob chirped, and Jeremy and Sammy both nodded. Harry mounted his broom and kicked off from the spot, hopping the rail and joining his teammates in the air. The boys cheered.

 

Afterwards, while everyone else was at dinner, he told Draco about it.

"First years?" Draco asked dubiously. He had brought down roast beef, sliced thick and set between hearty slices of bread, and for after, covered bowls of apple pudding. Harry opened his sandwich and spooned some horseradish onto his beef.

"Look," he said, "I'm fine with the seventh years, because they know me, and the sixth-year girls -- two of the five are on the team, and a third is Ginny, so that's okay. And at least two of the sixth-year boys think I'm okay. But the younger kids are a little wary of me. If I start with the first years, they have the least bias. They didn't go through all the fighting and distrust and such of last year, or the rumors that I was crazy the year before that, or Cedric dying with only my word on how the year before that." The last still hurt to mention. Harry had to stop to steady his breath. He took a bite of his sandwich.

"True, but they're not very useful."

Swallowing, Harry shook his head. "It makes me look more dependable, I think."

"Not like you're corrupting them?"

"No one seems anxious," Harry countered. "Amused, maybe. Parvati claims I'm trying to look taller."

Draco laughed. "Tell her Seekers are supposed to be compact."

"She wasn't serious! So, how have your efforts been going?"

Draco shrugged and took a moment to chew and swallow. "Linnet is definitely interested in speaking to you about current events, but she's never been a real partisan. Blaise came to me privately to say that he intended to stay neutral as long as possible, but that he no longer discounted your potential in the upcoming conflict."

"Upcoming?" Harry repeated incredulously. "Wasn't he here last spring?"

Draco dismissed the criticism with a graceful wave of his hand. "My housemates tend to think of that imbroglio as a family matter that overflowed. Typical Malfoy extravagance."

Harry decided not to ask what imbroglio meant. He expected it didn't usually include people dying and buildings being destroyed. "I spoke to Hermione."

Draco lifted an eyebrow. "And?"

"I think a project with her would be worthwhile. You two need to spend some time together."

Exhaling sharply, Draco nodded. "I've been wondering.... Might she think we're using her for cover?"

Harry frowned. "I hope not. Maybe."

"Well, then. Perhaps we should arrange things with Professor McGonagall first, and then invite Hermione."

Harry considered that. He didn't think Hermione mattered much to their chances. "Okay."

"That would be my preference. Also, I spoke to Severus, and he responded positively to the idea of a simple project for the purpose of maintaining discreet contact, but he would like to consult with you privately first. He will keep you after Potions on Thursday or Friday."

Harry nodded. "Got it."

Accordingly, they stayed after their Transfiguration lesson the next day. They had a free period before Cursebreaking, but Professor McGonagall did not; Harry knew the sixth-year students would be arriving soon. The professor frowned slightly as the two of them approached her desk.

"May I help you gentlemen?"

Draco shifted back, leaving Harry to answer. He supposed Draco might find the Gryffindor head of house intimidating.

"We were wondering," he said, "about possibly doing a special project."

She frowned. "It is your N.E.W.T. year, Mr. Potter, and you are already taking a full schedule. Your energies might be better spent in revision."

He nodded. "Yes, but I don't think this will be too intensive. We were both interested in learning more about transfiguration of form only."

Her face lengthened as her eyebrows came up. "Shaping? It is a minor branch of study -- hardly of any use beyond art."

Harry felt his face heat, but it was as much with indignation as with embarrassment. He didn't want her putting down Draco like that, even if she didn't intend to. He was sure Draco must be humiliated. "It's useful often enough that we both end up doing it," he retorted.

"Do you really?" She looked intrigued. "For what, if I may ask?"

Stepping forward, Draco pulled one of the candle-holders out of his bag. "Things like this," he said.

McGonagall nodded. "Ah," she said, nodding. "Yes, art."

Draco raised his chin haughtily, and Harry intervened. "I don't think the table is art. Show her, Draco."

After a momentary look of confusion, Draco nodded and drew his wand. With slow, angled stokes, he pulled stone from the wall, shaping a small shelf with an ornamented wedge of supporting stone below it. Harry looked over at McGonagall, and saw her jaw drop. When the shelf was finished, Draco set the candleholder on it and stepped back.

McGonagall straightened. "Well!" she said. She cleared her throat. "Yes, I see. Shaping stone is quite difficult. You do seem to have a talent for that, Mr. Malfoy." She glanced at Harry. "And you?"

He shrugged. "I'm not particularly good at it. I made him a brooch, once, but that was out of gold."

The corner of her mouth quirked, and then settled. "Yes. Soft metals are much easier to work." Her piercing gaze fixed him to the spot. "If it is his talent, Mr. Potter, why do you wish to do it?"

"I just think it's cool," Harry answered baldly. "And we want to do something together."

"Ah." She steepled her hands for a moment. "Well," she said, inclining her head. "If what you want is to do something together, I have a suggestion that should suit nicely, but stretch you both a bit more." Afraid she was going to tell them to go do their homework, Harry managed only a slight nod, but she smiled thinly and continued.

"You may have seen me working with Professor Dumbledore during the rebuilding last spring. Combining forces for Transfiguration is a difficult matter ... but easier if the people involved have an affinity for each other. Rather than attempting to imitate Mr. Malfoy's talent, then, I suggest you balance it. He can work on changing the form of your base material, while you change some other aspect. For example, he might spin broken glass into a window, and as he forms it, you color segments of it. Or he might make a screen of wood, and you turn some panels of it to glass. If you wish to do shaping as well, there is the shaping of two things around each other, which is how some of the highest quality tools are made."

Harry and Draco looked at each other. "That sounds brilliant, actually," Harry said, even though he knew they could not include Hermione.

Draco's nod was hesitant, but his smile unmistakable. "Yes," he said. "Entirely."

McGonagall nodded briskly. "We have other things to discuss, such as scheduling and workload, but I have a class arriving. Devise a more detailed proposal, please, including a schedule that will not hamper your other activities, and bring it to me during my regular office hours."

Harry nodded readily. "Right. We will."

 

They spent their free time until Cursebreaking discussing possibilities, trying to dream up a project that was difficult enough, but not too time consuming. They both liked the stained glass idea, but Harry wondered if they could do something as elaborate as a display case with stained glass doors. After a tangent on the design of wooden hinges, they speculated about whether this sort of combined spell casting would make other kinds -- perhaps in combat -- easier. Draco said the principle was probably the same, and Harry nodded thoughtfully. That might explain why Professor McGonagall wanted him to learn it.

 

"Do you have plans?" Draco asked, as they left the room after Cursebreaking. Harry looked up the stairs to the bobbing spot of red hair that showed Ron taking the stairs two at a time.

"I might go out to the pitch."

"Ah." Draco sighed. "It's the library for me, I'm afraid -- at least until practice."

Harry was about to say that he would join him when he spotted someone else -- a flight down, Millicent Bulstrode was just turning on to the stairs.

"Well, catch you later, then," he said, and set off after Millicent.

 

He tried to catch up to her discreetly, but she was taller, and moving with an open stride, and two flights down, he was barely closer to her than he had been.

"Mill!" he called, as she crossed in front of the doors to the Great Hall. "Millicent!" Millicent turned.

"Whatever--"

"You move fast," he complained, hurrying up to her.

"Oh. Uh, I was in a hurry...."

"Is this a bad time?"

"Nah." She shook her head. "I was moving away, more than toward. What's up, Potter?"

"I just thought we should talk," he said casually. This clearly wasn't the place. Slytherins and Hufflepuffs were passing by, and some of both scoping out the encounter in passing. Harry wondered if Millicent had used his last name out of habit or to establish distance. "Come for a walk with me?" he suggested.

In another context, that could have been flirtatious, he realized belatedly, as Millicent smirked, but did not laugh.

"All right," she said, resettling her bag on her shoulder. "Let's go."

With a nod, he set off down the corridor, to the back staircase up to the classrooms. As it was less convenient to the main staircase down from the ground floor, it was not in heavy use. The greatest risk there was that they would disturb a couple snogging in the shadows, but it was still too public for discussing potions. Harry racked his brain for something he could say.

"So," he advanced finally, as they started up the stairs. "Thank you for your protection the other night."

She snorted. "I wasn't sure you'd noticed."

"Oh, I knew the risk I was taking. I was keeping a close eye on who was where."

"Really?" Her heavy eyebrows rose as she looked sidelong at him. "You did a good job of looking like it was nothing."

He shrugged. "If I look nervous, what's the point?"

"What was the point without?"

"Seeing who did what. Seeing if I might risk it again."

She frowned, slowing as they climbed. A rustle of noise at the first landing was what Harry had expected. He didn't look, but had the impression Finch-Fletchley had been one of the pair. "Again," she said plainly, "why?"

"Ah." He hadn't thought of her question that way. The answer to this one had been honed by Hermione's challenge on the train. "Because I think I need to spend time with the Slytherins -- well, with anyone who might consider supporting Voldemort, but doesn't entirely yet. I need to show people who are wavering that his opposition isn't everything they're afraid it is."

She considered that. They were passing the third floor now. The sound of distant chatter bounced down the corridor to them, fading as they continued up. Harry motioned to the side as they neared the fourth floor. "This way."

There was no one in sight, but she still walked close enough to him to speak quietly. "That might be worth the trouble. You're certainly not what I expected. Still, it's a dangerous place for you."

"I know that," he said, turning the corner into a narrower corridor. Two figures twenty feet away, even expected, disturbed him, and Millicent jumped.

"Oh," she said, staring at the shadowy forms and lifting an arm experimentally, "a mirror." Her mouth twisted into a scowl. Harry shrugged and led her between two doors to side rooms, and straight up to the glass.

"What's this for?" she asked suspiciously, but Harry already had his wand out. He tapped the glass, and reached through it to a door latch.

"Come on," he said.

 

Safely behind the re-solidified glass, she cast wand light to examine the space they had entered. With a grin, Harry set his wand to a barely visible line at waist height on the passage wall, activating a phosphorescent glow that stretched down the corridor on that side.

"Brilliant," Millicent breathed. "Where does it go?"

"Oh, there's a cave-in further on," Harry said, starting down the passage, "but a good wide area before you get there."

"Is this the place for brewing?"

"No, I'm afraid the fumes might be noticeable. I have another spot for that." Around a curve, the glow faltered. Harry reached forward to tap past the gap, and another section came on. That light circled two-thirds of the way around a wide space. The low illumination made tumbled rocks seem larger, and turned the collapsed section beyond into a rising wall of spiked shadows. "No, I want this for the Uncommon Room -- for mixed-house social space. I was hoping you might help me clean it."

"You're going to tell everyone about it?" she asked scornfully.

"Well, not everyone," he replied. "Just people I trust not to tell."

She crossed her arms over her chest. "And when will we start my brewing? Did you buy what you said you would or not?"

"Of course!" he replied indignantly. "Well, except for the mountain crab shell. We might not have everything to start this weekend, but we definitely will for the next."

"Where are you going to get a pound of mountain crab shell in a week?" she snarled.

"Fred and George! I'm telling them I'm starting a dueling club!"

She pulled her head back like a startled cat. "Oh."

"That will make sense, right? I mean, if it's a secret, we'll need regular healing potions, so I can order from them regularly. And they have a business, so they can buy large quantities of things. And they'll approve."

Her good humor restored, she snorted with amusement. "Gryffindors."

"Right," he said stonily. "So you can trust me, right? I'm not about to go back on my word."

"Did I offend you?"

"Yes."

She studied him for a moment. "Oh. Well, sorry, then." Uncomfortably, she looked around the space. "So we should pick up the rocks?"

"And stabilize the fall," he responded, going along with the change of subject. "And then we can worry about cleaning, and I'll probably get Draco to try to help me fix the line that doesn't glow anymore."

"There's another one?" she asked, stepping over to the wall.

"Yeah. It should be both sides of the passage, and then they each loop through this section, so there should be more than twice as much light here."

She examined the glowing stripe on the wall, running one thick finger along the unlit grey line below it, and then glanced to where the light arched over what had been the other door. "I see." She shrugged. "Well, I'm no Merlin with charms, but I can move rocks." With a grin, she picked up a head-sized stone and hefted it in one hand.

"Wait!"

His warning was too late. She'd hurled the rock neatly into the rubble, where it hit with a thunderous crash, knocking loose several other stones which rumbled down to the floor.

They were both silent as the echoes died away. Some dust drifted down from the space above, but nothing more fell. Harry cleared his throat. "Maybe we should, um, stabilize the fall first?"

"And not throw them," she said glumly. "Got it."

"Well, that might be okay if I cast a cushioning charm where they'll land."

She perked up. "It would certainly be more fun."

 

In the end, Harry ended up casting a cushioning charm next to the pile, and a silencing charm on the room. Millicent tossed stones on the cushioned spot, and Harry levitated them out, one at a time, to chink into the pile. He felt like there ought to be something like Draco's glass spell for melting rock so he could bind them together. He should ask McGonagall, he decided, and then Flitwick, if she didn't know. Or maybe Draco could just do it.

"Harry," Millicent said, in between rocks.

"Yeah?"

"Where are you thinking of for brewing?

"Oh, there's another passage--"

"Deeper?"

"It goes all the way to Hogsmeade, and comes up in a house."

Her already small eyes narrowed. "An empty house?"

"Well, one that's supposed to be haunted. But it isn't, I promise."

She turned from the rocks and folded her arms over her chest. "Tell me you don't mean the Shrieking Shack."

"Lupin stayed there as a student," Harry said quickly. "On full moons. That's why there used to be noises."

She frowned. "There've been noises more recently."

"Other people have stayed there since," Harry said. "But live people, I swear. And Draco and Hermione and I spent a couple days brewing there last year. There's nothing worse than spiders -- normal spiders -- in that house."

She raised her head. "All right. But I'm bringing my bat."

 

They left at dinner time, talking about Quidditch. Harry had forgotten that was strange until they got to the ground floor. Most people were already in the Great Hall, but as he and Millicent came down the last few steps, a gaggle of young Slytherins came tearing up from the dungeons. Among them was the blond first-year girl, who stumbled to a stop as she saw Millicent and Harry. Millicent rolled her eyes.

"Maybe we'd better split up here, Potter. Wouldn't want to turn your house against you again."

He sighed. "They'll get over it. But go in with your lot, if you'd rather."

With a nod, she swaggered over towards the younger kids, who turned and hurried ahead of her into the Great Hall. Harry strolled after. When the blond girl looked back over her shoulder, he winked at her.

 

 

After dinner, the Gryffindors returned en masse to their common room. Harry spent a while with Ron and Hermione, chatted for a few minutes with Seamus and Parvati, said hello to Rob, Sammy, and Yolanda, and then headed up to his room. Neville was there, but studying quietly on his bed. After greeting him, Harry collected parchment and ink, and settled at the desk.

Fred and George,

How are you doing? I'm settling in to school. The Cursebreaking professor is brilliant, and knows Bill. I think Ron enjoyed being the person recognized, for once.

You know how I said I might want to order things? Well, I'd like you to send me a few items. First, I need two ounces of fluxweed (don't ask!), a pound of powdered mountain crab shell, and an ounce of murtlap essence. I know those quantities sound ridiculous, but a few of us are starting a sort of an unofficial dueling club. If we're not going to get caught, we need our own customized healing potions. I also need a runespoor egg, or a runespoor dreamer head as part of that project we discussed before.

I hope business is going well! Send me a few harmless things, and I'll show them around.

Cheers,

Harry

Afterwards, he sat, stroking his quill idly against his mouth and wondering what to say to Remus. Could he even call him that? Maybe "Mr. Lupin" would be better. He set quill to parchment, but then lifted it again. No. That was too formal. Just "Remus" seemed cheeky, though. "Uncle Remus"? No, definitely not. Sighing, he began the letter with "Dear Sir," regretting it immediately, but not enough to erase the words with a spell.

 

Dear Sir,

I am safely back at school, and enjoying having people around again. Ron got a little annoyed about me talking to a couple of the Slytherins on the train, but it seems to have blown over. I'm sure you will be glad to know that as Hermione is Head Girl and Draco is Head Boy, I am receiving frequent reminders to study.

I was thinking about our first visit, this summer, and it occurred to me that I should warn you that your old retreat may no longer be secure, in case you didn't realize. Hermione and Draco and I brewed the portkey Anchor potion there, so its the place where he portkeyed back to, so a number of Death Eaters were there, at least one of whom is related to kids here.

Tell your dog that I miss him, and I hope we can go for some long rambles in the summer.

Best wishes,

Harry

There, he thought, folding the letter carefully, and addressing it "Remus Lupin, Darkmoon Den". That would cover taking Millicent out there. Though now that he thought about it, the tunnel out of Greenhouse Four might be better, if it was reasonably spacious. The Shrieking Shack was a painful walk for him, and Millicent was a lot bigger than he was.

 

Chapter Text

 

The rest of the week went well. McGonagall agreed to two one-hour meetings a week: an assignment and discussion between lessons and dinner on Tuesdays, and a practical lesson on Sunday before lunch. Ron and Ginny both made the team on their own merits. Harry had been certain Ginny would, but less sure about Ron. His friend seemed to have grown into those lanky limbs over the summer, and had a much better sense of where his hands and feet were than he had at the previous year's tryouts.

"You know," he said to Harry, "in a way, it's good that you passed me over last year. This way, I know you really mean it."

With a grin, Harry slapped him on the back. "I mean it, Ron. You were the best one out there. Now, training you up to Cornelia's level may take until spring...."

"Oh?" Ron asked uneasily. Harry snorted.

"Relax, mate. It takes a couple of months with anyone."

 

Slytherin had their tryouts after lunch, so Harry spent an hour getting trounced by Ron at chess and claiming it was because he kept answering questions from the first years.

"Do you have to let them hang around?" Ron grumbled, as the set finally left.

"I like them," Harry said. "And Sammy needs a wizard to explain things to him; Rob tries, but he doesn't understand what Sammy doesn't know. Besides, after this year it will all be adults, all the time, won't it?"

Ron sighed. "Until my brothers start breeding."

"Well, you have that, I suppose." Fortunately, Ron didn't seem to notice the longing that Harry heard in his own voice. Harry sighed and accepted checkmate with good grace.

"Another?" Ron asked hopefully.

"I only submit to this humiliation once per day," Harry responded with a smile. "Besides, I'm meeting Draco."

"Oh," Ron said flatly.

"Dean," Harry called. "Come over here and take my place, will you? Ron wants another match."

 

Draco came into the Chamber of Secrets late and flushed. The fresh smell of autumn winds still clung to his hair.

"It went well?" Harry said, stepping back from their first embrace and sitting down again.

"Quite," Draco said, with a satisfied lift of his head. "Of course, all we had to fill was a Chaser position, but the competition was productively intense. And yours, my dearest rival?"

Harry smirked. "I chose impartially and have two new Weasleys."

"It can't have been that impartial, then."

"No, really. I wouldn't take Ron last year."

"He's improved?"

"Yes. And he was trying out for a different position."

"Hm." Draco moved the cover of Harry's book to read the title. "I can't see him as a Beater."

"The senior members of the team moved around some."

Draco looked up sharply at that. "By choice?"

"Of course, by choice!" Harry answered, exasperated. "I wouldn't have made anyone change just to get Ron on the team!"

Draco shrugged. "Well, I did suggest you flatter him."

Harry sniffed. "And I gave that the consideration it deserved."

Draco laughed. "All right. How is that Potions reading going?"

 

For a while, they studied, Draco helping Harry with Potions, and Harry helping Draco with Transfiguration. Eventually, however, Harry yawned and stretched.

"I suppose we'd better go find Myrtle."

Draco froze. "Oh," he said. He cleared his throat. "I don't suppose we could skip it?"

"Come on, now!" Harry chided. "We might need another favor from her later." He grinned. "Besides, I thought you didn't mind her looking."

"I don't mind; it just seems vulgar, now that it comes to it. I'm not a dancing girl." Draco sighed. "I don't suppose you brought any of that cognac down?"

"Two bottles, actually," Harry said loftily. "One good, and one very, very good. Want some?"

Draco considered a moment, and then sighed. "Not really. Let's come back here afterwards, though. I'll want to kiss you privately after kissing you in front of her."

"Hm." Harry thought. "Yes."

 

They left their things in the room, and emerged from their new entrance into the storeroom of cursed objects. Rather than head back towards the History of Magic classroom, and from there to the main staircase, they continued on past the side corridor and past empty rooms, to where Harry guessed they would find the spiral staircase at the back corner of the castle. He had never been there on this floor, but had on occasion taken it from the fifth floor to the third. He paused at the first of the narrow, deep windows, and looked out at a long, narrow finger of the lake. It seemed much larger and darker seen from here, only one floor up and in the shadow of the castle, than when he looked down on the glittering sunlit surface of it from the fifth floor. Behind the dark water, hills rose in muted purple and gold.

"Not much of a view," Draco sniffed.

About to argue, Harry realized that he was commenting on the narrow windows. "Yeah," he said. "These look like arrow slits that someone stuck glass in."

"Wand slits," Draco corrected. "And unlike many other windows, the glass in these has no protections against breakage."

Harry considered that. "So we could still use them if attacked?"

"Exactly."

Harry looked at the narrow strip of window and then back at Draco. "How can you tell?"

"Oh, I tried it, as soon as I'd learned the Repairing charm," Draco said. "As for how I knew to try, it's in Hogwarts, a History."

Laughing, Harry shook his head. "You and Hermione! We have to get you talking again."

"I would like that, yes."

 

They continued on in silence to the fifth floor, where Draco opened the door to the Prefect's bathroom with an easily audible "Suds and buds."

Harry snorted. "Who came up with that one?"

"Mercifully, I have no idea."

They had no sooner stepped in and closed the door than Myrtle shot up out of the floor drain. "Oh good!" she said. "I thought you weren't going to show, and I'd have to hunt through the toilets to get back at you."

Draco paled. Perhaps Myrtle had some idea how off-putting that was, because she immediately stepped back, clasping her hands and setting her head to the side. "Well, you are late, you know! Or I thought that. But then I realized that we hadn't specified a time."

"Oh. Well, we had Quidditch tryouts."

"Ooo! Together?" She cocked her head again. "No, of course not. You're from different houses."

"And the captains of our respective teams," Draco informed her, apparently tempted out of silence by the opportunity to tout his importance.

"My!" she exclaimed appreciatively. "Are you sure you won't take your shirts off?"

Harry laughed. "It doesn't do much for the upper body, you know. Not unless you're a Beater, and we're both Seekers."

"And no," Draco added, "we won't."

She giggled. "Did you find the rooms?"

"Yes, both of them. Your instructions were adequate."

"So...?"

The suggestive slide of her voice was inescapably a demand. His face going blank, Draco turned, and Harry turned to face him, reaching a hand up to touch the tight muscle of his jaw.

"Hey," he whispered, "it's me. We cuddled in front of the Wizengamot, remember?"

There was a huff of air against his face as Draco reacted, but then he stepped back. "I believe we promised five minutes," he said, casting a Timing charm with an efficient flick of his wand. "Five." With that, he stepped back, leaning in towards Harry as if they had continued uninterrupted. In a moment, his lips were brushing Harry's mouth, and Harry, mindful of what else they had promised and not wanting to be prompted, moved one hand behind Draco's head, but the other to his chest. He pretended to ignore the subsequent squeal from Myrtle, and when Draco tensed, he reacted instantly, twisting his hand into Draco's hair and pulling him into the kiss. Draco resisted for a few moments, but eventually gave in. Once that had gone on for at least a minute, Harry left his mouth to nuzzle at his neck.

"You pay attention to me," he whispered fiercely. "Me, not her." Draco nodded shakily, and took up the kiss again.

 

They left quickly after the time was up, and went quietly down the way they had come. In the corridor that led to the Chamber, they held hands, but still didn't say much. When they were settled on the furry plastic sofa, Harry sought about for a means to break the silence, and ended up asking Draco if there was a way to add protections to the Liber Geminus to garble the contents for anyone but them.

"I have a better idea."

"Oh?"

"Remember my father's hex? I've found a way to make them unreadable unless one of us is touching the book."

"But it won't hurt anyone," Harry demanded.

"No. That was an unnecessary embellishment by my father."

"Brilliant."

By the time they had finished with the spellcasting, they felt normal enough to move to the bed. Both of them were out far later than rules permitted, that night.

 

Sunday, a number of the Slytherins left lunch early. When Harry saw Millicent crossing the floor after the others, he made his excuses and followed. She wasn't in sight when he stepped out of the Great Hall, but the blond Slytherin first-year girl was with her usual friend, just about to descend the stairs into the dungeon. Harry didn't remember the boy's name, but the girl's was hard to forget.

"Miss LeFay!"

She whirled, and stared, open-mouthed. He hurried up to her.

"Hi. Sorry -- I know we haven't officially met." He held out his hand to shake, and when she draped hers over it, remembered to raise it for a kiss, instead. She was so little that he had to bend rather low. "Would you tell me which way Millicent went? I was hoping to speak to her."

She giggled tightly. "Outside," she said. "I think she's in a temper, though, Mr. Potter."

He smiled, hoping the girl was telling the truth. By the way her friend was glaring at her, she might be. If Millicent had gone outside, she was likely to be in sight of the door for at least another minute.

"Thank you, Miss LeFay. And call me Harry -- everyone does, really, except some professors."

She beamed. "I'm Gentian."

"Lovely to meet you, Gentian." Harry bowed, and then grinned. "But I really do have to run. See you later!"

"You shouldn't have!" he heard the boy say fiercely, behind him. "He's a Gryffindor!"

Harry raced through the door. Millicent was plodding along the path to the lake, and he jogged to catch up.

 

"I heard back from the twins," Harry said, slowing to match pace with Millicent where the land flattened out. "They're sending the shell on tomorrow -- it can't be shrunk, and their large owls were out -- so we should be set for ingredients by Tuesday morning. Will you have brewing time during the week?"

She looked over, startled. "Hi to you too."

"Oh, sorry. Hi! But I thought you'd need to know that before you'd go for any chitchat."

She snorted. "Not too dim after all, Gryffindor. Yeah, I might be able to make time -- but we'll need to brew every two weeks." She sighed. "It's probably better to start on a day that we can always manage."

"Next Sunday, then?"

"I suppose," she said glumly.

"For today," Harry suggested, "let's check out the two places that I have in mind. We can at least get one ready to brew in."

She snorted. "You just want me for my rock-throwing abilities."

"Definitely. You throw rocks better than any other friend I have."

Her pace slowed, and she looked curiously at him. "Are we friends?"

"Aren't we?"

She turned uneasily back to the path. "I ... I hadn't thought of it that way."

Harry shrugged, trying to look neither hurt nor concerned. "Well, I enjoy your company. Let's leave it at that."

"That is less ... complicated." She bit her lip. "Thanks." Her face lit up with a broad smile. "I enjoy being with you too."

 

It was the next Friday that Harry finally decided to broach the subject of the divination with Ron. By the end of a long, hard Quidditch practice, Ron had entered a strange, loopy mix of exhaustion and elation that Harry recognized quite well, and he decided the time was right. When Ginny, from the door, asked if they were coming, Harry waved her on, but caught at Ron's sleeve. Ron looked curiously at him.

"What's up?" he asked.

Harry took a deep breath. "I just want to talk to you privately," he said.

"Me?" Ron answered stupidly. He sat down heavily next to Harry. "I mean, yeah -- of course."

Harry winced. "Have I been that bad?"

Ron shrugged. "Not this year, really, but last year was...." With another shrug, he trailed off, and Harry nodded.

"Yeah," he agreed.

"I wasn't sure we'd ever be friends again," Ron admitted.

Harry nodded. "Neither was I, really." He looked down at the bench they were sitting on. "Is it too soon to ask you for favors, then?"

"Oh, you want a favor, do you?" Ron returned, eyebrows rising.

Harry stuck his tongue out at him. "Maybe."

"I.... You didn't...." Ron swallowed hard. "That's not why I'm on the team, is it?"

"What?" Harry laughed. "You prat! No. I wouldn't. Didn't we settle that earlier?"

"Well, how do I know?" Ron retorted, but more cheerfully. "All this time with Slytherins -- they could be rubbing off on you."

"Only one of them rubs off on me," Harry said slyly, and Ron winced.

"Don't," he whimpered, his hands covering his eyes, and Harry laughed.

"Sorry. I couldn't resist."

He took his wand out and flicked it towards the door in a detection spell. Nothing glowed, but he cast a general privacy charm to garble their words outside the room. Ron's brow furrowed as he watched.

"A favor, huh?" he asked.

Harry shrugged. "Look, what I said about Draco thinking you have the Sight...." He took a breath. "I think he's right."

"You cannot mean that."

"Really, Ron. Everything you predicted for me last spring was right. I think you do, and I think that if the professor wasn't a complete fraud, you'd know it, rather than joking around and doing it by accident."

Ron stared back at him. "You mean it."

"Yeah. I do."

"Okay." Ron ran a hand through his hair. "I'm not sure I believe it, but maybe."

"Think it over, okay? Because I need someone who knows me well for that divination I told you about."

"The one with blood?" Ron yelped, eyes widening. Harry nodded.

"Yeah, that one. And it's illegal, like I said, so don't talk about it while you're thinking."

"Couldn't you do something else? There must be other avenues for divination."

Harry nodded grimly. "Yeah. The Seer suggested two others--"

"Okay, then!"

"But they're worse." Harry looked at Ron's incredulous expression and sighed. "She said she might be able to get something using the body of someone just murdered by him, or with unicorn's blood. I won't use either."

Ron's face twisted in disgust. "I'd hope not!"

"But my blood...." Harry shrugged. "I don't think that's actually wrong."

Ron nodded. "Yeah." He sighed. "Look, I'll think about it, okay?"

"Okay. And I won't push; it's too big for that."

"Thanks."

They walked back to Gryffindor together -- with a detour to the kitchens, where the house elves happily gave them extra cake from dinner.

When they reached the common room, Neville looked up from his homework. "You got an owl, Harry," he said. "I gave it a treat, but it wouldn't give me the letter. It's up in our room."

Harry went upstairs. The owl was happy enough to the give the letter to him, and flew impatiently to the window as soon as he had taken the missive. Harry opened it to let the bird out, and then returned to his bed.

Dear Harry,

I know we have not been as close as I would like, but I hope you will consider re-evaluating your formality. If you have any doubt, be assured that I regard you as family.

As you expected, I am pleased to read that you will find it difficult to neglect your studies. I know that it is difficult to see the use of much of what you are taught, but believe me when I say that much of what seems trivial is the basis for knowledge that may later be critical to your survival. On a related note, please congratulate Hermione for me!

I hope to not need your advice about the old hovel, but thank you for the warning. As for Snuffles, I am confident in saying that he misses you as well, and wishes you could be with us often.

I confess to still being curious. Now that the summer is over, will you tell me where you concealed yourself?

Much love,

Remus

Harry smiled at the parchment. He penned a quick reply, addressing it to "Remus" and explaining about his contract with the twins, and their cooperative use of Polyjuice potion. When it was finished, he sealed it and headed off for the Owlery. Halfway across the common room, he was interrupted.

"Harry, sir?" Harry looked over quickly, and realized he was frowning when the young girl, a third-year that he was fairly sure was a Catherine or Katherine, stepped back in alarm.

"Sir?" he said incredulously, letting the source of his displeasure be known. Deliberately, he smiled. "I'm Harry; who are you?"

She swallowed, apparently missing his humor completely. "Um, I'm Katherine, Katherine McDuffie, third year. M'brother Robbie was talking to a Slytherin yesterday, and he said that you said that was okay."

A little defiance showed through at the last, and Harry felt his eyebrows lift. What else would I say? he thought, but he caught the words before they came out. Answers like that were fine when he didn't care (or was trying not to care) what people thought, but hadn't he and Draco decided that they not only should care, but should make an effort to sway others?

He thought for a moment. "Having finally started talking to Slytherins," he said, "-- talking, not fighting -- I definitely wish I'd done it earlier. I believe we can, and we ought, to find where we can cooperate."

Katherine scowled. "That boy will get him in trouble and cost us points, that's all."

"See, for you, it's still about points," Harry said, as kindly as he could, "about a big game. Even if what you think is true -- and it might not be -- that isn't what I care about anymore. For me, it's about Voldemort, and what's waiting for my year when we leave here. And it took me until last winter to realize that quite a few Slytherins aren't happy with their prospects either. If we keep ignoring potential allies because they have the wrong color tie, he's going to win the war, and the game doesn't matter next to that."

Nearby, Dean shifted uneasily. Seamus, with him, spoke up.

"Ah, it's fine for you, Harry, but 'tis a different matter for those of us without a Slytherin lover."

"I made friends with Millicent Bulstrode over the summer," Harry said hotly. "Draco didn't even know."

"It doesn't change the things they've said," Dean said quietly, "Draco included." He was looking down at his hands, which he was twisting together. "Gemma is still dead."

The words hit like a punch, and it took Harry a moment to catch his breath. "Gemma wasn't killed by anyone here," he said finally, keeping his voice even. "And we were children, and those of you with parents parroted them about a lot of things. You have to count more what people say when they start thinking for themselves."

"That's easy for you to say--"

"WHAT?" Harry choked on an involuntary laugh. "Pardon me? Target number one, here?"

"Yeah, but except for...."

"A half-blood? Bent?"

Dean flinched back. Harry looked steadily at him. "I really think I understand."

Dean looked away. "Yeah." He took a deep breath. "Sorry. I wasn't thinking." He cleared his throat. "Still, if they start talking to Slytherins that young, they're bound to pick up bad attitudes."

"Or maybe the Slytherins learn younger that Muggleborn kids are normal people."

"You can't count on that."

"No, I can't, and I told them not to take what Slytherins said at face value -- but that it might be worth talking anyway."

By now, people around them were watching and listening. Katherine's face was scrunched up a little, as if she were trying to follow a difficult lesson.

"Do you really wish you'd tried younger?" Dean asked.

"Yes."

"But it wouldn't have worked, would it?" he persisted. "By your own argument, you all had to be old enough. First years believe what they learn at home. Hell, half the sixth years still do!"

"I think even the first years can learn," Harry said, although he wondered if Dean was talking about himself, at the end, "but not in a vacuum." He shrugged. "Or maybe I'm not qualified to say. I never believed the Dursleys, because that would have meant believing I was inherently an unnatural, disgusting person...." He bit his lip. "Maybe I did believe that, when I was very young, but --"

"You knew you were gay then?" Dean blurted out. He cringed. Harry blinked. It took him a moment to tie that back to what he had been saying.

"Not that. I meant doing magic."

"What?" Katherine yelped.

"Well, they think it's horrible," Harry explained. "They didn't let me do my homework, some summers. Uncle Vernon said he wouldn't have that 'freakishness' in his house, and he locked up all my books as well as my wand." He was amazed he could say this, now. Maybe it was because he was never going back there? It would have seemed humiliating to admit to while he was younger, but now he was a legal adult, and he could talk about it safely in the past, he found himself thinking that could maybe help someone else, if he had a housemate too proud to complain about a similar situation. Sammy was looking a little too interested, and Harry hoped his home life wasn't as bad. "I was pretty well immune to it after a year here, though," he said steadily. "They're crazy, they hate me; I know that. I wasn't going to hate myself for them." He looked at Dean. "For that matter, maybe that's why I don't mind being bi, you know? I mean, a certain number of the standard slurs are words that I learned to tune out before I was attracted to anyone."

Dean turned his face away, but Seamus nodded slowly. "That explains rather a lot, I think," he said non-committally. "Though I think I'll still blame the Slytherins on hormones, myself."

Harry sighed and rolled his eyes, but he couldn't stop a glance at the clock. He wouldn't mind getting hormonal with his Slytherin right now, but it was far too late to meet, even if he could get Draco a message.

"I need to run up to the Owlery while I can still be in the corridors," he said, remembering the letter in his hand. "Nice to meet you, Katherine. We can talk more later, if you want."

 

Harry didn't get an immediate answer from Ron, but when he related the conversation to Draco, they decided to start the base potion for divination. Harry thought wryly that between this and Millicent, he was going to spend all weekend brewing.

On Sunday, Millicent met him by the greenhouses after lunch, and they went into the secret tunnel under Greenhouse Four, and followed it down to a place where it widened out. The Tripwire charm that Harry had set before leaving on Tuesday was still in place, showing that no one had walked there since they left. He disarmed it temporarily and set down his bag. Millicent helped him fill the storage containers they had brought in when setting up.

"Why Murtlap essence?" she asked, frowning at the magically sealed vial.

"Ah -- as a cover, really. It's the other thing I'd definitely need if I was actually making healing potions."

She snorted. "You're good, Potter."

"Thanks."

"And who knows? Maybe you can sell it later."

Millicent didn't have the flair of someone who was gifted at potions, but she worked more meticulously at this one than Harry had ever seen her work at anything. Conscious that she would be taking what they produced, Harry did the same. The potion was a perfect currant jelly red when they finished it, which agreed with Millicent's notes. With simultaneous sighs, they stepped back from the cauldron, and then laughed at the unplanned harmony.

"Well, we seem to have done it," Harry said, sitting down on the dirt floor.

"Yeah." Millicent joined him. "Thanks for your help. I'm not sure how I would have managed adding the jack bean."

Harry shrugged. "No problem." He looked at the cauldron, although he couldn't see its contents from here, and tried to think back to her notes. He had reviewed the section for brewing this potion, but not any of the rest. "So, you take this once a day?"

Millicent nodded. "Before bed. And the book warns that I may wake up sore, but taking it in the morning leads to balance problems."

"Ah." Harry ran a finger along the floor, getting dirt under the nail. "And when do you start needing glamours?"

Millicent scowled, in a way that Harry would have found distinctly hostile a year ago. Now he was fairly sure that it just meant she was thinking hard.

"I don't know," she said finally. "Everything I've read assumes that you're doing this openly."

"Hm. Well, if you're taking this one for twelve weeks--"

"Thirteen," she said. "I'll finish on December 21. Auspicious, don't you think so?"

"Is it?"

"It's the solstice," she said. "Which is a point of change, right?"

"Oh, I see. Yeah. Anyway," Harry continued, "you can change a little, right? So maybe on the third and fourth weeks, I should do a glamour of how you look the second week, and then the fifth week, change it a little more...."

She shook her head. "No. I thought about that, but the thing is that I'm going home for Christmas. I can't look different to Mum and Dad."

"Ah." Harry grimaced. "I can't cast a glamour that will last two weeks. I can manage about a day on myself."

She gave a determined nod. "I'll have to learn it."

"I take it you have trouble with Charms?"

"Only some of them," she said. "I'm horrible at transfiguration, but I'm fine with some charms -- except all the appearance ones, unfortunately. I know they're not transfiguration, but they feel like it."

"Oh." Harry thought he'd have to think about that. He had managed to teach Neville a couple of things; maybe he could teach Millicent. "What name will you use?" he asked, suddenly wondering.

"What?"

"When you're a man."

She snorted. "I'm not going to tell you." At his incredulous look, she relented. "From what I know of you, you'd try to be nice, and work on thinking of me that way. And then you might mess up."

"Ah." Harry shrugged. "Point. But you know?"

"Yes. Though I might change my mind."

For a while, they both revised, but Harry found his thoughts drifting away from Symbology. He looked up.

"So, when are we meeting, every day?"

"Pardon?"

"For me to cast your glamour, until you can do it yourself. It will have to be every day, at the same time, or almost."

"Oh." Nervously, Millicent stood up. She paced over to the cauldron, looked in it, and walked back. "Between Potions and lunch, perhaps?"

Harry shook his head. "Not unless we bring Draco in on it."

"Is there a time you're not with him?"

"He's in all my classes except Symbology, on Tuesday and Thursday," Harry said. "But I have that slot free -- the second lesson after lunch -- on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and he's in Ancient Runes, then. Could we meet just before the last lesson of the day?"

She considered that, her face scrunched and leaned slightly to the side. "That could work," she said slowly. "I have a Forestry study with Hagrid, last period, and he understands that I need to walk down to it, and Professor Flitwick would understand that I may need to leave a few minutes early...."

"Hagrid?" Harry said.

"Oh." Millicent cleared her throat. "Well, he was trying to be nicer to the Slytherins, after the attack last spring -- at least the ones that were helpful -- because of you, I think. And Sprout sent me over for a detention, because I ruined something, and she told him I was too clumsy to work with anything smaller than a shrub...." Her mouth twisted.

"Right. And if anything would incline him to like you, that would."

She smiled gratefully. "Right. So he had me work with him on the paths at the edge of the forest, and actually some grounds-keeping work as well -- although we don't call it that -- and we got along."

Harry was pleased with that. "Good," he said.

"What about you? I heard you and Draco were doing something with Professor McGonagall?"

"Yeah. She wouldn't let me pick up a project with Professor Snape, though. Said I wouldn't have time."

Millicent scowled. "She's probably right."

"Still. I think she's just keeping me away from him."

Her eyebrows came up. "And you object?"

"He knows things. He can be useful. If I can't defeat Voldemort, my N.E.W.T.s don't matter, do they?"

She gave him a hard look. "Very Slytherin of you, Potter."

"Just common sense."

"I suppose. My house doesn't expect that of yours, though." She lurched to her feet, and after peering towards the cauldron, stepped over to it. "Do you suppose it's cool enough to decant?"

"Let's see."

The potion was cool enough. They decanted it, and Millicent took her first dose. Harry watched closely, but saw no immediate change.

"Should anything happen?"

"Not right away. There may be some small change by morning."

"Ah." Harry drew his wand. "Shall I cast it anyway, then?" He grinned. "Not that I'll be able to tell if it works -- a glamour that makes you look exactly like you do now."

She snorted. "Go ahead."

Again, there was no visible change. Harry felt power coalesce in his wand and leave it, and the indescribable sense of a spell completing came back to him. Millicent said she felt the tingle of the glamour moving over her skin. That she looked no different told them nothing. Harry shrugged and tucked his wand away. "I'll remove it for a second before I recast tomorrow."

"You might not be able to see a change for a few weeks."

"Right. Oh! Do you have pictures of yourself? I might need those, later on."

Millicent grimaced. "I hate pictures."

"Think of it as a picture of what you're leaving."

"I still don't think I have any."

"Oh well. You'll need to hang out with me in public, then, sometime when Colin is around. He loves it when I ask for prints."

 

The brewing had taken almost two hours, and Harry, who had forgotten his Charms texts, had to spend the rest of Sunday finishing an essay. Hermione ignored him -- he suspected that she was annoyed that he had been away so long for two days in a row. He came back from meeting Draco on Tuesday in plenty of time to satisfy rules, but got the cold shoulder again. Afterwards, he lay awake wondering if it would be better if there was an Uncommon Room, and he spent some of his time with Draco where she could be with them.

 

Chapter Text

 

On Wednesday morning, Harry woke up feeling tired and discouraged, and might have skipped breakfast if Ron hadn't thrown a pillow at him and told him to get up. Hermione caught up with them just outside the portrait hole.

"Good morning."

Harry shot her a look. "Hi," he said tersely.

"What?"

"Nice to have you speaking to me again."

"Now that you're not avoiding us!"

"I wasn't avoiding you!"

"You're gone all the time!"

"I am not!" Harry stopped, both to catch his breath and to look at her. "Look," he said. "I have a schedule, precisely because Draco wants to be sure he's around Slytherin enough. We spend time together on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, so I'm not going to be available then."

"Oh." Hermione frowned, but there was more consideration to it now. "That doesn't leave a lot of time for schoolwork."

 Harry grimaced. "Believe me, some of that involves schoolwork. He is Head Boy, you know. And an hour of Tuesday is going to be with Professor McGonagall. We're starting a project next week."

"With Professor McGonagall?"

"He thought she'd be more likely to do it for me, and that we'd both learn more together." As they crossed the landing, Harry nudged her. "We usually do, you know. My marks were better than usual, last year, and you saw how well we research together."

Her cheeks dimpled as she finally smiled. "I remember." Her gaze dropped as they started down the next flight. "But what about Sunday?"

"Oh." Harry shrugged. "I was with a friend," he said.

"A friend," Ron repeated, joining the conversation. "Last year, that meant Malfoy."

"Well, this is someone else," Harry said. "And no, I'm not interested."

"You would have said that about him too, though," Hermione pointed out. "As late as April."

"Really," Harry said. "I'm certain, this time. I mean, I know a lot more about myself, now."

"But you were doing something that lasted for hours."

Harry shrugged. "Not your business," he said.

"Harry," Hermione said warningly.

"Really. I wasn't drinking, I wasn't off the grounds, I wasn't doing Dark Arts.... It is none of your business."

She sighed. "Harry, I really think--"

"Mr. Potter!"

They had reached the third floor. The hail, in Professor McGonagall's clear, carrying voice, caught Harry like a grappling hook. He froze, turning more slowly than his friends. What could she possibly know about?

She hurried forward, continuing in a conversational tone once she was near enough. "Harry, I'm afraid I must interrupt your morning. You are needed in Professor Dumbledore's office."

She turned, and Harry jumped to match up with her long, quick stride. He was aware of Ron and Hermione lagging a little behind. "Is something wrong?" he asked.

"I sincerely do not know. The headmaster has two Aurors visiting, and he said to inform you that you were to cooperate with them as he would expect a student of his to do."

That had the precision of a coded message, and Harry's thoughts moved from the paranoid speculation that Lestrange's case was being reopened, and to the mysterious alliances that he had glimpsed that summer.

"Are they Aurors that I met during the trial?" he tried, probing for information. He decided he had hit on the right tack when McGonagall shot him a quick smile.

"One is, and one is not," she said, with a tight nod. "I am certain that you can place full confidence in Auror Tonks."

Harry nodded. In context, that message was clear; he could not trust the other Auror. He looked back at Ron and Hermione -- several paces behind now -- and waved them off. As they nodded and turned away, he realized two things: first, that they had obeyed his signal without question, and second, that he would not have noticed that a year ago.

Could I really take over Gryffindor?

 

"Ah, there you are, Harry," Professor Dumbledore greeted him brightly, as Harry entered the headmaster's office. His eyes twinkled behind his half-moon spectacles, as if he were offering a delightful treat, or sharing a treasured joke. "This fine witch and wizard from the Department of Magical Law Enforcement have come to talk to you about--"

An unfamiliar man in Auror's robes stepped forward, raising his hand in a demand for silence. "If you don't mind, sir, we will tell him what we wish to know."

"Yes, yes, of course," Dumbledore said brightly. "I'm afraid it slipped my mind in making introductions. I am accustomed to setting my students at ease, of course."

"Of course," the wizard said stiffly.

"May I make introductions?" At the Auror's nod, Dumbledore turned to nod himself, but at Harry. "Harry, this is Auror Richard Mason and Auror Nymphadora Tonks. Please cooperate appropriately with their investigation. Auror Mason, Auror Tonks, this is Harry Potter, a tolerable student, but an impressive young man, and a quintessential Gryffindor."

Harry looked at Auror Tonks. "Reckless, unmanageable, and blunt," he translated.

She grinned. "Well, I approve of blunt -- it makes our job easy."

Auror Mason rolled his eyes. "We'll take over from here, sir," he said, and Dumbledore, with a nod to him and a deeper one to Tonks, departed. The headmaster's office felt plainer and quieter without him there, although nothing else had changed.

"Have a seat, Harry," Tonks said, gesturing at one of the visitors' chairs in front of Dumbledore's desk. She summoned a third one -- a stubby, squashy armchair -- from over by the wall and perched on the arm of it. Auror Mason sat forward and upright on a less deep chair.

"Now, there's no cause for alarm," Tonks said sincerely, "no additional sightings or anything -- but we want to ask you some questions about your encounter with Sirius Black, back in 1994."

"Why?" Harry retorted. "No one wanted to listen to me then." It was true, and it also gave him a moment to think. Dumbledore had made it clear that he should cooperate "appropriately." That probably meant that the strange Auror wasn't an ally, but he could say a lot of the truth. Anything he would have said that night, almost -- anything except that Sirius was an animagus. All of the truth that didn't endanger Sirius, he decided, as Tonks cleared her throat.

"Was there something you tried to say then?" she prompted.

"That he didn't hurt me," Harry said firmly. "That he was nice. That he said he was innocent. And everyone kept telling me to be quiet, and saying I was hysterical, or that I'd been Confunded, and they were going to suck out his soul without even listening to what he had to say, and I'm glad he escaped!"

He stopped. Auror Mason was staring at him.

"Sorry." He was sounding half-hysterical now. Harry hadn't expected to recall his feelings at the time so keenly. "I just -- I haven't talked about this since, really. But it was horrible. And Minister Fudge was right there, and he was listening to Snape, like an adult that had seen half of what had happened had to be more reliable than a teenager who had seen all of it."

"Was Professor Snape inaccurate?" Auror Mason asked.

"He hates Sirius, and he hated me, then, and he assumed things that were wrong." Harry let out a short huff of breath. "I do believe he thought he was protecting me, and looking back on it, considering what he knew, what he did was very brave." He was admitting that to himself, for the first time, as much as to them. Snape had known he was facing an unmedicated werewolf and a man who had carelessly nearly killed him as a boy, and he had thought he was facing a mass murderer. That wasn't just vainglory, or hatred of Sirius -- he must initially have been moved as much by the need to protect three students from what he feared himself. "It's just that he wouldn't listen."

"Well, we're listening," Tonks said. "Tell us what happened."

"Sirius grabbed Ron -- my friend, Ron Weasley -- and took him back to an abandoned house, and Hermione Granger and I followed. Except it turned out he wasn't after Ron--"

"He was after you?" Mason suggested.

"Let him talk," Tonks chided, and Mason quieted. Harry wondered if she had seniority.

"No, he was after Ron's rat. He said Ron's rat was Peter Pettigrew in his animagus form--" Harry had to stop again as Auror Mason laughed. Auror Tonks glared at him.

"Richard, do you have any training in interrogation protocol?" she asked pointedly.

"Really, Tonks! Clearly the man had gone round the bend." He looked scornfully at Harry. "Did you believe him?"

"Actually," Harry spat, "no. Not at first."

"What convinced you?" Tonks asked.

"Well," Harry said coldly, "I think that would be when he cast a spell on Ron's rat, forcing him to human form, and the man started begging all of us for mercy."

The room was silent. Suddenly afraid that he had said too much, Harry looked nervously at Tonks. To his relief, she smiled and gave him a little nod. "Well," she said, "that's certainly new information."

"We'd known Ron's rat was too old," Harry said. "Ron had had him for the three years that I'd known him, and he'd been Percy's rat for years before that, and the Weasleys had just found him in the garden -- spying, probably. And he was missing a finger."

"As Peter Pettigrew would be," Tonks said, understanding.

"Right. And Sirius told me that Peter had actually been my parents' Secret Keeper, although they let everyone think it was him, and when they died, he went after Peter, who turned into a rat and ducked down the sewers, and caused the explosion as a cover."

"And this rat animagus who was allegedly Peter Pettigrew?" Mason asked, his brow furrowed.

"Denied it at first, but then switched to saying he had no choice. While he was begging for mercy, I mean. He said that Sirius 'didn't understand' how terrible Voldemort was...." Harry had to stop and swallow. Why hadn't he just let them kill Pettigrew? They could have brought back the body, and said it was self-defense -- even now, though, he didn't think he could do that, and he'd been far more innocent then.

"So we knocked him out and were bringing him back. Except we'd already knocked Professor Snape out -- sort of accidentally. And when Professor Lupin turned into a wolf, Pettigrew revived and escaped as a rat, since Sirius was busy protecting us from the wolf, and then Professor Snape revived and kept us from going after the rat."

"During the time that you were with Sirius Black, did he explain how he had escaped from Azkaban?"

"No. Just that he'd seen the rat with Ron in a picture in the paper, and he'd known that he had to get to Hogwarts, because Pettigrew was set up where he could kill me if Voldemort came back, and Sirius wanted to protect me."

There was a moment of silence as they digested this, or possibly as Mason did, and Tonks pretended to.

"Have you heard from him since?"

Harry started to shake his head, but then stopped. "Just once," he said, letting his nervousness show. "He wrote to me after he escaped and told me he was safe, but that he was leaving the country and wouldn't be able to keep in touch."

Auror Tonks nodded. "I think that will do for today, then. I expect that Ron Weasley would be able to provide us with a picture of this rat?"

Harry nodded. "Probably. Shall I send him?"

"If you would, thank you," Tonks said. "That will give us time to make a quick report."

Harry nearly flew down to the Great Hall.

"Ron," he said, grabbing a sausage from the table and folding a slice of bread around it, "you need to come with me right away!"

"What about me?" Hermione protested.

"Come along if you like."

Harry led his friends out of the room and up the now-empty staircase. "The Aurors wanted to ask me about Sirius," he told them quietly, "-- about what happened in our third year, I mean. And they want pictures of Scabbers, Ron."

"I only have two that he's in," Ron said. "I threw most of them away."

"Well, that was silly!" Hermione exclaimed.

"Two's better than none," Harry said, waving it off.

"But they believe you?" Hermione asked eagerly.

"Well, at least one of them did. I've heard that Pettigrew's been spotted, but don't tell anyone. Oh, and both of you should know exactly what I told them...."

During the trip up to and back down from Gryffindor, they settled the amended story of their encounter with Sirius, and decided that if a dog was necessary, it should be one that Sirius had kept under magical control. Harry raced off to Defense Against the Dark Arts feeling giddy with hope.

 

You're unusually cheerful this morning, Draco wrote in the Liber Geminus, as Professor Hecksban launched into a review of what they had learned so far about protecting enclosed spaces.

I talked to your cousin -- the one you met this summer.

She had news?

Not directly, but she and another Auror questioned me about what happened during my third year. I don't want to say more in writing.

Even here?

Right.

"Harry?" Professor Hecksban prompted.

"I-- Um, what?"

The young professor looked distinctly amused. "I was wondering if you had a hypothesis."

