They Do Things Differently There

~~

Another silence fell in the carriage. Not a bad one, despite everything – warm and heavy, mingling light and dark like the evening air outside. It felt odd to be heading towards Hogwarts for another year, but probably not as odd as it would have done had they not spent much of the summer helping to repair the castle. Harry hadn’t felt that he could say his goodbye to Hogwarts and leave it in that state. Over the weeks people began to talk more about the school year to come than the year just past, until Harry found that his own participation in it was taken for granted. Harry was not one who could not extricate himself from commitments vicariously assigned to him, but he found himself agreeing with Ron and Hermione when they tentatively said, “It seems right, doesn’t it?”

“It’d be good to feel that we finished ourselves and not that we finished when we had to,” said Harry, and after that it was agreed.

Not that everything was agreed or being done the neat, proper way, thought Harry again as he looked at Ginny and Ron and Hermione, ignoring Neville and Luna for the present. Neither he and Ginny nor Ron and Hermione were really together, nor yet absolutely, permanently apart. Things had seemed to come together directly after the Battle, for at least a couple of weeks, but then there came a change. Ginny started saying things about how she knew it sounded strange, but she didn’t know if she wanted to be with him, right now, as much as she liked him.

“How much can you like me if you don’t want to be with me?” Harry had asked at last.

“I just – I don’t want to have to think about someone else as much as you have to think about someone who’s your boyfriend. I’m probably hexing myself in the foot for later, but my head feels so busy.”

In the end, they decided to agree that perhaps Ginny’s head would get less busy relatively soon.

Then Ron and Hermione started muttering about how their friendship was the most important thing. So they were all going to play it by ear, see how things went over the year. Harry felt as though he was entering a kind of tank, a romance development tank, in which the results would be observed. He found this an uncomfortable idea.

“I this will be rather an interesting term,” said Luna. “People will have so much to talk about.”

“Or not talk about,” said Harry.

“People will probably be quite annoying for you, won’t they, wanting to talk to you all the time?” asked Neville.

“Well. I did actually ask Professor McGonagall if she thought it might be a good idea for her to say something about treating me like a normal student. But there’s things people will want to talk to all of us about,” Harry said.

“Last year will make things very awkward,” said Ginny suddenly. “The people who were the most terrible won’t be there, but I bet there’ll be quite a few who behaved pretty badly.”

“Yeees. On the one hand they need to know very thoroughly that things are different now, and on the other hand we don’t want vigilante justice running riot in the corridors. Lots of tricky line-drawing ahead,” said Hermione, who after some deliberation had accepted the offer of Head Girl.

“Draco Malfoy may come back. His parents would encourage him to show that he knows things are different now,” said Luna.

“You think they’d let Malfoy back? Really?” asked Harry, amazed not only by her suggestion but the prospect, however vague, of its being correct.

“They’d never. People wouldn’t stand for it,” said Ron.

Hermione looked doubtful. “It probably won’t happen, but I can just about see some people convincing Professor McGonagall that they ought to try and stand for it. As a gesture of moving on. But even if he is there, he’s hardly important anymore, if he ever was.”

*

The Sorting Feast was a long, mostly mournful one, though Harry found that he didn’t exactly mind it. It felt good to be here with everyone in the candlelight, the Great Hall looking almost as it should, and it was a while before Harry remembered to think of those who’d gathered around their dead here months before. There were a lot of speeches. About the dead, about moving forward, information as to the state of the castle, how in many ways the houses had united in the end to work together at the Battle, and how Professor McGonagall knew the school would continue in this way and improve. About how Harry Potter was not to be pestered and how, at the other end of the scale, she hoped everyone would be strong enough not to pester Draco Malfoy either.

Most people had spotted Draco Malfoy at some point prior to his being brought up – quiet, head down, rarely looking directly at his fellow Slytherins or Professor McGonagall – and though there had been angry exclamations, the mood was subdued. Harry, too, hoped they would all be strong enough to carry things off gracefully. He wanted this year to have grace, for people to show their best selves after having seen so much of the worst. He still felt tired. He thought that might partly be why he was here, instead of turning to new challenges in new places.

Few lingered in the common room after leaving the feast. The towering grandfather clock in the entrance hall, floors below, began to strike midnight not long after Harry lay down in bed, his mind already drifting free. He couldn’t hear the chimes, of course, but nevertheless they reached him, in their way, as they wafted through the corridors, through the flagstones and floorboards, filling the whole school.

