The Most Unlikely of Places

Tuesday August 31st, 1999 - 10:00 a.m.

Harry's first impression as he stepped through the doorway of the London Division Auror Training Academy was that it was going to be nothing like Hogwarts. He gaped at the dull paint on the walls, the low ceiling, the fluorescent lighting; he looked down several smaller, equally dreary-looking hallways as he passed them, and his spirits seemed to sag. He wasn't sure what he'd been expecting, but he'd been excited about his first day of Auror Training. This didn't exactly look promising.

He hadn't really known how to dress, and so he'd finally settled on what he thought was a safe mixture of two cultures: dark trousers and a red jumper, complemented by a thin black robe. Harry now saw that plain Muggle clothing would have been perfectly acceptable. Had the large portrait on the far wall not been of Mad-Eye Moody, with the words Constant Vigilance! displayed below, carved into the stone, he'd have been convinced he'd just walked into a Muggle school. Everyone around him was dressed the Muggle way, though not everyone around him matched. Harry stifled a laugh as two men walked past wearing vibrant Hawaiian shirts, but even they were passably Muggle. Harry supposed what with having an Auror Academy in the middle of Muggle London, oddly dressed wizards could be expected. He stuffed his robe into the brown messenger bag that was draped over his shoulder before entering classroom number 9.

The classroom, if not brighter and more exciting, was, at least, a wizarding classroom. It reminded him a bit of the way his Defence Against the Dark Arts classroom had looked in his fourth year: jam-packed with equipment, piles of textbooks on the counter against the wall where the windows were, practically blocking out the sun. Harry recognised a Foe Glass in the corner, a shelf full of Sneakoscopes, and a lot more equipment he had never seen before, and could only wonder as to its use. He grinned despite himself, taking a seat in the very centre of the classroom.

The oddest thing, Harry thought, as his classmates filed in over the next few minutes, was that he didn't recognise any of them. The professor hadn't arrived yet, and the room was awkwardly still and quiet, though more than half of the seats were filled. Many of the students looked to be a few years older than Harry, and a few boys sitting in the back corner were whispering in a foreign dialect. There was no one from Harry's class at Hogwarts. A girl in the front row had a Ravenclaw scarf around her neck -- the only non-Muggle attire she wore -- but Harry was horrible at remembering faces, and even worse when it came to names. He couldn't recall having ever seen the girl in his life, but he surely must have gone to school with her.

No one was making a fuss over him, either, Harry realised. It had taken him a few minutes to understand why he felt so weird; no one was goggling incessantly at his forehead. He wasn't being acknowledged any more than the rest of the students in the room. Harry smiled once again. He could get used to this.

The door opened and closed with an air of finality, and Harry stiffened, turning around. A man had entered, clutching a small pile of papers to his side as he made his way to the front of the classroom.

Upon Harry's acceptance into the Academy, Hermione had bombarded him with facts about the Academy's most prestigious professor day and night; Harry was fairly certain he had Professor Nathaniel Stark's achievements memorised in chronological order by this point, but the repetition of knowledge dulled nothing about the facts, as they were. He had actually invented the Bat Bogey hex, which was Ron's favourite of his achievements, and he had worked alongside Dumbledore on the eleventh use of dragon's blood, as it had a very prominent use in many Dark potions. He had received an Order of Merlin, First Class for his work in the States, which was where he'd been for most of his active Auror career. He had been Lead Commander in the capture of the Dark Wizard Theodore Bundy, who had apparently had a mindset much like Voldemort's.

Harry was surprised that the smiling face before him was actually Professor Stark. He wasn't sure what he'd been expecting, but most of his professors had certainly been a lot more dour. This man seemed excited; the look on his face was a clear indication that he was passionate about the subject he taught. A sudden pang of emotion hit Harry, as he realised Professor Stark reminded him of Remus Lupin -- aside from the dark head of hair, and the well-tailored clothing, they could have been brothers.

"Welcome all, welcome! I'm Professor Stark, as you should know from the informational sheet owled to you this summer. Welcome to your very first semester in the Auror Training Programme.” The professor set his papers down on his desk and then hopped up to sit on it, smiling at the class. “I wholeheartedly love teaching the beginning level classes, much more so than any other level. Do you know why?"

Harry didn't know why. He glanced around; apparently, nobody else knew why, either. The professor didn't look ruffled by the lack of enthusiasm. He leaned forward eagerly, clasping his hands together across his lap. "I enjoy it because you will learn more in this overview class than you will learn in any of your future Auror classes. You'll discover exactly where your strengths and weaknesses lie, and you'll improve on those weaknesses, and you'll embellish your strengths much more proficiently and much more deliberately than you ever will again. Many beginning students don't understand how that is possible; let me explain. There are a series of tests --"

Professor Stark was interrupted in his explanation by the sudden creak of the door. Every head turned to stare at the late-comer. Harry's jaw fell open in shock.

"Sorry," was the mumbled response of Draco Malfoy, as he hurried to one of the empty seats in front. Harry's bottom lip slowly made its way back up to make connection with his top lip again, but he couldn't keep his disbelieving eyes off the back of the blond head.

"Quite all right. I actually started a few minutes early, so no harm done. Anyway, where was I? Oh, yes ... the preliminary tests!"

Harry felt horrible for not listening wholeheartedly to the ways in which he would, undoubtedly, discover many important things about his abilities this semester, through testing and his own concentrated self-awareness. But he couldn't centre his mind on the words that were coming out of Professor Stark's mouth at all. He'd been jarred, none too kindly, back to the war.

Malfoy hadn't returned to Hogwarts for his seventh year. It had been easy to forget about him. Harry hadn't laid eyes on him since the day he'd killed Voldemort, more than a year ago. Every single day of that year, Harry had fought with his memories, had tried to get away from everything he'd ever been, in a metaphorical sense. He'd been doing well. He didn't think about it every day - not anymore. After the initial months of trials and interviews, he was left alone, for the most part, and he was mostly happy.

Every once in a while, though, something or someone would jumpstart the war memories, and he couldn't make himself stop thinking about them, living through them over and over again in his head. Sometimes the memories that were stirred up were varied and random, nothing specific. However, the night that Harry was fixated on now was the night that he and Ron and Hermione had been captured and brought to Malfoy Manor by Fenrir Greyback. Hermione had been tortured and Dobby had been killed, and Malfoy had helped save their lives.

That same Draco Malfoy was now sitting three seats up and one seat over from Harry, and he was wearing jeans and a very distracting, long-sleeved black Muggle shirt with an emblem of some sort on the back -- probably signifying a Muggle band Harry had never heard of. Harry was hypnotised by his presence in the room. This person had disappeared off the face of the earth, had left Harry with many questions, and had reappeared in the most unlikely of places.

Harry was feeling kind of funny, and a bit outside of himself. Class was going on and he could hear his professor's voice cloudily in the back of his mind (he hoped to Merlin he wouldn't be expected to answer any questions today), but he was, at the same time, being bombarded by the image of the frightened face of Draco Malfoy on that night. He could see it in stark detail, down to the dark bags under his eyes and the panic set deep within them. Malfoy hadn't turned them in. Harry had looked right into his eyes; there could be no denying the recognition there, but still -- he hadn't turned them in.

"Please pair up, now. I'd like for you to choose someone you don't know, and to discuss with them your personal reasons for choosing the Auror Division as a career path. You're going to be working with and learning a lot from every single person in this room, and getting to know a bit about each other will undoubtedly help you succeed in the long run. Excuse me, class ... as you begin, I'm going to head back to my office for a moment, I seem to have misplaced my register ..."

Harry had perked up when the tone of Professor Stark's voice had become more directorial. After the professor had departed, he looked from side to side; it seemed his choice of persons he did not know at all were endless, save for Malfoy. Just as the Ravenclaw girl walked up to his desk with a hopeful look on her face, Harry was shoved roughly by someone passing through the opposite aisle.

"Watch it!" Harry called, rubbing his shoulder. The boy turned around and glared half-heartedly, but made no comment. The boy had dark, shoulder-length hair, and very strange eyes; they would probably be considered light blue, but Harry had never seen eyes so light before. It was disconcerting. He'd been among the small crowd of boys in the back, whispering together at the beginning of class, and now he was making a bee-line straight for Malfoy.

"Partner, Malfoy?" The boy spoke just like Viktor Krum, Harry thought. He wasn't giving Malfoy much choice in the matter of partnering; he sat down immediately in the seat next to him, which had recently been vacated by the Ravenclaw girl -- who Harry realised he was rudely ignoring.

He looked up to find her lingering uncertainly, so he gave her what he hoped was a nice smile and indicated the seat next to him. She grinned back, looking relieved, and sat. Harry glanced back towards Malfoy and his very rude partner, rather flabbergasted. He'd been expecting Malfoy to put up some kind of a fight, to demand reassignment, to even look displeased by the proceedings in the least, but he had done none of those things. His face, turned to listen, could almost be made of glass. It was emotionless, and seemed rather uninterested in what his partner had to say.

"Rebecca Maelstrom." The Ravenclaw girl held out her hand for Harry to shake. "I'm afraid I'm sort of cheating a bit ... I remember you from school, though we were never officially introduced. I graduated three years before you."

He shook her hand a little awkwardly; being in seats right next to each other with metal bars in the way inhibited a lot of bodily movement. "Of course. I'm Harry. Well ... you knew that, I guess."

Rebecca had a very long, possibly touching story about the reason she decided to become an Auror, but Harry didn't hear most of it. He couldn't stop himself from trying to overhear the things that Malfoy and his partner were discussing. There was no easily understandable reason Harry could imagine for Malfoy wanting to become an Auror, and he suddenly desired very much to understand that reason. It would give him insight to that night so long ago. He was curious and almost violently determined to understand, though he could hear nothing over the hum of voices in the room. However, he noticed when the rude partner's face began turning red with something like fury. His voice rose above the din of the crowd, then.

"You cannot be serious, Draco Malfoy. You are a liar! You are his servant still, I know it!" The voices in the room fell silent, and everybody was staring at Malfoy and his partner. Harry's heart was racing. There was going to be a duel, there was going to be something, there just had to be ... Malfoy would never stand for being talked to that way.

But Malfoy looked on at his partner, almost in amusement. His eyes narrowed, and then he turned to stare directly at Harry, who froze under the scrutiny.

"Voldemort's dead. Isn't that right, Potter?"

Everyone in the room turned slowly to stare at Harry. One of Malfoy's eyebrows raised, and Harry watched the ascent, almost as if in slow motion, for several seconds before he realised he had been asked a question. He cleared his throat. "Yeah, um ... definitely dead."

Malfoy turned back to his partner, whose mouth was agape in clear frustration. Harry felt himself relax a little. The steel grey gaze had caused a stiff tension in his spine.

"So you see, Pavel ... you've been disproved." Malfoy's voice was low and intentional, without a trace of malice or snootiness. Harry couldn't believe it. There were actually several things he couldn't believe; the fact that Malfoy was present in his Auror Training Class at all, the fact that Malfoy had spoken to him without the seething tone usually reserved just for him, and especially the fact that Harry was actually quite on Malfoy's side throughout all this. But what Harry was most aghast about was the apparent loss of Malfoy character and pride usually so blatantly on display. He could never have imagined picturing Malfoy without it, let alone actually being subjected to it. This wasn't the same boy Harry had grown up with.

How hadn't Harry been aware of that on that night, long ago?

"Dominik Pavel, is it?" Professor Stark announced from the back of the room, eyeing his register. Harry was quite sure he'd been standing there for quite some time. "And Draco Malfoy. Strange, I've never had a Durmstrang student and a Hogwarts Slytherin not get along in my classroom before. We can safely say that the two of you are no longer allowed to partner together, I think." The professor smiled almost sweetly before taking his place at the front of the classroom once more and calling for a return to original seats.

Harry tuned out the Professor almost at once, eyes locked onto the back profile of Draco Malfoy with a bit of reverence. Malfoy didn't appear chastised or bitter, as Harry might have expected of him once. He sat straight and tall, hands folded on the desk, looking attentively forward with a slight tilt of his head. It was then that Harry was pretty sure he'd figured out a small piece of the puzzle that was Draco Malfoy. The boy had something to prove, or at least he was convinced that he did. There hadn't been a day since the end of the war that the Malfoy name hadn't been bludgeoned to death in the Daily Prophet. And Malfoy must have had an awful lot of practice at restraint during his time under the rule of Voldemort. It would have been impossible to be disagreeable and live. To be constantly surrounded by those conditions would change just about anyone.

Still, Harry couldn't pinpoint exactly why Malfoy had so thoroughly lied to the Death Eaters that night and consequently saved his life.

:: :: :: :: ::

12:30 p.m.

"So how was your first day, Harry?" Hermione settled across the booth from him in the Leaky Cauldron next to Ron, leaving Ginny to squeeze in awkwardly next to Harry. He took a long, conscious sip of his butterbeer before answering.

"It was fine. Professor Stark pretty much just gave us an overview of the course." Harry didn't tell them that he didn't recall most of what Professor Stark had said; that he'd been preoccupied by Malfoy's presence to a degree that had quite unnerved him. After pausing for a moment, unsure of whether he wanted to tell them about Malfoy at all, he decided he should at least mention it. "Draco Malfoy was there."

Ron choked on his butterbeer, dribbling it from his mouth onto the Daily Prophet on the table in front of him. "You've got to be kidding me! Malfoy?"

"Where's he been all this time?" Ginny asked curiously.

Harry shrugged, avoiding her eyes. Truth be told, he had no idea, but the question somehow made him uncomfortable.

"And what makes him think he has the right to be an Auror?" Ron demanded.

Hermione looked round at him disapprovingly. "Why shouldn't he have a right? Maybe he's trying to rectify all his past mistakes!" She turned to Harry. "Did he say anything?"

"I didn't exactly have a chance to talk to him. It was a class full of people. There was kind of an interesting moment between him and some guy from Durmstrang ... Pavel, or something ... kind of an idiot." He told them about the encounter, and the cool way Malfoy had addressed the accusing stranger. He didn't, however, mention all of the questions that had begun to form in his mind about his old school nemesis, or the practically insatiable curiosity inside him that needed to understand Malfoy. That wasn't something he knew how to explain.

"I don't know how you can defend him, Hermione. After all he's done to us over the years?" Ron shook his head.

"Well ... I think what he's doing now is admirable, at least. I hope he's really changed for the better. You'll have to let us know if he talks to you again." Hermione sat back slightly to allow the waitress room to put down four bowls of steaming soup.

When the waitress had gone, Ginny sighed sulkily. "I wish I didn't have to go back to Hogwarts alone tomorrow." She looked meaningfully at Harry. He quickly averted his eyes, stirring his soup and watching the steam rise from the bowl. He wished she wouldn't always put him in such awkward situations. There was nothing he could think to say in response. It wasn't as if he could go back with her - and even if he could, he wouldn't have.

Thankfully, Hermione saved him. "Oh, but Ginny! It's your seventh year! How can you not be excited?" She was practically bouncing in her seat. Ron scooted sideways to avoid being hit by accidentally flung soup.

"It's just going to be incredibly boring. Nothing ever happens unless the three of you happen to be around," she stated flippantly. Last year had been a repeat of her sixth year, for when the Carrows had been in charge of Hogwarts, not a lot had been accomplished, academically.

"Nothing really happened last year, when we were all there," Harry pointed out, feeling kind of touchy and bothered by her statement. Really, did she think all the things that had occurred during his first six years at Hogwarts had been a great deal of fun or something?

"Still. It's going to be entirely different. I can't wait until it's over, to tell the truth." Ginny took a spoonful of her soup and gave it a tentative sniff. Harry glared at her, ticked off for no real reason. Ron and Hermione shared a look, both sensing the suddenly tense atmosphere.

Hermione had a very concerned look about her when Harry finally looked up, but he gave a minute shake of his head, hopefully relaying to her that she needed to just let this go. Before anyone had the chance to say anything else about it, Ron read the headline aloud from the Daily Prophet.

"The Last Band of Death Eaters: Hoax or Reality?" He snorted. "Are they joking? Haven't they learned their lesson yet?"

"Shh, Ron, just read it," Hermione said quietly, looking as if she might steal it from him and read it aloud herself.

He cleared his throat and continued. "Many within the Ministry won't concede that the recent attacks on several Pureblood families have anything to do with the so-called 'Last Band' of Death Eaters. It hasn’t escaped notice, however, that all of the families who have suffered attacks are at present in good standing with the Ministry. These families were either never suspected of involvement with You-Know-Who, or were former You-Know-Who affiliates whose past actions have been reconciled. One disbelieving Ministry worker refuses to associate these attacks with the Last Band. 'Whoever it is, they tried to attack Malfoy Manor! Now, I don't believe a word of the Malfoys' sorry apology ... no supposed 'Last Band' of Death Eaters would ever attack a Malfoy!' Nevertheless, the Malfoys are in good standing. It is debatable-"

"Hey, I just realised!" Ginny interrupted. "The wards Dad put up. It's got to be because he's worried about the Last Band ..." Harry's mind was whirling. There had been an attack on Malfoy Manor. How hadn't he heard about it?

Ron looked up questioningly. "What wards?"

"This morning I went outside to say goodbye to Dad, and he was standing outside the gate, with his wand out. I could feel the wards as soon as I left the garden ... they were strong, I don't even remember the pull of the wards being so strong when Harry was with us. He just smiled at me ... he wouldn't tell me anything. Said not to worry about it. Why didn't he tell me we might be in danger?" Ginny looked unhappy.

"Well, you're going to Hogwarts, Gin, aren't you? Any wards Dad could put on The Burrow are nothing compared to how safe you'll be at school. He probably really just didn't want you to worry about the rest of us."

She rounded on him. "Ron! Do you realise how stupid that is? It's my family too, I have a right to know these things!" She looked on the verge of tears. "I'm going to go say goodbye to George, make sure he's heard, you know ..."

Ginny pulled a handful of Knuts out of her pocket and threw them carelessly on the table before she shifted her way out of the booth and marched determinedly towards the back door of the Leaky Cauldron. Harry followed her retreating form until it disappeared, and he turned to find Ron glaring at him, as if somehow he was to blame.

"I guess I'll go with her to the store. Sorry. I'll be back," Ron muttered under his breath as Hermione stood to let him through. He exited in the same direction Ginny had.

Harry shook his head, failing to grasp what had just happened. He felt slightly guilty that he'd been wondering more about the attack on the Malfoys than paying attention to the story about the Weasleys' wards.

Hermione took her seat again. "Harry ... are you all right?"

"Sure, I am. Why?" he asked, sighing inwardly. Hermione would not rest until she got answers, even if Harry didn't quite know those answers himself.

"You just seem like you've been somewhere else all afternoon. In your head, at least."

"I've just been thinking about class." It wasn't exactly a lie. He'd been thinking about Malfoy, who had, indeed, been part of class. Hermione stared back pointedly, but Harry offered no further information. He shifted in his seat, taking his first sip of soup. It was somehow still scalding, and he grimaced, reaching for his butterbeer.

"Can I make a very candid observation?" Hermione asked, rather point-blank.

Harry froze with his drink half-way to his mouth. "You'll make it, no matter what I say, Hermione ... so you might as well." He took a quick sip and then placed his glass on the table again, hoping beyond hope that what she had to say was nothing to do with Malfoy. Had he been that obvious? He had to resist the urge to rip his napkin into little shreds, stilling his nervous fingers.

"I think it's clear that you no longer feel the same way about Ginny."

Harry's eyes widened, but he felt relieved. This was about Ginny! It was still territory he'd rather not cover, but at least this was something he understood. "You're right. I don't feel the same way."

"Neither does she." Hermione raised one eyebrow, and Harry's head shot up.

"She doesn't? Then what was that look she gave me about, and the not wanting to go back to Hogwarts alone? What's she playing at, if she doesn't care?"

Hermione sighed. "You boys are really quite daft sometimes, do you know? She doesn't exactly want to be with you anymore, Harry, but she still wants to talk to you. She needs closure in order to move on."

"Oh."

"And Harry ... oh, sod it. Harry, she's been seeing Seamus." Hermione bit her lip guiltily. "I shouldn't have told you. I'm sure she would rather have told you herself."

Harry felt frozen, but he forced himself to speak. "Really. Seamus. Seamus Finnigan?"

She took his hand across the table. "Yes. I'm sorry, Harry."

"It's fine. We broke up ... and it was a long time ago, you know. There's nothing wrong with it." There really wasn't anything wrong with it, and Harry didn't want Ginny like that anymore. Still, he didn't know why this knowledge was leaving such a bitter taste in his mouth.

"Good! I'm so glad you see it that way." Hermione patted his hand and let go of it, as if to suggest that she deemed him strong enough to deal with it on his own. "Can I ask you something?"

He nodded. Honestly, what else?

"What's changed since then?"

"Since Ginny?" he asked, shocked that she was asking.

"You were so in love with her, Harry. What happened?"