"Um...." Harry looked desperately around, but there was nothing to indicate what they may have been talking about. The blackboard had a ring of yellow loops drawn over a red box. It might have meant anything. "I'm afraid I missed the question."

"I see." Hecksban cocked his head to the side. "What was the last thing you heard?"

"You were summarizing the reading. Which, you know, I understood."

"However, two other people had questions, and it really didn't take that long."

"I understand."

"And will you try to pay closer attention next time?"

"Yes, sir. Sorry."

Hecksban nodded. "I had just introduced the next subject, which is how to protect spaces that do not have a physical delineation, such as walls or curtains. How do you think you would do that?"

Harry thought. A privacy spell of that sort would be useful. "Do you sort of imagine one, like with a shield spell?"

"Do you imagine a physical form for a shield spell?"

"Well, yes. For, you know, size and shape." To Harry's embarrassment, someone sniggered, but a moment later, Hecksban nodded.

"That's an advanced technique. You seem to have good instincts for combat spells. Draco?"

"Harry's half right," Draco said. "Except you don't just imagine it; you also draw it with your wand."

"Draw?"

"Sketch. Single lines where you want walls."

Hecksban nodded again. "Generally, yes. However, if your mental construct is strong enough without it, the sketching is unnecessary, so in that sense, Harry is more than half right." He smiled brightly at the class and drew his wand. "To start out, however, you will all use drawing, whether you think you need it or not. Like so...."

He whipped his wand around him in a spiral, and a glowing golden dome formed over him.

"Brilliant!" Ron exclaimed from the door.

Harry grinned back at him. Remembering Draco's advice from earlier, he tapped the table beside him, beckoning Ron to join them. To his surprise, Ron did.

 

The following several mornings, Harry couldn't help looking through the Daily Prophet for news about Sirius, although he suspected it was too early. He didn't find anything. It was Saturday when Hermione handed him the front section from Dean's Muggle paper.

"Here," she said, pointing out a small picture at the bottom of the front page. Harry looked. The man in the picture was immediately familiar. The text below described him as an escaped criminal.

"Police in Burton-on-Bligh consider Mr. Blunt the most likely suspect in the brutal murder of a local family two nights ago. However...."

Harry looked up. "And the Daily Prophet doesn't have anything?"

Looking troubled, she shook her head. "Nothing."

"That's mad!"

"Of course it is."

"If it was Fudge, I could understand, but Minister Ramsley is supposed to be keen on enforcement, right?"

She let out a breath. "That doesn't mean he wants to admit failure."

"People could get killed!" Harry's voice had risen. Other students were looking at them, he realized. Even some of the nearby Hufflepuffs were staring. He lifted the paper. "Look," he began loudly, but Hermione grabbed his arm, weighing it down.

"Later," she hissed. "We should think about it."

"Think!" Harry exclaimed indignantly. "It's a cover-up! People need to know--"

"People here don't need to know now--"

"Harry," said Draco's cool voice. "You are making a spectacle of yourself ... over a Muggle newspaper."

"Nott escaped!" Harry retorted, shoving the paper at him.

Draco stared for a moment, reached his hand out, and then quickly pulled it back. "Put that in your bag," he said, the words clipped and precise. "Let's take a walk. We need to plan."

Nodding, Harry folded the paper and tucked it away. Hermione gave an exasperated huff, and Draco arched one pale eyebrow as he looked over at her.

"Well?" he asked. "Are you coming?"

"I am," Ron declared defiantly, but Draco merely nodded. "Very good. Anyone else?"

"It's my paper," Dean stated, standing with Hermione. For the first time in the encounter, Draco's expression soured. Harry jostled him.

"Come along if you like," he said to Dean. "It matters to you."

Surveying the standing Gryffindors, Draco slowly nodded his consent, and then turned away. As a group, they started towards the door. Linnet met them at the end of the tables.

"Draco...."

"Yes," he said. "Come along."

"Gilbert--"

"Not yet."

"Now wait a minute--" Dean began.

"Dean," Harry said sharply. "No. She's fine." He spoke with more confidence than he felt. He had met Linnet, but he didn't know her well. He would have preferred the neutrals that he knew better.

As if summoned by the thought, Blaise and Millicent cut ahead of them and left the Great Hall. Harry was not surprised to find them loitering outside it.

"Thought we'd tag along," Blaise said coolly, falling into step with the group. "Just in case you had something suicidal in mind."

Draco stopped short, and looked back at their group. "This," he said, "is ridiculous. Eight people?"

"Well, it's certainly not subtle," Blaise shot back.

"It doesn't need to be," Harry said.

With a huff, Draco resumed walking. Before they had crossed the courtyard, Ginny Weasley had joined them and was accepted without comment. The day was bright, but the wind cutting, and by mutual agreement, they went down to the pitch, where they could huddle in the lee of the stands.

"So," Linnet asked, as she stepped past Millicent, "what's up?"

Harry took out the paper and spread it against the wall, pointing at the photograph. "I'm sure that's Mr. Nott."

Draco moved forward and took a closer look at the caption. "Escaped criminal John Blunt," he read. "Police in Burton-on-Bligh consider Mr. Blunt the most likely suspect in the brutal murder of a local family two nights ago. Blunt had escaped police custody during a prison transfer earlier that day. According to police reports, the only items stolen from the victims' home were clothing and food, which the escaped prisoner would have needed. Investigators have no theory as to why two serviceable cars were left--"

"Because he can't drive," Harry said.

Ron squinted at the paper. "I'm not sure...."

"I am," Draco said. "And I probably saw more of Mr. Nott than you did."

"Theo must know," Blaise contributed. "He's been disturbingly cheerful since he got that letter yesterday."

"And here I was assuming his mother had found him a wife," Draco remarked. "Yes, that would explain a few of the comments he made last night."

"But wouldn't it be in the Daily Prophet?" Linnet asked.

Ginny snorted. "Not if the Ministry is hiding it."

"Why would they, though?" Ron asked. "Minister Ramsley has been trying to get support for tracking down Death Eaters, right?"

"All the more reason to not admit he lost one," Harry said bitterly.

"Unless," Draco suggested, "they want to lull him into a false sense of security."

"But people should be warned!"

"No necessarily. After this summer's trial, most wizards and witches would recognize Nott."

Harry hesitated. That was a point. "Recognize, yes," he said. "Know to keep their kids in, though? To not walk alone daydreaming, with a wand to be grabbed?"

"And it's especially dangerous for Muggleborn citizens or mixed families who don't get a Muggle paper," Hermione pointed out.

"So, do we duplicate this and post it all over school or not?" Ginny asked. Everyone looked at her. "Well? That is the question, isn't it?"

"Succinctly put, yes," Draco said. "Of course, Harry could also grant some lucky journalist an interview -- but that puts him in opposition to Minister Ramsley, and I think we should avoid that, at least while he is in school."

"Maybe we should talk to Professor Dumbledore," Hermione said.

"Why?" Harry said scornfully. "So we can wait for him to handle it?"

"Why not?" Ginny asked, confused.

"I think that's an excellent idea," Draco said smoothly, with a quick, quelling look at Harry. "If he acts, we will have no need to. If he does not, we can consider some other avenue of approach. Miss Bones of Hufflepuff, perhaps? Since her aunt is already in the opposition...."

"Or just send a copy to my brothers," Ron said. "The twins could have that all over London in hours."

"Better to start at the top," Blaise opined. "In case there is a reason, and we just don't get it."

Harry couldn't think of any reason that would make the risk to the population worth it, but he lifted his chin. "All right. We start with Dumbledore. But we don't wait if he brushes it off."

After a moment's hesitation, Draco nodded. "Agreed. For now, this isn't a secret, but it's just gossip -- an oddity. Spread it in whispers, if at all. Harry, Hermione, and I will talk to Dumbledore." The Gryffindors looked to Harry, and the Slytherins to Draco, but within a few seconds, everyone had nodded. Linnet and Blaise headed back to the castle in silent proximity, and Dean left with Ginny, whispering. Ron and Millicent lingered.

"Is there some reason you're still here?" Hermione asked tightly, as Millicent looked out at the path.

Millicent shrugged. "In case someone doesn't approve of the company Malfoy keeps, of course. Is there some reason we haven't headed back yet?"

"We should make copies," Harry said. "Before we go handing this one to him."

"Harry...." Hermione protested.

"Look, I know he's on our side, okay? He just always thinks his way is the best, and I'm not giving this up to him."

Draco nodded. "I also would prefer the flexibility. One for each of us, perhaps?"

 

Millicent, her own copy of the article tucked inside her robes, left them just inside the Entrance Hall. Ron followed them up to the second floor landing. There, he paused and cleared his throat. "Er, would you like another...?"

"I think the office will be crowded as it is," Hermione said reasonably.

"Right. So why not just Harry?"

To Harry's amusement, Hermione and Draco shared a look.

"As Head Girl and Head Boy," Draco said, "we represent the students in general, as well as the two houses most closely tied to the matter."

"And Harry will lose his temper if this goes badly," Hermione added.

Draco nodded. "Better to launch three of us at the encounter, I think."

"I will not--"

"Yes, you would," Hermione said amiably. "But we don't mind."

Ron snorted. "We're all impressed you dare, honestly."

 

The password today was Blood Pops, which Harry found a bit disturbing. They rode the spiral staircase up to the antechamber and found the door to the office open. Dumbledore, standing next to Fawkes, turned as they arrived.

"Ah," he said. "I had thought that someone would arrive, but had not expected all three of you. Last spring's alliance survives, does it?"

Hermione shot a look at Draco. "Yes," she said.

"Impressive. And that, I believe, makes the strange group that left breakfast this morning more understandable. You have, perhaps, come to tell me what led to that sudden display of house unity?"

"Precisely, sir," Draco answered, and Harry took the newspaper from his bag and extended it to the headmaster. Dumbledore accepted it with deep nod. He frowned at the grey newsprint.

"Air Crash in Sumatra?"

"Below that, sir," Harry said. Dumbledore tilted the paper and adjusted his half-moon glasses. "I see more of this 'EU' curren-- Oh!" He lifted the paper closer. "Oh, dear."

"We didn't find anything in the Prophet, sir," Hermione explained. "But it does look like Mr. Nott."

"Looks like!" Draco exclaimed. "It is him; I'm certain."

"Yes, yes," Dumbledore murmured, stumbling back and sinking into one of the chairs usually used by visitors. The paper was still in his hand. "How disheartening."

"The Ministry's covering it up," Harry said. "They have to be."

"Well," Dumbledore demurred. "I'm sure Minister Ramsley sees it merely as not mentioning--"

"They're endangering people!"

Dumbledore looked up, all weakness suddenly gone. "Oh, I quite agree, my dear boy. It is unconscionable."

"We thought," Draco said neutrally, "that you might inquire as to whether there was some extraordinary justification for this oversight. A hostage, perhaps, or a delicate plan to recapture the fugitive."

"And if not," Harry said, "tell people."

"Yes." Dumbledore stood, leaning for a moment on the arm of the chair before straightening. "That, I will do. Thank you all for coming to me. Now, I believe I must arrange a visit to London."

Draco and Hermione turned at the dismissal, but Harry did not. "If this stays secret," he said fiercely, "I want a reason."

Dumbledore's eyes widened. A moment later, the corner of his mouth turned up in a smile. "Of course you do, Mr. Potter," he said, placing a hand on Harry's shoulder. "And I will see to it that you get one, although it may not be one you can relay to everyone that you left breakfast with this morning."

Harry nodded. "Understood." It wasn't, he told himself, promising anything.

"Good."

 

"Harry?" Ron called. On the verge of leaving the Quidditch changing rooms, Harry paused reluctantly, pulling the door mostly closed to keep out the frosty night air. Gryffindor's practice hadn't started until after dinner, but it had been a good one. Harry had taken a quick warming shower; he was looking forward to meeting Draco -- privately, this time.

"Yeah?" he said neutrally.

"I wanted to talk." Ron shook his still-dripping hair nervously. "About, you know, the divination thing."

That was enough to pull Harry back. He reviewed the team in his mind, confirming that everyone else had left. "Okay."

"I think I might, y'know, do it, but I want more information. About what's involved."

Harry nodded. "I think-- I know you two don't get along, but I think you should talk with Draco."

Ron's face closed a little. "Why? Don't know that I'll believe what he says."

"Well, Draco and me, I mean. I can tell you about some things, but he did the potions research, and knows more about some aspects of it than I do." Harry thought quickly. He didn't want to bring Ron down to the Chamber of Secrets before he was committed, but Draco was probably already waiting for him down there. "Look, how about this? I'll go and find Draco, and we'll meet you in half an hour, outside the library."

After only a moment of hesitation, Ron nodded. "Okay."

 

When Harry entered the Chamber of Secrets, Draco immediately crossed over to him and kissed him. While Harry was trying to remind himself that he had a mission, Draco began to nuzzle his hair.

"You smell like flying," he murmured, and Harry pressed against the warmth of his body.

"God. I wish I could just drag you off to bed."

"Can't you?" Draco pulled back enough to look at him.

Sighing, Harry moved to take Draco's hands in his own. "Sorry, but no. Ron's decided he wants to talk about the divination, and has even agreed to hear the details from you, so I told him I'd bring you up to talk."

"We're not doing that here?"

"Not if we're just talking. I thought the space on the fourth floor, where the Uncommon Room will be."

"Is it clean enough?"

Harry shrugged. "It's not great, but Mill and I have been working on it. There's a clear space big enough for twenty, at least."

Draco raised his eyebrows. "Mill?" he asked mockingly.

"Well, she's good at throwing rocks around," Harry answered, ignoring the implied question.

"I expect so. Were you planning to inform me of this little project?"

Harry grinned. "When it was clean enough. I thought you might help with the lighting charms, and maybe furniture."

Draco looked around at their space, which now had shelves under the table to hold parchment, quills, and glasses. "Would it help to bring drinks?"

"I hadn't thought about it." Harry frowned. "I don't want to mess up his judgment. It's his decision."

"But it may help him to feel included," Draco argued. "Let's. Not too much, as you say; I wouldn't want him to feel tricked. I'll make a carafe, and we can pour off most of the less expensive cognac to leave here, and then bring enough for each of us to have a glass."

"I...." Harry didn't like the idea. "No," he said. "I don't want to be carrying it in the halls, and I brought it for here, anyway. Let's stop at the kitchens for butterbeer and cakes."

"That seems too ... everyday."

"But it needs to be," Harry retorted, his feelings finally coalescing. "Otherwise, he'll feel like we're paying him off, and he won't want to do it."

Draco shook his head. "Gryffindors!" he said, but he reached out to thread his fingers though Harry's. "Let's go, then."

 

Ron was waiting half-way between the main staircase and the library, and he stepped out of the shadows silently, giving Draco an almost furtive nod. Going along with the mode, Harry grinned at him and gestured at him to come along as he set off away from the library and toward the back stairs.

When they were safely out of trafficked areas, he stopped. "All right," he said, "I want to take you somewhere to talk. It's a secret, though; you need to promise you won't tell."

Ron hesitated. "What about Hermione?"

"Especially not Hermione," Harry answered. "Not now. In a month or so, maybe."

"So this isn't some other way into Salazar's hideout."

"No. This is a space I want for the Uncommon Room."

Ron shook his head, his eyes flicking to Draco and away. "I still think that's a bad idea. I don't like you visiting with Slytherins, Harry."

"You can't stop me, and you know it. Do you want be able to find me when I am, or not?"

Ron bit his lip for a moment, and then sighed. "All right. I promise."

"Come on, then."

Ron wasn't startled by the mirror. They had come this way as third years, shortly after Harry got the Marauders' Map, and had confirmed that the passageway was indeed blocked. He did give Harry an odd look as Harry tapped the glass and then reached through it to open the door, but he followed Harry through readily, ignoring Draco at his back. His eyes widened as Harry activated the glowing strip on the walls.

"We didn't notice that, before."

"No, and not all of it works," Harry said, leading Ron and Draco around the curve and into the wide space beyond. "It should be twice as bright as it is, in here. I need someone who can figure out the charm work to fix the one on the other side."

"You've been working on this," Ron said.

"A bit," Harry agreed. "Still no furniture, I'm afraid, but we stopped and picked up some cushions."

"Oh?" Ron asked, looking curiously at their school bags. Draco put his down and drew his wand with a flourish. Ron, Harry noted, brought his hand to his own wand at that.

"Observe," Draco declared and pulling a scone-sized object out of his bag, tossed it in the air and pointed his wand at it. It came down a large, thick cushion, big enough to sit on. He repeated the procedure with five more cushions, leaving a broad heap of them. Harry pulled the nearest one clear of the others, plopped down on it, and set down their picnic basket from the House Elves. He took out a platter of little cakes and biscuits, and then six bottles of butterbeer.

Ron snorted. "Planning to get me drunk?"

"Not tonight," Draco said coolly, extracting his own cushion. "It will do no good to have you make a decision you don't understand."

"Right," Harry said, overturning the basket and setting the platter on it. "And anyway, since when would two bottles of butterbeer get you drunk?"

Ron snorted. "Depends on whether you've added something else to them, like the twins used to."

Draco coughed slightly. "Ah," he said. "The twins."

"Seriously," Harry continued, "I want you to have all the information on this before you promise anything. I won't think less of you if you say no, but if you say yes, I expect you to mean it."

Ron studied him for a moment, and then nodded. "All right," he said, sitting down on a cushion, so his long legs sprawled out, one in front and one bent to the side. "Let's hear it."

Draco sighed, and sat on the other side of Harry, just out of reach, so the three of them faced in from a curve. "We have four options, so far." He took a large vial full of shimmering liquid from his pocket, and tilted it in the dim light. "Of these, we have only completed the base potion for one. This is the least Dark of the methods, but also the least likely to work."

Ron was staring, mesmerized, at the vial. Harry leaned forward to wave a hand in front of his face. "You in there, Ron?"

"Um, wha--" With a visible shake, Ron looked away. Without comment, Draco lowered the vial so it was obscured by the shadows from the folds of his robes. "Um, yeah," Ron said. "Go on."

"This one," Draco said, "is the least Dark. The base potion is not Dark at all, and the components were fairly easy to procure. As the diviner, however, you would need to draw Harry's blood -- not much; a prick of the third finger should do -- and drip it into the base potion for the scrying."

Ron, who had pulled his lip tight under his teeth at the mention of drawing blood, slowly relaxed and nodded.

"There is some chance," Draco continued, "that the act of bleeding him in a magical context will make the divination Dark Arts. I haven't tested this, for obvious reasons--"

"What, is Dumbledore keeping an eye on you?" Ron needled.

Draco's brow drew down in surprised puzzlement. "I have the Quiris," he said. "Didn't you know?"

Harry shrugged. "No reason he would. I keep forgetting it myself, since I haven't seen them, yet."

"Well, we need to remedy that," Draco said crisply. "In any case, the Quiris-- You do know what they are, don't you?"

"Magical, Potter-bred creatures that can detect Dark energies."

"Precisely. So if I attempted the experiment, and it did turn out to be Dark, they would repulse me and I would anger them, and I would be unable to see to their care."

Ron's eyebrows rose. "You've never struck me as an animal-lover, Malfoy."

Harry grinned. "The Quiris are a little bit different."

Malfoy nodded. "Their presence...." His mouth compressed as he bit the inside of his lip. "It feels rather like the first flush of fancying someone," he confessed, "but translated to an appropriate form for a pet."

Harry snorted. "If you haven't been doing Dark Arts."

"Can I see them?" Ron asked.

"Of course," Draco said promptly. "The headmaster has forbidden me to have them out in public, but they are not a secret."

"Why can't they be out in public then?" Ron asked, drawing an elegant shrug from Draco.

"Perhaps he does not wish to know who might flee them."

"You mean he doesn't want to embarrass Snape?" Harry shot back.

"An irresponsible allegation, Harry," Draco said calmly.

"Oh, yes, of course. An entirely unwarranted assumption on my part." Still, he smiled as he said it, and Draco smiled back.

"It certainly should be," he retorted mildly. "In any case, Weasley, that is the first option. The second is similar, but adds a focus-enhancing potion taken before that. It would not add any potentially Dark elements, but would be a little more dangerous.

"The third option," he continued, at Ron's nod, "recreates the procedure used by the Seer whom Harry went to this summer. Have you heard about that?"

"Not in detail," Ron said, looking between them, and Harry sighed.

"It was kind of creepy," he said. "I paid her in silver, and she transfigured the silver into a bowl--"

"Leaving the tarnish as streaks," Draco added. "That turns out to be important, as is the fact of payment."

"Right," Harry said. "So you'd have to keep the silver afterwards, although you could turn it back into Sickles and spend it, of course. I just can't get it back."

"That's weird," Ron said.

Draco shrugged. "It establishes a contractual relationship between the diviner and the source of the blood."

"Oh, so this one uses blood too?"

Harry nodded. "A lot more of it." He started to reach for the butterbeer, but then took a chocolate biscuit instead. "She cut me where Wormtail did, and spilled a lot of my blood into the bowl. A cup or more. Snape gave me Blood Replenisher right afterwards. Then she poured a potion on top -- and that's not the nicest stuff, either; Draco won't be able to finish it himself if the Quiris are still here -- and combined them, then scried from that. Oh -- and she painted some of the potion onto her face -- eyelids and around the mouth--"

"Disgusting!"

"Yeah. And then I got to ask her one question--"

"Just one?"

"Yeah, but her answer wasn't just...." Harry tried to think how to explain.

"The question focused her divination," Draco said clearly. "From there, her answer could extend, if the nature of the question showed her paths."

"Right," Harry said. "Except she realized that she was mostly seeing me, and said it would take someone who knew me better to sort out the threads that were Voldemort."

Ron shuddered. "Well, with any luck, we won't need to go that far, and if we do, it should be enough."

Draco nodded. "With luck, yes. I would prefer not to go to the fourth method, as that would require you to drink a potion containing Harry's blood, and I can do nothing that would entirely safeguard either of you from unintended consequences."

"All right!" Harry said quickly. "Enough of that." He opened a butterbeer and cast a quick warming charm on it. "Ron?"

Ron nodded and took the bottle, but didn't taste it or look at it. His gaze was locked on nothing as his eyes narrowed and then relaxed. "I'll do it," he said, squaring his shoulders and looking at Harry. "The first three, at least." He lifted the bottle in a toast. "Cheers."

"Thank you," Harry said, passing a second warmed bottle to Draco before opening one for himself. "I appreciate it."

"Okay," Ron said, his voice a little bit hoarse. "Er ... so, shall I try it now?"

"No," Draco said. "Not here."

"We could move."

Harry shook his head. He wanted Ron to really understand this. "No. Next week will be soon enough."

"Besides," Draco said, "you've started on butterbeer. Thus, business is concluded."

Harry shot him a quick look. He was pretty sure that even a swallow or two of cognac wouldn't interfere with any divination that didn't involve drinking a potion. On the other hand, assuming that should keep Ron from arguing, and maybe that was Draco's intent. Or maybe it wasn't a warning, but just some sort of etiquette thing.

"All right." Ron sat back. "Though in some ways, it would be easier to do it right away."

"Gryffindor," Draco sniffed.

"You're involved with one," Ron retorted.

"Oh, I'm quite aware of that," Draco said, smiling at Harry. "Still, I can hardly help it if some of your attitudes continue to amuse me."

"Well, that's mutual," Harry interjected. "So, when should we go and see the Quiris?"

Draco considered. "After breakfast tomorrow? We have time before our meeting with Professor McGonagall."

"Why are you meeting with our head of house?" Ron asked.

Draco frowned. "For our project."

"Combined transfiguration, Ron, remember?"

"Oh, right."

"We've mostly been talking about Quidditch, this week," Harry explained to Draco. "Anything else has been in passing."

"Except this," Ron pointed out, with a scowl. "And Nott. I can pay attention if it matters."

"And you don't think schoolwork matters?" Draco said sharply.

"Not constantly," Ron answered. "Besides, it's not even my schoolwork."

"Ah," Draco answered. "That's true, I suppose." Harry could almost see the brittle tension behind the cool words. He turned on his cushion, nudging it closer as he moved, to sit leaning against Draco.

"Definitely not yours," he affirmed, before looking back to Ron. "So, how is your schoolwork going? It's odd only having you in three of my classes."

"Well, if you hadn't stayed in Potions, of all things..."

They talked for an hour, with Harry occasionally heading off building clashes between Ron and Draco. Despite the extra work, he was happy, and they both pretended that nothing was odd about the situation. Harry and Ron had second bottles of butterbeer, and when Draco pushed his second back to Harry, Harry nudged it over to Ron. While Ron opened it, Draco and Harry kissed. Afterwards, Draco continued to stare at him, his eyes promising more. With an effort, Harry looked away.

"It's getting sort of late...." he said. Maybe if they left right away, he could get some time with Draco.

"Wait," Ron said. He took a quick swallow of the butterbeer. "This thing with Nott...."

"Yeah?"

"Well, that's why I agreed to talk to you -- to do this. I talked to Dean about it, and he still had yesterday's paper, so we read about the murders ...." Ron swallowed. "And he talked about Gemma, and--" He looked away. "We need to do something. Cabot isn't getting the results the Minister of Magic claims, if they're having escapes."

Slowly, Draco turned away, though he kept one hand in contact with Harry. "I suspect it was actually a breakout," he offered. "Theo was doing his best to taunt me in the common room, yesterday. Ranting on about how his family was loyal to the Dark Lord and would be rewarded, whilst my father had ineptly attempted to play both sides, and he would suffer, and Professor Snape would suffer...." Draco swallowed, and tossed his head. "It was really quite tedious."

"Oh, so that's what Blaise meant."

"Among other strange speeches, yes. So I believe his uncle was rewarded by means of contriving his release, and Theo has been told this to strengthen his own loyalty."

"We should probably warn Professor Snape," Harry said.

"Already done. I did note his inclusion in Theo's list of blood traitors."

Ron made a face. "That's a pretty phrase."

Draco shrugged. "It's what he calls me."

"You don't believe that, do you?"

"What, that the majority of my ancestors would consider me a traitor to my line, for my current associations and alliances? I rather do, yes. However, I do not believe they would be right to do so. People used to think the sun orbited the earth. That something was once widely believed does not make it an indisputable truth." His proud manner faded to something more sullen as he twisted his heel against the stone floor. "And perhaps they wouldn't be as united as it seems. My mother seems increasingly less dedicated to the idea of pureblood superiority the longer my father is away." His face twisted. "Not that I expect any half-bloods to show up in my list of potential wives."

Ron laughed. "You're letting your mummy pick a wife for you?"

"It isn't as if I'll want any of them. She'll choose someone I can tolerate for long enough--"

"Why not marry someone you want?" asked Ron.

"I want Harry," Draco said fiercely. "However, he is neither a pureblood, nor capable of bearing me children, so I still require a breeding wife."

Harry hid his face in his hands. He was, at once, amused, dismayed, embarrassed, flattered, and insulted, and the muddle left him unsure what would show.

Draco touched his arm briefly. "I should not have said that, here. I--"

"I'd prefer you didn't, thanks," Harry mumbled. There was an awkward silence.

"I think you're an idiot," Ron said finally, but the statement was more blunt than cutting. "He loves you, and even I can see you love him. You'll be miserable, and for what? Someone's approval, that's all."

"It's more than that," Draco said, speaking fiercely to the table. "It's family. It's history. It's what I am."

"If what you are comes down to what you can pump out of your bollocks, you're a damn sight less than human."

Draco looked up, glowering.

"Enough," Harry interjected. "Ron -- I appreciate the support, but it's not your fight."

With a soft growl, Ron sat back, crossing his arms over his chest. "Not that I like watching this disaster," he said finally. "I should get back to Gryffindor. Coming, Harry?"

Harry looked uncertainly at Draco, whose face had gone blank.

"Nah," he said. "Think I'll go down to Slytherin." He reached out to take Draco's hand. "Mind sharing your bed, love?"

Draco brightened. "I suppose I could endure it. Should we have you back before dawn?"

"Well, before breakfast, anyway." Harry looked over at Ron. "Will you cover for me?"

Ron winced. "If I can," he agreed. "You'd better be back before Hermione is awake, though."

"I think I can manage that."

 

It was early enough that there was no need for subterfuge while they were still in the public corridors, but late enough that few other students were out. Draco took Harry's hand as they started down the corridor to the less-traveled east staircase.

"I really am sorry," Draco said. "But he did ask."

"I know." Harry held on to Draco and wondered when that would pull him in two. "You just ... you talk about it like it makes sense."

"It makes sense to me," Draco answered. "You just didn't grow up with.... well, anything. Of course you can't understand." Harry looked away, but Draco let go of his hand to wrap an arm tightly around him. "We have this year," Draco said intently, "and most of next, probably. Stay."

"I'm with you," Harry replied.

"Just ... I couldn't bear to lose you in advance."

Harry didn't answer, but he wrapped an arm around Draco as well. It made going down the spiral staircase awkward and slow, but they stayed like that anyway. By the third flight, they had the rhythm of it.

Around the corner from the entrance to Slytherin, they stopped.

"You should put your cloak on."

"I don't want to hide."

"I don't want to be stopped," Draco answered fiercely. "Cloak, Harry. Be a bold Gryffindor in the morning."

Hiding stung in the aftermath of what Draco had said, but Harry saw the sense of it. He told himself he would leave without it, whatever Draco said then, and he pulled his cloak out of his school bag and swung it on. Draco winced as he vanished.

"Stay close," Draco whispered. "I'll take my time with doors."

 

Harry had been in the Slytherin common room before, but only once when the school year was in full swing. It looked less gloomy when full of students, some of whom had taken off their scholars' robes to reveal more colorful clothing. Slytherins studying and socializing looked a lot like Gryffindors studying and socializing. Harry would have said that he expected that, but it turned out to surprise him. He was also surprised when Draco went straight to the seventh-year boys' dormitory. Harry had thought Draco might have a different room as Head Boy, but he was still in the same one as last year. The seventh-years' room was a lot more spacious with Crabbe and Goyle gone. Blaise looked up from studying as they crossed the room.

"You're back."

"Shouldn't I be?" Draco said, pausing with the door to his room open. Harry edged past him and inside.

"Yes, but Theo will be disappointed. He was hoping for more scandal."

"I'll keep that in mind."

"Do."

Draco stepped in, clicking the door shut behind him, and Harry immediately pressed him up against it. They kissed hungrily.

"Merlin, I thought I'd never get you alone."

"I just thought Ron--"

"Yes, yes, while the iron is hot, and all that, so no need for it now!"

"Right." Harry went back to kissing him. Draco moaned into his mouth, and his body pressed forward, hard against Harry's. He wrapped a leg behind Harry, getting it up to his thighs, and Harry tried to pull him up and forward by his arse, and they stumbled, and nearly fell.

"All right in there?" Blaise called.

They both froze.

"Fine."

"Silencing charm!" Harry exclaimed at whisper, and they both cast one, with laughs held in so tightly that they were practically giggles.

"I can't believe that!" Harry exclaimed. "We're so careful coming in, and then we do an idiotic thing like that."

"Lust is known for degrading the mental process."

Harry rolled his eyes. "No more of that."

"Oh?" Draco asked innocently. "Is there something you would rather?"

Harry considered. He thought he was expected to just return to kisses, but instead he stepped back. "Take your clothes off," he suggested.

"Just like that?"

"I know you don't mind attention."

Draco licked his lips. "Especially yours."

"Right. So take your clothes off. I want to watch."

Laughing uneasily, Draco lifted his hands to the collar of his robes. "You are far too confident for someone with so little experience."

"Uh-huh," Harry agreed, leaning back against the wall and folding his arms. "If you don't like the idea, you'll say so, right?"

Draco undid the top fastener on his robes and straightened. "Oh, I don't think I mind." His fingers moved deftly down hidden hooks, making his robes gap over shirt and tie. There was nothing particularly special about either, to Muggle sensibilities, but they were sexy by virtue of usually being concealed.

"Good," Harry said, and Draco gave him a little smile as his robe opened entirely, showing a lower garment that was wider and looser than Muggle dress trousers, but not quite out of acceptable range for a man.

"What next?" Draco challenged, and Harry thought for a moment. "Boots," he said, "and socks." As he had expected, Draco looked even sexier barefoot, with his toes sinking into the plush green carpet. "Tie, next."

Draco undid his tie with great deliberation, running his fingers sensually down the length of silk at the end of every untraced loop, so that Harry's mouth went dry and he had to suck his lips in to moisten them. With a smug look, Draco strolled forward, the length of cloth stretched between his hands. Harry waited. When Draco cast the loop of silk over his head and behind his neck, and then used it to draw him into a kiss, Harry all but melted.

"You are not in control here," Draco said intently, as he raised reddened lips from the encounter.

"Didn't think I was," Harry confessed.

Draco raised his head. "Just to be clear," he said, and walked away again, with enough of a sashay that Harry would have thought it stupid in any other context. In private, he was enthralled.

By the bed, Draco turned. "Shirt next?" he asked. "Or bottoms?"

"That," Harry said. "The trouser-ish things." The thought of seeing Draco in just his shirt was almost unbearably hot.

With a smirk, Draco unbuttoned the garment and let it fall. Rather than kicking it away, he stepped to the side, clear of the fallen fabric. Harry bit his lip. Draco was half-hard, his swollen prick not at full length, but rising forward enough to part the placket of his shirt.

"Oh, you're gorgeous," Harry said, quite without meaning to.

"Hmph. Was that addressed to me or to my cock?"

"Both, really," Harry admitted easily. "It is shown off nicely like that."

"Why, Harry!" Draco said slyly, sliding his hands down to undo the lowest button of his shirt. "I do believe you're as shameless as I am."

Harry laughed, though paradoxically, he could feel himself blushing. "Shame is just fear," he said.

"Well, then," Draco said, undoing another button. He was now showing a wedge of skin from his sternum down. "You won't mind touching yourself while you watch?"

In answer, Harry brought his hand to the front of his robes and squeezed the sides of his erection.

"Oh no," Draco scolded. "I want to see."

Harry shook his head. "No. Not until you're naked and lying on that bed."

With a strange, high sound, Draco nodded. He undid the last front button, and then his cuffs, and dropped his shirt carelessly to the floor. With a showy arch of his body, he pulled himself up onto the bed, and then squirmed back until he could reach a pillow and pull it under his head.

"I'm here," he said, his voice suddenly very small.

Harry smiled and strolled forward. "Don't sound like that," he said. "You're gorgeous, and you know it."

"It just feels..... You're still dressed."

"Not for long," Harry answered, dropping his robes. He was wearing an old T-shirt, which was unfortunate; if he'd been planning for this, he would have worn the green silk. Still, he unzipped his jeans and pulled out his swollen cock, sliding his hand along it as Draco had wanted. Draco stared, his eyes wide. "I just wanted a little time to feel all of how much I want you. Touch is so fast."

Draco whined, a noise so undignified that it must have been beyond his control. "Come here," he said. "Please?"

"Yeah?" Harry asked, stepping up until his knees bumped into the duvet.

"Touch," Draco said. "Now. Fast is okay."

Harry crawled over him. "Love that," he said fiercely.

"What?"

"When you stop speaking perfectly."

Draco laughed and pulled him down. Suddenly, no amount of touch was enough. Harry had to run his hands over every inch of Draco that he could reach, and Draco looped a leg over Harry to pull him close. They rubbed together in a frantic rut, Harry touching Draco's back, Draco's hair, and feeling Draco's teeth on his shoulder as another embrace. Draco lifted his head to cry out, and the drag of skin on skin was suddenly slicker. Harry pumped against Draco's suddenly collapsed weight.

"So hot," he whispered, and Draco raised his head to look into his eyes, and suddenly Harry was coming as well, losing all detail behind the blinding white lightning in his head.

 

"Harry?"

"Mm?"

The tingle of a cleaning spell wasn't quite enough to make him lift his head. He did open his eyes.

"You're not going to fall asleep on me, are you?"

"Just resting," Harry claimed. He hadn't done anything to get ready for bed, after all, except for discarding his clothes -- well, some of them. He curled up to struggle out of his t-shirt. "Wow. I'd planned on something a little more...."

"Artful?" Draco suggested.

"Something like that."

"Mm." Draco stretched back, the twist of his arm and the grace of his final pose demonstrating 'artful'. "That is what second rounds are for."

 

Chapter Text

 

"Oh," Harry said, pulling Draco a little closer and rubbing his face against Draco's neck. "I've missed this."

"Waking up hours before breakfast?"

"Waking up with you. Those few days this summer weren't nearly enough."

"I'd like it better if you could stay," Draco returned wistfully, following the comment with a kiss.

"I probably won't get in much trouble--"

"No!" Draco let out a quick breath. "Don't let her catch you. I really want to do this again."

"Okay."

Despite that resolve, washing and dressing were slowed by looks and touches and kisses and promises of "later." When Draco, who had insisted on going first, opened the door to the larger seventh-year Slytherin boys' dormitory, the occupants were still in bed.

"Harry?" Blaise said, looking out groggily from his bed. "What are you doing in-- Never mind. Don't answer that. Stupid question."

From the other bed, Theodore Nott exploded to his feet, grabbed his dressing gown and something from his bedside table, and stormed from the room.

"He doesn't like you much," Blaise commented. "Do be careful." He sank back down to his pillow. "And quiet, please."

"Got that, thanks," Harry said, crossing the room to the next door.

"Harry!" Draco exclaimed, belatedly darting after him, and Harry, who had opened the door, turned.

"GOT you!"

A hand grabbed his shoulder roughly, and shoved something cold past his collar. Harry was already shouting out a disarming spell as he turned. A heavy body flew back, crashing into one of the massive common room sofas and dropping to the floor with a thump. Inside Harry's shirt, the cold thing was heavy and hard, but it didn't hurt. Susara moved across his neck, apparently unharmed. Every source of fire in the room flared into life at once -- Draco's doing, Harry thought -- blinding them all.

Slowly, Harry focused through the brightness. Theodore Nott had raised himself to his elbows and was staring at Harry in horror. To the sides, Harry was aware of a few younger Slytherins, all staying very still.

Harry let out a long breath. Draco, his wand out and fixed on Nott, stepped forward.

"Are you okay?" he asked, with only a twist of his chin to indicate he was speaking to Harry.

"I seem to be." Harry opened his robes and undid a few buttons on his shirt.

"Master?" Susara asked.

"Upper arm," Harry ordered, not caring who was listening. "Stay still." He didn't want her near the unknown object, which had fallen to his waist. By reaching inside with one hand, lifting the shirt fabric at the back with the other, and twisting sideways, he managed to catch the hard thing. It felt smooth and round in his hand. He pulled it out, and found himself looking at a marble -- a large shooter, with a coiling black snake inside nearly clear glass.

"Was I supposed to scream?" he asked, holding it out to Nott. "I'm not afraid of snakes, you know."

Nott's eyes widened even further. Rather than take the thing, he crab-walked back toward the wall. Harry rolled his eyes. "Whatever," he said, and tucked the marble into his school bag.

"Perhaps I should accompany you," Draco said smoothly.

"Yeah," Harry agreed. "We should probably talk."

 

They left Slytherin without further incident, and Draco set a fast pace down a bewildering tangle of corridors. Harry suspected he was avoiding predictable paths to discourage anyone who might try to follow them.

"Where are we going?" he asked, after the third turn.

"Where do you think?"

"Well, we should have someone look at that marble."

"'Someone' being?"

"I was thinking of Professor Hecksban."

Draco shook his head. "No. Severus. We already know you can trust him--"

"But I was in Slytherin!"

"Which we know he doesn't mind. We just need some excuse that he can pretend to believe."

"I came to fetch you for a romantic sunrise stroll?"

Draco sniffed. "As if you would."

"I might, if I'd never gone to sleep."

Draco laughed. "All right, then!"

 

Snape wrenched the door open and glared out at them. His scowl faltered with surprise, and reformed into a more reserved scorn.

"The little princes, I see. Does your arrival at this hour indicate a crisis, or merely your usual lack of consideration?"

"I'm not actually sure if it's a crisis--"

"What Harry means, sir," Draco said crisply, "is that we require your expertise to evaluate the risk posed by an attack."

"Right," Harry said, rolling his eyes. "What he said."

For a moment, Snape just pinched the bridge of his nose. "Very well," he said finally. "Come inside. Sit on the sofa, and do not touch anything."

The warning seemed excessive -- after all, they had both been here before -- until Harry was inside the room and realized that Snape had been marking. Piles of essays were spread over the table in front of the sofa, and the smaller table between the sofa and the chair, some with sealed potion samples beside them. Snape firecalled the kitchen for more tea and took a swallow from his own cup before carrying it with him to the chair. "Please explain," he said.

Harry and Draco looked at each other. "Well," Harry said, "I'd gone down to Slytherin early to fetch Draco--"

Snape looked heavenward. "Of course you had."

"Well, Parvati says sunrise over the lake is very romantic--"

"The lake is west of here, Potter."

"Exactly. So you need time to walk around it."

Snape snorted. It wasn't a laugh, exactly, but from him, it was nearly as good. "Pray continue, Potter. You were, for whatever no doubt entirely innocent reason, in Slytherin at some ungodly hour of the morning. What happened?"

"Nott shoved something down my shirt."

Snape's eyebrows rose. "Something?" he repeated mockingly. "Ice? Caterpillars? Sickles?"

Harry grinned. "A marble." He fished the item out of his bag. "And it didn't do anything to me, but he seemed surprised by that."

Snape did not take the offered item. Instead, he drew his wand and began to cast spells at it. Harry recognized two of the incantations as ones they had learned in Cursebreaking. After another dozen of these, Snape sat back, puzzled. "Set it on the table," he instructed. His next spell made the marble glow orange, and he let out a little "ah" of satisfaction. Picking up the marble, he looked at it for a moment, tossed it in the air, and caught it.

"It is not actually cursed," he said. "And, in this place, it does nothing."

"Excuse me?" Harry asked.

"Three years ago, that would not have been the case."

"Oh!" Harry said. He was well aware of what magical items no longer worked at Hogwarts. "It's a Portkey! Right?"

"Exactly. It is not common knowledge that they are now nullified by extensions to the magic that prevents Apparation. Theodore was expecting you to vanish from Slytherin and reappear in some other place -- no doubt one that he believed you could not escape from."

"Shouldn't it be common knowledge, Severus?" Draco objected. "My flight to Hogwarts was related in some detail at this summer's trial."

Snape nodded. "Your reasoning, however, was never stated. I expect that the Dark Lord has deduced that had a Portkey been able to bring you into Hogwarts, you would have found some way to anchor the device closer to your destination. It seems likely, therefore, that this scheme is of Mr. Nott's own devising -- or that of one of his less intelligent relatives."

Harry nodded at the marble. "Would you like to keep it?"

"Yes," Snape said, with a sharp nod. He opened a drawer in the nearby table and dropped the marble into it, just as a House Elf appeared with a tea service. The elf looked at the parchment-strewn surfaces around it, and then at its tray. Moving the tray to one hand, he snapped his fingers, summoning a table just large enough for the tray and a few well-positioned saucers. With a bow and a squeaked 'your tea, sirs!" he vanished, leaving the tea service behind.

"You might as well sit," Snape said. "I've seen little enough of you since school started, Draco."

"I've been busy--"

"Yes, yes. And when you come this way it is to visit those horrid creatures--"

"They're sweet," Harry broke in. "It just takes about four weeks...."

"Four weeks that I do not have," Snape said testily. "There are enough dangers to encountering my former associates without depriving myself of my best weapons."

"Are you, er, staying in touch with them, sir?" Harry asked, after a sip of the tea. "Or do you mean encounters by chance?"

Snape acknowledged the worth of the question with a nod. "Some of each. Draco is certainly aware that I remain in contact with his mother. I have ceased to fear a direct threat from that quarter, but the first meetings were a gamble. One of my suppliers I had to drop completely after he 'accidentally' mispackaged an explosive combination of potions components."

"Was there collateral damage?" Draco asked dryly.

"Fortunately, I had been unable to sleep, and so unpacked the order before the Runespoor venom had time to drip through the Peryton feathers to the Fairy floss, so it was merely some sickness from the residue of the counteracted venom."

 

Harry ended up going straight from Snape's rooms to the Great Hall, and arriving at breakfast too late to be inconspicuous. Deciding he might as well face the music, Harry acknowledged his beckoning roommates and walked over to sit with them.

"Have a pleasant night?" Seamus asked jovially.

Harry pretended not to notice Hermione's glare. "Brilliant, thanks," he answered blandly. Seamus didn't need to be so loud about it. "Though I woke up far too early. And you?"

"About the same as usual." Seamus raised his eyebrows, but his voice dropped. "And I'd have said you woke up late."

"Oh, no," Harry replied blithely. His stories might as well match. "I got up very early, and decided to invite Draco for a sunrise walk around the lake."

Hermione's brow wrinkled. Glancing around, Harry found he was getting some strange looks from his housemates. Snape had just assumed he was lying, but the Gryffindors seemed to be struggling with that.

"I'm not sure I believe that," Hermione said finally. Harry shrugged.

"Believe what you will."

Anxiously, she twisted her napkin in her hands. "Harry, I really think--"

She was interrupted by the headmaster getting to his feet and tapping on his juice glass for silence.

"Good morning, everyone. I will be repeating this announcement at dinner, but as most of you who expressed an interest are here now, I see no reason to wait. In answer to repeated requests for mixed-house space, the room next to the library is now available for socialization."

Harry found himself starting to grin. Parvati reached across the table to catch his hand in a tight squeeze. Students who had been unaware of the request began to murmur to each other.

"It will be open from the end of lessons until dinner every weekday," Dumbledore continued, and Harry watched Parvati frown as if he was looking into some sort of magical carnival mirror. Was that all? "To prevent problems, staff members have agreed to supervise."

Harry made a face at Parvati, who answered with a little shrug. He looked over her shoulder and across the room at Draco, who was examining his nails with a bland expression on his face. Harry sighed. Dumbledore's version of the room wouldn't do at all.

Before the whispers could resolve, they were interrupted by the arrival of the morning post. Owls swooped in with their burdens, and the previous discussion was put on hold as Harry and Hermione read the Sun over Dean's shoulder.

 

After breakfast, Harry hoped he would be able to escape while Hermione scoured the Prophet for news. He looked at Ron, who gave him a nod, and they got to their feet and waved a quick goodbye to anyone who was looking. Across the room, Draco stood also, and preceded them to the door.

At first, he thought it would work. Their path was even with the staff table before Harry heard footsteps behind them. In the doorway to the Entrance Hall, Hermione caught at his arm.

"Don't think you're getting away that easily!" she chided as they moved out of sight of the Great Hall. Draco was waiting, leaning against the railing of the grand staircase. "You didn't come back to Gryffindor after practice last night, and I don't believe you've been there yet."

"And if I wasn't?"

"Harry, you are not allowed to stay out all night! I'm not supposed to let you. I should be going to Professor McGonagall right now!"

"Wrong tack," Draco advised, in an amused voice, as he strolled over. "And he would have been around, if Theo hadn't attacked him. That meant going to Professor Snape, and it all got rather out of hand." He nodded at Ron. "Good morning, Weasley. Are you ready for our expedition?"

Hermione rubbed her forehead. "Ron?" she asked. People were starting to emerge from the Great Hall now.

"I invited him to meet the Quiris," Draco said smoothly.

"Oh!" Hermione rocked up on her toes, her eyes widening. "Are they here?"

A group of passing Hufflepuffs shot them surreptitious glances as Draco rolled his eyes. "Harry! I am taking care of creatures that guarantee I am not performing any Dark Arts. Why are you not mentioning this to your housemates?"

"Had you wanted me to?"

"Yes."

Harry mimicked Draco's eye roll. "Then tell me," he said. Some lower-year Slytherins were approaching, which reminded him of Draco's analysis of how their houses determined who was in charge. "You're the Slytherin. You can play with indirect messages all you want, but if you want something from me, say so."

"I thought it was obvious--"

"I've just been thinking what a nuisance it is."

The Slytherins had moved on. With a huff, Draco turned to Hermione. "Miss Granger," he said politely. "Would you like to accompany us to see the Quiris?"

"Please!" Hermione said, her voice quick with eagerness. "I never did get to meet one."

The four of them walked down to the dungeons together, getting a few strange looks in passing. The Quiris, Harry discovered, really were housed quite close to Professor Snape's private apartments, but when they entered the room, he could see sunlight outlining the pale fur of one of the leggy creatures.

He had forgotten how sweet they were. He had known that would be true, but still, it took all the will he had not to join Hermione and Ron in rushing to pet them. Ron's cry of delight, he noted carefully, was only slightly more restrained than Hermione's.

Draco lingered at his elbow. "Something I should know about?" he whispered, his eyes narrowing.

"No," Harry said deliberately. "I'm just trying." Cheefi, he remembered, looking at the paler Quiri. He desperately wanted to stroke his soft fur, as Hermione was currently doing. "Why is there sunlight?" he asked, working at focusing on something else.

Sighing, Draco took Harry's hand. "Because this room is magically connected to one on the second floor," he said. "Now let it go. Come." He pulled Harry towards the Quiris, and Harry went. Cheefi's fur was as soft as he remembered. Hermione released a soft breath as the nearly-white Quiri swung onto Harry's lap, and Harry rubbed his face against his mane.

"I'm so glad, Harry," she said. "I was worried when you held back."

"I was just seeing if I could," Harry explained again, although it seemed rather silly now, with Cheefi chittering at him and grooming his hair.

"Why?"

"Because this is Harry," Draco answered sardonically, perching on the arm of nearby chair. "He has an inherent need to do everything in the most difficult manner possible."

"I don't like things messing with my mind, that's all." Harry couldn't get upset about it, at the moment, but he still knew that was what it was.

"Yet you drink," Hermione prodded.

Harry thought about that. She had a point, really. "It messes more with my body," he said finally, "when I do, which really isn't often. And my mood, I guess, but it doesn't make me want to do things that I wouldn't normally want to do."

"Do the Quiris?"

"Yes. When I first met Tuktuk, I wanted to confess to Dumbledore, and do you remember what Draco said to Professor Horsyr, that time?"

"Hm," Draco said thoughtfully. "So you normally wanted to lie down with your head in my lap, did you?"

Harry blinked. He vaguely remembered that, in the manner of a blurry photograph, from the night before Draco had left for Easter. "Maybe?" he hazarded. "Okay, so that's a point for her, but I also wouldn't want to drink that much again. Ever."

"When was this?" Ron looked confused. Harry hadn't realized he was listening.

"A few hours before you found me hurling in the loo."

"Ah." Ron's hand moved slowly over Tuktuk's fur. "Last spring."

"Yeah."

"Seamus hasn't looked worried about you, this year." Ron frowned. "Except for last night."

Harry suddenly remembered how loud Seamus had been at breakfast. "That was it! He was checking if I was hung over."

"What?" Draco asked, confused. Cheefi moved to him, climbing up on one shoulder and wrapping his tail across his neck to the other one.

"Seamus. He greeted me very loudly this morning. I'd thought he was just putting me on the spot, but he was probably just seeing if I'd wince. Afterwards, he was okay."

"Were you drinking? After I left, I mean?" Ron winced at the sound of his own words.

"Ronald!" Hermione reproved.

"No," Harry answered, as if she hadn't spoken.

"You told me you hadn't seen him!" Hermione continued.

Ron reddened. "Hadn't wanted to admit that I'd voluntarily spent an hour in the same room as Malfoy. Anyway, it had been a while by the time I got back."

It had been more like three hours, as Harry remembered it, but he supposed Ron was creating some extra time afterwards by making their visit shorter. Hermione sat back with a dissatisfied huff. Harry looked over at Draco, and found him studying Ron. Perhaps he hadn't realized that Harry wasn't the only Gryffindor who could lie to his friends. "Hermione," Harry said, "just let it go, all right?"

"You were out all night!"

"And if I was, what of it?" Harry returned. "That would just be ventures into sex. I have the impression you started that earlier than I did."

Ron's face was burning by now. "We never did that much," he claimed.

Hermione sighed. "We did stay out together," she admitted, "but you scolded me for it."

"I scolded you for being missing so often."

"And this time you were missing!"

"For one night! And I'm not a prefect."

"I don't think it was a problem for you because I was a prefect. It was a problem for you because you needed me."

"And did you need me, last night?"

Hermione's shoulders slumped forward. "I suppose not. I do worry about you, though, and you can't tell me I shouldn't."

"You shouldn't! And believe me, I wouldn't have said anything last year, if you hadn't been a prefect."

At Harry's angry claim, Cheefi swung down from Draco's shoulder and took up a spot between them, patting first Hermione's face and then Harry's. Hermione giggled.

"I guess he doesn't want us to fight," Harry said.

"Mm. And I'm starting to see what you mean about them affecting your mind."

"You get acclimated to it," Draco volunteered, coming down to join them on the floor. "Though Frieda's tendency to want everyone to hug and make up makes a little more sense to me now."

Harry hadn't heard Draco call Horsyr "Frieda" before, but he supposed he would, since they had interacted after school. She was definitely the sort of person who would make the offer as soon as she was no longer his professor. Draco was looking almost anxiously between him and Hermione. "Is there anything it might be helpful to ask now?" he asked. "While you can't get too upset?"

Harry couldn't think of anything, really, or at least not anything fair. Hermione nodded.

"Yes. Harry, why were you talking about Gargoyle dust?"

Draco's attention shot to him like tacks to a magnet. Harry crossed his arms over his chest. He hadn't realized that Hermione was still worried about that. "I can't tell you."

"Harry...."

"I can tell you that I have never used it, and never considered using it. It was just something I looked up."

"That doesn't make sense," she complained. He supposed he could see her point. He didn't tend to research potions components on a whim.

Draco, however, cocked his head to the side, rather in the way that Cheefi was doing. "It could," he offered.

"How?"

"If he knew someone who was already using it." Draco sneered slightly. "I might, perhaps, know who."

Harry shrugged, letting his arms loosen. "You might."

