IN PLAIN SIGHT

Draco Malfoy knew for as long as he lived he would never be able to erase the sound of the screams from his memory.

Even before he recognized the voice, when he wasn’t certain who it was, the sound echoing down the stone hallway had his blood running cold. He’d heard screams at the Manor during what he liked to think of as The Occupation; screams that troubled his dreams and haunted his waking hours. These were somehow worse. It was horror personified, terror translated to sound, pain made auditory. And then he heard his name amidst the wails and his heart froze within his chest.

He didn’t remember bolting down the two flights of stairs, or losing his bag, or tearing the lining of his school robes. He didn’t remember shoving the loitering crowd out of the way, or falling to his knees so hard he’d have bruises on his boney kneecaps. All he would later remember was the sound of Pansy’s screams, finally reduced to tattered groans by damaged vocal chords, and the sight of her flesh blistering before his eyes as it burned without fire.

He hovered over her, afraid to touch her as pandemonium reigned over his head. He was dimly aware of the Gryffindors surrounding them, of someone screaming even once Pansy no longer could. The words: “they don’t belong here” were shouted in a hysterical tone. And then there was Potter’s voice, deep and steadfast and authoritative. He ordered wands lowered, everyone to back off, someone to go for Pomfrey. All Draco could do was hover, while blisters bubbled into being on Pansy’s pale flesh and her eyes rolled wildly in her head.

“What can I do, Pans?” he whispered, leaning over her. “I don’t have a spell for this! What do I do?”

Somehow, amidst the mayhem, she heard him and reached out blindly, fingers spread, grasping. He caught her hand, and even though he could see it caused her pain, she gripped his hard. She searched for him, even though his face was hovering above hers, her eyes moving until she was able to focus. Her beautiful brown eyes were full of tears, and she arched her neck to bring her face closer to his.

“Disappear, Draco,” she whispered, face intense, voice raw. “Disappear.”

******

“I told them this was a bad idea.” Harry Potter fumed as he paced outside of the hospital wing. “I fucking told them!”

“I know, Harry,” Hermione Granger replied from where her seat on a wide stone window ledge. “And you were right. It isn’t going to help in the present situation, however.” She shook her head, her soft golden brown curls brushing the shoulders of the school sweater. When she spoke again, her voice was just above a whisper. “They shouldn’t have let Lavender return to school yet. She wasn’t ready.”

Harry paused to look at her, his brow furrowed. “Do you think she was ever going to be ready?” he asked, his tone flat. Hermione glanced away.

“I don’t know,” she answered. “But you can’t blame her parents for wanting to try, to at least pretend she was going to be all right…” Her voice trailed away wearily. “Gods, there’s still so much damage.” She ran her hand through her thick hair, and Harry could see it trembling faintly. He sighed heavily and sat down beside her, taking her hand and holding it.

“You had to expect it, Hermione,” he murmured, squeezing her hand to take the sting out of his words. “You of all people know it doesn’t just go away.”

Her brown eyes took on a shuttered look. Harry was one of the few people who knew Hermione’s dreams still featured Bellatrix Lestrange and a silver knife with alarming regularity. It was one of the reasons she’d been so glad to be made Head Girl on her return to Hogwarts. She was given private quarters, where no one could hear her sobs.

“Yes, I know,” she whispered. She turned to look at him. “Is it ever going to be normal again, Harry?”

He dropped her hand and slipped his arm around her petite shoulders, pulling her tight against his side.

“I don’t know,” he answered honestly. He was certainly no expert. His own nightmares still featured visions of the malignant madman who had nearly killed them all. He doubted what they’d all gone through would ever truly be over.

The sound of heavy footsteps coming up the stairs had both of them turning their heads. Ron Weasley appeared, his mop of ginger hair tousled and his pale face drawn making his freckles stand out boldly across his nose and cheeks. His Head Boy badge caught the light of a nearby torch, flickering golden in the gloom.

Harry didn’t move or drop his arm from around Hermione, and Ron didn’t appear bothered by seeing his fiancé under his best friend’s arm. They were long beyond the petty jealousies that marred their younger years. And it helped that before they’d returned for their eighth year at Hogwarts Harry had taken his best friends into his confidence and told them he was pretty sure he was gay. While they’d been hunting Horcruxes and battling a madman, sex had been the furthest thing from Harry’s mind. But if he was going to be honest with himself, and he was more often now than he’d been when he was younger, girls hadn’t much done it for him from the start. He’d even reasoned it was probably the cause of his being attracted to very athletic girls. Flat chests, muscular legs… it all began to make sense. And he’d always noticed a handsome face or a muscled form. The idea had horrified him when he’d been fourteen and fifteen, probably the result of his uncle’s regular homophobic rants. Now that he was alive when he’d never expected to live past seventeen? His orientation didn’t bother him too much.

Ron hadn’t so much as batted an eye. He’d shrugged nonchalantly, saying ”No great surprise there, mate. If you could spend weeks in a tent with Hermione and not so much as look at her…” . Harry had never thought of it that way, but he supposed it made sense. When he’d said Hermione was like his sister, he’d meant it. The fact a girl so attractive had never even tempted him spoke volumes.

He arched his dark brow at Ron as he approached down the hall, the question unspoken but clear on his face.

“The Aurors took Lavender into custody,” he answered, grimacing. “She’s not real lucid yet, even with the calming draught Pomfrey gave her.”

“Poor Lavender,” Hermione murmured, shaking her head. “She’s just…” She shrugged helplessly.

“Barmy as all hell?” Ron provided, and Hermione sent him a quelling look. “Well, she is,” he said in his defense. “Always has been. She’s just more apt to snap now, is all.”

“I’d think you’d be more understanding of her situation,” Hermione said, her pale face stern. “After all, Bill…”

“Bill likes his steaks rare now,” Ron interrupted. “Lavender wants to kill anyone who looks at her sideways, which is almost everyone. The scars aren’t exactly easy to ignore. Admit it Hermione, she had no business coming back yet.”

Hermione sagged under Harry’s arm. “You just said the exact same thing yourself,” Harry said gently, and she nodded.

“I know. It’s all so… horrible.” She stood, pushing at her heavy hair with both hands as she walked to the closed door of the ward and peered through the small square glass window at its center. “Do you think Parkinson is going to be all right?” she asked, her voice soft.

“Dunno,” Ron answered. “Did they ever figure out what she was hit with?”

“There’s a curse breaker and an expert in spell damage in there with her now.” Harry stood as well, his hands going into his trouser pockets. “McGonagall is, too. She said they’d have to stabilize Parkinson before they could move her to St. Mungo’s.”

Hermione rubbed her forehead and sighed. “I don’t like Parkinson, but no one deserves that. The way she screamed…” She shuddered.

Ron went to her, putting his hands on her shoulders and she leaned back into his chest, one hand coming up to grip one of his. “I’d so hoped we’d managed to put an end to this,” she murmured. “This pure-blood verses half-blood or Muggleborn nonsense.”

“Do you think that’s what this was?” Harry asked. She turned.

“You don’t?”

He shook his dark head. “I don’t,” he said emphatically. “I think this has everything to do with one unstable girl, and the bloody board of governors.”

Ron sighed softly. “Harry…” He’d heard it all before. Harry had been on a crusade since the beginning of the fall term.

“Just think about it, Ron,” Harry persisted. “The new policies have only made this kind of thing more likely. They’ve institutionalized prejudice.”

Ron’s lips quirked to one side. “Institutionalized prejudice?” he repeated. “Who are you, and what have you done with Harry Potter?”

Harry sent him a flinty, narrow-eyed look.

“He’s right though, Ron,” Hermione interjected. “The board’s decision is behind all of this.”

Ron rolled his eyes. “So the both of you keep saying,” he said dryly. “Over and over again.” He crossed his arms over his chest. “Some might say all of this could have been avoided if Parkinson and Malfoy had simply fallen in line and gone along quietly.”

Harry stared at him, irritation making his teeth clench. “Would you?” he asked tightly. Ron frowned. “Had the situation been reversed, would you have gone along quietly?”

Ron huffed. “Scarcely the same thing, mate.”

Hermione shook her head. “Ron, it’s exactly the same thing! Why can’t you see that?”

Ron merely shrugged, but Harry knew there would be no convincing him. Raised with the fear of Voldemort and the belief there ‘wasn’t a witch or wizard gone bad that wasn’t in Slytherin’, Ron couldn’t understand why the board’s decision to do away with Slytherin house entirely was a bad thing. But Harry knew it was in his heart, in his bones. Hogwarts was made up of the four houses for a reason. Everything in him rebelled against the change. Only bad things could come of such a fundamental alteration of the Castle’s stated purpose. He knew it.

He just wasn’t sure how he knew it.

******

Harry hadn’t wanted to return to Hogwarts for his eighth year. It seemed a waste of time. He was going to be an Auror and he’d already been a member of the Order of the Phoenix, and had headed up Dumbledore’s Army. No one could argue Harry Potter didn’t have a leg up on fighting evil. But in another of those incomprehensible decisions he’d come to expect from the Ministry of Magic, they’d decreed no one who had been of school age during the year of the Second Dark War would be allowed to enter into employment for the Ministry of Magic without re-sitting the year. It didn’t matter if you’d been a student under the Carrows and Snape, or if you’d missed your final year entirely, which Harry felt sure was aimed at the three of them. The year had to be repeated; seventh years had to sit their NEWT’s, fifth years their OWL’s, and so on. As a result, on the first of September, Harry found himself on the Hogwarts Express, headed back for another year of school.

The three of them attracted an inordinate amount of attention at King’s Cross, which he’d expected but doubted he’d ever be truly comfortable with. The first years that looked up at him, all wide-eyes and awed expressions, had never seemed so young. He felt like an old man in a young body. He’d seen too much, been through too much at eighteen to ever feel like a teenager again. Everyone who had been at Hogwarts on that final, fateful day felt the same. They’d watched friends die, nearly seen the end of everything that mattered. Something so sobering, so life changing, left scars.

Hermione, Ron, Neville and Harry all found themselves in the same compartment. Ginny was off with Dean and the other lower year students kept their distance, staring at them wide-eyed and scuttling to get out of their way. The principal players of the Battle of Hogwarts ended up together once again, isolated by the hero worship of their peers.

“Is it going to be like this all bloody year?” Neville asked, flopping heavily onto the seat across from Harry. “If one more firstie looks up at me in terror, I may give him the boot on principal alone.”

Harry grinned.

“That’s not terror, Nev,” Ron said good-naturedly, kicking his shin lightly. “That’s adoration.” He’d batted his ginger lashes and Neville scowled, pitching a Gryffindor scarf at his head.

It wasn’t long after when Ron caught sight of something outside of their compartment, and he elbowed Harry lightly in the side, angling his head toward the door with a meaningful look.

Parkinson walked by affecting an air of disinterest, pug nose in the air. Malfoy was right behind her, pointedly ignoring everything he passed, his eyes resolutely forward as he walked. He looked thin, Harry thought, studying his one-time antagonist. And tired. And pale.

“What do you suppose they’re doing here?” Ron said once they’d gone by, irritation clear in his tone.

“The same thing we are, I imagine,” Hermione said, lips pursed primly. Ron laughed.

“Like either of them could end up an Auror,” he scoffed. “Bloody building would combust in protest.”

Hermione sent him a level glare. “Not everyone wants to be an Auror, Ronald. Some of us are interested in other departments.”

Ron chuckled. “Oh, sure. Draco Malfoy, Magical Games and Cooperation. Pansy Parkinson the Unspeakable. Got a big picture of either of those, love.”

She pursed her lips. “I think it’s very brave of them to come back at all.”

Ron snorted. “Brave? Bollocks. Their parents are probably making them, trying to restore the family image. Good luck with that, I say. Most won’t forget he sat at Old Snakeface’s right hand through the whole bloody thing, and she did everything she could to turn Harry over to him.”

“His father sat at Voldemort’s right hand,” Harry said softly. “And you seem to forget he also could have turned us over to Voldemort, and didn’t.” Ron rolled his eyes.

“He just wasn’t sure it was you,” he countered. “Come on, Mate. You looked more like Goyle at that point than you did yourself. Besides, you more than paid him back by pulling his skinny arse out of the fire.”

Knowing there was no point in arguing with Ron when his mind was made up, Harry chose not to. But he also couldn’t seem to shake the image of Malfoy walking by, determined to keep his pointed chin up even though he would so obviously rather have been somewhere, anywhere, else.

They changed into their house robes on the train and waited to take their carriages up to the castle, just like they did every year. Harry watched both Ron and Hermione stroke the necks of the thestrals they passed on their way by and wondered somberly how many more of them could see the beasts this year than had ever been able to before. He spared a touch for the large male who pulled their carriage, and pulled his hand out of the way when the animal would have given him an affectionate nibble.

“None of that,” he’d murmured, reaching up to touch a leathery ear. “I’ll bring you down a chop tomorrow.”

“They remember you.”

He turned and found Luna Lovegood standing behind him, petite in her Ravenclaw robes, her blonde hair curling in wild ringlets to her waist. Her wide blue eyes were on Harry’s face.

“You think so?” Harry said, letting his hand trail down a hard neck.

“Of course,” she answered in her imperturbable way. “They’re very smart.”

“That, they are,” Harry agreed, then patted the animal one more time before he offered his hand to help her up into the carriage beside Hermione.

“You’ve become such a gentleman, Harry,” she said with a fleeting smile. Ron snorted, and Harry kicked his foot.

The Great Hall was abuzz with the usual noise of the young crowd. It all seemed so very normal. If Harry hadn’t spent the last three and a half months helping to repair the damage to the ancient building, it might almost have been as if none of it had happened. Except if you knew where to look, and he did, there was new masonry mingled with the old and the window behind the head table now showed a stained glass rendition of the building on fire, which would slowly resolve itself into the new silhouette, towers shining amidst a glowing sunset. Harry didn’t like the window. He didn’t think anyone needed a constant reminder of the recent events that had transpired on the spot. There was even a ruddy brass plaque on the floor where Voldemort had fallen, along with Harry’s name as ‘vanquisher’ and the date. He wouldn’t even look in its direction. These were just more decisions put into effect by the Board of Governors, along with the Ministry. Harry had seen many of their resolutions carried out over the summer; more choices made by people, most of whom hadn’t fought, or seen their loved ones die. Most of whom thought the protests of an eighteen year old boy, even if he had defeated the darkest wizard of the age, weren’t worth giving more than a forced, polite nod. The longer he was around them, the more he realized he’d never have any patience with bureaucrats or bureaucracy.

Professor McGonagall had taken her place at the lectern before Harry noticed something didn’t seem right on the wall behind her. Where the four huge hour glasses holding the gems indicating house point totals had always hung, there were now only three. He stared, his brow furrowed. There was Gryffindor, Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw, but the Slytherin glass was gone. He began to look at other things, as well. In the week he’d spent with the Weasley’s, being fattened up by Molly and shopping with Ron and Hermione for books and uniforms, the brassieres along the walls had changed, as well. The hogs were still there, and the badger, lion and raven, but every trace of the snake had been banished from the hall. Foreboding began to build in Harry’s chest, and instinctively, he turned to look at the Slytherin table.

Most of the students seated there hadn’t seemed to notice, but Malfoy had. He stood halfway down the long table, his eyes on the same place Harry had been looking, his face mirroring concern, and anger. He turned his head and pinned Harry with a look, and Harry blinked, then shook his head quickly.

“Not me,” he mouthed, but Malfoy had already looked away, his jaw tight and his hands clenched into fists.

“Your attention, please,” McGonagall said, her voice amplified with a Sonorous charm. “If you will take your seats, we can begin.” Gradually, the hall quieted as people turned their attention from getting reacquainted with their house mates to the headmistress. She looked tired, Harry thought. But then, all of them did.

“You have perhaps noticed there have been some changes to the Great Hall,” she announced, diving straight in. “During the summer, the board of governors decided it is in the best interests of the school to abolish Slytherin house.”

There was a roar of displeasure from the Slytherin table. Some of them even stood, shouting. Around the rest of the hall traveled a murmur of surprise. Again, McGonagall raised her hands. “It will do you no good to shout,” she said pointedly, staring down the offended Slytherins. They slowly returned to their seats. Malfoy never joined his classmates on their feet; he merely stared at her, his face drawn and his shoulders stiff. “I understand your displeasure, believe me. But there is no help for it. Slytherin house has been disbanded, and the lot of you will be resorted with the first years. Please stand and make your way to the front of the Hall.”

Several of them sat stubbornly. Parkinson crossed her arms over her chest, her mouth tight. Malfoy merely continued his wide-eyed stare.

“I will not ask you again,” she said sternly to what were mostly upper year students. “You’ve no choice; save yourself the embarrassment of continuing to protest. “

When they did not rise, and several of the younger students turned back, clearly torn between what they were being told and what their older contemporaries were doing, she sighed heavily.

“You’ve left me no choice,” she murmured. She lifted her wand and waved it in a series of elegant motions, and several things happened at once. There was a sudden, loud grinding of stone and the furthest wall began to move in slowly. Several younger Slytherins screamed and ran for the front of the room, their protesting older ranks stiffened and stared. Unquestionably, shortly there wasn’t going to be room for the Slytherin table, and just as Harry thought it, it disappeared, depositing Malfoy, Parkinson and the others who hadn’t stood abruptly and gracelessly on the floor.

Parkinson shrieked, yanking down her skirt to belatedly cover bright green knickers even as the hall filled with derisive laughter. Malfoy sprawled next to her, looking shocked, thin knees akimbo as pale hands reached out in an attempt to catch onto a table that was no longer there. His landing was anything but elegant.

“Serves the stuck up sots right,” Seamus said with a grin.

But Harry had never seen anything he thought less funny. Humiliation wasn’t amusing, not as far as he was concerned, and even though it was Malfoy and Parkinson, Harry didn’t like it. He frowned.

“It isn’t funny, Seamus,” Ginny, who was seated across from Harry, hissed at him. “How would you like it?” She glared at him, and then turned to Harry, shaking her head. “Idiots,” she mouthed. Harry’s expression told her that he agreed with her, and she sent him a fleeting smile. He was glad they’d been able to stay friends.

Just after the Slytherin table disappeared, the other three tables lengthened at the far end, nearest the massive double doors. As the huge room grew narrower, it also grew longer, more grinding of stone as the wall moved to accommodate the new configuration. After several moments silence was restored.

Harry had always deeply respected the castle’s inherent magic. And even though it cooperated with McGonagall’s spell, and the room now held only the three, much longer tables, it didn’t seem right somehow. The former symmetry was gone; the placement of the huge window at the front looked wrong, and the large doors were now slightly off-center. But more than that, it felt wrong; it was almost as if Harry could hear the old walls protesting.

Left with no alternative, the entirety of Slytherin house, even the oldest amongst them, made their way to the front of the Hall and waited for the first years. The youngest were sorted first, and were accepted into the three remaining houses with cheers of welcome and applause. When it came time for resorting of the former Slytherins, even though there were relatively few of them, no such warm welcome was offered. Their sorting was met with stony silence that more than any words showed how deeply the war time scars still ran.

Parkinson and Malfoy were the only eighth years who had returned; Crabbe was dead, Goyle was in Azkaban, and Zabini, Nott, Greengrass and Bulstrode had all transferred to other magical schools. As Harry watched the remaining Slytherins being sorted into other houses, he couldn’t say he faulted their judgment.

Parkinson, to the shock of almost everyone, sorted Gryffindor. Harry wasn’t surprised; it had taken an odd sort of courage to suggest to an obviously hostile crowd that turning him over to Voldemort was a good idea. But his housemates weren’t at all happy about it, and their glares and mutters made it very clear. Parkinson kept her head high as she walked as far down the table as she could go and sat alone, but the angry tears that slipped down her cheeks made Harry feel slightly ill. There was no way this was going to go well.

Malfoy sat on the high stool, staring stonily straight ahead as McGonagall placed the hat on his gleaming white-blond hair. The hat began to speak, so quietly no one else could hear, but clearly it and Malfoy were having an argument of some kind. Finally, the old battered leather hat opened the tear at its rim and shouted ’Ravenclaw!’, and Malfoy stood and made his way to the far end of the Ravenclaw table with as much dignity as he could manage. He looked like a man walking to his own execution, and the looks on some of the Ravenclaw’s faces weren’t encouraging. Leave it to Luna, however; she stood and made her way to the far end of the table and sat beside him. Malfoy looked at her in clear surprise before schooling his features and facing the front of the room again.

Harry didn’t know exactly what Malfoy and the hat had been arguing about, but he could guess. As with Parkinson, Harry wouldn’t have been surprised to hear the hat shout ‘Gryffindor’, and he’d bet every galleon in his vault Malfoy had persuaded it not to. He knew most of his friends thought Malfoy was a spoiled, cowardly sycophant who’d been the Dark Lord’s toady, just like his father, but Harry knew the truth. He knew what Draco had been forced to do. He’d seen it in horrifying visions in his own head. He also knew the courage it took not to identify Harry when they’d been captured by the Snatchers and taken to the Manor. In spite of the stinging jinx Hermione sent to disfigure Harry’s face, Malfoy had known who he was. There was no question in Harry’s mind. He’d seen the recognition in the other boy’s eyes. He still didn’t know exactly why Malfoy hadn’t told, but he did know by hedging he’d no doubt saved the lives of all three of them. It took real courage. Had Voldemort found out he’d done it deliberately, what would have befallen Draco would have been too horrifying to contemplate. Harry wasn’t certain even he would have been so brave.

******

“It would have helped if they’d just worn their new house robes,” Ron was saying now as they stood in the drafty hallway, and Harry shook himself from his reverie and looked over at him.

“How do you figure?” he asked, frowning.

“It’s like waving a red flag in front of an erumpent,” Ron said. “The green tie and the snake emblem. Particularly right there in the dorm, where Lavender would have to look at it all the time. If Parkinson had just switched to the Gryffindor colors; it was like she didn’t want to even try to fit in.”

Harry stared at him incredulously.

“She didn’t want to try to fit in, Ron,” Hermione said, her own brow furrowed. “She’s not a Gryffindor. She’s a Slytherin, and has been since she was eleven years old.”

“There is no more Slytherin,” Ron countered. “The house is gone.” It wasn’t said maliciously, but as if he truly didn’t understand.

“Ronald,” she said with a long-suffering sigh. “Just try, for a moment, to imagine this the other way around. Think of what our friends went through here last year, when the other side was in charge…”

“Oi, it isn’t the same at all,” Ron argued, a red flush starting up above his open collar and his loosened Gryffindor tie. “No one is using Unforgivables on Malfoy and Parkinson to get them to go along.”

“No,” Harry said darkly. “Someone only cast a curse so violent on Parkinson her skin is probably still blistering.”

Ron had the good grace to look away, his expression sheepish. “Well, until tonight no one was, then.” He looked back at Harry, his eyes troubled. “But you’ve got to admit, they haven’t been helping the situation any.”

Harry sighed and shook his head, reaching up to run one hand through his messy black hair. “I’ll admit it’s been hard for them,” he said softly. “And by refusing to wear their new house colors, they haven’t made any friends.”

“See?” Ron said to Hermione, gesturing towards Harry.

“But,” Harry said pointedly, “if someone told me I had to change houses, to be something other than what I’d always been and what I felt I was supposed to be, I can tell you right now, Ron, I wouldn’t have done it. They’d have had to expel me. And you wouldn’t have done it, either.”

Ron crossed his arms over his chest, but he no longer looked as convinced as he had.

The door to the hospital wing opened and McGonagall appeared. Harry and Hermione jumped to their feet.