Harry laughed half-heartedly, sitting back against the booth. He didn't know how to tell her that the answers to her questions should have been glaringly obvious.

"Everything changed. Everything happened. The war, you know. The trials afterwards. Then throwing myself into seventh year. I hadn't had time to think about Ginny in so long, and by the time I did, the feelings were just gone. There's no other way for me to explain it, Hermione. I hardly understand it myself."

Hermione reached out for his hand again. "I understand. And I'm sorry for bringing it up, Harry, but... you really need to tell people how you're feeling, sometimes. You never complain, and I worry about you."

He smiled, gripping her hand. "Thanks. I'm fine, I really am. Just a bit shocked."

She nodded understandingly. "You should try and talk to Ginny before she leaves tomorrow. You'd both feel so much better afterwards."

"I will. I'll do it tonight. You and Ron can go and ... do whatever it is that you and Ron do."

Hermione laughed, reaching into her bag for a few sickles to pay for the lunch that nobody had really touched. "Come on. Let's meet them at the shop. It will be good to see George." She smiled sadly, the silent omission of 'Fred' weighing heavily on both their minds.

Harry and Hermione made their way through Diagon Alley, resting on a bench across the street from Weasleys' Wizarding Wheezes. They thought it best to give the family a bit of time to say their goodbyes, and they didn't have to wait very long at all.

"Oh, there they are!" Hermione waved to get Ron and Ginny's attention as they exited the shop.

Harry looked up to see Ginny, eyes already bearing down on him. "She looks as if she knows what you've been talking to me about or something."

"Well, that's because she kind of does," Hermione said out of the corner of her mouth as they made their way across the street.

Harry whirled around mid-stride. "What? Merlin, what is it with you girls?"

Hermione shrugged apologetically, and made her way over to Ron's side. Harry stood staring awkwardly at Ginny, trying his hardest to crack a genuine smile. "Gin, do you want to go get an ice cream or something?"

She nodded, but said nothing, and turned to lead the way to Florean Fortescue's Ice Cream Parlour. Harry was truly glad that old Florean's son had decided to re-open the place, but this did nothing to lighten his anxiety.

Undoubtedly, this was not going to be fun.

:: :: :: :: ::

7:30 p.m.

In the gloaming quiet of a London back alley, there was a small pop. The grey tabby who made her home there froze and stared with glowing eyes towards the source of the noise, but when Harry stepped forward, dusting off his trousers, she nonchalantly turned and went back to mouse hunting. There was nothing strange about the scent of this man or his sudden appearance in this alley. Usually several times a day, he came and went, much the same way.

Harry made his way around to the front of the building, his mouth forming a thin line. He plodded a bit heavily up the walk, along the security fence that surrounded the perimeter of the property. The gate in front was billowing back and forth in the wind; the last person who had come through evidently hadn't taken care to make sure it had shut properly behind them. Harry kicked it open with much more force than necessary, cursing the fact that he'd taken a third floor flat. The stairs were only partly enclosed, and at this bewitching hour of darkening orange and gold hues, it was difficult to make out his steps. When he reached the top, he made his way to a door on the left side of the veranda, digging out his key. It would be no fun climbing those stairs in wintertime, he thought. The thirty extra seconds it would take him to enter into the warmth of his flat would piss him off to no end. At least there was a roof, so he wasn't at risk of being completely snowed in.

Once inside, Harry threw his bag dispassionately to the floor. It was darkening, but he didn't turn on the only light in the room - a single, tall, upright lamp in the far corner, which had a penchant for shining unusually and annoyingly bright. His flat was small, but homey, with warm, welcoming hardwood floors throughout. There had been a dull, creamy colour on all the walls when he moved in, even in the bathroom - but he'd decided at the last minute that he liked it, and so it stayed. Even his personal possessions hadn't brought much colour or life to any of the rooms; in fact, they hardly looked lived in at all, aside from the bedroom and the perpetually unmade bed. What few material possessions he had accumulated over the years were mostly hidden away in his closet, as he'd had no further use for most of his school things - though the photo album of his parents stood proudly on the side table, and newer photos of Ron and Hermione, Remus and Tonks, and the picture of the Marauders that had hung in Sirius's bedroom now adorned his own walls. The furniture and other essentials he had purchased had been sensible and not superfluous in the least. Hermione teased him good-naturedly whenever she visited, calling him boring and drab.

Ron didn't understand why Harry had kindly turned down the invitation from Mrs. Weasley to stay at The Burrow indefinitely after they had left school, and Harry hadn't been able to rightly explain it to him. There was just something inside him that didn't feel right about it; he felt very strongly about having a place to call home that belonged entirely to him.

At the moment, though, Harry regretted that decision. He sat down heavily on the couch, looking around without really taking anything in. This place didn't feel like a home at all, even though he'd lived there all summer. He felt no attachment to it and he wouldn't miss it at all, should he be forced to leave.

Harry sighed and pulled his knees up to his chest, thinking about the conversation he'd just had with Ginny. There was no reason why he should feel upset, but he did. The knowledge that someone like Ginny Weasley still loved and wanted him had been a warm weight on his heart. He hadn't even been aware of how much of his own security rested in her hands.

He felt like a fool -- an extremely selfish fool. There was absolutely no way he could expect or want for Ginny to feel anything towards him, when he could no longer feel anything, himself. He couldn't understand why it mattered still, why he felt much more alone now than he had before he learned about Ginny and Seamus. I should be glad she's not hurt. I should be glad.

But he wasn't, not completely. And he hated himself for it.

"You never tried to contact me, or let me know how you were, tell me you still... God, Harry, it was either get over you or die on the inside every time I thought about you. I kind of blocked it out after a while, blocked you out. I didn't mean to, I never consciously wanted to ... it was like a defence mechanism, or something. It got pretty bad. I couldn't sleep, I spent night after night just staring out the window in my dorm, knowing you were out there and I was trapped in here, away from you, and ... I'm so sorry."

Harry remembered the few times he'd seen her in that very place on the Marauder's Map, but he didn't mention it. Those times were gone, now. "No, it's ... it's fine. It's okay. I'm glad you're okay with this. I'm ... I'm sorry I didn't --"

"Shh, absolutely not. I understand, Harry, you were ... hell, you were saving the world, weren't you? You didn't need anything else on your plate. But now, I'm just ... I fell in love with Seamus, Harry. Y-you were gone for so long ... I honestly can't even tell you how it happened, but it did. And I still ... I'll always care about you, Harry. You know that, right?"

Harry rubbed at his eyes underneath his glasses, feeling guilty and discontent. He couldn't possibly blame Ginny for what had happened. It would have ended anyway, no matter the how or the why, because there simply was no way that Harry would have been able to give her what she needed. There was no way he'd ever have been content - not with her, or any other woman.

He laughed bitterly as a thought came to mind: Ginny had alluded to the fact that it had been their time apart, the time while Ginny had been at Hogwarts and Harry had been on the run, that had done them in. And Harry agreed wholeheartedly. It had ended for him that way, too, and he'd said so during their talk that evening - but he'd left out a very important detail.

It was during the long process of hiding out in the tent with Ron and Hermione -- those long sleepless nights when there was nothing to do but think -- that he had realised he preferred men. In retrospect, he supposed he had always known there was something especially different about him, but he had never been quite sure what it was. He had just attributed it to the fact that he was who he was; that he was basically pre-destined to be as different as possible. Only then, on the run, with plenty of time to think, had it occurred to him that there might be a reason for it - something to blame his utter awkwardness with women on. He realised that there must be more to it than just the quiet, expected happily ever after, because when he let himself think about it for long enough, it was something he found he wanted and desired and was incredibly passionate about.

Harry remembered the first time he'd allowed himself to think on it, to consider the possibility that he might be gay. It had been back at 12 Grimmauld Place, where Harry had opted not to live after the end of the war. He, Ron and Hermione were hiding out, and he had just had a vision of Voldemort forcing Draco Malfoy to torture the big blond Death Eater, the one that had followed them to the cafe on Tottenham Court Road and had failed in capturing them. Malfoy's face had remained vivid in his mind, even after the rest of the vision had faded. Harry hadn't understood it at first -- he didn't really care about Malfoy, he had told himself -- he was only concerned, because Malfoy was now being made an obviously unwilling slave to Voldemort. There was nothing right about that, no matter how big of a prick Malfoy had been in the past. He didn't deserve it, and on his face, the horror, revulsion and fear had been more than evident. There had been a quiet softness about Malfoy in the vision; he had been nearly shrouded by the darkness of the room, but the effect of the firelight on his white-blond hair and pale skin had been dizzying in contrast. He didn't belong there.

But why? Harry had asked himself many times why he was so keen on the idea that Malfoy didn't belong there, with the Death Eaters, under Voldemort's thumb. Harry had entertained thoughts of rescue missions now and then, going so far as to plan out the little details of how it would work, what his and Ron's and Hermione's individual roles would be, much as the trio had gone over and over each of their other missions during the war. But Harry would have to will away the adrenaline rush every time; there was no way he would ever be able to sacrifice possibly dying in an attempt to save Malfoy, when the entire world was already dependent on him.

But Harry still thought about it. He thought about it all the time, and as time wore on, he found himself preoccupied with Malfoy, wondering constantly about his well-being, if he was alive, if he was safe. What he looked like without his shirt on.

He had seen Malfoy with his shirt off, once. But his entire chest had been covered in blood at Harry's own hand, at the time. And Snape had been there, too. Not exactly ideal circumstances.

Harry had never, not once, wondered what Ginny looked like minus her usual clothing. Soon after that revelation, Harry had had to come to terms with himself for good.

Harry's stomach rumbled, and he stood, making his way to the kitchen with a lazy sigh. He had forgotten to pick up something for dinner, preoccupied as he had been after the conversation with Ginny. Harry threw open the kitchen cupboard a little more forcefully than usual. An empty bag of crisps, a dodgy can of soup, and a half eaten can of cashews greeted him, as he had known they would. He wouldn't even chance a glance in the refrigerator; he was too hungry, and there were only condiments inside. He didn't want to get any disgusting ideas.

Pouring himself a glass of water from the tap, he sat down at the kitchen table with Malfoy on his mind. It had been a long time since he'd wondered about Malfoy, and the way the other boy kept popping up in his thoughts was reminding him of those sleepless nights in the tent. It hadn't been difficult to make sleeping underneath his Invisibility Cloak a regular habit, and so he'd been able to think about Malfoy - and do something about it - at his leisure, once he had put the silencing charm in place. Harry had never been very aggressive when it came to masturbation before the war, but he'd been much more frequent about it from that time on. It was like someone had untied a blindfold that had been around his eyes all his life: Harry had suddenly, all at once, understood what the big deal was.

Harry realised he was actually glad about Malfoy being in his class. He had wanted to thank Malfoy for so many things: not recognising him, saving his life, inadvertently opening his eyes to who he really was. Most likely, he would skip over that last part, but he still needed to tell him. He still needed to learn Malfoy's reasoning behind his actions. It still fuelled him with a burning desire to understand.

Malfoy's face ran through his mind again; not the petrified face from his vision or from Malfoy Manor, but the one he'd seen in class today: emotionless and guarded. A closed door with something behind it, something that Harry knew he wanted very much.

Harry shivered, setting his glass down on the table and shifting against the growing tightness in his trousers. Seemingly of its own accord, his right hand ghosted over his cock through the material and he groaned, leaning his head backwards over the chair and laughing for a moment. How ironic indeed that Malfoy would show up today of all days, that he'd be wanking off tonight to thoughts of him -- something he hadn't done in a very long time. How strange that the moment he thought about Malfoy, all regrets about Ginny had flown from his head.

He unzipped his trousers and slid out his cock, running his fingers lazily up and down its length. He imagined that Malfoy had followed him home and had knocked on his door; that he was here now, making it very clear how much he wanted Harry.

The sky was a dusky dark blue with faint strands of orange and pink, and Harry was sitting at his kitchen table in the near darkness, feet planted firmly on the floor in front of him. He was nearly slipping off the chair as he stroked himself faster, head leaned back and resting along the top of the wooden chair. He wanted Malfoy, and Harry was suddenly filled with regret over the fact that he had never pursued Malfoy; not sexually, not even as friends, but just to be sure he was all right after the war. He had never given it a thought. Harry gritted his teeth and pumped harder, thrusting up into his own hand, wishing desperately that he had bothered to enquire after him. Maybe, if he had, Malfoy would be here right now. Maybe Harry would have his cock in Malfoy's mouth right now, instead of in his own hand.

Malfoy's mouth used to smirk and laugh, and Harry missed it. Even if he'd never smiled at Harry, exactly, it had been far too long since Harry had seen the expression on the other boy's face, and he longed to see it now. He wanted Malfoy to smile and he wanted to kiss those lips, own them, feel them swallowing the head of his cock and moving up and down his length, as much of it down Malfoy's throat as would allow, and Malfoy would use his tongue on the spot just under the head and beneath as he sucked...

Pre-come had made Harry's cock slicker and it was easier to pump and maneuver; he was breathing heavily and he had to reposition himself on the chair, lest he fall off. He imagined those grey eyes looking up at him as he sucked him off, one of Malfoy's hands at Harry's base while the other touched his own cock, getting off on the feel of Harry's cock in his mouth, and loving it. Harry imagined that it meant something to Malfoy, this act, and that it would be clear in his eyes ... and then he would take Harry's cock all the way down his throat, and his tongue would move along the length of his shaft.

Harry's other hand came to join the first so that nearly his entirely length was covered. Malfoy would suck him so fast and so hard, and he would come into his mouth, and Malfoy would swallow, because it meant something.

Harry cried out when he came, one hand covering the head of his cock so he wouldn't make too much of a mess, the other riding out his orgasm until it ended. And then he sat there, holding onto his half-hard cock and a handful of come.

Why why WHY can't I just get off to sex? Harry wondered dejectedly, still unmoving. His head was still tilted backwards and his eyes were closed. Time and time again, he ended up incorporating emotion of some kind into his fantasies. He didn't think it was all that normal.

It was dangerous, too. If he thought about Malfoy like that too much, he'd unwillingly start to wish it actually did mean something - and that would be ridiculous. On the slim chance that Malfoy was gay, there was no chance he'd take up with Harry Potter. There was too much history there. It would never work. Best to forget about it now, and just concentrate on the saying thank-you thing.

But while Harry washed his hands off in the sink, he found himself grinning; he couldn't control it. He felt almost giddy at the idea of class the next day, and he cursed himself as soon as he realised what he was thinking.

He hoped he hadn't already crossed that line.

:: :: :: :: ::

Monday September 6th, 1999 - 12:00 p.m.

Harry sat by himself at one of the round, wooden tables with his lunch tray, feeling unbearably as if all the Muggle years which he had successfully eluded had come back to haunt him. The training college's cafeteria reminded him of every clichéd dramatisation of a Muggle High School lunch room that he'd ever managed to catch on Aunt Petunia's television set. Just looking at the soggy, unappetising array of food on the tray before him made his heart ache for the house elves' cooking. He couldn't really understand why the quality was so terrible. Surely the Ministry could do better?

He positioned his fork quizzically over what he thought must be mashed potatoes, but was saved the trouble of having to actually eat them to find out when Malfoy entered the lunch room.

Attention caught, he watched the blond surreptitiously. Malfoy hadn't said one word to him since that first day almost one week ago; he hadn't even given him a passing glance. Or a passing glare, as would have been much more his style. On the second day of class, Harry had decided to try and sit near Malfoy during lunch, maybe initiate a conversation, but Malfoy had made that impossible by never showing up to lunch in the first place. Harry hadn't the faintest idea where he disappeared to, but he assumed that Malfoy felt himself above sitting in a dingy, stuffy lunch room for half an hour and being made to eat slop. Hell, Harry was pretty surehe was above it, too, but that did nothing to stem his disappointment, day after day.

But he was here now, somehow. It was so astonishing to see him get in line, and accept the dismal grey tray they handed to him with hardly a sneer. The Malfoy he'd always known would have been whole-heartedly offended at the offerings, but this Malfoy accepted it without question. He was dressed as a Muggle again, Harry noted. He wore a solid coloured T-shirt, which was black, of course -- it was the only-coloured shirt he seemed to own -- and brown, form-fitting trousers. For one who used to claim utmost hatred toward all things Muggle, he was the only pure-blood wizard student who managed to pull off the ensemble with a certain grace and rightness. By this point, Harry was convinced that Malfoy could have come to class wearing nothing but cellophane and look absolutely stunning.

Harry shifted his ugly green plastic chair around the table just a bit, which afforded him a better view. He frowned as he noticed Dominik Pavel shoving his way up in line, just to be behind Malfoy. Pavel had been annoying and goading Malfoy every day in class; he really seemed to have it out for him. Harry didn't know why he felt so defensive, as his former self would have been whooping and thanking Merlin for justice being served; Malfoy was finally getting a taste of his own medicine. It was just that things had changed in some inexplicable way. And Harry didn't trust Pavel. Not in the least.

Malfoy was at the drinks counter now with his back to Harry, apparently taking his time deciding. The counter was piled high with Muggle and wizard drinks alike, all in aluminum cans; Harry hated drinking out of them with a passion. Malfoy reached for the last can of pumpkin juice, and Harry half-smiled, finding it a bit ironic that he himself had grabbed the second to last can. Apparently he wasn't the only one heartsick for Hogwarts.

And then there was Pavel, right behind him, waiting in line to pay; Harry held his breath.

But nothing happened. Malfoy paid, and he turned, and for just a moment, his eyes fell upon Pavel with clear distaste. It felt odd to Harry, not being the one on the receiving end of that look, but to see it aimed at someone else, instead. Malfoy's lip twisted, almost forming a sneer but not quite, and then he seemed to reign himself in. His mask of calm indifference was back in place, and he walked with his tray to a table on the other side of the room, facing away from Harry.

Now all Harry had to do was get up and go sit by him. And then move his mouth and speak and make words, and somehow make small talk with his one-time arch-enemy.

It had seemed to be a flawless plan on all the days when Malfoy hadn't actually shown up. But now, there was a relentless, evil beast of a butterfly inside his stomach, and Harry's feet didn't want to move; they were glued to the floor. Harry glanced over at Malfoy, able to tell even across the distance of the lunch room how stiff his shoulders were. It must have been years since Malfoy hadn't censored himself. Harry was sure all Malfoy wanted to do was explode with some kind of Malfoy-ish wrath upon Pavel; he had seen the warning signs in his eyes when he'd looked at him. But he hadn't let himself do or say a thing. What kind of pent up anger must he be harbouring on the inside, after all this time?

Harry slammed his fork down on his tray, making up his mind. He was going to do it. He was just going to go over there, sit down, and talk to him.

Right.

He stood up a bit shakily, draping his bag over his shoulder and grabbing his tray, praying that he wouldn't trip and spill the contents of it all over himself. Though his legs felt like lead, he seemed to have made it across the crowded lunchroom in record time, and then he was standing there, staring at the back of Malfoy's head.

Taking a deep breath, he forced himself to walk around the table, and then he sat down as quickly and nonchalantly as he could.

Harry looked up just in time to catch the 'o' of surprise disappear from Malfoy's mouth, quickly to be replaced by a full-fledged sneer - one Harry hadn't had the benefit of being the recipient of in years.

"What the fuck do you want?"

Perhaps Malfoy had been saving all of his wrath just for him?

Harry leaned back in his chair, quite taken aback. The outburst seemed too harsh a reaction to something as simple as sitting down at the same table. But maybe Malfoy had been expecting it to be Pavel, back to give him more trouble. Harry nearly forgot that he was holding a tray full of food, but he remembered before he let any of it drip onto his trousers, placing it on the table.

"I don't know about you, but I don't plan on going through three years of training and not talking to anyone." Harry settled forward again and picked up his fork, though it was mostly just for something to do with his hands.

"And so you picked me out as the friendliest face in the crowd?" Malfoy rolled his eyes. "I'm not here to make friends, Potter. Plenty of sweeter faces about; again I ask, what do you want?"

Perhaps if Harry had been drunk or immensely sleep-deprived, he'd have contradicted Malfoy's statement. Instead, he just twirled his fork on the table and contemplated the question.

"I picked you out as the face least likely to sit there blinking in awe at me, which is what happened every day last week when I sat down at someone else's table. It gets old, after a while." He stared across at Malfoy defiantly, forcing down the urge to flick a rolled up straw wrapper at him.

Malfoy snorted, and Harry oddly felt like giggling. He felt a jolt of surprise at each little instance of the old Malfoy that apparently only he had the power to bring out. He could hardly be bothered with being offended.

"Many people consider staring in awe to be a better start to a friendship than seven years of hatred toward one another." Malfoy eyed Harry suspiciously. "I think you're a little confused, Potter. You and I were never friends. Weasley would be simply aghast at this scene, wouldn't he? Why isn't he here to be your little Auror training buddy?"