Nine… Ten… Eleven… Twelve…

Time stood still for a long moment, as tense as an animal preparing to pounce. The transformative release of tension wasn’t violent, though. Light bled into the darkness, and rest soaked into the tired bodies filling the castle. The sleight of hand had been accomplished, and even if someone had been watching intently, they would not have been able to spot the trick. Change came to Hogwarts already familiar and well-worn, the backstory tidily coiled into everybody’s heads.

*

It was morning, already. Some people were up and doing, combing their hair in the mirror, performing ironing charms on their robes, venturing into the Great Hall for breakfast. More were just waking up, or determined to slumber for a while longer. Some of those just waking up would perhaps have been in the second category if they hadn’t expected an intriguing day ahead of them. For there were more students waking up in the castle on this morning than there had been for years, and though in some ways the new students were welcome, in other, probably more ways, they were not.

The new students themselves were unsure, full of discomfort and trepidation about their transfer from Durmstrang or home schooling to Hogwarts. Grindelwald had made an alliance with Dumbledore against Voldemort, and as a vital demonstration of this he had lifted his embargo on parents sending their children to Hogwarts. They were to join the children of Muggles and steadfast and intrepid Dumbledore supporters. The potential for discord was obvious, and rather than feeling reassured by the strength of this alliance, many of the students were perspicacious enough to feel daunted by the power that had made it seem desirable to those two foes.

Harry’s pyjamas were plaid rather than striped, and his hair had recently been cut. He was fifteen. These things did not at any time strike him as unnatural as he got out of bed and parted the curtains in time to see Dean’s cautious glance at Seamus Finnigan, the unfamiliar presence in their dormitory. He felt a strange sense of doubleness centred round the sandy-haired figure putting on his shoes, as if he had seen just this sight before and it should not be new to him. He dismissed the moment of meaningless déjà vu.

“I hope I’m not behind, you know, when we get to class,” said Seamus, straightening up from tying his shoelaces and looking back at Harry and Dean for a moment. “Me mam’s done her best, but I don’t know if it’s the same.”

“Oh, I’m sure everyone’ll know it’s all different and new to you,” said Harry. “Snape, the Potions Master, will be a bastard though, so remember not to take him personally.”

“Cheers.”

*

Slytherin had more new students than any other house. Here, it was those who had always been here who might have been in danger of feeling shyly outnumbered, though they kept their end up well. It was warmer here than Durmstrang, and it was good to be in the common room and know his ancestors had passed their school days here, and there was doubtless far more amusement and fellow feeling at the situation than in other houses, but Draco wasn’t happy.

He knew his parents had been unsure what to do with him and were still unsatisfied that they had made the safest choice. Grindelwald’s British Knights of Walpurgis were feeling insecurity in the air. They were beginning to think of themselves as on the defensive rather than the offensive, and it was not a position they had signed up to take.

Blaise, Daphne, Theo and Millicent, the Slytherin students in Draco’s year who’d always been at Hogwarts, were used to that position of resistance, comfortable and proud in it – though Draco was pretty sure from a coy intonation in Theo’s voice and an allusion or two from his classmates that Mr Nott was a supporter of Voldemort, making Theo a different kettle of fish altogether. Draco’s aunt was one of Voldemort’s followers too, Draco knew, though his parents would rather he was unaware. So this wasn’t a new thing to him, he told himself, though his parents didn’t have much to do with Bellatrix.

“I like to feel there’s a challenge for me to get my teeth into, and one way or another, there will be,” said Blaise had said last night. “But you must have expected things to be always very easy if you’re so shocked to be here.”

He was looking at Draco. Draco was ruffled by the idea his shock had been undisguised, and even as he wanted to say something that made him look tough, he was unable to get his teeth round the lie that he too wanted the world to be unsure and challenging.

This morning he was sullen and determined to face down the day. He felt this was necessary, though he had Crabbe and Goyle and Pansy around him, the same as ever. Pansy kept throwing deliberately unimpressed little glances around her as they emerged from the dungeons.

Over breakfast, Blaise and Daphne pointed out to them some of the old students of other houses. Draco had known of course that he’d be going to school with Muggleborns, but it was a shock to find himself so close to them in the here and now. “We’ll be having Potions with Dean Thomas and Hermione Granger first lesson,” said Daphne, to bring it home to him. “Granger is really annoying but Thomas is alright.” Was he to be expected to find Muggleborns “alright”? “And also there’s Harry Potter and Ron Weasley, have you heard of their parents?”

“In the Order of the Phoenix, yes, I know,” said Draco. He felt more and more as if he’d entered an alternative universe.