“How is she, Headmistress?” Hermione asked. McGonagall looked grim.

“Not well,” she answered brusquely. “Madam Pomfrey has been able to stop any more damage from occurring, and the curse breaker was able to identify the spell, but unable to reverse the injuries she’d already sustained. They’re going to consult with an expert at St. Mungo’s, but the scaring may be permanent.”

Hermione’s hand lifted, trembling, to cover her mouth.

“I need to go down to the entrance hall and wait for Miss Parkinson’s parents,” McGonagall said, reaching up to run a hand restlessly over her hair. “Miss Parkinson will be transported to St. Mungo’s as soon as she is stable. And the three of you need to return to your dormitories. I give you older students some leeway, but I know it must be after curfew. Please don’t test the limits of my tolerance.” She began to walk briskly past them.

“Professor,” Harry called. She paused and turned back.

“Yes, Mr. Potter?”

“What about Malfoy?”

She angled her head slightly. “What about Mr. Malfoy?”

“Don’t you think someone ought to remain, given the situation?”

“Remain for what?”

Harry felt his face heat but he didn’t look away. “To make certain he gets back to his dorm safely.”

She continued to stare at him, her lips pursed. “I suppose the suggestion has merit,” she said finally. “Mr. Weasley, as Head Boy it should be your job.” She turned her eyes to Ron. “Do you think the two of you can manage to walk the halls without cursing one another?”

Ron grimaced. “I won’t if he doesn’t.”

She lifted a brow wryly. “A ringing reassurance if ever I heard one.” She strode past them. “I expect you to behave yourself, Weasley. Young Malfoy has had a shock, and if something happens,” she shot Ron a look over her shoulder, “I shall be asking you what occurred.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Ron grumbled. He waited until she turned and they could hear her moving briskly down the stairs before he turned on Harry. “Gee, thanks, mate,” he said dryly. “Now I get to hang about here, waiting to babysit Malfoy so no one hexes him on his way to Ravenclaw.”

“I’ll do it,” Harry said quickly. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Hermione give him a quick, quizzical look but he didn’t acknowledge it. “You go ahead and walk Hermione down. I’ll wait for Malfoy.”

Ron hesitated. “McGonagall told me to do it. If you two go at one another, it’ll be my bollocks.”

“We won’t,” Harry said. “At least, I won’t.”

Ron narrowed his eyes as he stared at Harry, studying him as if trying to decide if he could be trusted. “You’re sure?” he asked finally.

“Yes, Ron,” Harry answered, exasperated. “I don’t have a girlfriend waiting for me. If you’d rather I walk Hermione up to the dorm…”

Ron’s frown evolved into a cheeky grin. “Well, at least I wouldn’t have to worry about you trying anything with her, eh, mate?”

“Ronald,” Hermione scolded, sounding exasperated. “Honestly.”

“Well, it’s true, isn’t it? Seeing as how girls don’t really do it for him.”

“Keep talking, Ron,” Harry said, his voice flat. “You can sit up here and wait for Malfoy all damned night.”

“Sorry, sorry,” Ron said quickly holding up his hands. “I’ll behave myself. No more pouf jokes.”

“Ronald! That’s offensive!”

“It is?” Ron turned to Harry. “Mate, I didn’t mean… I wouldn’t…oh, hell.”

Harry grinned at the embarrassed blush that filled his best friend’s face. “No worries,” he said amiably. “Go on.”

Ron and Hermione turned to go down to the dorms, Hermione murmuring ‘be careful’ and brushing his shoulder as she passed. Harry’s grin widened when Ron tried to put his arm around her shoulders and she shrugged it off stiffly. So much for doing him a favor, Harry thought. He didn’t think Ron would be able to pull Hermione into any shadowy alcove for a snog tonight.

He settled once again on the deep window ledge, leaning his elbows on his knees and staring into space. The old building was nearly silent around him, save for the soft crackling of the flames burning in sconces along the walls. The torches had dimmed after the student’s curfew, just as they had for every year he’d been within the schools walls. He wondered why he’d never noticed it before...

When Harry had been a student before the war, he hadn’t noted the myriad things Hogwarts did without prompting. Now he was back, it seemed he could think of little else. He hadn’t discussed it with Ron or Hermione for fear of sounding a bit mental. He didn’t want to be ‘the boy who sensed things’. He’d had more than his fair share of that second year when he was the only one who could hear the basilisk’s mutterings. Living with a ruddy madman in his head for seventeen years had given him a front row seat to hearing and seeing things no one else could, and how well the rest of the world reacted to it. But since he’d returned during the summer to help with the massive repairs needed on the castle, Harry had been aware something wasn’t quite right within the venerable old place. Chalking it up at first to the sheer magnitude of the physical damage, he’d become convinced over time it was more than that. Something just felt… wrong, and it had only become more pronounced when McGonagall made the announcement about the dissolution of Slytherin. The reconfiguration of the Great Hall was just the latest indignity hoisted off on the building, and Harry could almost feel the insulted outrage pouring from the walls. Hogwarts was unsettled, and Harry had no idea how to explain it in a way someone else would understand.

Harry heard footsteps approaching rapidly and straightened in time to see McGonagall approaching, leading two people who were no doubt Parkinson’s parents. Pansy didn’t resemble her mother, Harry noted. This woman was tall and blonde, and actually looked like Narcissa Malfoy quite a bit. Her husband was shorter and darker, possessing the pug nose Parkinson had often stuck up in the air. He also had heavy brows and a stout frame, and as they passed he sent Harry a dark look that could only mean he’d recognized him. McGonagall didn’t seem to notice him at all, which Harry could only count as a good thing. He didn’t want to have to explain to her why he’d relieved Ron of his assignment. He wasn’t entirely sure why he had, himself.

There was a flurry of activity inside of the hospital wings doors and they swung open emphatically, a small crowd bustling through. At the front were two Aurors in full regalia complete with red robes and stern expressions. Immediately behind them were St. Mungo’s orderlies levitating a litter, on which Parkinson was lying. Harry looked at her face and then turned his eyes quickly away, clenching them shut. He’d seen burn victims after the final battle and Parkinson looked as if she’d been caught in a dragon’s blast. The hair around her face was all but gone, and her features looked as if they’d been formed from melting wax. Harry had to swallow back bile.

Behind the litter came Parkinson’s parents, still in the company of McGonagall. She was wearing a stoic expression while Mr. Parkinson spoke furiously.

“…and believe you me, Headmistress,” he said, his deep voice carrying. “My solicitor will do everything in his power to make certain the person responsible for this outrage is prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

“As you’ve said, Mr. Parkinson,” McGonagall replied, her voice calm even though her jaw was hard. “I would like to remind you, however, that the young woman in question has been through a horrific ordeal herself already.”

“I scarcely see how that justifies what she’s done to my Pansy,” Mrs. Parkinson said tearfully, holding a handkerchief to her nose.

“All the more reason for holding you and the Admissions Director responsible,” Mr. Parkinson barked, hurrying to keep up with the litter, his short legs moving briskly. “Clearly, the creature had no business being here to begin with.”

Harry saw McGonagall bristle at the term ‘creature’, but she did not respond. A Healer in the distinctive pale green robes of St. Mungo’s hurried past, speaking briskly to Pomfrey. Harry remained on the shadowed windowsill, and no one so much as glanced at him as they swept by. He watched until they were around the corner and he could hear their voices fading. They were headed for the large fireplaces in the Great Hall, the only ones which could accommodate the litter. He’d learned that after the final battle, too.

The group was out of sight when Harry realized the person he was specifically waiting for wasn’t with them. He pushed to his feet, looking back towards the hospital wings open doors. Where the hell was Malfoy? Frowning, he walked over to the doorway and peered around the thick stone wall.

The dormitory style hospital wing hadn’t changed a bit in the entire time Harry had been at Hogwarts, and he’d spent enough time there to know. Pomfrey had even joked once that, upon his graduation, they should rename the whole of it ‘The Harry Potter Wing’ based on sheer time of occupancy alone. He’d given her a crooked grin. He couldn’t really argue with her reasoning.

Seeing as it was one long room, visible from the doorway, Harry knew when he looked in if Malfoy was still there, he’d see him. About half way down on the right, Malfoy sat in one of the uncomfortable wooden chairs with his back to the door. His shoulders were hunched and his head was lowered, icy blond hair swinging forward over his brow, and Harry stared at the boney vertebra in the back of his fair neck for a long time. He looked so vulnerable Harry almost turned and left. But then he remembered why he was there and walked quietly into the room.

“Malfoy?” he called tentatively, holding back near the door.

Malfoy jerked to his feet as if Harry had shouted, whirling, his face deathly pale. His eyes were red-rimmed and there were tear tracks on his cheeks. Unbidden, an image of another time Harry had found Malfoy crying forced itself into his mind. His stomach turned at the thought.

“What the fuck do you want?” Malfoy snarled, turning away to dash at his cheeks with his sleeve. Harry thought he was probably lucky Malfoy hadn’t drawn his wand on him. He took a few steps closer.

“Is she… How is she?” he finally asked awkwardly. Malfoy turned back to stare at him, his hands dropping to hang at his sides, his face blotchy with embarrassed color. It filled his cheeks and trailed onto his neck.

“Like you care,” Malfoy spat. “Sorry Brown didn’t finish the job?”

Harry frowned. “No,” he said flatly. Malfoy sneered and tried to walk past him, but impulsively Harry reached out and caught his wrist. It felt surprisingly thin in his grip, as if Malfoy were fine-boned even though he had about two inches on Harry in height. Malfoy froze in his tracks and both of them stared at the tawny hand curled around the pale wrist. Harry thought it was probably the first time he had ever touched Malfoy when it wasn’t with his fist.

Malfoy tried to wrench his arm away, but Harry wouldn’t release him.

“Take your hand off of me,” Malfoy growled, the color on his face and neck deepening.

“Will you just… listen for a second?” Harry held on even as Malfoy tried to twist away. Malfoy looked at him as if he’d sprouted a second head.

“Listen to you?” he said, incredulous. “As if you have anything to say I’d want to hear.”

“I’m sorry about Parkinson,” Harry said quickly.

“Oh, please.” Malfoy yanked hard against Harry’s grip and Harry countered with a firm tug of his own. Malfoy stumbled, and Harry reached out instinctively and grabbed his other arm near the shoulder. When Malfoy regained his balance and straightened, they were standing nearly nose to nose, their chests rising and falling in exertion. Inches apart, for the first time Harry looked into the large grey eyes without fear or anger. It occurred to him fleetingly they were beautiful, and the thought shook him to his toes. He released Malfoy instantly and took a quick step back.

Malfoy swallowed, his Adam’s apple bobbing above his loosened Slytherin tie. Harry watched it, saw the green and silver, and was reminded why he was there.

“McGonagall asked someone see you to your dorm,” he blurted. Malfoy’s eyes narrowed and his lip curled.

“And she chose you?” he sneered.

“She chose Ron, actually,” Harry shot back. “Would you rather he’d stayed?”

“I’d rather the lot of you leave me the hell alone.” Malfoy’s jumper had ridden up and he yanked it down as he walked around Harry. Harry didn’t grab him this time; he merely fell in step directly behind him. They made it almost to the doors before Malfoy turned on him again.

“Stop,” he ordered, his voice flat. “I don’t need the fucking Golden Boy to walk me to my dorm!”

“Malfoy,” Harry said, making an effort not to sound confrontational, “not for anything, but no one thought Parkinson did, either.”

Malfoy flinched. “Pansy got taken by surprise. I won’t be.” He shook his wand into his hand. Years of confrontations prodded Harry to do the same, but he fought the impulse. When he didn’t immediately arm himself, he thought he saw surprise flash through Malfoy’s eyes, but it was there and gone so quickly Harry couldn’t be certain. Even though there wasn’t a wand in his hand, he saw Malfoy lick his lips nervously and take a step back.

“I won’t draw my wand on you,” Harry said, defensive. Malfoy blinked quickly.

“Well, that would be a first then, wouldn’t it?” he snapped. Stung, Harry narrowed his eyes.

“Hey, I haven’t hexed you in…” He stopped. He remembered the last time he hexed Malfoy, and blanched. “Sorry, that was…” He paused again, searching for the right thing to say. After a moment, Malfoy’s lips quirked.

“I believe the word you’re looking for is ‘indelicate’,” he said, a shadow of the patented Malfoy drawl sneaking into his tone. In spite of himself, Harry felt his lips quirk.

“I was going to say ‘stupid’, but your word is better.”

One of Malfoy’s eyebrows arched upwards. “No, actually, I think yours is more accurate.”

They stared at each other, neither moving, for several seconds. Finally, Harry arched his eyebrow, too. “Did you just call me stupid?”

The fear in Malfoy’s eyes retreated in favor of a wry humor. “Perish the thought. Me, call the savior of the wizarding world stupid? I would never be so crass.” He sleeved his wand with a negligent slip of his hand. His eyes came back to Harry’s. “I’ll let you do it.”

Harry’s lips moved with the effort to swallow back a smile. Finally, he gave up and grinned. Malfoy looked startled, then slightly wary. Why was it, Harry wondered, he’d never noticed how mobile Malfoy’s handsome face was before? Or how easily read?

“You’re grinning at me, Potter,” he said. “In somewhat maniacal fashion. Should I be alarmed?”

Harry snorted. “Probably. Come on, Malfoy, let me walk you to the Ravenclaw tower. How bad could it be, really?”

Malfoy seemed to consider it. “To spend the next five minutes of my life in your company? Five minutes I’ll never get back? Horrific.” Harry huffed in exasperation, and Malfoy held up one hand in a remarkably graceful gesture for something so inconsequential. “However, if it will keep you from bleating at me, I can suffer it.”

Harry was taken aback. “Seriously?”

Malfoy rolled his eyes. “Don’t make me say it again, Potter.” He turned and started for the door, then glanced over his shoulder. “If you’re going to guard me, you actually need to come with me.” Still, Harry stared. “Oh, for God’s sakes, Potter; were you dropped on your head as a child? Come along if you’re going to.” He turned and started once again toward the door, his footsteps suddenly sure. Harry shook his head but hurried to follow.

The walk to the Ravenclaw tower with Malfoy was mostly uneventful once they’d got going. The halls were quiet and their footsteps sounded loud on the stone as they moved through the deserted halls. Turning a corner, they encountered Mrs. Norris, who had survived the Battle of Hogwarts un-singed, and moments later, her owner.

“Students out of be…” Filch began, mad eyes bulging and sunken cheeks flushed when he spotted Malfoy. Then he saw Harry, and the words died in his throat. “Oh, Mr. Potter,” he sputtered. “Beg pardon, sir.” He’d managed a creaky, stiff bow and then turned. Snapping his fingers at his cat, he left with her trotting behind him. Malfoy gave him a sour look.

“Even Filch?” he muttered. “Merlin’s saggy old teats, Potter. Don’t you ever grow weary of the hero worship? Or does the old pillow-biter have a bit of a crush?”

Harry scoffed even as he felt his cheeks heat at the term; he knew Malfoy was just being Malfoy, but the choice of insult hit a bit close to home. “You’re delusional,” he said, shaking his head. He paused, then a sly smile flirted with his lips as he decided to give as good as he got. “Besides, you’re one to talk; I hear Peeves has a thing for your arse.”

Draco looked at him in faux horror, then shuddered. “Gods, Potter. At least the one I tossed at you is alive.”

Harry bit back a grin. “I was going to say Firenze, but I thought it might insult your tender, pure-blood sensibilities.”

Malfoy’s mouth when he turned on him was pinched in anger, until saw the teasing glint in Harry’s eyes. His annoyance drained from his features, replaced with a very familiar smirk. “That’s better,” he said dryly. “He’s a fine figure of a … half-man.” Harry sputtered. “And I understand he’s hung like a horse.”

Harry laughed. “All right; you win,” he said, holding up his hands in capitulation. “And for the record: ew.”

Malfoy merely sent him a mysterious half-smile as he turned his head, his nose in the air. “Don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it.”

Harry jammed his hands into his pockets, feeling his face heat all over again.

When they arrived, he paused outside of the Ravenclaw tower entrance with Malfoy, waiting. Malfoy crossed his arms and gave Harry a pointed look.

“What?” he asked.

“You can go now,” Malfoy said sardonically. “I’m home safely. Thanks so very much. You did your part; I’m eternally grateful. The world as we know it can go on.” Harry stared at him. “Gods, Potter. Go. Away.” Malfoy ordered, and Harry huffed, then turned and stalked a short distance down the hallway. When he glanced back, Malfoy was gone.

Later, when Harry was lying in bed, he wondered about the exchange, and why neither of them had seemed to be particularly insulted with the gender of the beings the other had paired them with, only the identity. He was very much afraid he’d revealed more than he’d intended to. But then, so had Malfoy.

*****

Harry shifted restlessly, his book bag weighing heavy on his left shoulder on his way to Advanced Potions (which he still wasn’t sure how he’d managed to be placed in, Slughorn’s toadying not withstanding).

He’d surreptitiously looked for Malfoy at breakfast, but hadn’t seen him. Assuming he’d overslept, Harry wasn’t alarmed when he didn’t see the head of white-blond hair. Malfoy sometimes skipped breakfast, and Harry couldn’t help thinking it might have something to do with not wanting to sit with his new house. Parkinson had done the same; they’d only been back for a week, but he didn’t think he’d seen her at a meal more than twice.

He heard Ron chuckle at something Seamus said and glanced up in time to see Hermione glaring at him. Nothing new there, then, and he’d already begun to tune out when he heard a name that captured his attention.

“As Head Boy, you’re supposed to make sure they don’t harass anyone, including Malfoy,” Hermione was saying through pinched lips, “not embarrass him at meals.”

“What do you mean, embarrass him?” Harry asked.

“Oh, nothing,” Ron said dismissively. “Someone dumped syrup in the prat’s lap at breakfast, and he stormed off in a huff. Besides,” he said to Hermione. “How was I supposed to stop it if I wasn’t there yet?”

“Laughing about it now doesn’t help matters,” she answered primly, then sent Seamus an irritated look. “The eighth years are supposed to be setting an example,” she scolded. “Not egging the others on. It can start with pranks, but degenerate into something else quickly if they aren’t held accountable.”

“Oi, Hermione,” Seamus said. “It was just syrup. And if the bloody pouf would wear his Ravenclaw house robes, like he’s been told to…”

Harry stiffened at the term, but tried valiantly not to show it. Someone was always calling someone else a pouf, he told himself. They didn’t really mean anything by it. The fact he was glad they didn’t know about him made his conscience shift uncomfortably. Hermione, on the other hand, took a step forward.

“Hogwarts has a zero tolerance policy for bigoted slurs, Finnigan,” Hermione said, now sounding a good deal more than merely annoyed. “You call him, or anyone else, that name one more time within my hearing and I’ll take house points. Even from you.” The people around them groaned, but she talked over them. “And everyone thought baiting them was harmless until Parkinson ended up in St. Mungo’s and Lavender got carted off to Azkaban!”

The small crowd gathered around abruptly silenced, shamefaced.

The heavy door to the potions room swung open, revealing Slughorn. It was the first time the eighth years had returned to the dungeon classroom, and Harry glanced around as they entered. For the rest of his time at Hogwarts, regardless of what Slughorn did there, the room would remind Harry of Snape. The sign above the door to the storage room was still in the old Potion’s Masters handwriting and read, ‘Anyone entering this storeroom unauthorized will be summarily disemboweled’. Harry couldn’t help the small smile that pulled at his lips. He’d hated old Snape with a virulent passion, but that had been before. Before the silver doe, before the Pensieve memories, before he knew about Snape’s feelings for his mother… Feeling melancholy as he often did when remembering Snape’s sacrifice, Harry made his way to a table near the front where Ron already settled and pulled out a chair.

A rush of footsteps and muttering behind him caused Harry to turn his head, and he saw Malfoy throw his bag on a table near the doors. His lips were tight and his face was even paler than usual but for flags of hot colour high on his cheekbones. The ordinarily meticulously neat hair was tousled, and he was wearing a set of black robes that in no way resembled a Hogwarts uniform. His hands were visibly trembling, and when he caught Harry looking at him, he gave him an ugly sneer, teeth bared. Harry frowned, but turned back around when he heard Slughorn clear his throat.

“Welcome, eighth years!” he announced with every appearance of delight. “As the oldest students currently enrolled in Hogwarts, and the only ones with the sufficient grades to have been authorized to take this advanced course of study, the expectation for your performance is very high.” Ron and Harry exchanged mystified looks. Sure, Harry had done well during the first half of sixth year, until the Half Blood Prince’s book had led him to nearly kill Malfoy. After he’d ditched the book he’d been typically dismal. Ron’s grades had always been marginal, Seamus just above failing, and poor Neville…well, Potions had never been his strong suit. He hadn’t even taken Potions after his sixth year. Harry glanced around the room and realized what those present had in common; they’d all fought on the winning side during the Battle of Hogwarts. Harry refrained, just, from rolling his eyes. Slughorn was still currying favor, then. Well, with everyone except Malfoy. Malfoy’s grades had been second only to Hermione’s though, so for the Professor to not include him would have been favoritism too blatant even for Slughorn.

“Today, we will begin a segment on potions used in the treatment of various health maladies. Today’s potion will be for blood replenishment. What you brew is going to be used to help replace the stores at St. Mungo’s, so your work must be impeccable.”

“We’d best spill ours before he collects it,” Ron muttered under his breath. “Better that than kill someone.”

Harry gave him a rueful grin.

“You will find this potion on page number three hundred and sixty nine in your textbooks.” Everyone began the general hubbub and noise associated with settling in, but Slughorn raised his hands. “Before you do however, I’ve decided to establish a seating chart for this year. I intend to pair more advanced students with those who… well…” His face colored and his eyes shifted. He took a deep breath, the bulk around his middle shifting. “Those who were at the top of this advanced class with those who did not excel quite as much.” Harry heard a snort behind him, and knew it was Seamus.

“Thank Merlin for that, eh Neville?” he said brightly, and laughter moved through the room. Harry glanced at Neville, hoping his feelings hadn’t been trod on, only to find him grinning at Seamus in acknowledgment. Harry would have to remember the Neville of fourth year was gone forever. In his place was a young man brimming with confidence. He caught Harry looking and winked at him.

“Please collect your belongings and prepare to move into the following pairs,” Slughorn went on. “Ms. Granger and Mr. Longbottom. Ms. Patil and Mr. Finnegan. Ms. Lovegood and Mr. Weasley…”

“Oh, bloody hell,” Ron muttered, shoving back his chair and standing. “It’s a term of knargles and wrackspurts for me, then.”

Harry grinned up at him as he moved away to join Luna at a table across the room.

“Ms. Abbott and Mr. Thomas,” Slughorn went on. “And Mr. Potter and Mr. Malfoy.”

The room settled into startled silence. Harry stared at Slughorn, then glanced back at Malfoy who had yet to take a seat. He stood with a horrified expression on his face.

“Hope you plan to teach a potion that protects the rest of us from jinxes, Professor,” Seamus quipped. “Because partnering those two together might be hazardous to the rest of our health.”

Uneasy chuckles met his statement.

“That will be quite enough, Mr. Finnigan,” Slughorn replied. “I’ve every confidence Mr. Potter and Mr. Malfoy are mature enough to be partnered, or I’d not have done it. Mr. Malfoy, if you will join Mr. Potter at his table, please, we can begin.”