"He's helping George with the store," Harry said automatically, flinching a bit as he said it. He was very surprised that he'd answered the question honestly, and he thought of Fred, who would have been there at the store with George instead of Ron. There was a good chance that Ron would have been here in training with Harry, if it weren't for that. Malfoy had hit one of Harry's guilty nerves, and he hadn't even realised it.

Harry blinked and looked away for a moment, putting the fork down and clenching his fists, trying to get a hold over his mind before he thought too much, got too wrapped up in it. He turned back to glare at Malfoy once he was sure he could manage it without a waver. "Why are you in Auror Training, Malfoy?"

Malfoy narrowed his eyes. Harry hadn't meant to ask a prying question; he'd just needed to change the subject, quickly, and he'd asked the first thing that had come to mind.

"It's really none of your business," Malfoy said cooly. Harry wasn't surprised; he'd hardly expected to get a truthful answer, but as he took a sip of pumpkin juice -- from a bloody can, he thought -- he realised that he'd asked the one of the main questions that had been on his mind all week, rather point blank. It was possible he'd just completely blown his chances of getting any answers at all.

He set the can back on the grimy tabletop and began to twist the metal pop-top back and forth, needing something to do with his hands again or else he'd be prone to wringing them quite ridiculously. He didn't know why he was getting so nervous around the bloody bastard. Oh, all right, maybe that was a lie. There was the fact that he was gorgeous, and mysterious, and that he had always treated Harry with no respect at all -- quite the opposite of the rest of the wizarding world. Harry had eventually come to understand that none of them would ever see him as he truly was -- no one aside from his best friends, at least -- and since the war, he'd come to the conclusion that he'd rather be less than nothing than too much.

"I didn't mean to be rude in asking, but I've wondered about you all week." Harry nearly winced, appalled at his mind's choice of wording. He'd done quite a bit more than wonder about him, that was for sure. "And I'm glad you're all right, after that attack. You and your family, you'll need to be careful. And I'd watch out for that Pavel, if I were you."

Good. Sound just like his mother. That's the ticket!

Malfoy raised an eyebrow. "My family is fine. Fuck Pavel. And fuck you too, while I'm at it. The fact remains that I'm here, and you will continue not knowing why I'm here, and I will continue not gazing at you in awe. Sound good?" And then he stood, his chair scraping hard across the ground as he turned and moved with his tray to a table across the room - the same one that Harry had just vacated on his way over.

Harry stared open-mouthed for a moment, before he found himself filling with equal parts energy and anger. It was an odd mixture, but somehow with Malfoy, it had always been that way. He didn't know if the anger he felt was necessarily directed towards Malfoy, but he was going to direct it at him, anyway. He stood, forgetting the tray but not his bag, and marched across the lunch room -- this time much more determinedly.

As he sat down across from Malfoy, he heard him growl in frustration. "God, just -- what, Potter? What do you want? Why won't you leave me alone?"

Harry clutched his bag a bit more ferociously than necessary in his lap. "I want to know why you haven't said one word to me this week, Malfoy."

"Why would you expect anything from me?" Malfoy looked as if the very idea was ludicrous, and Harry had to admit, it mostly was. Harry was suddenly grasping at straws; there was no logical way to respond, because really, there was nothing he could possibly have expected. But he had to say something ...

"I've never expected anything from you, but you've always kind of ... I don't know, been there, annoyingly."

"Thanks so much." Malfoy pushed his tray away from him and sat back in his chair, arms crossed, and glaring at him.

"What's wrong? Have I become a better person, in your estimation? Do I no longer deserve your taunts and jeers?" Harry leaned forward in a subconscious imitation of Malfoy's moving back.

"You sound like you've been missing it or something, Potter."

Harry spluttered momentarily. "No. It's been rather nice, actually."

"Then why are you bothering me? I am done with that part of my life, and having to see you every day is enough of a reminder of ..." Malfoy's eyes widened in surprise; he obviously hadn't meant to say that much. He looked panicked for a moment, openly vulnerable, before his eyes squeezed shut quickly. With a shake of his head, he seemed to compose himself, and when he looked at Harry again, he was calm.

And as a realisation hit Harry, he winced, feeling wracked with guilt because he knew exactly what it was like to be bombarded by his own thoughts, and to have to confront all his mental issues whenever the littlest thing jogged his memory or piqued his senses. He didn't know how he hadn't realised it before, but just the fact that he was Harry Potter was understandably enough to bring others down. He would leave, if that was what he was doing to Malfoy. He hadn't known ...

He cleared his throat. "Listen, I'm sorry. Really. I didn't mean ... well. Anyway, I just wanted to say -- thank you." Harry tumbled through the words, making to stand.

"Wait, you wanted to say ... what? Thank you?" Malfoy demanded, as if Harry had just announced he was quitting Auror Training to join up with a Country Rock Band, instead. Harry was half-way out of his seat; he sat back down very tentatively.

He looked perplexedly at Malfoy, not understanding his reaction. "Yes. I wanted to say thank you."

"Whatever the hell for?"

Harry paused briefly, sitting up a little straighter in his chair. "Y-You saved my life."

"Saved your life," Malfoy echoed vacantly, shaking his head. "What the fuck are you talking about?"

"What do you mean, what am I talking about? You saved my life, that night ... at the Manor. Malfoy, don't you remember?"

Malfoy reeled backwards, shocked. "You can't possibly think that what I did was ..."

"It was. I'd be dead, Malfoy. And you know it."

"No!" Malfoy shouted, and several people at nearby tables turned to look at him. Malfoy was shaking his head at Harry angrily, but when he spoke, his voice was controlled. "You don't owe me anything, Potter. Get the idea out of your head."

"What idea? It's the truth!" Harry's fist came down imploringly upon the lunch table, gathering a few more stares.

Malfoy's gaze was harsh, both hands gripping the table in front of him. "What I did hardly constitutes saving your life. If I'd planned on doing that, I would have looked at you and said 'Absolutely not!', but I didn't do that, now did I?

"Whatever you planned on doing or not, the fact bloody well remains that you didn't tell them it was me. You knew. You knew! Why did you do it, Malfoy?"

"I did nothing. I told them that it was your friends--"

"You said maybe, and that's it! Just let me fucking be grateful, would you? You're acting as if it were such a horrible thing to do!"

Malfoy's eyes clouded over with some unknown emotion. "Grateful, huh? Did you hear about what happened after you left, Potter? Do you know what You-Know-Who used to do to the people who failed him?"

Harry let out a slow, silent breath, eyes widening slightly. He did, in fact, know exactly what Voldemort used to do to people who failed him; he used to be inside of his mind for the experience on a regular basis. Somehow he didn't think that mentioning this to Malfoy would help very much.

"I'm s--"

"Save it, Potter. Just leave me the hell alone."

Malfoy stood, turned, and was lost in the crowd.

:: :: :: :: ::

1:00 p.m.

Hurt and confused, Harry vowed to do just as Malfoy had asked.

Harry had obviously been wrong. Nothing could possibly occur between himself and Draco Malfoy; they couldn't be friends, and they definitely couldn't be anything more than that. He'd affected Malfoy way more than he ever could have imagined, and he should have foreseen it. He hadn't even had the tact to remember what he had seen after he had escaped Malfoy Manor; he'd been so wrapped up in grief over Dobby's death that he'd pushed aside the knowledge coming unbidden to his mind of Voldemort punishing those who had failed him. Why hadn't he remembered? How could he have overlooked such a thing?

He walked back to class slowly, feeling miserable. If being left alone was what Malfoy wanted, he would oblige -- but how could he avoid him when they had class together? Harry just wouldn't allow himself to talk to him (which wasn't exactly anything new), and he couldn't look at him anymore, either. He sighed as he took a seat, and found his eyes naturally gravitating towards the blond in the front row, despite it all.

Malfoy was flipping idly through the pages in his textbook, and Harry noticed a slight tremor in his fingers. He bit his lip, wishing that at that very instant, he had the power to read minds.

A few moments later, Professor Stark had taken his place at the front of the classroom, smiling from ear to ear. "Hello again, everyone. Today is, as you know, your first afternoon session. After today, you'll no longer just have the morning's combative theory course; you'll have an afternoon practical skills course, as well. Today will be a short day, but from tomorrow on you can expect to be sticking around for several more hours, depending on the material we cover. Exciting, isn't it?"

Harry might have been excited, if he hadn't just had all his hopes dashed, trodden on and completely obliterated. And so he sulked, crossing his arms, staring at the professor with an intensity that he hoped would make up for the white-blond blur in the corner of his eye.

"On Friday, you all took the partner aptitude test. Those results are in, and I'll read them in just a moment, but first I would like to share with you some words of wisdom -- this actually may come in handy for the future, so please pay attention, Mr. Pavel!" The professor frowned at the back of the room before continuing. "Now, you should know that a lot of the students who end up paired in this class go on to request each other as partners in the field. It's quite amazing, actually, how often this seems to occur. The longer you work with your partner, and learn from your partner, the more your mutual trust will grow. You will begin to almost innately understand their skill and ability, and make it work when paired with your own. Many say it's never the same as it was with their old practical skills training partner." He scanned the room visually, apparently trying to catch the eye of everyone in the room. "You'll be getting to know your partner quite well over the next two semesters. They'll come to be like your right hand, your back up wand. You need to be able to trust them completely, because if you don't -- then you're dead."

Harry had been working with Rebecca Maelstrom over the past few days, and it had been going pretty well. She was one of those who tended to stare at him in awe, but that would hopefully fade in time. She'd be a less dominant partner, which would work out wonderfully for Harry -- he hated going into anything without understanding implicitly what was going on. He'd much rather be the one calling the shots, being the one depended on. He was convinced that Rebecca would be the perfect partner for him.

"Weston, Arnold; and Brittingham, Misty."

Harry stared at Malfoy, wondering who he would be paired with. Certainly not Pavel, as Professor Stark had ruled that out from day one. For that much, he was glad. He still didn't trust Pavel at all.

"Cacciatore, Jennifer; and Saterlee, Harlan."

There was no way Harry could not be paired with Rebecca. She turned and offered him a small thumbs up sign, which he returned rather lamely, but he felt better knowing she was on the same page.

"Pavel, Dominik; and Levy, Templeton."

Oh, good. And Pavel looked pretty pissed off about it, too, even though Levy was one of his only mates in class -- one of the ones who he whispered with in the back at every opportunity.

"Stanwick, Abigail; and Maelstrom, Rebecca."

What? No. Was he joking? Harry had barely talked to anyone else in class, how could he possibly be paired with someone he had never talked to? Rebecca turned around again, this time with a sad smile and a shrug, but Harry could only barely keep his lunch down.

"Barclay; Stuart; and Wallace, Vincent."

How many people were left? Maybe nine? Harry frantically looked up and down the rows and found that he hardly knew three quarters of the students' names, and it dawned on him that whoever his partner was, he wouldn't be able to pick them out at all. The knot in his stomach grew.

"Potter, Harry; and Malfoy, Draco."

"What?"

Harry hadn't realised he had spoken aloud at all. He just stared disbelievingly up at the professor, feeling all his newfound faith in the man's good-decision making begin to shrivel up and die.

It couldn't be true. No way. Partners with Malfoy? No. How come nobody around him thought this was weird? How could they just be sitting there, so accepting of the terms Professor Stark had just set? He supposed that none of them really knew about the rivalry, though; none of them could ever hope to understand how very wrong this assignment was.

"Your partner, Mr. Potter. You are paired with Draco Malfoy." Professor Stark studied the parchment a bit more closely. "Well, well. I'll be quite interested to see your progress together! I've never seen a closer match, in all my years of teaching."

The professor seemed very pleased. All the blood had rushed out of Harry's face, and he was sure he was about to pass out, but nobody seemed to notice his dilemma. He was so very overwhelmed that his logical thinking processes were threatening to shut down. And then Malfoy turned around in his seat to glare at him, as if this calamity was entirely his fault. Harry could only stare back, shaking his head, repeating curse-words over and over again in his head.

He didn't hear the last few pairings read at all, and when class was dismissed, Harry was confused as to the commotion going on around him. As soon as he realised that they were actually free to go, he jumped out of his seat, messily gathering his books and parchment, and shoving them roughly into his messenger bag. He figured Malfoy had to talk to him now. It looked like he wouldn't have a choice.

But when he turned to the front, where he'd assumed Malfoy might wait, his eyes were left wanting.

Harry turned and dashed towards the door. Maybe he'd see Malfoy's retreating back and would be able to follow him, or maybe --

Or maybe he was waiting just outside the classroom door, leaning against the wall.

Harry halted in his tracks; he'd been prepared for a chase, and now he was left with an adrenaline rush and absolutely nowhere to go. He stared at Malfoy, shifting nervously from foot to foot. "Malfoy -"

"I know, Potter. It's obvious that we need to talk." Looking mad and resigned, Malfoy slipped a bit of parchment into Harry's hand. "Come over about 8 o'clock. You can Apparate into the building, but not directly into my flat, please. Don't be late."

Baffled, Harry looked down at the bit of parchment, recognising the address as a more up-scale area of London. "All right, but -- Malfoy? Hey!" Harry turned, spinning in a circle, searching for that blond hair, but Malfoy had already gone.

:: :: :: :: ::

7:59 p.m.

Harry had showered that morning before leaving for class, but he'd felt the need to redo his entire preparatory routine as soon as he'd arrived home. And instead of putting on a normal pair of trousers and one of his regular old sweaters, he was tempted to put on the pair of jeans that Hermione had insisted he buy; the ones that had been sitting in his drawer with the price tag still on them for at least seven months.

Clad in nothing but his underwear, he'd pulled the jeans out, holding them up against his waist, biting his lip. The mirror wasn't a magical one, and so it had no forthcoming advice.

That's when he realised that he was trying to impress Malfoy. By wearing a pair of jeans.

He hated wearing jeans.

And at 7:59 p.m., Harry was standing outside the door to Malfoy's seventh floor flat, wearing jeans. He'd picked a dark green jumper for the occasion, because Ginny had once remarked upon how well it brought out the colour of his eyes.

Harry was quite sure that he was a lost cause.

After staring anxiously at the door for several moments, he tried to flatten his hair. He didn't actually expect for it to stay, but it was an old nervous habit, and he always caught himself subconsciously making the attempt, anyway.

Just do it, already. He took a deep breath and raised his right hand to knock, but the door swung open on its own before his knuckles made contact with the white wood. He stared confusedly for a moment, because there didn't seem to be anyone there.

Harry poked his head in tentatively, and saw that Malfoy's flat was smaller and less luxurious than he'd been expecting -- although it was still very nicely furnished. Nothing shabby or second-rate, and everything seemed to have a sharply defined edge: the counters, the triangular wooden tiles on the floor, and even a sleek, silver ceiling fan. The door opened into a living room on the left, where Malfoy had a television set and a few shelves full of books, DVDs, picture frames, and a very comfortable looking black leather couch. To the right was a small kitchen, complete with kitchen island, and further beyond that was a door that Harry presumed led to Malfoy's bedroom.

Malfoy himself was leaning forward against the kitchen island on his elbows, talking lowly into a mobile phone. Harry wasn't as shocked as he would have been a week ago at seeing Malfoy in the middle of such a Muggle scene, as he had come to expect the unexpected in the past few days, wherever the blond was concerned. Nevertheless, he still had trouble relating the perfect blend of Muggle and wizarding culture before him to one Draco Malfoy. He owned a mobile. Honestly.

"Mum, I've got to go." Malfoy gestured for Harry to come in with one hand, and Harry stepped forward, trying but failing to picture Narcissa Malfoy with a mobile of her own as he shut the door quietly behind him. "My partner's arrived, and we've got to do some work now."

Harry waited, hands behind his back, feeling very awkward about being there. He noted that Malfoy hadn't mentioned exactly who his partner was.

"I'm sure it will be fine. He knows what he's doing, after all. Listen, I'm going to call you back later. Think you'll be all right until then?" Malfoy paused, pursing his lips to the right as he listened, scratching idly at the countertop. Harry couldn't squash the thought that he looked absolutely adorable.

A small smile broke out over Malfoy's face at whatever his mother had said back to him. At the same time, the expression was tinged with a worried kind of sadness that Harry couldn't place. It was such a private moment, and Malfoy obviously didn't realise that Harry could see him and hear his side of the conversation. Harry didn't think he'd ever witnessed a more genuine expression on his face before. He doubted whether Malfoy had intended for him to see.

"Believe what you'd like, Mum, but I'm right. You'll see." He straightened, seeming to acknowledge Harry's presence with his eyes. The smile immediately disappeared off his face. "Talk to you soon. Goodbye."

With one hand he clicked his mobile shut, setting it down on the island. "Sorry. Mum calls a lot these days. She's just checking in."

Harry envisioned Narcissa Malfoy knackering about the old place, plagued with worry. All other personality traits aside, Narcissa Malfoy was a devout mother to her only son. It was something Harry could respect immensely, especially since he was so very greatly indebted to the mother-son bond that existed between them. Narcissa had lied to Voldemort for one reason and one reason alone, and that was to save her son -- who was out on his own now, and still in danger. Harry didn't think it would be wise for the Malfoys to ever stop worrying, not as long as the Last Band was around.

"I don't really know what to say to you when you're apologetic. It's so out of character for you." Harry's fingers were searching for something to do, as they were wont to do when he was nervous. If he'd had a bit of string, he'd probably have ripped it to shreds by then, but all Harry had were the belt loops on his jeans, so he hung on precariously to those. The movement seemed to catch Malfoy's eye, and Harry felt suddenly self-conscious, wishing he'd just worn his bloody trousers. They were much, much looser.

"When the hell did you get a tattoo?"

Harry stared. "What? Oh. Oh, this one?" He held up his right wrist.

"No, fucktard, the one on your forehead. Of course that one. Do you have more than one?" Malfoy had taken a couple of steps towards him, but Harry remained frozen on the spot. He looked down at his own wrist, not realising when he'd rolled up the sleeves of his jumper in the hall that it had become visible.

It wasn't that he was trying to hide it or anything, but it was always a bit difficult to explain. The words cervus, lupus, and canis were visible on his wrist in small, dark, gothic script: the Latin forms of the words stag, wolf, and dog. They had been designed in a never-ending circular fashion, as he'd been at a loss when the tattoo artist had asked which word should come first.

"I got it a couple of weeks after the war ended." Harry looked up at Malfoy, surprised to find him much closer and staring curiously at his wrist. He wondered briefly whether or not Malfoy would ask after the meaning, but a few seconds later he had turned his gaze back up to Harry's - well, chest level.

"That jumper, Potter." Malfoy shook his head.

"What about it?"

"It's ... nice, and everything, but worn with jeans? I don't understand you."

Gaping for a moment, Harry decided quickly to stand his ground. "How can you criticise me about clothing, when all you seem to wear, ever, is black? It's kind of depressing."

"I'm trying not to stand out," Malfoy stated, unblinkingly. "Nobody notices black. Aside from, apparently,you. You could have just passed by me like everyone else at lunch did today, but no. You sit down and make pathetic small talk, inevitably pissing off the witches of fate, and ensuring that the worst pairing in the history of the entire world was made. Congratulations, Potter. You're amazing."

Harry frowned, hearing the usual drawling and sarcastic Malfoy, but not seeing the scathing tone matched in his eyes. His eyes seemed distant and worried. Harry couldn't help but think that with the contrast between his blond hair and the blackness of the shirts he'd been wearing every day, he was doing anything but not standing out. He shifted nervously, not sure how to respond.

But Malfoy seemed to feel that his remark had been rhetorical enough. "Would you like to sit down?"

"Sure," Harry agreed feebly, following in Malfoy's wake, as he hadn't waited for a response before turning and heading towards his own living room.

When Harry sat down beside Malfoy on the couch, he felt like he was sinking. He didn't feel comfortable sitting all the way back - as a friend of Malfoy's might have done, making himself at home and letting himself be eaten by the squishy black leather monstrosity with ease. He sat on edge.

Malfoy sighed heavily. "All right. Let's get one thing out in the open, shall we? I know that you don't particularly want to be my partner. I don't really want to be yours, either, but you have to admit that Professor Stark must be right about a few things. The tests don't discriminate."

Harry stared blankly. "What can possibly be right about the two of us working together? We've had about two disagreements in the three minutes I've been here, and you've insulted everything from my clothing to my-"

"Yes yes yes, but those are just personal gripes, aren't they? Don't you recognise a bloody defence mechanism when you see one? Merlin!" Malfoy shook his head in astonishment, easing into his own corner of the couch.

Harry felt awkward, head swivelled at an extreme angle to be able to see him. He gave Malfoy a doubtful look. "Defence mechanism?"

"That's what I said! Just -- look. I've been working on forgetting everything."

"I know, you said at lunch." Harry shifted his hips just a little so he could turn his head easier.

Malfoy's posture stiffened. "I'm sure you read the papers, don't you?"

"Often enough, I suppose."