Hermione bit her lip. "If you know someone who's doing that, Draco, you need to tell their head of house."

"If it's a student," Harry argued. He was pleased to discover that he could be misleading about this, despite having a hand buried in Cheefi's long mane. Perhaps it was because he was confident that he was right to protect Blaise.

"Point," Ron contributed cheerfully. "It could be one of my brothers."

"Oh, don't make guesses!" Harry objected

"Or...." Ron's face lit up. "Snape! He'd be able to get that with no problem, I bet!"

"Especially not guesses that will have you strung up by your thumbs," Draco said dryly. He sighed. "Look at it this way, Hermione -- If you were taking an illegal potion--"

"I wouldn't!" Despite Cheefi in her lap, Hermione managed to sound anxious.

"As in Defense last year, let us postulate--"

"Turn it around," Harry interrupted. "Hermione. If I was taking an illegal potion, but I wasn't in substantial danger, and I wasn't hurting anyone, would you tell Professor McGonagall?"

She hesitated. "Yes," she said finally, the word coming out quick and uncertain.

"You didn't tell about the drinking."

She frowned. "I made you stop."

"No." He shook his head. "When you were around, you made me keep it reasonable. And you argued with me. But you didn't tell."

"But, Harry, you were in so much trouble--"

"I'm not saying I disagree. Quite the opposite actually." He reached out to touch Cheefi again, and she chirped at him. "Hermione. I looked it up because I was worried, okay? If it's getting dangerous, and I'm in a position to see that, I'll do something."

"There is, however, some harm," Draco pointed out, as if they were discussing some abstract issue in a lesson. "Gargoyles are rare, and if the dust was irresponsibly harvested, the user may be contributing to their decline."

Harry rolled his eyes. "And we should all be vegetarians, I suppose. I won't worry about that for other people."

"Not to mention that it's cheating!" Hermione objected. "If the person is a student, I mean."

Draco shrugged. "If they can 'cheat' as well outside of Hogwarts as in it -- that is, if the person can live up to the unreasonable expectations that they have created -- I don't see that it matters."

"That's because you're a Slytherin," Ron interjected.

"Yes. And what my house counts is results, not means."

"Anyway," Harry said, "I think we've talked that into the ground."

"Probably." Draco looked at Hermione. "Anything else?"

"Do you really like me?"

Draco's face softened with a smile. "Yes, Hermione. I really like you."

"I feel sort of excluded," she confessed.

Draco nodded. "You are the most likely to decide that you can't let us break rules, so we haven't wanted to let you see any place where we meet -- there are so few of them. Weasley was only invited the once. Perhaps you could join us for studying, some days? Now that there is a public space."

She sighed. "That won't be very useful, will it? With those hours."

Harry held back a grin. If she could already see that, they might be able to bring her in to the real Uncommon Room after not too long. "Better than nothing," he offered, with all the lightness of insincerity.

 

Harry was pleased, if not surprised, that Millicent caught him on the way out of lunch.

"Are you going upstairs?" she asked, keeping the question vague, although no one appeared to be in earshot.

"Yeah," Harry answered. "Meet me?"

"I'll be there in a few," she answered, and they parted as a group of students emerged from the Great Hall.

Harry made his way up to the library, and from there, around the castle the long way to the mirror. He was pleased, now that he thought about it, to realize that there were three different routes to the mirror from the library. It would be easy for people to avoid an obvious flow towards the room, even if they were coming from the official mixed-house space. When he reached his destination, Millicent was already there, frowning at the cushions.

"Using the place without me, Potter?" she asked.

He rolled his eyes. "I needed to get Ron and Draco together for a talk on short notice. Draco insisted on the cushions when I told him what state the place was in. It wasn't opening night for the Uncommon Room."

Relaxing, she nodded. "And when will that be?"

"I'm not sure. I think we should give the official mixed-house space a week first."

Millicent frowned around at the space. "So, a week from today?"

"Maybe not. We open the Quidditch season against Ravenclaw on Saturday, and the Patil twins have been major supporters of mixed house space and are people I'd like to bring in on the first round. That might make it awkward. The following Friday, perhaps? Feelings should have settled by then."

Millicent nodded. "That makes sense. So what's next?"

"Cleaning, I think, and then some charms to keep away the bugs and such, and then sometime during this week I should bring Draco here to do some stone-shaping and maybe look at the lights."

"Couldn't your Ravenclaw do it?"

Harry opened his mouth to say no, you couldn't invite someone somewhere and expect them to work on it, but then he looked at Millicent, and thought how she was talking about this room as theirs. "That's a wonderful idea," he said, just as he decided it was. "Actually, why don't we make it part of the opening? Everyone can talk about how to fix the light stripe."

"Won't that be sort of like a class?"

"It will give people something to do."

Slowly, Millicent's confused look brightened. She straightened. "Yeah. Good thought. It's bound to be awkward at first."

"Well, it was your thought," Harry said generously. "Don't forget that."

"Whatever you say, Potter," she answered, rolling her eyes.

"Potter?" he asked. "Why am I suddenly Potter?"

She grinned. "No big reason. Don't read too much into it, Harry." She paused in sweeping her wand up and down the wall. "It may be hearing it a lot; you were the talk of the table at breakfast."

"Oh, really?"

"Really. There are a half-dozen people who say they saw you leaving Slytherin this morning." Her small eyes glittered. "Is it true that you can nullify Portkeys?"

"Nulli-- Oh."

His confusion was enough of an answer. She snorted. "I gather Nott just messed it up, then? Forgot an activation?"

Harry shrugged. "Oh, it was an active Portkey, all right. But, really, I'm just protected against them." That little exaggeration, he thought, might give him an edge.

"Being believed to be able to disable them might serve you better," Millicent argued. "A number of people are saying we just need to tolerate you, for now."

"Oh?" Harry asked.

"Well, it wouldn't do to kill you in the school -- not that many people think they could, after Lestrange. Want me to hint that you've confirmed it to me?"

Harry had never thought of Millicent as the hinting type, but he supposed she was a Slytherin. "Okay," he said. "Thanks."

They cast dusting spells on every section of the entry and meeting space, and sent the dust deep into the piled rocks that filled the passageway beyond. Afterwards, Harry tried conjured water and a scrubbing spell on an area of the wall.

"Look!"

Millicent turned. "Oh!" she said. She stepped forward to touch the wall. "Shiny."

"Cut flint. And look at how it's set in lines. This was more than a secret passage."

Millicent laughed. "Yeah. People don't usually decorate those."

"I suppose it would reflect the light better."

She turned around. "A secret meeting chamber?"

"Maybe we'll find other clues."

They continued on, more eagerly than before, cleaning sections of wall until the floor was slick with water and they had to vanish it or get their socks wet.

"I'm bored," Millicent declared, when they were just about half-way done with the first wall. "Discover something else."

"I can't really turn it on and off like that," Harry replied, grinning at her. "How about some other entertainment?"

"Animal, Vegetable, or Mineral?"

"No. Tell me about Linnet's friend Gilbert."

For at least half a minute, they worked in silence. Then:

"What do you want to know?"

"Well, she seems to trust him, but Draco didn't want him along for yesterday's conference. I don't even know who he is, and I'm just taking Draco's word on her. I want details."

"Ah." Her mouth twisted in a wry grin as she glanced over at him. "You're interested in politics."

"What else?"

"Well, you may have thought he was cute." She laughed harshly. "And I wouldn't have touched that with a barge pole."

"Honestly, I have no idea what he looks like. Not to mention that I'm happy with -- no, completely thrilled by -- Draco."

"All right, then." She took a moment to compose her thoughts, sending off an aguamenti at a new stretch of wall. "His family is pureblood and well off -- at a level with Malfoy's, although they didn't know each other before school for some reason."

"Maybe his family are more, um ... open-minded?"

"No, though that is the usual reason for that sort of thing. That's why he didn't know Linnet, I take it. But as a first year, when kids were being petrified, Gilbert was all for something taking out the Mudbloods, so he had to have picked that up at home. It was just at the beginning of last year -- or, no, I guess after the Halloween massacre -- that he suddenly started indirect criticisms of the Dark Lord."

"Criticisms?"

"They're mostly kind of flippant, offhand comments, but there's feeling behind them. During the spring, he started spending time with Linnet. They're not involved; I think it was more that he was old enough to notice a girl as a person, and they really are the most compatible Slytherins of their year." She looked over at him. "Was that what you wanted to know?"

"Pretty much." Harry looked at the latest stretch of cleaned wall, with its darkly glittering lines above and below the unlit strip of white, and then past it, to the dirt-encrusted rock beyond. "I think that's enough for the day. About time for your glamour, isn't it?"

Millicent hesitated. "My timer hasn't gone off yet, so it's at least another half-hour."

"Okay. That should be enough time for a lesson."

"You want me to try it myself?"

"No, not that. Let's start with something simpler." Harry pointed at Millicent's feet. "How about your shoes?"

Millicent lifted the toe of one shoe and rocked it back and forth. "My shoes?"

"Yeah. Try changing the look of them."

"You mean -- make them shinier, or something?"

"Make them appear shinier," Harry corrected. "Remember, this isn't Transfiguration. You're just fooling people about how they look."

He was proud of that description. It had taken him several days of mulling over the matter to think of it. Surely the idea of deception would appeal to a Slytherin? Indeed, a sly smile was spreading slowly across Millicent's face.

"Hadn't thought of it that way," she muttered. With a decisive nod, she pointed her wand at her shoes, but then hesitated. "Maybe I should take them off first."

"It is not transfiguration. You cannot hurt yourself with a glamour."

"Yeah, but what if I cast the wrong thing?" Millicent sat down and untied one shoe, which she pulled off and set in front of her.

"If you like," Harry said, "this time."

By the time Millicent's alarm spell activated, she had managed to make her oversized woman's shoe look more a man's blunt-toed work shoe. The glamour wavered a little when she moved it, but that could wait a few lessons, Harry decided.

"You could just buy a pair of those, you know," Harry said, as she removed the glamour.

"Because my feet are big enough?"

"And they'd probably be more comfortable. And it would distract from other changes. And you might as well get used to them."

Millicent made a face. "But I'm in a room with Pansy and Daphne, and they notice everything."

"Let them notice that you're changing your style, then."

 

Afterwards, he walked her down to Slytherin. Draco insisted on spending Sunday afternoons available to his house, but that didn't mean they couldn't run into each other. Instead of Draco, however, they overtook the same two Slytherin first-years that Harry kept seeing.

"Hello, Gentian," he said, nodding a greeting.

Millicent snorted. "Making friends with the firsties, Harry?"

"I keep running into these two," Harry said, with a wink for Gentian. He held out his hand to the boy. "But I don't know your name, yet. I'm Harry."

The boy kept his arms folded over his chest. "I'm not supposed to associate with mixed-bloods."

Harry froze.

"Ogden!" Gentian exclaimed, shocked.

"Well, I'm not! And he's Harry Potter, too!"

"Oh, dear Merlin!" Millicent exclaimed. "Look, frogspawn, he's Harry Potter. You ought to be frigging honored."

"Oh, don't!" Harry exclaimed. "I hate that." Looking at Ogden's haughty sulk was giving him a strange feeling of being out of his own body. It took him a moment to turn the impression into a thought. The boy looked everything and nothing like first-year Draco Malfoy, making him seem too small and far down. The connection lent Harry some empathy. "Voldemort's a mixed-blood, you know."

"What?"

"He had a Muggle father. He told me about it, when I was bound to the man's gravestone -- how his Muggle father had abandoned his pregnant mother, but now his bones would serve him."

Millicent covered her surprise with a rough guffaw. "Issues, you think?" she choked out.

"Well, that was clear anyway, wasn't it?" Harry replied. Pushing away from the wall, he raised a hand in farewell. "Good to see you again, Gentian. Glad to have met you, Ogden. Catch you later, Mill."

Two voices chorused goodbyes as he walked away.

 

"Um, Harry?"

The speaker was Leslie Chase, a fifth-year Gryffindor boy. Harry didn't think the kid had spoken a dozen words to him since the end of the Tri-Wizard tournament. Pushing down his annoyance at being interrupted in a conversation with Cornelia about her new position, he mustered a smile. After all, wasn't this the sort of situation where Draco and Dumbledore both advised him to use charm? And really, it wasn't difficult to summon a smile after a 230-50 win in the first game of the season.

"Hi, Les," he said. "What's up?"

Leslie practically glowed at the (correct) use of his nickname. "I, um, just wanted to say what a spectacular catch that was."

"Thanks," Harry said. For once, he was confident that it had been spectacular. He'd used a technique described in Patrick's Pitch Pointers, a largely incoherent feature in Quidditch Review. There were people who claimed that Patrick's Pitch Pointers was an extended hoax meant to discover how long a respected Quidditch publication would pay for nonsensical gibberish written by a famous ex-pro Seeker. Harry was of the camp that that thought Patrick had taken a Bludger too many to the head, but if you could manage to figure out what he was trying to describe, the advice was always good.

"It's great to go in with a leading score, too," he said generously. "Did you see that bit where Cornelia forced Cecilius off course, and Ginny was able to intercept the Quaffle?

"Yes!" Leslie said enthusiastically, rocking up on his toes. "And she passed to Lindsey, who scored, and then Jason intercepted the throw from their Keeper, and Ginny guarded him, and we scored again? That was brilliant!"

"See, this is what I mean," Cornelia said earnestly, picking up her earlier argument. "I knew how Cecilius would react because of watching him last year. Keeper is a great position for learning about people."

"But if we rotate people into the Keeper's slot during practice," Ginny objected, "they'd just be learning about us."

"You can't do it during games!" Leslie exclaimed.

"No, of course not," Harry agreed, shooting him a smile. "We covered that earlier; you're joining an argument in progress. However," he said to his present team members, "Professor Dumbledore approved the idea of pickup Quidditch -- in theory -- last spring. If I can press him on it, and we can tempt some of the Slytherins into a friendly match, we could try it then."

"As if they would!" Cornelia scoffed.

Harry tilted back his head, but didn't quite laugh out loud. "Oh, you don't understand Slytherins, Cornelia. Most of them don't think we can hide anything. Draco knows I can, of course, but I still think he'd agree -- and that the rest of the team would pressure him to. They're incapable of believing that we might learn more than we give away."

"Hi, Les," said a new arrival, sixth-year Sajid. "What's going on here?"

"They're discussing Quidditch strategy."

By now, Harry would usually have turned to directly face Cornelia, ignoring the lower-years. Instead, he watched Sajid roll his eyes.

"Honestly! He's brilliant at it, and all, but what's wrong with football?"

"It's on the ground?" Les answered with practiced sarcasm, but Harry pounced.

"You like football?"

Sajid's eyes widened. "Yes. Do you?"

Harry grinned. "I'm surprisingly Muggle-incompetent actually, but do you know Dean is mad about that?"

"Thomas?" Sajid answered incredulously. "Your year?"

"Right," Harry replied, already looking away. "Dean!"

Dean wandered over, butterbeer in hand. "Harry."

Harry indicated Sajid with a jerk of his head. "Did you know you had a fellow football fan just a year back?"

"Football?" Dean asked incredulously, looking at Sajid. "Really?"

Sajid's eyebrows rose. "Yes," he said, "Really."

"You should organize some games," Harry encouraged, looking between them. "You could use the pitch -- we certainly don't care if the grass is kicked up."

"Some games of what?" asked Sammy, arriving with Barnaby, another sixth-year boy, right behind him. He stepped back right after the words came out, as if afraid to have spoken in front of all these older kids.

"Football," Harry said.

Sammy's eyes widened. "Wizards play football?" he asked, delighted.

Dean clapped him on the back. "Well, no," he said, "but we're discussing changing that."

Harry found himself in a growing group of his housemates -- mostly fifth and sixth years, but with all years represented -- and he found he wasn't as uncomfortable with that as usual. He had finessed it, after all, which made it feel somewhat under his control. By the end of the evening, he thought he had made progress in gaining the trust of the lower years. He also thought Hermione might have been watching a little too closely, but he wasn't sure. She had stayed over by the low fire, conversing with Neville for most of the evening, and with Ginny for a little while. He hoped she was just avoiding the Quidditch talk.

 

Chapter Text

 

The next day was Sunday. Harry slept through breakfast, had lunch early, and slipped away for an afternoon of brewing with Millicent. They spent some of the cooling time talking about Nott senior. Throughout the week, the Prophet had hinted at "security breaches" in Azkaban, and Dumbledore had twice assured Harry that he was making progress. It hadn't been until Friday that Nott had finally been identified as an escapee -- in a collection of single-paragraph items of local news. In this morning's edition, however, his escape was all over the front page, in articles that made it seem as if he had only been loose for a few days. Harry had to agree that it was adequate warning, but it did not satisfy his sense of justice.

Millicent observed that they were getting low on fluxweed, and Harry assured her that he would place an order with the twins that week. It all felt oddly normal, and he was relaxed as he headed back to Gryffindor.

 

"Harry?"

He was just at the fifth floor landing when he heard Hermione say his name. He paused, and turning, saw Hermione and Ginny getting to their feet in the corridor. Ginny beckoned him, and he left the staircase and walked over.

"What's up?"

"Nothing much--"

"We just wanted to talk to you."

"Hm." Harry crossed his arms over his chest. "Does this 'talk' require Quiris?"

Hermione rolled her eyes. "I don't think it's that bad."

"We just want to know what you're up to."

"I'm afraid you'll need to be more specific." At the look that passed between the two, he sighed. He was probably going about this all wrong. "Look," he said. "I don't have some grand unified plot. If you want to know the point of something I did, you'll need to tell me what it was."

"Bulstrode," Ginny said, as Hermione said, "the lower years."

He raised his eyebrows at her, and she sighed. "And Bulstrode," she added.

"You were walking down the stairs with her, yesterday," Ginny explained. "We both saw, and we started talking about it."

"I don't recall her being a friend of Draco's before, but she came along last week."

Harry sighed. "She isn't a friend of Draco's."

"So--"

"She's a friend of mine. I asked her to look after him for me, in Slytherin, and sometimes she does."

For a moment, the girls were quiet. Hermione looked as if she'd found a worm in an apple.

"I don't see how you could become friends with someone like that."

"Really?" Harry challenged. "Draco thinks it's just like Hagrid."

Her jaw dropped. "That wasn't what I meant!"

"Oh?" Harry didn't doubt it, but he wanted her to understand. "If she heard you say 'someone like that,' it's what she'd assume you meant."

"I meant," Hermione said hotly, "the vicious girl who pounded on me during our second year."

"So your opinion of her is based on a physical fight when both of you were twelve?"

"I don't see that she's changed any! She's a Beater!"

"So were the twins!"

"I'm not always pleased with their behavior either, but at least they're on our side!"

Harry let that hang for a moment. Hermione's face was red, but he wasn't sure if it was embarrassment or just anger.

"How do you know she's not?" he challenged.

Hermione didn't say anything.

"It doesn't seem likely," Ginny offered. "Besides, didn't she call Hermione ... that word, once?"

"Again, I believe we're talking about a twelve-year-old, and during a year that sort of behavior was being actively incited."

"She hit me," Hermione said, but more uncertainly than before.

"And you hit Malfoy -- back when Draco was 'Malfoy' -- at least once. And let's not even talk about people I've hit."

"That's different, though. You're a boy." Hermione blushed. "I mean, a lot of boys grow out of that." She groaned. "Ignore me. I can't believe I said that." She bit her lip. "I just don't see what-- see anything that could be appealing about her."

"How could you? You don't know her."

"I know what she's like in lessons."

"Right. When it's Gryffindor and Slytherin, and we're all on our best behavior, I'm sure."

Ginny giggled. "We're getting sidetracked," she said. "I don't mind if she's your friend; I just worried it might be something else."

"Something else?" Harry asked.

"That she was blackmailing you, or you were using her as an envoy, or something...." She shrugged. "Something you might need Gryffindor friends to know about."

"Wouldn't I tell you, then?" he demanded. Ginny was not put off.

"Not necessarily. You protect other people, especially your friends, even if that means not asking for help when you need it."

"Oh." Harry smiled. That made sense, and was actually cheering. "Yeah, um, well ... I'm seeing a Slytherin now."

"So?"

"So, he's trying to train me out of that."

She grinned at him. "Good. Not that I want you to be selfish, but you could use a little more sense. Now...." She set her hands on her hips in a pose reminiscent of her mother. Harry wondered if Mrs. Weasley had been a pretty little firecracker at sixteen. "Moving on. We found your behavior last night, well, odd."

"Yes," Hermione agreed.

"You were talking to all those fifth- and sixth-year kids -- ones who aren't on the team -- as well as your current swarm of firsties."

Harry snorted. Could his housemates be just as paranoid as the Slytherins? "Oh, don't tell me you think I'm corrupting them!"

"No, of course not!" Hermione exclaimed.

"Just ...." Ginny bit her lip. "You don't generally care who likes you, Harry -- at least that I've been able to tell. And this year, you seemed to want people you wouldn't usually notice to like you. Is something wrong?"

"No, of course n--" Harry hesitated. He stepped back towards the stairwell so he could look up and down it. "Let's go for a walk," he suggested. "This is already too ... we shouldn't be talking here."

With a glance between them, the girls agreed, and five minutes later, Harry found himself back outside, walking towards the lake.

"So," Hermione prompted.

Harry shrugged. "Nothing's wrong--" he began, but Ginny snorted.

"You just wanted a walk?" she taunted.

"Nothing's wrong, but there was a point."

"You're worried about your reputation?" she asked incredulously. "Or was it a wager?"

"You know how you said I should let people help me?"

When Ginny nodded, Harry forced himself to continue. "You're right, but I still worry about you -- all of you, I mean. I decided that I need more people who are willing to help, so it's not so hard on the ones who do."

For a while, the girls thought about that.

"It sounds good," Hermione said uncertainly, "but it's a bit manipulative, isn't it?"

Harry looked at her. For the first time, he wished Ginny wasn't there. "You remember last year," he said cryptically. "What I did."

Hesitantly, she nodded.

"Professor Dumbledore said that I should learn to use my charisma."

Hermione closed her eyes for a moment. When she opened them, she looked at Ginny.

"I know what you're talking about," Ginny confessed.

"WHAT?" Harry hoped he had misunderstood. If Hermione and Ron couldn't keep a secret like that, he couldn't trust them with anything.

"It wasn't--" Hermione began.

"They didn't tell," Ginny said firmly. "I overheard."

"If you overheard, they weren't being careful enough!"

"I had an invention of the twins'," Ginny explained. "A secret one that George gave me. There was no reason for Hermione and Ron to think that I could hear them. They had a silencing charm on the door; I slipped something under it, past the charm."

"It was right after the Weasleys found out you were missing," Hermione explained. "We were talking about everything that could go wrong, from you not protecting yourself well enough, to you protecting yourself a little too ruthlessly."

"Ah." That made sense, Harry realized. They would have needed to talk that out at some point. Still, it had probably renewed Hermione's anxiety to discuss his use of Dark Arts when he wasn't there to be reassuringly normal. "Well, when I confessed to Dumbledore, he pointed out that I'd learned two control spells--"

"Two?" Ginny interrupted.

"There was a more limited one to make a ghost do one specific thing -- it's not much use; you can only cast it once per ghost, but I used it to command Moaning Myrtle to not tell on us, and afterwards, I was wild with it."

"Wild?" she asked, her brows wrinkling in puzzlement.

Harry felt himself grinning. "Breaking glass makes a brilliant sound."

"Oh." Her eyes widened a little, he suspected more from the look on his face than from the words. The memory was still vivid in his mind.

"So," Hermione said shakily, "control spells."

"Right. He suggested that I might benefit from learning to, er, 'harness my considerable charisma,' rather than forcing people to do things." Harry shrugged. "I pointed out that it wouldn't have worked on a dragon, but still, he had a point. I let rumors become issues, rather than spending the time to reassure people, because it bothers me when they're reassured for the wrong reasons."

"But you're reassuring them now."

Hermione's statement wasn't critical. Harry nodded. "Yeah. I know that last spring upset people, and the trial probably made it worse, and seeing me with Slytherins isn't going to help, but I'm not willing to dump them. So I thought I should take opportunities to talk to people who don't know me well, so they know I'm not mad, or a drunk, or betraying my house in vengeance, or whatever."

Slowly, she nodded. "All right. That's ... mature, I suppose."

"Thank you," Harry answered, grinning with relief. "Are we okay, then?"

Ginny barked out a quick laugh and slapped him on the shoulder. "Of course we are. Idiot. Come on, or we'll be late for dinner."

 

Harry didn't think the girls had gossiped, or that they were at the head of some secret cabal or something, but they relaxed more around him, and that trust seemed to diffuse through his house. On Tuesday evening, he was surprised when conversations stilled as he entered the Gryffindor common room. Hermione quickly broke the silence.

"How is your project with Professor McGonagall going?" she called, from her place by the fire.

Harry wondered if people had been speculating about his absence from the official mixed-house social space that afternoon. Monday had been the opening day of the room near the library, with Professor Sprout present as a monitor. Harry and Draco had met there, of course, as had the other supporters of the space. Most, Harry noticed, were people with siblings or romantic interests in other houses -- and their romantic interests or siblings, respectively -- but it had the feel of a formal social event that no one quite felt comfortable at, and that was with Sprout, who was among the most easygoing staff members at Hogwarts.

"Okay, I suppose," he answered, walking over toward her, and trying to pretend that he didn't notice everyone was listening. "She just had us reviewing theory today. Combining magics is tricky." By then, he was close enough for their conversation to be more private, and, by the time he sat down beside her, he was giving her actual details. Afterwards, he pulled out his notes, and worked beside her until he wanted to start composing his order for the twins.

 

On Wednesday, Harry returned to the mixed-house social space with a sense of duty. He was sure it would be about the same as two days ago. His consolation would be researching whom to invite to the real one. Again, other invested parties were there: Seamus was sitting with Parvati and Padma, and the young Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw brothers were playing Exploding Snap. A Slytherin boy that had to be a sixth-year was studying with a younger Hufflepuff girl. Harry thought they might be related, but it was hard to tell. She definitely looked too young to be his girlfriend.

"Harry!" Seamus called, spotting him. "Padma has the evening Prophet. Is this article crap, or did you really say that?"

Harry hurried over. As he arrived, Seamus passed him the evening paper, and Harry felt his legs give as he read the headline. He sank heavily to the sofa beside Padma.

"Well?" she asked.

He looked again. Sirius Black -- Murderer or Victim? the headline blared. Underneath was a picture of Sirius in custody, but not the frightening berserker picture they had run during Harry's third year. Instead, this showed Sirius on his knees and unselfconsciously in tears, with a wand pointed at his head and part of an Auror's robe behind him.

"Sirius," he breathed, and closed his eyes for a moment, afraid to look and see how his words had been reported.

"We'll give you a few minutes to read it," Padma said tartly, and Harry opened his eyes and looked. Despite the promising headline, he couldn't hold back a sense of dread as he began the article.

Sirius Black, secret right-hand man to You-Know-Who, betrayed James and Lily Potter and tracked down and murdered school chum Peter Pettigrew and fourteen Muggles ... or did he? Harry Potter, the Boy-Who-Lived, has a different story about what happened that night in 1981, and a very different view of Sirius Black.

"He was nice," the Boy-Who-Lived told our source, speaking about an encounter with Sirius Black back in 1994, shortly after his escape. "He said he was innocent, and that it wasn't me he was after at all. He didn't try to hurt me in any way, even when he could have, and he wrote to me afterward. I was horrified that they tried to suck out his soul without even listening to what he had to say, and I'm glad he escaped."

Innocence or insight? Sources in the Department of Magical Law Enforcement (MLE) confirm that they now suspect that Sirius Black never worked for You-Know-Who, and broke out of Azkaban in an attempt to hunt down the true culprit.

"It was the paranoia of the era," a young Auror explained, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Near the end of the first V*** era, the Ministry was so desperate to be seen as doing something about the threat that many wizards and witches were sent to Azkaban without trials, or with rigged trials. If you consider Sirius Black, he was a young man from a pureblood family, but known as a firebrand, fiercely opposed to pureblood privilege in general, and to He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named specifically. He had even been disinherited for his modernist politics.

"Could that be faked? Yes, of course. But there was no attempt to ascertain the facts. He was assumed guilty and put away. The MLE didn't even have him long enough to conduct an interrogation, and because he had no trial, he had no chance to speak, even in private. By modern standards, his treatment was shameful."

The staff of our paper has long wondered why this supposedly partisan and homicidal criminal has inflicted no known damage in the four years that he has evaded capture -- a stark contrast to the six murders already attributed to Athenasius Nott. An answer now presents itself. Perhaps Black is an innocent wizard, driven to desperate flight by the inhumane conditions at Azkaban Prison. Could it be that an innocent man lives in fear of honorable Aurors reluctant to be sent against him?

Harry Potter thinks he knows the answer. As before, he may be right.

Harry fell back against the sofa cushions. It was a few minutes before he noticed Padma, Parvati, and Seamus staring at him expectantly.

"Well?" Seamus urged.

With a deep breath, Harry sat up.

"It's more or less right. I didn't say those exact words, and the Prophet didn't actually interview me, but it's the gist of what I told other people. Sirius was good to me. He didn't hurt any of us when he could have. I believe that he didn't do it, like he said."

Padma frowned.

The Slytherin at the next table reached a hand across the surface and rapped on it. "Excuse me," he said coolly, "but are you saying that you believe Sirius Black is innocent because he said so and then didn't kill you?"

Harry snorted. "No. There's a lot more to it than that, but I can't talk about it."

"I see."

"No, really. There were some Aurors here a couple of weeks ago, and I gave them information, and I don't want to mess up their investigation by spreading it around."

"Hm." The Slytherin sat back, but his contemptuous look had faded.

Shaking his head, Seamus shrugged. "If you say so."

"Besides," Harry said with a grin, "I'm pretty sure my Firebolt was from him, and that hasn't killed me either, right?"

"What's this about your broom?" Draco asked. Harry hadn't noticed him arriving, but he saw the other Slytherin boy nod a greeting.

"It was a Christmas present from my godfather," Harry answered, and Draco's eyes widened.

"Your godfather, the fugitive?" he asked.

Harry shrugged. "He's still the sole heir, right?" He recalled how he had gone to Gringotts polyjuiced as one of the twins. That hadn't been a problem. "The goblins don't care."

"I suppose not." Draco gestured toward the younger Slytherin. "Harry, have you met Gilbert Clarke?"

Oh. So this is the mysterious Gilbert. Harry held out his hand. "Not formally," he said. "Hi -- I'm Harry Potter."

Gilbert gave him a blatantly incredulous look before schooling his feature into cool courtesy. "Gilbert," he said. "Pleased to meet you."

"And you," Harry said. "I don't know the Slytherin students nearly as well as I ought to."

Gilbert's thin brown eyebrows lifted. "My sister," he said blandly, gesturing to the side. "Gloria Clarke, Hufflepuff, third year."

Harry wondered if that Sorting had anything to do with Gilbert's change of tune on Muggleborns. There were certainly a lot of those in Hufflepuff. "Hello, Gloria," he said, offering his hand to her as well. "Pleased to meet you."

"Hi," she said, with a sincere shyness that her brother didn't have at all. She looked down. "Thanks."

"For what?"

She glanced over at her brother. "Gilbert says that you and Draco pushed for the room."

"It was more than just us," Harry protested. He gestured at the Patil twins. "Them, for example."

"Right," Parvati said. "But you're the one who gets uppity with Professor Dumbledore."

"Just say 'you're welcome,' Harry."

Harry looked at Draco and shook his head.

"No," he said. "I don't have the right." He smiled at Gloria. "But I hope you enjoy it."

 

Over the next two days, Draco and Harry discussed whom to invite to the Uncommon Room. They decided to start with a small group of people who had been involved, and then slowly expand membership. On Friday, when the official mixed-house space was closing, Harry approached Seamus, Parvati, and Padma, and quietly said they should come with him. Draco had invited Millicent and Blaise up after lessons, and was doing the same to them.

"What's this about?" Seamus asked, after Harry had led them around two corners, into an apparently unused section of the castle.

"Wait," Harry said. "You'll see."

When he walked past the last doors on the short corridor, toward the mirror, he got to see his companions' reflections exchanging uneasy looks.

"Well yes," Seamus said jovially. "We are a good looking lot, but we hardly needed t--"

"Hush!" Harry said urgently.

"-- to walk so far to see it," Seamus concluded, but at a whisper.

Ignoring their shared frowns, Harry drew his wand and tapped the glass. Reaching through his reflection, he laid his hand on the door latch and lifted it, then took a step into the hidden place. Looking back over his shoulder, he gestured to the others to follow.

This time, no one spoke until the door was closed behind them.

"Wow," Seamus said, peering down the corridor, dimly lit by the light of four wands, into darkness.

"And look at this," Harry said. He tapped the light strip, setting it glowing. Parvati gasped.

"It widens out further down. Come on."

"What is this?" Padma asked. "Well, a secret passage, obviously, but where does it go?"

"Nowhere, now," Harry answered. "It's caved in further along, but there's a wide spot first, and Mill and I cleaned it up and Draco brought in some sofas and chairs and such." In the wide area now, he stood to the side and beamed at them. "Welcome to the Uncommon Room. It's invitation only, and I expect everyone to keep it secret, but it's open after dinner, and on weekends."

"Who's Mill?" Parvati asked, her nose wrinkling.

"Millicent Bulstrode."

"Ugh," she answered. "Harry!"

"There's nothing wrong with her."

"She's part troll!" Parvati protested. "And her fashion sense is atrocious."

Padma rolled her eyes. "And these are equally meaningful, of course."

"Yes," Harry said distinctly. "Exactly. They both mean exactly nothing to me."

"That she's part troll must mean something, I would think," Seamus interjected lightly. Harry recalled the last time that he had thought of that and grinned.

"Yeah. It means she's good at throwing rocks." He gestured over to the heap blocking the continuation of the passage. "She helped me gather the rubble. Anyway, she and Draco and Blaise should be here soon."

"You mean to tell me that it's us and a lot of Slytherins?"

"Three Slytherins. So Padma's the only one who can feel outnumbered."

 

Everyone stayed, but to Harry's disappointment, interactions among the group were strained. He brought up fixing the light strip, which had everyone talking together for a while, but as the discussion became more advanced, it eventually fell to Blaise and Padma. Seamus and Parvati started talking about the upcoming Hogsmeade weekend, and Draco and Millicent about their match versus Hufflepuff later in the month, and Harry tried awkwardly to maintain a voice in at least the latter two conversations.

Still, no one fought, and they all agreed, in theory, that the room was a good idea. With an agreement to discuss further invitees later, the group dispersed early. Harry tried to quell his disappointment as Draco prepared to leave with his housemates. If they had been alone, Draco would have at least kissed him goodnight. He took a step towards him, and Draco turned.

"Right. Harry ... when do you want to meet in the morning?"

"Meet -- oh! To walk into Hogsmeade?"

Draco nodded. "I thought we might want to get an early start."

Harry felt a flush of warmth at the idea of getting a very early start. "I'll come by Slytherin before breakfast," he offered.

Draco smiled. "That will do. Come along now, Blaise; you won't get any further until the library opens."

 

An hour before dawn, Harry crept out of his bed, put on his invisibility cloak, and made his way down to Slytherin. He entered without incident -- there was no one in the common room, and the password hadn't changed since he had last heard it -- and made his way to the seventh-year boys' dormitory. Nott's attempt on Harry had not been publicly acknowledged. Harry knew that Snape had disciplined the young man privately, but that still left him in residence. Snape had decided that it was better to have him under watch than at large and probably serving Voldemort, and after some argument, Harry had agreed not to dispute that to Dumbledore or McGonagall. For the most part, he thought that Snape was right, but it did add the spice of real danger to sneaking through the room where Nott and Blaise slept.

Draco's inner room, when he entered it, was not entirely dark. The embers of a fire gave off a faint glow that showed Harry the path past the sideboard and to the bed, where the curtains were drawn -- perhaps against the light of that fire when it had been brighter.

Deciding against wandlight, Harry approached the fire and stoked it to a low flame. The heat of it felt good in the chill of the dungeons, and he undressed before the grate, folding each item of clothing and stacking them all on a chair. Naked, he returned to the bed and drew the curtains.

Draco was still asleep. The light of the fire flickered across his face and chased his pale hair with gold. Harry watched him mumble in his sleep and turn his face from the light. Smiling, Harry pulled the curtains just a little bit back out, to shade Draco's eyes, and then waited for him to settle.

When Draco was breathing evenly once more, Harry cast a light warming charm over the bed, and then slowly began to turn back the covers. He was not surprised to find Draco naked beneath them. Carefully, Harry eased onto the narrow space beside him on the mattress. Draco mumbled again.

"S'alright," Harry murmured. "Jus' me. You're safe."

Bending down, he breathed along the soft skin beside Draco's navel, and then below it. Draco's cock was half filled out -- swelled, but neither hard nor as long as it would become. Harry set his lips to it and dragged them down the length, feeling it rise beneath the touch.

Gently, he licked up. The question was not if Draco would wake, but when. Would it be now, when he spread out his tongue and pressed up Draco's hardening shaft? Now, when he took the tip in his mouth, still needing to lift, but not so much?

"Oh," Draco breathed. "Uhn."

His body stiffened momentarily under Harry's ministrations, and he abruptly curled up to stare. "Oh," he said, flopping down again. "You. Merlin."

The stuttering breath of a laugh emerged from Harry's throat and forced its way past the obstruction of Draco's cock. Draco whined.

"You're brilliant," Draco panted out. "Utterly... Fuck."

His response was everything Harry had hoped for, and after he climaxed, Draco wasted no time in rolling Harry over to return the favor. At this rate, Harry thought, he might start liking mornings.

 

Gradually, Harry's racing heart began to slow, and he raised his head to see Draco looking smugly up at him.

"You," he said, "are totally brilliant. Come up here."

Draco crawled up to claim a kiss. "Of course I am," he said, and snuggled in next to Harry, one hand resting on Harry's chest. "That's quite the best way I've ever been woken. What gave you that idea?"

"You said to show up early," Harry returned. "I thought you meant this -- you know, before anyone was awake."

Draco's eyebrows rose. "Oh! No, I just meant while people were gathering for breakfast. For private time, I was hoping to lure you down to the chamber after getting back from the village."

"Well, we could do both."

Stretching over, Draco gave him another kiss. "I like that idea."

"All right. Now what did you intend? Should we go to breakfast together?"

Draco shook his head. "Breakfast in Hogsmeade, I think. And then we need to look for some books, and I, at least, need clothes, and a new arm guard for Quidditch -- I took a bad Bludger hit in practice. Right before we head back, we should buy some wine -- six bottles, perhaps? -- for the Uncommon Room."

Harry tried to put all this together. Even after sex, it was still early morning. "You want to serve wine?"

"Well, not all the time. Last night was strained though. I thought a glass per person might ease the atmosphere for getting acquainted, so I was planning for three nights of that, perhaps on successive Friday evenings." He frowned. "Maybe twelve bottles would be better."

Harry pushed his hair back. "Draco... I'll get such crap if I buy that much wine at once. And if it gets back to the professors, they'll pay far too much attention to my whereabouts."

"Ah. You have a point. Perhaps we could get someone else to make the purchase? I insist on scouting first, though, so we don't end up with an inferior vintage."

Harry rolled his eyes. "Whatever you say." He bumped against Draco. "Toff," he added cheekily.

 

For the sake of efficiency, Harry left the room under his invisibility cloak, but the sight of Nott, fast asleep in his bed, made him slow, and then stop. He saw Draco open the door to the darkened passage to the Common Room and pause with it ajar, but he was still standing by Nott's bed when the door closed behind his lover. He didn't want a fight -- not now -- but he needed Voldemort's young servant to know that he had been here, while Nott was helpless in sleep. After a second's thought, he cast the writing spell that he and Draco had used in the Chamber of Secrets -- almost a full year ago, now -- and drew a lightning bolt on the wall behind Nott's sleeping form. It didn't look quite right, but he thought the message was clear.

The Common Room was empty. As Harry was hurrying across, wondering when Draco would realize that he was missing, the door to the outer corridor opened, showing Draco's anxious face, lit from below by his wand.

"Harry?" he mouthed soundlessly.

"Here," Harry whispered, and pushed up against him for a kiss. Draco held him, but stepped backwards, drawing them out of the room and letting the door close, and a moment later, he had Harry pushed back against the stone wall of the corridor, kissing him while the hood slipped from his head. Harry thought that it was a good thing there was no one to see; they must look creepy, with Draco kissing half a face, while his hands and wrists, and probably a knee, disappeared.

They stopped briefly at Snape's rooms to tell him they would be leaving early and would be careful, and then left the castle and headed down the path towards the village.

"Now that we have some privacy," Draco said, "we should talk about Ron Weasley."

Harry couldn't think of anything Ron had done. "What about him?" he asked. Draco rolled his eyes.

"Scheduling," he said.

"Ah!" That made more sense. "Hadn't we thought Fridays?"

"Yes, but if that's going to be party night at the Uncommon Room, it won't do." Draco hesitated. "I know we had intended to keep Saturday for just us, but I believe it will need to be on the weekend. Some of the techniques may incapacitate him for several hours. Sunday afternoon, perhaps?"

Harry felt a stirring of fear. On Sunday, he had to meet Millicent every other week. He had promised her he wouldn't tell, though.

"I'm busy some weeks," he said.

Draco shrugged. "Well, we won't be doing divination every week."

"Which makes losing a few hours of Saturday not as bad either," Harry pointed out. "Why don't we decide for each week, based on what's going on then?"

"All right," Draco agreed. "And this week?"

"Sunday works for me."

Draco nodded. "Sunday, then. Our practical with Professor McGonagall goes until lunch, so after we all eat, I think. It should be easy enough for you to get him away from the others without arousing suspicion." He hesitated. "About the location -- I confess, I am having second thoughts. For the first few attempts, it hardly seems necessary...."

"Yeah," Harry agreed. "Let's just use the Uncommon Room."

Draco smiled in relief.

 

"Hi, Blaise."

Blaise looked away from the window display of Hogsmeade Books. "Hey," he said. "Where's Draco?"

Harry shrugged. "He went into Fiona's Fripperies to look for something for his cousins." He didn't mention that Draco had ducked into the shop once they had spotted Blaise alone. "Actually, I'm glad I ran into you. Can we talk for a minute?"

Blaise raised his eyebrows. "Would this be about that ... mark over Theo's bed?"

Harry's mouth fell open. He had entirely forgotten about his early morning impulsiveness. "Um, no?" Had that looked threatening to Blaise? "I just, um, couldn't resist. I mean, he was there asleep ... I don't think well before breakfast. Did he panic?"

"Just a tiny bit," Blaise said dryly. "He was checking his bed for curses when I woke up, and by the time I came back from breakfast, he'd made it to his pants."

Harry laughed. "I'd have loved to have seen that!"

"Well, be a little more discreet!" Blaise scolded, though he was smiling now. "I didn't even know it was you when we started this conversation. You probably should have said you had no idea what I meant."

Harry looked down and scuffed at the dirt with one toe. "I suppose," he said.

"So-- what was it that you did want?"

"For-- Oh, just now?"

"Right."

"Ah. Well, about that favor...."

"If you want me to renew it for you every night, forget it."

Harry snorted. "No, I want you to buy some wine for me."

Blaise blinked. "Why not buy it yourself?"

"Well...." Harry ducked his head. "Draco wants to throw a party, sort of, and he wants a mixed case, and if I buy that much of anything, I'll have trouble, and if he buys it, everyone will assume it's for me...."

Blaise looked amused. "And you'll still have trouble. True. Do you care what sort of wine?"

Nodding, Harry pulled a woman's folding mirror case out of his pocket. He had seen a display of them in Muggle London, and, remembering Draco's trick with the girl's ID card, had bought several. Opening it up, he showed Blaise the two trapped reflections inside. "Six each of these two. Oh, and they're a bit dear -- Draco picked -- so I'll give you money."

Blaise nodded. "Good, because that's the only way you're not getting 'Dwight's White', or whatever's cheapest."

Harry nodded. "Understood."

They moved into the shadow of an alley, and Harry counted out galleons. Blaise shifted uneasily as he watched.

"So," he said, and cleared his throat. "Am I invited to this party?"

"Huh? Oh -- yeah." Harry looked up and smiled at him. "Of course. Actually, it's not really a party, exactly; it's Draco's plan for Friday evenings in the Uncommon Room."

"Oh."

"So, yeah, we'll be telling everyone to show up."

"And serving wine," Blaise said doubtfully.

Harry shrugged. "Well, he says that's how awkward social gatherings work -- wine and food -- and that we're definitely at an awkward stage."

Blaise reached out his hand for the money and took it with a grin. "He has a point there. All right. Shall I deliver the goods to you, or will Draco do?"

"Draco, definitely," Harry answered. "It will be a lot easier to do without anyone noticing."

"Exactly."

They shook hands, and Blaise headed off down the street. Harry watched him go with curious reluctance. How much of Blaise's association with him was due to owing him a favor? Would things be different now? On the other hand, Blaise had expressed a preference for Voldemort's defeat, and he was planning to come on Friday, so possibly not. Actually, Harry realized, brightening, Blaise had been anxious to be included, so probably things would not change all that much.

Still, he didn't look away until Draco slipped into place beside him.

"Success?" Draco asked.

"Yes. And you?"

Draco laughed and hoisted his parcel. "A completely lovely hairnet, set with amber beads, for Marcella, and some color-changing ribbons for Desiree. Let's go to the Three Broomsticks, and I'll show you."

 

Chapter Text

 

At the Three Broomsticks, they found Ron. He was sitting by himself, glowering across the room at Hermione, and taking advantage of being of age to drink. With only a glance between them, Harry and Draco separated, Draco heading over toward some classmates, and Harry over to the empty seat beside Ron.

As Harry slipped into the chair, he was relieved to see Hermione's bag was next to it. Clearly she had at least been here and was intending to come back. Currently, however, she was talking to some third and fourth year students by the fire.

He waved a hand in front of Ron's face, and Ron's entire body twitched. "Merlin!" he swore, licking splashed beer off his hand. "Don't sneak up on me like that!"

Harry shrugged. "I wasn't trying to," he objected. "Anyway, what's she doing?"

Ron threw his hands up in exasperation. "I don't know! Trying to get them to behave, or something. Why does she do that?"

"Because she's Hermione?"

"We're in Hogsmeade! Can't she just be my girlfriend for the day?"

Harry grinned. "I don't think Hermione will ever be just someone's girlfriend."

To his surprise, Ron scowled, crossing his arms over his chest. "Well, she won't be much of a wife, then, will she?"

Harry felt like he'd been knocked over by a Repulsion hex. It took him a moment to get his breath. "You can't actually mean that."

"What?" Ron asked, staring at him with honest confusion. "You know, if she's going to run a household, she won't have time to be after the neighbors about humane treatment of ghouls, or whatever her cause of the month is." He sighed. "Mum says she'll settle down once she has a baby to focus all that energy on, but I don't know."

Hermione, by the fire, gestured as she said something to Sajid, the movement slowed by Harry's dread. "I wouldn't count on it," he said cautiously. It sounded better than 'your mum is deluding herself.'

Ron sighed. "Cheery, aren't you? Forget it. What's up?"

Harry decided that the matter of Hermione could wait until later. "We were wondering if you were available for the exercise tomorrow," he said. "A short one, Draco says, just to test the potion."

Ron looked befuddled for a moment, but then his face cleared. "Oh, that!" he said. "Yeah, sure. Actually...." He paused, head tilting slightly as he studied Hermione again. "Let's do it now."

Harry glanced over at where Draco was talking to Blaise. It was early enough that Draco shouldn't mind; they could still have time together after the divination. "Okay," he said. "I'll get Draco and head outside. You should take Hermione her bag before you leave."

 "Right." Ron downed the rest of his beer in four long swallows. "I'll meet you."

 

The walk from Hogsmeade, Harry thought, had brought Ron down from tipsy to mellow. He seemed clear on everything, but he didn't tense as Draco explained the procedure again.

"Don't attempt to get answers, this time," Draco told him, in a manner that Harry knew was intended to be soothing, but which was likely to get Ron's back up. "Just see if you can separate Harry and ... our enemy."

Harry intervened. "Does that make sense?" he said, offering the flask of scrying potion to Ron. They were in the Uncommon Room, on stiff velveteen chairs that Draco had nicked from storage, sitting around a small, low, stone table with a white marble bowl in the middle of it. Draco had set an alert charm in the corridor outside the mirror. "You need to be the one who pours the potion, and then to add just a few drops of my blood to it."

Resolutely, Ron nodded. He took the potion from Harry and poured it in the marble basin. His attention locked onto the iridescent liquid as it streamed from the spout of the flask, and stayed on it as it pooled in the vessel below. For several minutes after Draco took the empty flask from his fingers, he sat still, watching the shimmering surface. Harry wasn't sure what to do. After a moment, he extended his arm. Draco, not unexpectedly, but a little alarmingly, produced a stiletto from his robes and handed it to Harry. Harry flipped it over to offer it, hilt-first, to Ron.

"Blood?" Ron asked, blinking.

"My blood," Harry confirmed. "His blood."

Nodding, Ron took the dagger. His gaze again fixed on the scrying potion, he accepted the intrusion of Harry's wrist into his grasp.

"Third finger," Harry prompted.

"Yeah," Ron said, finally raising his head. He aligned the stiletto and hesitated, the thin point just above Harry's skin. "You okay with this?" he asked. His gaze flicked significantly over to Draco and returned. "Really?"

"Really," Harry assured him. "Do it."

With a short nod, Ron adjusted his grip and brought the point down, piercing Harry's skin. Harry inhaled sharply, but didn't flinch. Ron had to consciously add the blood, Draco had said.

"Turn my wrist," he prompted. Ron rotated Harry's hand to be almost palm down and then, unbidden, squeezed down the finger. Four drops of blood fell into the potion. A fifth welled at Harry's fingertip. Ron released his hand and bent over the bowl, which seemed to have far more lines and swirls of pink than could be accounted for by four drops of blood.

"Good," Draco breathed. "Now, we want you to--"

Ron held up a hand for silence. Draco stopped speaking in mid-sentence. Ron was frowning at the potion.

"That's a mess," he said.

Harry tensed. Ron, still watching the potion, reached into his pocket and drew his wand.

"Weasley," Draco said. "There's no one there."

Ron nodded, but pointed his wand at the bowl. He gave a tiny little jab forward, like a fencer who meant only to offer insult, and whispered, "Diffindo."

The bowl did not split. The lines of pink, however, shot away like two schools of startled minnows.

"Good," Ron said, setting his wand down by the bowl.

"Ron?" Harry asked tentatively.

"Mm?"

"What do you see?"

"There isn't really anything to see," Ron said, almost conversationally, staring at the pinkish swirls. "I mean, shapes, but it's not like a Pensieve, you know? It did separate, though, I'm sure."

He continued to stare at the shimmering liquid, and, occasionally, to blow on it. Draco cleared his throat.

"Why are you sure?" he asked.

Ron's eyes narrowed without changing focus. "Because I hate him," he answered sharply. "It may have been Rodolphus Lestrange who murdered my father, but I know damn well who told him to." He bit down over his lower lip, drawing it free in a long scrape of teeth on skin. "He's going to have Nott kill someone tonight."

Draco twitched. "Are you sure?"

"Well, of--" Ron looked up, and shook himself. "I...." he began uncertainly. He swallowed, and then laughed shakily. "I don't know why I said that. Blood in the water, I guess."

Draco sat back. "We shall see."

 

The next day wasn't a brewing Sunday, but Harry met Millicent in the Uncommon Room for a lesson on glamours. She was getting better. She could keep the visual glamour on her shoes when she walked, now, although they didn't clonk in the right way. He had her try her robes, which were harder, because of the way the fabric moved. When she paced back and forth, he saw occasional flashes of the true cloth.

"I'm hopeless, aren't I?" she asked wryly.

With a derisive snort, Harry shook his head. "You're learning fast. You've made about a term's progress in two weeks. Yeah, you're nowhere near good enough to do a full-body glamour on yourself....." He met her eyes and grinned. "But at this rate, you'll be there by Christmas holidays, and that's the mark that matters."

She beamed at him, and then, to his surprise, caught him in a rough hug, not letting up until he choked dramatically.

"Sorry," she said, still smiling broadly. "But you're brilliant."

"It's just...." he gestured vaguely. "Half our year could probably--"

"Yeah, but they wouldn't," she interrupted. "Thank you for not treating me like I'm stupid."

"Oh." He reached out and gripped her arm. "You're not."

She shrugged.

"Look, I have Neville as a roommate, right?" When she rolled her eyes, he let go to punch her arm -- hard.

"Ow! What was--?"

"Neville is brilliant," Harry said fiercely. "He just doesn't learn the same way most people do. His memory is crap, unless it's for plants, but if you take that out of it, the way McGonagall won't, and you don't intimidate him, the way Snape can't resist doing, he's clever. And diligent. He'll struggle with something for weeks, but then, when he gets it, suddenly understand it better than I do." He looked intently at Millicent. "So I know the difference between stupid and lost."

She smiled, a little more wryly. "Thanks," she said again. "And sorry. I should know better, right? It's just so good to look smarter than someone."

"Don't put him down, okay?"

"Right."

"Now. Shall I redo your glamour?"

Millicent nodded. Harry studied her for a moment. "I'd love to end it first," he said, "but we still don't have photographs."

"Curious?"

Harry grinned. "Of course. I always am, don't you know?"

She stuck her tongue out. "I've heard that theory."

Sighing dramatically, he drew his wand. "Well, I suppose I'll have to wait, this time. Robes off!"

When he had renewed the glamour, they left the Uncommon Room. Harry started up to Gryffindor, and Millicent, this time, came with him.

"So," she said, "there's something I thought you should know."