Malfoy didn’t move for several seconds. His hands fisted at his sides and his lips were so tight they were outlined with a pinched ring of white. Finally, all of the eyes in the room on him, he stomped to Harry’s table, and threw his bag forcefully onto the top of it. Yanking out the chair next to Harry, he fell into it. His arms crossed over his chest and his eyes narrowed, anger radiated off of him in waves.

“And, Mr. Malfoy,” Slughorn went on imperturbably. “You are out of uniform. Why is that?”

Malfoy’s jaw worked. “Someone,” he finally answered, his lips barely moving, “poured syrup all over me during breakfast,” he answered, then paused. His lip curled. “Sir.”

“You only have one uniform, then?” the professor asked, bushy brows arching.

Malfoy looked as if he had to physically restrain himself from answering the way he wanted to. Every muscle in his body was stiff.

“He has two brand new sets, sir,” Padma Patil piped up, giving Malfoy a dark look. “Like all of us. He simply refuses to wear them.”

There was some ugly, restive muttering in the room and Malfoy’s jaw hardened. “Is this true, Mr. Malfoy?” Slughorn asked mildly.

Malfoy shifted on his seat before straightening up, his chin thrust forward. “I have two sets of robes from MY house, sir. One was being laundered, and the other now is also. Thanks to the coward who sent a hex at the carafe of syrup while I was holding it.”

Harry heard a snicker and glanced around quickly, but couldn’t determine its origin.

“You will wear your uniform tomorrow and every day after, Mr. Malfoy,” Slughorn said sternly. “The uniform of your new house, Ravenclaw. Or you shall sit detention for the next month. Am I making myself quite clear?” He held Malfoy’s obstinate gaze. “Things have changed, Mr. Malfoy,” he went on more quietly. “We either adapt, or risk extinction.” He held Malfoy’s gaze until the younger man looked away, his jaw working. “All right, page three hundred and sixty nine…”

Harry pulled the text book out of his bag while Malfoy sat staring in impotent rage at the floor.

It wasn’t the longest three hours of Harry’s life, but it certainly felt that way. For the first half Malfoy sat with his arms crossed while Harry read the potion, collected the ingredients, and started the small fire beneath his cauldron. It was only when he had bunched ingredients in preparation for cutting them that Malfoy made an exasperated sound and wrenched the knife from his hand.

“For Circe’s sake, Potter. Can’t you READ?”

Harry looked at him in confusion. Malfoy rolled his eyes and lurched to his feet, leaning over and pointing to a sentence above the list of ingredients. “Prepare with a silver blade ONLY. Steel will cause the ingredients to degrade significantly, rendering this potion toxic.”

“Oh.” Harry looked at the steel knife in Malfoy’s hand, feeling his cheeks heat.

“Yes, oh,” Malfoy snarled, jamming the knife point first into the top of the worn table. It vibrated for a moment afterwards. Malfoy stuck his hand into his own bag and came up with a jeweled sheath. When he withdrew the knife it gleamed untarnished silver in the light from their fire. “Unless you want to kill someone with this potion, it would behoove you to read the ruddy instructions. Plus, if you cause me to fail this course, I will find a way to hurt you.”

Harry sneered at him. “Behoove? Who uses words like that? And if you’re so worried about your fucking grade, get up off of your skinny arse and help me.”

They stared at one another, cheeks red and eyes narrowed, hands clenched into fists.

“Gentlemen?”

They both jumped and turned to find Slughorn standing next to their table.

“Is there a problem?”

“No, sir,” Harry said quickly, shoving the roots in his hand at Malfoy. “Just a difference of opinion about preparation of ingredients.”

Slughorn looked at the tarrow root now gripped in Malfoy’s fist and the silver knife he held in the other. “Well, it appears you have it sorted. Remember- small, diced pieces, Mr. Malfoy. Anything larger will prevent the brew from coagulating.”

Malfoy exhaled through his nose. “Yes, I’m aware. Sir.”

Slughorn sent him one swift, quelling glance and turned away. Malfoy stared at the root in his hand for a moment before he stood and leaned over the table. Harry watched as he began to dice the stringy substance quickly into neat, even bits.

“Have you the essence of dittany?”

Harry blinked. “Are you talking to me?”

Malfoy huffed. “No, you imbecile. I’m talking to the table. Yes, I’m talking to you!”

Harry frowned at him. “You really don’t need to be such an arse,” he muttered. “And yes, I have the dittany.”

Malfoy turned his head and pinned him with a dark look. “Not dittany, Potter. Essence of dittany. There is a difference.”

Harry scowled, looking at the bottle he’d brought back with the other ingredients. “Yes, this is essence of dittany.”

“Will wonders never cease,” Malfoy muttered, still chopping. His movements were quick and sure, and Harry studied the long, slender fingers. After a moment, Malfoy looked at him again, exasperation on his face.

“Well, read the bloody instructions, Potter! You have to bring the essence of dittany to a simmer before the tarrow root can be added, and the only way to do that is to put it in the ruddy cauldron!”

Harry grabbed up the bottle, his cheeks heating. Malfoy was making him feel as hopeless at Potions as Snape always had. But, to be fair, he’d never been very good, not without the Prince’s book, at least. Determined not to make any mistakes, he leaned over the book and made very certain he measured out the precise amount. Malfoy watched him, his lips pinched, and went back to dicing without another snotty comment. For some reason that made Harry feel inordinately good about himself.

*****

Malfoy had already packed away his knife and their potion was currently bubbling along nicely on a shelf at the back of the room. It had reached the precise stage the book suggested and now needed to steep for the next forty eight hours. He couldn’t help but smile when he saw Hermione’s hair, large and frizzy from the heat of the fire, and Ron’s flushed face as he stirred what looked like red tar. Luna was smiling benevolently as she patted him on the shoulder. It was almost as if the year the three of them hadn’t been there was some sort of bad dream. Well, until you took into account the faces that were gone forever. The thought sobered Harry and he quietly packed his things into his bag.

“Watch it, ferret!”

Harry heard a heavy thud and looked up in time to see Malfoy stagger backwards into their table. It tottered under Harry’s hand and he steadied it, looking from Malfoy to the back of Zacharis Smith’s head as he moved toward the classroom door.

“Don’t be an arse, Smith,” Harry called after him, then reached out to steady Malfoy. He received a snarl for his trouble.

“Do not touch me!” Malfoy hissed, pushing away from the table. He pinned Harry with a flinty look.

“I was just trying to help,” Harry muttered. He wasn’t sure why he’d bothered.

“I don’t need your help.” Malfoy, his face tinged pink with either embarrassment or fury, Harry wasn’t certain which, shoved away and straightened, throwing his bag over his shoulder. Harry watched him stalk rigidly to the door and realized he had the answer to who had dumped syrup all over Malfoy’s robes at breakfast.

He wasn’t a fan of Zacharis Smith and never had been. He was a blow hard and a stuck up prat. He’d never struck him as someone who used physical aggression to solve his problems, however, and he’d just run into Malfoy hard enough to nearly knock him over. Harry frowned thoughtfully as Malfoy slipped out of the room. If even the Hufflepuffs were turning violent, what was life like for Malfoy in the halls? The thought made Harry feel uneasy.

“He’s the last.”

The voice was deep, whispery, and it made gooseflesh lift above Harry’s collar. Harry turned, wondering who had spoken. When he saw there was literally no one standing anywhere near him, he scanned the room quickly. A chill snaked down his spine. This was entirely too reminiscent of his second year, and he swallowed heavily.

“He’s the last,” the deep voice whispered again. Harry stiffened.

Gods, he didn’t want to be hearing voices. He’d had enough of voices and visions and nightmares. He glanced toward Hermione, to see if she might have heard it too but she was packing away her supplies and trying, without success, to smooth her hair. Ron was trudging to the shelf to add his cauldron to the others, the look on his face saying clearly in spite of the small blue flames burning beneath it, the potion was a lost cause. The only one paying any attention to him was Luna and she was giving him one of her vacant smiles. He tried to return it but doubted he succeeded.

“He’s the last,” the voice repeated one last time. “Protect the balance.”

Harry frowned. Who was talking, and who were they talking about?

A shout sounded from out in the hall, followed by a high-pitched scream. Harry and Ron looked at each other and both bolted for the door, Hermione right on their heels. When they arrived in the hallway there was a crowd of students milling around someone lying on the floor and across the way Zacharias Smith was being held by Dean and Seamus, struggling, by his arms. He had his wand in his hand, and even before Harry shoved through the crowd he had a sick sinking feeling in his stomach.

Malfoy was lying on his back on the stone floor, the contents of his bag scattered, a growing puddle of blood beneath his right shoulder. Harry could see his robes were sliced from the center of his chest up over the muscle next to his neck, and there was blood spatter all over the right side of his face. Harry thought he glimpsed the white of either tendon or bone through the tear, and it immediately reminded Harry sickly of that day in the boy’s restroom. He lurched forward and dropped to his knees.

“Gods, Malfoy,” he said, his hands reaching forward. They hovered over Malfoy’s chest, which was rising and falling rapidly with the force of his frightened gasps. Gray eyes swiveled toward him, so wide there was a slender band of white all of the way around the silver-gray iris. Malfoy’s right hand flexed with a helpless spasm. Harry caught his arm around the wrist and held it to the floor.

“Don’t move,” he said, leaning forward and speaking softly into Malfoy’s face. “Lie still until Pomfrey gets here.” Malfoy licked dry looking lips, but didn’t speak. He just held Harry’s gaze, his eyes wide, and frightened.

By the time Harry glanced up, Ron had disarmed Smith and Hermione had dispatched a frightened looking fourth year Hufflepuff to fetch Madam Pomfrey after sending her Patronus for Professor McGonagall. The otter flipped and twirled in one vaporous circle before disappearing into the wall. By the time McGonagall arrived, trailed almost immediately by Pomfrey, Ron and Hermione had cleared the area but for Malfoy, who was still gasping on the floor, and Smith, who stood across the hall staring at him, his hands trembling and his face as pale as death.

Madam Pomfrey pushed Harry aside as she knelt next to Malfoy and Harry stood as McGonagall turned on Smith.

“Mr. Smith,” she said, Scottish burr heavy. Harry had learned over time it thickened when she was angry or upset. “What is the meaning of this?”

Smith looked at her, his blue eyes very wide. “I… he…” He stopped, looking back down at Malfoy again, watching Pomfrey’s hands as she moved her wand slowly over his chest and murmured an incantation.

“Smith!” His eyes shot to McGonagall. “Explain yourself!”

Smith swallowed nervously, but he squared his shoulders, lifting his chin pugnaciously. “He doesn’t belong here,” he said defiantly. “None of them do. Not anymore.”

McGonagall stared at him, her brow furrowed. “Mr. Weasley,” she turned to Ron, “take him to my office and see he stays there while I check on Mr. Malfoy.”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

Ron grabbed the shoulder of Smith’s robes and propelled him roughly along the hall. Smith was a coward and a blowhard, but he’d never been physically violent before. Harry couldn’t help wondering if Malfoy had said or done something to provoke him, or if his mere presence was enough.

“Protect the balance.”

The whispery voice sounded again, making the hair on Harry’s nape twitch. He looked around, startled. When it became apparent no one was hearing it but him, Harry wrapped his arms around his middle and backed toward the wall, suddenly cold.

*****

“Alright, tell me again - what did the voice say?”

Harry ran his hand wearily through his hair, his eyes on the fire in the huge hearth in the Gryffindor common room. It was late and they were alone. They’d been talking quietly for at least an hour and his head ached.

He’d decided after hearing the mysterious voice once again in the corridor he needed to solicit Hermione’s help. It was another of the things he’d finally learned from hard experience. When in doubt, ask Hermione. She might not know the answer immediately, but she’d do everything in her power to find it. When he’d told her about the voice, she’d been immediately both alarmed and intrigued.

“He’s the last,” Harry answered for the umpteenth time. “And ‘protect the balance’.”

Hermione frowned thoughtfully. She twirled a brown curl around her finger absently, her eyes distant. “Well, we can assume the ‘he’ being referred to is Malfoy.”

“Yes.” Harry laid his head on the back of the sofa, closing his eyes.

“But what does ‘protect the balance’ mean?”

“I’ve no idea.” Harry sighed. He rolled his head to the side and looked at her. “I have to tell you, Hermione, this whole hearing voices thing? I’d just as soon not be doing it again.”

She reached across the small distance separating them and laid her hand on his knee. “I know,” she murmured, squeezing the hard muscle. “But there must be a reason you’re the only one who does hear it, Harry.”

He lifted his head. “I appreciate that you believe me, and didn’t just look at me as if I was off my nut.”

Her smile was small. “I’ve learned through experience when you say you’re hearing voices, you are.”

Harry huffed out a short, dry laugh. “Yeah, lucky me.”

She caught his hand, holding it. Her palm felt warm against his. “We’ll sort it out,” she said earnestly. “I promise. Now, you said you’d been feeling off ever since we got back.”

He sighed, then nodded. “Yes.”

She bit her lower lip. “I hadn’t noticed anything.” She frowned. “But I will say the Great Hall seems completely wrong now. It’s almost like a fun house at a carnival my parents took me to when I was little. The walls and floors and windows all seem… off, weird.”

Harry nodded. He thought it had just been him, but if Hermione had noticed it too…

“And Padma mentioned just tonight at dinner the staircases seem more schizophrenic than normal, almost as if they aren’t sure what they’re doing - stopping in the middle of a transition, changing course. It’s all very odd.”

The door to the common room swung open and they could hear a voice before they saw its owner.

“Listen, you barmy old twat, you can’t change the password twice in one day. Knock it off or I’ll report you to McGonagall.”

The unmistakable sound of someone blowing a raspberry reached them and Hermione was grinning as Ron moved into the room. He fell into an armchair opposite them and cocked one eyebrow sardonically.

“You know, it’s a good thing I know you’re gay, Harry,” he said wryly. “Otherwise I might be a bit hacked off to find you sitting in the dark holding hands with my girl.”

Hermione smiled at him fondly even as she linked her fingers with Harry’s and squeezed. “What happened?” she asked, her expression sobering.

Ron kicked off his shoes and Harry smirked when he saw the bright orange socks his friend was wearing with his uniform.

“Smith’s parents arrived and kicked up a snit because he was being expelled over something to do with Malfoy.” Ron shook his head. “The fact he’d sliced the prat from sternum clear through to his back seems to have escaped their notice. What the hell is wrong with some people? I’m not a fan of Malfoy’s, but he could have died.”

Hermione was looking at Ron with such bald adoration Harry almost offered to change places with him. “How is he?” he asked instead.

“Malfoy?” Harry nodded. “Still in hospital wing. Pomfrey wanted to send him to St. Mungo’s, but he had a fit. I gather she was able to close the wound and give him blood replenishing potions, but I heard her tell McGonagall that he’s going to be having some problems with mobility in his right arm for a while. The hex sliced some of the tendons in his shoulder. Spells and such are going to be an issue.”

“Which means he can’t protect himself if someone else goes after him,” Hermione said, looking quickly at Harry. “He’s the last’,” she murmured. Harry inhaled deeply before pushing resolutely to his feet.

“Where you going?” Ron asked, frowning slightly.

“The hospital wing, I imagine,” Hermione answered. Harry shot her a wry look and saw a slight smirk curve her lips.

“Mate, you don’t need to go down there. Malfoy is safe enough with Pomfrey. What do you plan to do: act as guardian angel? Why is it you always overreact when Malfoy is involved?”

“Yes, Harry,” Hermione said, her brow furrowed but her brown eyes beginning to gleam. “Why is that?”

“Shut it, both of you,” Harry grumbled, running his hand restlessly through his hair. “And I’d think you’d like for me to leave,” he said pointedly to Ron, gesturing toward the couch with his head. “I’ve kept your place warm and everything.”

Ron pushed to his feet and patted Harry on the shoulder. “Good man, off with you now. Just do me a favor, yeah?” Harry waited, one brow arched. “If you decide you actually fancy Malfoy, break it to me gently. I’m not sure my heart could take it.”

Harry scoffed even as he felt his cheeks heat. “I don’t fancy Malfoy,” he muttered. “I just want to make sure the ward is secure, that’s all.”

“And you don’t think McGonagall can handle that, eh?” Ron said with a wry grin as he sat next to Hermione and draped his arm over her shoulders. She curled immediately into his side. “I wouldn’t tell her if I were you. She might take offence.”

Harry shook his head. “Tell him about the other, yeah?” She nodded, and Harry headed toward the door, ducking though the portrait hole, ignoring the Fat Lady when she blustered and yelled at his back that ‘his friend was a great, rude, red-headed ignoramus’.

The halls were deserted. It had always been one of Harry’s favorite times in the castle. His nighttime sojourns had been when he’d felt most at peace, as if he and the old building had a special sort of understanding. Right at the moment, however, he felt strung tight as a drum, almost in anticipation of once again hearing the dark whisper. When he made it all of the way down to the hospital wing without encountering anyone or hearing a sound, he exhaled in relief.

He pushed the door open silently and slipped inside, glancing around. The large dormitory was dark save for one bedside candle which burned dimly all of the way at the far end, near where Pomfrey’s rooms were. In its meager light Harry could see a head of white-blond hair nestled against a stark white pillow case. He approved of where they’d placed Malfoy, but frowned when he didn’t encounter any other wards. Moving along between the empty beds cautiously, he was certain he’d encounter McGonagall’s protection charms at every step. When he didn’t, he cursed under his breath and hastily withdrew his wand, silently tossing up a group of protective spells. Now anyone who didn’t belong would trip an alarm loud enough it would awaken half the castle. Once it was done, he sleeved his wand and moved to stand silently at Malfoy’s bedside.

His face was colorless beneath the swatch of fair hair and there was a wad of bandages covering the right side of his chest and his right shoulder. The sheets and blankets were tucked across his stomach, shielding him from the waist down, but the upper part of Malfoy’s body was uncovered and Harry stared, feeling something low in his chest begin to heat.

His shoulders were square and his arms muscled, which came as something of a surprise to Harry. He’d always thought Malfoy was too thin. Seeing him without a shirt had Harry abandoning the thought immediately. Malfoy wasn’t thin, he was lean. Harry could see his left pectoral was sculpted, as was his upper belly. His small, pink left nipple was pebbled slightly, due to the cool air Harry was certain, and he stared at it, a sudden yearning to touch, to taste so strong he had to actively fight the impulse. Just the thought made his palms sweat.

Harry recalled Ron’s words and bit his lower lip. He didn’t fancy Malfoy… did he?

‘NO’, he told himself firmly. No, it was just that Malfoy was fit and Harry hadn’t known for certain he was gay for long, and it was the first half-naked man he’d seen since coming out to his friends.

Except that wasn’t strictly true. He’d seen Ron without his shirt and while he could admire the width of his shoulders and the tightness of his abs, he hadn’t felt anything for Ron. Or George. Or Bill, for that matter, even though he’d crushed on him pretty hard as a fourth year. He’d seen all of Seamus, Dean and Neville in the community showers, and other than a purely aesthetic admiration for a tight arse and the sheer size of Neville’s cock, his pulse hadn’t picked up and his palms hadn’t felt sweaty. He certainly hadn’t wanted to touch. He frowned.

He couldn’t fancy Malfoy. The snarky prat drove him spare. But as he stared at the handsome face, blond lashes thick on pale cheeks and full pink lips gently parted as he breathed shallowly, he had to acknowledge Malfoy was beautiful. He took a step closer, noticing for the first time a tracing of thin scars bisecting his lean torso. They looked like veining in white marble and Harry stared at them. He’d marked Malfoy permanently at the end of sixth year, he realized, absently reaching up to run his fingers over the slight hook in his own once perfectly straight nose. They’d marked each other.

The lashes, darker than the hair on his head by several degrees, fluttered, and Harry held his breath when Malfoy’s eyes slowly drifted open. They looked unfocused and vague, but when he saw Harry the full lips curled in a slow smile.

“Potter,” he murmured. The smile was so… sweet, a word Harry never would have associated with Malfoy. Harry returned it tentatively.

“Hey, Malfoy,” he said softly. “How are you feeling?”

“’m fine,” Malfoy said, his head lolling to the side.

“You aren’t in pain?”

Malfoy shook his head, his eyes beginning to drift closed. He appeared to make a valiant effort and they opened again.

“What’re you doin here?” he asked, his words slightly slurred. Harry felt his cheeks heat and he jammed his hands in his jeans pockets.

“Just making sure you’re all right,” Harry answered. Malfoy’s smile spread.

“Awww, checking up on me, Potty?” he asked, but without the usual rancor. “Thas very sweet of you.” He pinned Harry with a half-lidded look that was almost unbearably sexy, and gestured with his left hand. Harry stared at the beaconing fingers. “I can’t hurt you,” Malfoy said with irony.

Harry took a half step closer. Malfoy rolled his eyes.

“Honestly, Potter. I’m unarmed.” He gripped the upper folds of the blankets, his smile turning sly. “Wanna check for yerself?”

Harry knew he must be as red as beet as he shook his head. “That won’t be necessary,” he said. He’d hoped for sardonic but instead he just sounded breathless.

“Damn,” Malfoy replied, his grin mellow and his eyes shining. He gestured again, and Harry reluctantly moved to the very edge of the bed. Still, Malfoy beckoned with his fingers. Frowning, Harry bent over the cot.

Malfoy’s hand curled in the front of his jumper and Harry stiffened even as Malfoy studied him with those sleepy, sexy, half-lidded eyes. Harry dampened his lips nervously and Malfoy followed the sweep of his tongue.

“Did anyone ever tell you,” he said slowly, his eyes coming back to Harry’s, “that you have the most beautiful eyes in the world? They’re so… green. And huge. And your lashes are so black and thick and… a person could crawl into your eyes and stay there.”

Harry blinked quickly, his mouth slightly open in surprise, and Malfoy shifted his gaze to it again.

“And that mouth…” he exhaled slowly. “Such a pretty mouth, Potter. Such a pretty, pretty mouth. Makes a man want to grab handfuls of your horrible hair and kiss that pretty, pretty mouth until it’s all soft and puffy and swollen.” Malfoy abruptly released the hold on Harry’s jumper and smoothed the bunched fabric with his hand. “I mussed you,” he noted, his eyes drifting closed and the smile returning to pull at his lips. “I mussed Potter. Although, Potter is usually mussed.”

Harry was frozen in place, staring at Malfoy’s face, his heart racing. What the hell had that been? he thought, finally pulling back. Malfoy must be heavily drugged. It was the only explanation for what had just happened. He was stoned, so he hadn’t meant what he’d said. It had to be the potions. There was no way for him to know Harry would even be amenable to the suggestion. Clearly, Malfoy was just seeing if he could get a rise out of him. Harry was having a difficult time making his cock understand he was teasing, however. It had started to harden when Harry had seen Malfoy’s nipple and now pressed insistently against the inside of his denims. Harry forced another swallow through a dry throat and took a step back. Malfoy’s eyes shot open.

“Don’t leave,” he said, sounding more lucid than he had since Harry arrived. And frightened.

“I…”

“Please,” Malfoy whispered. “Don’t leave, Potter. I’m…” The words seemed to stall in his throat. He bit his lower lip, his brow furrowed, and Harry saw the way the straight white teeth indented the plump pink lip. He wanted to lean forward again, touch his face, lick the teeth marks he was leaving in the soft flesh. Harry took another step back, startled by his own train of thought, and Malfoy’s eyes widened, the fingers on his left hand reaching out again instinctively. Harry stopped.

“What if,” Harry said softly, “I get a chair.” Harry reached out and pulled over one of the straight-backed wooden chairs, turning it to face Malfoy’s bed. Harry saw the bare shoulders relax back into the mattress. “I’ll just sit right here until you go back to sleep, all right?”