"Then I'm sure you've gathered that there's nothing left for my family and I. Nothing to be had without working for it, building it from scratch." Malfoy's expression hadn't wavered; he seemed so secure in the downfall of his family's name and worth, which was so unlike him, that Harry was put on the defensive.

"I've read a bit, but honestly, you can't count on the Prophet to get a true account of - "

"No, it's surprisingly all true, Potter," Malfoy interrupted. "We're lower than dirt with the Ministry. The Manor is on surveillance at all times, there's nothing we do that they don't know about. Do you know how fucking mad that is?"

"I can imagine. Is that why you moved out?"

Malfoy narrowed his eyes. "I was getting there. Yes. I'm here, on my own money. Everything in this flat, I bought with money that I earned this past summer, because the Ministry has frozen our accounts. I sleep with my wand underneath my pillow, because there isn't a single Ministry bastard whom I trust. I don't care if you hate us forever until you die, Potter, and maybe my father and I deserve what we got, but my mum doesn't!" He'd become so vehement that Harry had scooted away toward his side of the couch.

"Malfoy, I don't ... hate you. And I don't think you deserve any of that! Stop putting words in my mouth."

Malfoy gave him a strange look, but otherwise ignored him. "And then you show up in my Auror Training Class. Obviously there's nothing I can do about that, other than quit -- and that isn't an option for me. The only alternative is ... you and I can start --"

"Oh, shut up, don't even say it, Malfoy, I don't want to hear you say that you and I can start getting along! Bloody hell." No! Why did I say that? It isn't what I want ... not at all ...

To Harry's surprise, Malfoy's face turned stony. He apparently hadn't anticipated Harry's non-cooperation. "Whoever would have imagined that Harry Potter could be so fickle? So you will be quitting, then, I gather?"

"No, I'm not quitting, either!" Harry wanted to retract everything he'd said. He'd been genuine that afternoon, he'd really wanted to be Malfoy's friend. He seemed to be getting his wish, even if the means by which it was coming true weren't exactly genuine. It seemed Malfoy had just had no choice. Hearing the words come out of Malfoy's mouth was not something he'd counted on, and he supposed his reaction was a defence mechanism of his own.

"Then what do you suggest we do? I've invited you over to my flat, haven't I, to discuss this. I'm being amiable. I'm trying, which is more than can be said for you at the moment."

He was right. Harry couldn't sit still for a moment longer, and so he stood up, looking down at Malfoy, who was still seated and looking rather surprised. It was clear he needed to tell Malfoy the truth. Or at least, part of it -- the part where he agreed that trying to getting along, somewhat, was the best thing. He took a deep breath.

Malfoy's mobile rang in the kitchen. Harry slowly exhaled, his resolve deflating. Malfoy was up and across the room before the second ring had even begun to sound.

"Hello, Mum? You all right?" Malfoy hopped up to sit on the kitchen island, facing away from Harry. With a long sigh, Harry turned, and found himself face to face with Malfoy's picture shelf.

Harry would never have imagined the Malfoy family as the family portrait type - not when the portrait would portray them smiling happily, carefree. But the biggest frame was in the middle of the shelf, and in it the three Malfoys were standing outside the open gates of Malfoy Manor, grinning. Draco himself must have been about three years old; he was struggling to release himself from Lucius's grip, and staring off into the distance at something apparently much more attention-fetching for a three-year-old than having a photograph taken. Narcissa turned, laughing, and took her struggling son from her husband, planting kisses all over his face. Three-year-old Malfoy was having none of it, though, and he started to yell, although there was no noise that Harry could hear. He nearly laughed out loud at how little Malfoy had changed over the years.

There were several photos of Malfoy's old Slytherin friends, too: Pansy and Malfoy at the Yule Ball in fourth year; Crabbe and Goyle on their own, sitting at a booth in the Three Broomsticks and looking very uncharacteristically good-natured; Blaise Zabini and several other boys that Harry didn't know by name seated around a card table in the Slytherin common room. A lot of Malfoy's friends had died, and many of those who still lived were in Azkaban, awaiting a distant parole. Harry was glad Malfoy hadn't followed in their footsteps, even if it was just in the nick of time -- though he found himself slightly surprised to see the pictures from Malfoy's past so valiantly on display. Wasn't it hard for him to see them everyday?

There was one more picture frame at the very end of the shelf. As Harry approached it, looked at it, and finally realised what he was seeing, he had to physically stop himself from holding up a hand to his mouth in shock.

It was autumn in the picture; the colours of the leaves were a gorgeous variety of gold, red and yellow. Malfoy was standing in the middle of a forest trail, only visible from the waist up, wearing a fashionable-looking brown denim jacket, with cheeks rosy pink from the cold. The frame held one other occupant, and he had his arms around Malfoy's waist.

He. Malfoy was with a guy. Ohmigod...

Harry's heart started to pump faster as he tried to take in as many details as he could. The guy was a light brunette with sparkling brown eyes, and he looked to be a couple of years older, at least. He seemed to be groping Malfoy below the edge of the picture, making the already rosy cheeks blush a shade darker. Photo Malfoy slapped the brunette's hand away, smiling playfully, placing both hands on the brunette's face and -- and Harry didn't get to see.

He was startled by the sudden appearance of the real Malfoy in the living room again, and Harry turned, trying to look as if he hadn't just had a suddenly good, but very surprising revelation. He had a feeling that he was blushing as hard as Photo Malfoy had been.

But something was wrong. Malfoy was biting his lip as he sat down on the edge of the couch; he looked so distracted that he didn't seem to have noticed Harry's photographic meanderings at all, and if he found anything strange about Harry's behaviour, he didn't voice his concerns.

"Potter, it's nothing personal -- for the first time maybe ever -- but I'm going to have to ask you to get going." He raised his mobile a bit so that Harry would notice it, as if that should clarify everything.

Harry wanted to know what was going on, whether things were all right with his mother, if there was anything he could do. And he was dying to know anything at all about the guy in the picture with Malfoy, but not only would that be an incredibly awkward question, it was most definitely not the time.

"Can I do anything to help?" Harry asked, stepping forward. Malfoy looked at him for the first time since re-entering the room; he looked so intensely hopeless for a moment that Harry nearly ran to him. Then, just as suddenly, his expression changed, and he was closed off again, just like he had been every day for the past week. Harry frowned, knowing there was something he was missing, something big, but having absolutely no idea how to go about figuring it out.

"No. No, there's nothing you can do."

"Malfoy, before I leave, I -- I'm sorry about earlier. Defence mechanism," Harry said quickly, refusing to look Malfoy in the eye.

"That was my line. Stealing material already - this partnership's going to fail, do you know that, Potter?" Malfoy had gotten up, starting towards the door. Harry supposed he meant for him to follow, and so he made his way across the little flat.

"Oh, I'm sure of it. But it should be interesting, in the meantime." Harry stopped with one hand on the door, looking back at Malfoy, who appeared very composed, but whose hands were visibly shaking at his sides.

"Right," Malfoy said weakly, with an unhappy grin.

"Seriously, Malfoy. If I can help, I will. I want to." Harry tried with all his might to express his honesty with his eyes; it wasn't his fault at all if a bit of longing made itself visible, as well. It wasn't as if Malfoy would actually be able to translate even the honesty part - it was just a look. Looks didn't say things, only words did, and Harry doubted he would never be able to bring up the guy in the picture on his own.

Malfoy said nothing; he just stared calculatingly. Harry was about to turn the handle when, on impulse, he removed his hand from the door and pointed it toward Malfoy for him to shake. Malfoy looked very oddly at Harry's outstretched hand, as if expecting it might smell bad, or as if it were badly disfigured. He met Harry's eyes again, and Harry saw a brief flicker of fear there, before the familiar guardedness took over. Malfoy's hand seemed to have trouble deciding whether it wanted to rise or not, but once it did, it shot forward into Harry's, for the very briefest of shakes.

"See you at school, Potter." Malfoy turned, Apparating on the spot.

Harry, slightly startled, supposed he was to see himself out, and so he did - grinning uncontrollably all the while.

:: :: :: :: ::

Friday September 17th, 1999 - 2:30 p.m.

"Incarcerous!"

Harry ducked to avoid the spinning ropes. They soared over his head and hit the wall behind him instead with shocking speed, and the sound echoed back and forth throughout the duelling chamber. "Furnunculus!"

"Protego!" Had Malfoy not been on his feet and running, he wouldn't have had his Shield Charm up in time. "Very mature, Potter!"

"I was only thinking of your pretty - Protego! Ah, fuck you!"

The blond had been positioned in the pre-incantation stance and had held out his wand. In a real duel, the practice stances would hold no merit whatsoever, but having been trained in the stances in seventh year DADA classes, Harry had reacted on auto-pilot.

"Fake out!" Malfoy waggled his fingers at Harry, trying to breathe between fits of laughter. "I can't believe you fell for a fake out! I can't ... believe ..."

"Serpensortia!" A snake burst forth from the end of Harry's wand and flew through the air towards Malfoy, nearly caught unawares.

"Depulso!" He banished it towards the far wall, and knelt down in the middle of the room to catch his breath, a smile still on his face. "Time out, for a second! Don't you need a rest?"

Harry, panting, raised his eyebrows. "In a real duel, Malfoy, do you think there'll be breaks?"

"In a real duel, someone would have died in one and one half hours, I'd hope. Just shut up and take off your shirt! Your pit stains are as big as dinner plates."

Frozen for a confusing moment in which Harry was not sure whether to be repulsed or turned on, he ended up a strange mixture of both, and sat cross-legged on the floor a few feet in front of Malfoy.

"Accio bag!" His voice echoed, and once his messenger bag had flown from the corner of the room into his hands, he did take off his shirt.

Harry could feel Malfoy's eyes on his bare skin as he ruffled through his bag, and he was suddenly very glad that he kept in fairly good shape. His heart-beat quickened, and even though he had located his spare shirt, he continued to search, because he didn't know what he was going to do or say once he'd set the bag aside. He felt like he was on display, and without looking he just knew that Malfoy still hadn't looked away, and oh God ... maybe he should have just suffered through the sweaty shirt, or done a drying charm or something, because standing up was going to be a bit difficult for the next several minutes.

"You are disgustingly sweaty, Potter," Malfoy remarked, finally moving from his crouched position to sit with his legs stretched out in front of him, still facing Harry.

Harry rolled his eyes, daring to finally look up into Malfoy's eyes. "You obviously haven't been giving it your all, then, have you? If you were, you'd be just as sweaty." He started to pull on the shirt.

"Yeah, well ... just wait until next round. And leave it off, Potter ... you'll just sweat that one up, too, and then you'll have no clean shirt for afterwards." Malfoy Accio'd his water bottle and took a long drink, and then passed it to Harry, whose mind was still reeling with the knowledge that Malfoy desperately seemed to want his shirt kept off.

Harry shrugged the shirt back off and placed it in his bag again, holding back a smirk with all his might as he accepted the water bottle. He relished the fact that his lips were touching the same surface that Malfoy's had just touched, as well as the fact that Malfoy didn't seem to mind this at all.

Can any of this mean what I think -- hope -- that it means? Harry thought that standing might be safe now, and so he stood, physically carrying his bag back to the corner to place it out of the way. He took an exceptionally long time making sure that it was placed just so against the wall, mind gushing with thoughts.

It was a fact that Malfoy was gay, Harry determined. But he himself hadn't come out to anyone in the world; what made him think that Malfoy had a clue? All week Harry had been determined never to tell him, not to mention it. But ... why not? The idea, which had seemed so daunting and frightening, now seemed ... feasible. And very realistic. Malfoy was gay, and so was Harry. There was a chance -- much more of a chance than Harry had ever thought possible -- that Malfoy felt the same way. There were signs to indicate it, even. Every day that Harry had spent with Malfoy as his partner, the desire to act on how he felt about him had grown stronger.

He turned to watch Malfoy, who was still sitting down in the middle of the room. His hair was dishevelled from duelling for so long, and he didn't look as pale as he usually did from all the exertion. He was looking up at the ceiling with a strangely contemplative expression. Biting his lip, Harry slowly made his way back toward Malfoy; if he was going to say anything, now was the perfect time ...

The door opened noisily, shaking Malfoy from his reverie and making Harry jump.

"All right, boys? Taking a break? I'd been hoping to catch you in the middle of a duel. I can't tell you how excited I am to see the two of you in action!" Professor Stark entered the duelling chamber, conjuring a chair and sitting down in the corner where Harry's bag sat against the wall.

"Oh, yeah. Just a short break. Sorry." Harry watched Malfoy as he clambered to his feet looking as disappointed as Harry felt, which only buoyed his hopes.

"Not a problem, take your time. I've been sitting in on the other pairs all afternoon, and I saved you two for last." The professor smiled broadly, and Harry narrowed his eyes and turned his back on him. If the professor wanted a show, he'd get one -- even if Harry was sort of tired, and all he really wanted to do was push Malfoy up against the wall and shag him senseless.

Harry faced Malfoy. The blond was staring at Harry intensely already, and a palpable energy seemed to sizzle between them as they raised their wands and waited to see who would be the first to act and who would be forced to consequently react ...

The duel began again, picking up where it had left off quite nicely. Harry realised it was much easier to move his wand arm without his shirt on, and that he was able to cast shield charms much quicker, too. Ironically, just as he had the thought, a hex streaked towards him and he nearly didn't get his shield charm up in time; the hairs on his arms were singed. He heard an intake of breath from the corner of the room before sending a double hex in Malfoy's direction, which he deflected quite easily.

"Stop for a moment, would you, boys?" Professor Stark had stood, folding his arms across his chest. Harry turned, lowering his wand arm slowly. "Do either of you realise what it is you're doing?"

Puzzled, Malfoy spoke out. "Duelling, Sir? Is there something else we're supposed to be doing?"

Harry almost laughed, knowing what else he would have liked to be doing, but when the professor spoke again, his voice had a stern edge to it that made Harry feel like he needed to pay attention and be serious. "You're protecting one another. You, Malfoy -- your aim has been off-centre every single time. And Potter, what is Rictusempra, really? Would you have used it on Voldemort?"

Harry's mouth fell open, and he gripped his wand tightly in his hand, feeling anger bubbling beneath his calm exterior. "Excuse me?"

"I'm serious, Potter. Sorry if I pushed any of your buttons, but you should know better than any man alive that you can't afford to make any excuses when you're battling a Dark wizard. You either give it all you've got, or the job's not for you."

Harry traded a dark look with Malfoy before he spoke, trying hard not to sound as bitter as he felt. "Professor ... I don't mean to be rude, but ... what we may lack in skill, I feel we make up for in experience with certain Dark wizards. We do actually know what it's like."

Malfoy looked slightly astonished to be included in Harry's plea, but he also as if he heartily concurred.

Professor Stark seemed slightly deranged when he spoke; there was a wild look in his eye. "Then prove it! Show me what you've really got, eh? You're not going to get anywhere if you don't start working up to par, and you'll never be able to trust each other if you don't understand the extent to which the other can go. Why don't you start insulting one another? Get angry. Make it real. Let's go! I want to see what a real duel looks like!" The professor sat down purposefully in his chair, as if he'd just issued forth a challenge and was waiting to see if he'd be rebuked.

Harry turned back to Malfoy, who was now glaring at Professor Stark unabashedly over his shoulder. All Harry wanted to do was talk to Malfoy about how he felt, tell him how much he liked him -- basically just stick to things that were very positive. He never wanted to insult him again or argue with him like he used to when he was younger. And he especially didn't want to do so on bloody purpose.

Harry still hadn't been able to decide whether he liked Professor Stark all that much. He had a bit of a Dumbledore-ish aloofness about him, but with a large dose of Mad-Eye Moody's bite, whenever the occasion happened to suit him. At the moment, Harry was pretty sure that he detested Professor Stark with a passion.

But he wasn't going to fail out of training college because he disliked his teacher's methods. Not for anything.

All right. Insult. Go!

Harry bit back a wince. "You still aren't sweating, Malfoy. Why's that? I don't think you could hit me with a hex if I was standing still in front of you."

"You suck at this game, Potter." Malfoy stepped forward, tilting his head to one side and raising an eyebrow. "Watch, and learn."

"What?" Harry asked, confused, but when he looked up at Malfoy's face he nearly recoiled -- the look that had appeared there was pure venom. He hadn't seen that look on his face in years, and surely it hadn't ever been this horrible. Just as easily as Malfoy seemed to be able to force all emotion from his features, he now seemed to have recalled to him every single ounce of hatred that he'd ever felt toward Harry, because it was all there, written on his face, visible behind his eyes. Harry's heart was pounding in fear.

Malfoy walked forward slowly, wand aimed directly at the middle of Harry's bare chest. "Just one word, Potter, and I could rip you apart."

All the colour drained from Harry's face. No. Oh, god no, he couldn't be talking about ...

But he was. Harry could see the accusation in his eyes. "Don't you remember? It wasn't that long ago. Did you wonder why I didn't sweat as much as you did today, Potter? Did you think that maybe it was because I'd cast an anti-perspiration charm? No, of course you didn't. You just assumed you were bigger and better than I was. Nothing's changed about you at all, Potter. Not one thing."

The tip of the wand was red-hot against his skin. "Malfoy, please don't-"

"Shut up, Potter. Stupid scarhead. Do you want to see what a real scar looks like? Here. I'll show you." Malfoy sneered, pointing his wand at himself. "Evanesco!"

Malfoy's shirt vanished, leaving behind nearly flawless smooth skin and taut muscle - and one, long scar that started in the middle of his chest just above his nipples and ended a few inches above his belly-button. It was ugly and red, angry against the perfect pale skin.

Harry gaped at it, guilt washing over him in waves; he reached out a hand towards it, needing to do something, anything ...

"Don't touch me!" Malfoy backed up angrily, wand aimed at Harry's chest again.

"God, Malfoy ... Professor Snape, didn't he -- he couldn't get the dittany in time ...?"

Malfoy glared angrily at Harry. "So it's 'Professor' Snape to you, now, is it? It took until the man died for you to respect him? I don't know how you didn't see that he had been working for Dumbledore all along. There's so much you choose to blind yourself to, Potter."

Anger welled up inside of Harry, and he raised his wand against Malfoy for the first time. "Shut the hell up, Malfoy! You have no idea what you're talking about! Professor Snape could have been a smite nicer, maybe, on the whole, if he'd wanted me to know that he was on my side. It wasn't easy for me to make a decision about him, and it wasn't easy for him to live the way he did! You have no idea about him!"

"That's where you're wrong. My father told me all about Professor Snape and your mum." Malfoy smirked evilly. "Reckon we should do a paternity test, just to be sure?"

"CONFRINGO!" Harry shouted, nearly blind with rage. Malfoy cast a quick shield charm and the Blasting Curse deflected easily. Professor Stark whistled from his corner, sounding impressed, but the professor had been forgotten.

"Your father doesn't know shit about it! If it weren't for Professor Snape, Voldemort would have won, and you and your parents would all be dead! He would have killed you for treachery, for betraying him, Malfoy! So show some fucking respect!"

The expression on Malfoy's face seemed to harden even more, if that were possible. "Such a temper you've got, Potter. It's no wonder the Weasel Girl left you for that Irishman."

Harry froze. How in the hell did Malfoy know about that? Had everyone known but him or something? Harry was thoroughly sick of being the last to know. He gritted his teeth and spoke slowly, annunciating every word very carefully. "She did not leave me for anyone. It was over long before then."

"Whatever you say, Potter."

Something seemed to snap inside Harry, and he couldn't control his anger or what he was saying; the lights flickered dangerously overhead. "What about you, then, Malfoy? Who were you getting cosy with in that picture at your flat, huh? Where the hell is he now? I'm sure he left you for being such a stupid fucking prat!"

Malfoy's eyes widened, and for the first time since the bitter word duel began, an emotion other than hatred had appeared on his face. Harry recognised it as pain, intensely and suddenly felt, and just as suddenly dispensed with in exchange for burning anger of his own brand. "REDUCTO!"

"PROTEGO!" Harry had screamed, almost simultaneously with Malfoy. The professor had gotten to his feet with his wand out. Harry hoped he was getting the duel he'd hoped for, the bastard.

"I heard all about what they said in the papers about Dumbledore, Potter!" Malfoy had begun to circle him, speaking viciously, almost spitting out the words, and Harry began to circle, too, unwilling to let Malfoy out of his sight.

"They said all kinds of stuff about Dumbledore, none of which was true!" Harry thought that Malfoy understood what it was like to be slandered unfairly in the Daily Prophet. Why was he bringing this up?

"But I was on the inside, I knew all about your little meetings. I saw first-hand! You went to Dumbledore's office more often than any student in sixth year, didn't you?"

Harry shook his head in confusion. He didn't understand what Malfoy was saying; of course he went to Dumbledore's office in 6th year, how else was he supposed to have met with him and learned about the Horcruxes?