Before he could ask, movement from an alcove by the next landing caught his eye. It was definitely Justin Finch-Fletchley, extending his open robes over a slightly shorter girl who flashed suspiciously pale patches in the dim light.

"Good evening," Harry said blandly.

"Good evening, Potter," Finch-Fletchley said coldly.

Harry and Millicent went up the next flight of stairs in silence.

"Finch-Fletchley again," she said offhandedly.

"He needs to find better places to snog," Harry returned, and she chortled.

"Yeah." She was silent for another ten steps. "Was that the same bird, though?" she asked.

Harry choked. "Practicing?"

"Maybe."

"Huh."

Another few steps.

"So," she said, "as I was saying, Pansy has noticed how much time we spend together."

Harry shrugged. "So has Hermione."

"Ah. Is Hermione trying to persuade Draco that you and I are involved?"

Harry stopped on the stair and whirled to face her. "What?"

"That's what I thought. Pansy is. I don't think she actually believes it; she just wants him to."

Harry shook his head and rubbed his eyes. "What-- Do you think Draco--"

"He thinks it's ludicrous, as far as I can tell. He rolls his eyes and ignores her. I just thought you should know, so you don't play into it if she tries to set you up."

 

When he arrived at breakfast early enough, Harry had taken to looking over Hermione's shoulder at the morning paper. When he didn't, she would usually pass it to him between morning lessons. On Monday morning, when the post owl dropped the rolled Daily Prophet between them, he didn't hesitate to undo the cord himself.

Auror Murdered was the top headline, alternating every few seconds with Victim Found Minutes after Death.

"Oh no!" Hermione said, looking over.

"What is it?" Dean demanded.

"Not a big attack," Harry reassured him. "One killing."

Ron looked over anxiously, and Harry answered with a tiny shrug. He didn't know if it had been Nott.

"Auror Murdered," Hermione read. "When Hildegarde Plumtree set out from her Yorkshire home shortly before dawn yesterday, she was planning to gather mooncalf dung for her prize luminous lilies. She never made it to the pasture.

"'Coming down the hill,' Mrs. Plumtree said, 'I heard a splash -- rather a large one -- too loud for a water rat. So of course, when I was crossing the stream, I looked down. It was getting light then, but I cast a Light charm anyway, because the water looked like it had strands of yarn in it, which didn't make any sense. It took me a moment to realize it was blood.'"

Involuntarily, Harry looked up at Ron. Color was draining from Ron's face. Blood in the water. Hermione went on to read about how the Auror victim had been investigating a string of attacks on Muggles. Harry scanned the Slytherin table for Draco. When he met Draco's eyes, Draco nodded.

 

The first class of the morning was Defense Against the Dark Arts. Harry gave Ron's shoulder a supportive squeeze as he left to sit with Hermione, but he stayed close to Draco. Ron was shaken, but Draco was anxious.

"Are you all right?"

"Me," Draco said tightly. "Us. We're people he wants to kill."

Despite being in class, Harry put an arm around Draco and pulled him closer. "You're safe here," he said.

"Really?" Draco asked sarcastically, although he laid his head on Harry's shoulder.

"Really," Harry whispered fiercely. "I'll take care of you, even if the school doesn't."

Across the aisle, Justin Finch-Fletchley cleared his throat. "Always with Slytherins, these days, aren't you Potter?" he goaded. "Don't think the rest of the school doesn't notice."

Draco scowled across Harry at the Hufflepuff. "We're a couple, Finch-Fletchley," he said condescendingly.

"I know. Everyone knows." Finch-Fletchley glared at Harry. "But you're not the only Slytherin I see him with."

Harry rolled his eyes and squeezed Draco a little. "Maybe if you found a more private spot for your snogging sessions, you wouldn't need to be offended by random passersby."

People were turning to look at them. To Harry's relief, Professor Hecksban appeared in the doorway, interrupting the argument.

"Good morning!" he said. "Is everyone ready to start counters to explosive hexes?"

Draco straightened up, moving a few inches away from Harry. While the professor was sketching one of his colorful illustrations, Draco wrote in the Liber Geminus.

After dinner, shall we meet in the UR?

Instead of our chamber?

Yes. If you would?

Whatever you want.

Harry, through thoughts of Nott, and divination, and murder, distantly wondered why Draco wanted to meet in the Uncommon Room, when they could be guaranteed privacy in the Chamber of Secrets. When it came down to it, though, he wasn't in the mood for romance, or even sex. Perhaps, he thought, Draco felt the same.

What he really needed, he decided, was to talk to Snape, and conveniently, Potions was their next lesson. On the walk down, he decided, he would tell Susara to pose around his neck. With luck, Draco wouldn't notice until it was too late to interfere.

 

It clearly wasn't a real detention, once the door had shut behind him. Snape rose from his chair, but rather than looming, came around his desk and leaned back against it. He still crossed his arms over his chest, bringing his robes tight around his tall frame, but there was curiosity behind his sneer. "Well, Potter?" he asked dryly. "What do you want?"

Harry took a quick breath. "Can I curse Nott?" he asked. "Not Theodore, I mean -- his uncle. If I can try to trace Voldemort through my blood, can I curse Theodore Nott's uncle through his?"

Snape's eyes widened for a moment. "Curse?" he asked sharply. "What did you have in mind?"

"I was hoping there was a curse for bad luck, or something. Nothing too obvious, just something that would eventually cause him to mess up and get caught."

"Ah." Snape's arms unfolded, and his hands came down to the desktop at either side of his thin frame. "'Luck' is a tricky element to alter, even for short periods of time. Such curses -- and potions -- exist, but they are expensive to the caster. Think about what I told you, Harry, about what the Dark Arts require. What would a curse of bad luck take from you?"

"I don't care," Harry said stubbornly. "Not if I can stop him."

Snape's eyes glittered. "Bad luck might cause his glamour to waver in front of an Auror, true. It might also cause him to fatally splinch. Could you live with that?"

Harry glared back at him. "Yes."

"You would press forward even if it will cause someone's death?"

"I killed Lestrange," Harry said harshly. "No one says it that way, but I know I did."

Snape nodded. "Very good. Self awareness is an asset that you have been sadly lacking in the past." He leaned back further against the desk. "However, a curse by blood is a curse on all blood, and since the target is Theodore's uncle, you cannot restrict it too closely. What if this 'bad luck' caused his young cousin -- she is five years old, I believe -- to fall out of a tree and break her neck?"

Harry closed his eyes. It was too easy to see a young girl falling ... twisting just wrong....

"No."

"And there, you see, is the problem. Even if you will accept the damage to your soul, the weapon is too crude."

"Something else, then," Harry persisted, "that will make it harder for him to hide. A limp. Loud sneezing fits. Glowing hair."

Snape coughed. "Creative," he said. "And the initial curse would look like a 'harmless prank' on Theodore. But when some number of his relatives developed the same condition, it would be clear that the family had been cursed, and to do that requires Dark Arts." Snape straightened, standing away from the desk. "While you might not be the first suspect to occur to the world at large, the headmaster will think of you promptly. Thanks to your indiscretion last week, so will most of Slytherin."

"Well, there must be something!" Harry glared at Snape. "I want him taken out."

Whirling to face him, Snape glared. "Petulance does not become you, Mr. Potter," he hissed. Harry froze. Snape stepped closer. "It makes you remind me far too much of your father ... and not a little of my former master."

Closing his eyes, Harry took a long breath. He had probably deserved that, he thought, at least in part. He forced himself to look at Snape.

"Sorry, sir."

Snape's expression did not soften, but he inclined his head a fraction. "Why does this suddenly concern you?" he demanded. "Explain. Did you know Auror Peggleton?"

Harry braced himself. "He's a threat to my lover," he said. "I won't have that."

"Ah."

"If there's nothing I can do with curses, do you think Mrs. Malfoy might help?"

Snape raised a hand to his face, pinching the bridge of his nose. "For what conceivable reason, Potter, would Narcissa Malfoy help capture or kill one of her husband's associates?"

"Because he's a threat to her son," Harry shot back. "Nott holds his capture against Draco, probably even more than against me -- you could tell that he did, at the trial. And you said she loves him."

"Ah." His hand falling away from his face, Snape nodded. "Yes. However, that will not be enough to bring her to defy her social circle."

"I'm not looking for defiance," Harry argued. "A little help on the sly, through you, maybe...."

After a long moment, Snape nodded. "It is possible. I will sound her out." His expression darkened. "Now, about marking Theo's wall...."

"I didn't know he'd take it as a threat!"

"Then you seriously misunderstand my house, Potter. How else would he take it?"

"As a sign I'd been there, and hadn't hurt him, but could have."

"And that is not a threat?"

"No -- that's a warning!"

"And the difference?"

"That I won't do anything else, if he doesn't do anything else!"

Snape scowled. "That is not how mine think. I expect you to be more careful in the future." He stepped forward. "Actually, I expect more progress in my house. You offered alliance, but you have done little to establish it."

"I'm working on it!" Harry protested. "And Millicent and Blaise like me. And one of the first years -- Gentian."

"LeFay?" Snape asked, his eyebrows rising in surprise. "Interesting." He prowled back around his desk. "So. Other than illustrating your typical impulsiveness, Potter, does today's inquiry indicate that you would be interested in further study?"

Harry eyed him cautiously. "If it's useful enough," he decided aloud.

Snape sat, steepling his hands before him. "Because of the incidents in the Slytherin dormitories," he said, "it occurred to me that you might find useful a spell to increase someone's credulity for your excuses ... for, say, why you were not in your own dormitory at night?"

Harry shrugged. "She won't know if my mates don't tell her."

Snape's mouth twitched.

"But it might be useful, yeah."

Snape pushed back from the desk. Taking a book from atop a pile to one side, he offered it to Harry. "Pages 83 through 87, and page 107," he said. "We can discuss it Thursday, after lessons. I know you have the last period free, so you can be here without my spellson knowing, if you wish."

Harry nodded. "I may tell him anyway, but yeah -- not until after the fact."

"So you get what you want, in any case," Snape sneered. "Well done."

"I--"

"Run along, Potter. I've essays to mark."

 

Harry stopped around the corner from Snape's office to write in the Liber Geminus that he was available after all. He thought he might be better off stopping by Slytherin, but he knew he was in too much of a temper to deal with the house at large. Instead, he went up to the Uncommon Room, intending to check for a reply when he got there. Instead, he found Draco levitating a midnight blue velveteen sofa to one side of the room. Draco turned to him in surprise.

"I thought you had detention."

"Yeah, well, Snape got tired of me." Harry crossed to the case of wine and pulled out a bottle. "Which of these do you think I'd like better?"

"The white, at least at first," Draco answered absently, but then looked up. "Harry! Don't open that!"

"Why not? You have plenty."

"And I expect it to last for at least three Fridays."

"Let's go down to the Chamber, then. I want a drink."

Draco scowled. "I don't have time. I'm trying to get this room presentable."

"What?" Harry dropped into one of the previous batch of chairs. They were stiffly uncomfortable, but a beautiful match for the sofa. "What's wrong with it?"

"It looks like a cave!"

Harry glanced around. "Like a well-furnished dungeon, actually," he said. "Your lot should feel right at home."

Draco spun around and glared at him. "How dare you--" He stopped.

"Sorry," Harry said. "I didn't mean--"

"Was Severus that awful?"

Harry groaned. "We fought, all right? And I hate how he treats me like an infant. 'Run along, Potter,'" he mimicked.

Draco sniggered. "He wasn't too upset, if that was the worst of it. I suspect he just overreacted because of your cheek; I told you not to wear Susara like that, and so soon after what you did to Theo--"

"Yeah, what I did to Theo seemed to be a lot of it. I hadn't thought of it as a threat, though -- it was more of an offer of truce, actually."

Draco raised his eyebrows. "It was?"

"Well, I obviously could have hurt him, and I didn't."

"He's still not sure you didn't, though."

"Right. So I've been told. It's not my fault Slytherins are paranoid." Still, Harry couldn't help but remember how amused he had been when he had heard about Nott casting curse detection charms at his underwear. He hadn't exactly been in a hurry to make it clear.

Smiling, Draco crossed the room and distracted Harry with a long kiss.

"My bluff Gryffindor," he said affectionately. "No use regretting it now. Help me with this room, will you? I want everyone to feel comfortable here. Do you know where we could get little house banners? I was thinking we could hang them at even intervals." Eagerly, he gestured around them. "Then we'll need a few carpets, and a sideboard there for the wine and an assortment of little cakes, and a few places to put flowers--"

"Hold on a moment," Harry interrupted. "Don't you think that's a bit much?"

Draco hesitated. "Actually, I thought it would be barely adequate."

"Flowers?" Harry asked incredulously. "Seamus will find it too girly."

"Social gatherings are expected to have flowers," Draco protested. "We often have flowers in the Great Hall at dinner."

"You could probably get away with one arrangement," Harry conceded. "That's all, though. Really."

"Because it's too 'girly?'"

"Because it's too contrived."

"At Malfoy Manor...." Draco stopped, biting his lip, and Harry nodded.

"Right. How many of these people would fit in at Malfoy Manor?"

For a moment, Draco looked into the distance, releasing his lower lip to a tight sneer.

"I see," he said finally. He looked around at his matching sofa and chairs. "I'll need to change some of the furniture. It's a little too formal, I think. The banners still seem like a good idea. You'll probably need to help me with the food."

Harry tried not to let his astonishment show. "Okay," he said.

Draco smiled brightly. "I had thought elderflower presse and pumpkin juice for non-alcoholic beverages, but now that I think of it, we might want--" He stopped. "Herpo!"

"What?"

"We should have beer, shouldn't we? Are we having guests who will prefer it to wine?"

Harry immediately pictured Seamus peering suspiciously into a glass of white wine. "Almost certainly."

"Damnation. And we can hardly have it delivered." Draco frowned. "Would that pet House Elf of yours being willing to run an errand or two? Without telling?"

"I expect so."

"Good," Draco said decisively. He stepped back. "Call him."

"Call...."Harry pushed his fringe back. "I usually go to the kitchens--"

"He will hear if you call. I'm certain of it"

Harry shrugged. "Dobby?" he called tentatively. At Draco's glare, he cleared his throat. "Dobby!"

With a sharp crack of air, Dobby appeared in front of him.

"Mr. Harry Potter, sir!" he said delightedly. "You is wanting Dobby?"

"Er, yes," Harry said, suddenly wishing he had done this somewhere else than their secret gathering room. "But before that, I wanted to know -- if I have you do something for me, can you not tell Dumbledore about it? I mean, would you be willing not to, and not have to punish yourself?"

Dobby's ears fell to half-mast. "Dobby does not need to tell Professor Dumbledore," he said carefully. His eyes rolled to look at Draco. "But Malfoys is having bad secrets--"

"We're not doing anything horrible, Dobby," Harry interrupted. "I mean, it's nothing that Dumbledore would hate, just something he'd rather not find out about, I expect. We're, um, planning a party, and we realized we forgot to get a few things, that's all."

One of the ears came back up. "What things is Master Harry needing?"

"Well, beer, for one," Harry said. "We don't need a lot of it -- maybe a dozen bottles?"

Dobby looked doubtful. "Is Master Harry knowing who would be drinking this beer?"

Harry thought. "Some of them," he answered slowly. "Seamus Finnigan will," he said. "Ron Weasley, maybe? Millicent Bulstrode...."

"Millicent will have wine," Draco countered. Harry shrugged.

"She seemed to like beer when I was last in a pub with her."

Dobby, meanwhile, had made up his mind. With his ears back in their normal positions, he nodded. "Dobby will get beer," he affirmed. "Dobby has a friend at the Three Broomsticks. Dobby will ask his friend which beers will please, and be getting six bottles of each."

"Great," Harry said. "Anytime before Friday is fine. I'll give you money, of course."

To his surprise, Dobby's ears went down and his eyes shut. "Dobby is being sorry that it is necessary," Dobby said quickly. "But since Master Harry is not really being Dobby's Master, Dobby cannot go to the goblins for him."

Harry nodded encouragingly. "And you like being a free elf, right? I don't mind giving you the coins; I just don't have them on me. Find me in my dormitory and let me know how much it will be, okay?"

Slowly, Dobby's eyes opened, and he nodded. "Dobby will do as Master Harry wishes," he said. "Is there anything else?"

"Banners," Draco prompted quickly. "And ivy."

Harry shot him a curious look, but then turned back to Dobby. "We were wondering if there were small House banners that we could use for a while without anyone noticing." He framed a size with his hands, noticing as he did so that this "small" was larger than Dobby. "Smaller than the usual ones, anyway."

Dobby nodded happily. "There is extra banners that Hogwarts is using only for the Leaving Feast. Dobby can bring you those from storage, as long as Master Harry is returning them by summer." Dobby's ears drooped again. "If they is not back, Professor Dumbledore will be asking--"

"We'll get them back to you," Harry promised. He turned questioningly to Draco. "You wanted ivy?"

"Yes," Draco said. He looked squarely at Dobby. "I want a few cuttings of ivy. Nothing fancy, or dangerous, just a basic ornamental climbing ivy. If you can't get that, I can manage it on my own."

Dobby turned to Harry. "Dobby is not answering to Malfoys, Master Harry Potter, sir."

Harry sighed. "Dobby, look -- I can tell you to get ivy, but I wish you'd stop thinking of Draco as just 'a Malfoy.' His father tried to disinherit him, did you know that?"

"Dobby is knowing Lucius Malfoy is no longer Master of his manor."

"Right. Because he tried to make Draco serve Voldemort, and then he tried to kill Draco when Draco wouldn't, and Draco said that in front of the Wizengamot, and Lucius went to jail."

His eyes widening, Dobby turned to Draco. "You is not serving great evil wizard?"

Draco huffed. "No," he said petulantly. "I'm not. And I'm sorry that I was a brat when I was twelve. Now, would you please bring me some ivy?"

Dobby's ears quivered, and he bounced up and then bowed deeply. "Dobby will be bringing ivy to not-Master Malfoy," he said happily, and with another sharp crack, he vanished. Draco flopped down on the stiff velveteen sofa as if he had just run twenty laps of the pitch. Harry thought he knew how he felt.

"Thanks," he said, sitting down next to Draco. "That was getting to be ridiculous."

With a sigh, Draco leaned against his shoulder. "Agreed," he said. "And I'd say that I'm glad it was that easy, but I have never in my life imagined apologizing to a House Elf, and it really wasn't."

Harry stroked Draco's hair. The softness under his fingers was soothing. "I know."

"Thankfully, yes. Just one of the many reasons that I love you."

Draco turned, but before they could start to kiss, there was another sharp crack. Draco and Harry twitched apart, and twisted to find Dobby standing between two of the chairs, with a stack of house banners and a ball of ivy cuttings floating in front of him.

"Is Master Harry and Draco Malfoy wanting anything else?"

Draco's eyes darted rapidly around the room, assessing something, although Harry wasn't sure what. "Yes. A large jug of water, Dobby?"

Dobby nodded, and Harry stepped forward to take the banners.

"Only water?"

"Only water."

 

While Harry hung the banners at quarter points on the wall of the round chamber, Draco coaxed little shelves out of it in places. They emerged from the walls in a small curve at the level of his waist, growing up at an angle out to take the form of thick, shallow half-bowls at chest height. Finishing with the Hufflepuff banner, Harry turned to watch as Draco filled the depression in his last one with water, set two ivy cuttings in it, and charmed them to grow until they cascaded down the wall in a fall of green.

He stepped back, and regarded his work with obvious satisfaction. "How's that?" he asked. He gestured around at the other, empty shelves. "More subtle than flowers, but softening in the same way, I think."

Harry nodded. "I wouldn't have thought of it like that, but yeah. More, possibly."

"I'll let the others grow more slowly," Draco decided. "They're more likely to last that way. Help me with the next one?"

 

Thirty minutes later, they collapsed onto the stiff sofa and looked happily around at their work. As seen from the entrance, the Slytherin banner was to the left of the rock heap, and the Gryffindor one to the right. Continuing around, the Ravenclaw banner was next, directly across from Slytherin's, and then, on the other side of the door, Hufflepuff's banner hung across from Gryffindor's. At either side of the room was a fall of ivy, growing with nearly visible speed. Two more -- one of them Draco's finished demonstration piece -- framed the door, and two more tumbled down the rock pile.

"It's nice," Harry said.

Draco nodded smugly.

"Should we send Dobby to look for carpets?"

"Merlin, no!" Draco exclaimed. "That job requires some taste. I'll take a look; I know several of the storerooms now." He turned halfway to face Harry. "We need more invitees, I think."

"It's not like the original ones ever show up," Harry grumbled, but Draco waved that off.

"Oh, don't worry about that! They need to be invited again, that's all. But the group was too small, so the awkwardness was too visible. We need more areas of interaction. I'd like to add Linnet and Gilbert, if you have no objections."

Harry shrugged. "I think that would be okay. Do you trust them?"

"For this," Draco answered. "What about you? Are there Gryffindors you wish to add?"

Harry sighed. "Well, I'd like to add Ron and Hermione, of course, but Hermione's taking this Head Girl thing awfully seriously. I'm afraid she'll feel obliged to report it, if she thinks there may be trouble. We should probably wait."

Draco nodded. "Until things are more comfortable. Tell her to come by the official space, though, would you? If she keeps avoiding me, I'm going to forget I liked her."

"I don't think she's avoiding you more than anyone else," Harry protested. "She's just ... busy."

"In any case, we're not inviting her now. Should we invite Weasley without her?"

"Since he already knows about the place, I don't see any harm. And I'd like to invite Ginny Weasley, as well, and Cornelia."

"Your Keeper-turned-Beater?" Draco asked in surprise.

"Right."

"Does she have connections in other houses?"

"No. And she spends at least some time in the Muggle world, though I think she might have one magical parent."

"You don't know?" Draco asked incredulously.

"It's never come up -- she just seemed fairly comfortable, at least by the time I noticed. She's steady, though, and I think she'd be interested in the social experiment."

"I'm still ... I can't imagine it not coming up, as you say."

"Gryffindor."

"And she's not in your year."

Harry nodded. "And she's a girl, so I pretty much ignored her until she tried out for the team."

"Hm." Draco looked thoughtful. "I have an idea. Let's have her and the Weasleys here for a short visit tomorrow evening, to see how it works. We'll invite Millicent too. It will be an odd group, but all Quidditch players, which gives us a natural topic of conversation. Then on Wednesday, we can bring Linnet and Gilbert, and anyone else we want to add, so by Friday we should know if we've made an error in judgment."

"We should ask Padma if there's a Ravenclaw she'd recommend. She shouldn't be the only one."

"Yes, and we'll probably need a few Hufflepuffs eventually, but not this week. Let Padma bring a guest, and on Friday, this week's group can debate additions."

"Okay." Harry put an arm around Draco's shoulders and surveyed the room. The ivy had grown another several inches while they had talked, giving the rock pile the air of a scenic ruin.

"We definitely need a more comfortable sofa," Draco said presently.

"Definitely," Harry agreed, and pulled him down to prove it.

 

Chapter Text

 

On the way back to Gryffindor, Harry thought about Draco's assertion that the people they had brought into the Uncommon Room would need to be invited again. Harry thought that was ridiculous, so on his return to the tower, he asked Seamus and Parvati. To his surprise, they agreed with Draco.

"When you tell someone they can show up at any time, Harry, it's almost like no invitation at all."

"More or less," Seamus said amiably, setting a worn text aside and stretching in a yawn. "I'd feel awkward, at least."

Harry frowned. "All right, then. I'm inviting you for this Friday. After dinner. Everyone should come. We'll treat it as a party."

"Perfect!" Parvati agreed. "Then we can discuss a schedule while we're there."

Seamus hissed an urgent warning for silence, and Harry looked up. Yolanda was crossing over to them, Sammy trailing reluctantly behind her, his face red.

With a flush of guilt, Harry summoned a smile. "Hi," he said. "What's up?"

Yolanda crossed her arms over her chest. "We want to know where you are all the time."

Seamus snorted. "Eh -- this is Harry. It's best not to ask."

"Oh hush!" Harry said crossly. He looked at Yolanda. "I've been spending my time in the mixed-house sitting room, when it's open. To support it, you know."

Yolanda gave Sammy a triumphant look. He turned his head to look at the windows.

"You two should come," Harry said coaxingly. "What if I take you down there tomorrow? No, not tomorrow -- I have a meeting with McGonagall. Wednesday. I can introduce you to people."

Yolanda looked a little alarmed. "Isn't it mostly older students? What if the Slytherins--"

"No one's going to hurt you," Harry interrupted firmly. "There's always a staff member, and the room is right next to the library, anyway. And there are usually at least a couple of people from each house. One of the Slytherins who's there a lot spends time with his little sister, who's a third-year Hufflepuff, and there's a pair of brothers, one of whom is a first-year in Ravenclaw, I think."

"All right," Sammy said, raising his chin as he looked back at Harry. "I'll go, even if none of the others do."

"Great!" Harry said. "Meet me at the library after lessons on Wednesday."

 

"Is everything set?" Draco asked, as they walked up the stairs to Charms the next afternoon.

"Tonight's guests?" Harry replied. "Yeah. Ron doesn't want to make your truce social, but the girls are in."

Draco thought for a few steps. "So it's us and girls?"

"Yeah." Harry grinned. "What a waste, eh?"

Draco laughed. "Millicent hardly counts," he said, and Harry wondered what he would say if he knew how true that was.

"She's in, then?" he asked, although he knew he could ask her directly in a few hours, when they met for her glamour.

"Oh, yes. She thought it sounded like a good idea."

 

When Harry showed up with Ginny and Cornelia, Draco and Millicent were already there. Draco had made a few revisions to the room -- there was a slightly worn, comfy sofa upholstered in a mostly brown brocade, two squashy armchairs in dark blue and white, and a stiffer wingback chair in green and gold. Where he had planned to put the sideboard, he had instead grown a narrow shelf for drinks, and under that, put a small round table for food. Currently, there were six bottles of beer -- two of each kind that Dobby had brought -- and an unopened bottle of wine on the shelf, and cheese and bread on the table. Draco greeted everyone with a handshake and a few words of welcome. When he stepped back, Harry gestured to Millicent.

"Ginny, this is my friend Millicent."

Ginny offered her hand again, and Millicent took it. "Weasley," she said, but politely enough.

Ginny made a face. "Sorry, but you can't call me that."

"Oh?"

"It's always ambiguous. 'Miss Weasley' isn't, but it makes feel like everyone's treating me as a child. It will have to be Ginny."

Millicent nodded and grinned. "Ginny then," she said cheerily. You can call me Mill, if you like."

Harry, pleased, gestured to Cornelia. "And this is Cornelia."

Millicent nodded as she shook Cornelia's hand. "Right. Finally got away from the rings and took a real position, I saw."

Cornelia tensed for a moment, but then got it, or perhaps remembered that Millicent was also a Beater. "Yes. I'm enjoying the action," she replied, and Draco, who had been watching closely, turned to open the wine.

"It's the only position worth playing."

"Now, wait a minute!" Draco said over his shoulder.

"What would you know?" Millicent challenged. "You spend most of the game just watching."

"And dodging the occasional Bludger," Cornelia put in.

"We do the best dives, though," Harry objected. "And it's all speed."

"When you're moving," Ginny amended. "And Chasers dive too, with a lot less setup."

"Oh, there's not always time for setup," Draco objected cheerily. "Anyone else want wine? It's a nice Vouvray."

"I'll have some," Ginny said.

"What else is there?" Millicent asked, wandering over to look at the beer. To Harry's satisfaction, she chose the brown ale. Draco ignored that and smiled at Ginny as he handed her a glass.

"I'm afraid you're outnumbered. Unintentional on my part, I assure you."

"Harry's having wine too," Ginny protested, as Draco began pouring again.

"As the only Chaser, I mean. There's no one to bolster your arguments."

"Oh, that!" Ginny grinned. "That's all right. I know I'm good."

Millicent grinned. "Ha! Your problem is that I know it too."

"That's a problem?"

"I'm the one with the bat."

Cornelia laughed. Draco passed a plate with some rounds of bread and Cheddar to Millicent, and wordlessly drew Ginny's attention to the cheese. He loitered by the drinks until everyone had food of some sort, and then started over to the sofa, in conversion with Cornelia about why she had decided to switch positions. When he was at one end of the sofa, and Cornelia in one of the chairs, Harry followed, Millicent and Ginny posturing amiably as they trailed behind him.

 

That had gone fairly well, Harry decided, as the Gryffindor girls left, a few minutes after Millicent's departure. Everyone had seemed to enjoy the visit. For the most part, they had talked about Quidditch, but Ginny had belatedly commented on how good the room looked. They had stayed over the planned hour, but not by much. Still, Harry felt exhausted, for no reason he could name. He collapsed onto the sofa, and watched Draco set his not quite empty glass by the not quite empty cheese board. He looked smug, which Harry supposed he was entitled to.

"I think I get it now," Harry said out loud, as he patted the cushion next to him in invitation.

"What do you mean?"

"What my aunt was trying to be," Harry explained. "She failed at it so miserably that I never saw the point. You kept it all working though, didn't you? The perfect host."

Draco frowned. "But you think it's feminine."

"I didn't say that!" Harry protested, sitting up. "She was just the one who wanted to. Anyway, does it matter?"

"Of course it matters!" Draco retorted hotly, sitting at the other end of the sofa, his arms crossed. "Image is important."

"Really? I thought Slytherin was about results."

"Well, yes, but--"

"Listen. You created a space that a mixed group of Slytherin and Gryffindors of different classes and backgrounds found comfortable, and you kept them happy, friendly, and chatting for over an hour. If you're good at something, wouldn't it be stupid not to do it because you thought it was too feminine? What does that mean anyway? Too artistic? Too subtle?"

Draco glared at him for a moment, but then looked down. "I can't explain it."

"Do you think that what you are doing is unimportant to what you are trying to accomplish?" Harry demanded.

"No."

"Then it's a good skill to have, isn't it?"

Nodding, Draco raised his head. He held out a hand, and smiled when Harry took it. "Thanks."

Harry grinned. "Any time. If it will make you feel more manly, I can suck your cock after parties."

Draco choked. "Right."

"Is that a yes?"

"I certainly wouldn't say no."

Lifting his eyebrows, Harry gave Draco's hand a tug. "Better come closer, then."

 

After renewing Millicent's glamour for the day, Harry went to the library to meet Sammy. As he expected, Yolanda was with him -- and so was Rob. Rob stepped forward immediately.

"I'm not sure I believe this is a good idea," he said. "If it wasn't you...."

Harry grinned. "But it is me," he said, "And it will be fine. Come on."

Madam Pince paused to turn and glare at them. Ducking his head, Harry beckoned to the first-years to follow. To the side, however, movement caught his eye, and he turned to see Hermione stuffing books into her bag. She slid one towards a Ravenclaw. That done, she picked up the remaining two volumes and hurried towards Madam Pince's desk.

Harry wasn't certain that she wanted him -- she hadn't waved, or even looked up -- but it didn't seem unlikely, so while he didn't wait, he dawdled, taking a book that was in danger of falling out of Sammy's bag, and then handing it back, and then fussing a little with his own. They weren't three steps down the corridor before Hermione burst out of the library.

"Harry!" she called out, once safely past the charm that muted outside noises for the library.

"Yes?" he asked mildly, turning.

"Where are you going?"

He grinned at her. "The mixed-house room. Want to come along?"

"Oh." She looked at him for a moment, until a sudden smile cleared the lines from her brow. "Okay." She took up a place on the other side of Sammy. "Will I be welcome?" she asked uncertainly.

He snorted. "Everyone's welcome. That's the point."

"A lot of Slytherin wouldn't welcome me."

He shrugged. "Some people in other houses wouldn't either. But they don't show up."

"Ah." Hermione's cheeks turned pink as she smiled. "So it's working as a self-selecting group?"

"Something like that," Harry answered. He stopped at the door to the mixed-house social space. "Okay," he said to everyone. "We're here. Behavior is a little quieter than the Gryffindor Common Room, because we have Ravenclaws, but it's still okay to just hang out and talk, or even to play Exploding Snap, if it's not game after game. Come on."

 

Considering Draco's interest, Harry wasn't surprised to find him already there. He was sitting with Blaise, who had never been to the room before. Still, Harry supposed that made sense. Blaise wanted very much to return to being friends with Draco, and would certainly come along if asked. Draco looked up almost immediately.

"Hermione!" he exclaimed, and set aside parchment and quill to greet her. Hermione stood in surprised immobility as he held her arms and kissed her cheek. "So good of you to visit." As far as Harry could tell, his ebullience was sincere. He motioned her to his table. "Would you like to sit with us? I'm working on Arithmancy with Blaise."

"But you dropped Arithmancy!"

"I know, but I'd still like to try for the N.E.W.T. I couldn't resist the Cursebreaking class, though, and it is brilliant." Draco had managed to usher Hermione over to his table. With a curious glance at his work, she sat down. A moment later, she was holding forth on something from the text he had open. Blaise leaned across the table to look at the graph she was sketching as she spoke.

"Okay," Harry said to the first-years, keeping his voice low. "I'll catch up with her -- and introduce you to Draco -- later." He looked around the room. The Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw brothers were present, but he hadn't formally met them, although he had watched them together for a week. Today's staff member was Professor Snape, but he was seated unobtrusively in an alcove and leaning over a large, softbound periodical that Harry recognized from library research as a potions quarterly. His hair fell down in front of his face, and with luck, the kids wouldn't notice him. "Here," Harry said, turning the other way. "Let me introduce you to some people."

He brought them over to Gilbert and Gloria, counting on Gloria to be as reliable as a Hufflepuff should be, and her brother to be as politically adept as a Slytherin should be. "All right. This is Gloria Clarke and her brother, Gilbert. They're a typical example of people who come here. Gilbert, Gloria, these are some of my new housemates -- Yolanda, Sammy, and Rob. I'm trying to introduce them around before they get the wrong ideas about other houses."

"Hi," Gloria said, holding out her hand. "Pleased to meet you," she said, as she shook Robbie's hand, and then Sammy's. "What lovely hair you have!" she said to Yolanda. Harry couldn't help thinking that she was as socially trained as Draco. Gilbert leaned his chin on a fist.

"Wrong?" he questioned, ignoring the kids. "It's just spin, you know. I can say you're a reckless fool as easily as a hero. You can say I'm an unreliable turncoat as easily as I'm adaptable."

Harry looked at him. "Yeah," he said. "I know. But a lot of people go beyond that."

"True." Gilbert cocked his head to the side. "Any further word on your godfather?"

Harry bit his lip while he calculated what he could say. "No," he answered finally. "But from the coverage, I hope what I said had some effect."

"Godfather?" Yolanda asked.

"Sirius Black."

"Black!" Yolanda exclaimed

"Didn't you know?" Rob answered. "I thought you read things."

Sammy's eyes went to first one side then the other as he looked at each of them. "Who's Sirius Black?" he asked, confused.

"He's a notorious escaped criminal, who killed a lot of people--"

"Except Harry says he's not," Rob interrupted. "Don't you, Harry?"

When Yolanda, wide-eyed, turned to him, Harry nodded. "Yeah. We met once, and I think he was set up. I can't say more, right now, because it's under investigation, but.... Yeah."

"It's been in the Daily Prophet," Rob said, exasperated. "Kath was talking about it, because she thinks Harry is--" With an apologetic glance at Harry, he ducked his head. "Well, too willing to think the best of people."

"There's nothing wrong with that!" Gloria burst out. She and her brother looked at each other. He sighed.

"As long as you're not foolish about it," he qualified. Blushing, she nodded acceptance.

"I seem to be getting farther with it than I did when I thought Sn--" Harry remembered suddenly that Snape was there. "-- Professor Snape was trying to kill me, and Draco was the Heir of Slytherin."

Draco demonstrated that he was listening by bursting out laughing. After a moment, so did Blaise and Gilbert.

"You are the Parselmouth, darling," Draco answered mockingly.

"Oh, you didn't really!" Blaise protested.

"I did! Ron and I polyjuiced into Crabbe and Goyle, and tried to pump him for information." Harry laughed. "Of course, it's hard to lead the conversation when you're supposed to be that dumb." He shot Draco a teasing glance. "Fortunately, he was a little braggart at that age. We were pretty sure he told us everything he knew."

Gilbert leaned forward. "You tricked a Slytherin?" he asked incredulously. He looked over at Draco. "Is that true?"

Draco shrugged. "I have no reason to think it wasn't. When I asked Vince, he confirmed that they'd woken up in a broom closet, after eating some floating cupcakes."

"Sleeping Solution," Hermione put in. "I was the brewer."

"For the Polyjuice, too," Harry explained.

"You helped!" she chided.

"Yeah, right -- I ground the lacewings, just like you told me to."

A number of people laughed. Harry thought he even heard a snort from Snape, who had tilted his head up just enough to watch. That set him to appraising the others. Rob still looked thoughtful, but Yolanda was eagerly curious. Sammy had stepped back from the group, probably lost by the conversation, and was watching the Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw brothers, who were sitting at the next sofa. They had a slightly familiar-looking board game set on the coffee table in front of them, but rather than playing, they were watching Harry and his group.

"Hi," Harry said, waving at them. They both blushed, but the Hufflepuff braced himself and waved back. In a step, Harry was at the other side of the table. "That looks familiar," he said. "Is it a Muggle game?"

With an anxious look at the Slytherins, the older boy nodded.

"It's Parcheesi," Sammy explained, joining Harry. "Where did you get it?" he asked the boys.

"We had Dad send it from home when this room opened," the Hufflepuff said. "It just came this morning. Want to play? We're not very far along."

The Ravenclaw nodded. "You could take three turns in a row and be even."

"All right," Sammy said, sitting in a chair to the side. "Do you want to play, Harry?"

Harry shook his head. "I don't know how."

"You didn't play Parcheesi?"

"No, it's--" Harry didn't want to explain that he wouldn't have been allowed to play, even if his cousin had owned the game. "My cousin was the sort of kid who'd upend a board game if he wasn't winning, so he didn't really learn any of them, and didn't like them."

"But you could have played with friends."

"I wasn't -- wasn't supposed to leave the house." Or my cupboard, usually. "I'll watch; maybe I'll play next time." Still, he sat down, observing as Sammy took his catch-up turns. He seemed to be able to split up the dice rolls to distribute as he wished. One particular move put two of his pieces on the same tile, and they suddenly began to glow, causing Sammy to snatch his hand back.

"Hey!"

"Oh, sorry. Dad charmed the set to do that."

"Otherwise, it's normal."

"Okay." Sammy's hand came back slowly. "Your dad is a wizard, then?" he asked quietly. Harry glanced around to see the response to this. Gilbert was openly curious, Gloria startled, and Snape's eyes gleamed through the fall of his hair. Draco and Hermione had seemingly returned to discussing Arithmancy equations, and were too preoccupied to notice. A few other people were watching. More weren't.

"Yeah, but we didn't know when we were little. Mum's a Muggle, and we lived in a Muggle neighborhood, and they were afraid we'd say something."

The Ravenclaw sniffed contemptuously. "As if little kids can't keep secrets. I don't know why grown-ups think that."

"Eventually, I did some strange enough accidental magic that they had to tell me," the Hufflepuff explained. "It was rather awful." To the side, Harry saw Gloria flinch. The boy held out his hand to Sammy. "I'm Eric, by the way. In third year."

"Sammy," Sammy said, shaking. "First."

"First too!" said the younger boy. "I'm Jacob. Do you have any magical relatives?"

 Sammy shook his head. "Not that I know of," Sammy said. "When I did accidental magic, my parents thought I was lying."

Harry nodded. "My aunt and uncle claimed they did, though they knew perfectly well, so I got in trouble anyway."

"That's awful!" Jacob exclaimed.

Harry shrugged. "They don't like magic -- or anything else that's not 'normal' for their life. I think Aunt Petunia really hated my mum." He looked curiously at Sammy. "What happened when they found out? When you got your Hogwarts letter, I mean?"

"Yeah," Jacob asked. "Did they apologize?"

"For what?"

"For calling you a liar."

"Oh." Sammy's brow furrowed. "Not really. Dad said he was glad there was some explanation. Mum was busy protesting that I couldn't go away to school; she's not a boarding school sort of mum, really."

Eric nodded. "I remember my mum and dad talking about that. There are so few witches and wizards that local schools just aren't practical, so it's a different sort of thing, for us."

"I didn't know any of this!" Gloria burst out, coming over to stand next to Harry's chair. She glared across the board at Eric. "And if you say 'us', why was it horrible to find out?"

"It..." Eric struggled for a moment. "It wasn't finding out that was bad; it was ... how they acted about it. They didn't want me afraid, but they also didn't want me thinking that anything that I wished would happen." He looked down at the Parcheesi board. "So it was all this 'you must never, ever tell, or let anyone suspect, or you might be taken away from us, and locked up for being insane, and if we try to help you, we could lose your brother -- and all that. I...." he swallowed. "It was really hard to talk about magic when I came here, even when I was supposed to."

"I remember," Gloria said. "I spent all of first year thinking you were an idiot. You wouldn't answer even the simplest questions."

"It was easier for me," Jacob volunteered. "I could tell he was lying to me, so I listened when he was with Dad, until I knew enough to pretend I knew more, and then I got the rest out of him."

"And he could keep a secret perfectly well," Eric put in, somewhat bitterly.

Harry looked between them. "Did you tell your parents?"

Jacob shrugged. "Not until my first accidental magic -- or, well, first one I was sure of. I blew up my Gameboy, and I was so thrilled that I was magical too that I didn't even care. I ran down to show Dad, and said "Look! I'm a wizard -- I was mad at it, and it just exploded!"

Eric laughed. "That was a month before I started Hogwarts, and I think they were relieved they didn't have to keep coming up with reasons for why I was going away, and why he couldn't come to London for my school shopping."

"And then, of course, I could!"

"But I got scolded for not telling them he'd known."

"That's ridiculous!" Gloria exclaimed. She looked at Sammy. "And you're Muggleborn? Really, completely?"

Sammy scuffed his shoe along the floor. "Yeah. What of it?"

"Don't be like that!" she protested, rolling her eyes. "I'm just curious." She looked quizzically at Harry. "You're not, though. I know both of your parents were magical. You're a Potter, which is as old a family as mine, and your mother was a Muggleborn witch."

"Yeah," he said, "but when they died, I went to my closest living relative, which was my mother's sister. Professor Dumbledore thought it would be safer for me to grow up among Muggles."

"Muggles, fine, but ones who hated magic?" she protested.

Harry shrugged. "I didn't say he was right. Though to be fair, he said he thought it would be safer, not more pleasant."

Gilbert shifted in his chair. Harry thought he posed rather like a television talk show host. "How do you wish you'd grown up?"

"With the Weasleys," Harry said promptly. "Or Sirius -- he promised to take me in if his name was ever cleared, though I suppose that doesn't matter anymore." He shook his head, realizing what he had left out. "Though if I'm wishing, with my mum and dad, of course."

"But someone magical."

Harry thought about it. "Ideally," he admitted. "But anyone who cared about me would've done."

 

"That was an interesting display, yesterday," Snape said neutrally, as Harry took a seat in his office.

"Display?"

"With the Mugglebo--" Snape stopped. "Sorry, Muggle-raised students."

"Oh." Harry leaned back, belying the way his heart sped up. Would this dangerous topic destroy his short alliance with Snape? "I've become interested in it. Hermione is so ..." He grimaced -- "something that I felt like I was an oddity. It's reassuring to find other kids had the same problems, even when the people raising them didn't hate them."

"By 'problems,'" Snape clarified, "you mean accidental magic."

"And being treated as a liar," Harry answered fiercely, "or a freak, or both."

"Interesting," Snape said sardonically.

"What?"

"Your insistence on being believed takes on a whole new context."

Harry heated, but did not reply.

"What did you do?" Snape asked, more mildly. "For magic, I mean." Harry looked away.

"Ended up on the shed roof, when their bully of a son was chasing me," he said. "Made my hair grow back when my aunt cut it. Healed my arm, when it broke." He grinned. "Made the glass disappear, when he was harassing a snake in the zoo -- they might have had cause to be upset at that one. It didn't hurt him, though, and it wasn't like I knew I was doing it. It just happened."

Snape's eyebrows rose. "Did you speak to this snake?"

"Oh, yeah." Harry laughed tensely. "Last I saw, he was headed for Brazil."

Snape rubbed the bridge of his nose. "You are a very odd boy, Potter." He choked out something that might have been a laugh. "They must have been terrified, if they understood even a fraction of the significance." Dismissing the matter with a quick wave, he sat down behind the desk. "On to business," he said. "Have you completed the reading I assigned?"

"Er, yes, sir," Harry answered. "I'm afraid I don't have your book. Neville was in the dormitory, so I didn't have a chance to retrieve it."

"Understood," Snape answered. "Do you wish to learn the spell?"

"I'm not sure." Harry looked away. "I feel like I ought to be able to manage without it. And then, of course, there are the Quiris...."

"Yes, of course." Snape steepled his hands in front of his chin. "Do you know there is a spell to physically repel them?" He smiled thinly. "Of course, if you cast it, you need to."

"So it's Dark Arts as well?" Harry returned, amused.

"Yes. In its purest form. You focus Dark energies into a physical push. The end result, reputedly, is that of a particularly violent Disarming hex."

"Maybe you should teach me that one."

Snape eyed him mockingly. "And how would you cast it? Oddly, Potter, you need to have performed Dark Arts -- recently enough to set off a Quiri -- in order to repel a Quiri with Dark Arts. It's really a most curious spell."

Harry laughed. "Well, let me think about it. If I decide I'm going to learn anything else, I definitely think that one should come with it."

"Very well."

"Is there any progress on Nott?"

"I do not represent the MLE, Potter."

"But you said you'd talk to Narcissa Malfoy."

"Ah, that sort of progress." Snape's lip curled. "I have alluded to the potential threat."

"That's all?" Harry asked, outraged.

"She was a Slytherin, Potter. These things must be done with care. She will be more amenable to an alliance if she believes the thought was her own."

"Oh."

"Speaking of which, she is concerned about her son's attachment to you."

"I'll bet," Harry huffed.

"Politically, you are too good an opportunity to let pass, but she is afraid that his expressed willingness to marry is but a ploy to put her off."

Harry scowled. "Not unless it's a ploy to make me jealous." That was an enticing thought, and he entertained it for a second or two. "But it's not," he concluded bitterly. "I'm temporary."

Snape shrugged. "So he believes," he remarked. "That may not always be true. You must stay aware, Potter, not be blinded by your expectations."

Snape, Harry thought, had a lot of gall to give him that advice -- but then, perhaps it came from mistakes made. "I'll try," he said, managing not to sigh. "Do we have time to talk about Death Eaters?"

Snape's eyebrows came up. "In general, or are you interested in specific individuals?"

"Both, I suppose. I've been meaning to ask you since the trial -- Talbot said he was coerced, but I thought--"

"That you'd believe him?"

"No, I don't, really, but I was wondering if that was even possible. I have the impression that Death Eaters are sort of inner circle, not at all the bulk of his supporters. Is that true?"

When Snape had answered with a dignified nod, Harry continued. "So he wouldn't choose people who weren't willing -- or at least didn't pretend to be willing."

Snape nodded. "Exactly. That defense was -- and always has been -- complete nonsense. Someone who needed to be brought into line with threats would not be made a Death Eater." He raised his head. "However, a Death Eater who became reluctant might be kept in line in such a manner for some time before being killed. I have the luxury of having successfully deserted only because I have the protection of Dumbledore and of Hogwarts."

Harry was about to ask if he never left, when he realized that was absurd. Snape had not only been at the trial, but had visited him at Privet Drive more than once. "But you leave here."

"Occasionally," Snape admitted. "Although I may seem reclusive, I also am not well-suited to staying where I belong. However, I am careful to leave infrequently, and following no pattern. I do not walk to Hogsmeade."

 

"Where have you been?" Draco demanded, when he ran into Harry coming up the stairs from Snape's office. His face darkened, and he frowned. "Never mind," he said, before Harry could speak. "Come for a walk with me."

Harry thought they would go to the Uncommon Room, but Draco led him to the storeroom. Ten minutes later, they were sitting on their plastic sofa in the Chamber of Secrets.

"What's wrong?" Harry asked.

"Don't play the fool with me. You were coming up from the dungeons."

Harry shrugged. "I'd been talking to your spellfather."

"Talking," Draco repeated caustically. "About what? Dark Arts?"

"For a few minutes," Harry said. "Then we talked about your mother, and then about Death Eaters, and then he had me practice casting spells with his wand."

"What?" Confusion pushed out suspicion in Draco's queries. "Why?"

"We started that when he was still a spy, and more likely to be around if I was captured, but even now..." Harry shrugged. Draco must understand that he'd be disarmed before anyone else. "He thinks I should do it with you, as well -- we should get used to casting with each others'."

Draco looked thoughtful. "You can't do that too often...."

"Yeah, he explained that. But a little doesn't hurt, he said, and might help if one of us had to pick up the other's wand in a fight."

Draco nodded, and then sighed. "Being friends with you holds more dangers than I ever thought I'd face."

"Your life wouldn't have been safe anyway."

"True," Draco said gloomily, "but I'd thought it would be."

They sat in silence for a moment. Harry felt like the isolation in the set of Draco's shoulders was somehow his fault.

"So," he tried, "do you think we can consider all the new Uncommon Room invitees safe?"

Draco shook himself slightly, like a duck emerging from water, and straightened. "Most likely. Certainly, if no one has disturbed the room or come to question us by the time we should be in our houses."

Harry nodded. "I thought the Wednesday gathering went well," he offered. "Not as obviously so as the Quidditch players, but...."

Draco snorted. "Ravenclaws are less boisterous," he pointed out. "And my housemates, of course, adapted."

"Successfully," Harry interrupted. "Padma and Sophia thought they were reasonable."

"Perhaps because they are."

Harry shrugged. "I'm not saying they aren't. Linnet seems okay, and Gilbert is ... well, interesting. Not bad."

"How kind of you to say so."

"Oh, don't be snotty about it!" Harry protested. "I like them, all right? But whatever you say about their adaptability, you managed them."

Draco, to his surprise, looked away.

"Draco?"

"It's kind of you to say so," Draco said, not as all as if it was, "but I would have made a disaster out of the first gathering, if you hadn't told me what I was about to do wrong."

Harry shrugged. "So?"

"So your reassurances ring hollow in the face of that."

"What?" Finding Draco still steadfastly looking away, Harry bumped against him. "Yeah, I told you what you had wrong. And from a few words of information, you fixed it. I had no idea how to fix it without making it, you know, stupid. But you had a new sense of it in minutes, and the room was damn near perfect by the next day. That's not me, Draco -- that's you. You with adequate information."

 

On Friday, Harry and Draco skipped dinner and prepared the Uncommon Room instead. They added a second, slightly more formal sofa at angles to the first, and had the room warm and the sideboard ready by the time the first guests arrived.

 

Parvati paused a step into the room. After a moment, Seamus nudged her to the side.

"Let the rest of us in, love," he teased.

Sidestepping out of the way, she gestured at the room. "But did you see? It's lovely! I was wondering what on earth Padma was talking about. Padma," she called over her shoulder, "it wasn't like this when I saw it."

Harry grinned. "Draco put some work into it, earlier in the week."

"Ooo, it was you?" Parvati said, batting her eyelashes at Draco. "I should have known. Harry doesn't have it in him."

Draco shot Harry a look before returning her smile. "Oh, Harry did help," he said graciously. "Mainly by vetoing things, I must admit...."

"Hey," Harry protested, settling at one end of the sofa, with his arm stretched along the back. "That first sofa wasn't nearly comfortable enough."

Parvati giggled. "I expect it was beautiful, though."

"Oh, yeah. Elegant."

She settled on the newest addition, a cream colored sofa, and Seamus joined her. Since they were meeting after dinner, Harry and Draco had decided on cheese and sweeter afters for food; Draco had arranged for the cakes and tarts to be bite-sized, and added a scattering of grapes and gooseberries to each platter. There was one of each type of platter on the coffee table, in reach of both sofas and one of the chairs, and smaller plates on the little round table, which was now set between two of the other chairs.

"Does anyone want wine?" he asked. "We have a Vouvray, and claret."

"Oh, let me help," Parvati said, jumping up, and making Harry feel rather foolish for not having thought of that himself.

"Is there any beer?" Seamus asked, with a hint of challenge. Draco couldn't entirely repress a smirk.

"Whately's Best Bitter, Deer Island Brown Ale, and Plunkett's Irish Stout."

"You have Plunkett's?" Seamus asked, astounded. "That, then."

Everyone settled, with a little more talk than last time, much of it centering on what a nice touch the ivy was, and regrets at having eaten too much at dinner, but with some references to lessons. Eventually, however, the group stumbled over one of those strange lulls in which all conversations fail at the same time. Harry watched people glance around the room and wondered how to get things going again.

"You know what we should do?" Parvati said brightly, forestalling the need. "We should play some sort of parlor game, for getting to know each other better."

The Slytherins looked at her like she'd grown another head. So did her sister.

"What," Seamus exclaimed, "Charades, you mean?"

"Or more like Truth or Dare?" Harry put in.

"Oh!" Parvati bounced. "Have you played it, Harry?"

Harry shrugged. "No. I overheard my cousin and his friends play once, but the third dare was to kill one of the neighbor's cats, so...."

"So you stopped listening and saved the cat," Ginny guessed.

"Well, yeah. But I couldn't herd them all out of reach -- the cats, I mean -- so I had to get in the way, and then it turned into a ... a different game." Harry made a face. Everyone but the Gryffindors and Draco was staring at him now. He shrugged and looked away. Draco cleared his throat. He eyed Parvati with exaggerated suspicion.

"What are the rules of this game? Does it usually involve killing cats?"

"I thought it was more kissing and things." Parvati blushed. "Well, it was in a novel I read, about this witch who spends a summer with her Muggle cousins."

Padma rolled her eyes. "Everything involves kissing in the novels you read."