Malfoy’s fingers moved on the blankets covering his stomach. “I don’t want to be in here alone,” he murmured. “There is too much… too many people…”

Harry reached out instinctively and covered Malfoy’s hand, stilling the nervously plucking fingers. “Then I’ll stay,” he said softly.

Malfoy blinked. “All night?”

Harry nodded. “If you want.”

Malfoy relaxed again, the hand beneath Harry’s turning, gripping. Harry stared at their linked fingers. Malfoy was holding his hand. Would wonders never cease.

“Thank you, Potter,” Malfoy murmured, his eye lids beginning to droop again. “Your hand is warm….’s nice.”

Harry stroked the back of Malfoy’s hand with his thumb, finding the skin as soft as it looked. The corner of Malfoy’s lips twitched.

“You’re petting me, Potter.” He sighed, smiling. “I like it.” His head rolled to the side, his breathing slowing. Harry was certain he was asleep when he spoke again.

“Pansy told me t’ dis’pear, Potter,” he said, his voice breathy, his eyes remaining closed. “I won’er where she thought I could go?”

Harry stared at Malfoy’s face and wondered the same thing.

******

When Harry awoke the following morning he was still sitting in the hard-backed chair, his head on his chest and his arms crossed, but the hospital bed he sat next to was empty. Rubbing his eyes, he looked around the room and didn’t see Malfoy, but he did see the large clock on the wall. Cursing under his breath, he leapt from the chair and sprinted for the door, abruptly wide awake. He had exactly ten minutes to make it to Transfiguration and McGonagall was not a forgiving soul if one of the eighth years was late. He barely had time to wonder what had happened to Malfoy and why he’d left him sitting there, sound asleep.

His hair was standing on end and his tie was still askew when he fell onto a chair next to Ron. Ron cocked a brow at him, clearly amused.

“Where the hell were you?” he asked, smirking. “And you’re a sight, mate. Better fix that tie before McGonagall takes a strip off you. You know how she is about us ‘setting an example’.”

Harry huffed and rolled his eyes, but straightened his tie and tucked it into his jumper, then made sure his shirt was neatly in all of the way around his waist. McGonagall was forever telling them if they wanted to be treated like adults they needed to act like them, including adhering to the dress code. Harry knew the younger kids looked up to them, but he sometimes felt being held to an entirely different standard irritating. When she walked purposefully into the room, she gave him a long, hard look.

“Lose your razor, Mr. Potter?”

Harry rubbed his jaw self-consciously, and felt the thick black stubble on his chin and upper lip. “Sorry, professor. Over-slept.”

Her lips quirked. “So I hear.”

Harry knew his face was brilliant red from the heat on his cheeks.

After Transfiguration came Charms. By the time Harry and Ron made it to the Great Hall, Harry’s back was aching from sitting on the uncomfortable chair all night and his stomach was growling loudly. He’d already tucked into a heaping plate of fish and chips when Hermione finally joined them. She placed her book bag carefully on the table, tossing her curls over her right shoulder.

“Harry, you look a fright,” she said, studying him clinically. Ron snorted around a mouthful of chips.

“So McGonagall already told him.”

“A man misses one shave…” Harry muttered.

“See, this is where being ginger is a positive thing,” Ron said brightly. “I can go two or three days before anyone notices.”

“Nah,” Seamus broke in, eyes twinkling. “It just means Harry is more manly. Isn’t that right, Hermione?”

Ron threw a roll across the table, and it bounced off of Seamus’ forehead. “Stow it, Finnigan,” he said tartly. “I’m plenty manly, thanks very much.”

“Seen ya both in the shower, Weasley,” Seamus shot back, still grinning. “If I had to pick a winner…”

Harry kicked him under the table, and Seamus grunted. “Stow it,” Harry muttered darkly.

“Honestly, Seamus,” Hermione said, rolling her eyes.

“You’re just jealous, Seamus,” Ginny said as she dropped onto the bench across, next to Dean. “It’s got to be hard, being built like a leprechaun.”

The table erupted in cat calls and appreciative laughter, and Harry took the chance to turn and glance over at the Ravenclaw table. Malfoy was nowhere to be seen. He had advanced Arithmancy with Hermione on Tuesday mornings so Harry turned to her.

“You seen Malfoy?” he asked as the good-natured ribbing went on around him.

“He was in Arithmancy,” she answered, taking a delicate bite of her fish. “He looked pale, but otherwise all right.”

Relief he was safe warred with irritation that he’d left Harry sitting in the bloody chair.

Harry looked for him again at dinner, without success. Again, Hermione confirmed he’d been in classes with her all afternoon. It sounded as if he was fine and managing to make it to his courses, but Harry still felt oddly unsettled. The last time he’d seen Malfoy Harry’d been holding his hand. Not having seen him when he awoke or anywhere in the halls since made Harry distinctly uneasy, particularly after what Malfoy had said the night before. He went to bed that night feeling oddly out of sorts.

The next day Harry’s first class was double Potions. He rushed through breakfast, where again there was no sign of Malfoy, and made it into the dungeon classroom well before start of class. Still, when he entered the room he saw the distinctive lean form and the brilliant head of fair hair already at the table they’d shared on Monday. Malfoy was determinedly wearing his Slytherin robes, but Harry scarcely noticed.

“Malfoy,” Harry said as he hurried up to the table. The gray eyes lifted and studied him dispassionately.

“Potter,” he replied before looking back down into the cauldron that was already on the table. “Now that we’ve established our identities…”

“Where have you been?” Harry blurted. Malfoy lifted his head and cocked a pale brow.

“I beg your pardon?”

“You heard me,” Harry said, propping his hands on his hips. “Where have you been? I haven’t seen you in the halls or at a single meal since… well,” Harry’s bravado began to fade slightly. He lowered his voice. “Since the hospital.”

Malfoy’s mouth quirked. “Were you worried about me, Potter? I’m touched.”

Harry narrowed his eyes. “Stuff it, you prat. That isn’t what I meant and you know it.”

“No,” Malfoy replied calmly. “I have no idea what you meant.”

“The last time I saw you,” Harry said, “you were in a bed in the hospital wing. You haven’t been to any meals, I haven’t seen you between classes. It’s like you…” Harry stopped talking, his eyes going wide. “Wait. You… aren’t, or haven’t… There’s no way…”

Malfoy looked up at him, clearly exasperated. “Potter, I have no idea what you just said. I venture a guess no one within the whole of the English speaking world would have any idea what you just said, it was so incomprehensible. You haven’t seen me at meals because I’ve been taking mine in the kitchens. Between classes, I go directly from one classroom to the next. The Headmistress told me to take a course of action that would prevent others from being able to corner me, and I’ve done so. So, do please stop your nattering, make yourself useful, and go and fetch this.” He thrust a sheet of parchment at Harry with a list of ingredients in his elegant handwriting. Irritated in return, Harry tossed his bag on the table with a thump and turned to stalk away. It was almost as if the minutes they’d shared in the hospital wing had never occurred, or he didn’t remember them. The thought made Harry frown. Draco might not, considering how doped up he’d been. Well, now Malfoy was back to his normal, snotty self, and Harry was left wondering whether he’d meant any of the things he’d said.

He answered in terse monosyllables every time Malfoy spoke to him after and by the end of class Harry was glad to see him swing his bag over his narrow shoulder (how he could have ever thought they were broad was beyond him) and leave the cleanup to Harry. Harry glared at his back as Malfoy disappeared out of the door. He was still scooping dried bits of ingredients into a small pile when Ron and Hermione stopped next to his table. He Vanished the debris with a sharp wave of his wand and shoved it into his sleeve.

“Problem?” Hermione asked, studying his face.

“Just my bloody Potions partner,” Harry said, grimacing. “Stuck up, obnoxious pain in my arse.”

Ron clapped him on the shoulder. “Now that sounds like reaction I’m accustomed to hearing from you when Malfoy is discussed.” Hermione elbowed him sharply in the side, and he grunted. “What?”

“Harry was being mature about a classmate who was injured,” she said primly. “You may not like him, but Malfoy has as much right to go to class unmolested as the next person.”

“I don’t want to molest him,” Ron said, his expression wry. He leaned forward and lowered his voice. “I’m just relieved Harry apparently doesn’t want to, either.”

Harry made sure to hit Ron with his bag when he swung it over his shoulder, and Hermione smirked as her boyfriend grumbled and rubbed his arm.

******

For the next few weeks Harry made an effort not to think about Malfoy at all. He refused to look for him during meals. He didn’t look for him in the halls and over the weekend he made a concentrated effort not to remember the things Malfoy had said to him in the hospital wing. Of course, he couldn’t control his subconscious, which visited erotic dreams on him featuring fair skin, pale blond hair and a tight pink nipple. He thought he could be forgiven, when waking from that particular dream, for having an erection that ached and a curiosity about whether or not the ‘carpet matched the drapes’. In his next dream, his wicked imagination answered the question for him. Definitely a real blond, then, Harry thought. At least in his head.

The voice Harry had heard in the dungeon corridor was silent, as well, which was something he was grateful for.

During the classes where they were Potions partners, Harry was able to maintain a near silence and professional demeanor that seemed to suit Malfoy as well. Their blood replenishing potion received top marks and they’d begun an even more complicated potion to stimulate the re-growth of atrophied muscle. For the most part Harry watched and did what Malfoy told him. He was far more skilled in potion brewing and Harry found himself learning things as he assisted. But their encounters could not be called friendly since they were utterly impersonal. At least until Harry accidentally tipped a bubbling cauldron and spilled scalding potion on the back of his hand.

He hissed, pulling back. Immediately, their work area was filled with the stench of the noxious potion and burned flesh.

Malfoy, who had been meticulously dicing knotgrass, glanced up when Harry snatched his hand back.

“Oh, for fuck’s sakes, what have you done, Potter?” he said, frowning, setting his knife aside. “Let me see.”

Harry cradled the burned hand against his chest. “No,” he answered. “It’s all right.”

“If it was all right you wouldn’t be shaking. Give me your hand.”

Harry still refused and, huffing in exasperation, Malfoy reached out and grabbed his wrist, pulling is arm forward. He was surprisingly strong and after a brief tug of war, Harry relented.

Malfoy made a sound of distress when he saw the patch of blistered, reddened skin on the back of Harry’s hand. “Gods, Potter. You don’t do anything half way, do you?”

Harry didn’t answer. He couldn’t. The pain was excruciating, radiating up his arm, making him break out in a cold sweat.

Malfoy looked up into Harry’s eyes and he could see the concern in them. Vaguely, he became aware Malfoy was cradling his hand gently in his own.

“Does he need Madam Pomfrey?”

Slughorn had apparently surmised what was going o, and now stood next to their work station, his hands on his ever expanding girth as he leaned forward, his brow furrowed. Quickly, Malfoy shook his head.

“I can help, Professor,” he said softly, picking up his wand.

“Well, by all means, Mr. Malfoy,” the older man said. “Do so.”

“Sir, do you think…” It was Hermione, but Harry never looked away from Malfoy’s wide, watchful eyes.

“Do you trust me, Potter?”

Harry held his gaze, his hand throbbing between them. After a tense, watchful silence, he nodded. He saw something flash through Malfoy’s eyes. Gratitude, perhaps? Or relief? Harry couldn’t be sure. He only knew he was in so much pain his vision was beginning to swim and he felt as if he might be ill. And then Malfoy was muttering something, waving his wand over Harry’s hand and, slowly but surely, the pain began to subside. Within moments the spilled potion had been syphoned off of the back of his hand and the purple burn was beginning to fade. Not ten seconds later, the back of Harry’s hand looked as if it had never been burned to begin with.

“My goodness, Malfoy,” Hermione said, admiration clear in her tone. “That was amazing.”

Malfoy ran his thumb over the skin on the back of Harry’s hand, which was now unblemished. He looked back up into his eyes. “Better?”

Harry had to swallow the sudden large lump in his throat. “Fine, yeah,” he managed.

Malfoy nodded once curtly. “Good.” He released Harry’s hand slowly, and when he did Harry felt the pads of Malfoy’s fingers briefly stroke his palm before dropping away. Harry stared at him in surprise and was certain he saw a faint wash of pink spread across his high cheekbones. Then class was over, and Malfoy was levitating their cauldron to the back of the room and making a hasty exit. Harry watched him go, unmoving.

“Well, that was interesting.”

He was startled and looked over to find Hermione still standing next to their table, her arms crossed over her chest. The knowing expression on her face made Harry distinctly uncomfortable.

“What was?” he said gruffly, pointedly looking away and beginning the usual practice of cleaning up their shared work space. He used his wand to banish the small puddle of potion staining the top of the dark wood.

“Well, number one,” she said, “who knew Malfoy was so good with healing spells.” She reached out and caught at Harry’s arm, stilling his jerky movements. He looked up into her eyes to find her smiling faintly. “And number two,” she murmured softly, leaning close, “he likes you.”

Harry blinked. “What?”

She nodded. “Oh, yes.”

“How could you possibly know that,” he scoffed, shrugging her hand away. “Remember who we’re talking about here.”

“Trust me. No one blushes like that unless they feel something.”

Harry shook his head. “You’re wrong, Hermione,” he said, his whisper flat. “If Malfoy thinks about me at all, it’s only to remind himself what an idiot I am.” He scowled. “Something I manage to prove to him over and over again.”

She merely gave him another of her irritatingly all-knowing smiles and walked away.

******

Harry tried valiantly not to think about what Hermione had said, but it was impossible. She was wrong, of course, he reassured himself. But then the words Malfoy murmured to him in the hospital wing would slip sinuously through his mind and he’d think of the lingering touch of Malfoy’s fingers on his palm, and he’d be confused all over again. Malfoy was a stuck-up prat and an arrogant arse. Harry didn’t want him to like him. He certainly didn’t want to come out to the Wizarding world at large with a vain, conceited former Death Eater as his boyfriend. He could just imagine the headlines in the Daily Prophet: “The Boy Who Loved The Boy Whose Side Lost”. He rolled his eyes as a wry smirk pulled at his mouth. He’d rather drink bubotuber pus than give Skeeter the opportunity to print that headline.

But then he’d remember Malfoy, hair tousled and eyes half-lidded and sleepy, murmuring about wanting to sink his fingers into Harry’s hair and kiss him until his lips were swollen. Recalling it, he would groan internally. Why, he wondered, did the wretch have to be so fucking beautiful?

He was sitting at dinner a couple of days after the incident in the potion’s classroom, pondering precisely that and stabbing listlessly at his mashed potatoes, when a conversation going on between Hermione and Parvati caught his attention.

“It was today, in Divination,” she was saying as Hermione looked at her avidly. “Firenze said something fundamental is wrong with the magical balance inside of the castle. He said he can feel it.” She used the lofty tone she and the other Firenze devotees always used when talking about the centaur.

“The magical balance,” Hermione repeated, glancing meaningfully at Harry. “Did he say what he thought had caused the problem?”

Parvati shrugged. “He said choices have been made which jeopardize Hogwarts’ foundation.”

“The literal foundation or the magical one?” Hermione asked, frowning. Again, Parvati shrugged. “If he’s right, don’t you find it alarming?” Hermione persisted. Parvati merely took a bite of her dinner.

“One of the things Firenze has always said is his ability to foresee is not bound by our laws or understanding of the linear measurement of time.”

One of Hermione’s brows arched cynically. “Meaning… what, exactly?”

Parvati gave her a pitying look. “Oh, Hermione. You’re such a skeptic. What it means is he’s talking about things that will happen decades, even centuries from now.” Parvati reached across the table with her free hand and patted the back of Hermione’s. “I’m sure you don’t need to worry about it.”

“Oh, well then,” Hermione drawled. “Thank you so much for the knowledgeable reassurance.”

Parvati smiled brightly. “You’re welcome.”

“Well, I don’t know about old Firenze,” Seamus said, his mouth full of food. “But I know the bloody staircases are acting off their nut.”

Harry looked at him. “I don’t notice they’ve gotten any worse,” he said. He knew the staircases had been somewhat unpredictable since they’d returned to school. Seamus shook his head.

“Not true, mate. This afternoon the one between the sixth and seventh floors stopped mid-change and nearly dumped half a dozen people into mid-air.”

“The portraits are weird, too,” Neville chimed in. Harry looked at him. “All of them on the third floor have stopped moving. They look like regular Muggle paintings now.”

Harry frowned. He hadn’t noticed. “How long have they been like that?”

“Just a day or two.” Neville helped himself to some bread. “I asked Professor Sprout about it during my apprentice period this afternoon and she said McGonagall is concerned. None of them have ever seen anything like it before. Even with all the damage after the final battle, the magical portraits continued to move.”

Harry looked down at his plate, his forehead furrowed. What did it mean?

“Well, maybe it will spread to the towers and the Fat Lady will shut the hell up,” Ron quipped, and those seated nearest them laughed. Harry didn’t. When he glanced up, Hermione was looking at him. And she wasn’t laughing either.

It was near midnight before the common room cleared enough so the three of them could talk.

“The voice said ‘protect the balance’,” Hermione reiterated firmly. “Then all of a sudden today Parvati says Firenze is discussing ‘the magical balance’. You don’t find it a bit coincidental?”

Ron looked thoughtful as he stared into the flames in the massive fireplace. “I don’t know, Hermione,” he murmured. “I think Parvati might be as batty as old Trelawney was. And you know she thinks that Centaur receives his rantings direct from Merlin’s ghost. How can you trust anything she says?”

Hermione chewed on her lower lip for a moment and straightened her shoulders resolutely. “There’s something else.”

Harry angled his head to the side. “What?”

She gave him an almost guilty look. “I hadn’t wanted to say anything, because… well, I know how you get, Harry. And I didn’t want you to get carried away…”

“Carried away,” Harry repeated. “About what, precisely?”

“After the other day, when Malfoy healed your hand, and after we had our… chat,” She paused and gave Ron a quick, meaningful glance. Harry refrained, just, from rolling his eyes. She was not nearly as subtle as she thought she was. “I started watching him. You know, after class, and between subjects. Because, in truth, something has seemed weird about him almost all term.”

His mouth flattened. “The very next time you tell me I over-react where he’s concerned…” he muttered.

“Well, you do,” she said tartly. “You always have. Will you just listen? I started watching him, and I think there might actually be something this time.”

He looked into her wide eyes, frowning. “Meaning what, exactly?”

“I made sure I was packed up early at the end of Arithmancy and I followed right behind him.” She hesitated before going on. “He seems to be gone so quickly now. Anyway, I was literally steps behind him when he turned a corner up a head of me, and by the time I got there…” She looked at each of them in turn before going on. “He was gone as if he’d just… disappeared, or something.”

Harry felt a cold chill run the length of his stiffened spine. ‘Disappear.’ There was that word, again.

“You mean, like… vanished?” Ron asked, frowning. “You know you can’t Apparate inside of Hogwarts, Hermione.” He brightened. “See, I have learned something from listening to you go on and on about Hogwarts, A History.” She glared at him. “What? You have!”

“I didn’t mean Apparate, Ronald,” she said, ice dripping from her tone. “I meant… disappear, as in… I don’t know. Become invisible. I could have sworn I heard footsteps running away from me…”

“Oi.” Ron scowled. “That doesn’t make a lick of sense. Even the best wizard can’t just become invisible. Unless, like Harry, he has an Invisibility Cloak. And there’s only one of them, right?”

“Dumbledore could do it.”

Both Hermione and Ron turned to look at Harry. Ron scoffed.

“Yeah, but that was Dumbledore, mate. He could do a lot of mad things other wizards couldn’t.”

“I don’t know.” Hermione shook her head. “Malfoy has seemed strange ever since Parkinson got taken to St. Mungo’s, and he got attacked in the corridor. You add it to the voice Harry has heard and the weird things going on inside of the castle, and it all seems to add up to something truly peculiar.” She turned to Harry. “Don’t you think so?”

Harry returned her look, frowning. Ron groaned.

“Oi, now you’ve done it, Hermione.”

“What?” she said, looking at him.

“He’s got that ‘Malfoy is up to something and I’m not going to rest until I find out what it is’ look on his face.” Ron kicked Harry’s foot. “I’m right, aren’t I?”

Harry smirked. “Nice to realize some people know me so well.”

Ron rolled his eyes. “It’s always been like that with you and Malfoy, Harry. He’s always been up to something, and you’ve always been suspicious.” He huffed. “So, I’m guessing it’s about to turn into an Invisibility Cloak sort of mission.”

Harry sat back, stacking his hands behind his head. “Well, Head Boy, I’m thinking the less you know, the better.”

Ron huffed in exasperation. “You’re going to get my arse in a sling, I just know it. I can hear McGonagall now,” he cleared his throat ponderously. “Mr. Weasley,” he said, doing a creditable impersonation of McGonagall’s burr, “as Mr. Potter’s roommate, I find it difficult to believe he managed to sneak around under that cloak of his, following Mr. Malfoy, without your knowledge.”

Harry grinned. “Just don’t worry when I don’t show up for class in the morning, yeah?”

Ron rolled his eyes.

They finally went upstairs a short time later, Ron grousing the entire time. They turned in and within a few minutes Ron’s snores had joined Seamus’s in their tower dorm room. Harry, however, had never felt more wide awake. He lay on his narrow bed, his hands stacked behind his head, staring up at the dark crimson canopy above him. Had he any idea how to get into the Ravenclaw tower without assistance, he’d be under his Invisibility Cloak right then, sneaking into the dorm. As it was, he was going to have to wait for morning, despite the anticipation drumming through his veins.

So even Hermione thought something was odd now, he mused. He still felt cold every time the idea of Malfoy managing to become invisible went through his head. He knew it could be done. Like he’d told his friends, Dumbledore had done it. And it did seem as if things were weirdly…wrong, in the castle. But it didn’t necessarily follow that Malfoy could perform extraordinary magic as a result. He’d told Harry he hadn’t seen him at meals because he’d been eating in the kitchens. Well, it was easy enough to check out by talking to Kreacher, who seemed right at home in Hogwarts massive kitchen. He’d also said he was going directly from one classroom to the next to avoid others being able to corner him in the halls. Harry planned to check that out for himself the next morning, with the Marauder’s map and his cloak. Something was weird, something to do with Malfoy, and Harry wanted answers.

“He’s the last.”

The whispered voice sounded in the darkness of the dorm, and Harry shot bolt upright in bed, looking around frantically.

“Who’s there?” he asked. Ron’s snoring paused with an abrupt snort. Harry went still until it resumed. “Who is it?” he asked again, whispering.

“He’s the last,” the ghostly voice repeated, “and time is short.”

“What does that mean?” Harry whispered. There was no response. “Dammit, what does that mean?!”

Ron snorted again. Harry heard his mattress creak as he rolled over. “Harry?” he said, his voice sleep-thickened. “Wha’s it?”

Harry was still looking around the darkened room. “Nothing, Ron,” he muttered. “Go back to sleep.”

Ron sniffed and rolled over. Within moments, he was snoring again.

Harry didn’t go to sleep for a long time and the gooseflesh on his arms and shoulders lingered.

******

After leaving the Great Hall following breakfast the next morning, Harry made a detour into an alcove behind one of the castle’s many suits of armour. It turned its head to watch him with a mighty creak and Harry glared.

“Mind your own business!” he snapped. The metal head snapped around with another grinding metal on metal groan. “Oh, that was subtle,” he muttered. The armour, of course, did not respond.