He frowned and looked at Malfoy questioningly, taking in the violent smirk on his face. Malfoy dipped his head just the slightest, as if to nod, and then it hit him. Rita Skeeter had been relentless in her book about Dumbledore, and even more so in the papers after he had died and after the war ended: Dumbledore had been gay. Harry had barely thought about it because of its complete irrelevance; a person's sexuality hardly made a difference in the outcome of a war, and when Harry had known Dumbledore, the war had been the utmost priority for both of them. Afterwards, he supposed it had been a bit enlightening to find out that he had something in common with Dumbledore, but beyond that, Harry hadn't really spared it much thought.

The wizarding world, on the other hand, had had a field day with the news. It was public knowledge that Dumbledore often doted on Harry and had cared about him a great deal, but it had been so horribly misconstrued that Harry had refused to pick up a Daily Prophet until things had settled down. It was despicable to even think about, it was horrible and Harry couldn't believe that Malfoy had stooped so low.

"Fuck you, Malfoy." Somewhere in his head, Harry was shocked that his voice sounded so calm when on the inside he was still shaking with rage. He knew that he couldn't stay in the duelling chamber much longer; he was literally about to kill Malfoy, and he didn't think that Professor Stark would be able to stop him.

"Excuse me, Professor." He turned, walked around the professor to grab his messenger bag, and without a backward glance back, he left the room.

:: :: :: :: ::

3:45 p.m.

Harry had headed straight for the locker room, and had proceeded to take a freezing cold shower. After twenty minutes or so, when the lights had stopped flickering, he assumed that he had successfully calmed down. He fished in his bag again for his clean clothes and pulled them on even though he was still mostly wet, and continued on to the bathroom side of the locker room to take care of things there.

He'd just begun to wash his hands when he heard the bathroom door swing open. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a blond head just visible over the low wall, making its way around the corner. He turned his head quickly, looking down at his soapy hands and feigning absolute disinterest when Malfoy caught sight of him and froze. Harry noted that he'd probably been washing his hands for an awkward amount of time, standing there trying to be completely ignorant of Malfoy, but he didn't care. Seeing him again so shortly after the duel made it hard not to let the man's words sting.

As he finally turned the tap off, he rounded and noticed that Malfoy hadn't moved from the spot he had frozen in a moment before. He no longer seemed startled by Harry, but he was staring strangely at a stall with an out-of-order sign on it. Harry looked at the stall, too, and could see nothing particularly odd that could be catching Malfoy's attention so raptly.

"What?" Harry asked, exasperated for some reason quite beyond him.

Malfoy seemed to notice him again. He looked round, seemingly about to make a perfectly agreeable response, when all of a sudden he seemed to remember that it was Harry standing before him.

"Nothing. You're in my way. Excuse me." Malfoy rudely shoved past Harry, and Harry jumped to the side as if in danger of being burned. He scowled and turned, with every intention of making the hastiest exit possible when a strange feeling settled in his stomach. He paused and felt compelled to look to his right. He was standing next to the out-of-order stall.

Glancing back at Malfoy, who was standing at the urinal now and seemed to have forgotten about his own weird moment by the stall, Harry put it out of his mind and rounded the corner, making his way towards the door.

Harry hadn't gone four paces down the hall when the men's bathroom behind him seemed to explode. He turned immediately, seeing bright red light -- he recognised it as Malfoy's shield charm -- shining from underneath the door, and in the next instant he had his wand out. Students and professors were coming out of classrooms and filing into the hall in alarm.

"Harry! Stay back!" Professor Stark warned, but Harry was already making strides back toward the restroom door. He paused only briefly to make sure the door itself hadn't been cursed or warded, and when he was sure it hadn't been, he threw it open and ran in, wand at the ready.

He could hardly breathe through the smoky debris inside. The far wall seemed to have been blown apart: scorch marks were visible and the smell of burnt cinderblocks met his nose.

"Malfoy!" Harry shouted, stealing the former's idea and casting a shield charm on himself as he headed further into the room. There was no reply.

The first thing he noticed upon his complete turn of the bend was that the out-of-order stall door had been thrown open. The second thing was that the wall that had very nearly been blown apart was the one Malfoy had been facing just moments ago. Harry heard a weak cough just ahead of him, and he stumbled forward blindly.

When he'd gotten close enough, he saw Malfoy lying on his back, outlined through the dust. His perfect hair was singed and his face sooty, and he was bleeding from his nose and through his shirt just below the left shoulder. Harry knelt beside him, hurriedly looking around for the culprit, but there was no one.

A quick diagnostic test with his wand told Harry that whoever had caused the damage had Disapparated less than thirty seconds ago. There was just the slightest bit of residual magic detectable from the out-of-order stall, and it felt a bit familiar to Harry, but tracing it wasn't his immediate priority. He looked down at Malfoy to find that he was struggling to sit up - Harry placed a firm but gentle hand on Malfoy's uninjured shoulder.

"Stop. Lay back down and let me heal you first," he ordered. Malfoy seemed to acquiesce quite easily, surprising Harry – it was likely the blond hadn’t realised it was him, as he had yet to actually open his eyes.

Harry healed the injured shoulder and carefully banished the trickling blood from Malfoy’s face. He checked to be sure there hadn't been internal damage, and found two cracked ribs and a slight concussion.

"Fuck ..." Malfoy moaned, finally opening his eyes blearily to see Harry above him, wand aimed directly at his face. His eyes widened in some mix of fear and anger and he attempted to sit up again, but Harry forced him back down as gently as possible.

"You've got a concussion and a couple of cracked ribs, and I don't know how to heal those. You've got to stay down!" Malfoy did as Harry asked. Harry sent a couple of cleaning spells to get rid of the dust. The room around him became visible, and he took in the destroyed wall, and the completely obliterated urinals that were spouting water from their exposed pipes. Malfoy had apparently had time to finish his business, as his trousers were done up, except for the top-most button.

He forced himself to look away from Malfoy's crotch. "Did you see who it was?" Harry asked. Malfoy looked dejectedly back up at Harry, lip curling into an angry sneer.

"Yes. It was fucking Pavel! You were right, Potter! Now fuck off, and get me a proper Healer!" Malfoy groaned, and then started to cough. The movement caused a terrible grimace, and he screwed up his eyes tight. They were beginning to water.

"Oh, shit. All right." Harry stared down at him in shock. It pulled at something within him to see the pain etched in every detail of his face.

And then he saw it. A tattoo of some sort on Malfoy's left forearm. Afraid, but unable to quell his curiosity, he lightly rolled up the fabric of Malfoy's shirt, and saw the Dark Mark. It was faded, but there was no mistaking it. Jesus.

Malfoy's body suddenly relaxed, his eyes remaining shut.

Harry nearly panicked. "Wake up! Draco, please!" The eyes opened slowly, but with effort. "You have to stay awake while I run to get help. Okay? Do you promise me?"

"Hurry ..." Malfoy's voice was barely audible. Harry jumped to his feet and ran towards the door in what felt like extreme slow motion. Before turning the handle, he placed several wards around Malfoy -- Malfoy, whom he had just called Draco.

:: :: :: :: ::

7:30 p.m.

"Are you an extra-credit whore or something, Potter?"

Harry nearly jumped as a hand clamped down on his shoulder, and he turned to stare at Professor Stark in mild shock. "What?"

"I'm just kidding. Relax, will you?" The professor took a seat next to him in the long row of chairs along the far wall of the waiting room at St. Mungo's. "You did a wonderful, brave, stupidly Gryffindorish thing today -- but because of that, Mr. Malfoy's going to be just fine. And here you are, sitting so tensely; one might think you're waiting for all hell to break loose."

Harry cleared his throat, giving his Professor a rather vague look. "I don't know about you, Professor, but the war wasn't so very long ago for me, and I've lost one too many of the people that I care about. I'm sorry if I'm overreacting, but ... I don't really think I am, Sir." Harry stood, slightly miffed, and started towards the exit, outside of which there was an Apparation point. He couldn't wait to get home; he was so exhausted that he'd undoubtedly fall asleep in an instant. Especially now that he knew Malfoy was going to be all right.

"Potter?" Professor Stark called, just before his hand touched the doorknob. Harry turned, nodded, and waited less than excitedly to hear what else the professor had to say.

"You're going to be a truly great Auror one day. Good job, Harry."

Harry stood frozen for several seconds, bewildered, before he realised that he should probably say something. "Thank you."

The professor smiled, and then stood and exited through one of the other doors. Harry grinned wryly before turning and making his way home.

:: :: :: :: ::

Saturday September 18th, 1999 - early morning

Harry had been wrong.

He'd tossed and turned for hours that night, unable to get the picture of Malfoy out of his head; hurt, bleeding and utterly debauched. Whereas once he might have gloated seeing his arch-nemesis in such a state, he now only felt upset on his behalf, and even a little bit guilty. They'd both noticed something strange about that stall door in the bathroom that day, but neither of them had paid it any heed. If only Harry had thought to run some diagnostics on the door the second he'd sensed something was off ...

But Malfoy was all right. He'd heard it from the Healer, and he'd heard it from Professor Stark. And yet, he couldn't sleep.

He was awake at one o'clock in the morning when a thunderstorm began, starting off as a light pattering of rain against his bedroom window. Slowly the lightning and thunder increased in frequency and volume, until he crawled out of bed to stare out the window at the wind violently whipping the trees around outside his flat, as if they were mere play things. He resolved that the chance of sleeping was now out of the question.

At two-thirty, he found himself sitting on his living room couch, making a weak attempt at reading the homework. The crescendoing thunder made him jump, and he kept losing focus. Swearing, he slammed the book shut and threw it to the floor.

He leaned his head all the way back, and was rubbing at his eyes despairingly when there was a hard knock at the door. His nerves were already high strung, and at the unexpected sound, Harry launched out of his seat.

Gripping his wand firmly inside his sleeve, he made his way cautiously towards the door, and opened it a crack - in equal fear of the wind and rain as to whom might be knocking at this time of night.

Harry couldn't believe his eyes. It was Malfoy, shivering and drenched to the bone, eyes wide like a lost child. Harry noticed the shirt he wore wasn't his usual black: it was a shade of off-white, and was clinging to him like a second skin.

"What the hell are you doing here? Jesus, get in, will you?" Harry demanded, unsure of why he sounded so harsh. It could have been that the man had been critically injured earlier that day, and that he definitely should be resting, and not knocking on his door in the middle of the night. Harry opened the door wide, trying to hide behind it, half in attempt to make room and half to avoid getting wet, but Malfoy just stood there. He gripped the frame on either side of him, and he stood in stark contrast to the terrifying storm, pale skin aglow in the light of the single lamp Harry had in the back corner of the living room.

"Come on!" Harry yelled, opening the door wider. The howl of the wind was deafening, and the rain icy cold; it was coming through the crack at the hinge, despite all Harry's efforts.

"No, you need to listen to me!" Malfoy urged, a look in his eye that made the retort die on Harry’s tongue. He was cold and getting wet, and he wasn't happy, but he was intrigued, and so he sidestepped around the door. Malfoy’s body at least blocked most of the rain from hitting him square in the face.

Every single one of Malfoy's muscles was outlined through his shirt. His trousers must have been weighed down with water, because they were nearly falling off the slim hips. Harry blinked, forcing his gaze back up to Malfoy's face.

"I'm sorry, Potter. I should never have said it!" Malfoy's knuckles were white as they tightly gripped the doorframe.

Harry shook his head, nearly screaming to be heard over the wind's roar. "What?"

A hand went to Malfoy's forehead dramatically. "Merlin, don't tell me you've forgotten about the duel already!"

In fact, Harry had very nearly forgotten. After the bathroom incident, it had slipped from the forefront of his mind. All those horrible things they had said to one another - but he could barely muster up the energy to be angry about it anymore, now that he'd been reminded. Professor Stark had said to get angry, and Harry and Malfoy both had definitely followed through on that direction. What more could he have really expected? Harry had just let it all get to him; he should have realised that Malfoy had only been listening.

Harry took a tentative step forward. "Malfoy, it's fine! Forget it, okay?"

"No, you don't understand! I never meant to insult Dumbledore, okay? I wanted to get at you, and hurt you, because you had hurt me, and it was the only thing I could think of!" Malfoy wouldn't look him in the eye, and it was driving Harry crazy.

"What did I say?" Harry wracked his brain, trying to remember all the things he had said. He wished that Malfoy would just come inside so they wouldn't have to shout at each other over the noise of the storm.

"The picture! You wanted to know who I was being cosy with in the picture at my flat, and I just ... I wasn't sure ... I thought you were trying to offend me, and I see now that you're just a duffer who doesn't know what he's talking about!"

"What?"

Malfoy managed a dry smirk. "Precisely." And then he paused, tilting his head. He sighed, looking resigned. "All right, Potter. That picture? It was of me and Ethan Mueller. He went to Beauxbatons, and he was a Half-blood. And he -- he was my boyfriend. Voldemort had him killed, because of me."

"Oh, Jesus." Harry's heart plummeted into his stomach, and his hand fell to the door handle and gripped it in shock. "I'm so sorry I said anything, Malfoy ..."

"No, it's fine! Shut up, will you? I'm the one apologising here!" Malfoy had shifted, leaning onto the side of the doorway kiddie-corner to where Harry stood gripping the door handle for dear life, and he was breathing heavily. It occurred to Harry once more that Malfoy really shouldn't be standing out in the wet, cold night. He'd almost died earlier, Harry couldn't even imagine how he'd been let out of St Mungo's at all, but he knew that he needed to get Malfoy inside, and into some dry clothes ...

But Harry could only stare at him, insides frozen. Malfoy had just confessed something grand; he had truly opened up, in a way that Harry could scarcely contemplate. Of course, now he felt like the world's biggest arse, but he supposed they had both said things that they now regretted. Harry could forget about it. And he could forgive. In fact, he already had.

Malfoy was shivering, and he looked so goddamn sad. Something broke inside Harry then, something he hadn't even realised had been about to break until it had, and he grabbed Malfoy by the front of his shirt and pulled him inside. His grey eyes were wide and startled, but Harry didn't stop to think. He shut the door with Malfoy's back, shoving him against it until it clicked shut, and then he leaned forward and kissed him, trembling from head to toe. What the fuck am I doing, what the fuck am I doing?? Oh, god ... Harry's hands still gripped tightly at the soaked fabric of Malfoy's shirt, and just as he was about to pull away in embarrassment, Malfoy's hands touched down upon his shoulders, resting there tentatively. The body Harry was crushing against the door started breathing again, and Malfoy's lips began to move beneath his own. Harry was being kissed back.

Thunder cracked -- perhaps the loudest crack of thunder that Harry had ever heard, and he jolted physically out of Malfoy's reach. At the same moment, the living room's single lamplight ceased to burn.

They were left in complete darkness. Harry shivered from head to toe, but not from the cold.

"Harry?" A deep tremor pulsed through him at the use of his first name, and he was glad Malfoy couldn't see him.

He forced himself to utter a response, which came out more like a grunt that had gotten caught in his throat. "Uh-huh?"

"Are you gay?"

Harry blinked in astonishment. "Well, what do you think?"

"Have you ever been with a guy before?"

A pause. "Y-yes."

"Other than just now?" Harry could hear the smirk behind the words.

"Well ... no, but ... I've thought about --" Harry cut himself off before saying 'you'.

"You've thought about it before?"

"Yes."

"With me?"

Another pause. "Yes."

"Me, too."

Silence, but for the rain.

"Draco?"

There was a change in the proportion of air and solid object in front of him, as if with some sixth sense he could tell, without sight or sound, that Malfoy -- Draco? -- had shifted, and then Harry felt a body melt against his own.

Draco wrapped his arms around Harry's middle, and buried his face in his neck, like it belonged there. Harry's brain stopped. Somehow, he managed to persuade his own arms to encircle Draco's soggy shoulders, but even then, there was no comprehension. He could only exist in the moment that he found himself a part of, the moment that was threatening to overwhelm every single one of his senses. He could barely breathe.

And then Draco was pushing him backwards, and kissing his neck. Harry could not summon the strength to say so, but instinct told him that they were about to back into the coffee table, and so he led them in another direction, hopefully towards the couch. The back of his knees hit the arm of it, and he let himself fall backwards, pulling Draco down with him. There was a bolt of lightning, and both of them held their breaths, waiting for the crack. A second later it came, but this time they were ready for it. Neither of them pulled away.

Harry couldn't stop shaking. He was so unaccustomed to the pressures of Draco's body up against his, pressures in such very different places. His thoughts whirled. God, breasts were so stupid! Who had even come up with the male and female design, and who first claimed that that was most natural? With such feminine tissues in the way of complete contact, he had never been able to understand that two bodies could be so absolutely tight like this, chest to chest. Harry couldn't believe he'd actually ever been fond of a breast before.

And fuck. He'd never imagined that two men could be together like this, with two half-hard cocks touching through wet trousers and semi-dry pyjama bottoms. At first Draco's cock was just there, against his.

But then he moved, and Harry's entire world seemed to explode with sensation. He couldn't think, and somehow it was like this was the moment Harry had been waiting for all his life. For the first time, Harry was feeling more than he was thinking, and he couldn't control himself. He rocked upward to meet Draco's cock with his own, grabbed at Draco's hips, stole Draco's mouth away from doing whatever magical thing it had been doing to his neck for a searing kiss.

He had never let himself go like this. When he'd been with Ginny, he kept waiting for it to feel right, for the passion to mount, but he'd always felt like he was forcing himself to move, willing himself to come, hoping that it was better for her than it had been for him, but this? Oh god, this ...

This was beyond anything he'd ever even considered himself capable of. He was moaning -- oh, god, was it really him making those noises? -- and Draco's eyes were above him, grey and vibrant, echoes of his own pleasure. Harry was desperate for closer contact, and his hands started to make their way down to the button on his pajama pants, but they were abruptly thwarted: Draco had grabbed his wrists and pinned them above his head, against the arm of the couch, and Harry shuddered, arching upward, holding back another moan.

It was just cock against cock now, with wet, friction-warmed layers of slippery clothing dividing them. Harry wished that he knew a wandless spell that would remove it all, but he did not; Draco seemed hell-bent on torturing him, doing this the hard way, leaving bruises on his neck and wrists and cock.

Draco stopped thrusting, and Harry whimpered as he began moving back and forth, achingly slow, letting their cocks slide, graze the other just so.

Harry wanted to cry. He couldn't help himself; now that his eyes had adjusted as well as they could to the blackness, he looked up into grey eyes that seemed so in control, and so light that Harry swore there was a bit of blue in them - but it could have been a trick of the lightning. As the inevitable thunder crashed, it seemed to reverberate throughout his entire body, and he felt Draco start above him.

He stared into Draco's eyes and began thrusting upwards to meet him as hard as he could while being held prisoner. Draco, breathing heavily, began grinding against him harder than before; there were beads of sweat forming on his brow, and as Harry looked up, he knew perfection. He would never have been able to dream up a more perfect vision than this; he had never imagined that he could have sex with someone else and feel conscious of his soul within him. Even though it was dark, the sensations filling his body and his heart were more vivid than anything he'd ever known.

Harry was going to come in his pants, any second now. Draco was moaning above him and then he thrust once, twice, and cried out; Harry immediately followed suit. His orgasm ripped through him, overpowering him completely. He saw white, riding it out for as long as he could. And then he was gone, he was spent. Jesus Christ.

Draco's body was limp on top of his, wet, warm and sticky. His head came down to rest on Harry's chest. He finally let go of Harry's wrists, and Harry realised his hands had gone numb at some point. He stroked Draco's hair without feeling it until their breathing had returned to a steady pace. Draco looked up, and placed an unexpected kiss on the tip of Harry's nose.

"Draco," Harry whispered. The thunder was rolling away, mere rumbles in the distance. A light rain tapped at the windows.

"I know -- you don't have to say it. I'm the best shag you've ever had."

Harry laughed. "Well, true, but that wasn't what I was going to say."

Draco sat up, and Harry shivered as he was left without that pleasant warmth on top of him. He dug in his sleeve, and, to his surprise, found his wand still there. He dried them both, paying special attention to the fronts of their pants, and then settled into the crook of the couch. Draco scooted closer, turning to sit cross-legged at Harry's side.

"What were you going to say?" Draco intoned quietly.

"That that was ... that was probably the most amazing thing that's ever happened to me." Harry turned to look at Draco, who looked baffled, but pleased.

"I don't understand you, Potter."

"So it's back to Potter, now?" Harry teased. Draco tilted his head to one side, almost shyly.

Then he leaned forward a bit, hand tentatively reaching for Harry's. "It's going to take some getting used to, don't you think?"

Harry smiled, revelling in the feel of Draco's hand in his. "Yeah."

With a sad smile, Draco shifted his gaze to the window. The rain drizzled down the glass in non-descript patterns, creating shimmering shadows on the floor. He looked worried.

"Are you all right?" Harry asked, concerned.