Draco smirked. "I reiterate that we should invite Pansy." He looked at Harry. "So. Rules?"

"Um, you choose truth or dare, and then you either get asked an embarrassing question or made to do something."

"Without knowing what the two options are?" Linnet asked, her nose wrinkling.

"Well, yes. It's rather stupid, really."

"Hm." Millicent considered. "I can see some point, if you were told both and then had to choose."

"Not something I'd like to try in either case," Padma said.

Parvati bit her lip. "There was another one called I Never."

Draco looked at Harry. Harry shrugged. "Go on," he encouraged Parvati. "I've never heard of it."

"Um...." She blushed. "Well, one person states that they've never done something, and if they're lying, they take a drink -- everyone has drinks -- and so does everyone else who's done it."

Blaise sat back, stroking his chin as if he had a little beard. "Hm. Well, that would certainly speed up getting acquainted."

Seamus set his head -- and beer -- down. "Not for drinks," he said.

"But I think that's part of the point," Parvati argued. "That you become less careful as you get more drunk."

Measuring glances shot across the rough circle like a rain of darts.

"No," Padma said. "That would require there be more trust to begin with."

"And we couldn't really play enough rounds," Harry put in practically, tilting his claret. He hadn't finished the glass, but it still counted, if he was then required to drink more. "Not unless it was little sips."

"Shots," Parvati said, blushing.

"And at that, done too fast, we could get someone killed," Seamus said harshly, looking hard at Harry.

Blaise snorted. "Are you sure you're Irish?"

"Are you sure you want a bloody nose?"

"Hold it," Harry said, throwing a warning glare at Blaise, who smirked. "Calm down." He smiled apologetically at Seamus. "They think anything I do must be the way of Gryffindors."

"I don't!" Draco declared, tossing his head. "You are the mad king of Gryffindors, I'm quite certain."

"Right," Harry answered, restraining his sarcasm to a twist of his lip. "Which is why Seamus is protective of me."

"You!" Blaise exclaimed. "I thought you'd outlast the rest of us."

"I'm not in practice," Harry shot back.

"And I know who everyone will go after," Seamus said darkly.

"Seamus, I don't think they know me well enough to aim."

"Well, it doesn't matter!" Padma broke in. "I won't do it for drinks!"

"Fine," Parvati said. "Honestly, the lot of you! I don't care about the drinks!"

"But there has to be something." It was Ginny Weasley, with that dangerous gleam in her eye that always reminded Harry of the twins. "Something that accumulates, and is both penalty and prize."

"Hm." Linnet took on a coy look. "Spankings?"

Harry choked. Gilbert stared at her in horror.

"We could do that," Padma agreed.

"Oh, right!" Harry exclaimed. "If you want every glass in the room to shatter as soon as someone lays a hand on me!"

"That good?" Blaise asked.

"No." Harry crossed his arms over his chest. "That bad. I do not submit to attacks."

Ginny sniffed. "Unless you're protecting someone."

"Or you don't notice," Millicent added. She and Ginny grinned at each other.

"Ooo!" Parvati bounced again. "I have it!"

Harry was amused to notice how warily everyone looked at her.

"Beads!" she said brightly, transfiguring a wad of parchment into a white bead. "And every time you get a bead, you have to string it on something -- a necklace or bracelet."

"I'm not really in the market for new jewelry," Gilbert said sarcastically.

Her shoulders twitched up happily. "But that's it! You have to wear it. Showing. And you can't tell anyone why. And when you have to take a bead, everyone else gets to vote on the color."

Draco glanced around. Harry suspected he was tallying allies. "The person who led the round chooses color," he amended.

"All right."

Linnet let out a little huff of a laugh. "We'll look like a club."

"Exactly!" Parvati said, delighted. "And won't that mystify the rest of the school?"

Padma coughed. Seamus snorted. In seconds, everyone was laughing, including Harry. Every time he started to get over it, he met someone's eyes and imagined the confusion that would result from people trying to decide what they all had in common, and he would start to laugh again. It was quite some time before the general hilarity subsided.

"All right," Draco said finally, throwing himself dramatically back and swinging his legs over the arm of the couch. "I think we are in agreement. I'll make the beads, though -- Transfiguration is too unreliable." Sitting up, he reached for the bottle of Vouvray and topped off the glasses of those who were drinking it, tipping the last drops into his own. Still holding the bottle, he met Harry's eyes with a lift of his eyebrows. Harry nodded.

"Shield spells's yours," Draco remarked, and Harry drew his wand. The others looked at them curiously. With a vicious grin, Draco hurled the bottle against the wall. Harry, through a wash of heat and the bright sound of screams, fired a Shield spell after it. Broken glass ricocheted between the stones and the charm with a rattle like a wave crashing on a pebble beach.

Quite suddenly, the room was silent.

"Morrigan!" Seamus swore. "You two are mad!"

"Do tell," Draco drawled. "This has only now come to your attention?"

Seamus rolled his eyes. "Hardly."

The others watched Draco melted the sharp fragments of glass and spun them into smooth orbs, their interest gradually shifting from the anxious alertness to simple fascination. Harry transfigured one of Sophia's knitting needles into something three times the length, a third the width, and hard steel, and he summoned half-molten balls of glass onto it, piercing them. When they finished, the marble bowl in the center of the table was full of clear glass beads, and the others in the room were all strangely silent.

"So," Harry said cheerily. "Who starts?"

There was a moment in which everyone sat frozen by his words. "Parvati should, I think," Padma said finally. Harry wasn't sure if it was sisterly loyalty, or that Parvati was sitting to her left. No one objected though, and Harry raised his glass in an approving salute, and Parvati started.

"I ...hm." She smiled brightly. "I've never kissed a girl," she said, and then, with a triumphant smile, took out a bead from the bowl, and turned it pink.

It was at least an intense pink, rather than a light one. All the boys took one, as did Millicent, Ginny, and Cornelia, and consented to the same bright pink. Sophia spun strong cords out of her yarn, and they all strung them.

"Ginny?" Harry asked curiously, and Ginny composed herself into a mock-proper stance, legs crossed neatly over at the knee, and hands folded.

"A lady never tells," she said, and Seamus laughed and punched her on the shoulder.

Seamus was next. He looked around at the people without beads -- Padma, whom Harry thought he must know well, Linnet, and Sophia. "I've never worn eyeliner," he said, and crossing his arms over his chest, sat back.

All the girls took one this time, as -- to Harry's surprise -- did Draco and Gilbert.

"Don't ask," Draco said dramatically. "It was a traumatic experience."

"Two older sisters," Gilbert explained.

"Hm." Seamus held his wand over a bead. "Pink has already been taken...."

"Smoke, of course!" Parvati said, and with a laugh, he obliged her. The grey was only slightly glittery.

Next came Linnet. She drew a finger in a spiral through the bowl.

"I have never considered serving You-Know-Who," she said, and Draco, Blaise, and Gilbert had to take beads. She made them black, not green.

"It needs to be considered," Gilbert said boldly. "But it was clearly a bad idea." Blaise nodded at him.

"I noticed that," he said, and Draco snorted.

"Even I noticed eventually, and I was a damned sight more indoctrinated than either of you."

Draco was next. He took a swallow of wine and leaned back against the sofa cushions. "I," he said, with his eyes dancing over Harry, "have never stolen from a Muggle girl."

"Git!" Harry exclaimed, snatching a bead from the bowl. "It was your dare!"

"So you let him give you dares, do you?" Seamus challenged. Several people were frowning at Harry. Cornelia was the only other person to take a bead, and Harry was fairly sure she had been raised among Muggles. Draco turned the beads a lurid green, and it was Harry's turn.

"I," he said precisely, "have never rescued a Muggle child from a flooded river."

With a snort, Draco took a bead. "Overly specific," he argued, as Harry turned it gold.

"Nonetheless. As I am yours, you are mine."

Draco swallowed, his indignation suddenly gone. "Yes."

They kissed. Seamus groaned, and Parvati cooed, but Harry didn't let either bother him. "Ginny?" he prompted.

"Hm." Ginny looked around at the strings of beads. Seamus, Linnet, Sophia, and Padma had only one apiece. "I," she declared, "have never fallen asleep in the library."

The Ravenclaw girls took beads in their house blue, but so did Harry, Draco, and Linnet.

"Harry?" Ginny asked pointedly.

"It was nearly dawn, and I'd sneaked into the Restricted Section," Harry protested.

"Ah."

Draco rolled his eyes. "Merlin forefend he should care about his marks."

"Your turn, Millicent," Harry urged.

"Hm." Millicent's small eyes darted from person to person. Harry wondered what she was evaluating. Seamus had the fewest beads, with one, but Blaise and most of the girls had only two. Draco was only missing only the green he gave to Harry, giving him five. Cornelia, Gilbert, and Harry had three.

Apparently, she wasn't interested in evening the field. "I never had a birthday party with conjured trees growing marzipan fruit."

Draco glared at her. "Obviously, I shouldn't have invited you," he said frostily.

"Every Slytherin family and every pureblood family with a child within three years of your age was there," Millicent returned. "Otherwise, who would you have had to show off to?"

"Hold a moment," Seamus said. "The first little joust was entertaining enough, but I think challenges crafted for one person will be boring."

A few people nodded agreement. "Should we add a rule?" Sophia suggested.

Harry wanted to agree, but wasn't sure it would work. "How would we draw the line, though?"

"What do you mean?"

"Well, what if she'd said 'I've never had a private Quidditch pitch,' or 'I've never evaded a dragon'? Those would be just as targeted, but they're not as, um...."

"Contrived," Sophia offered. "Yes, that's it -- contrived. I think either of your examples would be acceptable."

Harry expected that to end the matter, but Padma looked intrigued as she leaned forward. "How do we define the difference?"

"We don't," Sophia answered. "We allow people to challenge, if they're the only one to take a bead, and then we vote."

Ginny rolled her eyes. "And have people challenge all the time?"

"If you loose the challenge, you get a larger bead," Parvati suggested. People were nodding, but Harry remembered how Draco had rejected the idea of majority rule earlier, when suggesting how colors should work.

"If you loose by more than two votes," he amended. That would require more than a split along house lines. Draco gave him an approving nod.

Ginny nodded acceptance, Padma sniffed in contained amusement, and Sophia called a vote. The new rule passed.

"I challenge the question," Draco said.

"I asked it before the rule," Millicent said stubbornly.

"Just pick a new question," Harry urged.

"Oh -- I can do that?"

"We didn't say, did we?" Sophia mused. "Yes -- you get one more try. Just one, though."

"All right," Millicent said. She surveyed the group for a moment. "I've never played Quidditch with a family member," she said, and didn't take a bead. Seamus, Linnet, Draco, Ginny, Gilbert, and Sophia did. Millicent made them all a transparent sunny yellow. No one commented when a few of them took her two tries.

"Never?" Draco asked.

"Mother says I'm oversized enough without building up muscles on purpose."

Harry burst out laughing. Draco winced at that, but Millicent just grinned at him.

"What, Potter -- don't you think I'm a little lady?"

"Of course you are. And I'm the poor, weepy boy that Skeeter was writing about during the tournament."

"Blaise?" someone prompted.

Blaise was next. "Hm." He scanned the group. "I've never been in the Forbidden Forest without a pro-- member of staff."

Harry and Draco looked at each other, shrugged, and reached for the bowl. So did Ginny, Cornelia, Millicent, Parvati, and Padma.

"Millicent?" Draco asked, his eyebrows raised.

She looked away. "I wanted to see a unicorn again."

Parvati nodded. "Me too," she confessed.

"And she had to drag me along," Padma complained, but she smiled fondly at her twin.

"I'm more surprised by Draco," Blaise said, leaning forward. For a moment, Harry thought he would take a bead also, but he was just reaching for his wine.

"I was with Harry, of course."

Which was true for one occasion, Harry thought, but implied that he, not Draco, had led. He shivered, remembering the ghost, and the strange elation that had followed commanding it.

Gilbert smoothed the brown waves of his hair as he looked around. "My turn," he announced. His gaze locked on to Harry. "I've never had a family member who was a Death Eater," he said levelly, and sat back.

"Prat," Draco groused, and took a bead. "Black?"

"Can you do it black and white?"

"Of course."

"I'd say sinister, but that would only work from one angle."

Draco laughed, but he made the division on a diagonal from the side.

"Hold it," Seamus said. "Only one of you has a family member who's a Death Eater?"

Blaise shrugged. "We are referring to immediate family, I assume."

"I'm still not sure I believe that," Seamus pressed.

"Finnigan," Millicent said in a bored tone, "this is a hand-picked group."

"And it isn't as if my family didn't support the Dark Lord until fairly recently," Gilbert said. "My father simply wasn't willing to risk life, freedom, and fortune in that support." His mouth twisted up on one side. "And then there were last year's massacres, and Mother decided he -- You-Know-Who -- was an embarrassment to pureblood Britain."

Seamus crossed his arms over his chest. "But you could all be lying, now, couldn't you?"

"We could, perhaps, use minor truth magic," Sophia suggested. "Something that doesn't let you lie, but lets you not answer. Veritas would do."

"Then we'd have to have people say no."

"Hold it," Harry objected. "I'd like to be able to avoid a question if I need to."

"Dishonestly?" Gilbert asked, sounding a bit intrigued.

"Well, yeah. I mean, what if it's...." He couldn't say 'something that will get me sent to Azkaban.' Draco stepped in for him.

"Something strategically important, Harry? Yes, that might be an issue. However, Gilbert was letting you know something, with this challenge. You must see the value of that."

"Was that what he was doing? I thought he was just going after you."

Gilbert looked startled. Draco sighed. "Don't worry, Clarke -- I would have explained it to him later."

"Maybe another challenge rule?" Ginny suggested. "If someone doesn't believe a response, including silence, they can request a quick truth spell, and then if everyone agrees that it's not dangerous--"

"How is that not dangerous?" Harry asked furiously. "If you had a brother who was involved in something illegal, and no one knew but you, how would it not be dangerous -- to him, to you, to listeners -- to be forced to admit it?"

"Maybe we should just agree that we'll stay away from illegal activities?" Padma asked tentatively.

"Oh, that's no fun," Blaise protested.

"But Harry has a point," Millicent said. "Here, how about we just don't ask questions about the war?"

"War?" Sophia asked, sounding baffled, just as Harry said "I'm not sure that's possible."

"I have it," Draco said. "I think we do need some minor truth magic, now that it's been explicitly pointed out that lying is possible, but in counter to that, we also need a secrecy charm."

Harry shook his head. This was far too much fretting about rules. He wondered if Slytherin and Ravenclaw games were all like this.

"So," Draco continued, "to take Harry's example, if he discovered that one of Ginny's brothers had killed someone, he could bring his suspicion out of here, and he could try to uncover evidence, but he could not tell people he knew this."

"But that's no fun either!" Parvati objected. "Now I know that Harry's fallen asleep in the library, maybe I want to tease him about it. Isn't the point to be become better friends?"

"I think the problem is that so many of us aren't friends," Seamus countered.

"Right," Harry said, sitting up. "So Parvati is right. No truth magic. Why would anyone want to lie anyway? I don't think any of us object to having a mysterious string of beads. The only secrecy charms should be that you can't tell anyone outside this room about the Game, or what beads mean."

"You should be able to tell one or two of your own, I think," Parvati amended. "As a teaser."

"Okay," Harry consented. "What it means that you have it -- but not about the Game."

Parvati beamed. "Do we all agree?" she asked.

They didn't, but people slowly gave in. Linnet pointed out that they had all been enjoying the game until they had started thinking about rules.

"Is it my turn, then?" Sophia asked, and there was a relieved chorus of assent. "I've never," she said, "used someone's house affiliation as an insult."

She took a bead. In a muddle of reaching and pinching fingers, everyone else did as well.

"Color?" Harry asked wryly.

"The house colors -- both, as exactly as you can manage -- of whichever house you have most often disparaged in that manner."

Quietly, Harry turned his bead green and silver. He was not surprised to see that all of his housemates had done the same. He reached past Ginny to tap Millicent's bead, adding gold flecks to the red she had managed, and she nodded curtly.

"And now we know where we stand," Padma said, "so we can try to do better." Her bead, Harry noted, was Hufflepuff colors, but Sophia's was red and gold. "With that in mind...." She smiled mischievously. "I've never been homesick."

There was another scramble for beads.

"Harry?" Linnet asked.

Ginny glared. "Drop it."

"No, it's ...." Harry set a hand placatingly on Ginny's arm, and she relaxed.

"Sorry."

"The place I lived was nothing to miss," Harry told Linnet. "Which is all I want to say about it."

That left it up to Cornelia to try for something harmless. "I've never followed the advice in Patrick's Pitch Pointers column," she declared, instantly taking a bead.

"Is that Quidditch?"

"Oh, Merlin, not that!"

"Does it count if I did it wrong?"

 

They played another round, during which Harry acquired another six beads, but Draco only got four. At the end of the game, Linnet and Sophia made the squealing discovery that their strings were identical. Most of the girls turned their strings into bracelets, but Draco looped his around his tie so that it overhung the neck of his robes, and Blaise conjured a pin and hung his under the Slytherin crest on his robes, like a ribbon for a club or cause. Harry looped his around a strap of his school bag. The others agreed that was acceptable as long as he wore it on his person when he didn't have the bag with him. He was already thinking that it would look good dangling from a belt loop when he didn't have robes on.

 

Chapter Text

 

On Saturday, Harry realized the school bag solution would be awkward for meals. Skipping breakfast in favor of more sleep was appealing, but that would only delay the problem, and was likely to cause trouble with Hermione. He sat in a window seat of the dormitory, where there was sunlight, and tried to figure out how to make a bracelet from the length of beads. He could cast a merging spell on the cord ends, but he needed to hold them together while he did it, and he couldn't do that while the cord was around his wrist. Eventually, he gave up trying and took the bag down to breakfast with him.

Hermione glanced over as he sat down next to her. She had a book with her, but to Harry's surprise, she stuck a piece of parchment in it and closed it.

"Harry," she said. "I didn't think you'd show."

"Why not?" he asked.

She looked down. "You were out, last night."

"Not late," he scoffed. The group had decided to be careful about that.

"Still," she shrugged. "It's the third time this week."

"And I came to breakfast the other times too!" Harry retorted. He nudged her. "You worry too much, you know?"

Bristling, she put down her fork. "Too much?" she retorted. "About a friend with no sense, who can get into a place where no one can follow him?"

"That's not true!" Harry snapped. "I mean, yes, no one can follow me, but I do have sense."

"You weren't acting like it last spring!"

"Last spring, I was expecting to die!"

They sat in silence for a moment, not quite looking at each other. Across the table, Neville was pointedly focused on spreading marmalade on toast, and Ginny was making little soothing motions at one or both of them.

"You're not now?" Hermione asked awkwardly.

Harry turned his head away. "Not really." He wasn't sure when that had changed. He didn't have a real plan yet.

"That's good."

Surprised, he looked back, and when their eyes met, she giggled. Despite himself, he smiled. It was ridiculous, really.

"I'm okay," he said. "Really."

With an uncertain nod, she glanced rapidly around, as if looking for something that might help. "Are you studying this morning?" she said, gesturing at his bag.

"Thought I might," he answered casually, although he had really been hoping to go over the match roster for Quidditch with some people from the team. Two years ago, Hooch had decided the house games should go on a rotation. In theory, Harry agreed, but it changed strategy.

"You should come to the library with me, then," she said eagerly.

"Okay. I have that Charms essay to do still."

She sighed. "I know. At this rate, it will be Sunday afternoon before I can get to my N.E.W.T. revision."

 

As he picked up his bag to leave breakfast, she caught sight of the beads. He saw her eyes narrow, but she didn't say anything. Perversely, he wished she would, but instead of encouraging her, he asked her what topic she had chosen for her Charms research project.

"Identifying plants from fragments," she answered, as they started up the stairs. "What did you choose?"

"Glamours." He had started to research them further even before this assignment, to assist with teaching Millicent, and had decided that combining the projects was the only way to preserve enough time for his other activities.

"Really? I wouldn't expect that to interest you."

Harry looked at her incredulously, his brow tightening. "What? Hermione, disguises could be critical to my survival. I can't always use Polyjuice, you know."

"Oh!" She giggled. "Sorry. After too many years with Lavender and Parvati, I just think of them as a way to hide spots or darken your eyelashes."

He snorted. "That hadn't crossed my mind. Here --" No one else was near. He pulled her into a window embrasure at the landing. "Let me show you."

With a tap of his wand, he made the center panel of glass reflective, and using it, duplicated some of the changes that he had used to go to Knockturn Alley, making his hair red and his jaw a bit jowly. To his satisfaction, she gasped when he looked at her.

"This hair color makes it hard to see my scar, see? A glamour can't hide that, but it can camouflage it."

She nodded, mesmerized, as her hand rose to touch his face. After stroking down his jaw, she shivered and twitched away.

"Change back," she pleaded.

"Okay." There were people coming up the stairs anyway. "Better?"

She shuddered. "Yes. It was so strange, touching you and having your face be in the wrong place. My fingertips looked like they were inside you."

In the library, Harry pulled out two sources that he'd used already, and then, checking the cosmetics section -- which he never would have thought of without Hermione's comment about spots and eyelashes -- found another. It took only a glance through the last book to see that the concepts were presented quite differently, and he decided that he would include something on that, once he had tested both methods for a similar change, and he started laying out the structure of his essay. Hermione worked beside him, but he looked over more than once to find her eyeing his beads. When they left for lunch, she pretended to notice them for the first time, reaching out a hand to touch them.

"Beads?"

"Yeah." Harry shouldered his bag. He had wondered how he would feel when someone commented on his new decoration. Smug, apparently.

"They look like Parvati's."

He tried not to smirk. "Nah. I'm sure she has different ones."

 

On Sunday, Harry tucked the shipment of fluxweed in his bag, threw a couple of school texts on top of it, and headed out to the secret passage from Greenhouse Four to meet Millicent for brewing. She grinned when he dropped the bag next to her cauldron. "You're really resisting wearing those beads, aren't you?" she teased.

"I wore them to dinner last night, and breakfast this morning!" he protested. He had ended up draping them over his tie, like Draco was doing.

"And now?"

"Now I needed something to carry the Murtlap essence in."

"Oh, okay." She smirked. "I still think you're afraid to."

"I am not. It just feels weird."

"Gryffindor machismo."

"Seamus plays with his." It was true. Seamus had made a bracelet out of his beads, but it was loose, so it not only showed, but he constantly had to be shaking it back. Nonetheless, Millicent laughed.

"What?"

"You defend your house above yourself." She flapped one large hand at Harry. "No, don't scowl. It's cute, sort of."

Rolling his eyes, Harry turned away, shed his robes, and started unpacking his bag. Deliberately, he took the string of beads off the strap and hung it from a belt loop of his jeans.

"That's how I'd like to wear it."

"Huhn. Nice, but we're not often without robes."

"Yeah. I can't find anything I like as much that will work that way."

Millicent reached a hand out, and then stopped, her fingers inches from the beads. "Well, it will certainly keep anyone from touching them -- anyone but Draco, that is."

Harry looked at how the strand was hanging down to the top of his thigh, and decided she was right. It was a bit suggestive. He rocked his hips, making the string sway, and grinned. "I suppose. I could move it back one."

Millicent got out the fluxweed jar, emptied it into the cup of the scale, cleared the jar with a wind charm, and began to pour the new batch in. "I admit, I'm still wondering about the Muggle girl."

"Muggle girl?" Harry asked, confused.

"The one you stole something from on a dare."

"Oh, that!" Harry glanced down at the beads, looking for the lurid green one. It matched the color of the inflatable plastic chair, now that he thought about it. "It was only sort of stealing. I gave it back. Well, except for the mirror."

Millicent looked up from topping off the fluxweed in the scale and raised her eyebrows, creasing her wide forehead. "Now, I'm really curious."

"Draco just wanted to see something Muggles use for ID, that's all."

If anything, her frown deepened. "Why?"

"To make it easier to buy alcohol, last year. We're not old enough even now, by Muggle laws, and he thought a fake ID would be safer than Confundus or aging potion." Or stealing it, but I'm not going to mention that. Harry felt his face heating.

"So this wasn't really a girl, then," Millicent stated. "I mean, it was a woman, not a child."

"What? Oh, yeah!" Harry hadn't thought of it that way. "Yeah, she was a University student, if you believe her ID." Harry decided he might as well tell the bones of the story; at this rate, it would be better than letting Millicent make one up to match the few facts she knew. "I flew down in my invisibility cloak and took her rucksack up to where we were picnicking. After that, it turned into sort of Muggle show-and-tell. She had textbooks and a calculator and an electric torch and make-up and a lighter and cigarettes, and then all the things in her wallet."

"And you kept a mirror?"

"Because Draco had caught the image of her ID card in it."

"Oh. That makes more sense." Millicent began to grind Mountain Crab shell in the large mortar, so Harry filled the cauldron with water and set it to heat. It wasn't until the fluxweed had been added to the brew that she spoke again.

"Did you ever make an ID, then?"

"No." Harry let out a harsh huff of a laugh. "No, that was all the day I got caught. I didn't go back there until the row about the House Cup, and that was alone."

She stared at him, her small eyes narrowed still further. "You went alone? After you and Draco killed Lestrange?"

"Don't, all right?" he pleaded. "Draco's already been after me about it."

With a rattling sigh, she shook her head. "Mad," she commented. "I can see it will do no good."

 

While they were waiting for the potion to cool, Harry gave Millicent another lesson in casting glamours. He hadn't tried anything from the cosmetics book, yet, so he stuck to what they had been doing. Millicent was at least making progress with that, although she hadn't yet changed the appearance of her body. She also still couldn't move naturally with a glamour on her robes, but she had managed to change them to a dashing pinstriped cobalt blue.

"That reminds me," Millicent said afterwards, as she let her robes return to their usual black, "I have pictures."

"Pictures?"

"I thought to write home and ask Mum. She's delighted, poor woman. Thinks I'm developing an interest in my appearance." Millicent, her face red, scrambled in her bag and drew out a textbook, and, from inside the front cover, two photographs. One was from about a year ago, and Harry didn't think it would be of much use. It showed a clearly posed Millicent dolled up with lipstick and blush and wearing lacy robes that she tugged at between moments of forcing out a flat smile. In the other, though, she was working in the garden in comfortable-looking wide trousers and a slightly tight short-sleeved blouse that flattened her breasts and showed muscular forearms. There was dirt on her nose and she grinned as she shook a wilted rose at the camera, sending out a flutter of petals.

"Very good," Harry said, taking it. "So you gardened at home too, I see."

Millicent snorted. "It's about the only hard labor acceptable for a young lady. Well, if you don't have the flying space for horses."

 

Harry made it back to Gryffindor an hour before it was time for dinner. Carrying the bag everywhere did feel ridiculous. When he spotted Ginny over by the window, talking to Cornelia, he went over to join them.

"Hi," he said.

"Hi, Harry." Cornelia looked at his bag and smirked. Harry rolled his eyes.

"Maybe you two can help me," he said.

"Hm?" Ginny raised her eyebrows. Harry took the string of beads off the bag strap and held it out.

"I can't figure out how to make a bracelet without it being too long. I mean, I can't do it on my wrist, and if I make it long enough to get on once it's a loop, it gets in my way."

Ginny snorted. "And here I thought you were evading it."

"I wonder if the boys are all having problems," Cornelia mused.

"Quite possibly!" Ginny laid the string out in a circle and touched the tip of her wand to where she had overlaid the ends. "Necto!" she whispered, and they fused. She handed the loop to Harry. "Put that on."

Wondering if she had misunderstood, Harry slid his hand through the loop. It went through easily, but once the strand was on, it became smaller -- not tight enough to constrict, but small enough not to fall off.

"Great!" he said. "How do I take it off?"

"Take it off?" Cornelia asked, as if the concept was absurd. "Oh, you can't do that! It's permanent."

Ginny grinned, but didn't play along. "You just find the seam and pinch it between your thumb and forefinger. Then you can pull it right off. You can also make it just a little larger that way."

"Why would I do that?"

She shrugged. "If you want it to jangle."

 

They ended up going to dinner together, with Ron and Hermione joining them. It had felt odd, having something hanging around his wrist, but Harry wasn't sure that anyone else noticed the beads under his cuffs. It wasn't until dessert, when he reached for a tart, that Hermione commented.

"What an odd bracelet, Harry," she said.

It really was odd, he realized, and not just because he'd never worn one before. The beads covered less than half the cord. Still, he shrugged. "I like it," he said, and Seamus leaned his chin on his hand, incidentally showing off his own beads.

"Don't listen to her, Harry," he said. "You have excellent taste."

 

The school week passed without incident. A few times more, Hermione remarked on Harry's beads, but she never asked an actual question, so Harry just nodded and changed the subject. He found the beads got in the way of writing when he wore them on his right wrist, but were fine on the left. He ended up leaving them there most of the time. On Friday, at dinner, he stretched the strand out to show a little more before he went up to the Uncommon Room with Seamus, Parvati, Cornelia, and Ginny.

"Oh, there you are!" Draco said cheerily when they entered, and he gestured dismissal to Millicent. "Meeting adjourned! Enemy agents in the chamber!"

Harry laughed. He hadn't expected to see Draco so merry the night before a match.

"Oh, we don't care if you beat Hufflepuff," he responded. "They have an excellent team, this year. Please, keep their score low for us."

"I assure you, Slytherin will have the cup again." Draco's eyes sparkled, and Harry bumped against him.

"I don't think so."

"Mm. We should have a wager."

"Terms to be settled in private."

"Of course."

"Thank you!" said Padma, from the door. "You're public with enough!"

"Oh, I don't know," Parvati countered with a giggle. "I wouldn't mind more."

"Of course you wouldn't."

"Well, why should I? They're both cute."

Seamus grinned. "Ah! And so I'll not object to them showing that they're taken."

Other people began to trickle in. Draco poured wine, pointed out which cheese was which, and was generally pleasant. Harry didn't think he had the knack of that, but he made sure to talk for a bit with Blaise and Gilbert before taking what seemed to have become 'his' seat on the comfortable sofa.

"If I might have everyone's attention?" Draco called out clearly. Conversations settled. People who were standing turned or twisted to see him.

"First," he said, lifting his glass, "A toast. To cooperation -- except on the pitch!"

People laughed amiably, and Harry clinked his glass of wine against Ginny's glass of pumpkin juice and Millicent's glass of beer, and then stretched to touch glasses with Seamus and Parvati and Blaise and Gilbert. When the clinks and teasing variations of the toast died out, Draco put his glass on the shelf, his demeanor becoming more solemn. "In the interest of keeping serious matters first, I would like to propose a short discussion about membership in the Uncommon Room."

The silence grew tenser. Before, Harry realized, no one had been talking. Now they also stopped munching crackers and shifting in their chairs. Draco waved dismissively, as if shooing the mood away. "So far," he said, "this group has shown an admirable camaraderie. Harry and I started with people we were certain were charitable, social, and dependable." His listeners were starting to relax. Blaise rolled his eyes. Millicent tapped his arm with the back of her hand in a mock slap. "And who had a few interests in common," Draco added, smiling.

"However, if we want to genuinely expand inter-house cooperation, we need more people, and I think that now that we have a core group, we should be able to extend invitations to prospects who might not have been entirely suitable for the first round." He surveyed them for a moment. "However, I don't mind having delayed on Hufflepuffs until after tomorrow's match." As people chuckled, he picked up his glass. "Who has a nomination for the group to debate?"

People began to look at each other and whisper, and Draco crossed the room to settle between Harry and Ginny. "Budge over, love," he whispered.

Ginny cleared her throat. "Luna Lovegood," she said.

"Loony?" Gilbert exclaimed derisively. "Why?"

Ginny glared. "Because," she said pointedly, "she is always nice. And she can keep a secret."

Linnet patted Gilbert on the arm. "She's got you there," she said. "And I agree. I've never heard her put down anyone, even people she had every right to."

"I'm not so sure that's kindness as much mental deficiency."

Padma glared. "Might I remind you," she said coldly, "that you are speaking of a Ravenclaw?"

"Oh, calm down," Sophia said. "Lovegood does take some getting used to." She fingered her beads. "Though, honestly," she added, "she's bright enough. And if she were here, one of us wouldn't have a bead in another house's colors."

Everyone considered that. For the first time, it occurred to Harry that Ginny and Cornelia probably knew Linnet and Gilbert better than he did. They had no doubt been in lessons together, along with the Ravenclaw they were talking about. He wondered if that made it worth adding a fifth-year or two.

"All right," Draco said. "Let's put her on the list for consideration. Who else?"

"If we're going for cooperation," Blaise said, "we really do need a Hufflepuff."

"Two, at least," Parvati amended.

"Right." Seamus grinned. "Wouldn't want to throw a lone Puff in with the lot of us."

"What about Susan Bones?" Padma suggested. "She's absolutely steady. My favorite partner for Care of Magical Creatures."

"Any relation to Madam Amelia Bones?" Gilbert asked.

"Niece."

"Ah. Yes, well if she's familiar with her aunt's prize wyverns, I expect she has nerves of steel. We should pose no problem for her."

The Gryffindors didn't have as many classes with Hufflepuffs as with Slytherins, but Harry knew who Susan Bones was. She had never struck him as particularly upper-class, but considering her aunt -- whose language and manner screamed "earthy country aristocracy" -- he supposed she probably was.

"How about Justin?" Parvati mused.

"Finch-Fletchley?" Padma exclaimed. "All right. Now I'll ask why."

"Well, he seems amiable. I mean, except for when he thought Harry had set that snake on him, and Ernie had all the Hufflepuffs convinced Harry was the Heir of Slytherin." There were laughs at that, loudest from the Slytherins.

"Nix on that," Harry said. "We were on decent terms. He seems to hate me now -- over Draco, I think. And Macmillan is a stuffed shirt." Harry caught Gilbert's eye and winked. "A pity, though, because I think knowing some Slytherins would do Justin good, and it would be entertaining to watch Gilbert meet his Muggleborn equivalent."

After a moment of shocked silence, Millicent burst out laughing, closely followed by Ginny and -- to Harry's surprise -- Linnet.

"Should I be offended?" Gilbert asked her.

"Of course not!" Linnet said, slinging an arm around his shoulders. "You're just you."

"Now," Seamus said, "not to put my roommate on the spot, but from the start, I've been wondering about an omission. Why didn't you invite Ron, Harry?"

"And Hermione," Parvati put in.

Harry sighed. "Hermione and I are ... not comfortable right now, let's say. As for Ron...." He shrugged. "I did invite him. He refused."

"Honestly!" Ginny huffed.

"Still, he is tolerating me," Draco said. "Mostly." He hesitated. "For my part, I would like to invite Pansy--"

"No," Millicent and Linnet said in chorus.

"It does seem inadvisable," Gilbert agreed.

Ruefully, Draco nodded. "For now, yes." His face twisted as if he had bitten into a lime. "But as Hermione for Harry, she holds a long-standing place in my affections."

Ginny shrugged. "I'm sure we all have people we want to invite, but know wouldn't work. Dean isn't here, I see, and I have no doubt that Harry didn't even consider him, and Seamus didn't suggest it, and I'm not suggesting him either."

"On the other side of that," Harry said slowly. "I expect Neville would be fine."

"I would be comfortable with Longbottom," Draco agreed.

 

The group tentatively settled on Susan, Luna, and Neville, with the idea that they could all use the next week to observe the three candidates and make a final decision the next week. If Susan accepted, they could ask her who else from her house might fit. They also generally agreed to keep the group at sixth and seventh year students for the rest of the term, and revisit inviting younger students in January. Draco and Millicent left early to rest up for the match, and shortly thereafter, Harry decided to head back to Gryffindor.

"Good night, everyone," he said as he got to his feet. To his surprise, most people stopped talking. Seamus looked over, his forehead creasing in a frown.

"Do you mind if we stay, Harry?"

"Of course not!" Harry shrugged. "Oh, Draco and I set a password to get past the mirror. It's 'reflective'. If that doesn't work, someone's reset it for privacy."

It was unnerving that no one replied with a smart comment. Harry turned away. Before he had left the open area, Ginny was beside him, with Cornelia a step behind. "Want company?" Ginny asked. "We were planning on turning in early too."

"It might not be our match," Cornelia added, "but it takes a huge bite out of study time, just the same."

Harry grinned. "More or less what I was thinking," he admitted as he opened the door to the mirror. The low murmur of voices behind them vanished as Cornelia, the last through, shut it again.

"The Slytherins were keen, weren't they?" Ginny volunteered. "Malfoy didn't even finish the one glass of wine."

"Don't think I would either," Harry admitted, and Cornelia slapped him on the back.

"Good man, captain."

It was still early, relatively speaking, when they entered the Gryffindor Common Room. Harry was pleased to see Hermione sitting by the fire with Ron. He went over to join them. Hermione didn't look up from the notes she was frantically scribbling, but Ron frowned as he approached.

"Team business?" he asked.

Harry rolled his eyes. "Obviously not, or you would have been with us."

Ron glanced at Hermione and didn't ask again. Harry decided they could talk on Sunday, when they had another divination attempt scheduled.

Ron nudged her. "Hey," he sat. "Let up on that, will you? Harry's back."

"I've finally got it," she muttered, not lifting face or quill. "How it all fits together. I need to get this down before I forget."

"Hermione...."

"Go and play gobstones or something, Ron! This isn't the time!"

"When is it?" he muttered sourly.

 

Harry trailed fingers along the strip of light as he walked down the short curve of corridor to the Uncommon Room. Susara, as often when they were here, spiraled down his arm and out of her pose. A little gold head emerged from Harry's sleeve as he sat on the comfy sofa.

"Hello, beautiful."

"Master," she hissed happily. "We are alone?"

"Two friends will be here later. Would you like to hunt?"

Her tongue flickered in anticipation. "It is a good place for that."

Smiling, Harry bent down and set her on the stone floor. "Return before you become too cold," he warned her, and with a cheeky flick of her tail, she raced off in a narrowing wave of gold that rapidly vanished into a crack. Harry shook his head. He supposed he would be just as mad for speed if he had stayed immobile for three hours. McGonagall still didn't like him having a snake, but Harry didn't like to leave Susara alone, so she generally stayed in a spiral around his upper arm during Sunday's Transfiguration tutorial. Once she was in one of the standard poses, however, she sometimes forgot to come out of it. From her description, it sounded as if they were almost trancelike for her. And, of course, once she hadn't moved in a long time, Harry often forgot she was there.

As he leaned back, he heard the door open, and then close. He settled himself more casually against the arm of the sofa. "Recovered from the match?" he called, as Draco came into sight.

Draco shivered dramatically. "I thought I'd never get dry," he confessed. "I had to cast the charm five times to get down to my skin, and I gave up on my boots altogether, and just spent the party barefoot."

Harry thought he would have liked to have seen that -- Draco in bare feet and robes. He had the urge to demand that Draco remove his boots immediately, but decided it would be too distracting.

"Sorry that you were uncomfortable," he said, "but I can't claim I'm not pleased with the result. The scores stayed low."

"Quite." Draco threw himself down on the sofa with a huff. "I would have passed on the snitch if the Hufflepuff Seeker hadn't been already diving for it."

"Good catch, though," Harry said, sitting in the narrow space left.

"Thank you."

Draco had just settled his head in Harry's lap, and Harry was contently stroking his bright hair, when they heard the door open. A few seconds later, Ron appeared in the passage.

"Am I interrupting?" he asked pointedly.

Harry snorted. Draco rolled his head in an interesting manner to look up. "Considering that you're late..."

"Sorry about that," Ron said quickly. "Hermione wouldn't let me leave until I got all the gemstone reactants."

"What are you, Weasley, ten?" Draco scoffed.

"Hey!" Harry objected. "I don't think I could recite all the gemstone reactants."

"No, but you could walk away when someone with no authority over you insisted on it."

Harry brushed Draco's hair back from his face. "But maybe not if you did," he said fondly.

Ron slapped his hand over his eyes, and Draco lifted up for a kiss. Ignoring his friend's discomfort, Harry took the time to enjoy it. After Draco finally eased away, they gazed at each other for a moment, and then Draco jumped up off the sofa.

"Well, then," he said cheerily. "Just let me reset the password on the door, and we can get started."

Ron stared after him. "Password? There wasn't a password."

Harry shrugged. "There is most of the time. A lot of people know it, though, so he'll set it to something else while we're here."

"Ah." Wide-eyed, Ron looked at the passage. "Um, will anyone mind?"

"Nah. They'll probably just think Draco and I are going at it."

Ron shuddered dramatically. "Loan me your invisibility cloak when I leave, mate?"

Harry laughed. "I would if I had it! We'll duck out first and make sure the coast is clear, all right?"

"Thanks." Ron flopped into a chair. "Not that I don't like you, but there are limits."

"There better be!" Draco sang out, coming back in.

Ron rolled his eyes. "So, what are we doing, this time?" he asked pointedly. "You said something about a focus-enhancing potion?"

Draco hesitated. "That is an option," he said. "Coltsfoot is easy enough to get, and might--"

"Coltsfoot?" Ron repeated derisively. "Not something I've heard of as focus-enhancing."

Draco smirked. "Not for the physical world," he said. "But it can help with otherworldly focus, especially in the proper preparations. By itself, it isn't good for much, and it can be dangerous."

"So what other components do you need?" Harry asked.

"I've gathered from sources available here that the compound will be more stable -- and more useful -- if I incorporate elements from the Dreamer head of a Runespoor. Unfortunately, it's difficult to research further at school. My spellfather has an extensive potions library, but not much on divination, and works on restricted components are not something he keeps many of in his school library." Draco hesitated. "It's also not an easy thing to procure."

Harry nodded. "Should I ask?"

"Ask--? Ah. Yes, please do. I forget you have sources."

"So, for now?" Ron pressed.

"For now, I would like you to repeat the divination you performed last time."

Ron frowned. "You think I might get something out of it on a second try?"

Draco's eyebrows rose. "It was not without fruit last time. However, yes -- I believe it is possible that your divination might improve with practice. And also, I would like to make a subtle change in Harry's participation."

Harry eyed him uneasily. "Yes?"

"I think he should take the blood from the scar."

Harry jerked back. It wasn't so much the idea of a knife at his head -- well, some fear of that was unavoidable, but he trusted Ron. It was--

"No," Ron said flatly.

"You should be able to--"

"No. It's not that, it's--" Ron blew out a harsh breath. "I already saw more of Voldemort than Harry, didn't I? Besides, scars are the past."

Harry nodded, finally understanding the rest of his revulsion. "He'd probably just see my mum dying."

"Still," Ron said, "if we could have something that means each of them separately, that might be worthwhile."

"I'll consider how that might be done," Draco agreed. "For now, though...." Trailing off, he studied Ron as if he had never seen him before. "Is there any minor adjustment that you believe might help?" At Ron's confusion, Draco reached for his bag. "Let me set up," he suggested.

When basin, flask, and dagger were set out the table, Ron finally answered.

"Do you have a shallower bowl?" he asked.

"It could be done," Draco said. "And the color?"

"Grey would be best."

"I see."

Draco pulled the bowl closer. He stroked it almost lovingly, and Harry saw Ron roll his eyes. Ron's derision changed to amazement as Draco drew his wand and repeated the strokes, coaxing the base to spread out toward his touch. As he started to turn it, Ron reached a hand.

"Wait! Don't, um-- not completely round. Make the other side...." Ron motioned, curving the fingers of each hand in and bringing them together.

"Articulate, as always," Draco said, but he wasn't quite sneering. "So -- a figure eight shape?"

"But mildly. Not getting really narrow in the middle."

Draco nodded, and turned the bowl halfway around. "Are you going to help?" he asked Harry before starting his strokes again, and Harry, belatedly, began to darken the stone. As practice, he let the color flow into Draco's manipulation of the marble, so that it spread out in smooth curves like ripples.

"Brilliant!" Ron exclaimed.

"Should I even it out?"

"No, let it stay."

Draco and Harry having finished, Ron reached out and took the bowl. He turned it over in his hands. "Where did you learn to do that?"

"Our independent study," Harry answered. He glanced over at Draco. "Well, Draco did some shaping before that."

"Formal study has definitely improved both my technique and the result, however," Draco said, as Ron set the bowl down on the table. "Shall we begin?"

Ron nodded and moved to the floor in front of the table. Harry sat across from him. Ron was a little less mesmerized by the scrying potion, this time. He still stared at it from the time it left the flask, but he put the flask down on his own, and when Harry offered a dagger and his hand, he knew what to do without prompting. Harry didn't find waiting for the knife any easier, but it also wasn't worse. He stayed still, and Ron milked out drops of blood -- five, this time -- before releasing him.

Again, as if the hex shouldn't split the bowl, he separated the swirls of blood into two regions with Diffindo. Harry looked at Draco, who shrugged. Harry recalled his early non-explanation: that the interplay of incantation and intent could be especially fluid in areas of a wizard's or witch's aptitude. Ron laid his wand down by the bowl.

"Ron?" Harry asked tentatively.

"See, doom is a hard thing to find," Ron remarked, as naturally as if he were chatting with Harry by the pitch, rather than staring down into a strangely shaped bowl full of shimmering potion and blood.

"Weakness, then," Harry suggested.

"Plenty of those," Ron said. "Pride is wrapped around and around him. He can't enjoy anything without someone to see. And his hatred falls over his eyes like a hat."

Harry snorted. "I knew that."

"Your love can do the same," Ron said conversationally. "But it's also a strength. It's a tree, here. It grows out from you, and people gather around it. You're going to have a rough winter, though -- harsh and mild by turns. Mum always said that brought on colds."

Draco pinched the bridge of his nose. Harry suspected he was trying not to laugh. Ron seemed to have forgotten about Voldemort.

Ron's brow furrowed as if something in the swirls didn't make sense. "You're confused about boys and girls?"

"I am not confused."

Ron frowned more. "Maybe not, but there is a confusion. Your best girl's a boy."

Harry kept his face blank, even as Draco scowled. Draco might think Ron was calling him a girl, but Harry was sure he meant Millicent. Really, though, shouldn't Hermione be his best girl? Afraid of what else might come out, he leaned forward.

"Voldemort, Ron."

"Oh, him!" Ron said carelessly. "No girls or boys. He just likes...."

His voice trailed off, dismay spreading across his face. His shoulders hunched. From what Harry had seen of Voldemort's means of amusement, he expected that Ron was unprepared for whatever he was seeing.

"Ron!" he said urgently, his voice low. "Let it go. That's enough. Come here."

"I--" Ron gasped, as if an Acromantula was approaching.

"Ron. You're with me." Harry reached across the table. He was vaguely aware of Susara racing back from somewhere and then pausing just out of reach, her fore-body raised.

"Don't touch him!"

Nodding, Harry spread his hand between Ron's face and the bowl. "With me," he repeated, and Ron seized his hand.

"Harry!"

"All right there, Ron?" Harry asked carefully. He set his free hand on the floor and let Susara glide back into his robes. She went all the way up to his neck, which was one of her favorite spots when she was cold -- or anxious.

Closing his eyes, Ron let out a shaky breath and nodded. "What a sick fuck."

"Well, we knew that."

"Anything entertainingly perverted, Weasley?" Draco asked.

"Nah. Torture and crap. Not even any sex."

Ron sounded casual, but not entirely coherent. Harry went around the table to sit by him, his hand on Ron's shoulder.

"Don't think about it," he advised, and Ron, to his surprise, leaned his head against him, as a young child might.

"Did I say anything useful?" he asked plaintively.

"Hm. Well, the things you said about Voldemort, we knew--"

"But they bear reflection," Draco interjected. "You said that he is constrained by pride and blinded by hate."

"Both of which have helped me in the past," Harry pointed out, "if only by accident. And you seemed convinced that I'd have a rough winter."

"Oh, right," said Ron. "Cracked boughs, maybe." He scrubbed at his face. "My head hurts."

Draco vanished the potion. "Would you like a beer?" he asked. "Or would that just make it worse?"

"Butterbeer?"

"If you like. We also have ale."

Ron watched, incredulous, as Draco crossed the room, opened a crate under the shelf, and came back with a beer.

"You have a bar in here?"

"Just wine and beer," Draco answered, passing him the bottle, "and only for Fridays, usually."

"But since you never show up, and since Dobby got this one because you like it, I think...."

Ron looked about him at the comfortable furniture and small tables. "Right. Seamus said something about this."

"You're still welcome to come," Harry said.

Ron took a quick swallow of the beer. "He's been encouraging me to," he confessed.

"And?"

"I'm thinking about it." Ron scowled. "I'm still not sure it's a good idea. All this unity crap. I mean, we're in houses for a reason, right?"

"Because the founders couldn't stop arguing," Harry pointed out.

"It's been going well so far," Draco commented mildly. "Harry is correct, I think. The houses preserve a dysfunction." He sat on the sofa and patted the cushion beside him. "Come up here, Harry. I took your advice on the furniture; you might do me the courtesy of using it."

With a laugh, Harry got to his feet. His shins were sore from the cold stone. "Happily. Pick a chair, Ron. No need for sitting on the floor now."

"Right." Ron settled himself in the chair he had been using earlier, and after a moment's effort, managed to look almost comfortable. "So. Do you think this method is worth trying again? Without the 'enhancement,' I mean?"

"Do you?" Draco asked.

"Nah. It all seems fairly random. If we get anything useful, it will just be luck."

"Very well. Then there's little point in repeating it unchanged."

"So, do we wait until you have the focus enhancing potion ready?"

Draco frowned. His hand drifted over to touch Harry's. "I don't think so. I think that I'll find the best resources for that at home, so perhaps it should wait until after Christmas break."

"You have Runespoor heads at home?"

"No. However, we do have an extensive library, which includes significant coverage of the less precise arts." Harry wasn't sure Draco realized that he was stroking his thumb over the back of Harry's hand. The sensation was both warming and irritating. Harry turned his hand over to catch Draco's fingers in his own.

"Should we wait that long?" he advanced. "It's not even November."

"We could advance to the seer's ritual," Draco suggested.

"The Dark one?" Ron countered.

"Yes."

"I'll think about it."

To Harry's surprise, Draco did not retort that Ron had already agreed to it. "There is one other option," he said instead. Harry found his tone overly light.

"Oh?"

"Considering your sister's connection to Tom Riddle, it is possible that if we reverted her to her possession with a Memory charm, and then--"

"I'd sooner see you dead."

At Ron's flat declaration, Draco's nails dug into Harry's hand, but his voice stayed light. "I was joking, Weasley."

"Of course you were."

"Sincerely. It might be unpleasant for her, but it would be downright dangerous for us. The Dark Lord's shade caused enough trouble with the body and magic of a first year student; I don't want even the memory of it guiding a sixth-year -- certainly not one as quick and competent as Ginny."

"Oh, it's 'Ginny', now, is it?"

Harry grinned. "Two days ago, she was sitting right where you are now."

"And she's made it clear that 'Weasley' is too ambiguous, and 'Miss Weasley' too formal for constant use."

"Hold it!" Ron said, flabbergasted. "My sister is in this group?"

"I thought she was a logical invitee."

"Ask her about it," Harry urged.

 

In the end, they decided to try the Seer's divination in two weeks, at the beginning of November. Draco noted that he might need Harry to brew, leaving the reason unstated -- that making the potion himself would leave him unable to approach the Quiris. When Harry and Ron got back to Gryffindor -- long past curfew -- Hermione left for her room without a word.

"I worry about her, mate," Ron confided. "She's doing nothing but revise."

"Doesn't she always?"

"Not like this. She found a quirk in how beryl interacts with animal and mineral potions components, and rather than being excited, she was in tears about everything she might not know yet. There's no way she can keep this up until N.E.W.T.s."

"Have you tried taking her off for a snog?"

Ron huffed. "Don't I wish!"

 

Chapter Text

 

On Wednesday after lessons, Harry was up in the dormitory fetching a Transfiguration text when he suddenly realized that he was alone in the room. Quickly, he dug Snape's book out of his trunk and tucked it in his bag, under other books. At the top, he put the Transfiguration text, which was narrow enough to lay across the others, and then jammed his scarf in at one side to keep everything in place. When it all looked safely innocuous, he started downstairs.

A flight of stairs down into the dungeons, he encountered a complication. Draco was coming up, and they spotted each other simultaneously. Harry slowed, but so did Draco. They met on a landing.

"Coming to see me?" Draco said, in a mocking tone that told Harry he wouldn't believe agreement.

"No," Harry retorted boldly. "I was planning to pay a visit to your spellfather, actually."

"A social call?"

Harry snorted. "I want to know what's up with Nott, of course." Determined to be reassuring, he nudged Draco. "Join me? He'd like that, I bet."

Draco regarded him haughtily for a moment, but in the end, inclined his head. "Very well. Come along, Harry."

Harry rolled his eyes and followed.

 

Snape was not in his office, so they continued on to his personal rooms. He opened the door with a scowl and a question on his lips but it smoothed out to a neutral greeting.

"Draco. And Mr. Potter. How unexpected." He stepped back, ushering them in with a mockery of graciousness. "Is the emergency of a critical nature, or shall I call for tea?"

"Tea, thanks," Harry said brightly. Draco tsked.

"Honestly, Severus," he said, tilting his nose in the air. "Some visits are purely social occasions."

Snape sent a questioning look at Harry, who shrugged. "We didn't have anything better to do."

"Oh? Has someone hexed your bits?"

"Severus!" Draco yelped. Harry ducked his head to hide a grin. He liked it when Snape talked this way -- like they were all adults -- but he suspected it was more embarrassing for Draco. Still, he was determined to come up with a smart rejoinder.

"I'm assured the thorns will fall off soon," he answered blandly.

To his delight, Snape snorted with amusement, although Harry wasn't sure if that was at his comment, or Draco's wince.

"Not one I had heard of," Snape said, with an academic air of curiosity. "If you find the perpetrator, do try to extract the means from him, whether curse or potion."

With a huff, Draco strode over to the grate and threw in some floo powder. "Kitchens!"