Harry pulled out the Marauder’s Map and murmured, “I solemnly swear that I am up to no good.” Names and moving dots appeared and he searched the halls around the entrance to the kitchens. Within moments he saw the small dot with the label ‘Draco Malfoy’ leave the cellar exit and start along the hallway toward the main staircase. “Mischief managed,” he said quickly, and shoved the map in his rucksack, pulling out his cloak and yanking it on over his head. He stepped out from behind the armour and headed up the main stairs, positioning himself near the wall, well out of the way of the dozens of students who were passing. He knew Malfoy had Arithmancy first lesson and the only way to Professor Vector’s classroom was directly past where Harry was standing. He saw Hermione go by with Luna, glancing around nervously, and Harry smirked. After that, he scanned the crowds, but he didn’t see Malfoy amongst the other students. Frowning, fearing he’d somehow missed him, he waited until the hall cleared and then snuck silently to the open door of Vector’s second floor classroom.

He peered inside and sure enough, seated next to Hermione near the front of the room, he saw the distinctive head of white-blond hair. Cursing under his breath, wondering how he managed to miss him, Harry moved across the hall. He settled on the hard floor, his back against the wall, determined to wait.

He’d forgotten it was double Arithmancy. Two and a half hours in, his arse was numb and he was nodding, nearly lulled to sleep by Vector’s voice and the drone about numbers and their inherent natural magical properties. Shaking his head, he forced himself to straighten, grimacing when his back protested, wondering how it was Hermione managed to stay awake during the nearly three hour class. He was almost asleep again when he heard the bell indicating the end of class, a flurry of chairs dragged over stone, murmuring and quick footsteps. It was the footsteps that caught his attention, and he looked up in time to see Draco dart out of the classroom not five feet in front of him, his robes flapping behind him as he all but ran down the corridor. Harry jumped to his feet determined to follow.

Moments later Malfoy glanced nervously over his shoulder, gray eyes wide with something that look very like fear, and then – he simply vanished into thin air.

Harry stumbled to a halt and stared at the spot where he’d been. He lingered, stunned into immobility for so long someone plowed into him from behind. He cursed fluently, accompanied by the screams of the underclass girl who’d nearly knocked him from his feet. She was babbling to her friends about running into a bad tempered, invisible ghost with a foul mouth as he flattened his back against the wall, his breath short.

Malfoy had disappeared and Harry felt anxiety slip over him like a dousing with cold water.

“He’s the last, and time is short.”

“Stop it!” Harry shouted. More students turned in alarm, and he cursed under his breath and slipped into a nearby alcove, behind a tapestry. He yanked the cloak from over the top of his head and sat heavily on the floor.

“I know he’s the last, and time is short,” he finally whispered, exasperated with the disembodied voice. “Just tell me what the fuck it means, and what I’m supposed to do about it!”

There was no answer.

******

“He disappeared?”

“Yes, Hermione,” Harry repeated. “He disappeared.”

“He didn’t – get lost in the crowd, or something?” She sounded so hopeful Harry almost wished he could assure her it was possible. But it wasn’t.

“There was no one else in the hall but me and I was under my cloak the entire time,” Harry said. “He came out of Vector’s classroom, looked over his shoulder to make certain no one else was around, and vanished into thin air.”

Hermione chewed her thumbnail. “This can’t be good.”

“Figured that much out for myself, funnily enough,” Harry said wryly. But the fact Hermione looked as unsettled as he felt was worrying. “And the ruddy voice turned up again.”

Hermione’s brown eyes widened. “Did it – say anything new?”

Harry glanced away and then back, feeling guilty. He hadn’t told either of them about the night before, in the dorm, in the dark. A shudder moved over his shoulders. “It said he’s the last, and – time is short.”

“Oh, dear,” she murmured, her fingers lifting to touch her lips, a crease between her brows. “That sounds bad.”

“I think so, too. I just wish the fucking voice would tell me what I’m supposed to do!” He slammed his fist onto the table in front of the couch and the noise attracted the attention of several other Gryffindor’s around the common room. They’d been speaking quietly, but now they were the center of attention. Hermione rolled her eyes.

“Oh, well done, you.”

“Stow it, Hermione,” he muttered, his cheeks heating. The rest of the room seemed to forget about them after a moment. He leaned closer to her. “I’m just so bloody frustrated. The voice is trying to tell me something, obviously. I just wish I knew what it was!”

She stared at him thoughtfully for several seconds. “Well, I think it’s fairly obvious, Harry.”

He stared at her in exasperation. “Obvious to whom, Hermione? Because I sure as hell have no idea what it means.”

“If you’ll stop swearing and lower your voice, I’ll tell you.”

Harry huffed and tried to reign in his impatience. Hermione leaned closer.

“We’ve already established,” she said, her voice hushed, “that he likes you.”

Harry rolled his eyes. “So you say.”

“Trust me, Harry.” She patted his arm. “Allow I have a bit more experience with boys and their crushes than you do.”

He looked at her grudgingly. “Point. So? What am I supposed to do with this so-called crush?” Just saying the word made Harry feel odd. Malfoy didn’t have a crush on him. He thought Harry was an idiot, and Hermione was out of her mind.

“And,” she said with a growing, sly smirk, “you like him.” Harry stared at her, his mouth going dry. “Don’t try to deny it, Harry,” she murmured, reaching out to touch his arm. “It’s so obvious. If we’d known about – well, the fact you prefer boys before, a lot of what has gone on between you and Malfoy would have made complete sense.” Harry continued to stare at her, flabbergasted. “Oh, come on! The name calling, the baiting, the practical jokes. The hexes. It’s been going on for years.”

“Yeah,” Harry said. “Because we HATED each other.”

She looked at him almost pityingly. “You didn’t. You were fascinated by each other. ‘If you can’t kiss him – hex him’,” she retorted, paraphrasing something Molly had actually said about her and Ron, and their history of squabbling. Harry blinked and turned his head to stare at the fire. Could it possibly be true? Hermione squeezed his forearm. “You need to ignore Ron, or anybody else who says ugly things about him. The war is over and you should be able to put the past behind you.”

He looked at her in disbelief. “You cannot honestly believe it will be as simple as that.”

Her lips curved in a soft smile, and Harry was struck again by how beautiful she’d become. If he liked birds, he could almost see himself fancying her. “I don’t think it will be easy at all,” she whispered. “It may even be impossible. But you won’t know if you never try, now will you?”

Harry stared at her. “Ron would have a stroke.”

She grinned. “Ron will get over it.” She squeezed his arm again before letting her hand fall away. “So, if he likes you,” she went on, softening her voice conspiratorially, “and you like him, then mightn’t you be able to just – ask him about it?”

“Ask him,” Harry repeated. “Right, I have a big picture of how that conversation would go. Pardon me, Malfoy, but, are you disappearing into mid-air in the halls, because it certainly looked to me as if you were. And as I fancy you, I’d really rather you wouldn’t.”

She gave him a cross look. “Harry James Potter, if you insist on being an arse, I do have homework I could be doing.”

He huffed. “I’m sorry, Hermione, but honestly! He’d look at me as if I have two heads.”

Her expression grew sly. “Well, in a manner of speaking, you do and it might help if he actually IS interested in the one south of the equator.”

He looked at her in horror, heat rising from the open collar of his shirt to fill his neck and cheeks. “Oi, Hermione! Please, I beg of you, do not say anything like that to me ever again.”

She stared at him pointedly. “If there really is something serious going on with him, Harry, I’d think you’d want to use whatever worked to your advantage to figure out what it is. You do want to help him, right?”

He stared at her for a moment and then exhaled slowly. “Fine. How do I go about this -- conversation? You know how hopeless I am with things like this.”

She stood, collecting her book bag. “I know you were hopeless with girls.” She leaned closer. “With boys, who knows? You might be better.”

She turned and walked away, curls bouncing and skirt swishing.

Harry fought the desire to pick up a nearby chess piece and pitch it at the back of her head.

******

They were an hour into double potions the following afternoon and Malfoy had been uncharacteristically subdued. He looked really wan too, Harry thought, studying him surreptitiously through his lashes. His eyes were red-rimmed, as if he hadn’t slept well, and unless he was mistaken there seemed to be a slight tremor in the long, usually capable fingers. So much so that at one point, a rat’s tail he was chopping for their hair-restoration potion, (which he rather thought Slughorn planned to use on his own receding hairline) rolled away from him and nearly fell from the table. He tried to grab it but Harry beat him to it and covered it with his hand.

“It’s all right, Malfoy,” he murmured. He caught the wriggling tail and held it out to him. “No harm done.”

“I know that, Potter,” Malfoy spat, snatching it out of Harry’s hand. “But thanks so much for the unnecessary assessment.”

He slammed it down onto the table top and tried to cut it, but it wriggled away again and rolled toward the floor. “Oh, Circe’s Tits!” he snarled, thrusting his knife into the offending rat part, pinning it to the table. He sat heavily in the chair next to Harry, running a hand through his already disheveled hair. “You cut it,” he said gruffly. “Cleary, it doesn’t like me.”

Harry gave him a lopsided smile. “You think a rat tail doesn’t like you?”

“I think this one has a particularly ugly disposition, yes. They’re supposed to be without sentience, but this one seems to have some innate feelings of disgust for me in particular.” He glanced at Harry from the corner of his eyes. “You try. Perhaps it requires handling by someone of similar intellect.”

Harry’s lip curled. “Oh, very clever. Hardy-har, Malfoy. However will I slice for laughing?”

“I’m certain you’ll manage just fine,” Malfoy said with a small half-smile of his own. He waved toward the wriggling tail with a magnanimous gesture of his impeccably manicured hand. “Carry on.”

Harry pushed to his feet and was, indeed, able to cut the tail into seven equal pieces, as the potion required. He dumped them, no longer squirming, into the bubbling liquid inside of Malfoy’s cauldron and reclaimed his chair.

“Well done, Potter,” he said, voice surprisingly void of sarcasm and Harry glanced at him to find him checking an hourglass sitting on the corner of the table. “Now we wait five minutes.” He sighed heavily and ran his hand over his face and Harry stared at him, startled. Apparently he meant the words as a compliment. Harry blinked. He thought it was the first time Malfoy had spoken to him, other than when he’d healed Harry’s hand, without disparagement. Thinking this might be an opportunity, Harry placed his elbows on the table and leaned forward, angling his head toward Malfoy.

“Are you all right?” he murmured and Malfoy’s face jerked up, his eyes narrowed.

“I’m fine,” he hissed, a stain of red creeping above his collar. Harry fought his natural inclination to either snap back, or feel stung by the tone.

“You aren’t,” he persisted. Malfoy began to puff up, his mouth tight, and hoping to forestall the usual explosion, Harry reached under the table caught his thigh in a gentle grip. Apparently too stunned by the move to slap his hand away, Malfoy’s eyes widened and his leg stiffened under Harry’s palm. “You look exhausted,” Harry whispered. Malfoy’s leg began to bounce slightly and Harry smoothed his palm further up his thigh. “You’re nervous as a cat,” he went on, pressing down, stilling the jerky motion. Malfoy’s eyes, if possible, went even wider. “And you’ve been acting really odd.”

Apparently regaining some of his bearings, Malfoy pushed Harry’s hand from his leg. “I’m acting odd,” he said incredulously, his voice higher than normal. “What are you playing at, Potter?”

Harry turned in his chair, facing Malfoy. “I’m not playing,” he whispered, leaning forward. “Something is going on with you and I want to help.”

Malfoy stared at Harry’s face, as if by studying it he could find the duplicity in the words. Harry schooled his expression, kept his eyes wide, his gaze direct. Malfoy swallowed, and Harry watched the Windsor knot in his tie bob. His silver and green tie. So much for Slughorn’s threatened detention.

“Why?” Malfoy asked, his voice thready. “We don’t like one another.” But he turned slightly in his chair, facing Harry, opening himself up. “You hate me. You’ve always hated me.”

Harry scooted closer, and his thigh slipped between Malfoy’s knees. His thigh looked thick between Malfoy’s long, slender legs and he looked down at it, then back up into Harry’s eyes. “I don’t hate you,” Harry murmured. “I’m not sure I ever did.”

Malfoy gave a small, mirthless laugh. “No, you only tried to kill me.”

Harry flinched. “If I’d known what the spell did, I’d never have used it.” Malfoy continued to stare at him and Harry felt the weight of it. “Come on, Malfoy. You were trying to Crucio me. And since when is a hex like that something I’d do?”

Malfoy stared at him and licked his lips as if they were suddenly dry. “Severus told me that,” he whispered. Harry stiffened.

“He what?”

“He told me you weren’t trying to kill me; that you’d never have used the spell if you knew what it did.” Harry felt startled but gratified by Snape’s defence. “He also told me I was a damned fool not to take Dumbledore’s offer when I had the chance.” He looked so stricken Harry immediately wanted to reach out and touch him. He curled his hands around his own knees to stop himself from doing precisely that. The side of his fist brushed the inside of Malfoy’s thigh. “I tried to help,” Malfoy went on. “At the Manor, I tried.”

“You did,” Harry assured him in a hushed voice. “If you hadn’t stalled, if you hadn’t lied to your Aunt, she’d have called Voldemort and it would have been over right then.”

Malfoy flinched at the sound of the name. Harry pressed on.

“You saved my life, Draco. Let me help you now.”

Malfoy seemed almost as startled by Harry’s use of his first name as he was by anything else he’d said. “Why are you doing this?”

Harry held his gaze, and felt a blush begin to climb is neck. “Because, I – “ He had to stop, his throat was so dry. He tried again. “I – “

His gaze fell to Draco’s lips, which were slightly parted. When he looked back into his eyes, they were fixed on Harry’s in confusion. Unable to say what he wanted to, unable to form the words, Harry turned his hand and though it was shaking, pressed his palm to the inside of Draco’s thigh just above his knee. Malfoy blinked, startled. Harry curled his fingers around the firm flesh, and he squeezed. “Draco,” he whispered. Harry saw understanding war with astonishment in the light eyes.

The bell rang and they jerked apart, startled. Draco looked toward the door, and panic spread over his features.

“I have to go,” he said hurriedly, shoving back his chair and lurching to his feet. He saw others moving toward the door ahead of him and abject fear filled his face. “Shit,” he muttered, grabbing for his bag, his eyes going once again to the door. “Shit, shit, shit.”

Harry couldn’t bear to see the fear that filled his face and shoved to his own feet, as well. “Could I have everyone’s attention, please? I have an announcement,” he called loudly, and the room settled into startled silence. Those headed toward the door paused and drifted back. One positive from being the golden boy, he thought. The other students at least pretended to listen. Harry glanced back at Draco, casting his eyes toward the door. Draco again looked startled, then turned and sprinted toward the door without looking back.

Harry watched him go, but then the curious faces turned toward his reminded him he actually did have to come up with an announcement of some sort.

“Uh, in case you missed the notice on the bulletin board in the Gryffindor common room,” he improvised, “practice for this week’s Gryffindor house team has been moved from three o’clock to three thirty each afternoon.”

There were rolled eyes and restive huffs all around him. Even Ron frowned slightly.

“Harry, why in the world should the rest of us care?” Padma asked archly, tossing her long sheet of black hair over her shoulder.

Harry sent her a forced smile. “Just thought you might like notice of how hard we’re working to kick Ravenclaw’s arse next Saturday.”

Laughter and catcalls filled the room from the Gryffindor contingent, the Ravenclaws muttered and glared, and the Hufflepuffs collected their things and left without comment.

Ron came up and patted Harry briskly on the shoulder. “Brilliant, mate,” he laughed. “Way to get into their heads! Let the games begin.”

“Right,” Harry said, exhaling. Ron was still grinning as Harry levitated his and Malfoy’s potion to the table along the back wall. Hermione sent Harry a rueful smile, which he returned with a weak one of his own.

******

Harry snuck along the hall under his Invisibility Cloak, staying close to the castle’s wall. It was just past eleven and even though he’d been pouring over the Marauder’s Map and hadn’t seen Malfoy’s name even once within the Ravenclaw Tower, he was headed there anyway. He’d sent Luna a message on her old D.A. coin to meet him outside of the door. He’d noticed it earlier in the year on a chain around her neck and felt a rush of fondness for Luna, who had never abandoned wearing it. He could only hope she’d still had it on when he’d done so.

He climbed the winding staircase to the entrance to the tower and was relieved when he saw Luna seated on the top step, her nose buried in the book in her lap.

“You know,” she said, her dreamy voice drifting down the stairs to Harry. “The Invisibility Cloak is lovely, but you might want to muffle your footsteps if you’re truly trying to avoid Mr. Filch.”

Harry pulled the cloak off of his head with a rueful smile. “Truer words,” he agreed, coming up next to her. She closed her book and looked up at him.

“Hello, Harry,” she said with a misty smile.

“Hello, Luna,” he replied. “What’re you reading?”

“A History of Bleating Blimpies in the Antarctic,” she answered, and Harry blinked. “It’s fascinating, really, but I doubt you really care.” She studied him with the unblinking, searching regard she’d always used with him and, as usual, Harry felt as if she could see right through him.

“Thank you for meeting me, Luna. I know it’s late and all, but – “

“He doesn’t sleep here, you know.” She interrupted him gently.

Harry straightened. “Who?”

“Draco,” Luna answered imperturbably. “That’s really why you’re here, isn’t it?”

Harry stared at her. “How could you know that?”

She just smiled, pushing to her feet, her finger holding her place in her book. “The two of you are so obvious, you always have been.” She started toward the door, her long curling mane of blonde hair catching the fire’s gleam from the sconces along the walls. “Check your map, Harry,” she said, her light voice drifting back to him as she pushed through the door. Harry saw it had been left propped open. “Pay particular attention to the old Slytherin dorms. I’m fairly certain he’s staying down there.” She paused just before she disappeared into the Ravenclaw common room and looked back. “I do hope you can help him,” she said, a frown marring her pretty face. “He carries so much guilt as it is, which he shouldn’t. I’m quite certain Mr. Olivander, Griphook, Dean and I would have died in the dungeon if it weren’t for the extra food he snuck down to us. “ Harry dimly remembered Dean mentioning something about it at Shell Cottage, but at that point Harry had been preoccupied with Horcruxes. “And he’s so lonely.” She gave Harry a searching look. “But you are, too, aren’t you, Harry? Being constantly surrounded by people who admire you isn’t the same as having someone special who actually cares, is it? Perhaps the two of you could help each other.” Her brow cleared with a blissful smile. “That would be lovely. Good night, Harry.” She closed the door, leaving Harry staring at it, stunned.

Luna said the damnedest things, he thought. He wasn’t lonely. Where in Hades had she gotten that idea? Harry shook himself defensively, then turned toward the nearest sconce and pulled the map from the back of his trousers. He opened it, searching for the old Slytherin dormitories. It took a moment, as they were no longer labeled as such on the map, but eventually he saw a set of rooms near the Potions classroom. He thought it was where he and Ron had gone during their one fateful Polyjuice episode during their second year, and he turned the map more fully into the light. Sure enough, in the middle of one of the smaller rooms, he saw a dot with the small banner labeled Draco Malfoy.

Harry stared at it. Malfoy was alone in the old Slytherin dorms. Why was it he hadn’t heard before that Malfoy wasn’t living in Ravenclaw? He grimaced. Why would he? And why would any of the Ravenclaw’s say anything about it? They hated Malfoy, all but Luna, and were probably relieved he’d decided to stay elsewhere. Refolding the map, Harry shoved it into his trouser waistband and descended the circular staircase. He paused just before the stairs that led to the main entry hall, pulling his cloak over his head before he hurried down them. He wasn’t sure why, but each step he took his sense of urgency increased, as if he were rushing to save Draco from something. It made no sense, but by the time he entered the hallway where he remembered the entrance to the Slytherin common room being, he was all but running.

His alarm wasn’t assuaged when he found the snake knocker that had once adorned the heavy door was gone and the thick wood of the door itself appeared to have been broken in half. Harry studied it, frowning. The door, at least four inches thick, had been split into two large pieces with one still hanging from the hinges and the other apparently leaned up against the jam in an attempt to provide the large opening with a modicum of security. Harry levitated it aside and stepped into the dim room beyond.

He looked around, startled by the visible proof of the house’s dissolution. There had clearly been a portrait over the fireplace, but the only thing that remained was a large, lighter rectangle on the gray stone where it had hung. The green and silver colors were gone, and the furniture was covered with rough white sheets. Even the snakes that had entwined around the once impressively carved marble hearth were gone, leaving the bare stone behind clearly visible. The windows, which at one time had shown beautiful views beneath the surface of the sea green water of the lake, were blackened and it looked as if a brackish mold was growing on the inside of the glass. The room had a derelict, abandoned feeling to it and even smelt old, musty. The idea of Draco living in such an environment, by himself, made Harry’s throat ache. He moved toward the door he figured must lead to the dormitories, his footsteps echoing hollowly on the stone floors.

He cast ‘Lumos’ with his wand. The staircase up was an interior one with no windows, and nearly black as pitch. Harry felt along the mossy wall, moving slowly on the slippery stairs. At the first landing a door stood slightly ajar, and it looked to Harry as if a single candle burned within, its weak light flickering through the small gap between door and jam. He hesitated outside, peering through the small opening, trying to see if anyone was moving around inside of the silent room.

“Malfoy?” he said tentatively. The silence only seemed to deepen.

“Draco?” Harry ventured again, placing his hand against the wood and easing the door open. It creaked loudly and he grimaced. “Draco? Are you here?” He stuck his head into the room and looked around, but it appeared unoccupied.

Harry took a step into the deserted dorm room, his eyes wide as he surveyed what he found there.

There were five narrow four poster beds placed at regular intervals around the circular room, much like the Gryffindor dorm where he’d lived for seven years. The bedding for each was rolled neatly at the foot of each narrow cot but one, which had been haphazardly made with what appeared to be the same sheets that covered the furniture in the abandoned common room. There was a decided damp chill in the room, and Harry couldn’t imagine the sheets were much comfort in the way of providing warmth.

There was a single desk, which looked as if it had been moved next to the round stove sitting in the middle of the room. Harry moved toward it, but could detect no warmth coming from it. When he touched the surface, all he felt was the icy cold cast iron. He frowned. How did Malfoy stand it down here? It was freezing. He turned his attention to the desk, on which the single candle glowed, and studied the parchment neatly stacked in one corner. It was Arithmancy homework, indecipherable to Harry, but he would have instantly recognized the impeccable handwriting even without the name Draco Malfoy penned in the upper right hand corner. There was a chair turned ajar at the desk, and a single piece of parchment with the heading ‘Properties for the Transfiguration of Large Animals into Furniture’ on the blotter. A quill was tossed carelessly atop it, and as Harry watched, a single drop of ink fell from the nib to stain the page. It appeared someone had abandoned the homework abruptly, and Harry turned, looking around the room.

“Malfoy?” he said tentatively. He pulled off the Invisibility Cloak, and thought he heard a muffled gasp from behind him. Whirling, Harry peered into the darkness in a far corner. “Malfoy? Are you here?”

Silence was his only response, but he was positive he heard restless stirring in the dark corner. He lifted his wand and cast a hasty Revelio, but the only result was a large mouse which scurried out of the gloom and disappeared under one of the cots. Harry exhaled heavily, letting his wand arm drop.

“Malfoy,” he said wearily, tossing his cloak on the mussed bed. “I don’t want to hurt you. I just want…” He paused, running his hand restlessly through his thick hair. “I know you’ve figured out how to make yourself invisible, somehow. I’d just like to understand why.”