Draco nodded, but he didn't turn away from the window. With a surge of courage, Harry touched Draco's cheek with his free hand, turning his head to face him.

"What is it?"

After a deep breath, Draco sighed, his other hand coming up to rest on top of Harry's on his cheek. His grey eyes pierced into Harry's, and Harry wished with all his might that Draco would tell him, could feel secure in telling him.

"You saw today that I had the Mark. Didn't you?"

Harry's mouth opened and closed like a fish, eyes stealing a glance at Draco's left wrist, at his own hand underneath Draco's upon his cheek. "Yes, I did. What does it matter?"

"How doesn't it matter, Harry? I pay for this every single day of my life!" Draco rolled up the sleeve, and the Mark was visible. "Things wouldn't ever be easy, with me. I'll never get away from the accusations and the reputation ... not ever! I'm doing the best I can to change people's minds about me, but I'm starting to think that it's pointless. How could I possibly expect you to forgive me? And even if you somehow could, how could I expect you to deal with all that will undoubtedly come with … this?" He made a vague gesture indicating the two of them, and Harry’s heart swelled.

"Draco, listen to me." Harry turned to sit cross-legged, a mirror image of Draco as he faced him, grabbing both his hands in his. "Do you honestly think that I will ever have a normal, simple, carefree life? Do you really think things changed all that much after the war, regarding the media, at least?"

"You're Harry Potter, for Merlin's sake. Everybody loves you, you could do no wrong. If they saw you with me ..."

"But my name's already in the paper as often, if not more, than yours. Sure, they'd talk, but what's new? People don't leave me alone, Draco, and I'll never get away from my reputation, either. I'm not perfect or wondrous in any way, but everyone in the wizarding world seems to think so, and they'll never change their minds."

Draco shook his head, staring at his own exposed wrist with bitterness. "But how can you not care about it? I did this to myself, Harry, I went and I asked for it, and I got it of my own accord, and ..."

"And you made a mistake," Harry finished. Draco looked up at him, eyes wide. "You've changed since then, haven't you?"

"Yes," Draco whispered, seeming to shrink a little.

"Well, I've made plenty of mistakes, too." Harry entwined his fingers with Draco's, and squeezed.

:: :: :: :: ::

Monday September 21st, 1999 - 5:00 p.m.

"Why not look at it as an exercise in trust and caution?"

Draco shook his head, burying his face in his hands. Harry and Draco were both seated in Professor Stark's office after class; he said he'd needed a private meeting with his prize pair.

"Because that's not what it is, Professor. I don't need Harry to take care of me."

Harry begged to differ, but the issue wasn't really his own, at the moment. The professor had just announced that, on Ministry order, Draco was to be escorted at all times -- at least until they had caught Dominik Pavel. He had disappeared since the attack in the bathroom.

For once, Harry and the Ministry were on the same page: Draco was most definitely in need of as much protection as he could get.

"Are you sure I'm the right person for this?" Harry asked skeptically. "I mean, I'm happy to do it, but shouldn't a full-fledged Auror ... be ..."

Draco looked scandalised, and Harry had stopped speaking mid-sentence. "Harry, come on! If this has to happen, I don't want an Auror trailing me around, I'd much rather have ... just, stop making this even more difficult than it needs to be!"

"I'm sorry, Mr. Malfoy. There's nothing I can do. If I don't insist that you follow along, I could be arrested." Professor Stark stared down at the Ministry order in his hands. "Honestly, I don't think it's going to last for very long. Just give it time. With the both of you together, just think of it as an excuse to get farther ahead in class!"

Draco did not share the professor's enthusiasm. He gritted his teeth, sat back in his chair and crossed his arms.

Professor Stark turned to Harry. "I don't think you give yourself enough credit, Mr. Potter. The two of you together can handle this. I have the utmost confidence in you."

"Well. All right," Harry said weakly, as Draco made a non-committal noise beside him.

After they left the office, they turned together towards the exit. They had made plans for dinner, but now Harry was walking ahead of Draco, and speeding up.

"Harry?" Draco asked, pulling on his elbow, but Harry tugged his arm away. He knew that he was overreacting, but at the moment he didn't care; he was hurt that Draco had so vehemently objected to being put in his care.

"Harry! Listen to me, okay? It's nothing personal."

Harry stopped walking at once, turning to face him. "Oh, really? How do you figure that?"

Draco winced. "I just ... this whole situation reminds me too much of the war. I feel like Professor Stark doesn't trust me, you know? Like he thinks I'm not powerful enough without you to be able to take care of myself!"

"That's ridiculous, of course he doesn't think that --"

"Doesn't he? He trusts you more than he trusts me to watch out for myself. I don't know, Harry."

Harry's expression softened, and he relaxed. He let Draco take his hand. "He just wants to be careful, that's all."

"He's forcing me to stay somewhere against my will. Voldemort did that, Harry. I'm just not happy about it."

:: :: :: :: ::

8:20 p.m.

Harry had given in, after all. Though the Ministry order had stated that Draco was to stay at Harry's flat, Harry found himself at home alone, putting together an overnight bag and Apparating over to Draco's flat, instead. If it would make for a less whiney and annoying Draco Malfoy, Harry was all for it. He didn't feel that they would have been any safer at his own flat, really. And they would still be together, which, he supposed, was the important thing.

When he had arrived just outside the door of Draco's flat -- feeling far less anxious this time -- he knocked. For several long moments he waited, and then knocked again, but to no effect. Worry settled in the pit of his stomach, and he turned the door handle. He was very surprised when it gave no resistance, and the door opened quite easily. Draco must have had the wards down just for him, specifically. Perhaps he'd implemented the touch-and-go ward that Professor Stark had mentioned in class last week - at a specific person's touch on a door handle or any other surface, the wards would permit them, and only them, entry.

Draco wasn't in the living room or kitchen area. Harry dropped his bag on the floor by the couch, looking around. The bedroom door stood ajar, and Harry could hear running water. Could he be in the shower? He peered inside the dark bedroom; a door that could only have been the bathroom was open a crack, and light was filtering through, allowing one long line of light to pierce the darkness along the floor.

The line of light seemed to be pointing directly at Harry. He walked along it as if it were a specifically designed pathway, and stood just outside the bathroom door. When he looked through the crack, he had to fight to keep from gasping out loud.

Harry had been right -- Draco was in the shower, visible through the single, sheer shower curtain. With trepidation, Harry struggled to think of what time it was; when he'd Apparated, it had been around 8:20, and so he supposed he was a few minutes early. Even so, it wasn't like Draco to run behind.

Harry's vision had gone lax as he thought, but then there was movement from behind the shower curtain, and Harry looked up, soon finding himself utterly transfixed.

Draco washed himself with his bare hands, soap bubbles making his skin glisten in the areas he had already scrubbed clean. Harry's own hair got a lot darker when it was wet, but not Draco's. His hair was as white-blond as it ever was when it was dry. He turned slightly under the spray, towards Harry's direct line of sight, and Harry was forced to draw the same conclusion about the rest of the hair on Draco's body. The light smattering of hair on his chest that trickled downwards, getting sparser and sparser until it condensed all at once beneath his belly-button and on down: it was all the same shade of blond.

Harry grinned; he had to admit that he'd been curious, and though he felt much like a stalker, he couldn't keep his eyes off of the scene before him. He hadn't been physical with Draco since the night he had shown up at his flat in the rain, and even then, he'd seen more of Draco's body during the duel than he'd seen that night.

The scar on Draco's chest was especially visible in the heat and steam of the shower. With all of his might Harry hated himself in that moment, for being so careless -- for being the cause of so much of Draco's embarrassment and pain. He'd have done anything in his power to take it back.

But Harry was roughly jarred from his bitter train of thought as he saw Draco's hand lower itself inch by inch down his chest, over his stomach, to wrap around his cock. He didn't seem to be doing anything other than enjoying the beat of the spray against his back, and the feel of his dick in his hand. His head was thrown back, eyes closed, lips slightly parted. Harry's cock gave a twitch, beginning to stir at the display.

He really should leave now. This was a ridiculous amount of spying, and Draco deserved his own private shower time. There was absolutely no reason that Harry should still be standing there, he should go sit and wait in the living room until Draco had finished, as he was sure the blond had intended.

Draco's hand began to move slowly, and within seconds his length had begun to harden in his hand. Just unhurried, steady strokes; Harry found his breath catching in his chest rather dramatically, and his own cock began to harden in imitation, as if it were the one being teased and fondled before him.

It occurred to Harry then that perhaps Draco had intended for him to see this. Really, it was sort of like he'd left a trail of breadcrumbs for Harry to follow: the open doors, the guiding light from the bathroom that shone like a beacon, and the fact that Draco should have been expecting him to arrive at this time.

Perhaps not, though. Maybe Draco had just lost track of time. Harry really should turn around right about now --

But in the next instant, Harry's decisions were no longer his own. He could not make himself turn around, as Draco's easy pace had suddenly quickened. The blond was holding onto the wall with his other hand for support, moaning something quite unintelligible from Harry's vantage point under his breath, and before Harry even realised what he was doing, he had unzipped his trousers and was stroking himself in time with Draco.

Harry would have been content to just watch the glorious scene unfolding before him, like so many fantasies of his own suddenly come true, but it came to him all at once that wanking on the sidelines was not all he could do in this situation. He didn't know where his instincts were coming from, but a strange certainty was taking hold of him and he was wrestling to lift his shirt over his head and kick off his shoes at the same time. He pulled his trousers off and tore off his socks, and then peered through the door crack to be sure he hadn't been heard. Draco was fully engrossed now in his wank, so Harry was fairly certain he hadn't been.

Stepping out of his boxer shorts, he pushed open the bathroom door slowly, so that it would surely creak. He wanted Draco to notice and be surprised, but he didn't want to frighten him.

Draco started at the noise, and he let himself go hurriedly, but when he turned and saw Harry standing there, a slow smile spread across his face. "You're late," Draco admonished quietly as he stared, taking in the details of Harry's form.

"No," Harry said gently, taking a few steps forward. "I'm right on time, actually."

Harry's cock stood at attention, weeping for contact as he removed his glasses and set them on the lowest shelf of Draco's medicine cabinet. He'd come this far on pure nerve, but a seed of uncertainty had weaseled its way into his mind, and he paused before going any further. "Should I ...?"

"Yes. Get the hell in here, please." Draco pulled aside the shower curtain and all the small details that had been slightly skewered through it came into focus: the intensely grey eyes, the throbbing pink muscle between his legs, and the redness of the ugly scar all along his chest.

With a strangled sort of whimper, Harry had climbed over the low tub and had Draco pinned against the wall. The water was hot; he hadn't taken any time to get used to it, he'd simply ploughed ahead, and now he was in the thick of it and didn't know whether it was really the hot water that was such a surprise, or if it was the heat of the wet body beneath him.

Harry's mouth slammed against Draco's, demanding entrance, and Draco obliged, opening his mouth and letting Harry's tongue plunder him. Draco was writhing, moaning through the kiss, and Harry rocked forward, forcing their cocks together.

"Oh God ... Harry ..." Draco was arching forward, fingers scrambling against the tiled walls for something to hold onto. When Harry finally opened his eyes, he saw shocking grey staring back at him with so much need, so much desire; he groaned in the back of his throat and began to kiss and suck at Draco's neck, applying his teeth lightly at first and then without warning more viciously, and Draco arched into him again.

Harry's hands lightly roamed over Draco's chest, and they found his scar, which did not feel as rough and damaged as it looked. He ran his hands over Draco's shoulders and back down again, over his hair, and his nipples; Draco shuddered in response and Harry grinned against his neck, sucking his way down his chest. His tongue began to make light circular motions over Draco's left nipple, and Draco sucked in a breath, seeming to have trouble letting it back out again in anything other than tiny spurts of uncontrolled air; one of his hands came to rest atop Harry's head, and very gently and persistently began press down upon it.

At first, Harry didn't get it ... until he got it, and a nervous feeling settled immediately in his gut. He allowed himself to be maneuvered downward, though he resisted slightly, making sure to kiss and suck every inch of Draco's skin along the way. Harry kneeled, and Draco laughed for a few seconds as Harry kissed the area around his belly-button; he seemed especially ticklish there, and Harry smiled, filing the information away in his memory for later, because Draco's ticklish spots were not his biggest concern at the moment.

Harry's biggest concern was the erect penis that was currently staring him in the face. He'd -- he'd never even touched another man's penis, though he obviously knew the theory of how things worked. Harry's hands were resting on Draco's thighs, and slowly, cautiously, he moved his right hand along Draco's skin until it met with the base of his cock.

Noting that his own cock might have been just a little bit bigger than Draco's - but not by all that much - he ventured that things would work very similarly. He wrapped his hand around it, applying more pressure than he normally would have as he moved along towards the head, because of all the soap. The soap created a wonderful lube, and Harry was able to move at a fairly fast pace that was leaving Draco panting above him. It really wasn't all that different from wanking himself off, only this was -- this was intensely more erotic. He found himself so completely attentive to giving Draco pleasure; Harry's own pleasure was somehow banked on it. Touching Draco like this was almost an extension of himself -- he found himself growing harder and harder, and could hardly resist running his other hand along his own length.

"Harry ... please, I want you to ... I'm going to ... please ... oh, fuck ..." Draco begged, and it was all Harry could do not to indulge him. He leaned forward, heart pumping like mad, hoping that he wouldn't mess it all up as he took a tentative lick, from the base of Draco's cock all the way to the head. Interesting. Harry stared up for the first time into Draco's eyes, which were wide and imploring above him, lips parted just slightly; he was flushed a deep pink, the darkest colouring that Harry had ever seen on Draco before. He thought it suited him.

"Please what, Draco?" Harry asked, smiling sweetly up at the prone figure above him. Draco moaned, and he seemed unable to control it when his hips thrust forward, but Harry took hold of his hips again and pushed him back against the wall.

"Harry Potter ... I'm going to fucking kill you," Draco muttered through clenched teeth.

"Well, it's not like it's the first time I've heard that one." One of Harry's hands snaked between Draco's legs, and his fingers began to teasingly brush against his balls.

Draco thrashed wildly, though he didn't get very far - Harry's other hand was still holding him against the wall.

"Please ..."

"Just tell me what to do, and I'll do it," Harry promised, grinning evilly.

Draco nearly growled in frustration. "I want you to put my bloody cock in your mouth, Potter, and I want you to suck it!"

Harry appeared confused. "You mean ... just put it right in there, and suck? You don't want me to put my mouth on you like this, just over the head, and --" Harry leaned forward and took the head of Draco's cock in between his lips, sliding back and forth and letting his tongue flirt with the idea of moving beneath his foreskin. Draco immediately thrust forward again, but Harry pushed his hips firmly against the wall once more.

After several moments had passed, and Draco hadn't thrust forward or begged while Harry had sucked gently on his head, Harry supposed that he should take more of it into his mouth. This was the part that he was afraid of, however. He had no idea if he had a gag reflex or not, if he'd be able to coordinate his lips and jaw and throat and hand to all work together towards the same common goal of getting Draco Malfoy off.

But it was now or never; he didn't know how much longer Draco would last before realising that he could simply take hold of his head and fuck his mouth, which was something Harry had been fearing all along. Harry would much rather be in control of the situation.

And so Harry opened his mouth wider and took as much of Draco's cock down his throat as he could stand; it happened to be a significant amount more than he had initially thought, which pleased him. The sounds that Draco was making above him were well worth the bit of pain it took to stretch his jaw so wide.

When he began to pull away, he put more pressure around Draco's length with his lips, sure to flutter his tongue lavishly around the area just under the head, which he hoped was just as sensitive on Draco as it was on him.

"Harry ... Harry ... oh, fucking god ... " Draco moaned out, and Harry moved towards him, taking in the length again. He repeated this rhythm, slowly gaining speed. Draco's moaning accelerated into yells, and then Harry felt Draco's hands in his hair, but he wasn't pushing or pulling -- he was just holding on, for which Harry was grateful.

All at once, Draco's cock was harder in his mouth than Harry thought it had any right being, and he didn't stop to wonder why this was. He just continued to suck and to bob back and forth, feeling his jaw beginning to ache, but he didn't care; Draco was loving it, how could he not love it, too?

"Har - I'm gonna --" Draco pulled almost painfully at Harry's hair, and suddenly he was coming into Harry's mouth. Completely surprised by this, but thankfully not at all averse to swallowing, Harry's eyes widened and he looked up half-way through Draco's orgasm, still sucking, hoping to catch a glimpse of his face ...

Draco was looking down at him, mouth wide in a silent scream. His eyes were open and bright and more alive than Harry could ever remember having seen them. When it was over, Draco closed his eyes, burying his face in his hands as Harry regretfully let Draco's softening cock out of his mouth and stood to face him.

"Are you okay?" Harry asked quietly, feeling as if the sound of the running water couldn't possibly have been the only noise in the background during the first blow-job he'd ever given. Surely there had been music playing of some sort, because the sound of the water now sounded so empty to his ears.

Harry's hands went out to pull Draco's down from over his face, finding the blond with nearly the same expression in his eyes, although he had closed his mouth. "Draco?"

"Jesus Christ." Draco shook his head back and forth rather mechanically. "That was your first time?"

Harry frowned. "Yeah, well ... yeah. Was it all right?"

Draco laughed, grasping Harry's hands tighter in his. "Are you fucking kidding me? That was more than all right, that was ... that was amazing." Draco actually blushed, and Harry didn't have the chance to look shocked because Draco had leaned in to kiss him.

He had almost forgotten that it had been Draco who had come, and not him. When he felt Draco's body moving against his still rock-hard prick, he moaned into his mouth, hands feeling along Draco's back where he was pretty sure the bathroom tiles were outlined in his skin. Lower and lower his hands roamed, until they were resting on the cheeks of Draco's arse, very tentatively.

More uncharted territory. But this time, he didn't feel nervous. His hands upon Draco's arse felt so right; he had to resist the urge to turn him around and fuck him against the wall of the shower right then and there ...

"Draco ... I just ... can I ...?" Harry didn't know how to phrase what he wanted, but Draco seemed to understand. That sweet blush was still on his face when he pulled hurriedly out of the kiss, whether it was the same blush as before or whether it had been renewed at his question, Harry did not know.

And Draco was nodding, almost shyly. "But let's ... can we do it in my bed? I'd rather it not ... the first time, in a shower, you know," he finished lamely, and Harry understood that it must be Draco's first time doing this. He'd been almost sure that Draco had lost it to Ethan Mueller, and the fact that he hadn't made his heart skip a beat.

"Of course we can. Anything you want," Harry assured him, placing one more lingering kiss on Draco's lips.

"All right, well -- I've got some lube in the kitchen," Draco said, twisting the knob set into the wall and turning the shower off. Immediately the hot water ceased, and Harry burst out laughing.

"What's it doing in the kitchen?"

Draco turned to glare at him as he stepped out of the shower, wrapping himself in a towel and throwing another at Harry. "My mum comes to visit me quite often, and she's nosy. It's much easier to pass off that sort of thing as some kind of cooking oil if she comes across it, whereas if she sees it in my bedside drawer ..."

Harry grinned in understanding, realising as he tried to do it that with the massive erection he had, there was no way in hell of successfully wrapping a towel around his waist without it looking ridiculous. He abandoned it in the bathroom and followed Draco out the door. "Want me to come with you to get it?"

Raising an eyebrow at Harry's cock and grinning suggestively, Draco shrugged. He turned to exit the room, dropping his towel nonchalantly as he was half-way across the room, treating Harry to a view of his perfect arse as he marched out the door. Harry grinned, and followed the footprints of water Draco was leaving.

Draco was kneeling down to reach into the cabinet beneath his sink when Harry emerged from the bedroom. Harry leaned sideways against the long, kitchen island, dripping water everywhere, to stare at Draco's purposefully spread arsecheeks. He wondered what it would be like to touch him there, lick him there ... god, he wanted it so fucking much ...

And then Draco stood, brandishing a small tube victoriously. "Got it."

Harry felt completely maniacal; he couldn't really get his mouth to form words that would correlate into anything that made sense with what Draco had just said. He was absolutely bowled over by the beauty of this creature before him; how hadn't he ever realised how perfect Draco was? He needed to have him, needed to be within him. Harry had never ever felt a sexual urge as strong as this; there was almost nothing he could do to stop himself as he grabbed Draco and shoved him against the kitchen island, kissing him savagely and grinding his soaking wet body against Draco's.

"Harry, what --" Draco began, but Harry cut off his words with his lips, kissing him harsher yet. He used strength he didn't even know he had to lift Malfoy by the hips up onto the island and push him backwards, scattering several pots and pans that had been stationed there to the floor with several echoing clatters. The top of the kitchen island was sanded and varnished stones of green and blue, smooth and expansive and now soaking wet; when Harry finally settled on top of Draco, he looked down to see the blue stone bringing out the colour in his eyes.