 

Harry would have expected tea in Snape's rooms to mean tea, possibly with rather solid, plain biscuits, but when Draco imperiously demanded that the house elves send up tea, it arrived with not only crumpets dripping with salted butter, but with meltingly delicate madelines and tiny, sweet strawberries dusted with sugar. Snape confirmed Harry's opinion by glaring at the doily-festooned silver tray with a huff. Ignoring the china teacups, he summoned a mug from the kitchen and poured a little milk in it. Draco rolled his eyes before adding tea for him. Harry wondered if they were always this amusing together.

"Professor McGonagall tells me that you are making good progress in combined Transfiguration," Snape offered stiffly, sitting back in his chair.

"I think so," Harry agreed. "Draco was good at shaping to begin with, but he's far more precise, now. And if I work in minor transfiguration during the shaping, it usually sets it, so the change is stable."

"Stable for how long?"

"Stone to wood has lasted three weeks now."

"Hmph." Snape didn't look impressed, but he wasn't sneering, which came to almost the same thing. "Wood is a much looser material."

"Well, of course!" Harry replied indignantly. "I didn't claim I was overcoming basic principals of transfiguration."

Snape's mouth almost quirked up at that. "And yet, as little as a year ago, that is exactly what I would have heard."

"Yeah, probably."

"Some of the lower years might still think you were," Draco pointed out. "A distressing number of first-year students think all transfigured objects revert within minutes."

Harry shrugged. "It makes sense, if you're Muggle-raised. After all, if transfiguration was permanent, wizards and witches would have everything they wanted, right?"

"The Principal of Conservation of Quality--"

"Isn't introduced until fifth year."

"But surely--" Draco realized his error and stopped. "Ah. Yes, I see what you mean. However, that is not an excuse for wizard-born students."

"Maybe their parents didn't want to admit that they weren't very good at it."

After a moment's tense silence, Draco sniggered. "You might be on to something, there."

"Considering the Notts," Severus said, "indubitably." He regarded them speculatively. "Speaking of which, no one has come tattling to me about the two of you, recently. Have you done anything of interest?"

"We've been working on the divination," Harry offered.

"But safely out of sight," Draco added.

"Ah. Anything of use?"

"Not yet."

Draco snorted. "But note that is not the same as nothing. Nott's most recent murder sounded terribly familiar at first read."

"And the beads?"

It was slipped in quite casually. Harry smirked. "Let's just say I'm making progress on that project we discussed."

Snape nodded. "I did notice several of my Slytherins among the adorned company. Very well." He moved his tea aside and leaned over to open a drawer in the side table. "Which reminds me -- I have something for you."

"Oh?" Harry peered over, but before he could see what was in Snape's hand, Snape tossed it at his face, and Harry instinctively caught the little object. It was, he realized, Nott's marble.

"Mr. Potter!" Snape chided. "You must learn to repress that reflex."

"And let it hit me? That would've hurt!"

"Duck. You had time." Snape scowled. "Perhaps we should practice."

"After the Gryffindor-Slytherin match, maybe," Harry retorted, with a trace of sarcasm.

Snape lifted his eyebrows. "The point is preserving your life, Potter, not muddling your Quidditch skills."

"But you wouldn't have minded doing that as well."

"Certainly not." With a wave of dismissal, Snape continued. "In two weeks, then. In any case, that little bauble is no longer a portkey. I suggest you keep it with you and perhaps display it when Theodore can see."

"Right," Harry said with satisfaction. "Maybe I'll toss it to him at some point."

"Cast a giddiness jinx on it first," Draco suggested, with more than a trace of a wicked look that Harry remembered from when they were enemies.

He didn't even mind. "Excellent."

 

When they took their leave, it was still an hour until dinner. "Mixed-house space?" Harry suggested. It was about time they put in another appearance there. He caught a glimpse of a calculating look on Draco's face, but it vanished as soon as Harry glanced his way.

"I was thinking of visiting the Quiris," Draco said. "Want to come along?"

"Okay," Harry answered, and Draco relaxed and took his hand.

 

Friday's gathering was the most relaxed so far. Apparently feeling less formal after the Quidditch players' early departures the week before, people trailed in over the course of an hour. When everyone was there, they took a minute to confirm the last week's nominees.

"Could we delay one more week, though?" Ginny asked. "Next Saturday is the Gryffindor/Slytherin Quidditch match, and that's nearly half of us who'll need to leave early."

"It would be better to have everyone here," Padma agreed.

"I think we should play 'I Never' again," Linnet volunteered.

"You do?" Gilbert asked.

"Well, of course." She lifted her wrist. "It's our badge; haven't you noticed?"

 

Sunday was a brewing day, but Quidditch practice both Saturday and Sunday morning had left Harry with a lot of schoolwork to do. He cast a cushioning charm on the floor and worked, rather than socializing, through most of the time that the potion was simmering and cooling. Millicent's schedule having been similarly busy, she was happy to do the same. It wasn't until they were ready to leave that they began to actually talk.

"Shall I cancel the glamour and take a look?" Harry asked.

Millicent gave a neutral grunt, and Harry discovered that he was tapping his wand against his palm. He wondered when he had picked up that little mannerism from Draco. "Well?" he urged, stepping closer and looking up at her. "Afraid there won't be any change?"

"I know there's some," Millicent answered, ducking her head.

"How?"

When I'm getting dressed and-- stuff, my body isn't quite where I think. I have to close my eyes, sometimes, or it throws me off." She bit her lip. "And my balance is off, sometimes."

"Probably growing quickly," Harry said. "Come on -- let me see. I need to recast it anyway."

With a lopsided smile, Millicent nodded and took off her robes. Despite the weather, she was wearing a loose short-sleeved shirt under them. Her trousers, at least, looked thick and warm. Harry found the frayed edges of his glamour and dispelled it with a flick of his wand.

He stared. "Oh."

"What's wrong?" Millicent demanded, her voice low and harsh.

"Wrong?" Harry echoed. "Um, nothing. It's, ah, working."

"Do I look like a man?"

"No, not yet. Want a mirror?" As in London, he cast a reflection charm so she could see herself. While she studied that, he studied her.

She was still definitely female. Her breasts were downright terrifying; he imagined that if married against her will, she could easily suffocate her unwelcome husband with them. Formerly, however, she had carried hips to balance the curves on top, and those were narrower, now, though definitely there. Her jaw, also, had lost any softening it had gained in adolescence, and was back to the solid angles that he remembered from second year. She was also taller than she had been, and he thought her shoulders might be even wider.

"Good thing next weekend is your last autumn match," he said.

"Huh?"

"People might start wondering about your bat being several inches from your hand."

"Oh."

"Actually, that might be a problem in class, too. I think I'm going to make you an inch taller this week, okay?"

"You have to?"

"Yes."

She sighed. "Okay."

Harry looked at the old picture of her for a moment, and then closed his eyes. When he thought he had the face right, he opened his eyes and took her height down from actual, but not quite to where he remembered. "How's that?" he asked.

Millicent looked at herself in the mirror, stuck out her tongue at her reflection, and then turned her back on it. "Fine," she said. "Let's go."

After gathering their things, they walked back together, splitting up in the Entrance Hall -- Millicent to get ready for Slytherin's Quidditch practice, and Harry to finish his schoolwork.

 

"Harry!"

Hermione didn't sound pleased. Harry stopped a few steps above the third floor landing and schooled his face into a neutral expression before turning.

"What did I do this time?"

Her eyes narrowed, just as he winced at his own tone. "I wouldn't know, would I?" she replied with menacing sweetness. "You've been gone all afternoon."

"I was studying."

"Where? Or more to the point, what?"

"Charms and Potions, and it's none of your business. I wasn't gone that long!"

"An owl came for you in the Common Room, right after lunch. The poor thing won't give up its package to anyone else."

Harry kept his expression neutral. An owl would almost certainly be from the twins. "Any idea who it's from?"

Her chin lowered. "The label says "Calamity Chemists", but it's Fred and George. I recognize the writing."

Harry managed to turn his unease into a laugh. "Trust the twins to have an overly dramatic owl."

"Harry." Hermione radiated 'not amused' as she crossed her arms over her chest. "Where were you?"

"Out."

"Were you alone in ..." She hesitated, glancing up and down the stairs. "...your clubhouse?"

Harry smirked. "Alone? There? That isn't what it's for."

"Draco wasn't with you, so don't claim you were just hiding from me! I ran into him an hour ago, and he had no idea where you were either."

Brilliant. So now he's going to wonder where I was too. He probably went running right to Snape's rooms. "Where I go is not your business." Stupid! I shouldn't have said that.

"Harry, I have better things to do than spend over an hour trying to find you."

"Then do them!"

"Fine. Next time, I'll just tell Professor McGonagall that you're missing, and then I can go straight back to my studies." With a huff, she turned on her heel and strode off toward the library. Feeling stunned, Harry climbed slowly up to Gryffindor tower and a waiting owl.

 

The delivery contained nothing too damning, but the quantity of fluxweed would be hard to explain. Fortunately, the twins had included a large number of samples: Tilt Lines, Babble Drops, and Twister Jacks, as well as more familiar things like Skiving Snackboxes, so Harry had goods from the package to bring down to the Common Room. He unrolled one of the Tilt Lines safely away from the windows and fire, and challenged people to walk on it. When Hermione returned, Sajid was trying to stay on the line for its full two-meter length. He had his arms held out and was teetering madly as he inched down what looked like a stripe of paint on a quiescent carpet. His housemates cheered him on, with those who had already tried it especially enthusiastic in their mixed encouragement and laughter.

"Want to try?" Harry asked her. He wasn't sure if he was more relieved or disappointed when she left in a huff.

He thought, as he turned back to where Sajid, with mock care, was picking himself up off the floor, that he should take Snape up on his offer. If Hermione set McGonagall on him, that could jeopardize all of Millicent's plans. Also, if the twins were connected to the scheme, he might be unable to obtain substances that he and Draco needed for the next divination.

There was no way to see Snape tonight, but the Slytherin Quidditch team had another practice scheduled for tomorrow, right before dinner. That would keep Draco from interfering.

 

"Better late than never," Snape said pointedly, as he snatched his copy of Preemptive Defense from Harry's hands. Harry rolled his eyes.

"I did try earlier, sir," he said. "Yesterday, for example."

"My spellson interfered?"

"He spotted me on the way down."

"And you are still telling him nothing."

Harry glared. "I tell him almost everything."

"Of course." Snape settled back in his chair. "Enough of that. Summarize your understanding of the Credulity spell."

The phrase was wrong, Harry thought, but once he realized that the correct form was "Credulity curse", he didn't want to correct it.

"The Credulity spell," he said, "has been called a 'watered-down Imperius curse', but it is even less like Imperius than approved Ministry interrogation draughts are like Veritaserum. It does not provide the caster with a means to coerce action, prevent the target from understanding his actions, or artificially reward compliance. What it does do is make the target less inclined to analyze anything said by the caster. In most cases, this means that what the caster says is believed, even if comparison to other sources or the context of the remarks shows them to be unlikely."

"Not abysmal," Snape said. Harry thought that terribly unfair, unless he'd got something wrong. "It is at least clear that you read the source. However, I can tell by your sudden demonstration of a precise vocabulary that you are largely reciting what you have read." His face tightened in disapproval as he focused on Harry. "In your own words, please."

Harry bit his lip. "Okay. If I use this on ... someone, that person will be more likely to believe me, but only more likely. It's like their critical thinking is shut off, but just for me, and if I try to tell them something counter to really ingrained beliefs, it wouldn't work. So if I told Hermione that the N.E.W.T.s are useless, for example, she wouldn't believe me, because she just couldn't believe something like that. But if I told her my revising was on track with the schedule she handed me first week, she probably would."

"And that is unlikely?" Snape asked acerbically.

"It's almost impossible! I'd have to be revising five hours a day, in addition to doing assignments! So if someone else led her through the critical thinking part -- like helping her make a list of all my known activities -- Quidditch, and my Transfiguration project, and so on -- they might be able to convince her that it was mathematically impossible."

"Better," Snape allowed. He ran a finger along the spine of the book. "And do you wish to learn it?"

Harry sighed. "Not really, but I think I'd better."

"Explain."

"I have too many important secrets. If it was just sneaking off with Draco for fun, that wouldn't be worth this, but there's the divination, and if she caught me with some of the dodgier potion ingredients...."

"I see."

"And then there's making allies in your house."

"I do hope you do not intend to use this spell as a means of forming alliances."

"Oh, no! I mean, that makes her anxious when she doesn't really have a good reason."

"Ah, yes. Have you been getting along with Mr. Clarke?"

It took a moment for Harry to translate that to 'Gilbert'. "Reasonably," he replied. "How did you know?"

Snape reached forward and took one of Harry's green beads between thumb and forefinger, giving in a little spin. "These. They are worn by two Ravenclaws, as well."

"Er, yes."

"Are the colors significant?"

"Yes," Harry said cheekily, stopping at that, and Snape snorted.

"Point taken. Now, the spell. What is the emotional requirement?"

"Confidence that you should be believed." With a steady gaze, Harry met Snape's challenging look. "That won't be a problem, sir."

"And when you are lying?"

"If I lie, it's about things that are no one's business."

"I see," Snape replied with a sneer. "Yes, I think this one will be a natural for you."

 

The spell was not a particularly tricky one. Snape went over the incantation, and the most subtle possible wand movement. "Ideally, of course, one would learn to cast the spell wandlessly. Have you any experience with wandless magic, Potter?"

"Other than the accidental sort?"

"Yes, of course. Magic done as a little child is different."

"Well, it's not like it was that long ago!"

Snape's head turned slowly, like that of a snake seeking a scent. "You have performed accidental magic since coming to Hogwarts?"

"Well, yeah," Harry replied, puzzled.

"When was the most recent incident?"

"Um... a bit over a year ago. I, uh-- Dudley and his gang were after me, and I made Piers trip, and then Dudley fell over him."

"Are you sure it was you, and not chance?"

"Yeah, of course. There's this kind of feeling like the world's narrowed to a single point...."

"Like the tip of a wand," Snape said, satisfied. "You might be able to learn." He waved the matter off. "Back to that later; this is not the spell to begin with. For now, I suggest you consider how you might cover the casting by adding it on the end of some other, common spell -- for example, a charm to clean extraneous blots off parchment? Or do you not know that one?"

Harry glared. "I know it."

"Then why don't you use it?"

"I'm not good at cleaning spells."

Snape snorted. "You mean that you don't know it. You know of it, and sometimes get lucky."

"Look, are you going to teach me this curse or not?"

Snape hesitated. "There is little more we can do without a subject."

"I could cast it on you."

"No," Snape said fiercely. "Nor will I call in one of my house for experimentation."

"So, we don't actually know if I know this, because casting it at the wall doesn't do anything." Harry was sure of that. He didn't feel any different.

Snape raised his eyebrows. "Your serpent, perhaps?"

"No!" Harry took a breath. "It wouldn't tell us anything anyway. She always believes me."

With a nod, Snape approved the objection. "You are her master."

Remembering how Draco had practically crackled with Dark energy after his tutoring session with Snape, last spring, Harry frowned. "What did you do with Draco? Before Easter, last year?"

"Many of the spells were purely physical in nature, and for those a mouse or spider -- transfigured to provide the proper anatomy, if needed -- sufficed. Others we left at targetless casting, although I agree it is not the same.

"My suggestion is this: You have learned the incantation and wand motion. If you feel you need the spell during the next week and a half, try it. If not, or if you attempt it and fail, I will meet you in Hogsmeade during the next Hogsmeade weekend, and apparate us both to a Muggle community, where you may try out the spell with little danger of being caught."

Harry considered that. Though technically a curse, the spell did no long term damage, according to the text and to Snape. If he lifted it before leaving, his subject would not be harmed. Slowly, he nodded, and then looked keenly up. "Why wait?"

"Ah. Because an addition to the wards alerts the headmaster when you cross."

"Me specifically?" Harry asked, outraged.

"Exactly."

"Just me?"

"Not quite. I had him add Draco, as well. Mr. Nott, he had thought of on his own. Altogether, there are perhaps a half-dozen students."

"Perhaps."

Snape shrugged. "I do not know about those from other houses. Let us say that Professor Dumbledore assures me that it is not only you and Slytherins."

"Well, that's something!" Harry replied, rolling his eyes. "Thank you for warning me," he added sarcastically.

"You're welcome."

"How long have these been in place?"

"Since a few days after the portkey attempt." Snape scowled. "Do not feel you are being persecuted, Potter. The headmaster is more concerned with the potential for kidnapping than rulebreaking."

"What about Floo?" Harry asked.

"Excuse me?"

"Could I floo out without setting this off?"

Snape thought for a moment. "Perhaps," he said. He considered it for another moment. "It seems likely. The magical channels of the Floo network would probably obscure your passage. However, as this matter is both non-urgent and certain to provoke censure, this is not the occasion for which to risk the attempt."

"Okay," Harry agreed. "How about the Quiri-repelling one?"

"I will teach you the theory."

"Yeah, I suppose we wouldn't want to risk injuring them."

Snape snorted. "Unlikely, Potter. No, as you said, casting a Credulity curse at the wall doesn't do anything. I doubt you have actually built up sufficient Dark energy."

 

That was an interesting idea. On his way back to the stairs, Harry stopped at the Quiris' room. Cautiously, he opened the door and peered inside. They looked a little bit dangerous, but not hideous. Tuktuk raised her thick mane and hissed at him from across the room. With a sigh, Harry closed the door and headed up to Gryffindor.

 

On the third floor, he hesitated. Perhaps he should look in the library and see if Hermione was there? Hadn't she mentioned something about him avoiding her, as if that would be normal, when she'd said he wasn't with Draco? He hadn't been avoiding her, really, but he had been ignoring her a lot, and now that he thought about it, he remembered how horrible that it felt to be ignored the year before. He didn't see her in the library, and after a quick look around, he walked out again, Madam Pince's glare warning his back, and went on to the official mixed-house space.

He had been looking for Draco, but Hermione was sitting with him and Blaise. Harry hurried over to them. "Hi," he said. "Room for a fourth?"

With a warm smile, Draco moved over. "Of course. Not out hiding this afternoon?"

Harry shrugged. "No reason to. Sometimes I just need to get away."

"Hm. As long as it's not too far away."

"No chance of that!" Harry answered, his irritation coming through more than he had expected. "Dumbledore's apparently extended the wards so they alert him if I cross them."

Blaise laughed. "And did you find this out the hard way?"

"Of course not!" Harry decided that he shouldn't let on about Snape. Maybe Dumbledore might have chastised him with it? "I was informed," he said, as if the experience had been unpleasant.

"Oh, Harry!" Hermione said sympathetically.

"Actually, he claimed it was due to the attack, not fear of what I'd do on my own."

"Attack?" Hermione's voice rose. "What attack?"

"Oh -- didn't I tell you -- I didn't want to worry you, and then I forgot--" Harry babbled, feeling his face heat. Maybe he really had been ignoring her. Probably he hadn't wanted to say when it had happened, but he could have told her a few days later.

"Theo," Draco said mildly. "I mentioned it, the day he showed up at breakfast with me."

"Not as something the headmaster would take an interest in!" She leaned toward Harry, eyes narrowed. "Talk."

"It was nothing, really. He shoved a portkey down my shirt."

"But portkeys--"

"Yeah. They don't work on me anymore," Harry completed quickly. "So changing the wards is a bit much."

Slowly, the confusion cleared from her face. "Well," she said, flipping her hair back over her shoulder. "You can't blame people for being concerned, Harry." She bit her lip. "I mean, if there's been an attempt already."

"I'm surprised there haven't been dozens!" Blaise said cheekily. "Although the portkey failing has probably staved off some, as has Professor Snape taking his side about it."

"Look," Harry said desperately, "could we talk about something else?"

"How's your Charms essay coming?" Hermione asked.

"I finished it yesterday." He shot her a look. "While I was 'missing', if you must know."

"Oh!" She looked startled by that. Draco nodded.

"One of those points, was it? Sometime I hide out for the tricky bits, too. Conclusion paragraphs are the worst. As for me, I'm stuck on this Transfiguration question...."

Steered to safe topics, the conversation became amiably productive. By the time they left for dinner, Harry had decided that maybe, if he was careful, he wouldn't need to use the Credulity curse on Hermione. It was still a worthwhile precaution, he told himself, pushing back a flush of guilt. If he did need it, he might not have much warning.

 

Saturday morning dawned overcast and windy. Harry didn't like it. A fresh wind could make flying more exhilarating, but this was the sort of blustery, biting November gale that made it hard to keep hold of a broom. As captain, he felt responsible for the other members of the team, and he couldn't help feeling a little anxious in this sort of weather. He would be fine himself, of course. And the players from last year had been through this before. The only new members were Ron and Ginny, he realized, and felt better immediately. Both of them could take a lot.

On the way down to the pitch, when he saw how pink Draco's face had grown in the wind, he had to remind himself that Draco was not his boyfriend during the match. They had agreed on that. On the pitch with their teams, they were rivals, and nothing was personal -- it wasn't who they were anywhere else. Then, walking out to the pitch, he saw Millicent stumble, and had someone else to worry about. She'd said she was having balance problems. Could she handle flying in a high wind while throwing her weight behind swings at heavy Bludgers? If she hurt herself was it his fault? It was just this one match, he told himself. This ended the autumn season.

At Madam Hooch's whistle, both teams kicked off into the air, and for several minutes, Harry could think about little besides dodging other flying bodies as he adjusted to the feel of the buffeting winds. Others were doing the same. When play started in earnest, it was slow, but aggressive. The heavy Bludgers were unaffected by the conditions, but long passes of the Quaffle tended to go off-course, keeping play close and scores low. As for the little Snitch, Harry hadn't yet caught sight of it, though he did, at one point, twitch towards a yellow and white mitten that blew out of the stands.

Ernie's voice carried over the gusts. "Gryffindor scores! Twenty to naught, Gryffindor in possession-- Oh! Now Slytherin in possession. Nott diving under-- OUCH! A hit! Former keeper, Cornelia Carter, has certainly taken to her new position! Gryffindor in possession, Greengrass moving in--"

Astoria Greengrass was part of Slytherin's problem, Harry thought, as he watched her fail to intercept Ginny. She definitely could fly -- he had seen her in practice -- but today she seemed more interested in being dramatically blown off course. It couldn't be her size -- Ginny was just as small and light. Millicent wasn't either small or light, but Harry had already seen her unbalance forward from a swing. Her changing body was bigger than she was used to.

As his hands and face froze, the score climbed to 90-40, but the passes grew weaker and more were missed. With determination, he swooped in slow circles, scanning the airspace of the pitch. A yard or two above and to the side, Draco did the same. Suddenly a startled shriek drew his attention. Millicent! She was half off her broom, hanging by her hands and one knee, and slowly tilting over.

"Mill!" He dove towards her, though he couldn't have said what he intended to do -- steady her, maybe?"

"The Slytherin Seeker dives!" Ernie shouted. "Potter's caught off-guard--"

Smoothly, Millicent righted herself, and Harry realized he'd been had. He spun about. He was accelerating towards Draco before he could consciously see him, but it was too late. He was still yards away when Draco seized the Snitch.

 

The Slytherin team tumbled down in an ecstatic muddle, Draco at the center of it, and people thumping Millicent on the back in passing.

"What the fuck was that?" Cornelia said furiously, overtaking Harry as he reluctantly spiraled down.

"A trick, apparently," Harry retorted, his face starting to burn. He dove away before she could reply and landed near the Slytherin celebration.

Millicent had somehow managed to stay on the edge of the group, despite the attention she was getting. Harry doubted she was embarrassed. Probably she just didn't want anyone noticing that her body wasn't where it was supposed to be. He strode up to her without being blocked. She was huge in her padded Beater's robes. He didn't care.

"Can't win without cheating, Mill?" he snarled. I will not hit her. Still, the hard lines of his nails pressed into his palm as his fists tightened. I could. She does want to be a boy, after all.

"There's nothing in the rules about dramatics," she shot back, scowling. "It was sly, that's all."

"And getting me worried about your balance for the last two weeks?" he demanded furiously. "I was helping you. You were faking all that, weren't you? Getting your lies in place--"

"No! It's--" She looked uneasily around. The teams were listening now. Draco had his hand clenched tight around the arm of Cecilius, the other Beater, holding him back. "What business is it of yours?" she said angrily. "I'm not fragile, Potter. I don't need your protection."

Harry froze. The heat drained from his anger, leaving it hard. "Then you won't have it," he said. He gave the statement a moment to hit home. When dismay began to spread across her face, he turned and strode away.

 

Chapter Text

 

"See, this is what you get for trusting Slytherins," Ron said.

"Though she certainly bided her time," Ginny added tightly, "if you've been friends since summer."

If any of the Gryffindors blamed Harry for losing the match, Ron, Dean, Ginny, and Jason were keeping them off. The constant affirmation was making Harry queasy. He kept seeing the look on Millicent's face. He had been humiliated, and had wanted to hurt her, but how much had she changed, by now? If he didn't meet her tonight, was he messing up the rest of her life?

She should be able to cast her own glamours. It's not my fault she's stupid.

He didn't like how that sounded, even in his head.

"It was a dirty trick. Oliver would have flayed her."

"Oliver WOULDN'T HAVE FALLEN FOR IT!" Harry shouted, jumping to his feet. He ran a hand through his hair. "Oliver would have been furious at me, not her. I know she's a Slytherin. I know the closest friendships in the world don't count on the pitch! Draco and I made it explicit before the match -- no holds barred, nothing is personal -- and I should have been thinking about her in the same way."

He stood there, his stomach twisting. Ron's mouth was open. No one in the Gryffindor common room was speaking above a whisper. "I'm sorry," he announced, to the room at large, since he obviously had everyone's attention, unwelcome as it was. "I let my personal life onto the pitch, because I was so centered on trying not to do that with Draco that I didn't think about the rest of it. I messed up, and I cost us the match. I'll try my best to make it up in the spring."

Whispers turned to mutters as he retreated to the boys' staircase. He was surprised to hear a few scattered people clapping, and looked over his shoulder to see if it was sincere or sarcastic. Cornelia gave him a respectful nod, and Parvati a beaming smile, and Seamus a grim-faced thumbs up, so at least some of them meant it. Harry smiled weakly and continued upstairs. He had a Slytherin to apologize to, and he should do it now, so she could enjoy the rest of her party.

 

Harry stopped in the doorway of the crowded Slytherin Common Room. A nearby lower-year registered his presence and whipped around. "Potter!" the boy shouted in warning, and rowdy conversation muted to whispers in outward waves as people turned to look.

Harry stepped forward. "Millicent?" he called. He couldn't see her -- until she stood up, glaring at him over the heads of the people around her.

"What?" she snapped back.

"It was clever. I'm sorry I lost my temper."

In the momentary silence, Draco's "Damn!" carried. He was over near Millicent. People between them laughed in relief. Harry was curious, but when he moved towards Millicent, he was careful to stay aware of everyone about him. He would be easy to attack, in this crowd, if anyone recovered from their shock before he made it to allies. Rather than drawing wands, people parted to let him pass, and he reached the sofas unscathed. Draco was handing a few coins over to Blaise.

"Did you think I'd stay angry?" Harry asked, flushing.

"I thought you wouldn't apologize until tomorrow," Draco retorted. "You were never that quick with me."

"What, last year? It always took me that long to find you. Now I can just walk in." He turned to Millicent. Her eyes were suspiciously pink, and she had her arms crossed in a manner that might be seen as either threatening or defensive.

"Look," he said, "I'm sorry I was an arse." He pulled out the bottle of cognac that had been weighing down his robes, and offered it to her. "For your party. It's still sealed."

Millicent didn't take it. "What changed your mind?" she asked.

Uncomfortably, Harry shrugged. "I needed to cool off, that's all. And someone said Oliver would have gone after you, and I had to object that no, he would have had my bollocks for falling for it." Someone moved to Millicent's side, and Harry reminded himself to be careful. It was Pansy, and she was regarding him with undisguised hatred.

"Here's a glass, Millicent, darling," she said, not at all affectionately. "Open the bottle and make him drink some."

Belatedly, Millicent took the bottle. "I'm sure Potter wouldn't--"

"Hush, dear. Thinking isn't your strong point."

"Millicent's right," Harry shot back angrily. "Poison isn't Gryffindor's style. On the other hand, I'm not sure I trust your glass."

She shrugged. "Swig it from the bottle, if you like."

With a glance over at Draco, Harry dug in his pocket again, and pulled out the marble that had once been a portkey. "Draco. Make me a glass, would you, please?"

Draco took the marble and chuckled as he held it aloft. The whispers that had grown around them sputtered into silence. Nott, who had started towards them from near the wall, turned and stalked off into the corridor to the boys' dormitories.

"Still carrying this little bauble, are you?" Draco said airily. "Shall I keep the snake motif?"

"As you like."

"Hm." Draco set down the marble on the table, and gave it a tap. It spun as if it was on a potter's wheel rather than under his wand. He drew the tip up, and the glass rose around it into a curving bowl, with the snake underneath. Another slow draw up from where the glass met the table gave the vessel a wide foot and a short stem with the tail of the black snake curled around it. He slowed the spin and coaxed the head of the snake half-way up the bowl. Because of the size of the marble, the whole thing was small, but not quite as small as Harry had expected.

"Here you go, my love."

Harry took the vessel and found his middle finger slid nicely into the space between the head of the snake and the next coil. The glass was not quite as thin and fine as the ones Draco had from home, but it was much less thick than those Draco had made before, and shaped like a proper snifter.

"You are brilliant," he said.

"Yes, it's almost like magic," Pansy said cattily. Harry sighed.

"And you have no appreciation for a developing art," he said sharply, and turning, held out the glass.

"Pour me some, Mill," he said. "I haven't tried this one yet."

She laughed slightly as she complied. "I haven't seen you like this since London."

"Like what?"

"When you were firing spells off at the Muggle offices to see what protections they had? Like that."

Draco smiled slightly. "Ah. As arrogant and lawless as our head of house used to claim? Yes, it's occasional." He eased closer to Harry. "Do tell me this story, love."

"Some other time," Harry muttered, taking a swallow of the cognac. It had layers of flavor below the heat of the alcohol, but he didn't have the concentration to appreciate them. Draco was laughing as brightly as his mother, the sound as brittle as glass.

"Not a matter for public discussion?"

"Exactly. So later."

Draco studied him. "Hm," he said. "Very well, but soon." With some complicated-looking wandwork and murmured incantations, he summoned snifters from his room. Harry heard the dormitory room door shut behind the flying glasses and wondered which side of it Nott was on.

Millicent looked away. "I shouldn't have mentioned it," she muttered.

Harry thought quickly. He wasn't sure how he should frame the matter for Draco when they talked, but clearly Millicent was afraid that what they had been discussing would come out. And perhaps Draco had just been offering a way for him to show off. He had generally agreed that the Slytherins had more respect for Harry when they thought of him as someone who knew how to get around rules. What else had he recommended? Right -- looking like he was under Draco's influence.

"Oh, don't worry about it," he said casually. "Draco was around for my first experiments with Muggle alarm systems." He grinned at Draco. "After all, I couldn't let him get in trouble."

His eyebrows rising, Draco held out the glasses to Millicent, who poured two measures of the cognac. He handed one to her. The glass Pansy had brought was now sitting untouched on a small table behind her.

"To developing skills," he said dryly, raising his glass in toast.

That, Harry thought, could mean any number of things, but he joined the two of them in the clink of glass and taste of cognac. He kept it to a sip, knowing he couldn't afford the added risk of being slowed down or unsteady whilst surrounded by all of Slytherin house. Lowering the glass, he caught Millicent's eye. The Slytherin Common Room was not well lit, but he thought there might be a faint blur to her face.

"We still need to talk," he said. "Step outside with me for a moment?"

"As if she would!" Pansy exclaimed.

With the intimidating slowness of a bear, Millicent turned to face her. "Do you think he--" she jabbed her finger at more of a downward angle than Harry thought really necessary-- "is going to beat me up?"

"Hardly," Draco put in. He nudged Harry. "However, you might want a chaperone, love."

"Why? She can't be that angry at me."

"She was hiding in her room," Draco snapped. "Pansy and I had to practically force her to come out to the party."

Sighing, Harry handed Draco his glass. "Then we definitely need to say a few things to each other in private. Here, hold my drink, in case Snape's outside. We're just going to pop out to the corridor for a mo."

Biting her lip, Millicent nodded and put the bottle on the table. "Blaise? Help Malfoy keep an eye on the booze. Oh, and take some. I'll risk keeping hold of my glass."

 

Out in the hallway, Millicent looked significantly at the door. "People will be listening, you know."

"As long as that's all they're doing," Harry answered, drawing his wand. With his free hand, he tapped his glasses and then pointed to the door, and she shook her head.

"So talk, Potter," she said, covering his whispered incantations as he renewed her glamours. "What did you so badly need to say?"

He cast around for something and blurted out, "Fragile has nothing to do with it. I look after my friends. Were you actually offended?"

"Yeah, I was offended! Would you have dove for Weasley if he was falling off his broom?" she asked sarcastically.

"Of course! For Hagrid, if it came to it -- not that I can imagine him on one."

"You're mental, Harry. What could you do?"

"You don't have to be able to hold someone up to steady them."

For a moment, she just stared, open-mouthed, and then, with a shake of her head, rested one of her hands heavily on his shoulder. "All right, then. It was still stupid, you know. The referees are supposed to handle emergencies."

He sighed. "I'm not good at remembering that sort of thing," he admitted. "I think of adults as automatically useless."

"You're an adult," she pointed out.

"Okay. Well, adults in charge."

"You're that too, really."

Harry looked uncomfortably away. "People who ought to take care of me, then. Maybe we should go in."

"Yeah." She looked at the door. "I'll go first."

Harry rolled his eyes. "My hero."

 

 

They found Draco sitting with his feet up on the table next to the bottle of cognac, and his arms crossed over his chest.

"All set," Harry said cheerily, dropping onto the cushion next to him.

"Your drink's there," Draco said, motioning to the glass. "No one's put anything in it."

"Good," Harry said, ignoring it.

He leaned in to kiss the side of Draco's mouth. Draco remained stubbornly still as Harry brushed his lips as far forward as he could reach. Slowly, Draco's mouth opened, but not to turn and kiss back.

"Tell me what you're thinking of," he whispered, as if they weren't surrounded by his housemates, and Harry had a sudden feeling of dark weight, as if a storm had settled over them. His answer, he knew, would be terribly important.

Nervously, he licked his lips. "Bats," he said softly.

Draco finally turned. "Bats?"

"I wasn't all that pissed off that I lost," Harry confessed. "It was that I didn't get to try. It was my last chance to try against you."

Quite suddenly, Draco had his arms around him, his face hidden against Harry's robes. Harry kissed his hair. "You would have had to have signaled her," he said, as neutrally as he could.

Draco nodded, the motion hard against Harry's shoulder before he lifted his head. "Yes. I was terrified of it."

"Of tricking me?"

"Of my last time trying against you. In front of everyone."

"Ah."

Draco kissed him then, desperately, and Harry concentrated on enjoying it. Their time as rivals was over, however unsatisfactorily it had ended. They let up when Millicent started to count out loud and Blaise to offer odds on when they'd stop, but they still stayed leaned close together, the edge of Harry's nose touching Draco's cheek.

"We need to get those free-form matches going in the spring," Draco said.

"Huh?"

"Because we're both right. That wasn't enough for our last time flying against each other, but we need to be just us, not our houses."

"Yeah."

Their lips touched. A sharp slap stung Harry's arm.

"Start that again, and I'll stop watching your drinks!" Blaise hissed.

"Spoilsport," Harry complained, but he sat back and picked up his glass. With a smirk, Draco mirrored him. Quite a few other people had drinks, now, and the bottle was half-empty. Most of the youngest kids seemed to have cleared out. Gentian, who had apparently been lingering in the corridor to the girl's dormitories, gave Harry a little wave before ducking out of sight. On a quick look around, Harry could only see a few possible third years and no one younger than that. The smaller group meant that more of the remaining Slytherins were sitting. The sofa that he and Draco and Millicent were on was one of five in a wide arc around the fireplace. Blaise, who had been standing behind Millicent, moved to the near end of the next one, joining Astoria Greengrass and Victoria Nott, who were both fifth-year girls. Theodore Nott wasn't anywhere in sight. Pansy, rather than being seated near Draco, was at the far end of the arc, across from Victoria, with Daphne Greengrass next to her, and Hugh Cecilius -- the younger student who hadn't believed Harry about Voldemort last spring -- next to Daphne. There was a sofa full of people Harry recognized but didn't know the names of -- two sixth year students and one fifth-year, he thought -- and then another girl of that sort on the next, but she was sitting next to Gilbert, who was next to Linnet, who was nearest to Draco on the other side. Harry glanced over at her and she winked and shook her bracelet back, making him smile.

Cecilius leaned forward, his gaze resting on Harry's bracelet before snapping up to his face. "You're wearing one of those too," he said. "And I'd thought Malfoy would be the girl."

Harry tensed. "Neither of us is a girl, Cecilius."

"And we rather like it that way," Draco added airily, although Harry could feel how tight his arm had become against Harry's leg.

"Then why the jewelry?"

"I'm afraid I really can't talk about it," Harry said smugly.

"Oh, come now!" Astoria said. "Prove you can be a good sport. Do the beads mean anything? Linnet's been quite coy."

Harry grinned and Linnet giggled. "I'll tell you about one," Harry conceded. He held out his arm so she could see the beads. "Only one, for all of you. Pick."

"Hm." Astoria actually got up from her seat and came to the other side of the coffee table in front of Harry's couch. She was still wearing her Chaser's robes, although the green hue was only obvious on the side of her that faced the fire. Away from it, they were darkened to near black by the dim light. She slipped a finger under the strand of beads to lift it. "Linnet," she said. "Show me yours as well."

After comparing Harry's strand to Linnet's, Gilbert's, and Draco's -- Millicent refused to display hers -- Astoria made her choice. "The clear one," she said, touching it. "No one else has one."

Harry thought he would have done it the other way -- there was no color that all four of them had, but he, Draco, and Linnet all had Ravenclaw blue for having fallen asleep in the library, and he, Draco, and Gilbert all had bright pink for having kissed a girl and grey-flecked black for having used Dark Arts, a challenge Blaise had called in the second round of play. Still, he nodded. "Right. No one else has one, because I'm the only Parselmouth."

Her hand flew to her mouth. "Oh!"

"What's that like?" asked a younger kid eagerly, leaning on the back of the couch behind the fifth years. After a moment, Harry placed him as one of the kids he hadn't turned into a frog in Horsyr's classroom. Seldon? No, Seymour. He'd be a fourth-year now. "It sounds creepy."

"It depends on the snake," Harry said. "Susara -- my torclinde -- is sweet. A python I met in London Zoo was funny. Salazar Slytherin's Basilisk was totally creepy."

"I think he meant the sound was creepy," Draco pointed out.

"I can't really hear how it sounds," Harry admitted. "To me, it just sounds like sort of hissy English."

"Forget that!" Gilbert exclaimed. "Salazar's basilisk? What are you on about?"

"The monster," Harry explained. "When those people were paralyzed and Ginny Weasley was kidnapped? It was a basilisk that Salazar Slytherin had hidden deep in the school. Someone let it out, and it traveled through the walls next to the plumbing. I could hear it hissing 'Blood. Kill--'"

Susara's body trembled against his arm. "Damn! Harry exclaimed. "Hold on a tic."

"Come out, beautiful," he coaxed. She did move, but her progress was slow and twitchy. "I was telling a history," he said into his sleeve. "I was quoting a very big, crazy snake that hurt people here, years ago."

After another second, her head emerged, and she flicked her scarlet tongue out, testing the air. "It confused me to have you speak so. You do not feel angry, but it was at the edge of your voice."

"I did not intend to say it in your tongue," he admitted. "I confused all the people too."

The image appeared to amuse her. "May I come out?" she asked.

"Yes, but stay with me."

With thought assent, she emerged from his sleeve and curled up in his lap in a golden coil. He could tell she was displaying her bond to him, and found himself proud of her bravery.

"Sorry," Harry said to his listeners. "I hadn't meant to lapse into Parseltongue, and I rather scared her, I think. Anyway, I'd hear this voice in the wall saying --" he concentrated on forming the words in English -- "'kill' and 'blood' and things about how hungry it was, and a couple of times I followed it, and ended up somewhere right after an attack--"

Several people laughed at that, with tones ranging from derision to sympathy. Harry shrugged. "Anyway, I didn't know what it was until later, and I didn't see it until Ron and I went after Ginny, and we managed to -- well, I managed to -- find the Chamber of Secrets. The person who'd opened the Chamber was down there, and he set the basilisk on me."

"And you survived?"

"Fawkes -- Dumbledore's phoenix, if you've ever seen him -- blinded it, and brought me the Sorting Hat, which brought me the sword of Gryffindor. I could barely lift the thing, and had no idea how to use it, but the basilisk was wild -- not surprising, really, considering how long it had been down there -- and blind, and all I had to do was hold the blade out while it tried to bite me, and it impaled itself.

"And you weren't bitten?" someone challenged.

"Oh, I was. But--"

"That would be fatal."

"But Fawkes cried for me. Phoenix tears can cure practically anything."

"Potter," Pansy said derisively, "I have never in my life heard a more absurd fabrication. You can't expect anyone to believe that, no matter how many points Bumblebore mysteriously awarded to you. Besides, it was common knowledge that--"

"I'm quite certain it's true," Draco countered, almost idly. The press of his hand into Harry's leg was a warning to silence.

"Of course you are. You'll believe anything from him, clearly."

Draco smirked and took a sip of his drink. "As it happens, I cleaned up the decayed remains of a forty-two foot basilisk with a Bone-Burning curse. Before, I might add, Harry and I started to correspond with each other, which was before we started to associate with each other, which was before we were close enough that I would have considered believing anything of the sort, had I not seen the evidence. The thing you need to understand about Harry is that the most outrageous things happen to him; the only lie he has any proficiency in is false protestations that he was studying quietly at the time you are asking about."

Millicent snorted. "I think I've heard that one."

"Did you keep any of the skin?" Blaise asked Draco eagerly. "At that age--"

"No. Sadly, it was too decayed to be usable, and the venom, of course, had evaporated. I did save a fang -- it's not in Slytherin, but I can show it to you tomorrow, if you wish."

"Brilliant."

"So, are any other hideously dangerous creatures likely to emerge from this secret lair?" Gilbert asked.

"No, although it did take me a while to think to check," Harry answered. But it takes a Parselmouth to open it, anyway." Harry grinned at Draco. "Though I did leave it open once. And when I went back, someone had burnt the basilisk to ash."

With a moue of disgust, Draco waved a hand in front of his nose. "It stank, Harry. You should thank me."

"I did, I think." Harry imagined what it must have looked like -- the dead basilisk crumpled over itself like a massive algae-green cable with blue flame erupting from inside. "Though I'm sorry I missed seeing the burn-off."

With a huff of caught laughter, Draco patted Harry's thigh. "Darling. You would have fled in terror at my smile."

"Hexed you and turned you over to the headmaster, more like," Harry retorted. He didn't think Draco had ever called him "darling" before. He sounded like Pansy. "Though, yeah. We never would have become friends if I'd seen you cast a curse like that beforehand."

"No familiarity with Dark Arts?" Victoria Nott said, her face pinched with disdain.

"Are you mental?" Harry asked. "Plenty, thanks -- but all of it before that from people who wanted to kill me."

Smirking, Blaise leaned forward to look past Millicent. "So, Harry," he called, "have you ever done any Dark Arts?"

Harry tried to glare, but his scowl failed with a laugh. "You know I have. Git."

"You wouldn't dare," Pansy exclaimed.                          

"Dare?" Harry repeated incredulously, but Draco, Millicent, and Blaise were sniggering, as were several people he didn't know.

"If there is one thing Harry does not lack," Draco said, "it is nerve."

"Fine, then!" Pansy retorted. "He would disapprove."

Harry shrugged. "I sometimes do things anyway."

"Mm," Linnet said. "I know what that green bead means."

Harry reddened. "Ask me in some other place, and I may tell you the story."

"I'll do that," she said.

"So, what sort of Dark Arts have you done?" Seymour pressed.

Harry looked at Draco and found his face set in haughty blankness, which was never a good sign. "Not something I want to talk about," he answered, but Draco sighed and rolled his eyes.

"The one I taught you should be safe, Potter. The headmaster knows about it already, so no one can bear damaging tales."

 Harry wasn't quite sure what Draco intended, but he decided to play along. "Control Spirit," he answered. "It allows you to give one command to a ghost. I used it to ensure Moaning Myrtle wouldn't tell about something she'd seen me and Draco do."

Smirks and rude sounds made it clear that many of the Slytherins were assuming something salacious.

"How's it cast?" Seymour asked.

"Oh, you need--" Harry stopped abruptly as Draco's palm pressed against his open mouth.

"No instruction," Draco said. "I'm Head Boy, and I won't have a load of ignorant lower years, with no concept of or respect for the Dark Arts, running around in the state you were in that night."

Harry licked Draco's palm.

"Hey!" Draco pulled his hand away and after waving it around for a moment, wiped it on Harry's trousers. "What was that?"

"I get your point, all right?" Harry said. "No need to keep me gagged. Anyway, it was there." Taking a swallow of his drink, he scanned around the room. "There is rather a lot of glass for them to break. Are there really Slytherins who don't know Dark Arts?"

"Most of us, Harry," Blaise said dryly.

"It's really mostly, er, people like Draco who have practical exposure," Gilbert explained.

"Is it common in Gryffindor?" Linnet asked innocently.

"Merlin, no!" Harry said fervently. "Hermione's still watching me like a hawk from last spring."

"I can't imagine why you'd put up with something so demeaning from someone like that," Pansy said nastily.

"Well, let's see," Blaise said, stretching back. "Brilliant, beautiful, helpful.... I can see why he might tolerate a little protective disapproval. Though I presume he doesn't care about her looks."

"I'm bi, actually," Harry said. "But yeah, not looking, and if I was, it wouldn't be at her."

Not your type?" Pansy asked, as if making a point. Harry shrugged.

"I've known her too long to say, really. She's like a sister; I've never understood how Ron can kiss her."

"I think Mudbloods are rather interesting," piped up one of the fifth- or sixth-year boys. The one next to him twitched.

"Julian!" he choked.

"Of course, it doesn't do to say so, so I usually don't, because arguing is unpleasant and takes too much time and I'm not good at it, sadly, but it's good to get a fresh perspective, now and then, and people without Wizarding upbringings come out with such unique ideas. Some of them are rot, of course, but then there's things like the ink that turns a different color if you spell a word wrong, which I'm told is--"

One of his friends hit him with a muting hex. Draco reached across the table, took his glass, and sniffed it.

"Hm. Babbling Draught, I'd say. Pansy, darling, would this happen to be the glass that you offered my boyfriend?"

She smirked triumphantly. "Yes. Nothing harmful, you see? I'm not going to damage your little pet."

"As long as he didn't get to talking about the war," Draco said. "That could be trouble all around."

"It's not like I'm privy to much," Harry objected, ignoring Pansy's insult. "Now that Snape isn't a double agent, I'd be unlikely to say anything that Voldemort could use."

Slytherins cringed at the name even more than Gryffindors. Draco, however, was used to it. "True," he said, "but you may know more about the Death Eaters than even most of the people related to them." His eyes narrowed, and abruptly, he hurled Julian's glass into the fire, where it shattered in a burst of blue flame. A few people yelped.

"Gorgeous," Harry said.

 

Harry stayed for what he thought was another hour, although he didn't dare have a second drink. Still, he worked at trying to look relaxed while others talked. A few people made disparaging remarks about mixed-bloods or Muggleborns; he took his cue from Draco and responded with no more than a contemptuous look. It was almost a relief to have Pansy tell a family story about an abused ancestress, Katherine Parkinson, who killed all the males of her family with a curse that ripped out their genitals at the root. At least then, he was able to wince with the rest of the boys.

"How do you have the name Parkinson, then?" Astoria objected. "If it was only her and her sister left alive?"

"She was already with child from one of her brothers," Pansy said, "and as she never married, passed on the name to her son."

Harry forbore from comments about the sad effects of inbreeding, but it was a near thing.

His restraint seemed to have accomplished something, however. When he said goodnight, several of the Slytherins nodded at him in a possibly friendly manner.

"You know we'd abduct you for the Dark Lord if we could, right?" Cecilius called over.

Harry coughed. "Some of you," he said. "I'm clear on that."

"Right. Just don't want you to get the wrong idea."

"Which isn't to say you're not fun," Astoria added. "Please do visit again."

"Oh, speak for yourself!" Pansy snapped. She rolled her eyes. "Although, he was tolerably amusing. Perhaps Draco's taste isn't irredeemable."

"Yeah, um, thanks," Harry muttered, and fled. In the hallway, he found he was still holding his empty glass. He cast a short-term Unbreakable charm on it and tucked it in his pocket. The dungeon corridor wavered in the flickering light of too few torches, and he found he felt somewhat tipsy, which he hadn't expected. He wondered if Millicent had topped off his drink -- it had lasted longer than he had expected.

She shouldn't have been able to, he scolded himself. I should have been watching more closely than that. On more than one occasion, though, he had kissed Draco and trusted the people around them -- Millicent and Blaise and Linnet and Gilbert -- to keep an eye on their drinks.

The corridors were empty. It was certainly past time that he should be in Gryffindor, if not his own dormitory. He wondered if most people would be asleep when he got back. He didn't really feel like dealing with any of them tonight. And he certainly didn't want to admit that he'd been off consorting with the enemy at their victory party -- not when it was entirely his fault that Gryffindor had lost. Maybe, he thought, he could just refuse to say where he had been. Most people would probably assume he'd been off sulking on his own. That was worse, though, really -- he looked like enough of a sore loser already, after berating Millicent in public when Slytherin won. He groaned. Well, there was always his first hope -- that everyone would be asleep, and he could just sneak up the stairs and into his bed without being challenged.

 

It didn't happen. True, most people had left the common room, but Seamus and Parvati and Ron and Sajid were still there, and worse yet, Hermione was there, and she looked up from her book even before Harry climbed through the portrait hole.

"Hi," he said uncertainly, to none of them in particular. Immediately, Ron came to his feet and turned his back on him. As Ron was heading up the stairs, and Seamus lifting his arms in a helpless shrug, Hermione thumped her book down on a pile of larger books and stalked towards him.

"Where have you been?"

"I went to apologize to Millicent."

"Apologize for what?" Sajid said derisively.

"For acting like a spoiled child when she won," Harry said. "Look, I'd really like to go to bed...."

Hermione glared at him from a foot away. "You're drunk."

"I am not!"

"You smell of it."

"I had one drink. One." It was technically true, anyway.

"Where were you?"

"Look," Harry said desperately, "could we go to your room? Please? I've been at the center of enough scenes today."

After a tense moment, she nodded. "Okay. But you're not getting out of anything."

As he followed her into her room, Harry found he was fingering his wand and forced himself to stop. This wasn't an emergency. He didn't feel up to being clever, but he hadn't been doing anything that it would be a disaster for her to tell Professor McGonagall about.

On the other hand, he might be in a lot of trouble, now that he thought about it. Millicent was of age, as he was, but they hadn't exactly been restricting who had access to the bottle after she had finished doling out a round to her friends and classmates. He was sure the boy who had ended up with Pansy's doctored glass wasn't seventeen. Saying that he had been leaving that up to the Slytherins, while true, wouldn't keep him out of trouble with McGonagall, and would likely get him in trouble with Snape. He could just hear the man ranting about his lack of discretion.

He told himself that all that had been his decision, and he wouldn't take it out on Hermione, just for doing what she should.

Hermione had settled back against her desk and was regarding him with disapproval. "Now," she said, "answers, Harry. Where were you?"

"The Slytherin Common Room."

Her eyebrows rose in disbelief. "You were drinking in the Slytherin Common Room?"

The spectre of Snape's glower overshadowed her disapproval. "Discreetly," he lied.

"Why did you go there? Just to apologize to Bulstrode?"

"Yeah."

"Because you were sorry, or because you were afraid Draco would be upset at you?"

"Because I was sorry! Hermione, I acted like an idiot, and I basically said we weren't friends any more, and she was hurt!"

Hermione nodded. She looked like she was putting something together in a lesson. "So, when you disappear, and Draco doesn't, are you with Millicent?"

That hit him out of nowhere. For a moment, he just stared at her.

"Well?" she asked sharply. "Is that it?"

He took out his wand, covering for the motion by casting a repair spell on the fraying cuff of his robes. He felt like his mind had retreated someplace where time ran more slowly and he was watching himself do this, while plotting out a strategy. The Credulity curse was not the Imperius curse. He still needed something she could believe. If he came up with a good enough argument, he might not even need the curse.

"Are you asking as Head Girl, or as my friend?" he asked.

With a sigh, she turned away, looking down at books and papers and old copies of the Daily Prophet. It was too good an opportunity to miss. With a slight roll of his wrist, he whispered, "Crede." Confidence flooded through him. He could think more clearly now.

"Whichever one you'll answer," she said dully.

"Neither, really," he said, deliberately keeping his tone warm. "I mean, it isn't the Head Girl's business who I'm with if I'm not doing anything wrong. And my friends don't get to choose my other friends; we went through that last year."

She made a face, but sounded plaintive rather than suspicious as she asked, "But what if you are doing something wrong?"

"I'm not, Hermione. I swear it."

"You're not breaking school rules?"

He hesitated, remembering that she mattered to him. "Not any you haven't broken yourself," he answered cautiously. It felt more wrong to lie to her when she couldn't catch him out.

Her brief smile ended with her sticking her tongue out. "I didn't think she was your type."

"Hermione! Not like that. I'd be crushed flat!"

She giggled. "Okay. But it's something I'd do?" she asked, looking puzzled.