Potions was interesting though, in a way he hadn’t expected. Professor Snape was elaborately horrid to everyone, but after a while it was possible to detect subtleties and different depths in his horridness. The bottomless pit of it was reserved for Harry Potter, in a way that would have seemed embarrassingly revealing on Snape’s part if he hadn’t been so intimidating. Revealing of what, Draco couldn’t quite decide. He’d half formed a crude scenario of forbidden lust, sublimated or disguised, but got side-tracked by a couple of references to Potter’s father, which were received with gritted teeth and attempted resignation. Theo Nott got off with some almost light-hearted facetiousness. Snape bombarded the new students with questions, and Draco found that his own answers were accepted, where Snape had otherwise almost always some subtlety to bring the student up smartly on.

Did Snape’s interests lie, perhaps, with Voldemort? Did he know that Theo Nott’s father was involved with him, or that Draco’s parents would not be unwilling to involve themselves if given reason? It interested Draco, to think that the power struggles of the moment penetrated everything here, and that he himself might take part from a classroom, but then it also slowed his thoughts. Lord Voldemort, still a shadowy figure, seemed to have become a little more sharply defined, in a way that made Draco wonder whether he liked shadows.

Grindelwald was fierce and formidable and uncompromising and had cowed completely several nations, but he was a man of theory as well as action. Draco was used to feeling that his power extended to the classroom, in that many of the ways he had been taught at Durmstrang to interpret magic and the world was based on Grindelwald’s writings. Everything about Voldemort that Draco had heard was more uncushioned by drowsy afternoons over textbooks; a simple choice between annihilation and elevation. He was new, essentially. He wasn’t the establishment. Draco wasn’t sure yet which he preferred.

*

In his office, Dumbledore sighed, his head lowered in thought. It ought to be a right, joyous thing to fill the school with students again, but he was unable to tell if treating with Gellert was a sign of strength or if he was only falling again to his first temptation. Was Voldemort any worse? Had Gellert truly learned, as he claimed, something like humility? Nonetheless, the new students learning to mix with those they had been taught to spurn would do them good. Wherever they went when they left Hogwarts, whatever they did, they would know that Muggleborns and Blood Traitors had names and faces. He had wondered sometimes whether in offering Hogwarts to those who dared accept it he was offering them more danger than he should let them accept, but now those at risk, and those at risk of being a risk, had at least the protection of that chance.

*

Draco had realised that those other students were human. It took a while, but only a short one, during which he tried not to stare too much. But they were just ordinary people who got up his nose. They were so smug. He hated their patronising overtures, their assumption that he was in the process of realising everything he’d ever learnt was wrong.

It was so clear that as far as they were concerned, they were, not only physically, in the right place, and would never have to move from it, whereas hard work and squeezing himself into a round hole was his role. It took him another while to feel comfortable being himself and stop automatically assuming the façade of what people here wanted him to be. He and his friends stopped worrying about the implications of the political situation for them and began to feel disaffected and satisfyingly weary.

Draco in particular liked jibing at other students, trying to get them to see what morons they were to take themselves so seriously. Well, he liked jibing at some of them. Some of the Hufflepuffs cried, getting their Hufflepuff friends involved, who blustered, puffed and flushed, which was amusing, only they didn’t shut up and go away once it’d stopped being amusing. The Ravenclaws would argue that they didn’t take themselves seriously, or argue their reasons for doing so, and that got tedious too.

The Gryffindors were definitely the best, in a worst kind of way. They were the ones provoked to genuine outrage when Draco or Pansy said how stupid the Order of the Phoenix was. They all had relatives and things who had fallen in battle, and somehow when he was around them Draco found himself wanting to make them feel they’d died for nothing.

It was a weird, wriggling kind of glee that he felt when he saw Potter’s and Weasleys’s faces crumple with rage. He didn’t let Granger puncture it when she said his childishness disgusted and astonished her. He had what he needed in her friends. Potter was the best, somehow. There was something more tightly contained about him. He was not actually harder to stir up than Weasley, but it seemed like it should be.

Sometimes, or at least, once or twice, Draco admitted to himself that he envied Potter a little. He seemed less bored and more sure than Draco, and while Draco had always been satisfied with the amount of glamour in his own background, Potter had a share of a different kind, with his defiant, daredevil relatives, who he would join when he left school. Not to mention that thing with a basilisk Draco had always refused to hear the details of. Draco had always looked forward to getting his foot on the ladder, beginning some rungs up, at the Ministry of Magic. Nothing seemed quite satisfactory these days.

*

“I don’t know why you don’t ignore him. Surely you can see that roaring with rage makes him happy,” said Hermione.