There was no mistaking the stirring in the corner this time. It was a footstep on the stone floor. Harry straightened. Silence resumed. “That’s really advanced magic,” Harry said, moving tentatively toward the corner. “The only other wizard I’ve ever known who could do it was Dumbledore.” He paused, smiling faintly. “I’m impressed.” He stopped moving forward as he didn’t want Malfoy to fear he was trying to corner him. “I saw you, you know,” he went on, striving to keep his voice light, conversational. “In the hall, outside of Arithmancy. I was under my cloak. Hermione was pretty sure something was up with you by then, too. We’ve been watching.” He heard a light sound, almost like a derisive snort. “She’d be a good friend to you, you know, if you’d let her.” Harry paused, still searching the dark corner. “So would I.” He waited. When no sound came, he sighed heavily and sat on the edge of the cot, his head lowered.

“Why?”

The voice was quiet, but the word unmistakable. Harry’s head jerked up.

“Why?” Harry repeated.

“You can hear me?” Malfoy sounded startled.

“Yes, I can hear you,” Harry stood up. “Where are you?”

“I’m here.” The voice was moving and now it sounded as if it was coming from near the dormitory door. Harry stiffened.

“Don’t go,” he said quickly. Startled silence met his statement.

“I’m not going anywhere.” Now the voice sounded close enough Harry thought he might be able to reach out and touch him, but he didn’t. He clasped his hands between his knees to prevent himself from doing so. “You didn’t answer my question, Potter. As I recall, at one point you wouldn’t even shake my hand. Why would you, or Granger for that matter, want to be my friend now?”

Harry searched his mind quickly. He couldn’t exactly admit it was because he fancied him, could he? “Because you look like you could use one,” he said instead, and again he heard the mocking sniff.

“So, this is about you playing the hero. Two thirds of the golden trio, attempting to save poor misguided Malfoy.” He was closer now and Harry thought he was standing right in front of him. “I honestly have more respect for Weasley than I do for the two of you,” he said disdainfully. “At least he’s honest about how much he hates me.”

“I told you earlier- I don’t hate you.” There was a huff, and Harry could almost see Malfoy rolling his gray eyes. “I don’t! And neither does Hermione. I think with Ron it’s just a habit. Even he knows how much you did for us all at the Manor. He might never admit it out loud, but he knows it.” Harry paused. “Come on, Malfoy. This is stupid. Let me see you.”

There was a long, pregnant pause, but still Malfoy didn’t appear. Harry sighed and shook his head.

“I wish you’d let yourself trust me,” he murmured. “I know we don’t have the greatest history. And not all of that was my doing, by the way,” he stated, unable to help a moment of self-defense. There was another weighty pause and Harry feared he was wasting his time.

“I know.”

The words were just above a whisper.

“What?”

“I know it wasn’t all your doing,” Malfoy murmured, his disembodied voice soft. “We were set up from the beginning, Potter, you and I. There was no chance of a friendship there.”

“That was then,” Harry said quickly. “It doesn’t have to still be that way. If you’d just let me see you, maybe then…”

“I can’t.”

Harry stopped, frowning. “What do you mean, you can’t? Of course you can. If you’d just let yourself trust me. I won’t betray you, Malfoy, I promise.”

“You don’t understand,” Draco countered, his voice raw. “It isn’t that I don’t want to. I can’t.

Harry stared in consternation at the spot where Malfoy’s voice had originated. “You mean…”

“I can’t… just turn it off. I don’t know how.”

Harry frowned. “I don’t understand.”

“I don’t either,” Malfoy murmured. “Not really. It shouldn’t have behaved like this at all…” He was speaking softly, almost as if he was talking to himself. Harry frowned.

“What shouldn’t?” There was another weighty pause.

“There’s only one reason I came back this year, Potter,” Malfoy said finally. “I need to pass my NEWT’s in order to go into the field of study where I want to spend my life.”

“It’s the same for all of us,” Harry said. He wasn’t sure where Malfoy was standing, but he looked toward the corner. “All of us have to pass, or the Ministry…”

“I have no desire to do anything for the Ministry,” Malfoy cut in curtly, and Harry jumped. Apparently, he was behind him now. “My plan is to apprentice for a Potion’s Master until I become skilled enough to be one myself, maybe even teach someday. Without NEWT’s from Hogwarts, and outstanding ones at that, I can give up on ever achieving it. No one of any consequence will accept an apprentice without his final grades.” His voice dropped in volume. “I don’t care about being wealthy, not anymore. I don’t care about prestige, or political gain.” He huffed out a dry chuckle that sounded anything but amused. “My father thinks I’ve lost my mind. But all I care about… all I want is to be able to do what I know I’m good at in peace.” Harry heard him sigh. “I imagine that sounds mental to you.”

Harry’s lips curved in a wry smile. “You’d be surprised; it actually sounds…”

“Perfect.” They said the word together. It was followed by a startled silence.

“I have to pass this year, Potter,” Malfoy finally went on. “I have to do better than pass. And I’m a good student.”

“I know you are,” Harry assured him. “You’re grades are second only to…” Harry stopped, fearing belatedly that the comparison wouldn’t earn him any points.

“Granger. Yes, I know,” Malfoy said, but he didn’t sound angry. Now he really did sound amused. “I’m aware we’re all chasing her, trying to keep up. I admire her mind, even if I do think she’s an enormous pain in the arse.”

Harry’s mouth twitched. “I love her, but you aren’t completely wrong about that.”

Again, he heard the dry chuckle. Harry was encouraged.

“But even really good students can’t study if they’re constantly under attack,” Malfoy went on. “If their homework is destroyed, or their sleep is continually interrupted. I don’t have time for games this year. I have to get this right.” Harry heard him sigh. “I knew it wouldn’t be easy coming back. I knew there were going to be those who, whatever their reasons, wouldn’t be able to simply forgive and forget. Part of me even understands, and commiserates. Few people have quite as thorough an understanding of what the followers of the Dark Lord did as I do.”

Harry remembered some of the visions he’d seen, and felt a shudder move over his shoulders. “I know that,” he said softly. He felt Malfoy’s eyes even though he couldn’t see them.

“I’m sure you do,” he replied. The silence that followed was perhaps the most companionable they’d ever shared. “Then, after Pansy…” Harry was sure he heard him swallow. “Well, after, and then with what Smith did, I knew McGonagall was right. I was going to have to find a way to stay below everyone’s notice, to do what I needed to do with as little fuss as possible. And so, I decided to take matters into my own hands. I began using a Disillusionment Charm between classes.”

Harry frowned. What he’d seen wasn’t a standard Disillusionment Charm. He could see right through those, and Malfoy had been well and truly invisible.

“It worked fine at first. I could go from one class to the next without being harassed, I could take my meals in the kitchens, and I could live down here without anyone bothering me. It was enough.”

“But, what about friends?” Harry ventured. “That sounds like a pretty grim existence.”

“Pansy was my friend,” Malfoy replied baldly. “And look what it got her.”

“That wasn’t your fault, Malfoy.”

“I’m not as sure of that as you seem, Potter,” he said. “But it isn’t the point. I chose to go unnoticed. I chose solitude. I could live with it. After Smith, I figured it might be the only way I could live at all.” He exhaled, and Harry saw the chair behind the desk move slightly and heard it creak, as if Malfoy had settled into it. “And then…”

“And then?” Harry prodded when he didn’t speak right away.

“And then something changed. I noticed it first two weeks ago after Arithmancy. The strap broke on my bag, and everything in it spilled out onto the floor. It made a tremendous racket. Books and quills and parchment everywhere. I was sure the game was up. People might be willfully blind and able to ignore someone who blends into the walls, but school supplies everywhere would be a bit harder to turn a blind eye too.” He paused. “Except -- they did. They walked right over them, without even seeming to notice. I was in a panic, thinking they’d see my name on the parchment and the homework would be lost, or the books would be destroyed but…they weren’t. It was as if no one was walking on them at all. It was as if… they weren’t even there.”

Harry stared at the chair in consternation. He’d heard of people finding ways to be invisible, he did it himself on a fairly regular basis. But for school supplies and books to do the same? He’d never heard of anything like it.

“Were they damaged? Your parchment and books and things?”

“Not at all.” Malfoy’s voice was a ghost of sound, and Harry felt gooseflesh rise on his shoulders. “They… I don’t even know how to explain it. I waited until everyone was gone and I picked them up. There wasn’t a tear or a scuff mark anywhere. It was like they’d never fallen. Like they didn’t actually exist. At least, not on the same plane that everything else at Hogwarts did. That night, for the first time ,” Harry heard him swallow, “ – the House Elves couldn’t see me.”

“They’d been able to before that?”

“I always removed the Disillusionment Charm when I went into the kitchens, so they could. I tried to that night, as well. They still couldn’t see me. Or hear me.” He sounded mystified. “I haven’t tried to speak to anyone else, for fear…”

“For fear of what?” Harry asked gently.

“For fear,” Malfoy finally answered, his voice rough, “that I actually am disappearing completely.”

Harry stared at the chair. “I can hear you, Malfoy.”

“You can,” he agreed. “Why is that, do you suppose?”

“I don’t know.” Harry was as mystified as Malfoy was. “And I don’t know why your Disillusionment Charm suddenly went wrong, but I’d be willing to bet it has something to do with the other odd things that have been going around inside of the castle.”

“You mean the staircases and the portraits.”

“Well, that, too,” Harry said, not ready to reveal to Malfoy that he’d been hearing voices no one else could. “Listen, I know you don’t like her, but would you be willing…”

“At this point,” Malfoy broke in, “I think I’d be willing to talk to Hagrid if I thought it would accomplish anything. I wanted to get through the year with my spleen intact, Potter, not quite literally become part of the scenery.”

“Hermione can help,” Harry said.

There was another watchful silence. “You sound as if you actually believe that,” Malfoy finally murmured.

“I do,” Harry said, resolute.

Silence met the pronouncement, as if Malfoy was thinking about it. Harry hated the silences. Without the handsome, mobile face to look at, he had no idea what Malfoy was thinking. “Malfoy,” he prodded when he couldn’t stand the weighty stillness anymore. Still, there was nothing. “Draco…”

Near the desk, Harry saw something flash. Something at his eye level, and light in coloring. He stared, his eyes narrowed. “Malfoy?”

He heard the startled gasp. “Did you just see me?”

“I saw something,” Harry confirmed. “You’re sitting at the desk?”

“Yes,” Malfoy answered, breathless.

Harry felt a shiver of excitement. “Why, do you think? I mean, why could I see you?”

Again, silence answered him. When Malfoy did finally speak, his voice sounded so close Harry jerked, startled. “My name,” Malfoy murmured. “You said my name.”

“Gods, you scared the hell out of me. How do you move without making any noise like that?”

“I believed it’s partly connected to what’s worrisome, Potter.”

“Oh.” He frowned. “So, you think I could see you,” he said, getting back to the point, “because I said Malfoy? I’ve been saying Malfoy since I walked in here, and…”

“No,” Malfoy interrupted softly. “My first name.” His voice dropped, and was filled with an odd sort of longing. Harry felt his body respond to it by leaning forward, closer.

“Draco?” he murmured.

Directly in front of Harry’s face, for a fleeting moment, he saw Malfoy’s wide gray eyes. He gasped, reaching out, gasping again when his hands curled around what felt like Malfoy’s upper arms.

“You can feel me?” Draco’s voice thrummed with excitement. Harry nodded and squeezed his arms. “God, no one has touched me in… say my name again.”

“Draco?”

“Yes.”

“Draco!”

Draco’s pale face slowly came into focus, almost like a ghost materializing from nothingness. Gradually, his square shoulders appeared, then his chest with loosened Slytherin tie and gray jumper, then his waist and long legs. He was leaning forward, peering into Harry’s face, and Harry exhaled, allowing himself a faint smile. “There you are. Hello, Draco.”

Draco’s eyes, already wide, widened even further. “You can see me?” he asked in a hushed whisper. “All of me?”

Harry’s smile widened, and he nodded.

Draco gave a completely uncharacteristic, delighted whoop, accompanied by a brilliant smile. Moments later he shocked Harry by throwing his arms around his neck with so much force he drove him down onto his back on the rumpled bedding and ended up lying on top of him. Draco drew back enough to look down into Harry’s face, stilling smiling widely.

“You can see me!” he said in delight. “You’re the first person who’s been able to see me outside of a classroom in weeks! This is amazing!”

Harry was blinking under a rushing onset of a dozen different feelings. Delighted he could see Draco, delighted because he was so clearly delighted. But beginning to over-ride those was the pleasure in being beneath the lithe body, all trim muscles and flat planes. The sensation of Draco’s weight pressing into him was heady and a sharp, dawning need pulsed through him from the spot where Draco’s thigh had slid between his legs. The resulting rush of blood south was like a roaring in Harry’s ears and he felt himself beginning to lengthen and fill with a needy twitch. If Draco didn’t move his leg, there was no way he was going to miss it.

Instinctively he grabbed Draco’s hips and lifted him, holding him a small distance above his groin. But it didn’t help. Instead, it brought his knee into direct contact with Harry’s cock, which gave a delighted little shudder. “Malfoy, get off of me,” he said breathlessly, his only thought trying to figure out a way to either get out from under him before his embarrassing situation was discovered or getting to his cloak so he could just make his inconvenient lap disappear. But he saw Draco’s smile fade and his eyes begin to lose their sheen about the time he realized how it must have sounded.

“Oh, sorry, Potter,” he murmured, bracing his hands near Harry’s head and pushing up. His smile was gone and he was frowning, and to Harry’s horror, he began to fade. “I shouldn’t have… I’m sorry. I know you’re not… that you wouldn’t… Gods, just…” Harry dug his fingers into Draco’s hips and hung on when he tried to get up. Draco frowned, and Harry’s heart lurched when he realized he could see though his face to the ceiling above him. All except his eyes, which remained clear and were filled with both embarrassment and hurt. They narrowed on Harry’s face when he couldn’t move. “You know,” he drawled, “if you want me to get off of you, you have to actually let me get up.”

“Draco,” Harry muttered. He licked his lips. “Draco – “ To his relief, color began to seep back into Draco’s face. So much that Harry could see his mortified blush.

The corner of Draco’s lips, now pink, twitched slightly. “I believe we’ve established that is my name.”

Harry felt his own face heat, a sure indication he was blushing like mad. He fought his natural impulse to look away. “It’s not that I don’t… or that I wouldn’t… it’s just I’ve never…” Horror at what he’d been about to admit made Harry feel faintly nauseated, and he closed his eyes.

Draco remained still for so long, hovering above him, that Harry finally cracked open one of his eyes to peer up at him. He found Draco looking down at him, a bemused expression on his face.

“Never?” he said. “I know you’ve been rather busy with pressing matters for the last couple of years, Potter, but even you can’t be completely backward. I’d have sworn you and the Weaslette…” He paused, sudden comprehension entering his eyes, and he licked his lips. Harry found himself watching his tongue’s progress in fascination. “What is perhaps more interesting is you didn’t tell me you aren’t a pouf and order me off of your person immediately.”

Harry swallowed. “I didn’t…” He paused. “Did I?”

Draco shook his head slowly. “No, you didn’t. Why is that, do you suppose?”

Again, Harry had to fight not to look away. He took a deep breath. “Because,” he said in a rush. “I like you enough not to lie to you.”

Draco blinked. Slowly, he began to smile. “Potter,” he said, angling his head and studying Harry’s face as if it were the most interesting thing he’d ever seen. “Well, aren’t you a revelation.” His gaze dropped to Harry’s mouth, and his lips parted as his breathing quickened. “What would you do if I – say – kissed you? Right here, right now.”

Harry found himself nervously returning Draco’s smile. “Well, it would be really bad manners not to kiss you back, wouldn’t it?” His heart began to pound.

“Appalling,” Draco agreed, eyes heating. “So, we’re agreed. In order I not think you a horribly rude prat, I should kiss you, which in return would require you to kiss me back, in order to prove you’re not a rude prat. Oh, and in the midst of that, you need to keep saying my name so I don’t once again fade into the décor. Think you can manage that?”

Harry pretended to frown, even though his lips twitched, fighting the smile he felt wanting to break through. “Sounds complicated,” he said with mock severity.

“Does, rather,” Draco agreed.

“How about this?” Harry said. He let go of Draco’s hips and wrapped his arms around him, flipping him onto his back, reversing their positions. Draco looked up at him, breathless, his eyes wide. “How about I kiss you,” Harry went on genially, settling his chest on top of Draco’s. “Then all conversation about me being rude is superfluous.”

“My, my, Potter,” Draco said, smirking. “Superflous. Wouldn’t Granger be proud.”

Harry narrowed his eyes. “Very cute.”

“But accurate.” Draco looked up at him, seeming to enjoy the new arrangement very much. He reached up and slowly looped his long arms around Harry’s neck. “So,” he said finally, “I think it’s safe to assume the only people who know you aren’t entirely opposed to the idea of kissing another boy are Granger and Weasley.” He cocked one eyebrow. “Rather large closet you’re living in there, Potter.”

“Ron and Hermione know, yes,” Harry said, refusing to be baited. He was enjoying himself entirely too much. “So does Ginny. She was the first one to figure it out, actually -- ”

Draco chuckled. “Oh, my. I’m betting there’s a story worth hearing.”

“ – and I don’t consider it living in a closet,” Harry went on, ignoring the amused comment. “I consider it being selective who I share my most personal information with. And if you’ll recall, I’ve always been like that.”

“I suppose,” Draco said grudgingly. “Although at one time, I thought you were rather a publicity whore.”

“You also thought I was into girls,” Harry countered.

Draco looked thoughtful. “Point. So when was it, exactly, that you…”

“Draco,” Harry said, delighting in how the name felt on his tongue, and in the startled look on his face at being interrupted. “You talk too much.”

Draco frowned. “I beg your par – “ The rest of the sentence was stopped short when Harry took matters into his own hands, and kissed him full on the lips. Draco struggled for a moment, and then fell into acquiescing silence.

Harry didn’t have much experience with kissing and he’d be the first to admit it. His first kiss had been a disaster. While those he’d shared with Ginny hadn’t been, and they’d gotten a bit past just kissing, he’d imagined kissing a boy would be different, somehow. His first thought on feeling Draco’s lips beneath his was he’d been both wrong, and right. Draco’s lips felt as smooth and soft as Ginny’s ever had, but there the comparison ended. He tasted… darker was the only word Harry could come up with, but it wasn’t right. Richer. Yes, that was it. Like the dark chocolate Hermione had him try, only with something minty. And in regards to how he felt… Harry had never been completely sure what to do with Ginny’s breasts. She’d really liked it when he’d played with them, but to him, they’d always been in the way. They’d felt squishy against his chest and awkward and just – wrong. Now, with the hard smooth plane of Draco’s chest beneath him Harry understood why. He’d been craving the feeling of a man beneath him, not a woman.

Draco’s lips parted beneath Harry’s. His tongue touched Harry’s upper lip and Harry moaned softly before he’d realized he was even going to. He slipped one of his hands from Draco’s waist up his back to his head, and twined his fingers in his silky hair and swept his tongue in a wide sweep through Draco’s open mouth. The shudder that went through his slender body, and the soft needy moan directly into Harry’s mouth, made euphoria slip through his veins. Oh, yeah. He was much better at kissing a boy. Confidence surging, Harry cupped Draco’s head in the palm of his hand and kissed him until he began to feel light-headed from sheer lack of air. When he finally pulled back, he rested his forehead against Draco’s, trying not to pant like a race horse.

“Merlin’s paunchy balls, Potter,” Draco said, sounding as breathless as Harry felt. “I should have known you’d be a fucking prodigy.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment.” Harry smirked, letting his lips slip along Draco’s jaw.

“I meant it as one.”

“We should probably be talking about this whole disappearing thing instead of doing this, shouldn’t we?” Harry murmured regretfully, nipping Draco’s pointed chin with his teeth.

“We can talk,” Draco replied, “later.” His hands slid down Harry’s back to his hips, and he shifted, trying to bring Harry more fully on top of him. Harry stiffened, resisting, until Draco caught Harry’s hair in one fist and pulled his head up. “What?”

Harry looked into the wide eyes just beneath his, and felt his face heat. He couldn’t find the words to explain.

“Potter, what is it?” Draco persisted.

“If you keep trying to pull me on top of you – “ Harry’s face went even hotter at speaking the words aloud, “ – you’re going to feel that… you’re going to notice…” He couldn’t finish. It was too embarrassing.

“I’m going to notice…” Draco repeated, then his eyes widened and his brow cleared. “Are you hard, Potter?” he asked, and Harry felt heat sear him to the tips of his ears. He closed his eyes, groaning, trying to drop his head forward again. But Draco wouldn’t release his hair. “Potter,” he said, and Harry jerked, his eyes opening when he felt Draco’s tongue touch his chin. He looked down into a cheeky grin. “I’m hard, too,” he admitted. “Would you like to feel?”

Harry inhaled sharply, then swallowed. “Yeah,” he finally managed. “I’d really like that a whole lot.”

Draco grinned wickedly. Sinuous as a cat, he slid under Harry and spread his legs, lifting his knees, bracketing Harry’s hips. “Now,” he murmured, lifting his head and touching his tongue to Harry’s lower lip, stroking it, “press down on top of me. I want to feel you, too.”

Harry felt a shudder move from his shoulders to his knees, but he released the lock hold he had on his muscles and lowered himself into the cradle of Draco’s slender thighs. And instantly, he felt it. Hard, straining against him, lined up in tandem with his, he felt Draco’s hard cock, and all of the air in Harry’s lungs left him on a shuddering gasp.

“Nice, isn’t it?” Draco murmured against his ear, long fingers curving around the shell of Harry’s ear. He lifted one long leg and hooked his knee over Harry’s hip, and Harry groaned, nodded.

“Yeah, real nice,” Harry struggled to mutter. His tongue felt thick and his groin ached, and what he wanted more than anything was to move, to press his hardness into Draco’s, to rock into him, anything to assuage the craving that was growing with each passing second.

“Know what else feels nice?” Draco whispered. He lifted his other leg, and wrapped both of them around Harry’s hips. “This feels really nice,” he murmured, his fingers stroking through Harry’s hair, “if you move.”

“Uh, move,” Harry gasped. He wasn’t able to follow the conversation at all. With Draco’s legs spread open, all of the weight in Harry’s body seemed to be pressing against him, right at his groin. One of his hands fisted in Draco’s hair, the other in the sheets next to his head.

“Yes, Potter,” Draco murmured. “Move.” He arched his back, rolling his hips beneath Harry.

“I’m not sure…” Harry stammered. Draco looked up at him, surprising gentleness in his expression.

“Pretend we’re naked,” the fingers of his massaged Harry’s arse, “and you’re fucking me.”

Harry’s cock lurched, and he growled low in his throat. He caught Draco’s open lips in a kiss that bordered on punishing, and began to move. Shallow, sharp, mostly awkward thrusts at first, but as Draco’s legs tightened around his hips and his back arched, Harry was spurred to longer, harder movements. Dragging his cock over Draco’s, Harry rotated his hips once experimentally, which caused Draco to whine, high in his throat. The old four poster began to creak, its wooden legs moving in short, staccato bursts against the rough stone, and pressure began to build quickly in Harry’s balls.

“Oh, God,” he finally rasped out. “I… Draco, I…”

Draco’s fingers lifted to dig into the tops of Harry’s shoulders. “Oh, me too,” he cried. “Me too, Harry.”