"Don't worry about it," he said, and was both elated and dismayed when the crease cleared from her brow. "I'm helping her in secret, that's all, but it's nothing bad, and I really can't tell you more."

"Well, good!" Hermione said sunnily. She beamed at him. "I'm so glad we've cleared that up. We should talk more often."

"Um, yeah," Harry said. "I, um, better get to bed. I have a lot of work to finish tomorrow."

"Oh, yes, you'd better!" she agreed. "Good night, Harry."

He consented to a warm embrace and a sisterly kiss on the side of his head, and then fled to his dormitory. No one tried to speak to him while he was getting ready for bed, and he did not offer a good night to the darkened room.

 

Chapter Text

 

The next morning, Harry woke with an oppressive pain behind his eyes and a gnawing load of guilt in his stomach. In a matter of hours, he had lost a Quidditch match for Gryffindor due to blind stupidity, pettily threatened Millicent, postured for Slytherin purebloods, and put one of his best friends under a Dark curse. From the headache, he was now sure that he had drank more than he had thought, which gave him the uncomfortable feeling that Hermione might have a point about his lack of sense. Altogether, he wanted to stay in bed, but he knew from experience that looking guilty made everything worse. Gryffindor might forgive him if he carried on normally, but the lions would snap like hyenas if he skulked about trying to avoid them.

Ron came back from the loo as Harry was fastening his tie.

"Hi," Harry said. "Are you speaking to me yet?"

For answer, Ron turned his back. Harry sighed.

"He might be feeling more charitable if you hadn't disappeared for the evening," Seamus said mildly.

Harry shrugged. "I went to find Millicent, and.... Well, it wasn't quick."

"She gave you a drink?"

"I gave her a bottle."

Ron whirled about. "You shouldn't have given that troll anything but a hard kick!"

"Ron..." Sighing, Harry rubbed his forehead. "Look, it's not like I want you angry at me, but could you make up your mind? If it was my fault, there's no point in going after her too."

"I'm not angry at you over the match!" Ron retorted. "It's forgiving her! She cheated you, Harry!"

"Technically," Harry answered, speaking evenly to not jar his head, "faking out your opponent is not cheating. Seekers do false dives all the time. I have."

"That wasn't a false dive!"

"No, it was slyer than that, but I should have been on my guard. We were playing Slytherin! But I had started worrying about the wind, and that she's been having balance issues recently -- she says that's real, by the way -- and I lost track of the match."

"Fine," Ron said. "I won't hold it against her." He jammed his feet into shoes without untying them, twisting an ankle back and forth to squeeze the heel in. "You, on the other hand, might as well go live with the snakes, since you obviously care more about them than about us. And our plans for this afternoon? Go find some other dupe for your boyfriend's grand schemes."

He stormed off, the thump of his feet uneven from the still unsettled shoe.

"Ouch," Harry said, rubbing his temples.

"Have a drop too much, last night?" Seamus prodded.

"Merlin, yes. I didn't notice it, either. Someone had to have been topping off my glass, because I swear I only took one, and I've never felt this awful from less than three."

"Hm." Seamus sounded a bit more sympathetic at that. "Might a Slytherin have tampered with it? If you were with them...."

Harry started to shake his head, but then gave that up as a bad idea. "I doubt it. Draco and Blaise and Millicent and I were watching each other's drinks, so any additions would have been friendly."

"Ah." Seamus studied him. "Did you ever have anything else after the match? I mean, water, pumpkin juice...?"

"No, I--" Harry stopped on the verge of saying he'd been too upset. "Oh."

"Food?" Seamus continued pointedly. "Lunch? Dinner?"

"Um...."

"Right." Seamus scooped his robes up off the floor and dropped them on still fastened as far as he bothered with on weekends. "And I know you didn't eat before the match, as you never do. Let's get you some breakfast."

"Okay."

"And Harry?" Seamus said, as they started down the stairs. "If you have a moment, what with trying to protect Muggles, Slytherins, firsties, dangerous magical creatures, and damn near everything else, you might take some care for yourself."

 

In the Great Hall, Seamus shoved Harry into a spot next to Hermione. That was the last place Harry wanted to be, but couldn't very well say so. He needed a moment or two to steel himself to try a sip of pumpkin juice, and twice as long to bring himself to nibble on a bun. By the time he looked up and noticed that Seamus hadn't sat down himself, Seamus was all the way over to the Slytherin table.

"Oh no," Harry breathed.

"Harry?" Hermione nudged him and looked pointedly at Seamus, who had hooked a finger through the beads dangling across Draco's tie, and was using the loop to pull him half-way over the table, so their noses were practically touching. Seamus looked fierce, and Draco offended. "What's that about?"

"Er, me, I suppose. I don't know." Harry couldn't think. His eyes momentarily met Draco's over Seamus's shoulder, and then Draco looked away. He caught Seamus by the wrist. For a moment, they stayed like that, and then, with a nod from Draco, mutually released each other. Seamus returned to the Gryffindor table with more of a swagger than Harry thought advisable.

"You know, it wasn't his fault," Harry told him, as he sat down.

"Not as something he did," Seamus said, reaching for the porridge, "but he should know by now that you need more care."

"I don't!"

"Right. I'll believe it when you show it."

"What happened?" Hermione asked.

"I, um, didn't eat yesterday. After breakfast, I mean."

"Well, you hardly ate at breakfast!" Hermione said. "Oh." Her eyes widened. "That would be.... Right."

"Hermione," Harry said desperately, "it was a really odd day, that's all."

The unrestrained warmth of her smile was unnerving. "Of course," she said sincerely. "I understand."

 

By the time he had finished two cups of pumpkin juice and one of water, three slices of toast, an egg, some mushrooms, and a rasher of bacon, Harry felt almost normal, except for when he moved his head too quickly. Hermione was another issue. She was friendly, but so ready to agree with anything he said that it made Harry uncomfortable. Fortunately, no one else was paying them much attention. Ron was sitting some distance down the table, ignoring both of them, and Ginny was with him, apparently in a huff. Seamus and Parvati were talking to each other, and glancing over only now and then, perhaps to be sure that Harry was eating. When he was full, Harry excused himself and left the table. He wasn't at all surprised to have Draco catch him in the hallway.

"So," Draco said. "I am informed that your contribution to the party was the only liquid you had after the match."

"Almost," Harry admitted. "Look, it's not--" He shrugged. "I just wasn't paying attention."

Draco lowered his chin in a curt nod. "A matter I understand far better than your Irish friend, I believe. Do use more sense in the future."

"After the headache I woke up with? Yeah, I plan to."

"Good." Draco cleared his throat. "That's settled, then, and you can let him know that I spoke to you. Are you well enough to brew for this afternoon?"

"Yes, but Ron won't do it."

Draco frowned. "Because of the match?"

"Right. He's angry at me, and altogether furious at Slytherin." Which was inconvenient in more ways than one, Harry thought. Ron would no doubt relent after a week or two, but the brewing would have covered for the curse that he had cast. Draco would know he couldn't meet the Quiris after making that potion. "On the other hand, he can get over things just as abruptly as he gets angry. Maybe I should prepare the potion anyway."

Draco sighed. "Very well. It's fairly stable until the blood is added. But if we have no time constraints...." He stepped forward, running a hand through Harry's hair and settling it behind his head. "There's no need to start with work, is there?" he murmured.

"God." Harry leaned forward into Draco's lips, letting that soft welcome soothe his anxiety. He wondered when kissing Draco had changed from an exciting danger to something that grounded him with familiar love. The muddled sound from the doors opening was too familiar to distract him, but the stinging hex on his back was something else. He yelped, but twisted, his wand dropping into his hand.

"Get a room!" Ginny called over. "I'm sure you can find one."

Fingers closed around his hand. "Come on," Draco said.

"Our clubhouse?"

"Yes. I want you in bed."

 

By the time Harry started the potion, they had missed lunch. Draco went out to the kitchens to get food and returned just Harry was dropping the first bugbear claw into the noxious brew. The hard, black hook lay for a moment on top of the thick, heaving potion before a bubble opened with a splat and then closed over it. Harry rolled the next one over in his fingers, feeling the heavy darkness of it. This was a creature that lived in the shadows of forbidden places, waiting for prey. Like a Boggart, it was both more and less than it seemed. Some people said the claws were the only real part of it. He dropped the second claw in and let it sink. The third claw was the largest. Harry wondered that it wasn't sharper. Contemplatively, he ran it up the inside of his arm, leaving a white line on his skin.

"Harry?" Draco questioned softly.

Dropping the claw hastily into the potion, Harry took up his wand. As soon as the claw tipped below the surface, he put out the fire below the cauldron.

"All set," he said, trying to sound brisk. He didn't think it was very convincing.

"You looked rather...." Draco hesitated. "Enrapt," he tried.

"It's very dark," Harry admitted. "And strange, even without that, I think." What sort of wounds did a creature that was only claws leave?

"Let me show you a grounding exercise," Draco said. "Here. First sit down on the floor, tailor-style."

Harry looked down at the floor. It was dirty, but he supposed that didn't matter. "Only if you do," he said, smirking at Draco's fine clothes. He'd never refastened his robes after they got out of bed, and his white shirt was untucked over wide-legged trousers of fine, light grey wool.

"Here," Draco said again, taking both of Harry's hands and tugging as he folded his legs under him. On the ground, he shifted from having both legs to one side to crossing them in front of him. Harry was disappointed to see that they were barely smudged, but he arranged himself to mirror Draco's pose.

"Now," Draco said, "take out your wand and cast Lumos. Good. Now swoop the wand in loose loops, like an infinity symbol, and let it trail light, until you can see the whole symbol at once."

Slowly, Draco walked him through changing the color of his light at every third cross of the line, and Harry found he could pick up the rhythm, making the change at the right instant, even with larger and smaller loops. Sometime after that, it occurred to him to wonder what the point was.

"Why am I doing this?"

"Hm. Because I don't like you looking like you might find an evisceration mildly amusing. Do you think you're done?"

Harry let his wand tip sag. Slowly the light faded out. "Like I.... Oh." He checked out Draco's trouser legs again. They weren't dirty, but that was no longer disappointing. "Right. Thanks."

"It's a good thing to do, if you can manage to remember that you ought to do it," Draco commented, rising to walk the few steps to the couch. "Come over here and clean your hands, and we'll eat."

"It doesn't dispel the Dark energy," Harry said, as he joined him. It wasn't quite a question, but Draco nodded.

"It doesn't, but it does settle it down, so it's not quite as dominant an influence. You still couldn't go near a Quiri."

At his first bite of a ham sandwich, Harry realized that he was ravenous. It wasn't until after finishing the sandwich, an apple, and several chocolate biscuits that he felt sated enough to relax.

"Hungry?" Draco asked blandly.

"Starving. I think yesterday caught up with me."

Draco bit his lip. "It wasn't my idea, you know. I admit I was dreading going up against you for the final time, but I hadn't thought to get out of it. You must see that I couldn't refuse though -- I would have been accused of favoring you over my house."

"I would rather hope you do."

"Not on the pitch!" Scowling, Draco thumped back too hard against the inflatable couch, and it bounced him forward again. "There are certain situations in which lesser loyalties have conditional supremacy over greater ones. Explicit competition between houses is one of those."

"I don't think about things that way."

"And it garners you hostility among members of your house, because you fail them at moments when they understand that they should have your undivided loyalty. When you are on the pitch, you should be Gryffindor's Seeker and nothing else. Millicent Bulstrode should concern you only as someone who may lob a Bludger at you."

Uncomfortable with his feelings on the matter, Harry twisted to face Draco, setting his back against the arm of the sofa. "That's sort of true," he said. "It's true if the match is just a match. But if it looks like a real threat has come into it, it's different. For example, you can't use magic in a match, but no one criticized me when I cast a Patronus against what looked like a Dementor--"

"I did!" Draco countered, grinning. "But you're right -- an external threat is different. This wasn't one, though. It was a player appearing to lose control."

"She's been having balance issues."

"A player's physical condition is a normal factor of play. It wasn't your concern. There are staff members to deal with that sort of thing."

"But what if they didn't?" Harry burst out. "Yes, I hated losing, and I hated even more not getting to try, and some members of my house are angry at me, but what if she'd fallen and died? Then I'd feel worse."

"Flitwick was refereeing. He would have caught her. You need to let people do their jobs."

"I don't trust people to do anything!" Harry snapped.

For a moment, there was silence.

"Good," Draco said.

"What?"

"I'm glad you at least know that -- about yourself, I mean."

"Well, there's no reason to!" Harry gestured at the room around them. "The staff didn't catch the basilisk or keep Tom from bringing Ginny down here! They didn't get Voldemort out of Quirrell's head, or catch Barty Crouch before he kidnapped me and got Cedric killed! They didn't capture Sirius -- which turned out to be just as well -- or protect me from Dementors, or from you, or from Dean, or from Snape, when he hated me. My Muggle teachers never protected me from Dudley and his friends, and my aunt and uncle never protected me from anything. More people here like me than like Millicent; why should I trust anyone to save her?" He came breathless to the end of his protest, his face hot, at once embarrassed and defiant. Draco looked steadily into his eyes.

"Because it was public," he said.

That wasn't what Harry was expecting. Prepared to fight soothing words, he instead stayed silent, letting Draco continue.

"It wasn't a dark corridor," he said steadily. "It wasn't hidden under other interactions, and it wasn't an unassigned task. She was one of fourteen people specifically being watched for trouble by two people, all in front of an audience. Someone would have caught her. Flitwick had his wand out, I'm told."

Harry sighed. "I can't think that way."

"You need to learn. You need to be able to delegate. You need to rely on your friends where and when you can, and even on the staff, where and when you can. It's good that you know that isn't everywhere or always, but you need to understand when it is."

"I don't need to delegate. Leaders need to delegate."

"Like it or not, my love," Draco said softly, "you need to be a leader, at least for a little while. You won't survive against the D-- Voldemort if you leave it to Professor Dumbledore, or the Minister, or the Aurors. That is where you need to rely on yourself -- not to stand alone, but to lead."

It was too much -- too much to absorb, too much to argue with. "I don't know how," Harry complained, and Draco sniffed in amusement.

"Don't worry, love; you have the knack, except for this little point." Shifting to face forward again, he began putting the debris from lunch back into the basket from the kitchens. "Speaking of Millicent, she seems amenable to following you in many spheres. I do hope you realize that she wouldn't be a suitable wife."

Harry, who had been taking a sip of currant juice, choked. Draco blinked at him while he coughed and dabbed at the purple spots on his t-shirt.

"Oh, honestly! Here." Draco's wand was out, and a quick spell cleaned the splotches from the fabric, leaving it clean and dry. "I have it all wrong, I gather?"

"Yes!"

"Well, she is the only woman that you seem to have a private understanding with, and I can't rely on you to evaluate social considerations on your own."

"Or with your help," Harry returned with a scowl. "I'll marry for love and nothing less."

"Yes, of course," Draco soothed, "but that's no reason to permit love to blossom where the result would be unsuitable."

"Then why are you with me?" Harry demanded.

He hadn't meant it to come out. His heart clenched as Draco bit his lower lip and turned away.

"Stealing freedom," Draco murmured. "Even I can't be perfect."

 

When Harry got back to Gryffindor, he had to tell Seamus that yes, he had eaten, and Hermione that no, he hadn't been drinking. Telling Ron anything would have been a waste of time, as Ron stayed around only long enough to loudly detail -- presumably for Hermione's benefit, although he was addressing Dean -- how much work he had done that afternoon, and when Harry turned to him, he left the room.

Hermione looked questioningly at Harry.

"Losing the game," Harry answered. "He's just-- he's upset at me."

She nodded. "And at me for not being upset at you. It's a pity it was his only time against Slytherin. That makes it harder for him, I expect."

Harry had managed not to think of that. Perhaps the curse was losing its hold on her? The book had said it had to be dispelled, but if it faded off naturally, that would be much better. She might not ever realize what had happened.

"True," he said. "But he'll get over it."

"He always does," she agreed readily. Sighing, he sat down next to her. She seemed awfully certain, but that wasn't necessarily the curse. After all, Ron always did get over their fights, eventually. He took his Potions and Curse-Breaking texts out his bag.

"No Transfiguration?"

"I think I'm set with that," he lied.

"Oh, how wonderful!" she exclaimed. "I'm finding it exhausting, myself. Your independent project must really be helping you."

"Er, I just meant for this Monday," he tried.

"Oh." Her frown lasted only an instant. "Well, that's still good, but if you're up-to-date with everything else, you should read ahead."

"I have some work to do in Charms," he told her.

It wasn't too strange to have her not argue. If he didn't tell her anything, maybe he could pretend everything was normal.

 

By Monday morning, Harry was avoiding Hermione as much as possible. He couldn't think what to do. If he lifted the curse from her, he would not only be back to her asking questions he couldn't answer, but she might realize that she hadn't been thinking normally for the previous two days. On the other hand, every conversation he had with her felt like leading a blind man into a minefield. She believed far more than he had expected from the description of the curse, and he hated it.

He really needed advice, but there was no one he could talk to about the situation. Snape wouldn't understand why he wasn't pleased, Harry was sure, and Draco wouldn't understand why he had felt so desperate as to use Dark Arts on Hermione. After all, he could hardly say that it was to keep some unspecified secret of Millicent's. During the day, this thought continued to come back to him. He imagined awkward conversations in which he acknowledged a "private understanding" with Millicent, while being willing to say only what it was not.

He managed to evade Hermione during the afternoon and through dinner, but he wasn't sure what he would do after that. He didn't have anywhere to go other than Gryffindor. He and Draco had agreed to not meet that evening, as they had spent most of Sunday together, and he really needed to finish his Charms work. Maybe she would be too busy studying to notice when he came in.

"Harry," she called, as he stepped through the portrait hole. "There's room here!"

To his dismay, she had saved him a prime seat by the fire. He walked over, but didn't sit down. Ron wasn't around. He hoped Ron wasn't still angry at her on his account. "Er, thanks, but--" He thought frantically. "I need to write a letter. To, um, Remus, you know."

"Remus?" She looked puzzled. "Couldn't you write that here?"

"Remus and," he said, hoping the curse wouldn't keep her from getting the hint. "About, well, private things."

She nodded. He thought she might even have understood. "Okay."

"Shall I have him tell Snuffles you say hi?" he tried. From the way her eyes widened, he could tell she had just understood his meaning.

"Oh, please do," she answered, her cheeks dimpling with her smile. "I'd love to see him again -- Remus too, of course."

"Of course," he said with a nod, and went upstairs.

Ron had apparently been hiding in the dormitory. With a glare at Harry, he grabbed two books and stomped out.

Harry tried to finish his Charms essay. He really needed to. But having made Hermione believe that he was writing to Remus and Sirius, he felt a strange obligation to make it true. After several non-productive minutes of staring at the same page, he pushed away his schoolbooks and got out a fresh piece of parchment.

 

Dear Remus,

Lessons are going well. I earned top marks on my last Transfigura


He stopped in mid-word and stuck his tongue out at the parchment. Dear Sir, I am being a perfect little prissy boy, so no worries -- you can safely ignore me until you are congratulating me on my NEWTs.

Carefully, he folded back the top of the parchment, creased it hard, tore it off, and started again.


Dear Remus,

School is difficult. Not my classes -- academically, I expect this will be my best year, because marks are important to Draco, and I end up studying with him -- but outside of that. Gryffindor lost their Quidditch match against Slytherin, and it was mostly my fault, so a lot of people are upset with me, especially Ron, who's new to the team. And Hermione, after six years of managing not to, seems to have finally fallen into believing my press. She's acting like I'm as much of a mess as Nott said at the trial, so anytime she doesn't know where I've been, she gets hysterical about it. On the other hand, I've made a lot of new friends, in all houses. I've also found I don't mind firsties anymore. Maybe I'm enough older? It's kind of fun to help them, sometimes. They have little problems, mostly -- except for family stuff, which I can't do anything about. It's nice to be able to fix something.

Draco and I managed to get Professor Dumbledore to add a mixed-house social space near the library. It's open for very limited hours, and not many of the kids go, but it's a big improvement for people who have siblings or lovers in other houses. There are two younger kids -- brothers -- who taught me to play parcheesi. Their mom is a Muggle, and they didn't know about wizards -- even though their dad is one -- until the older one did accidental magic. It's the first time I've talked to someone else who was Muggle-raised, but not Muggle-born. Most people think of them as the same.

I've been mostly keeping out of trouble -- as much as you'd believe, anyway. I'm really busy. Draco and I picked up an independent study with Professor McGonagall. I think she's actually starting to like him! He's really talented at shaping, and I'm learning to work in other changes while he's forming something.

How are you? Is your dog staying inside more in this cold? Has he won over any new friends travelling with you? Hermione sends her greetings to both of you, by the way. (She's not here, but I told her I was going upstairs to write you a letter.) I hope you're having a good time.

Regards

Harry stared at the businesslike word and vanished the ink from the paper. He replaced it with "Love" and then with "Best Wishes", and then with "love" again, but written small and sloppily, as if he always wrote such things at the bottom of letters and it had just tumbled out of his quill.

Once the letter was addressed and set aside for sending, it was much easier to finish his Charms assignment.

 

When Harry woke up the next morning, the swirling thoughts in his mind had settled into a path. He needed to ask Millicent for permission to tell Draco about her project, so he could explain what he had done to Hermione without looking like a paranoid loon. Having decided this, he was tempted to try to talk to her as soon as he could -- before lunch, or even before Potions -- but firmly told himself to hold off. He would be meeting her to renew her glamours after he got out of Symbology, and he had the slot after that free. If he walked down to Hagrid's with her, they would be able to talk without fear of anyone overhearing.

That was not, of course, subtle.

"What's up?" she asked, as soon as they were clear of the building. She made a face. "Is it about the match?"

He shook his head. "No, though I am still annoyed about that, to be honest. It's-- Remember how we'd talked about telling Draco, in September?"

With a long, rattling breath, she sighed. "I know I said-- I'm sorry about delaying. It's hard to decide."

"I get that," he said. "The thing is, I think I need to, now. Things are getting out of hand."

Her eyes narrowed. "What do you mean? Is it Pansy?"

"Pansy?"

Millicent huffed. "That trick in the match -- that was her idea. Since it worked, she's been trying to use it to convince Draco that we must be lovers, but I thought he was smarter than that."

"What! Why on earth would anyone think that meant we were lovers?"

"Because you bothered. As she sees it, you'd have to be in love with me to risk the match." Millicent snorted. "Draco knows you better than that, I'm sure."

Remembering talking to Remus and Sirius about Draco, Harry nodded. "My-- Professor Lupin, who was a Gryffindor, thought Draco jumping out the window after me was a clear sign he was in love; he said a Slytherin would have to be. Even so, that was helping me fight Lestrange -- not just getting distracted during a match."

Millicent shrugged. "Lupin is wrong too, you know. It doesn't need to be love, even for us. Pansy's world is all little things. I don't think she's ever had to think about anything more important than House points or meeting potential husbands." She stooped to pick up a stick and began tapping the side of her thigh with it as she walked, as if she were riding a distracted horse. "I'm not saying Draco doesn't love you -- he does, of course, but Slytherins can value a move that benefits their side, even at personal risk. If we were really all about every man for himself, You-Know-Who wouldn't have half the followers he does."

Harry considered that, and slowly nodded.

"Yeah. If it was all about him, I think Draco would stay with me."

Startled, she looked at him again. "What makes you think he won't?"

"He's going to marry. Because it's his duty to his family, he says."

"But why would--" Her breath came out in a harsh puff. "And you won't stay through that, of course," she surmised.

"Do you think that's unreasonable?"

Shrugging, she stopped and leaned back against a rock. They were getting too close to Hagrid's hut to continue walking. "No," she said, "but I expect he does. He was raised to think of marriage the way you and I think of a job." A smile twisted across her face. "I'm supposed to too, but my family isn't really that upper class. They want to pretend, but they're not that good at it."

"My Muggle family was kind of like that," Harry admitted. "Trying to look higher class than they were, I mean. It meant that they were terrified of messing it up and got obsessed with stupid stuff."

Millicent nodded. "It's easier to get the stupid stuff. It's in magazines, and people like Pansy are happy to tell you when you have it wrong."

Hagrid had come into sight, though he was at a distance on the far side of his hut. Harry realized that the conversation had gone off track. "Anyway," he said, "I'm having trouble with Hermione, over disappearing when Draco's around, and I need to be able to tell him why I do it, so he can give me advice about handling her, or maybe an alibi, now and then. And he could probably help with getting potions components."

She scowled down at the ground, absently cracking her knuckles.

"Mill?" Harry asked. "Please?"

She looked up. "All right," she said, not as all as if it was. "I suppose he has no reason to tell, as long as Professor Snape won't find out he was in on it. Promise to cover for him there, and you can tell him."

Harry nodded. "Agreed. Though he might not care about that either. Snape is his godf-- spellfather, and their relationship is a bit odd, really."

"His choice, though," she said doggedly. Hagrid had spotted them and was heading over.

"His," Harry said. "I promise."

"And I know that's good," she said, and held out her hand. They shook on it, turning away from each other just as Hagrid lumbered back into view.

"Goo' afternoon, Harry," Hagrid said. "Yeh come down to help wi' the Thorny Hedge?"

"Er -- just taking a bit of a walk while there's still sun," Harry said. "What thorny hedge?"

"It's a type of hedge plant," Mill explained. "Once you have it established, it grows back faster than most people can chop it."

"Tha's right!" Hagrid said, beaming. "Did your readin', I see. Tell Harry how yeh get through it."

Millicent practically glowed with pride. "There are two ways," she said. "The easiest is a Withering hex, but you can also use an enchanted ax or machete. In the past, witches and wizards have sometimes given those to Muggles when they couldn't attack the Thorny Hedge themselves."

"Like Sleeping Beauty!" Harry said.

"What?"

"It's a Muggle fairy tale. There's a beautiful princess who is cursed to unending sleep, and to get to her and break the spell, the prince has to cut through brambles that grow back as he chops them. I think he has a magic sword in some versions." Harry shrugged. "In others, he's just more persistent and faster than the ones who couldn't make it through."

Hagrid nodded. "Tha' wou' be Thorny Hedge. Amazin' really, wha' Muggles remember."

 

Harry stayed long enough to watch Millicent train some Thorny Hedge three yards deep around the entrance to one of the Magical Creatures pens, and then use a controlled Withering hex to make an S-shaped path to the gate. He wondered if this was just practice, or if Hagrid needed the barrier for his next acquisition, but didn't want to interrupt to ask. Millicent was working with the focused concentration that she had when brewing her own potions, and he had never seen her magic work so well. When she paused to rest before extending it further along the fence, he gave them both a wave of goodbye and left.

It would have been easy to talk to Draco after their Transfiguration tutorial, but now that he had permission, he thought his sense of urgency may have been exaggerated by feeling like he didn't have any options. Unlike the day before, Hermione had been easy to avoid. On that evening, she studied by herself in a corner, Ron argued with Ginny by the chess table, and Harry sat with Seamus and Parvati. None of them claimed the sofa by the fire that they used to share.

On Wednesday, Hermione stayed near him on the walk down to breakfast, despite Harry not saying more than a curt "Good morning," to her. Nervous about sitting with her, Harry squeezed in to a small space between Cornelia and Ginny at the Gryffindor table.

"Are we okay?" he asked them, as Hermione clattered on to a free spot further down.

Cornelia shrugged. "Pretty much."

"Although I do think you're an idiot," Ginny added, nodding. "And I will remind you of that if I think you're not staying on track again."

"Fair enough," Harry agreed.

"Look," Cornelia began. "I can't help noticing--"

But then, the post owls arrived. Cornelia sat back, probably to wait out the chaos and resume, but a long-eared owl among the crowd swooped down to Harry.

"Who's it from?" Ginny asked.

Harry grinned at the precise handwriting on the envelope. "Remus," he said happily, thinking just as much of Sirius.

Ginny frowned. "Who?"

"Remember Professor Lupin?"

"The werewolf?" Cornelia asked. "He writes to you?"

"He was a good friend of my parents," Harry explained. "He says he would have tried to adopt me, if he hadn't been a werewolf. As it was, he stayed away, thinking I'd be better off."

Ginny sniffed. "Prat."

"Yeah." Harry pushed back the wistful feeling of how much better it would have been to have someone around who was willing to tell him that his parents had loved him and taken good care of him, even if he couldn't have done anything substantial. "Anyway, he knows better now."

Cornelia nudged him. "Are you going to read it?"

Harry bit his lip. "Maybe not here," he said. "It could be about, you know, personal stuff."

 

The first lesson of Wednesday morning was double Defense Against the Dark Arts. Harry got to the classroom early and sat in a back corner, so he could read his letter without anyone else seeing it.

 

Dear Harry,

I'm glad to hear you are applying yourself to your lessons. It will be worth it for more than marks, believe me.

If Hermione is anxious when she doesn't know where you were, should you perhaps tell her more about where you've been? I expect that you consider it none of her business, but when I think back on Sirius, who perhaps may not have been your parents' Secret Keeper after all, I wonder if we kept too much from each other for inconsequential reasons. I did some odd jobs, at the time, and did not want to tell him about them, because he was adamant that I shouldn't work for less than an average wage, but I was trying to save money for a present for him. And he disappeared on a regular basis and gave very vague -- and at least once, verifiably untrue -- answers as to where he had been, so after he was arrested, I had spaces to fill with 'reporting to the enemy'.

I'm glad you're making new friends, but take care not to neglect the old. You know my opinion of Quidditch -- when taken too seriously, it can turn reasonable people into idiots. Ron is too good a young man to stay angry over some error in play for long. However, you should let him know, now and then, that you still value him, or he might wrongly assume that he has burned his bridges.

First years? That is a change! And yes, a sign that you are growing up, and can now look fondly upon 'children' from the safety of the lofty age of seventeen. I do worry, somewhat, that you make this distinction between 'Muggle-raised' and 'Muggle-born'. Might you be spending too much time with students who value blood above experience?

My dog loves a wild run, but he does stay safe inside more often these days. His true friends know when we take our rambles. He would be delighted to see you and Hermione, I am sure -- as would I. Tell her that I am very proud of her and am certain she will continue to excel at her studies.

Much love,

Remus

Beside the signature was a paw print. Even after what Remus had said about blood prejudice, seeing the paw print made Harry feel warm inside.

People had started to file into the classroom. Ron looked at Harry, huffed, and settled on the other side of the room. Draco came in later, looked around the room, and came straight over to Harry.

"Move up," he said, "I don't want to sit this far back."

"Okay." Harry tucked the letter into his bag and went willingly up to the second row. "I'd just wanted some privacy to read."

Draco raised his eyebrows. "Twins?" he asked casually, but his brow was furrowed.

"Nah. Remus."

"Oh." Relaxing, Draco began to take things out of his schoolbag. "All is well, I hope?"

"More or less." Harry was trying not to think too much about Remus's view that blood prejudice was the only reason to make a distinction between himself and a Muggleborn student. Clearly, he didn't understand at all. Harry would have to explain why it mattered, but he couldn't think about it now, because it would put him on edge, which was never good when throwing hexes around.

"What's wrong?"

Harry sighed. "He thinks you're a bad influence on me. I don't want to go into it now, okay?"

"Understood," Draco said, but his lips pursed. Harry looked away and back to the door.

Hermione was coming in. Her eyes were clear, but her nose pink, as if she had just blown it. She looked accusingly at Harry and went and sat by the wall.

"I'm tempted to hex Weasley," Draco whispered savagely.

"Why?"

"She's been crying! Look how her eyes are blue underneath -- she's overusing spells to keep them from being puffy. Will she talk to you at all?"

With dismay, Harry realized that he was probably hurting Hermione as much as Ron was. "I don't know; I haven't thought of it." He tried giving her a smile, and saw her eyes water. "Damn. It's probably me as much as him. I'll talk to her at lunch."

From Draco's smug little nod, Harry thought he had known perfectly well that Harry had been avoiding Hermione too.

 

Chapter Text

 

Hermione ducked out of the classroom while Harry was still working on a tricky shield combination, and as usual, she finished her potion before Harry, so he wasn't able to catch her on the way to lunch. She wasn't in the Great Hall when he got there, either. When he arrived at Transfiguration, she was seated alone, so he gave Draco an affectionate nudge and went to sit with her. She looked up, startled, as he slipped into the seat beside her.

"Harry?"

"Hi," he said. "I didn't want you sitting by yourself again. Is Ron still upset at you?"

With a wobbly smile, she nodded. "He hasn't spoken to me since I said it was okay that you went to Slytherin."

"Yeah, well...." Harry shrugged. "He's not speaking to me, either."

"I thought you were avoiding me too."

"I've just been a little preoccupied, that's all."

"Oh." She blushed. "Maybe I should have been clearer. I didn't want to push."

"And it might be just as well," Harry said quickly. "You know how I can get when I'm in a sulk. Look," he added, as her face started to fall, "let's study together after lessons." That, he hoped, would keep any conversation to safe subjects.

"I'd love that," she said. "The mixed house space, I expect?"

He hadn't really been planning on that, but maybe it would be a good idea. Ron wouldn't be there ignoring them, at least. "Great."

 

Hermione, however, seemed to want to make the session as social as possible. She engaged him in a discussion of glamours, and to his complete horror, seemed willing to replace her concept of how imitative construction worked with his, which he was sure wasn't as accurate. He had to quickly backtrack, emphasizing that he wasn't at all sure he understood it and thought she might have it right. While she pored back over her notes in undeserved confusion, he steadied his breath and wondered if he could possibly have miscast the spell. Maybe it was Snape he should talk to, not Draco. The way that Hermione was behaving went well beyond the description of the curse in Snape's book. According to that, he would need to be persuasive, even with the spell in place, and what she would believe was limited. In practice, he thought he could probably tell her the sky was green and she would conclude that she had a previously unnoticed problem distinguishing among colors.

"May I join you?" Draco asked, appearing by their table. Harry twitched, having missed his approach. He tried to not let his panic show. "If you like," he said. "We're working on Charms."

"Do you know about imitative construction in glamours?" Hermione asked him eagerly. "I had the idea that one should start first with a subtle element, but Harry says you should start with the basic changes."

Before answering, Draco glanced curiously at Harry, who shrugged.

"As I understand it, starting with a subtle element makes the glamour more stable," Draco said. "It's a technique primarily used in decorating. Starting with basic changes is easier, though, so more people can do it reliably."

"Could that be it, Harry?" Hermione asked.

"Well, um, yeah." Harry heard his voice come out tight with anxiety and forced a more casual tone. "I mean, that makes sense, right? So we're both right."

"Oh, good!"

Draco's eyebrows rose, but he made no comment on the interaction as he sat down.

 

Although Draco conversed naturally with Hermione, he studied her while she was looking at her book, and Harry imagined he could feel those eyes on him, as well, whenever he turned away. He pulled the white notebook out of his bag and opened it to the first blank page.

We need to talk.

About your friend? I agree.

Can you meet me in our place after lights out?

Draco lifted his head, giving Harry a long, lustful look. With a smirk, he wrote his reply. Yes, of course. I just need to be back before dawn.

 

Late that night, Harry got to the Chamber of Secrets and found it empty. That wasn't unexpected -- Draco often had to stay up later than Harry to duck out unseen -- but it was unwelcome. After pacing the length of the cavern several times, he finally settled down on the furry sofa, choosing the green end for a change. While waiting there, he wrote a reply to Remus. It took him half a dozen tries, but he thought the final version was clear.

 

Dear Remus,

Being Muggle-raised is different than being Muggle-born, in at least two ways. Blood prejudice is the obvious one. I don't think I'm better than Hermione, of course, but a lot of people who don't know either of us do, and I know I'll never have to deal with the level of prejudice that she does. That's the 'good' part.

The bad part is that people from magical families, whether prejudiced or not, know that I'm wizard-born and expect me to know things that wizard-raised kids know -- and most of the time I don't. So when I don't, people who don't know much about me sometimes think I'm stupid, or lazy, or rude. If I was Muggle-born, they'd be more likely to realize that I just wasn't taught these things. It was when I was first becoming friends with Draco that I finally realized this. Now, I remind people that I'm Muggle-raised when I don't know things, and that helps. I told the kids who taught me Parcheesi that it was probably better to make sure people knew that they had been raised as Muggles, even if that meant they got hassled about their mum more. Draco has also taught me a lot. He gave me a family book, last Christmas, after he realized that I didn't know what one was. Some of it's silly, but at least I know it's there, even if I'll always be rubbish at writing with a quill.

I think you ought to meet Draco again. I know he was really obnoxious the year you were here, but he's grown up a lot. Also, I don't really know how to say this, but I am really offended that you thought this was blood prejudice on my part, or trying to make myself look more important to the purebloods, or something. I am trying to talk to them, but there's no point in that if it involves changing what I believe in.

 

Sitting back, Harry wondered if that was true. He had not compromised on that issue, perhaps, but he had basically been bragging about Dark Arts for the Slytherins. And had he really needed to learn this troublesome curse from Snape, or was he just trying to reinforce their new accord?

His thoughts continued to circle around that idea. He could easily picture Snape both sneering and nodding approvingly, and it was a little frightening to feel that he valued the man's approval. He certainly shouldn't, considering how he bestowed it on the Slytherins for minor achievements, or even malicious ones, but for him, it had been a prize, and it still gave him a flush of pride to recall Snape standing in that casual way, addressing him as a co-conspirator. The reflections were uncomfortable, and it was a relief when he finally heard footsteps in the corridor and could tuck the letter into his bag. With a soft hiss of Parseltongue, Harry ordered the door to close once Draco entered the room.

Supremely unaffected by the clang behind him, Draco continued forward to Harry. "What happened to her?" he asked tensely. "Do you know?"

"I--" Harry wished he had spent some of his time rehearsing what to say. "I put her under a Credulity curse, but--"

"You! You cursed her?"

"It wasn't supposed to work like this!" Harry protested. "And she was asking about Millicent, and I couldn't--" Harry stopped, swallowing. Draco's eyes were still wide with astonishment, but his mouth settling into a scowl. "I've got this backwards. I should tell you about Millicent first."

"Please do," Draco said icily, his eyes narrowing. "I don't for a moment believe Pansy's theory -- the girl is hardly your type -- but there is clearly something afoot, if you would attack a dear friend for her."

"I didn't attack her!"

"It is a curse, Harry. That is an attack."

"She won't be reasonable!"

"So you want to lie to her with impunity."

"I haven't lied!"

That startled them both to silence for a moment. Harry thought back, and realized it was true.

"Haven't lied?" Draco prodded incredulously. "You have cursed her to believe you, and then told her the truth? That's likely!"

"I did." Harry felt his shoulders drop. "I did. It didn't seem fair."

"Then what do you gain?"

"That she believes me."

"Dee's balls," Draco muttered. "What a mess!"

"Yeah." Harry said.

"So." Draco straightened, raising his chin. "You implied this had something to do with Bulstrode."

"Right. She said I could tell you, but you have to keep it to yourself." Harry took a quick breath. "I'm helping her with a sex change."

"Se--" Draco let his breath out with a hiss. "Harry!"

"She wants to be a man," Harry explained quickly, "and she has to do a slow change, so her family can't just reverse it. I'm helping her with potions and glamours, so we're brewing every two weeks, and we have to meet every day for the glamours, because I can't make them last much longer, though maybe what Hermione said today will help. That's why I made up with her when I did; if I'd left it until morning, the glamour would have worn off, and she'd be caught, and that would ruin the whole thing."

"And this matters to you," Draco sneered.

"Of course it matters! We're talking about the rest of her life, Draco! I love Quidditch, and I like winning, and, honestly, I'm still angry with her, some, but I decided last June that people are more important than games, and it would have been childish of me to claim such a huge penalty of her."

With a huff and a scowl, Draco thumped back into the sofa, but Harry could tell from the set of his eyes that he was thinking hard.

"How did you get involved with this? Did she ask for your help?"

"No. This is how we started talking this summer. We ran into each other -- literally -- in the bookshop, when I was invisible, and I was helping her pick up her books, and saw Permanent Sex Change with Potions. I had a horrible time getting her to believe I wouldn't blackmail her, and finally I told her that if she would protect you in Slytherin, I would keep my mouth shut and help her get potions components. Then, at school, she started trusting me more, and I just fell into helping with the rest of it."

Cocking his head to the side, Draco studied Harry for a moment. "I will assume there is no explicit bargain for that. Is there something you hope for?"

Harry bit back a denial and forced himself to think about the question. "I suppose that I'm hoping for an ally. Not in games, of course, but in real life."

Draco nodded. "You have that, I believe. I'm not sure she'd take a curse for you, but she'd certainly be willing to throw them. She defends you in Slytherin to the very limit of sense." He sighed. "That is part of why she reacted badly to you saying you had helped her in front of the team."

"That, and she was probably afraid I'd say how," Harry added. "All of you underestimate my discretion, I think."

"Perhaps," Draco allowed. "But any debt to you undercuts her legitimacy in the house, regardless. So. You told Hermione this?"

"No. I told her that I was helping someone, and I wasn't doing anything wrong, and I wasn't breaking any school rules that she hadn't broken herself."

"Ah." Draco stood, and turned away, looking at the dark water. Harry twisted towards him.

"Look, about Hermione--"

"You cursed her."

"It wasn't supposed to be like this!"

Draco whirled, the front of his robes flapping up. "Oh?" he demanded sarcastically.

"The Credulity curse is just supposed to be an edge. It shouldn't matter if I don't try to be persuasive. Certainly she shouldn't be thinking I know more about Charms than she does!"

Glaring, Draco crossed his arms over his chest. "You didn't research this at all, did you?"

"I did! I read about it, and I discussed--"

"Go on." At Harry's silence, Draco's glare turned to a contemptuous sneer. "Shall I finish for you? You discussed this with my spellfather, who is, of course, entirely sensitive to your feelings and priorities."

Harry looked guiltily away. "The book--"

"Did you read more than one?"

"No."

"Then you didn't research it. Any source has a bias." Draco began to pace. "There are two factors that may cause the Credulity spell to exert a more extensive effect. Have you any guesses?"

"Um, power of the caster?" Harry felt himself heat with embarrassment, but it would be foolish to deny that he was powerful.

With a smirk, Draco nodded. "That's the first one. You cast impressively in Defense, and I would not be at all surprised if your connection to Voldemort supplements your power in Dark Arts. However, there's another, more insidious factor involved here. Do you know the primary uses of the Credulity curse?"

Harry was too disturbed at the thought of channeling Voldemort's power to speculate. Numbly, he shook his head.

"Bribery, embezzlement, and concealing affairs from a jealous partner," Draco said succinctly. "Of these, my father advised me that it is of greatest effectiveness in bribery, because the subject wishes to believe you. If they accept your insubstantial excuses as to the value of what you want done, it absolves them of guilt."

He stopped, his arms crossed over his chest, waiting. Reluctantly, Harry considered this. "You think she wants to believe me?"

"Very much so, apparently."

"But she won't believe anything! She's been after me all term!"

"In that case, either you have presented your arguments badly, or she has been fighting it extremely hard."

With his toe, Harry pushed at the far arm of the sofa until his foot snapped past the plastic roll and up. "Both, maybe. She did seem really happy, right afterwards, when she could just say 'Oh, that's all right, then.'"

Draco took a deep breath. "You had no right to do this to her."

"I know." Harry curled his legs in protectively. "I've been feeling guilty about it ever since, and I want to lift it, but I don't know what's likely to happen, or how to handle it, and I wanted advice on keeping her from telling."

"You will lift it."

"Yes."

"Whether you can keep her from telling or not."

At Draco's icy tone, Harry lowered his head meekly. "Yes," he promised. I don't need another Dark wizard in my life, he remembered, and half-expected Draco to say it again.

"All right." Draco's anger fell away, leaving him looking lost. He came tentatively back to the sofa. "You shouldn't hide things from me," he said plaintively.

"I don't unless there's someone else involved."

"Even if." He sighed. "You obviously can't take care of yourself in anything subtle, and if someone matters to you, you ought to trust me to take that into account." Sneering, he took a seat. "Has dear Severus taught you anything else?"

"A spell to repel Quiris." At Draco's scowl, Harry shrugged. "It seemed a reasonable precaution, when I was learning the other. That's it."

"And what other secrets do you have? Talk. You do have something to do with Blaise's gargoyle dust, don't you?"

Biting his lip, Harry thought back. He didn't think Draco would disrupt that alliance based on what had never been full disapproval. "I bought it for him. He paid me back, but I--"

"In return for what?"

"An unspecified future favor."

"Still owed?"

"No. I had him buy the wine for us."

Draco snorted. "Rather a minor favor for that."

Harry shrugged. "Yeah, but I wanted to obscure my own purchases. So I bought his stuff, and Millicent's, and mine."

"Your purchases?"

"For the divination."

Draco sat back. "Only you, you know, could do such a set of reprehensible things with perfectly good intent."

"The only awful one was the curse!"

"The worst one was the curse, but you're supplying Blaise with an unethical and dangerous substance, and I rather think you like him."

"I didn't like him yet, I told him I wouldn't get more, and it's not that dangerous if he's careful."

"True, but that presumes he will be careful, which hardly seems likely."

"Look, will you help or not?"

Draco pretended to consider the matter.

"Yes," he said finally. "I'll go with you when you lift the spell, and try to calm her down if she flies into an entirely justifiable fury. It's likely that she won't notice immediately, however. If you work on being reasonable, and arrange with me to provide an alibi occasionally, she might never realize that she was cursed before."

"Thank you."

For a minute, they just looked at each other uneasily, and then Harry, unable to endure wondering where he stood any longer, leaned forward, pulling Draco into a kiss. After a moment of passive surrender, Draco returned it fiercely, his teeth pressing behind his lips. Harry whimpered, and Draco turned aside to nip at his neck.

"Oh, god, yes," Harry sighed, leaning his head back to let him at it. Every mark Draco left was a tacit forgiveness. If he still wanted Harry enough to claim him this way, then surely they would be all right. He squirmed back, pulling Draco down on top of him. To his relief and excitement, Draco began immediately to rut against him.

"Anything you want," Harry promised breathlessly. Fuck me, he wanted to say, but he didn't dare. His standing with Draco felt too precarious for anything he wasn't certain Draco wanted. They had yet to go beyond oral sex, and while Harry had occasionally dragged a finger along the cleft of Draco's arse while sucking him, Draco had never returned the touch, much less taken it further. Harry tried squirming onto his stomach, to see if Draco would take a hint if Harry presented his arse for frotting, but Draco pulled back instead.

"Not enough room here," he said. "Let's go to the bed."

Frustration coiling in his mind, Harry followed him across the stone floor and past the filigree stone screen that set off the bed from their lounge area. When they reached it, Draco hesitated, so Harry hoisted himself onto the mattress and worked his way back, tugging on Draco's hand.

"Come on."

Slowly, Draco brought a knee up beside Harry's leg. "You're eager, today."

"Need you," Harry insisted. "Please?"

"Hm." With a sudden smirk, Draco pulled off his robes and dropped his trousers, and then crawled over him, stopping up on his knees, straddling Harry's chest. "Let's see if you can handle this," he said, pressing his cock down, until the head was low enough that Harry thought he could catch it in his mouth. He curled up and managed to envelope the tip. Draco made no move to help, so Harry reached around to grip the back of Draco's thighs to help hold himself in position. He thought Draco might be punishing him by making it awkward, and was determined to show his contrition.

"Oh, you are good," Draco said softly. At the praise, Harry tried to stretch a little further, but he couldn't get much more than the head into his mouth, even though Draco continued to hold that down. It wasn't entirely one-sided -- with his free hand, Draco had reached back and was rubbing Harry's erection through his clothing -- but it was painfully awkward. Draco kept him straining there for at least another minute before tilting forward on his hands. Relieved, Harry dropped back and took him deeper. It still wasn't the best angle -- the end bumped bluntly into the roof of his mouth, and it was difficult to keep his teeth out of the way -- but at least it was easier on his neck.

At a motion from Draco, he let out a squeak of surprise. He turned to follow as Draco moved to the side, but lost the slippery length of Draco's cock.

"A moment's hold," Draco requested, a bit sharply. The words were unfamiliar, requiring far too much thought, and by the time Harry had translated them to wait a minute, Draco had turned to straddle Harry's head, facing his feet, and was casting a disrobing charm on him. He dropped down to his hands as Harry's trousers shot away, falling to the floor with a light thwap, and Harry found himself staring up at Draco's bollocks. Tentatively, he nuzzled the soft skin. It wasn't as if he hadn't done that before, but the angle changed things, drawing the hanging pouch down toward his mouth. Behind that, he could see the compressed lines of Draco's anus.

At a warm lick down his cock, he froze.

"I'll move back a little for you, shall I?" Draco murmured, inching up so that his bollocks were nearly out of reach, but his cock looked perfectly positioned. Harry couldn't really see what Draco was doing, but he could feel the soft play of his mouth, and he moaned as he took Draco's cock back into his own. Jutting down at this angle, he found, it was easy to take deep -- if anything, too easy. He didn't think he would have been able to keep from choking if he wasn't desperately horny. Draco, at least, seemed to have dropped his leisurely play, and as Harry moved faster, he kept time, the warm grip of his mouth squeezing up and sliding down Harry's shaft. He whimpered too, which always drove Harry mad, because it was Draco being undignified, which surely meant he was lost to sensation.

At another such sound, Harry gripped the cheeks of Draco's arse, and pulled himself as close as he could, not even minding when Draco's mouth went slack, because he was crying out around Harry's cock, and Harry wanted to tell him how sexy he was, how perfect, how much he mattered, but not at the expense of stopping, not when he was clearly so close....

With a final cry, Draco's mouth came off Harry's cock entirely, and with a quickly caught twitch of his hips, he was coming, the thick stuff pulsing out so suddenly that Harry didn't have time to worry about it before it was down. He pulled away quickly, grabbing quick gulps of air before returning to lick out the few last drops.

"Shh," Draco soothed, gentle now. "Lie down. Relax."

Harry lay down, though he couldn't have said he relaxed, really. He was far too caught up in the feel of Draco's mouth, and with trying to keep his answering thrusts shallow enough for Draco to move with. Holding still was impossible, and even staying aware of what he doing became so, as his arousal sent him into a state that was all sensation. His eyes closed. Behind them, light flashed as his senses overloaded. Heat. Tightness. Suspension. Release. He felt sound leave his throat. A moment later, as his eyes opened, he heard the memory of his cry.

"Well," Draco said smugly. "That was impressive."

"Mm." Harry let his lids sink closed again. "Love you," he murmured.

"You lit the entire bed."

His eyes opened of their own accord. "I what?"

"Illuminated it. Like a flare. Aren't you a little old for accidental magic?"

"Oh, yeah. Never stopped that." Harry yawned, and tugged Draco up to lie beside him. "Snape says it may mean I can learn wandless magic. He's offered to teach me."

Draco stiffened.

"Look, if you don't--"

"Hush." Draco kissed his cheek. "You should definitely accept. I'll come along."

"Okay." Harry moved uncertainly. "Are we all right?"

"Hm." Draco gave him a wicked smile. "Will you ply me with gifts and favors if I demur?"

Trying to pretend he was amused, Harry rolled his eyes. "Go off and sulk, more likely."

"When I have your clothes?"

"Draco," Harry said pleadingly, and Draco sighed.

"I love you, Harry. Of course we are 'all right', as you say. However, I will be keeping more of an eye on you, and you are not allowed to be sullen about it."

Harry snorted. He thought he should object -- it could be like Hermione all over again -- but he was too relieved. "Fortunately," he observed, "I love you too."

 

 

The next day, Harry skipped breakfast in favor of sleep. Defense Against the Dark Arts was a practical lesson, and by the end of it, he felt normally awake. Draco invited Hermione to sit with them during Charms, so Harry was careful not to say much. Twice, he caught Ron watching them, but each time their eyes met, his friend looked away with a scowl. Before he left for Symbology, Harry invited Hermione to meet him for studying in the mixed-house space after lessons.

 

"Draco talked to me," Millicent said, as she and Harry walked down towards Hagrid's hut.

"How did it go?"

She shrugged. "He had to start with some absurd claim, of course, as a test, but I told him what you'd really told him, and he seemed satisfied. I wasn't sure until I saw the two of you in Potions, but then it was clear everything was all right." She shot a sidelong glance at Harry as they picked their way down the rocky hillside. "He said I was messing up your relationship with Hermione. Is that what you started to tell me, the other day?"

"That's part of it." Harry wondered if she'd consider that a weak reason.

"Because she hates me."

Harry stopped. "No. I mean, she is less reasonable about you than about Draco, but the real problem is that I don't have explanations for the time I spend with you. I can't even tell her that it's with you, or she'll look into it more. That means she asks more questions about other things that she'd normally let slide. If Draco is willing to say I was with him, every other Sunday afternoon, that should help a lot."

"Oh." Brow wrinkling, she stared past his shoulder for a moment, until he almost began to wonder if there was something behind him. "That makes sense," she said finally, resuming their walk. "It is a long time. Some of my housemates are noticing too."

"And we're only half-way through the course."

"Yeah."

 

"Here already?" Draco commented, as he sat down at Harry's table in the mixed house space. Harry stopped smoothing the feathering of his quill and set it aside.

"Eh. I have last period free, Thursday. I was in the corridor when Sprout came to open the room."

"Mm. I'm rather glad it's not Severus."

"Yeah, me too."

"Even more so, I expect."

"Probably."

"Shall we start the Cursebreaking project?"

"So that we are working on it when Hermione arrives? Excellent idea."

"Just don't expect her too soon. She'll ask as many questions after a lesson as her professor will allow."

In fact, it was nearly half an hour later when Hermione finally joined them. As they had planned, Harry and Draco started explaining what they were working on for Cursebreaking, and then, once she was fascinated, Harry suggested that they find someplace more private for a practical.

 

"So, this has more than one curse on it?" Hermione asked, as she studied the little clay disk in front of her.