The lube was a few inches above Draco's head, and Harry grabbed it, twisting it open and depositing a glob onto the fingers of his right hand. Draco sucked in a breath as he realised exactly where Harry's hand was heading.

Harry hadn't known what to expect, or where Draco's hole would be about, exactly, but he found it easily enough. It was small and tight; Harry didn't know how his cock was going to fit. With one tentative finger, Harry stroked Draco's hole, causing the man below him to shudder convulsively.

"Oh, Harry ... oh my god ..." Draco's eyes squeezed shut and both of his arms were clutching Harry's shoulders. Harry slowly stuck the tip of his finger inside of Draco, causing him to bite his lip; after a moment, Draco relaxed, and Harry pushed his finger in a little further, a little further -- Draco was grimacing but he wasn't complaining, and Harry knew that as far gone as he was, he'd still stop the second Draco told him to.

There. One finger was all the way in, and Draco opened his eyes below him, an indescribable look on his face.

"Are you okay?" Harry asked, trying his hardest to not hump the man's leg as he finger fucked him.

"I'm fine ... Merlin's fucking pants, Harry, you've got me here, now fucking ... fucking do something!" Draco practically shouted at him, bearing down upon his finger. Harry wiggled his finger, wondering where Draco's prostate could possibly be. Several seconds later, he was fairly certain he had found it, because Draco made nearly the same face he'd had as he had come in the shower, for the briefest of moments...

Harry moved his finger against the spot again and again, and Draco seemed to come apart at the seams. He was being driven mad by what Harry was doing to him, absolutely mad, he was moaning and moving all over the island, forcing Harry's single finger in and out of his hole. There seemed to be more space now, Harry thought, and so he'd entered a second finger ... a few minutes later, a third had joined, and Draco was practically in tears. Harry thought he would come just from watching him writhe on the counter below him, fucking himself on Harry's fingers.

He hadn't noticed Draco pick up the lube at all, nor when he'd slathered a bit of it into his hand. When Draco had clamped his hand around Harry's dick, that was about the time Harry took notice that Draco had decided to take things into his own hands.

Harry hissed in sudden pleasure, nearly coming on the spot. "Stop, no! Let go!" he demanded. He wasn't going to come unless it was inside of Draco Malfoy...

"Fuck me, Harry ... oh god ..." Draco had never sounded so desperate, and Harry had never felt more apt to follow an order before in his entire life. He removed his fingers from Draco's arse, and with both hands lifted Draco's legs to wind around his waist. There. He knew that a lot of men did it front to back, but this was the way that Harry had always known he would prefer... he wanted to see Draco's face, wanted to be able to kiss him if he wanted... oh god, he was about to fuck him, wasn't he?

Harry grabbed hold of himself, shifting a bit so that the angle wouldn't hurt Draco, and then he positioned himself at Draco's hole. It felt looser than it had before, but Harry still knew this was going to hurt him ... he hated that it had to hurt him, but he told himself that it would just be this first time ... and every time after this would be good for Draco, too ... it would be okay ...

And then he pushed forward, just a little bit, because the look of pain on Draco's face was enough to freeze his heart. "Are you okay?"

Draco didn't say anything, he just nodded, turning his head to the side as if he were trying to hide from Harry. After a moment, the pained looked passed, and Harry couldn't help himself, he pushed forward more, but at the returning pained look, he paused again.

"Don't stop, just go, just go ... it'll be better if you do it fast, do it ... do it, Harry!" Draco shouted, clearly in pain, and Harry didn't want to hurt him, but if it was true that it would be better to do it fast, then he would move ... and he slid the rest of the way into him. The feel of it was beyond anything that Harry had ever experienced; so tight, so much pressure in all the right places. He was not going to last long at all. It took all his willpower not to move, to let Draco adjust. He was wincing below him, but after a moment he looked up with his strange greyish blue-tinted eyes, and he nodded.

Harry began to move slowly back and forth, not willing to risk going faster, not even when it felt like heaven on earth with each little pump, each little movement ... god, he was so tight ... and when Draco began to move against him, impaling himself on Harry's dick of his own accord, Harry knew that he could take him as hard as he wanted.

"Faster, Harry ... oh, please ..." Draco was moaning, and Harry grabbed both of Draco's hands and pinned them above his head, and began to fuck him in earnest. Draco Malfoy was laid out before him, moaning and moving in time with him, and he pumped in and out of his tight arsehole only a few more times before he came. His last few thrusts were powerful enough to slide them a few inches across the island, as wet as they were, and he collapsed on top of him, heart beating so fast that he was sure it was about to explode. He wondered what had become sticky all over his stomach, and realised that Draco had come again, too...

"Draco ..." Harry's face was buried in the blond's neck; he was overcome with the desire for Draco to understand that he didn't mean to impose on him like this; not sexually, and not within his home. He wanted Draco to be all right with everything, to understand ...

"You can't be ready for another go already, can you?" Draco murmured into his hair, out of breath.

Harry managed a weak laugh. "No, no, I just ... Draco, Professor Stark is such a fucking idiot."

With a bit of difficulty, as Harry was still sheathed inside of him, Draco sat up on his elbows. "Please don't bring up Professor Stark right now! This subject matter is disturbing me very greatly at the moment ......"

But Harry seemed not to have heard him. His cock was getting softer and slowly slipping out of Draco's arse, and he hadn't made to move form his position above him at all. His eyes burned with an earnestness that made the blond lose his train of thought entirely. "I know you can take care of yourself, do you know that?"

Draco sighed desperately, and Harry wasn't sure if it was from the loss of being filled, or from Harry's statement. "Harry, I know."

"But I -- I need to make sure that you really know." Harry sat back on his knees, and pulled Draco up to sit in front of him. "I wish everyone in the wizarding world, Professor Stark included, could see in you what I see ... I wish they had the faith I have, and you know what, Draco? I know I don't need to be here. But I --" He paused, choking up, and only when Draco's hands clasped his tightly did he feel he could continue. "I'd be here even if I didn't have to be. I ... I want to be with you."

The hands in Harry's were shaking, and when Harry looked up into grey eyes, he could see Draco's resolve struggling not to break. It was almost a process that Harry could see going on behind Draco's eyes and in his expression; the mask that Draco always hid behind was fighting with an onslaught of emotion within him, and for several moments Harry wasn't sure which would win. Half expecting Draco to slide off the island and away from him, Harry lessened his grip on Draco's hands, turning his face away.

"Harry --" Draco's voice was barely louder than a whisper, but it carried with such magnitude that Harry froze, looking at him, and then Draco had thrown himself forward into Harry's arms, trembling all over. "God, I'm afraid to want you."

The whispered sentiment in his ear made Harry's heart jump wildly, and in his effort to hold Draco closer his legs had gone around his waist and they were abruptly so wrapped up in one another that it was hard to tell where one ended and the other began.

"Why are you afraid of me? Don't be, please please don't be ..." Harry broke apart just enough for their foreheads to touch, so that he could see Draco's eyes, and try to determine whether it was him or the mask speaking.

"You're going to disappear, Harry. I will admit to myself that I want you -- maybe even need you -- and the next thing I know, you'll be gone." There was a bitterness bursting through Draco's devastation, and Harry knew that this was really what Draco believed.

"No, no, no ... I won't be. Listen to me --"

"Fuck, Harry!" Draco yelled, startling Harry, who realised that Draco was probably only yelling to stop himself from bursting into unwanted tears. "Can't we go sit on the couch, and talk about this?"

Harry looked around, half surprised that they were still perched atop the kitchen island. It had seemed to him that they'd transcended into some other state of consciousness where surroundings didn't really matter; Draco was trying so very hard to ground himself from that, and Harry frowned. "Yeah, all right." They climbed down a bit clumsily, still sweaty and sticky, and Harry took his hand, leading them towards Draco's bedroom instead of the couch. Draco didn't complain or question Harry's direction.

The bedroom was an alien atmosphere, so different from the brightness of the kitchen. When Draco shut the door behind them, the only light came from the half-closed bathroom doorway, and their naked bodies were strikingly altered - all shadow and sinew and unknown depth. Harry didn't let it phase him as he held still tighter to Draco's hand and pulled him up onto his own bed. After that, Harry lay back on top of the covers and let Draco's hand go, letting him call the shots. He didn't want to do or say anything that might frighten him even more.

But to his surprise, the blond sidled up beside him, forcing Harry to turn and face him. Even in the near darkness, Harry could see a quiet anguish in Draco's eyes as he spoke. "Harry, I've ... I have never found myself able to tell anyone about the things that go on in my head."

Harry's hand reached up to grace his cheek, sliding a lock of white-blond behind his ear, but he said nothing, only waited.

"And I'm not going to lie to you and say that I feel comfortable telling you everything about me," he went on quickly. "But for the first time in my life, I actually ... I don't want to be alone in my head. I want to be able to tell you."

Harry's heart was pounding with nervous energy. "Draco, I ..." His hand had frozen in Draco's hair, flat against the back of his head, and he just wanted to inch forward and kiss him and kiss him, but he was sure Draco hadn't finished speaking yet.

"Can you be okay with knowing that there are things I can't tell you or explain to you yet, Harry?" The fear in Draco's voice was clear and distinct, and Harry knew that all of Draco's hopes were riding on this moment, on his response. Draco was putting himself out there, even though he seemed more afraid of doing so than of anything Harry had ever seen him face before ... and literally, for nothing.

"Of course I can. I mean, Jesus. I'm Harry Potter. You think I don't have a lot of secrets?"

Draco looked a bit surprised, but he managed to crack a small smile. "You, Potter? Secrets? Pray tell."

"All in due course, I'm sure. But seriously ... Draco? There is only one thing in you that I find fault with."

"And ... and what's that?"

Harry sat up slightly, leaning on his elbow and looking down at the blond. "Your only problem, Draco Malfoy, is that you seem to think I can't understand where you're coming from. That I won't be able to forgive you your vices. What you aren't getting is that I am probably the only person in the world who truly can." Draco's breath hitched in his throat. He didn't seem to be able to look at Harry anymore, and so he buried his face in his chest. "Our lives haven't been the same by any means, Draco, but you and I? We've been to hell and back, haven't we." Harry wrapped his arms around Draco, resting his chin on his head. "And ... I think I'm coming to understand the same exact things about you."

Draco managed to somehow giggle through his tears. "So what you're telling me is that we are the two biggest fuck-ups in the entire world, and nobody else would be able to really handle any of our respective shit?"

Harry laughed too, smiling down into his hair. For a few moments they lay there, just hanging on to one another. Neither said anything, and it was very comfortable, until Harry found himself shivering. "Can we get underneath?" Harry asked, and then both boys crawled under the comforter, settling back into one another's warmth.

"Do you believe in karma, Harry?" Draco asked, seeming to wonder out loud, staring at the ceiling. A car's headlights from far down below shone momentarily through the half-open shutters, illuminating the stretch of ceiling for a second or two.

"Mm, not really. I don't really know. I've never really thought about it before."

"I think karma is one of the only things I can rightly believe in."

"How come?"

"What goes around comes around. Always."

"Always?" Harry thought about his parents. Had they done something to deserve being murdered? Something behind closed doors that no one but Karma Personified would ever know about?

"Of course it doesn't seem fair to the ones around karma's victim. But really, it only has to do with one individual person. I think it's really personal that way."

Harry sighed, tracing circles with his finger tips over Draco's stomach. "I'm not sure what I believe, but I think karma is a bit backwards, if it's true."

Draco picked up Harry's hand from where it lay caressing his stomach, and he gripped it gingerly, his fingers making their way to the tips of Harry's fingers and back down to his palm again.

"Karma only seems backwards when it comes to me, Harry," he whispered, fingers now ghosting over his arm and up his shoulder, settling lightly on his neck. Harry shivered. "I don't think I deserve you."

Harry started. "What? What do you even mean, don't deserve me? I want to be here with you, and so I am. It's that simple." Harry frowned. "I thought you said you believed in karma. How can you believe in it, but think it's backwards only when it comes to you?"

A smirk formed on Draco's face. "I don't know. I can never seem to believe in anything wholeheartedly for more than a couple of minutes."

"So you're basically a walking contradiction?"

Draco paused. "I think it's just that nothing has stayed continuously valid and true in my life without changing, at some point. I don't really know how to believe in anything."

Harry found himself wanting to be the exception to that rule in Draco's life, but something held him back from saying so. The blond was looking sadly up at the ceiling; he was practically begging to be proved wrong -- or maybe it was just Harry's sudden determination to prove him wrong. But he just couldn't say anything right now without possibly going too far, and he wouldn't take the chance of messing this up. He would never push Draco farther than he was ready to go -- not ever.

He shifted closer to Draco under the comforter, and tentatively reached out. The other boy responded and was soon in his arms, resting his head along Harry's chest, as seemed to be one of his favourite places. Their legs intertwined, and Harry pulled him as close as he possibly could against him.

:: :: :: :: ::

1:30 a.m.

Harry found it difficult to fall sleep, and so he lay awake staring down at the blond head nestled in the crook of his arm. The moonlight filtered in through the blinds of Draco's window, and the light from the bathroom was still on. Both natural and artificial lights blended together, creating a strange sort of yellow unreality. For surely, this couldn't be him, lying here, happy and sated. He felt such a sense of happy exhilaration, and for the first time in his life, he felt at home: even if it was in a flat that he'd only properly entered twice in his life. He had a feeling that wherever he went, if Draco was there to fall asleep curled up against him each night, he'd feel the same sense of completeness that he felt right now.

Draco shifted in his sleep, turning over and out of Harry's arms, facing away from him. Harry missed the warmth of his body, but it was okay: they were still in the same bed, and he could count his slow, sleep-induced breaths. Draco, on his stomach now, reached under his pillow reflexively for his wand. Harry knew that Draco had been relying on the continued presence of it under his pillow for a very long time, and since they were partners in several senses of the word, Harry decided to make it his duty to try and deflect that reliance onto himself. Eventually, he wished, Draco would reach for him with such natural instinct, he wanted to be that permanent fixture in Draco's life: the one thing Draco felt he could depend on. He wanted it so badly that the thought of it was like a physical weight on his chest.

And then two things happened at the exact same time. Draco disappeared from the bed with a soft pop; Harry barely had a chance to react before there was a searing, ripping pain in his leg. He felt wetness beginning to surround the painful area, and Harry knew it to be blood. In nearly a blind panic, he threw the comforter off of the bed to see the clear signs of a reverse splinching, and a good chunk of skin missing from his upper calf. Wherever Draco had gone, he'd taken a bit of Harry with him -- the only bit that had been in contact with him. Harry only saw, only knew one thing: Draco. Find Draco. He turned to grab his wand off the bed stand and prayed that there was a trail he could follow.

There was. It was faint and fading fast, and as Harry rushed to find his Invisibility Cloak and grab a random shirt up off the floor, he concentrated on what he now knew to be a Portkey trail. With painful dread building in his stomach, he realised that they had not done enough to protect Draco. It had to have been Draco's wand; the Last Band had somehow managed to turn the wand into a timed Portkey, and when Draco had grabbed it in his sleep it had taken him away.

But when had they done it? If only Draco hadn't shifted away from him in his sleep, then he would probably have taken Harry along with him completely! But it didn't seem to matter. Harry fell onto the ground when he arrived, his injured leg collapsing under him, and he clutched at it in pain. He had no clue where he'd gone, but when he looked up he saw that he was in a dark forest. The blackness engulfed him, and he could see nor hear anyone at all, but he was confident that Draco wasn't far, that he'd followed the trail successfully.

The wound gave a painful twang, and he panted, trying not to panic and think of a way to stop the bleeding. He longed for Hermione's presence, as she never went anywhere without essence of dittany with her; it had saved their lives so many times. He didn't know how to heal a splinch wound, let alone a reversed one, and so he did the only thing he could: he tied the shirt he'd managed to grab -- which he had intended upon wearing normally, since he was shirtless -- around his leg tightly instead, hissing in pain. He didn't know how far he would be able to hobble along in the forest, so he hoped beyond hope that Draco was close.

As he got to his feet shakily, an idea occurred to him. He raised his wand, and thought fiercely of Draco nestled in his arms not two minutes before.

"Expecto Patronum!" The silver stag erupted from the tip of his wand, and Harry whispered to it, "Tell Kingsley Shacklebolt that the Last Band has captured Draco Malfoy. Give him my coordinates; tell him they can't be far off." As the stag galloped away faster than Harry had ever seen it go, Harry looked down and realised that the wand he held was not his own, but Draco's.

Shaking in fear of what this could possibly mean, he gripped the wand tighter, remembering the last time he'd been in possession of it. Draco's wand had been the one he'd used to finish off Voldemort, and it was strangely comforting to have it back in his hand again, as familiar as a long lost friend.

Then it hit him: Draco must have Harry's wand. His wand must have been the Portkey. None of it made any sense to Harry, for he could not grasp how the ones behind this elaborate plan had managed to get hold of his wand, and had managed to ensure that they'd been switched.

Swallowing heavily, Harry threw his Invisibility Cloak over himself, and began to move. Action was the only thing he was left with when his other senses seemed to fail. There was nothing he could do standing around trying to make sense of it, wasting valuable time, and so he began to limp barefoot in the direction he'd been facing when he'd Apparated there. If he was right, then he had just fallen short of the Portkey destination; he'd been weak, unable to ride it out for the entire duration, and it had dumped him just short of his goal. Harry thanked fortune for this mistake; it was probably a good thing that he hadn't appeared in the middle of the Last Band of Death Eaters.

But Harry was soon shivering, and he could barely walk for the pain. He forced himself onward for several minutes, coming across nothing and nobody at all. The forest floor was getting more and more uneven; he'd nearly tripped several times over exposed tree roots and other things hidden beneath the autumn leaves. He could feel the blood beginning to spill over the shirt tied around his leg, trickling down to tickle his bare foot.

Where was Kingsley? He was the only hope Harry hung on to now. Each step he took was torture, until soon he was nearly dragging his leg behind him. He stopped walking to lean on a tree trunk, trying to regain even breathing. Draco's wand was beginning to burn hot in his hand, and he stared down at it in desperate aggravation. Was it malfunctioning? How could the wand that had served him so well in the past fail him now? He didn't understand; he felt light-headed, but knew that he needed to keep moving if there was any hope of getting Draco out alive. He started forward once more, tearing up at the pain.

The wand grew hotter still in his hand. Harry stopped again, holding up the wand and staring at it underneath the low starlight. Unbidden, an idea had formed in his mind.

Could the wand possibly be leading him towards Draco? Was it burning because he was getting closer? Harry hadn't studied wand relationships all that extensively, though he was fairly certain he knew quite a bit more about the subject than most. He knew that wands held loyalties towards their rightful owners; could Draco's wand, which had once turned its loyalties over to Harry, be trying to help?

Harry shook his head, and thought he might have been going crazy; how could the world have turned upside down in so short a time? Wands couldn't help: they didn't have a brain! But he had nothing else to go on. There wasn't anything else he could do but try and work with this crazy idea, and so with slightly renewed vigour he stepped forward, ignoring the pain that burst forth with gritted teeth, and forced himself onward.

The wand continually increased in temperature. In a few minutes' time, he could see a strange, flickering blue light in the distance. His heart leapt and he rushed forward, adrenaline suddenly coursing through his veins. When he strained his ears, he could hear distant voices, but he couldn't make out any words.

He forgot his pain; he could think only of Draco as he trudged forward as fast as he possibly could. The blond's peaceful face as he slept filled his mind. Harry was hidden, but he knew he had to be extremely cautious, and so he slowed down as he reached the source of the light, careful not to upset too many leaves or step on a twig. It was coming from the middle of a small clearing. Harry stood just outside of it, and poking his head out from behind a gnarled tree, he surveyed the scene before him.

Draco was there, on the far side of the little clearing, similarly clad in only thin boxer shorts and sitting slumped against a tree. Harry nearly called out to him; he couldn't be, he wasn't -- dead?! Then Harry caught himself, and watched -- yes, he could see the rise and fall of the bare chest. He was alive. He must have been unconscious; Harry couldn't imagine that a Portkey journey wouldn't have woken him up. Stunned, but alive. Harry let out a low breath, relief flooding him. He hadn't been too late.

So fixated on finding Draco, Harry hadn't noticed the woman sitting on the ground next to him. Her eyes were wide and frightened, and her blond hair -- exactly the same shade as Draco's -- framed her face in disarray. Narcissa. Her hands were tied behind her back, and she was staring into the middle of the clearing, where at least a dozen hooded figures were standing around a small magical fire. Harry now recognised the light as bluebell flames.

He had to get closer to Draco.

He eased his way through the brush, careful of his footing and grimacing with every careful step. His wand was out and his eyes trained on the members of the Last Band carefully, trying to distinguish one from the other, but it was next to impossible. They stood in small groups, having several different discussions, but their voices were muffled through their hoods, indistinct. One of them seemed rather distracted; he kept looking over at Draco and his mother, seemingly the only one taking any notice of their prisoners at all. When Harry got close enough, he realised that this curious Last Band member had white-blond hair sticking out from underneath his hood.