Harry lifted his head, struck even in the moment by Draco’s use of his first name. He stared down into the passion washed features, the lust glazed, wide open eyes, the restless movements of the angel white hair against the bedding, and felt a sweeping tenderness unlike anything he’d ever experienced in his life. Suddenly, Draco’s pleasure became more important than his own, and he tried to remember what he’d done that had made Draco make those delicious, whining noises. He pressed down and rotated his hips, and Draco’s eyes shot wide open, and he stared into Harry’s.

“Yeah?” Harry asked, panting, moving, concentrating, trying to hold it together.

“Oh, God,” Draco moaned, his neck arching and the tendons on either side straining under the pale skin. “Harry, I’m … I’m…” His mouth dropped open on a silent cry, and he began to shake. Harry stared down at him, moving into him, his chest filled with wonder. He was causing this - he was causing Draco Malfoy to lose control, and nothing had ever felt as right. He watched the pleasure bordering on pain on the pale face, and without even thinking of his own orgasm, he slipped seamlessly into it, feeling it burst from him in a fiery rush. His vision hazed, his body convulsed, and he clenched his eyes shut, riding out something so deep, so profound it nearly brought tears to his eyes. When he finally collapsed on top of Draco, he felt as if someone had somehow siphoned all of his bones out through his cock.

They didn’t move for several minutes. Harry literally couldn’t. But then Draco shifted, and he grunted, and he poked Harry in the side.

“Move, Potter,” he said, his voice muffled in Harry’s hair. “I can’t breathe.”

Harry muttered an unintelligible apology and rolled off of him, and if Draco hadn’t reached out with a surprisingly quick hand and caught his jumper, he’d have landed on his arse on the floor.

“Easy there,” he said, rolling to his side and pulling Harry to face him so they could both fit on the narrow cot. When they’d both settled, Harry felt fingers move lightly over his upper lip, then his jaw. “Who would have figured,” he heard Draco say in mild amusement, and he forced open one drooping eyelid.

“Who would have figured what?” he muttered. Draco smiled slowly.

“Who would have figured the Golden Boy, the one who can’t dance to save his life, would have such natural inherent rhythm?”

Harry huffed out a dry sound. “I can dance,” he protested.

“Badly, as I recall,” Draco teased. Harry opened his eyes and pillowed his face on his hand. He shrugged one shoulder.

“Lucky I have… other talents then, isn’t it?”

Draco grinned what might have been the first completely open, uncomplicated smile Harry had ever seen on his face. “I certainly benefited,” he quipped. “I’d just as soon we kept it our little secret, however.” He leaned forward and kissed the tip of Harry’s nose. “As you’ll recall,” he went on, his lips sliding to Harry’s cheek. Harry closed his eyes on a blissful sigh. “I don’t share my toys very well.”

Harry’s lips curved in a sleepy smile. “I’m a toy then, am I?”

“Mine,” Draco murmured, his lips now touching Harry’s eyelid. Harry felt his tongue sweep along the curve of his eyelashes. “Just mine.”

Harry lifted his hand, which felt clumsy and heavy, and laid it on Draco’s waist. “So, we’re doing this again, then.”

“God, I hope so,” Draco said with so much feeling it made Harry laugh. He encircled his waist with his arms, and pulled him in against his chest. Draco stiffened. “Oh, yuck, Potter,” he complained. “Let’s not grind the spunk into the silk pants.”

Harry laughed again, pulling his wand from his sleeve. He cast a silent cleansing charm on both of them, and Draco shuddered.

“Fuck’s sakes,” he yelped. “Alert a man first, will you? That’s delicate tissue.”

“Bitch, bitch, bitch,” Harry muttered, holstering his wand and pulling Draco closer. “Just… let me hold you, all right?”

“Awww,” Draco teased, but his body softened into Harry’s embrace. “Potter’s a cuddler.”

“Damn right,” Harry agreed. He yawned. “Oh, wait… we were going to talk…” his eyes drifted closed.

He felt Draco’s hand card through his damp hair. “We’ve time for that,” he said, his lips moving against Harry’s cheek. He pressed closer, his face drifting to nestle against Harry’s neck. “Potter,” Draco breathed. “You’re so warm.”

Harry smiled faintly as he held him, pleasantly astounded by the fortuitous turn of events and relishing the feeling of Draco in his arms as he slipped off to sleep.

******

“Harry? Harry, where the devil are you?!”

Harry jerked awake and he felt Draco do the same.

It was one of the odder experiences in his life when he opened his eyes and there appeared to be no one in his arms; he could feel him, feel his warmth, feel the way his heart had begun to pound. He just couldn’t see him.

“It’s Granger,” Draco whispered unnecessarily.

“I know,” Harry whispered back, pulling away to sit up, but leaving his hand on Draco’s hip. “We were going to tell her, remember?”

“Tell her what, exactly,” Draco said bluntly, but Harry could hear the nervousness in his voice.

“How about we start with your dilemma, and get her help, yeah?”

“Yeah, fine,” Draco murmured, but he sounded so subdued Harry frowned.

There wasn’t time for more conversation, however, because Hermione appeared in the doorway to the dorm room, Ron peering over her shoulder. When she saw Harry seated, apparently alone, on the cot she frowned.

“Harry, what are you doing down here?”

“This place gives me the creeps, mate,” Ron said, looking around apprehensively. “It’s like it’s got some spell on it or something. Let’s get out of here.”

“How did you know where to find me?” Harry asked instead, running his hands through his tousled hair. His jumper had ridden up at his waist and he knew his hair was standing out in messy clumps; he could feel it.

“When you didn’t come back we went to Luna,” Hermione replied, stepping into the room. She crossed her arms over her chest and shivered. “It’s freezing,” she complained, and Harry was surprised when he could see the mist of her breath. “Why in the world were you sleeping down here?”

“Uhm, I was tired?” he answered awkwardly, and he heard Draco quickly muffle a chuckle. Unfortunately, Hermione heard it, too. She stiffened.

“What was that?”

Harry could almost feel Draco’s amusement rolling off of him in waves. He looked back down at the cot, and realized he could see the depression of Draco’s head in the folds of his cloak. “So, good a time as any I guess, yeah?”

“I suppose,” Draco answered dryly, and both Hermione and Ron jerked in alarmed surprise.

Harry looked down where he knew Draco’s head was, and held out his hand. After a hesitant moment, he felt a warm palm pressed to his and long fingers slip between his own.

“Draco,” Harry murmured, concentrating. There was a short flicker of something against the sheets, gray and ivory and whitest blond. Hermione squeaked.

“Again, then,” Draco said, squeezing Harry’s hand.

“Draco,” he repeated, returning the pressure. “Come back, Draco. I want to see you.”

Slowly, where moments before there had only been tousled sheets and a crumpled invisibility cloak, the long, supine form of Draco Malfoy appeared. He was smirking into Harry’s face, holding his hand, and from the disarray of his clothes and the swollen, soft appearance of his mouth, it was immediately apparent what they’d been doing before they’d drifted off to sleep.

Ron Weasley groaned and made an elaborate show of clutching his chest.

“My heart, Harry,” he moaned. “I warned you what this would do to my heart.”

Draco’s eyes gleamed wickedly as he smiled.

******

“Alright, once again,” Hermione repeated tirelessly as they sat in front of the fire in the Gryffindor Common Room. “This began when, exactly?”

She was leafing through a massive tome they’d snuck out of the Restricted Section of the library entitled “Curses and Protective Enchantments of the Founders. An Addendum to Hogwarts, A History by Professor Alabastor Deuterotomy.”

“I’ve told you,” Draco said wearily, rubbing his eyes with his fingers. “It began right after Smith hexed me. McGonagall advised me to inconspicuous and so I began to use a Disillusionment Charm when I wasn’t in class. I did the same thing, every day. But about a month ago, the House Elves in the kitchens suddenly could no longer see me.” He yawned, and Harry touched his arm when he began to grow translucent.

“Draco,” he murmured. “I know you’re tired, but try to concentrate.”

Draco nodded and straightened, sighing.

“That is the weirdest fucking thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” Ron muttered. “The way he just… goes in and out like that.” He turned his eyes on Harry, his expression cross. “And do you have to… touch him all the time?”

They were seated on the floor with their backs against the sagging sofa, pressed together from shoulder to hip. Draco scowled, then made a show of taking Harry’s hand and linking their fingers.

“Get used to it, Weaselbee.”

Harry tried to give him a stern look, but failed when Draco looked at him, gray eyes wide and soft. “I hope I’m not overstepping,” he murmured, rubbing the back of Harry’s hand with his thumb. Harry shook his head even as a delightful little shiver snaked up his arm.

“I may puke,” Ron muttered, arms crossed and expression mulish.

“Give it a rest, Ron,” Harry said without heat, and without looking away from Draco’s eyes. He smiled faintly.

“Could you all give it a rest?” Hermione snapped, drawing all of their attention. “I know you don’t like it Ron, but it appears you’re going to have to get used to it. Draco, stop enjoying his discomfort quite so much, if you would please. And Harry, if you could save the besotted calf-eyes until later, it would go a long way toward making all of us more comfortable.”

“Besotted calf…” Harry sputtered.

“Hmpf,” Ron snorted, glaring at the fire.

“Is she always this bossy?” Draco murmured.

“You’ve no idea,” Harry answered.

“At any rate,” Hermione said pointedly. “Where were we? Oh, yes. Draco, so it was after Smith hexed you that you wished you could become inconspicuous, isn’t that what you said?”

“Yes,” Draco sighed. “That’s what I said.”

“Hmmm.” Hermione’s brow was furrowed as she leafed through the aged parchment pages.

Silence fell, broken only by the sound of the fire crackling on the hearth. Harry felt Draco begin to sag next to him, and lifted his arm around his shoulders to support him. With a tired sigh Draco turned, curling his long legs up, leaning into Harry, his face pressed to Harry’s throat. Harry held him, softly moving his hand up and down his slender arm. He knew the precise moment he fell asleep. He faded away into complete invisibility. Wanting to allow him to rest, Harry stayed still and closed his own eyes, enjoying the feeling of the slender body curled against his side, and the soft, warm breath skirting across his neck.

“Okay, I take it back.”

Harry opened his eyes and looked over to find Ron staring at him pensively.

“You take what back?” he asked softly.

That is the weirdest fucking thing I’ve ever seen.”

Harry imagined it was, with him sitting there with his arm around – nothing, rubbing his hand up and down over something unseen. He smiled faintly and Ron continued to stare, his brow furrowed.

“So,” he finally ventured when the silence had stretched out. “You’n him, then.”

Harry held his eyes. “It would appear so.”

Ron shook his head on a sigh. “Out of all the blokes at Hogwarts…”

“I’m not interested in all of the blokes, Ron,” Harry countered softly. “Just him.”

“But, why, Harry?” Ron asked, sounding genuinely mystified. “He’s always been a right arse, to all of us. To say nothing of what went on during the war…”

Harry gave him a stern look. “We all have things we did during the war we aren’t proud of, Ron. Including you.” Ron fidgeted, and Harry saw the rusty stain spread up from the collar of his tee-shirt. “When I say we should all put it behind us, I’m not just talking for the sake of it.”

“I know, Harry,” Ron said, sounding subdued. “I just wish – I understood it, is all.”

“If I understood it, I’d explain it to you,” Harry countered. They stared at one another until a slow, small smile was shared.

“So,” Ron cleared his throat, “If it’s Malfoy you want, then, I’ll keep my opinion to myself.”

“I’d appreciate it,” Harry said, then grimaced wryly. “I imagine there are going to be plenty who won’t.”

Ron grinned, blue eyes dancing. “I’d say that’s the understatement of recent history. Once the Prophet gets a hold of the story, Hermione and I should probably plan to be on Howler duty, just so you can get some sleep.”

Harry’s grin turned teasing. “Don’t think I’ll be sleeping much, but thanks, Mate. I’ve discovered there are a whole lot more interesting things to do when you’re horizontal than sleep.”

Ron grimaced. “Oi,” he groaned. “Really. I don’t need to hear things like that, Harry. I don’t need that image in my head.”

Harry continued to smirk in satisfaction until he felt a light touch slide up the inside of his right thigh. Reaching down, he caught Draco’s hand and squeezed it. He felt a light chuckle against his neck, and wondered how long Draco had been listening, or if he’d slept at all.

“Wretch,” Harry muttered under his breath.

“Sap,” Draco breathed against his skin. He ran his nose along Harry’s jawline, and Harry turned his face into the touch, sighing.

“Guilty.”

He felt Draco’s forehead come to rest against his cheek, and he closed his eyes again, luxuriating in the feel of his skin, the scent of his cologne. Everything he’d ever wanted to feel when he held someone, he finally felt with Draco Malfoy in his arms. And wasn’t that one of the great ironies of his life.

“Oh, I think…”

Hermione straightened, her grip on the large book white-knuckled. She ignored the pages of notes she spilled to the floor around her chair.

“What is it, Hermione?” Harry asked. He felt Draco stir against him, knew when his head was raised.

“There’s a section here.” She pushed out of the chair, struggling with the large book, coming over and sitting on the floor near Harry. He leaned forward, and felt Draco do the same. “It’s right here,” she said, pointing. “Read that.”

Harry concentrated on the small words, in the archaic looking script. He frowned. “There’s so many damned curly things – “

“Honestly,” Draco huffed. “Ignoramus. It says, ‘The Founders, in their wisdom, created the most noble institution of learning, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, upon the precept that magic, as with all life, can only be sustained through balance…”

“There’s that word, Harry,” Hermione said, her voice brimming with excitement. “Balance. Remember?”

“Of course I remember.” He frowned, leaning against Draco’s shoulder. “What else does it say?”

“What am I missing about the importance of the word balance?” Draco asked.

“Draco,” Harry said emphatically. His face appeared, along with the frown on it. “Draco,” he repeated, and the whole of his long frame slowly became visible. Harry exhaled. “That’s better. Here, hold this.” He offered his hand. “Let’s try to keep you grounded.”

“You didn’t answer my question,” Draco said tartly, but he took Harry’s offered hand. “What am I missing?”

“I’ll tell you in a minute. Read the rest.”

Draco huffed, but he leaned over the book. “Where was I? Oh, yes, ‘sustained through balance. All opinion and area of belief, no matter how seemingly inconsequential or diverse, must be represented within its walls. Each of the four Founders, in knowledge and understanding of the necessity of this balance, placed lingering enchantments within the castle guarding against all manner of evil or disparagement, regardless of intention…

Hermione gasped, reaching for the book. When she pulled it from Draco’s hands and poured over the section herself, he looked at Harry in confused irritation.

“Does she always grab?”

Harry felt a small smile pull at his lips. “If she’s excited about something, yes.”

“It’s annoying,” Draco grumbled. “And you didn’t explain why balance is…”

“Come on,” Hermione said frantically. She hurried toward the portrait hole, lugging the huge book, smacking Ron on the head as she passed. He’d been dozing and came awake with a snort.

“What?” he said, blinking.

“I suppose we’re to follow her, then,” Draco muttered. Harry stood and pulled on his hand, helping him to his feet.

“I’m guessing.”

“Hermione,” Ron complained as he stood. “Where the bloody hell are we going?”

“To see McGonagall,” she called, her voice drifting back to them.

Ron looked at his watch. “It’s two o’clock in the morning.”

“It doesn’t matter.” She sounded far enough away now they assumed she was out in the hall. “Hurry up!”

“She’s a bit mental sometimes, isn’t she?” Draco said, following her with Harry.

“Mate,” Ron said, falling into line behind them. “You have no earthly idea.”

******

Harry rubbed his hands on the seat of his gray trousers, trying to alleviate some of the sweating on his palms. He’d been neatly dressed in his house robes for at least three hours, even though it was only eight in the morning, and groomed within an inch of his life. He didn’t think he’d ever been shaved quite so close and there wasn’t a cowlick visible on his head. When Hermione had seen him, she’d smirked.

“Nice work, Draco,” she’d murmured. Harry frowned at her.

“Thank you.” The disembodied voice spoke and Ron, who had been trailing behind, jumped.

“Merlin’s wooden dentures, will you stop doing that?” he’d hissed. Hermione giggled while the rest of Gryffindor house, utterly oblivious, surged around them, headed for breakfast. Harry and his friends, however, turned in the opposite direction and headed toward the tower that housed the Headmistress’s office.

They had been there for nearly forty-five minutes. Hermione was seated next to what appeared to be an empty chair in the front of two rows of four, while Harry and Ron stood on either side of the massive Head’s desk, fidgeting. McGonagall had gone down into the Great Hall to greet the dignitaries arriving by floo, leaving strict instructions for them to wait and not touch anything. Harry pulled on his tie, trying to ease the pinch.

“Leave it alone.”

Draco’s voice stopped him, and he huffed, letting his hands fall to his sides.

When they heard voices coming up the circular stairs, Harry felt the breeze move around him and then a presence behind his right shoulder. He glanced back with a reassuring nod just as the door to the office opened. Hermione stood facing the chairs, the huge reference book clutched to her chest.

McGonagall entered first, followed by a half a dozen witches and wizards in formal robes. Harry recognized Mafalda Hopkirk, Agatha Timms and Grizel Hurtz, but there were several faces he didn’t know. Bringing up the rear, however, was Hagrid, who had been given honorary membership on the board for ‘services rendered to the school’ during the final battle. He smiled at Harry and waved and moved to stand behind the chairs, no doubt remembering what had happened the last time he’d attempted to sit in a human sized seat.

“Headmistress McGonagall,” a thin-lipped wizard said with an unpleasant sneer. “It is highly irregular to insist upon a full meeting of the Board of Governors on a Thursday morning, particularly when we have one scheduled for a week from tomorrow.”

“If I felt it could wait,” McGonagall answered, looking down her long nose at him, “I’d not have notified you there was an emergency. As it is, I do not feel waiting is in the best interests of the school.”

“Whatever is the matter, Minerva?” Mafalda asked, her tone concerned. “I can’t imagine you’d ask us here if it wasn’t important.”

The scrawny wizard sniffed, but maintained his silence.

“Quite right,” McGonagall said thinly. “Miss Granger, if you would be so kind.”

Hermione stepped forward, the large book trembling slightly in her hands. Ron hurried to take it from her, holding it open, giving her an encouraging smile. She blushed as she began to read.

She repeated for the assembled board the section she discovered the night before, her voice raising in strength as she went.

“Each of the four Founders, in knowledge and understanding of the necessity of this balance, placed lingering enchantments within the castle guarding against all manner of evil or disparagement, regardless of intention. As such,” she glanced up at the faces turned toward her, “it is written within the very stones of Hogwarts foundation there must, at all times, exist the four original houses: Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, Gryffindor, and Slytherin. To abolish any one of these is to risk destruction of the whole.”

She closed the book and Ron placed it carefully on the desk.

“What is that supposed to mean?” The first wizard asked, his brow furrowed. “Who wrote that?”

“Professor Alabastor Deuterotomy,” Hermione answered. “In ‘An Addendum to Hogwarts, A History’.”

The man snorted. “Everyone knows old Deuterotomy was senile.”

McGonagall peered at him. “You rather think everyone is senile, as I recall, Mr. Dillonsby.”

An ugly red stain spread up from the man’s neck and Harry remembered where he’d heard the name before. Digbert Dillonsby was the man who had accused Dumbledore of stealing his notes on dragon’s blood, and who had told Skeeter he thought Bagshot was senile.

“I still don’t understand what you’re getting at, Headmistress,” he sniffed, crossing his arms over his narrow chest.

“I should think it’s fairly obvious,” McGonagall answered. “Regardless of the intention of this board in doing so, abolishing Slytherin house was not only short sighted, but has led to some rather serious repercussions.”

“What sort of repercussions?” Mafalda asked.

“Mr. Potter, if you would be so kind?” McGonagall stepped aside.

“It began with the staircases,” Harry said. “They’ve always been somewhat eccentric, but beginning about a month ago, they would stop mid-change. Recently, they nearly dropped several students into mid-air.”

There was a restive murmur amidst the board.

“We’ve had several acts of aggression that are uncharacteristic behavior, perpetuated on the few remaining eighth year students of Slytherin house, by people who’ve never before been combative.”

“Or had balls enough to try anything,” Ron muttered. Hermione shushed him.

“I’ve heard about this.” Dillonsby sniffed. “My grandson is in Ravenclaw and he told me the Parkinson girl and young Malfoy,” he spit the name as if it tasted bad, “refused to become a part of their new houses, and would not wear the house uniforms.”

“Whether or not Mr. Malfoy and Miss Parkinson wanted to wear their house robes is of no consequence, Digbert.” McGonagall said, her voice tight. Ron stifled a laugh behind a cough and shrugged when Hermione glared at him. “Neither of them deserved to end up in the hospital wing. Miss Parkinson’s injuries are so severe she is still in hospital, and may be permanently disfigured.”

Mafalda gasped. “Why weren’t we informed of this?”

“Because at the time,” Harry said, “you had abolished their house, leaving us to deal with the consequences.”

“And the girl who hexed Parkinson,” Dillonsby broke in again, “was a poor creature who had been ravaged by a werewolf.”

“But Zacharias Smith,” Harry retorted, “who used a hex so serious on Draco Malfoy he nearly severed his arm, has never raised his wand against someone else in his life. In fact, he ran from the final battle, too afraid to fight. Now, he’s hexing students in the halls.”

A stunned silence filled the room. “I still don’t see….”

“Oh, of course you don’t, Digbert.”

A startled murmur went through the room, and Harry turned and looked up with a dawning smile.

“Professor,” he said with delight.

“My boy.”

“Professor Dumbledore!” Hagrid surged forward and the people in the back row of chairs squeaked when they tipped. “Oh, er… sorry,” he muttered.

“Hello, Hagrid. And I’m sure there was no harm done.” Dumbledore entered the frame hanging on the wall above the massive desk, settling in his chair and crossing his legs beneath his gray silk robe. “I do hope you don’t mind if I sit in, Minerva?”

“Of course not, Albus,” she answered with a regal inclination of her head. “Please, feel free.”

“Thank you.” He smiled at her and looked back down on the board, who watched him with wide eyes. “Good morning, all. Good morning, Mafalda, you’re looking lovely.”

Madam Hopkirk preened a bit at his compliment.

“Now, as I seem to ascertain, if I may be so bold as to interject into Miss Granger and Mr. Potter’s masterful attempt to fill in the blanks, as it were,” he steepled his fingers in his lap, “the safeguards the founders included in the castle at the time of construction have begun to make things – how shall I put this? Something of a mess?”

“Succinctly put, Headmaster,” McGonagall agreed.

“Have there been other things, besides the children who were injured?” Grizel Huntz asked, his voice thin and wavering. “Not that those aren’t worrisome, mind.”

“Extremely worrisome, Grizel. But, as a matter of fact, there have been other troubling signs that something is indeed wrong within the castle,” Dumbledore said, nodding. “One of our students has begun hearing a warning voice of a most serious nature, portending dire consequences for the school.”

“Someone said they’re hearing voices?” Dillonsby said, scowling. “How do you know they aren’t making it up?”

“I trust this particular student’s veracity with absolute certainty, as should you.” He looked down. “When exactly did you begin hearing this voice, Harry?”

“Just after start of term, Headmaster.”

There was a restive stirring from the board.

“And what did it tell you must be done?”

Harry looked back at the members. “That we must protect the balance, and time was short.”

There was a startled silence. Harry had heard Draco’s soft gasp and reached back with his hand. After a moment, fingers brushed his palm.

“Is he the only one hearing it?” Dillonsby asked.

“Yes,” Harry answered. Dillonsby pursed his thin lips.

“He was also the only one who heard the Basilisk during his second year, Digbert, and we all know how that turned out.”