"Fairly minor hexes, actually. Professor Hecksban is careful not to send anyone out of the classroom with anything they can't dispel on their own."

"Um -- he does make sure we can all cancel a Muting hex wordlessly, though," Harry added quickly. "But if you hit that one, we'll be here."

Hermione cast a few diagnostic charms on the disk -- rather elementary ones, Harry noted, surprised to realize that he was, for once, more knowledgeable.

After multiple attempts, she frowned. "I don't know what's wrong. All I can find is a nosebleed hex."

"Well, you'll have to trigger that one, then," Harry said.

He had forgotten that she wouldn't hesitate. Seconds later, he was casting a healing charm, while Draco -- with a glare for him -- spelled blood off of Hermione's robes.

Harry stepped back, easing behind Hermione as Draco encouraged her to recast the diagnostic charms. While she was finding the previously obscured Muting hex, he was lifting the Credulity curse.

"And it was there all along?" Hermione asked.

"Yes," Draco answered. "And there's another below that."

"How do I know you're not just casting them while I'm distracted? Harry wasn't even in sight."

"I'll sit right here," Harry promised, his heart soaring. He hoisted himself up on the table next to the disk, then, for completeness, drew his wand and laid it across his lap. "Go ahead. After this, we'll show you how it's done."

 

Hermione was fascinated by the principle of obstructive layering, and not adverse to asking questions and knocking holes in Harry's answers. To his relief, she didn't seem aware of the change in her outlook. A few times, Harry saw her rub her forehead, looking momentarily confused, but the accusations that he had expected never materialized. When they were done with the demonstration, they went back to the mixed-house space, and when Hermione started answering Arithmancy questions from Draco, Harry excused himself.

"I think I'll go up to Gryffindor," he said. "I have a letter to write before dinner."

Hermione looked up from the problem she was stepping through. "Just Gryffindor?" she asked.

"Well, maybe the Owlery, if I finish," Harry amended. "If I'm not in the Common Room, I'll see you in the Great Hall, okay?"

Hermione pursed her lips. Draco nudged her.

"I think Harry will survive an hour unsupervised," he said pointedly.

"An hour?" Hermione glanced at her watch, and shook her head. "Where did the time go? All right, Harry."

 

Harry didn't really have any more to write in the letter, beyond signing his name. When he got to Gryffindor, he looked around for Neville, and spotted him over by the windows in the last light of sunset.

"Neville."

"Oh, hi, Harry." Neville quickly set his quill in its holder. "Do you need something?"

"I'd like to talk to you." Harry glanced around at their housemates. "Someplace more private than this. Come upstairs with me?"

"Of course," Neville said quickly. Leaving his things, Neville followed Harry up to the dormitory. As Harry had hoped, it was empty.

"What's this about, then?" Neville asked, after Harry had cast a privacy charm on the door.

"An invitation." Harry sat down on Ron's bed, across from Neville, who was sitting on his own. "Draco and I have a mixed-house social group. It's been going for about a month now, and we've decided to expand. We think you'd make a good addition."

"'We' as in you and Malfoy?" Neville asked, incredulously.

"Well, all of us. It's seventh- and sixth-years, and we talked about it last week, and chose a few people."

Neville's eyes widened still more, at that.

"Why me?" he asked. "I mean, I'd think.... I'm not spectacular company, Harry."

"We're not looking for entertainment," Harry said carefully. "You're a good person, Nev. Everyone thinks so."

To his dismay, Neville looked wary. "Do I have to do anything?" he asked.

"Not really," Harry answered, pushing a lock of hair back behind his ear. "Just keep the location and other members secret." Neville, however, was staring at his hand. Harry looked down at it and realized his bracelet was showing.

"The other members," Neville said slowly. "Might they not be, er, terribly secret?"

Harry grinned. "Maybe not. But still -- we don't talk about it."

Neville thought for a moment. "Ron wouldn't," he guessed.

"Right. He doesn't really approve of a mixed-house group."

"Or jewelry?"

Harry laughed. Neville was more clever than most people thought. "The jewelry's optional," he said.

Decisively, Neville nodded. "All right, then. I'll give it a go. When?"

"Leave dinner with me tomorrow," Harry suggested. "I'll take you from there. Oh -- and skip puddings."

 

When they returned to the Common Room, Harry sat down on one of the sofas by the fire, and Neville settled at the other end of it. It felt unjustifiably uncomfortable. After all, if wasn't as if that place was reserved for Ron. Harry looked around, and spotted Ron over by the window, frowning at his Divination text.

When Hermione came in, she walked straight over, and for a moment, Harry thought she was going to sit between him and Neville, which would have been just too weird. Instead, she stood across the table, giving him an odd, tense look.

"Harry? A moment, if you please?"

"Um, okay." Trying to conceal his anxiety, he stacked his books before standing up and following her to her room.

"So," she said. "The other day...."

"What of it?" he asked, trying to look puzzled.

"Well, you said that -- with Millicent -- that you hadn't broken any rules that I hadn't." She twirled a finger in her hair, giving him a moment to recover from his relief. "But the more I think about it, the less reassuring that is. After all, there are a number of things that I have done in the past that I'm not sure I'd approve of now." She looked up at him. "I'd like you to be more specific."

He bit his lip. "I don't think I can be. I'm sorry."

"Harry, please. I'm asking you to talk to me, because I don't want you to get in trouble for something I should have seen, okay?"

"Yeah, but...." He sighed. She wants to believe me. She wants to trust me. He repeated that to himself like a mantra while he thought. "Look," he said slowly, "Mill trusts me, so I know a lot of her secrets -- about her family, and her ambitions, and such. And I like her, so her happiness is important to me. You don't like her, and she doesn't trust you, so there's not a lot that I can tell you without telling you things that she wouldn't want you to know. You'll just have to believe me when I say it's nothing unethical, and it's nothing illegal."

"Is there anything you can tell me?"

Harry made himself think, rather than bursting out with a denial or protest. "Among other things, I'm helping her with Charms. That's why I've been doing more research than usual."

"Oh, does she want to improve her looks?" Hermione said sharply. "Seem smaller, perhaps?"

"How dare you!" Harry found he had stepped towards her. She stepped back.

"Well, you are working with glamours."

"And?" Harry demanded furiously. "If you were a boy, I'd--" He stopped. "Look," he said, more moderately, "how would you react if you said you were helping Susan Bones with Charms, and I said, 'Oh, does she want to do something about that hair?'"

He said the last like Lavender at her worst, and Hermione blinked. "I see your point," she said hesitantly. "I'd scold you, but Bulstrode really is .... I mean, most girls our age are pretty, really."

Harry knew what she meant, and that he'd never in his life consider Millicent pretty, but it still rankled. "Listen," he said. "if boys shouldn't talk about girls like that, you shouldn't do it to each other, either."

After a long silence, Hermione nodded. "Fair enough," she said. "And I'm sorry."

"Just so you know, she doesn't much care about pretty."

"All girls care, Harry," Hermione said, and with a wry smile, added, "even me."

"You are pretty! I'll remind Ron to mention it, when you're speaking again."

Shaking her head, she turned away. "I'm not sure there's any point. If he hasn't learned by now that when he invites someone out, he should compliment them at least once, he's not going to, is he?"

"Hermione...." He moved close again, slowly this time, and stroked her back. "He thinks you're pretty."

"Probably, but all he'll tell me is that I'm too pushy." With a huff, she turned back to him. "Harry. Do you think there's any chance we'll work things out? Ron and I?"

"Oh." Torn between the desire to reassure her and the fear of making things worse, he wrapped his arms around her while he thought, and let her lean against him. "I don't know," he admitted softly. "You seem to want different things."

"Well, with Apparation, it would be easy to maintain a country--"

"Hermione. I mean, what he wants you to be and what you want to be are different. And--"

"That's just maturity, though, isn't it? I mean, he still plans like a boy--"

"Hermione," he said again. "What you want him to be and what he wants to be are different too."

That left him with nothing to do but to hold her while she cried, and to worry that he had just done something horrible.

 

The next day was Friday, and while things were more comfortable between Harry and Hermione -- enough so that he caught Ron frowning while he watched them playing with their Animation spells in Charms -- he worried about disappearing for the evening. Neville, Luna, and Susan would be joining the Uncommon Room group, and he didn't want to leave early. After lessons, he found himself sitting with Hermione in a window alcove, letting her vent about Ron.

"It's not fair. I didn't even do anything; I just wasn't angry at you enough for him. And what is the point of that? Not talking to someone doesn't help anything."

"Unless you say something awful," Harry blurted out. "Maybe that's it. Ron's not good at holding his temper when he's angry; you know that. Deep down, maybe not speaking to us is a way not to make it worse." He coughed. "Um -- speaking of talking...?"

"What is it?"

"Well ... I really need some time away from Gryffindor. I'm not going to be around this evening, and I thought you might like to know in advance."

"Oh." Her brow furrowed for a moment, and then cleared. "Thank you. You'll be back on time?"

"I promise."

"All right." Her cheeks dimpled in a smile. "If you're not late and you're not drunk, I won't bother you about it."

Grinning, Harry held out his hand. "Deal."

They shook on it.

 

"Harry?" Neville whispered, as Harry led the way down the fourth floor corridor.

"Hm?"

"There are people behind us."

"Yeah." Harry glanced back, even though he had caught a glimpse of Sophia at the last turn. "Don't worry. They're us."

"Oh." Neville took a shaky breath. "Ravenclaws?"

"I did say 'mixed', didn't I?"

"Yes, but--" Neville shook his head. "You really think I'll be okay?"

"You'll be fine."

 

This was their fifth Friday gathering, and they were out of beer and down to three bottles of wine, so Draco had decided that tonight's refreshments would be an assortment of little cakes and sweets with a choice of coffee, tea, or hot milk. He hadn't mentioned that he was planning to arrange them with white roses and sprays of currants. When Harry and Neville came around the curve in the passage, the impressive display claimed their immediate attention. Curves of glossy green leaves, white blossoms, and translucent red berries separated china cups and silver carafes from a tiered display of glossy chocolate cubes and orbs, glittering crystallized flower petals, and golden custard tarts.

"Oh," Neville said softly. "I, er, had been wondering about the instruction to skip pudding." His face colored. "I mean, I'm not as tubby as I was...."

Harry winced. "No, I'd meant--" It hadn't occurred to him that Neville might take the phrase critically. His face would always tend to roundness, but years of the stairs to Gryffindor tower had compressed much of his fat to muscle. "Honestly, Neville -- you haven't been overly heavy in years."

"I doubt a Gryffindor could be," Draco said cheerily, coming over to settle an arm around Harry's waist and press up against his side. "The house seems designed to be exhausting. Do you like my presentation, love?"

"It's gorgeous," Harry said readily. "I'll almost be sorry to take things out of it."

"No need for regret." Draco set his head flirtatiously to the side. "Such things are created to be ephemeral. Though do wait until a few more people arrive."

Harry could hear the door opening again -- presumably the Ravenclaws. "Neville," he said quickly, "Introductions. Just for a fresh start, this is my boyfriend, Draco."

Neville's eyebrows went up, and Draco's mouth curled in amusement, but they compliantly shook hands.

"Do you prefer to be addressed as Longbottom, or as Neville?" Draco asked politely.

"Er..." Neville straightened. "I suppose it depends," he said, with more composure than Harry would have expected. "I'll tell you at the end of the evening, shall I?" With that, he turned fractionally towards Linnet, the room's only other occupant, and Harry had to move quickly to introduce them. By that time, the Ravenclaws were in the room, and Sophia was presenting a wide-eyed blond girl with a placid smile as Luna Lovegood.

"Where's Padma?" Linnet asked.

"She's bringing Susan."

"Ah. That makes sense, I suppose."

"Hello, Harry Potter." Luna dipped in almost a curtsy. "Draco Malfoy. Thank you for inviting me."

"It was a group decision," Harry said quickly. "A number of the sixth years spoke well of you."

"Oh?" She blinked. "How surprising," she said, with apparent equilibrium. "It's so hard to tell about people; don't you think so?"

"Er," Harry stuttered uncertainly. He didn't want to agree with the girl's implication that she was unliked! On the other hand, hadn't he experienced the same thing himself? During the Triwizard Tournament, people had treated him like dirt, and then praised him. "Yeah," he said, giving her a little smile. "Sometimes."

 

The initial tumult of people arriving, filling little plates, greeting friends, and being introduced to newcomers gradually settled. Harry noticed that Neville had chosen a seat between Seamus and Ginny. From that refuge, he was watching the others in the room more keenly than Harry would have expected. Harry wasn't sure anyone from another house would notice the quick, deliberate movements of his eyes above the slightly slack jaw and round cheeks.

"What shall we do tonight?" Linnet asked brightly, taking a place on the other side of Draco from Harry. "A round of 'I Never' to welcome the new recruits?"

"Not without Parvati!" Seamus exclaimed. "We'd never hear the end of that."

"She's in the Hospital Wing," Padma explained. "One of my housemates tried to feed her a love potion."

"Tried?" Gilbert asked.

"She has a very good sense of smell."

Frowning, Linnet set her head to one side. "Why's she in the Hospital Wing, then?"

"Because when she slapped him, he crushed the chocolate in his fist, and they both got spattered." She rolled her eyes. "Amatorius is not intended for topical application."

"On the plus side, he got some in his mouth, and is currently mad for Professor Sprout."

While the scattered laughter cleared, Linnet pushed her hair back. "No games, then," she acquiesced. "However, Harry owes me an answer about one of his beads. Shall we explain to them to the new members?"

"Or you could behave yourself and ask him more privately," Gilbert said with a frown. "I hardly consider this preferable to the Slytherin Common Room."

Harry shrugged. "I don't mind. And it is better, really."

"Oh?"

"No one here is particularly out for my blood."

With an offhanded lift of one shoulder, Gilbert dismissed the point. "True. However, that means you have more to lose."

"It's not a big deal, really," Harry said. Reaching across Draco, he displayed his bracelet to Linnet. "The plain green one, right?"

"Exactly."

"Yeah. Mill's asked me about that already. You already know the questionable stuff."

"That you stole something?" she asked tartly.

He rolled his eyes, trying to pretend he wasn't embarrassed. "That I was drunk in a Muggle village, last year."

"And that excuses you?"

"No, listen. Draco and I had used an Aging potion to buy the alcohol, and I said it would be easier if we had false ID -- identification cards, that is -- that said we were a couple of years older. And he wanted to see one. So, there was this young woman sitting in a park, reading -- we were up in the bell tower of a church, looking down -- and he told me to fly down and take her knapsack. So I did, and we looked through it, and then I returned it, with almost everything back in it, before she left the park."

Linnet frowned thoughtfully. "The exception being her identification?"

"The exception being a folding mirror that Draco used to catch an image of her identification."

"Ah." She nodded. "All right. Rather harmless, really." She hesitated. "Mirrors aren't expensive for Muggles, are they?"

Cornelia whooped. "If they were, would she be carrying one around?"

"Well, maybe it was important."

"Nah. Just for doing her face, likely. You can get them for a pound or so at any druggists."

"A pound of what?" Gilbert asked curiously.

"It's a type of money. A few Sickles worth."

"Are you Muggleborn?" Gilbert asked. Harry was amused to see his eyes widen as soon as the words came out of his mouth. "Merely curious," he added hastily. "You needn't answer if you'd rather not."

Cornelia snorted. "Don't know why I wouldn't," she retorted. "I'm half-and-half. Not unusual."

"Ah," Harry said. "And you're the other one with that green. What's that about?"

Cornelia didn't blush easily, but when she did, it was all high in her cheeks, with the bright red of fever. "Not nearly as interesting, I'm afraid. I was six, and it wasn't so much that I wanted her light-up fairy wand as I wanted her to stop boasting about it. My mum found it, of course, and made me give it back, and worse yet, apologize."

"What are you talking about?" asked Susan. "Stealing things?"

"Right." Ginny showed Susan bracelet. "We were playing a parlor game; you can't tell anyone outside this room about it. Someone said he'd never stolen from a Muggle girl, and the people who had -- that's Harry and Cornelia -- had to take a bead."

"The bright green one," Harry added, showing her.

Susan frowned. "Are all of those for stealing things?" She asked. "Because I won't."

A number of people laughed.

"No, no!" Harry exclaimed. "No, let's see -- this is for falling asleep in the library, and--" He ran a finger over the beads looking for something else harmless -- "and this for taking the advice in Patrick's Pitch Pointers column...."

"Kissing a girl," Gilbert said, showing her his pink bead.

Linnet giggled and caught the one next to it. "But this is for wearing eyeliner."

"I told you, I have two older sisters!" Gilbert protested. "And both were Slytherins. Draco, on the other hand...."

"Got what I wanted out of Pansy in exchange."

"What astounds me," Blaise said, "is that we have a theft bead that Draco didn't get."

Except for Harry, the Gryffindors all froze in apprehension. Harry thought they might be expecting some sort of explosion, but Draco just smirked as the Slytherins laughed.

"He did require some instruction on acceptable behavior in Gryffindor," Harry said dryly.

"And you think he took it?" Blaise demanded.

"Of course I did," Draco retorted placidly. "I can buy a shrinking chess set whenever I wish; replacing Harry would be impossible."

"Dear Merlin! He's being a good influence on you?"

"Nonsense. I'm merely being practical."

"Prat!" Harry exclaimed, poking him.

"All right. I was in the first flush of a hopeless crush."

Seamus whooped. "Not so hopeless, I think."

"Thanks to you, I hear."

"What?" Seamus exclaimed.

Harry leaned cozily against Draco. "Well, it never would have occurred to me if you hadn't assumed it."

"Ah, that!"

"So," Gilbert asked, leaning forward towards Cornelia, "what's a 'Fairy wand' and why would a Muggle have one?"

"Oh, it's just a toy," Cornelia said. "For pretending to be ... not like a tiny real Fairy, you know, but a human-sized, powerful, beautiful one, with a gauzy dress and something between a wand and a sceptre...."

"Ah," Gilbert said, "Fey."

"Fey?"

"The old sort of fairies. A different race entirely. They were killed off by water systems and such."

Draco snorted. "Unlikely. They vanished in the eighteenth century, and the Muggles hadn't made lines across much of the country yet."

"Oh, don't tell me you believe they're still living in secret!" Linnet exclaimed.

"Why not?" Susan interjected. "We have a pact to conceal ourselves from Muggles; why shouldn't the Fey conceal themselves from us?"

"Especially as they were, by all accounts, as inherently skilled in glamours as the centaurs are at divination."

"So they might still be around?" Neville exclaimed. "The sort of folktale fairy that steals babies, and seduces men, then keeps them imprisoned?"

"And women!" Ginny said cheerily, while Draco said, "Yes, exactly."

 

They continued chatting until nearly curfew. Harry had to run up the stairs to fulfill his promise to Hermione.

 

Chapter Text

 

"How are things going with Hermione?" Draco asked on Saturday morning. They had met in the Uncommon room to clean up from the night before, as they often did. Draco thought they should have Dobby do it, but Harry didn't want to strain his loyalties that greatly.

"Not too badly," Harry answered slowly, as he turned over a cushion, looking for chocolate smears. "Last night, I told her in advance that I'd be out late, and I think that helped. On the other hand, if I keep doing that, she'll notice sooner who else disappears, and that it's every Friday."

Draco nodded. "We need to bring her in soon."

"On the Uncommon Room?" Harry asked incredulously. "I'm not sure that's a good idea."

"It will be fine," Draco said. "Warn the others ahead of time, limit any wine and beer to those of us who are of age, and there's nothing to fear. She may not approve, but she won't tell."

"I don't know." Harry bit his lip. "I mean, I want to, but I still think it's too much of a risk."

"We need to tell her something soon, and it had better be something substantial. She knows you have secrets, and this is the safest."

"I suppose," Harry said. "I want...." He shrugged.

"You want her to believe you for no reason."

"I want to tell her everything," Harry said quickly. "Everything, including that I cursed her, so she can get upset, and demand whatever she wants for that, and we can get over it, and I can stop feeling guilty about it."

His eyes closing for a moment, Draco took a long breath. "Terribly Gryffindor of you," he said dryly, his face turning bland again, "but that, I believe, is a more important secret to keep. The chances of her reporting such an incident are far higher, although it would be done with your welfare in mind."

"Right. I'd almost have to tell her about Millicent to have a chance, but Mill doesn't trust her, and it's her secret, not mine."

Draco nodded as he considered this.

"Let us start with the Uncommon Room, then," he said. "We'll need to persuade at least some of the others; leave that to me."

"Should we try a false location, first?"

Rolling his eyes, Draco sighed. "Harry," he said patiently, "the point is to engender trust. If we bring her in on a secret, and then say we were deceiving her about it, that will not--"

At a sound from the direction of the corridor, both of them twitched and Draco fell silent. Harry twisted to watch the passage. At the other end of it, the door clicked shut.

"Millicent?"

Draco whispered the guess, and Harry shook his head.

"She's louder," he whispered back.

"Harry?" came Ron's uncertain voice. "You there?"

Harry froze. Ron hadn't spoke to him for a week. Why was he here? Had he brought a professor? He and Draco exchanged a worried look. "Here," Harry called back.

"Decent?"

"Yeah. Come in."

Ducking his head as if the archway was lower than it was, Ron came quickly into view. "Professor Dumbledore sent for you to come to his office," he said with a sympathetic grimace, as if they had never been fighting. "Hermione was having fits about no one knowing where you were, so I said I'd look and ducked out before she decided to follow me. You better go right now."

Nodding numbly, Harry got to his feet. Draco was holding his arm.

"I'll walk with you," Draco said.

"What do you think this is about?" Ron asked anxiously. "Do you think he found out about the divination? Or all this?" Ron indicated the room with a broad sweep of his arm. Draco straightened and lightened his voice.

"No telling," he said. "It might just be about Quidditch, or information about Nott. Harry, please try to look a little less guilty, would you? You haven't done anything irreparable."

Harry nodded. "Thanks," he said to Ron. It was the best acknowledgement he could think of.

"No problem," Ron said with a shrug, as they left the room together. "Good luck."

"I'll let you know," Harry promised.

Ron went up the stairs, presumably on his way back to Gryffindor, while Harry and Draco headed down. Draco waited until Ron was well out of earshot before speaking again.

"What on earth was that?" he asked. "Has he not been giving you the cold shoulder for a week?"

"Yeah. What about it?"

"Shouldn't there be an 'I'm sorry,' or at least an 'I've decided to forgive you'?"

"Not with Ron." Harry shrugged. "I don't need it."

"Well, I wouldn't put up with that! How do you ever know where you stand with him?" Draco grimaced. "I can't imagine Hermione would find that adequate."

Harry groaned. "Not by half. Maybe I'll avoid Gryffindor for the rest of the weekend."

"Will they have a spectacular row?"

"More likely, he'll talk to her, she'll hug him and cry in relief, and then ten minutes later, after he pretends nothing happened, she won't be speaking to him."

"And will that, also, last for week?"

"No, but a day or two." Harry sighed. "Or maybe he's learned something and will apologize for dragging her into a fight with me."

They had arrived at the headmaster's office. For a moment, both regarded the gargoyle uncertainly. Draco broke the silence.

"I have my notebook," he said. "I'll stay close. Let me know when you're done."

"Okay."

 

At the top of the winding stairs, Harry took a deep breath. He would start with 'Good morning, Professor,' and then, if Dumbledore looked grim, move on to 'Is something wrong?' With a decisive nod, he schooled his expression to polite neutrality, set a hand on the knob, and turned it.

As a gap appeared between door and wall, hearty laughter tumbled out. Now genuinely curious, Harry pushed the door fully open.

The pink-haired Auror was there -- except at the moment, her hair was a brilliant turquoise with streaks of gold -- the colors exactly matching Dumbledore's resplendent, starred robes. That seemed to be what was amusing them.

"Ah, the perfect hue! You never fail to delight me, Miss Tonks." He turned to share his smile with Harry. "Harry, good! I thought one of your friends might be able to find you. You remember Auror Tonks, I presume?"

"Yes, of course," Harry said, stepping up to extend his hand. Tonks shook it firmly, giving him a friendly smile above the contact.

"Hi, Harry. Good to see you again."

"You too," Harry said. He couldn't think of anything more personalized, not when his mind had suddenly leapt to thoughts of Sirius. There must be news! There must be good news, or she and Professor Dumbledore wouldn't be so cheerful, would they?"

"As I expect you have surmised," Dumbledore said, his eyes twinkling over his spectacles at Harry, "Auror Tonks is a trusted associate of mine. She has some matters to discuss with you, and you may be frank with her about all things -- even those you might normally be reluctant to share with the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. Furthermore, I have already given my permission for an invitation she intends to extend, so you are free to decide that matter upon personal merits alone."

He turned to include Tonks. "With that, I will leave you to it, my dear. When you are done, simply leave the office, but do try not to forget anything. My doorkeepers are protective by their nature."

"Got it!" she said cheerily. "Thank you, professor!"

"You are quite welcome." With a little bow, Dumbledore swept out of the office, although Fawkes, Harry noted, stayed behind on his perch.

Harry swallowed. "Is this ... about Sirius?"

"Nothing huge, I'm sorry to say, but yes. We're making progress. We have small, but significant, fragments of evidence that Pettigrew is alive, as you know, and the investigation has been reopened, but it's stalled. While there are provisions to use Veritaserum on convicted criminals -- so we're fairly sure he's alive -- there is no way to force someone to extract a memory, which we'd need to distribute a quality sketch. I'm here to ask you if you'd be willing to provide a pensieved memory of your encounters with Pettigrew."

"Of course!" Harry said. Belatedly recalling how Sirius had changed forms, he said. "Just those bits, though."

She nodded. "Right. I can help you with that, if you get too much at first."

He let out a relieved sigh. "Thanks."

"You'll need to do a Veritaserum interview too, but--"

His sudden tension was apparently visible, because she paused. "Is that a problem?"

He met her eyes steadily, following Draco's advice on not looking guilty. She knew he had secrets about Sirius, he was sure, and she'd been sympathetic at the trial. It would probably make sense to her that he wasn't thrilled with the idea. "Depends on what people ask, doesn't it?" he returned. "And I can think lots of things I wouldn't want to tell a stranger, even though they're not...." He shrugged, and to his relief, she grinned at him.

"I know what you mean! But it's not a problem. Witness interviews under Veritaserum aren't at all like criminal interviews! We'll negotiate the questions with you ahead of time, so you won't be asked anything you haven't consented to, and you get to choose one of the Aurors present and have right of refusal for the other. So choose me, and Kingsley Shacklebolt will arrange to be the senior Auror, and you'll be safe."

That wasn't anything like he had feared, but it still seemed heavy-handed. He also couldn't be sure it was entirely safe for him, just that it wouldn't compromise war secrets. What if they wanted to ask about Dark Arts, or illegal activities at school, or something like that? Would she let him say he couldn't answer that? "Why do you need Veritaserum at all?"

Her multi-colored hair bobbed as she set her head to the side. "Oh," she said. "You wouldn't know, would you? Memories can be misleading, and a few talented witches and wizards can even fake them. We need you to attest to it and provide the context. Veritaserum is the only safeguard considered adequate for legal testimony."

After considering that for a moment, Harry nodded. "All right. For Sirius. Now?"

"Oh, Merlin, no! It will take a week to get the paperwork started, and then we need to agree upon the questions." In a sudden dramatic movement, she put her hand over her mouth. "Oh, dear me! I seem to have forgotten to record this conversation! We'll need to start again."

She winked, and Harry laughed. "Without the negotiations?" he suggested.

"Exactly. But first..." She suddenly looked a bit shy. "Um, he -- the one I've never met, of course -- was asking about you. How you were, you know? And I'd like to get to know my other cousin better. May I take you both out to lunch, after we're done here?"

This, Harry realized, must be the invitation Dumbledore had mentioned. So Tonks had spoken with Sirius, had she? "Okay," he said. "Or, um, let me ask him." Taking out the white notebook, he wrote:

Your cousin (the Auror) wants to take us out to lunch. Interested? I think it would be fun.

Looking up, he found Tonks watching with interest. She gave a little nod as words appeared under his.

I would be delighted. I will await you in the corridor.

"Clever," Tonks said approvingly.

She started a recording device -- a sort of floating ball -- and she went quickly through the motions of requesting pensieved testimony and a limited Veritaserum interview. He still asked about the parameters -- he thought he'd look like a fool if he didn't -- but the matter was quickly concluded. In a few minutes, they were riding the circular staircase down.

 

"Miss Tonks," Draco stepped towards them as if he had just arrived at the spot, although Harry suspected he had been waiting. "Good to see you, cousin." His smile took on a sly edge. "Especially outside of a professional context."

She nodded cheerily. "Rather the point! I really think we ought to get to know each other, don't you? Old feuds are for the old people." With a cheery smile, she gestured toward the front staircase. "Professor Dumbledore said I could take the two of you to Hogsmeade, and even borrow school brooms for it, as long as they're old Cleansweeps."

Draco raised his eyebrows. "Did he really? Were it anyone else, I'd suspect a trap."

"Dumbledore told me it was okay," Harry put in.

"But think! Off school grounds with the slowest brooms available?"

Tonks brushed the objection away. "Once we get to the Three Broomsticks, we can floo back in an emergency, and if that happens, old brooms won't be anything we need to save."

"And before then?"

"Even if they're watching, they won't be ready. We'll make it to the pub."

Draco sighed dramatically. "You were a Gryffindor, weren't you?"

"No." She grinned cheekily at him, her hair sparkling back to pink. Harry caught his breath, and Draco's eyes widened slightly. Harry could tell even he was impressed.

"Slytherin?" he asked.

"Hufflepuff," she told him brightly. "Let's go."

 

In the pub, Tonks ordered a ploughman's lunch, and Harry a mixed grill. To his surprise, Draco asked for stew, which seemed a rather plebian order. Harry wondered if he were trying to appear less haughty for his cousin's benefit. After Rosmerta left, an awkward silence descended.

"So," Harry said finally, "Did you mean it about being a Hufflepuff?"

Tonks frowned. Even her hair darkened slightly, streaks shading to maroon. "Do you think that's unbelievable for an Auror?"

"Not at all."

"Harry is asking, I expect, because we're curious about the house," Draco interposed. "I don't know how much you hear from Hogwarts, but we're part of a coalition of students that are attempting to foster inter-house cooperation."

Brows down, Tonks looked between the two of them. "Then why ask me about Hufflepuff?" she challenged. "Don't you know? Let me guess -- this inter-house group is just Slytherins and Gryffindors."

"Well, Ravenclaws were no problem," Harry said awkwardly. "One of my housemates has a Ravenclaw twin."

"That gave us a place to start," Draco explained. "However, we have no such 'in' to Hufflepuff."

"And the only class Gryffindor ever has with them is Herbology."

Apparently mollified, but still challenging, Tonks settled back. "Okay," she said. "What do you know? Let's start with that."

"What?"

"Consider reputation. What does the Sorting Hat say about the house?"

"Oh." Harry and Draco looked at each other. "Well," Harry said, accepting a warm butterbeer from Rosmerta, "diligent, for one."

"Loyal," Draco added. "I often thought Crabbe and Goyle should have been Hufflepuffs. They didn't have any real ambitions of their own."

"But they weren't diligent, either," Harry argued. "And aren't Hufflepuffs supposed to be honest?"

"Forthright, I think," Draco said. "That isn't quite the same."

"Well, that gives us a place to start," Tonks stated. "What about ones you've had some interaction with?"

"Susan Bones has a quiet moral bravery," Harry offered. He looked away. "But Ernie's a pompous ass."

"A well-meaning one though, I believe," Draco added. "And Gilbert's little sister is clever and observant, despite her optimism."

Harry looked over at Tonks. "The thing is, I don't think a person's house says that much about their character," he admitted. "I know too many people who argued the Sorting Hat into changes, and even more that I believe it Sorted on their name or expectation alone."

She regarded him curiously. "So, isn't that contradicting yourself? If it makes no difference to their character, what's there to know? Why ask?"

"Because I think your house does affect where you go from there. If I'd accepted Slytherin, for example, I probably would have been a better student, but I would have stayed far more secretive, and become sneakier."

Draco snorted. "It's not like you're all that forthcoming now, but agreed. I do think, however, that Slytherin would have taught you to manipulate your fame more productively."

Ignoring the things confessed to Tonks in that exchange, Harry pressed on. "So, I suppose what I really want to know is what Hufflepuffs value," he explained. "What did you admire in each other?"

"Have you known any admired Hufflepuffs?" she countered. She was drawing him out like a professor might, Harry decided. He wondered if interrogation was similar.

"Well, Cedric Diggory," he answered. He bit his lip against a twist in his gut and a catch in his throat. "But who wouldn't have admired him? He was handsome, and bold, and kind...."

"Right," Draco said, sounding slightly disgusted. "And that is the house your lot should be paired with. We could tolerate the Ravenclaws; at least they understand evaluating the consequences of an action, even if they're spotty on applying the skill to real life."

"I always thought that was odd," Tonks agreed. "Putting Gryffindors and Slytherins together seems like asking for trouble, and Hufflepuffs with Ravenclaws isn't much better." She snorted. "We hardly got a chance to say anything."

"That's the thing," Harry said. "I don't think houses getting along was ever the point."

"But Miss Tonks has a valuable observation," Draco pointed out. "What if the point was actually to promote house animosity?"

"Professor Dumbledore wouldn't do that!" Tonks looked shocked.

Draco shrugged. "Who's to say it originated with him? My grandfather's portrait has talked about classes with Gryffindors, when I complained."

"You think we're set up to hate each other?" Harry asked uneasily.

"Perhaps."

Tonks clicked her tongue against her teeth, sounding suddenly far older and stodgier. "Or you could just be paranoid."

"It's possible," Draco said seriously, "but I don't believe so. This is the culture we inherited, with the bickering of the Founders entrenched into procedure."

"It's not all bad," Harry put in. "Houses, I mean. It's good to be with people who don't think you're mad, and I can understand why a school might want to cultivate someone's greatest strength."

"Of course," Draco said. "An admirable goal. But for the well rounded witch or wizard -- let us say the clever Hufflepuff or brave Ravenclaw -- at what cost? What stagnates when you are isolated with those who share a trait you would express anyway?"

"Would you?" Tonks challenged.

She was focused on Draco, but Harry answered first. "Well, to some extent. I mean, I stayed brave through the Dursleys, so yeah, I'd probably stay brave through anything."

"Exactly." Draco's face was placid; his eyes practically glowed. "I will always have schemes. But that is far from the limit of my character."

"Hm." With a nod, Tonks accepted her plate from Rosmerta. "Have you accomplished anything? This group, I mean?"

Draco nodded. "I regard our greatest accomplishment as a growing level of understanding and trust among those involved." He smirked. "Though I will admit that is hard to quantify. In more concrete measures, we persuaded Professor Dumbledore to establish a mixed-house social area that is open from the end of lessons until dinner on weekdays."

"It's not much," Harry said. "But there haven't been any problems, and we're hoping he'll expand it."

"And even as it stands, several members of mixed-house families have expressed their appreciation." Draco regarded her keenly. "What about you?"

"Me?"

"You would have two sisters, at least. You can't all have been in Hufflepuff!"

"Two..." After staring at him for an awkward moment, her face cleared. "Oh! The Fairy gift--"

"'Fey,' Draco said to Harry quickly. "The modern word is 'Fey,' as we said last night.'"

Tonks rolled her eyes. "Honestly! 'Fairy' is all right."

"He's Muggle-raised," Draco retorted. "I try not to be imprecise."

"But "Fairy gift" is unambiguous. Little sparkle Fairies don't give anything."

"He hadn't even heard of the Fey until last night!"

"Oh!" Tonks turned to look directly at Harry. "That is confusing, then. But I think 'Fairy' would be clearer to you, anyway, once you knew it could mean two things. It's like in 'fairy tales' -- the fairy godmother at the christening, and sometimes some unpleasant fairy that got left out?"

"Um..." Harry looked between them, searching for any sign that this was an elaborate joke. "That was real, too?"

"Exactly," Tonks said, nodding.

"Though it wasn't always a christening," Draco objected.

She shrugged. "A naming ceremony of some kind. Though I've often thought it odd that the story of the christening gift survives in Muggle stories when a theme in others of those stories -- the Irish ones, especially -- is that Fairies could not abide holy water, and church bells, and other blessed things."

Draco frowned thoughtfully. "The Fair Folk are rather particular about their music, are they not? You could probably drive one off with a bell that wasn't perfectly cast."

"A point!" Tonks giggled. "Ah! Perhaps that's why they favored magical people -- I bet we had the best church bells."

"Wait!" Harry insisted. "Back up. What is this Fairy gift, or Fey gift, or whatever? The 'sisters' one?"

"This particular one is to our mothers' maternal line," Draco answered. "If the woman has any children at all, she always has three daughters -- the oldest dark, the youngest fair, the middle one in-between."

"But you don't--" Harry bit his lip. The Decernenti. "Right." He grimaced, reaching out a hand to Draco. "Sorry."

Tonks looked between them, and at Harry's open hand, resting ignored on the table. "Whatever do you-- Oh!" Her hand flew to her mouth. "I'm so sorry! It came up in interrogation, but that's, you know, work, and I've tried not to think about...."

She didn't seem to know how to finish. Draco's face was a mask of indifference. "Understandable," he said blandly. "I remember only the last pregnancy, of course. My mother was distraught afterwards -- perhaps more so because that one would have been her counterpart."

An awkward silence followed. "The blonde, that is," Draco clarified, his voice tight, which helped not at all. Harry finally reached under the table and gripped his thigh. Briefly, Draco brushed his hand, but the muscles of his leg remained tight under Harry's touch.

"Anyway," Tonks said briskly, "I've heard of the Fairy gift, but despite it, my mother only had me. She thinks it's because I'm a Metamorphmagus; I can be all three daughters -- fair and dark and in-between -- so the gift decided she already had them all."

Draco released his breath carefully. "A Metamorphmagus," he repeated, almost reverentially. "I had wondered, when I saw what you did with your hair, but I wasn't sure." Frowning, he considered further. "Metamorphmagi are rare, of course, but I've never heard of the Fairy gift failing. You don't think it might rely on a pureblood marriage?"

Tonks stiffened, a small frown line creasing her forehead. "I doubt the Fey would care about such details of human society."

"But they did favor magical lines, as you said."

"And my father is magical."

"Oh, is he?" Draco exclaimed awkwardly. "I hadn't realized."

Desperate to intervene, Harry cast wildly about for an alternative explanation. Last night, someone had said that technology had killed off the big Fairies. That, perhaps? "Maybe it was proximity to technology," he blurted out. "I mean, it's nearly impossible to keep electronics working at Hogwarts -- Hermione runs her CD player mostly off spells -- to spin it and make it louder and such -- with one tiny bit inside shielded in mica and lead and stuff. If the Fey were as sensitive to that sort of thing as Gilbert said..."

"That's a theory!" Draco brightened at the thought. "That might even dovetail with Aunt Andromeda's one. Perhaps that's why Tonks is a Metamorphmagus; having electrical things around muddled the fairy gift, and made her be all three girls."

Tonks laughed. "Hm," she said, her expression mischievous, and the pink of her hair turned black, blond, and chestnut in stripes.

"Brilliant!" Harry exclaimed.

 

They had a mostly pleasant lunch and flooed back (with the brooms) in mid-afternoon, when Draco had to go off to Quidditch practice. This far into the autumn, practice was restricted to weekend days and would soon stop altogether.

Harry left Tonks at the second floor and continued on up to Gryffindor. While climbing the stairs he remembered how they had left things with Ron. Ron had probably been stewing all this time. Harry hoped it wouldn't destroy their accord when he found out that the summons hadn't been anything to worry about, and Harry had left without telling him.

The thought of losing Ron for another week or more was hardly to be borne. With each step, Harry felt more weighed down by the thought. Was Ron still upset with him about the game? Even Draco felt he had the right to be, Harry recalled. What had he said? You fail them at moments when they should have your undivided loyalty. On the other hand, that was a Slytherin outlook. If Ron thought about it -- really thought -- would he feel the same?

 

"Hey," Harry said, stopping next to where Ron was studying -- or at least twirling his quill while looking at a book.

"Harry!" Relief bloomed on Ron's face as he dropped the quill. "Everything all right, then?"

"Fine," Harry agreed. "I just couldn't get out of lunch, afterwards. Come upstairs for a minute?"

"'Course," Ron agreed, shoving the book aside and standing up. "Let's go."

A quick trot up the circular stairs, and they were alone in their dormitory. Harry cast a spell to detect body heat, just to be sure.

"Lunch?" Ron asked.

"It was Tonks -- Auror Tonks, that is -- the witch who talked to you about Sirius?"

Ron's quizzical look turned stony. "She was Malfoy's bodyguard at the trial."

"Right. And she's his cousin -- her mum married a Muggleborn wizard and got disowned, so that was the first time Draco had met her."

"Was that what she wanted to talk to you about?"

"No. She was here from the Sirius Black investigation -- no repeating this, you realize -- to ask me for a memory and limited Veritaserum testimony. But after that, she invited Draco and me to lunch, and since the headmaster had approved it, it would've looked strange if I hadn't gone." He took a breath. "Sorry I couldn't get word to you earlier."

After a long, hard look, Ron nodded. "All right. I was worried that you weren't in the Great Hall, but I can see it would look odd to turn her down." Sighing, he sat down on the edge of his bed. "How's your week been?"

"Rough," Harry admitted. "Though I seem to be okay with Hermione now."

"Wish I was."

"It'll come."

"Maybe." Ron leaned back, stretching his upper body back across the bed. His feet remained on the floor. Sometimes, Harry was startled to realize just how tall Ron was. "I know I overreacted," he said to the ceiling, "but I'm still sort of annoyed at you."

"Yeah," Harry answered, "me too. And annoyed at her -- Mill, I mean. But...."

"But what?" Ron challenged, sitting up again. "Why are you talking to her?"

Harry had found the words for this with Draco. "Because people are more important than games."

Brow scrunching, Ron stared at him. "Yeah, but ... people like that?"

"People like what? You don't even know her!"

Ron flopped back onto the bed, the force of his impact sending a ripple through the drapes. Harry watched him in anxious silence.

"People are more important than games," Ron repeated finally, as if trying out the words.

"Yes."

"Harry, look -- that's a fine philosophy, I'm sure. I bet Professor Dumbledore would like that one, and Hermione would approve and all, but...."

"But?"

"You're Quidditch captain! There's no place for that flummery on the pitch!"

Harry coughed on his surprise. "Great. You're agreeing with Draco."

"Draco was upset you fell for it? I don't believe it!"

"No. Draco just thought I shouldn't have fallen for it, and that my house had a right to be upset at me."

"Hm." Ron frowned up at the canopy. "Now I feel like I shouldn't be. Not if I'm going to be agreeing with Malfoy."

"You were getting along with him before this."

"I suppose." Ron yawned. "Oh -- if we're going to be friends again, can I borrow your Charms notes?"

 

They spent the rest of the day together, talking and playing games and trying not to fight. Harry told Ron about Tonks being a Metamorphmagus, which it had turned out meant that she could self-transfigure at will. Ron laughed at the story of her turning her nose into a pig snout, but it didn't take him long to note that an Auror who could take on the appearance of anyone she pleased had a lot of options open to her for investigation. After dinner, Hermione joined them by the fire, but she sat on the other side of Harry from Ron and pointedly spoke only to Harry, and it was even more difficult to pretend everything was all right. Harry knew it was his turn to try to fix things.

 

On Sunday morning, the Gryffindor team had Quidditch practice, but before that, on the way out of breakfast, Harry stopped his head of house.

"Professor McGonagall? May I speak to you for a moment?"

The conference took a little longer than Harry had hoped, and when he reached the Quidditch pitch, Cornelia, Jason, and Lindsey were already in the air. "Oi!" Harry called, waving his arms. "Team meeting! Everyone in the north changing room!"

When they had gathered, Harry stood on raised grid in front of the showers. "I'd like to cede captaincy of the team to Cornelia," he said bluntly.

"What?" Ron exclaimed, and Ginny protested with a scolding "Harry!" as Damian choked.

"We're not that upset with you," Lindsey protested.

"Speak for yourself," Damian snapped. At a glare from Cornelia he looked down. "But even if--"

"Professor McGonagall says I can do it, if the team agrees," Harry said levelly. "And just to be clear, I'm not trying to punish myself, or anything." Best to get that out in front. "I'm embarrassed about falling for the Slytherins' trick, but I'm not ashamed of it. I told Ron that I had decided last year that real life was more important than games, and that's true." He took a quick breath. "But he said that may be a good attitude for life, but not for captaining a Quidditch team, and he's right too.

"The Quidditch team ought to be the captain's first priority, or at least close to it. It can't be mine. Not this year. Not if I'm going to survive leaving school."

For a moment, the only response was silent stares. Damian recovered first. "So what is first?" he asked. "Malfoy?"

Lindsey and Jason sniggered, but Ron straightened up from the wall as if preparing to fight.

"No," Harry said. "I'd love it if he was, but defeating Voldemort trumps everything."

Meeting his eyes, Ron gave a grim nod. "Name your top five, then."

"Defeating Voldemort is tops. Spending time with Draco -- while I still can -- is in there somewhere, but so is helping my godfather, now that there's a chance. Passing my NEWTs, because for the first year since Voldemort returned, I think I might have a chance to survive leaving school, and I haven't been preparing for that." He paused, wondering what to name for his fifth. Perhaps time with Draco had made him too secretive. Hadn't Draco advised he be more honest with Hermione? And really, these were Gryffindors. They would appreciate honesty as well, and be more likely to work with him if they got it. "As part of defeating Voldemort," he said slowly, "making friends in all houses, so I have allies everywhere, when the war demands it."

There was silence. Jason's eyes were wide, and Damian's scrunched shut, but it was Ron that Harry couldn't look past. He was regarding Harry with a hard devotion that Harry hadn't seen in him in a while.

"Well then," Cornelia said, leaning back on her trunk. "I accept. Is there any debate?"

And that easily, authority passed from him to her. It was one thing off his plate, Harry told himself, and he let the wind bear away his sadness as he flew up to greet the sky. He was free of it, and he was still Seeker, which was really what mattered.

 

Chapter Text

 

After practice, Ginny started to ask him about something, but then, catching herself, turned to Cornelia instead. With a nod for them both, Harry left the pitch and cut across the brown grass toward Greenhouse Four.

"Hi, Harry," Millicent said, as he dropped down into the tunnel. Harry thought she must have heard his approach, because she turned back to the open area right away.

"Good afternoon!" he returned, following her. "Am I late enough to miss prep?"

She snorted. "Not at all. Short practice?"

Shrugging, he started over to their work area. "Not really. But I resigned as captain, so I didn't have to stay after."

"Resigned?" Her brows furrowed. "This isn't about me, is it? Because captains have done far dumber things."

"Yeah, but I don't care as much as I should." He shrugged. "Not even enough to snub you, obviously."

"And they think you ought to do?"

"Of course they think I ought to! Look, don't worry about it, okay? I'm still on the team, and it's not my problem, now." Harry turned away to loosen the cord on the bag of fluxweed. "And while it wasn't penance, it seems to have worked that way. They were far less angry at me today."

She shook her head. "Gryffindors!"

 

After weeks of making the same potion, the brewing was fairly easy. Once they had set the cauldron aside to cool, Harry turned to Millicent.

"I have a new approach for glamours."

Her brows came down. "New? But I'm having enough trouble--"

"Right. So it's time to try something else. I was studying a different source, and it had a significantly different approach." The source was the book of cosmetic charms, but there was no way he was going to tell her that. "For one thing, it emphasized that it's easier to change your looks to match how you think of yourself."

She frowned even more at that. "Well, that will be useless! Half the time I can't even remember I'm a girl, Potter! If I look in the mirror when I'm tired, it startles me."

With a flick of his hand, he waved that off. "Fine. So let's start with looking like you want to. When you've got that, we'll backtrack to subterfuge, okay?"

"Oh." The lines across her brow eased as she considered that. "This will be practice?"

"Right."

"And when I'm better at it, I can do something harder."

"Like disguising yourself. Exactly!"

 

"Great!" Harry said, at Millicent's eighth attempt.

"Really?"

"Really. You're doing so much better. The glamour is actually on you, the way it should be."

"What do you mean, on me?"

"I mean -- before it was like you'd put the glamour on top of ... for example, your robes. So when they moved, the real cloth would show through, because the glamour didn't track. The same thing with your arm, last week. I'd see the real thing if you moved fast, as if you'd cast the charm on the air above your skin, rather than on your whole arm."

"I ... I've always thought of it like that. Like a mask." Millicent's militarily short hair gave her a stubborn look, although her voice was querulous

"Well, no." Harry found himself confused by the idea. He hadn't really thought about the nature of glamours that way before.

"But if it's not transfiguration, it can't be on the arm itself."

"But it can be," Harry protested. He thought he might be getting what she meant. This was the theory part of magic, which he hardly ever bothered with before helping Draco with Transfiguration. "Look, if I cast a Featherlight charm on this rock--" Here, he tossed a rock in the air, casting the spell before catching it-- "it's still a rock, right?" He rapped the stone against the wall, getting a nice, solid clunk. "It's not softer, or less dense." He scraped it, now, leaving a paler line along the stones beside him. "It's not transfigured, but the spell still goes all the way through the--"

Millicent grabbed his arm, panic widening her eyes. Belatedly, he processed the sound from a second earlier -- the scrape of someone opening the trapdoor without raising it far enough.

"Lift the glamour!" he hissed, fumbling in his bag for his invisibility cloak. He knew he had brought it -- he always brought it -- but he didn't set it on the top anymore.

The intruder miscalculated the last step from the ladder, landing heavily. Harry pulled out the cloak. He opened it with a snap of his wrists, tangling his wand for a second -- when had he drawn that? His heartbeat pounded. The steps were near the curve. In a quick shake, he tossed the cloak over Millicent and spun about, wand ready.

He froze.

"Harry."

It was Hermione, her face tight. Harry lowered the wand, stepping back out of battle stance. "Hi," he said.

"Where's Bulstrode?"

"Mill?" he asked, trying to look confused. Hermione stalked towards him. "Why would I know?"

Opening her hand, she held it out to him, and he saw a squat cylinder wrapped about with black hair. It was glowing all over, with a reddish tinge at the edge where it curved nearest him.

"Because she's in this room," Hermione said flatly. "Behind you."

"It's none of your--"

"Give it up, Potter," Millicent growled, pulling off his cloak. She thrust it at him as she stepped past. "Thanks for trying."

He watched her shoulders square as she focused down on Hermione. "Don't go carrying tales, Granger. It's none of your affair."

Lifting her chin, Hermione crossed her arms over her chest. "Oh, really?" She said tightly. "Illicit brewing in a private place? You'll excuse me if I have questions."

"It's nothing illegal," Harry said quickly. "We're not hurting anyone."

Millicent shushed him with the wave of one meaty hand. "Ask away, Granger."

Certainty wavering, Hermione looked between them. "What's the potion?"

"Stage one of a six-month sex-change regimen."

Millicent spat out the answer like a challenge. Hermione stumbled back. Her eyes widened, and Harry didn't think it was entirely from hearing Millicent use a word like "regimen."

"Harry?" she asked uncertainly. "You wouldn't--"

Millicent snorted. "Lift the glamour, Harry," she said.

Sighing, he raised his wand. "All right. Look, Hermione...."

But Hermione was backing off again, looking up as Millicent swelled three inches higher.

"Oh!" She held her hand over her mouth a moment before forcing it down. "Well, good -- because, Harry, being a girl wouldn't keep Draco."

Harry snorted. "Well, yeah. Since he's gay."

"And you're not a pureblood."

"Merlin, Granger!" Millicent exclaimed. "Issues, much?"

Hermione glared at her. "With all the time Harry spends with Slytherins--"

"Who aren't all purebloods either." Millicent gestured down her changed body. "One-eighth troll, Granger."

"How does that even happen?"

Millicent looked at her as if she were dim. "How do you think? It's not like anyone does a troll by choice."

"Oh." Hermione looked horrified. "You mean...."

"Sometimes, the woman survives, right? And sometimes, she's too soft to toss her ugly brute of a baby in the river." Millicent shrugged. "And he might be ... well, just human enough for a woman who values strength over beauty."

Hermione bit her lip. She looked lost. Harry couldn't blame her, really. For a moment, he considered the possibility that Millicent was actually so brilliantly sly that she had been manipulating him all along, but he shrugged off the thought. She was playing to Hermione's sympathies, yes -- but if she always knew what she was doing, he would not have had to spend so long convincing her that he didn't need to be paid off.

"Harry?" Hermione said quietly. "Would you go, please?"

"She'll need a glamour."

"Cast it before you leave," Millicent suggested. Her voice was tight, but she voiced no objection to being left with Hermione. After meeting her eyes for a moment, Harry nodded, and he cast the charm.

"She's my friend," he said to Hermione. "Remember that."

"I will."

There was nothing for it but to go.

 

Harry wanted to wait for them to emerge, but it was cold to be out walking, and he was afraid he would be too conspicuous loitering by the greenhouse. Reluctantly, he returned to Gryffindor, reasoning that Hermione would look for him there.

He was right. After an agonizing half-hour, at the fifteenth opening of the portrait hole, it was Hermione who climbed inside, and she immediately set course for him. He started to gather his books before she was halfway across the Common Room.

"My room?" she said tightly.

"Yeah."

He followed her.

 

Once the door shut, he expected an immediate confrontation. Instead, she paused with her back almost to him, appearing to look down at the papers and books on her desk. He couldn't help remembering the last time they had stood like this. He had cursed her. Like this. When she had her back to me. When she trusted me. The thought did nothing for his anxiety.

"So," he prompted. To his relief, Hermione turned and looked at him. Her face was tight with worry.

"So," she returned. "This is what you've been hiding. You're helping him."

For a moment, Harry couldn't understand what she was talking about. He had been expecting her t