It could only be Lucius Malfoy. Harry's heart jumped into his throat at the knowledge, and he felt like he was going to be sick. No amount of pain could have been worse than knowing that Draco's own father had been part of the plan to bring him here. Why did he keep looking over at them? He'd already sold out his own wife and son, hadn't he? He had no reason to look back. Harry pressed onward.

Then he was feet away from Draco's unconscious form. He was bleeding from a cut on his forehead, and he was hunched over in a spot of mud - Harry knew that would be the first thing Draco would have complained about, had he been conscious. As Harry turned to take in Narcissa, something gleamed in the brush beyond Draco's still form, in the light from the bluebell flame. Harry hobbled closer to look, and realised with a jolt that it was his own wand.

How could the Last Band have overlooked it? The wand was no longer a Portkey, but it was obviously still a wand. But Harry had no time to ponder the reasoning, he could only react, and he kneeled down to retrieve it, holding back a cry of pain as he did so. When he'd managed to straighten once again, he slowly, agonizingly, made his way over to Narcissa. The faint outlines of a plan had formed in his pain-clouded mind.

He slipped Draco's wand into Narcissa's hand. As her hands were tied behind her back and she couldn't see what was touching her, she jolted, startled, and seemed about to cry out.

"Shh," Harry whispered close to her ear. Narcissa's eyes darted from side to side, desperate to understand what was going on, to see something substantial before her. Her hands had gripped the wand; she seemed to realise what the object was, and her eyes widened in shock.

"Who are you?" she whispered.

For his plan to work, she needed to know. She had placed all her trust in him, once -- that was the only thing that kept him going. "Harry Potter. I'm going to untie you, but you need to keep your hands behind your back, so they don't realise."

Her eyes bulged in surprise, but she made a sudden forward motion with her head, hardly discernable as a nod, though Harry recognised it as such.

"Can't Apparate," she whispered so quietly that Harry nearly dropped his wand, sure he'd misheard her.

"What do you mean?" he demanded.

"Try."

He did. He backed up a foot and attempted to Apparate, but found it impossible.

Dread filled him. Now what? Apparating away had been a simple solution. He knew that he could Side-Along Apparate one other person, but he'd never attempted it with two. Already in possesion of a reverse Splinching injury, he didn't dare make an attempt at it, and so he'd been sure that leaving Draco's wand with Narcissa would enable her to make her own way to safety.

But that plan was an impossibility, now. Harry couldn't see any way out of this unless they planned to duel with twelve or so Last Band members.

"Trust Lucius."

"What?" He didn't think he could have heard her correctly at all, and as he muttered Finite Connexio under his breath, the ropes that had been around her wrists fell to the ground.

"Trust Lucius. He will fight with us." There was no mistaking her intent this time. She seemed so sure of it, but Harry was entirely unconvinced.

He was shaking now, and the craziest idea he'd had so far -- that of attacking the members of the Last Band, and which had entered his mind mostly as a joke -- seemed to be the only option left. Narcissa seemed prepared for it, even hopeful; then again, she thought her husband was on her side. Harry was resigned to the fact that Kingsley hadn't received his message at all -- surely he would have been here by now, if he had.

"Protego," Narcissa whispered tearfully around the unconscious form of her son. Harry added his own protection around him as well, knowing how insane this was, but he could see no other way out.

"On three," Harry whispered, taking a deep breath to steady himself. "Stun as many as you can before they realise what's going on, all right? One ... two ... Stupefy!!"

Harry was amazed his whispered spell had had the same effect on its victim as if he had shouted it. Two down, that was it, before the Last Band had noticed and shielded themselves.

"What do you think you're doing, Mrs. Malfoy? Forgive me, Lucius, as I put your blood-sympathizing wife in her place!" A hooded figure turned, aiming his wand directly at Narcissa, since he couldn't see Harry at all.

"Diffindo!"

Harry had no idea who had shouted at first; he'd only seen the hand that had been aiming the wand at Narcissa fall to the forest floor, quite unattached to the arm. The man screamed, holding his bloody stump and falling to the ground.

All the remaining members of the Last Band had their wands trained on Lucius Malfoy, and it was then that Harry realised Narcissa had been right.

Lucius began to duel with the three men closest to him; the little clearing was ablaze with spellwork. There was a choking sound from behind Harry - he hardly dared to turn his eyes away from the scene in front of him, but he did, and watched as Draco turned over onto his stomach and spit up blood into the dirt and leaves.

"Mum? What ...?" Draco muttered weakly, beginning to rise to his knees.

"I've got him, I've got him, go and see about his bloody wife and son!" One of the dueling wizards shouted to the rest, and several of them turned and began to head over to Harry's little corner of the clearing, wands drawn.

"Draco, no! Stay down!" Draco's head turned in surprise at Harry's apparently disembodied voice -- but he wasn't the only one. One of the hooded figures was running towards him, and with his injury, Harry couldn't outrun him --

The man ran into him, bowling him over, and the cloak slipped halfway off.

"Petrificus Totalis!" Harry yelled, and the man stiffened and fell backwards. His hand had caught in the cloak, and it was pulled off of Harry completely.

"There's Potter! Potter's here!" There was uproar; Lucius no longer seemed their topmost priority. Two stayed to duel with him, but the rest came running towards Harry, who was struggling to his feet and backing away as fast as he could.

Draco had risen shakily to his feet as well, but there wasn't anything he could do without a wand. Narcissa was aiming curses at the oncoming Last Band, which they deflected with ease.

"Harry! Watch out! Turn! DUCK!" Draco charged forward. Harry was able to dodge the first hex, slamming into the ground just in time, but it hit Draco in the shoulder.

The protective charms that Harry and Narcissa had cast had held up rather well, but Draco was down and bleeding. Harry's heart screamed in protest, but he couldn't go to Draco with three of the Last Band closing in on him. He saw a purplish line streak through the darkness; it took a fraction of a second to realise that it was a wandless spell, and he didn't even have time to contemplate a Shield Charm as the purple jet hit him square in the chest. Harry fell to the ground, smacking his head hard. His vision swam and blurred, and all sensation began to fade. He thought he might have heard the soft pop of Apparation from somewhere beyond the clearing before everything went dark.

:: :: :: :: ::

Tuesday September 22nd, 1999 - 12:30 p.m.

When Harry woke, he was conscious of two things: a dull, persistent pain in his stomach and the feel of someone lying beside him. He opened his eyes slowly, and was at first unsurprised to find himself in the bright, clean hospital wing at Hogwarts – it wasn’t such an unusual place for him to wake up, really – but then, slowly, all that had happened in the night came to the forefront of his mind.

What happened after he’d been hit with that curse? Had the popping nose he’d heard before passing out been more than a hopeful delusion brought on by loss of blood, or could it really have been Kingsley? And Draco – he’d fallen, bleeding – where was he?

Harry turned his head to the side, and sighed in immense relief as he took in the blond hair, and the face concentrated in sleep. All traces of the mud Draco had been lying in the night before had vanished, and he was wearing the usual infirmary attire: a white gown that buttoned all down the back. Harry realised that he was similarly clad, and as he pushed the sheet down gently, he saw that his splinch wound had been healed; there was just the remnants of a faded scar upon his leg.

Turning entirely to face Draco, Harry reached out to touch his cheek, placing gentle kisses upon his sleeping face: his forehead, nose, each of his eyelids, and finally his mouth. “Wake up,” his whispered against Draco’s lips, hand moving to catch in his hair.

Draco shifted, eyes opening slightly, taking in the intense green staring back at him, and proceeded to gasp in surprise. “Harry! You’re awake!”

“Yeah, what happened?”

“Never mind what happened, you’re awake!” His voice broke slightly on the last word and he flew forward to gather Harry in his arms. “We didn’t know if … it was touch and go there for awhile … thank Merlin that we grabbed the wrong wands last night, Harry, because if you had been Portkeyed there instead of me, they’d have killed you on the spot!”

Harry pulled away slightly. “Wait, what? The Portkey was … was meant for me?”

A dark look came over Draco’s features, and he stared past Harry’s shoulders when he spoke. “Yeah. As often as their targets have been reformed Purebloods, Harry, you’ve always been next on their list.”

Harry was baffled. “Why haven’t there been any attempted attacks on me, then?” And then his eyes narrowed. “How – how do you know who’s on their list, Draco?”

Wincing, Draco shook his head. “There was the bathroom attack. Pavel. He’s working for them – he’s actually the one whose arm my dad cut off – but I guess he thought I’d been the one exiting the bathroom instead of you, I just got caught in it –“

“Draco, how do you know?” Harry demanded, sitting up even though it caused a sharp pain to shoot through his stomach.

Biting his lip, Draco sat up slowly beside him. “Harry, my dad has been … he’s been acting as one of them. He didn’t want to, he wanted to get the hell away from the fight, but the Ministry gave him no choice. Either infiltrate the Last Band as a spy, or go to Azkaban for the rest of his life.”

“God, Draco … you’ve known about this, and has your mum …?”

“Yeah, that’s why she’s been so worried lately. She placed a tracking charm on me, and when she realised where I was, she Apparated there and wasn't able to Apparate back out. They guessed we were both blood traitors, especially since I'd come along with your wand instead of you... and that’s why Pavel freaked out on the first day of Auror Training, he didn’t expect to see me there – thought I was trying to steal all his glory – he was there to spy on you, you know, he nicked your wand while you were in the shower to activate the Portkey.”

Exasperatedly, Harry grabbed Draco by the shoulders. “You idiot, why didn’t you tell me any of this?”

Draco looked pointedly at Harry. “Did you believe my mum when she told you to trust my dad?”

Harry paused, loosening his grip. “Well, I …”

“Exactly. I couldn’t tell you anything about it, Harry, and I’m sorry.”

“It’s all right. Just – what happened after I was down?”

Draco explained how after Harry had fallen, at least fifteen Aurors had Apparated just outside the clearing. They’d been able to penetrate the Anti-Apparation ward at its weakest point, and they had duelled the remaining Last Band members. It had not taken long to overtake them, as they’d been heavily outnumbered from the start.

“Have they been taken to Azkaban? Are they dead?”

“The four that hadn’t been killed in duels, Kingsley took into custody personally.”

Harry didn’t want to ask the question that was burning on his tongue. “Your parents, are they …?”

But Draco’s face brightened, and so Harry knew that they must be all right. He let out a slow breath that he hadn’t realised he’d been holding as Draco continued. “Just fine. They went with Kingsley for questioning, but I imagine they’re back at the Manor by this time. It’s nearly 3:30 pm.”

Something occured to Harry. "Didn't the Last Band attack Malfoy Manor last month?"

"Just a cover up. The Ministry asked dad to stage the attack himself, on the pretense that the Minister of Magic was holding a meeting there. They actually captured a couple of them, so not a complete failure."

“And … and why, exactly, are we at Hogwarts?”

“The Last Band’s base camp was on the outskirts of the Forbidden Forest, and you – you probably wouldn’t have made it if we’d tried to get you all the way to St. Mungo’s. Pomfrey was your only chance.” Draco's hand came up to rest on Harry's chest, as if to reassure himself that his heart was beating, that he was all right. A deep admiration for the nurse coursed through Harry. She’d brought him back from the brink of death more times than he could count.

“I killed him,” Draco whispered, refusing to look Harry in the eye.

“What? Killed who?” Harry took Draco’s hand, unsurprised to find him trembling. "The Death Eater who fired that purple curse at you. I took my wand back from my mum and I killed him.”

Harry remembered back to sixth year, and how completely unable to kill Draco had been then. He hadn’t had it in him, and it was something Harry had come to admire about Draco. The fact that Harry himself had inadvertently been the motivation behind what must have been Draco’s first kill made him feel like he needed to be sick.

“Draco, I –“

But Draco cut him off, talking quickly. He clearly wanted to change the subject. “I wasn’t myself. The curse that hit me in the shoulder caused a lot of nerve damage, even though Madame Pomfrey says I should regain feeling in a couple of weeks. Thanks to the protection charms, I didn’t get the full affect of it, but I lost a lot of blood in the meantime – and so did you. And that purple curse? It ripped your stomach apart, and the acid nearly ate away all of your internal organs.”

Harry whistled. “Well, that explains the stomach ache.” He looked at Draco, who had finally turned to look him in the eye; he looked utterly devastated. “Come here.” Harry pulled him into a fierce hug. “We’re fine. We made it. We’re going to be just fine, I promise.”

“We are the worst Aurors in the world, Harry,” Draco moaned.

"You aren’t.”

Harry and Draco broke apart as if they’d been shocked, and they turned to see Professor Stark standing in the open doorway. "You're just inexperienced. You boys are not even a month into training. Most second-year trainees would have died back there."

“So you’ve heard, then? You heard how your brilliant plan to protect Draco failed? I told you it wasn’t enough, I told you – and we nearly died, thanks to you!” Harry had surged forward in anger, and Draco had to put an arm firmly upon his shoulder to make sure he didn’t fly out of bed waving his fists.

Professor Stark had the decency to look sheepish, and he took several steps forward into the hospital ward. “I did hear. And I apologise for not understanding the severity of the danger you were in. I admit that I’ve been a bit predisposed to believe that things would only get better after the fall of Voldemort, but that was a mistake. As an Auror, and as one who has dealt with Dark wizards myself, many times, I could not have made a more profoundly ignorant mistake.” He paused at the foot of the bed, staring up at the boys. “I hope you can find it in your hearts to forgive me one day, but I understand if you cannot.”

“It’s all right, Professor,” Draco uttered, and Harry turned to glare at him and had nearly opened his mouth to protest, but at Draco’s reciprocated glare the retort died on his tongue.

“I haven’t come here to stir up any bad feelings. I only wish to share with you some of my recent findings.” Professor Stark held up a manila envelope bursting with papers. “I believe that some of this information may put several things regarding last night into perspective.”

“Oh, really?” Harry said skeptically, but Draco elbowed him in the side.

“Let’s hear it, Professor.”

Professor Stark pulled a chair up beside the bed on Draco’s side, seeming fit to burst with a sudden, excited energy. Harry couldn’t help but become curious, despite his current loathing of the man.

“Firstly, I will remind you of the shock I expressed at your score on the partner tests in class. My intrigue over this has never wavered. I had never come across a nearly perfect match in all my time teaching … I was almost certain that a score like yours was impossible to obtain. And so – I looked into it.” He opened the manila folder and handed over a stack of reports.

Harry scanned the major headlines: Life Debt Phenomenon; A New Perspective on the Study of Life Debts; Can a Life Debt Really Render You Immortal?; Life Debts Between Enemies.

“A life debt? You think a life debt is the reason we scored so high on the partner test?” Harry asked, thunderstruck.

Draco shook his head forcefully. “Can’t be. Any life debt that may have existed between us has been settled.”

“But that’s just it. I don’t think it has. I think that up until last night, both debts were still in place. Maybe something to do with your former rivalry, or not absolutely realising the true effect of the life-saving action... I am not sure how it's possible at all. I’ve never heard of such a thing in my life, and I haven’t been able to find a record of it anywhere - but I believe it to be the truth.” The professor was almost bouncing in his chair. “I think it made the two of you virtually immortal.” “That doesn’t make any sense … we definitely aren’t immortal! Do you want to take a look at the scar on my leg?” Harry asked harshly.

“Immortal in a sense that only corresponds to the two of you together. Alone, you could be killed, I am sure of it. But together? You could only be injured, wounded – but not mortally. I tested my theory that day in the duelling chamber. I asked the two of you to kick it up a notch – which may have been another mistake on my part – but I asked, just to be sure that I could possibly be seeing what I was seeing. Your aim, Draco? There hadn’t been anything wrong with it. It was perfect, but yet somehow it deflected away from Harry, every time.

“You two could not possibly have harmed one another. Later on, Draco, when Pavel attacked you, I believe that you should have died. And last night, Harry... I believe Draco's continued presence was the only thing that kept you alive. You are both be an asset to the other in every way that the partner test grades – seeing as the dual life debts made it your subconscious priority to save the other’s life.”

“It’s wrong. Your conclusion is wrong, it has to be.” Draco looked from Harry, wide-eyed and mystified, to the professor, full of accomplished glee, and back again. “I didn’t save Harry’s life at all.”

Harry sighed. “Draco, yes you did. We’ve been through this …”

“It was nothing compared to what you did, Harry! You swept down on a broomstick to save me from burning to death in a fiendfyre! I think that constitutes as saving my life, but all I did was point them in the other direction, plant a doubt in their minds as to who you were. I didn’t mean to save your life …” Draco’s eyes filled with tears. “And I regret it, I wish I had, I’m so sorry …”

Forgetting about Professor Stark’s presence entirely, Harry pulled Draco into his arms. “Stop it, stop it … it was enough. I lived because of you, Draco, and I’ve never forgotten about it … please believe me …”

Less than tactfully, the professor cleared his throat, but Harry only looked up over Draco’s shoulder and glared. “Thanks for coming to fill us in, but do you think we could be alone for a moment, please?”

Professor Stark stood, smoothing down his robes. It was the first moment Harry realised that the professor was actually in robes, instead of his usual Muggle attire. “Of course. I apologise. But I think you should be aware that I could be wrong about this. I am nearly convinced, but I urge you not to count on the life debt theory to save you again.”

“We didn’t count on it the first time, did we?” Harry countered.

“No, but nevertheless, I am convinced that it is the only reason your stomach acid didn’t kill you last night, Harry.”

Harry felt Draco flinch in his arms, and he gripped him tighter. “We’ll just have to learn how to make our own luck, then.”

The professor smiled. “Indeed you will. I’ll see you both in class next week. Take a few days off.” And then he turned and was gone, shutting the infirmary door behind him.

Draco had scooted down Harry’s chest, and was now hugging him around the stomach. Harry ran his fingers through his hair, trying to make sense of the surplus of information whirling through his mind, but the only thing that seemed crystal clear to him was Draco.

“Harry?” Draco mumbled into his shirt.

“Hm?”

“Is it possible for us to maybe … make this official?”

Harry’s heart sped up. “Make what official?”

“Partners.”

“Oh.” Harry had been hoping for a different answer, but he was pleased that Draco wanted him as a partner, too. “Throughout school, or once we’re on the job for real?”

Draco giggled sleepily. "You dumbass. Partners, sure, but I meant ... I meant us.” His voice took on an abruptly more serious tone, and his arms went around Harry even tighter. “I want you. And I’m telling you so. And – and I’m afraid. But I want you so much that I can’t stand by and hope it will just go away.”

Scooting down in the bed to be on the same level with Draco, Harry kissed him softly, willing his voice not to shake as he pulled away a little to whisper.

“Consider it official.”

:: :: :: :: ::

Monday May 15th, 2000

“I hate this.”

“Draco, you said you’d do it if you got to spin the globe. Come on!”

“I. Hate. This. Do you understand?”

“I do. But the fact of the matter is, we need to complete this mission if we want to become Aurors next year. In order to complete this mission, we need to spin the globe and find out where we’ll be going for our undercover mission …”

“Why is it called an undercover mission? There’s nothing Aurory about it at all. All this so-called mission will prove to the Auror Council is that we are successful at disguising ourselves. We’re just showing them how good we are at acting under our glamours.”

“This is exciting, Draco! We’ve been looking forward to this mission for months now. All Auror Trainees look forward to it, it’s like the highlight of our training career! How often will we get a mission like this, with nothing serious going on, and with time to relax and enjoy ourselves in the meantime?”

“Yes, but what will you be disguised as, Harry?”

“A Muggle Indian-man.”

“And I? What will I be disguised as, again?”

“A … a Muggle gypsy-woman.”

“Right. Therefore – I hate this. You spin the bloody globe. I don’t even care.”

Harry sighed, stepping forward towards the globe that sat on Professor Stark’s desk. It was larger than a normal globe, bursting with bright blues and greens, and it floated above the table, nearly blocking their professor from view. He touched it tentatively; it seemed to hum and vibrate beneath his fingertips.

“One hard spin, Harry, that’ll do it,” Professor Stark said, leaning to the side of the globe to look at the pair. Harry spun it, and then stood beside Draco to watch as the blues and greens began to melt into each other in their spinning ascent.

Harry leaned in to whisper in Draco’s ear as the globe slowed down. “Come on, Draco. Being a woman won’t be all that different for you, will it?” He raised one eyebrow suggestively.

“Fuck you, Potter.” Draco turned away and crossed his arms, attempting to blatantly ignore him.

“That’s what I was referring to, yes.” Harry’s voice had reached a husky level, and Draco began to blush. The globe had almost stopped spinning.

“I hate you,” Draco whispered.

Harry reached over and smiled, taking Draco’s hand in his. “No, you don’t.”

They leaned over together to see where the spinning globe had stopped.

fin

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