“Yer can read, right Digbert?” Hagrid muttered. The story of Harry’s journey to the destruction of Voldemort had been front page news at the Prophet for weeks. Dillonsby certainly couldn’t claim he didn’t know. The flush across his cheekbones indicated he’d got the point.

“Have you any idea what the source of this ‘voice’ is?” Dillonsby scowled, ignoring Hagrid. His tone made it quite clear he was not ready to give up his confrontational stance.

“I believe,” Dumbledore said, his voice measured, “what Harry is hearing may very well be the voice of Salazar Slytherin, himself.”

Harry looked up at him in surprise. “Seriously?”

Dumbledore smiled. “Yes, Harry, seriously. And I believe the reason only Harry can hear it is the castle considers him to be the person who most recently saved it from destruction.” He shifted just his eyes to look at the board. “A not all-together inaccurate assessment.” The old Headmaster settled himself more comfortably in his chair. “There are several things which have always passed from one headmaster or mistress to the next, via word of mouth, once the responsibility for the students within this institution is placed within their hands. During the last few years, this chain of information has, due to unforeseen events, been broken. I misjudged the date for my own departure,” his pale blue eyes twinkled, “and Severus was not privy to the information. Given his short tenure and hasty departure, neither was Minerva.” He looked at her. “Forgive me, my dear. I should have known to speak of them while I still could. Had I known this was occurring before this morning, I’d have certainly told you.”

McGonagall blinked rapidly, but inclined her head with a regal tilt.

“The Heads of Hogwarts,” Dumbledore went on, “have always known to abolish any of the existing houses was to negate a quarter of what made up the foundation, and cause the castle to begin to attempt to defend itself.”

Several portraits hanging on the walls spoke up for the first time. Shouts of ‘here, here!’ echoed around the room.

The board members looked at each other in alarm. “Defend itself?” Mafalda said. “Dumbledore, you sound as if you’re suggesting the building is sentient and would see any such action as an attack.”

“That is precisely what I am suggesting, Mafalda, for it’s true. When you, unwittingly to be sure, voted to abolish Slytherin house and disperse its students into the other houses, Hogwarts, which was imbued by its creators with extraordinary magic, felt threatened. And the part of it which absorbed the somewhat cunning yet argumentative personality of Salazar Slytherin himself, retaliated.”

“Retaliated… how?”

Harry wasn’t sure who asked. He was too absorbed in Dumbledore’s narrative.

“Why, by attempting to dump members of other houses from moving staircases, for one. He always was a bit proactive in his displeasure.” The portrait of Phineas Nigellus, up near the right hand corner behind the desk, snorted. “I also believe the castle began to speak to Harry, because it ascertained the remaining Slytherins, those brave souls who refused to abandon their house colours, were in danger. Which, unfortunately, has proven to be true. Miss Parkinson is in hospital, severely injured simply because she refused to become a Gryffindor.” He shook his head sagely. “As if a Slytherin could ever become something other than who they were. Much as a Hufflepuff could never be cruel, or a Ravenclaw anything but intelligent. Gryffindor and Slytherin are peopled by those of intensely individual personality; they are not interchangeable.”

Madam Hopkirk frowned. “Albus, you’ve told us what happened to the Parkinson girl, but… what has all of this meant for Draco Malfoy?”

“Ah ha!” Dumbledore said, grinning widely. “What, indeed.” He looked down at Harry. “Do you feel confident of the details, my boy?”

“I believe so, sir,” Harry answered. He turned. “When Pansy, Miss Parkinson, was taken from Hogwarts, Malfoy was the only Slytherin left. After he was attacked by Zacharias Smith, he chose to use a Disillusionment Charm. Outside of class, because he wasn’t willing to give up his education…”

“Certainly not.”

The voice came from directly beside Harry, and it wasn’t clear the board understood its significance.

“…he wanted to be as inconspicuous as possible.” Harry concluded.

“And it worked rather better than I’d hoped.”

Now several of the board members faces reflected their shock.

“Who is that?” Dillonsby demanded, standing.

Dumbledore actually rolled his eyes. “Oh, do sit down, Digbert. Demonstrating how thick you are won’t help us conclude matters here any more quickly.”

Hagrid muffled a chuckle behind his massive hand.

Dillonsby sputtered, but lowered himself back down into his seat. Dumbledore turned benevolent eyes to Harry.

“I do believe it’s time for a demonstration.”

Harry grinned, then held out his hand. “Draco,” he murmured.

He felt the hand that slipped into his and for all of his voice’s bravado, felt its faint, nervous trembling. He squeezed.

“It’s all right,” he whispered. “Draco,” he repeated louder. “Draco, come back.”

Slowly, so slowly at first it was barely discernible, an outline began to take shape. Color spread slowly, from black shoes to gray trousers to the gray jumper with the distinctive green piping around the collar. The green and silver tie snug in place within the collar of the white shirt filled in, followed by the gleaming white-blond hair, painfully neat, each strand in place. Last to reappear was his hands, one of which was gripped within Harry’s, and his face. He turned his gray eyes onto the board and smirked.

“Surprise.”

Instantly the room filled with noise. Startled exclamations, gasps of surprise, questions thrown at dizzying volume.

“My friends,” Dumbledore said firmly, holding up his hands. Neither of which was blackened, Harry noticed. “My friends, please. Calm yourselves, and I’ll explain.” They resumed their seats, their eyes shifting from Draco to Dumbledore and back again. “When young Mr. Malfoy chose, for his own safety, to use a Disillusionment Charm in order to protect himself, the part of the castle imbued with Slytherin’s personality perceived the threat. It took steps to protect Draco as the last remaining Slytherin, and augmented the Charm. For the last several weeks, unless he was in class, Draco has been… invisible.”

There was another rush of startled noise. Finally, one voice lifted above the others.

“I don’t see the problem.”

The others in the room looked at Dillonsby in astonishment.

“You don’t see the problem?” Mafaldo Hopkirk said, her face filling with angry color.

“I don’t.” The man shrugged. “He no longer is at risk and he’s able to go to class.”

She looked at him in consternation. “Digbert, even you cannot be so utterly ignorant. One of the students under our care has been reduced to invisibility in order to survive here.”

“That’s not strictly true, Mafalda,” Dumbledore said, not unkindly. “Mr. Malfoy may have originally used a charm to become inconspicuous, but he is not now actively performing any magic to disappear.” He paused. “The castle has done that, and continues to do it, without his permission.” He frowned. “The area of concern, for myself at least and I would think for all of you, is this: as unbalanced as Hogwarts is as a result of actions taken by this board, there is a very real possibility Draco will cease to exist entirely. He could feasibly be absorbed by the castle’s magic, and we would be helpless to stop it.”

“No.” Harry squeezed Draco’s hand and pulled him closer against his side. “No, that isn’t an option.”

“I quite agree with you, my boy,” Dumbledore said mildly, then turned to look at the board of governors. “But what say all of you?”

Mafalda Hopkirk stood. “Well, I for one have heard enough. All those in favor of repealing our previous action and restoring Slytherin House, raise your hand.”

The final vote was seven to one. Digbert Dillonsby, out of sheer bull-headedness, Harry was sure, abstained.

Harry turned to Draco with a wide grin, only to find him frowning.

“What is it?”

“There’s only one problem,” Draco said. “After everything that’s gone on, not just with the dissolution of the house but with the backlash from Voldemort’s actions and the war -- ” he paused. “Aside from me, who is going to want to call themselves a Slytherin?”

Silence fell once again.

“I – have a thought.”

They all looked at Hermione.

“We are willing to entertain any suggestion you might have, my dear,” Dumbledore said kindly. Hermione lifted her chin.

“I suggest the entire school be resorted.”

There was another small explosion of noise. “All the students? Including the upper years?” Hagrid asked, a puzzled frown on his huge face.

She nodded resolutely. “Yes. Everyone.”

“Hermione, that’s mental,” Ron said, scowling.

“It isn’t,” she countered. She turned back to the room. “The Sorting Hat always seemed to have pre-cognizance about what was going to happen, didn’t it? It was always giving us warnings at the beginning of the year, as if it knew what was coming.”

“It’s always been mental, too,” Ron huffed.

“No,” Hermione retorted. “It’s always been right. What if the decisions it made when sorting everyone, up until this year, were based on what it knew was going to happen? What if it placed us where we were because of Voldemort, and the coming war? Mightn’t those choices be different now that he’s gone?”

Another heavy silence fell over the room.

“Well, I think it’s brilliant,” Harry said finally, grinning at her. “That way, we can all start over. It would be an even playing field for everyone.”

“I don’t want to be resorted,” Ron grumbled, crossing his arms.

“Ron,” Harry said, giving his friend an understanding look. “Do you honestly think you’d sort any differently now than you did when you were eleven? Do you think Ginny will?”

Ron looked at him, then grudgingly sighed. “No.”

“I think it’s an excellent idea, Miss Granger,” Dumbledore said with open approval, and Hermione flushed with pleasure. Dumbledore turned his head. “But what say you, Mr. Malfoy?”

“Me, sir?” Draco looked startled.

“Yes. As the person most impacted by previous decisions, I think it only appropriate you approve those going forward.”

Draco was clearly surprised. Harry squeezed his hand again, and he looked at him.

“He’s right,” Harry murmured. “What do you think?”

Draco took a deep breath and exhaled it slowly, looking at the expectant faces around him. “I think – “ he began slowly, “ –it’s brilliant.” Hermione beamed. Draco straightened. “But I also think it’s going to be up to all of us to make sure going forward we change the way things have always been done. Not ignoring the past, or our house’s place in it, but not allowing what those who came before did to define us, either. I’m willing to set the standard in Slytherin.” He looked pointedly at Ron, who lifted his chin, his face mulish. But after a moment, he nodded firmly in agreement.

“Harry, Hermione and I will do the same for Gryffindor. There won’t be any more attacks on Slytherin students, at least not by anyone from our house. Now, we just need to make sure the other two houses are on board.”

There was a moments ringing silence.

“Extraordinarily well said, both of you,” McGonagall said with approval.

“Here, here,” others murmured.

“Well, then -- ” McGonagall stood, “ -- I believe the first order of business is to return the Great Hall to its original state, and make an announcement to the students.”

“I believe,” Dumbledore said, his eyes twinkling, “the castle may have already taken care of part of that, Minerva.”

As if on cue, the door to the office burst open and Seamus, red-faced and out of breath, stood in the gap.

“Sorry to interrupt, Headmistress, but the Great Hall suddenly went back to the way it was before, and the Slytherin table reappeared.” He took a deep breath, his eyes wide. “Caused a bit of a stir during breakfast, I can assure you.”

McGonagall came as close as she ever did to a smile. “I imagine it did, Mr. Finnigan,” she said wryly. She turned back. “Given the board has made its decision, I believe it’s time to inform the school. Will you four be joining me?”

They exchanged glances. “I’d like a moment to speak with Professor Dumbledore, it you don’t mind.” Harry said.

“So would I,” Draco added. She studied them briefly, then nodded.

“We’ll wait for you at the bottom of the stairs. I believe this announcement requires a united front.” She gestured grandly toward the door with her arm. “After you.”

The board filed out, chattering furiously amongst themselves. All but Dillonsby, who scowled and followed behind them. Ron and Hermione glanced at them but fell in behind with Seamus, and Hagrid left last, pulling the door closed after giving Harry a conspiratorial wink.

“What was it you wanted to ask, Harry?” Dumbledore asked once the steps retreating down the stairs had faded.

“Just, why was it,” Harry asked, “that Draco’s books and things disappeared along with him, but he could turn them in to the Professors and use them during class?”

Dumbledore looked thoughtful. “I can only venture a guess, my boy, but I believe Hogwarts felt allowing Draco’s books and study materials to be seen in that moment would have endangered his safety. And, I believe there is a persuasive argument to be made that it was correct.” He shook his head, his blue eyes mild. “I have long given up the idea that I will ever understand all of Hogwarts secrets. I doubt anyone ever shall.” He looked between them, his lips quirking up at the corners. “Was there anything else?”

“Yes, sir,” Draco said, stepping forward, lifting his chin. “First, I would like to apologize for…”

Dumbledore waved his hand, shaking his head. “Water under the bridge, my boy. I appreciate the sentiment, but it hardly matters any longer.” He studied Draco kindly. “What matters is you, perhaps more than anyone, have learned the lessons your father and Voldemort did not. And that,” he held up his index finger to augment his point, “is an excellent thing, indeed.”

Draco nodded somberly. “There was just one more thing, Headmaster.”

“Yes, Draco?”

He squeezed Harry’s hand. “Why was it, out of everyone in the castle, the only one who could see me – was Harry?”

Harry returned the pressure of his hand.

“Ah, that is easily answered, dear boy.” Dumbledore linked his fingers in his lap, his blue eyes sparkling, and gave them a benevolent smile. “Because he wanted to.”

******

Harry lay on his back on the Gryffindor common room rug, his hands stacked beneath his head, his shoes abandoned nearby. He was still pleasantly stuffed from the leaving feast, and he was staring at the huge Christmas tree in the corner, fairy lights gleaming, red and gold decorations sparkling. He could hear the sound of a quill scratching on parchment coming from near his stocking clad feet, and feel the warmth of a slender calf resting beneath his leg. Rolling onto his side, he looked at the young man who sat with his back against the couch, quill in his hand. His green and silver striped tie was loosened, his fair hair shining in the dancing lights of the tree, and suddenly Harry desperately wanted to have his hands in the pale strands.

Bracing his elbow on the rug and resting his head on his hand, Harry lifted his leg and ran his toes up beneath the leg of Draco’s trousers.

The gray eyes that lifted to his were frosty. “Remove your dirty feet from my person,” he said archly. Instead of doing so, Harry smiled.

“My feet aren’t dirty,” he countered. “They’re very clean. I had a bath, remember? So did you, as I recall.” His grin ripened when a faint blush began to spread across Draco’s cheekbones. “Come here.” Harry leaned forward and tugged on his pant leg. “I want to mess you up again.”

“Will you desist?” Draco said, leaning forward to bat his hand away. “I’ve homework to finish.”

“You have two weeks to do homework,” Harry complained. “Once everyone else is gone.”

“Once everyone else is gone,” Draco said pointedly, one brow arched, “there will be other things I’d rather be doing.”

“Like me, I hope,” Harry quipped, wiggling his eyebrows. Draco rolled his eyes, even though his blush deepened.

“Not if you say anything so impossibly gauche, ever again.”

Harry laughed, flopping on his back and crossing his legs at the ankle. “Gauche. That’s me, all right.”

The six weeks since the Board of Governor’s meeting in the Head’s office had been interesting, at the very least. The castle, once assured Slytherin house was to be re-established, settled back into a routine of pleasant eccentricity. The hour-glass with the emeralds re-appeared, along with all of the snake emblems and banners within the walls. Almost instantly, the Slytherin dorms returned to their previous appearance, including windows with views of the underwater lake, and a huge portrait of Severus Snape now hung above the mantle. More than once, Snape sneered at Harry as he’d snuck out of Draco’s dorm near dawn. Harry found he didn’t mind. Grinning and saluting at his scowling former Potions master was one of the highlights of his day.

He and Draco decided early they weren’t going to be secretive about their relationship. “I’m not going to hide,” Harry had insisted, and Draco had agreed. There had been some backlash. There had been the expected unflattering headlines in the Prophet and the storm of howlers, (which Hermione and Ginny had rather enjoyed turning into smoking confetti), but to Harry it was worth it. He’d never been so happy in his life.

The re-sorting had caused some consternation at first, but in the final analysis there hadn’t been many surprises. Ron and Ginny both sorted Gryffindor, as did Seamus, Dean, Neville and Harry. He’d wondered if the hat would place him in Slytherin and he’d been prepared to go. When it didn’t, Hermione suggested it might be because the piece of the Slytherin that had resided in him for all of those years was now gone and he was wholly Gryffindor. Draco had offered to replace it ‘with another bit of Slytherin.’ Ron had moaned, Seamus had laughed so hard pumpkin juice had come out of his nose, and Harry blushed so brightly his face nearly matched his tie.

There were a few house changes; most of the students who had been in Slytherin before the war were placed there once again. Draco had proudly taken his place with his housemates and been named prefect the following day. Both of the Patil twins had been re-sorted Ravenclaw and Hanna Abbot, who had always been in Hufflepuff re-sorted Gryffindor. She didn’t seem terribly upset by it, Harry noticed, and realized why when he saw her exchange a shy smile with Neville.

The biggest sorting surprise had been Hermione. When the hat had announced ‘Ravenclaw’, there had been a shocked silence in the Great Hall. But Harry wasn’t surprised at all. She was the brightest witch of her age and she belonged in Ravenclaw. Harry thought she might have been one of those placed in Gryffindor because she was not only brave, but the hat somehow knew he and Ron were going to need her. Harry decided in wake of its protection of Draco, Hogwarts knew best and he wouldn’t question its reasoning. Hermione was happy, and it was all that mattered to him.

Ron wasn’t happy at all and pouted until Hermione told him how much fun sneaking around to snog was going to be. Harry thought she was just happy to be able to get away from them to study and wondered briefly how they were ever going to pass their NEWT’S without her. Fortunately, Draco made it abundantly clear failing his NEWT’s was not an option for Harry, and undertook being his tutor. Once they began studying together, and without the distraction of having a madman in his head, Harry found he was a surprisingly good student. And the benefits of having his tutor happy with him far outweighed his former natural aversion to studying.

He heard the sound of feet on the stairs, and looked up in time to see Ron appear, lugging his trunk.

“All packed?” Harry asked.

“Yeah.” Ron dropped his hat and gloves on top of the battered piece of luggage. “Sure you won’t change your mind and come with me?”

Harry smiled. “No, I’m good. Give your parents my love, though, yeah?”

Ron looked at him ruefully. “What am I supposed to tell my mother?”

“That he remained at Hogwarts so he could shag his boyfriend,” Draco said wryly, and Ron grimaced.

“Oi, Malfoy. Knowing it’s going on is bad enough. Hearing you talk about it is more than my heart can take.”

“You keep talking about your heart, Weaslebee,” Draco said, his voice mild. “Next time I visit Harry in the dorm I’ll forget to put up silencing spells and we’ll see what that does for your heart.”

“Harry, make him stop,” Ron whined. Harry just grinned, and Ron hugged. “I’m going to see what’s keeping Ginny. We’re supposed to meet Hermione to go to the train in five minutes.” He frowned and turned back to the stairs. “What’s the world coming to when my own common room is over-run with snarky Slytherins…Ginevra!” he shouted, “Stop faffing about. Don’t think I won’t come in there!”

“You can’t!” they heard her laughing reply.

“Fine. I’ll wait for you outside the boy’s dorm. But you have four minutes and then I’m sending Hermione in!” He thumped back up the stairs.

Harry gave Draco an expectant look, which he returned with an arched brow. “What?”

“What, he says.” Harry sat up and plucked the quill from Draco’s fingers, tossing it aside before taking his books and parchment and putting them in a stack beneath the sofa.

“If you smudge that…” Draco warned. Harry merely grabbed his arms and lay back down, pulling Draco down on top of him.

Draco gave him a quelling look. “I have to finish,” he said mulishly, crossing his arms.

Harry leaned forward and despite his resistance, kissed Draco fleetingly on the lips. When he eased back, Draco still looked cross. “You’re very cute when you pout,” Harry said, smiling. Draco’s eyes narrowed.

“I am not cute, and I am not pouting.” He elbowed Harry hard in the ribs on the last word, and he grunted.

“Ow,” he groaned. “That hurt!”

“You knew I was vicious going in, Potter,” Draco said mildly. “It should come as no surprise that I physically abuse you.”

“I’ll show you vicious,” Harry laughed, grabbing Draco’s wrists, easily wrestling them up near his ears. Draco began to struggle, and they rolled across the floor until they were nearly under the Christmas tree amongst the presents. They stopped with Draco on his back, Harry sprawled on top of him, both of them breathing hard. Harry pinned Draco’s wrists to the floor with a triumphant smile. “Got you!”

Draco looked up at him, his full lips slightly quirked in a suggestive smile. “You certainly do,” he said, his eyes going half-lidded with desire. “Whatever are you going to do with me?” He pressed up with his hips, and Harry caught his breath when he felt Draco’s cock rub against his own.

“Oh, I can think of a few things,” he murmured, suddenly breathless for entirely different reasons.

“Can you, now?” Draco lifted his leg and ran his stocking foot up the back of Harry’s calf. “And what would they be?”

“Well,” Harry said, drawing the word out. He loosened Draco’s tie and collar. “We could start with this,” he kissed Draco’s jaw, “then move to this,” he trailed his mouth down to his throat, “then pause for a bit of this.” He opened his lips on the spot he knew made Draco go weak in the knees and pulled the fair skin between his teeth, sucking hard. Draco gasped, one of his hands lifting to fist in Harry’s hair.

“You leave a mark and you get to explain to my mother how it got there,” Draco said, but the hitch in his breath and the restless movement of his hips told Harry he more than approved.

“No problem,” Harry said, laving the reddened spot with his tongue. “I’ll tell her you ran into my mouth.”

Draco laughed, and Harry grinned against his skin. He loved Draco’s laugh. He’d never heard it before they’d gotten together, but he was so addicted to the sound he’d have done almost anything to hear it.

He went up on his elbows, looking down into the smiling face. The fairy lights twinkled above them, leaving splashes of color in Draco’s hair and the wide gray expanse of his eyes.

“You’re so beautiful,” Harry said impulsively, then immediately regretted the outburst. Until Draco’s eyes softened and he gently carded his fingers through Harry’s hair.

“And you’re a mess,” he said fondly. “And it doesn’t matter a bit.” He caught Harry’s face between his palms and pulled him down, opening his lips, taking Harry’s in a slow, sensuous kiss that had his toes curling in his socks. Harry slipped his hand between Draco’s back and the rug, moving it down to caress his arse, then pulling him up into searing contact with the swelling at his groin. Draco sighed, hooking his thigh over Harry’s hip.

From up the stairs, they heard the sound of the Weasley siblings squabbling and then the thumping of a trunk as they started down the stairs.

“We should probably stop,” Harry murmured, lowering his lips once again to Draco’s throat. He loved the taste of it. Draco angled his head back and to the side.

“Probably,” Draco agreed.

“Ron’s heart probably can’t stand the shock,” Harry went on.

“Probably not, but if you’re thinking that’s motivation to get me to stop….”

Harry smiled against his skin. “Wretch.”

“Prat.”

Draco pulled his head up by the hair and kissed him again, his tongue making a slow, thorough search of Harry’s mouth. His arm wrapped around his neck as his long, slender body arched up against him.

“Oh, Merlin’s jagged toenails!”

Harry sputtered against Draco’s mouth and buried his face against his neck as he laughed.

“Eww, Weasley,” Draco complained. “Honestly! Your ever more colorful sayings about Merlin’s various anatomical anomalies has got to stop!”

“I will if you will,” Ron countered. “No straight man needs to see that!”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Harry heard Ginny say, and he could just see her smirk. “I thought it was pretty hot.”

“Out,” he heard Ron order, and looked up in time see him pointing Ginny toward the exit. She sent Harry a wink and a saucy wave and headed out through the portrait hole.

“And you,” he said to Harry, hefting both trunks up by the handles. “Could you try to have this out of your system by the time we get back from hols? Please?” He gave them one last, aggravated glare, then stomped out, dragging the trunks behind him. Harry watched him go and then looked down into Draco’s eyes.

“I’d say the chances of that are slim,” he said.

“I’d say they’re non-existent,” Draco countered. And kissed him again.

~fin~

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