“He doesn’t really get to me,” Harry assured her.

Hermione looked disbelieving.

“No, not really,” he repeated. “It’s practice, isn’t it? He reminds me what’s out there, and it reminds me how petty and worthless it really is. An encounter with him fills me with faith for the future.” It was easy to get complacent when you were surrounded by like-minded people who were always assuring themselves and you that the other side was no match, and all that was needed was for a new generation to launch a new attack. He was glad he was having this exposure.

*

For all Harry’s congratulating himself that he was preparing himself as well as possible for the reality of evil, he hadn’t learnt to expect the unexpected. He was scuttling down a long winding staircase, on his way to Herbology after Snape had delayed him, when a younger boy, Peregrine Cartwright, Harry thought his name was, called to him from the top. He almost pretended not to hear in favour of plunging on, but his better self prevailed and he looked back towards the top of the stairs.

“I was coming to fetch you,” Perry panted. “Professor McGonagall wants you – not just you. You’re all to wait in one of the attics in North Tower. I think she wants to talk to you without anyone knowing.”

Harry didn’t know what he expected. Some sudden, obscure difficulty she wished to consult certain of her students with, privately? The flimsiest wisps of suppositions flitted through his mind, as he hurried after Perry, like trying to recapture a dream. Peregrine trotted always ahead of him, so that Harry had to keep his wits about him not to lose him round corners, and couldn’t ask him anything further.

As promised, Peregrine led him to one of the attics, large but not often used, where people were already waiting, craning forward curiously as the door opened, and relaxing again as they saw it was Peregrine and Harry. Harry caught Ron’s eye and they greeted each other with happy surprise. Harry made his way over to sit next to him, and noticed that there was an odd selection of people in the attic. What did McGonagall want with Draco Malfoy and Pansy Parkinson, for a start?

Harry and Ron exchanged no more than a couple of words before breaking off to look at Perry Cartwright, swishing his wand about and dramatically declaiming the words of a spell, almost ferociously affecting a cloak-swirling suavity that came oddly from him. He relaxed after that though, plumping himself down on what looked like a giant tortoise shell, and looking alertly towards the door in a way that made Harry think of a happy mouse sniffing the air.

“What was that for?” Blaise Zabini called, but he wasn’t answered.

“Is he supposed to wait as well, then?” he asked Ron, who shrugged.

“Did Professor McGonagall give a particular time, Perry?” asked Ginny Weasley.

“Just that she’d see us here as soon as she could,” Peregrine said.

Harry hoped Professor McGonagall had a good reason for depriving them of education like this. Some people were looking very worried, Harry saw as he looked around. Most of the Slytherins looked bored, swinging their legs and twitching their hair in some cases, or simply sunk deeply into themselves.

There were several stages to waiting. For quite some time, the group in the attic remained in the first stage, that of confident assurance that they had only to wait to be rewarded. Then waiting seemed like a burden punishing their muscles as they struggled under its weight. Did Professor McGonagall really expect them to spend the afternoon sitting in an attic? No matter the circumstances, she could show some consideration, couldn’t she? She couldn’t be much longer, could she? Had she changed her mind?

Draco Malfoy had remained in much the same catatonic state throughout this, but he finally roused himself. “I’m going. If the old bat wants me she can come and get me,” he said.

Those watching him were not entirely unsupportive. It seemed as if it would be so typical of Malfoy to leave just before Professor Mcgonagall got there that it made her arrival seem more imminent, and in any case, they could give up themselves without having to be the first to break away. These thoughts were swiftly broken off when Malfoy began to swear, tugging at the door.

All at once, Harry knew, positively flooded with bitter, belated acuteness. “It’s a trap,” he muttered, standing up.

“You,” said Malfoy, turning on Peregrine and shaking his finger at him in a way that Harry noticed with amused contempt even now. “What the fuck are you playing at?”

Perry looked as if he had a bad migraine, his hand rising to cup his temple, his brow screwed up. Then he backed away from Malfoy, who hadn’t even begun to reach for his wand or make to physically grab him, and screamed, a good rich, committed scream, his eyes shut.

“What is wrong with that kid?”

“Is he ill? Or jinxed?”

Perry opened his eyes and looked at his hostile audience, pale and shaky. “We just have to wait. That’s all. Professor McGonagall said so.”

The story had already begun to shake, and was quite shattered after his display, and Draco’s discovery of the locked door.

“Perhaps it wasn’t Professor McGonagall,” said Susan Bones. “Perhaps it was someone pretending to be her.”

“I think he always knew he was lying,” said Harry.

He moved forwards and gripped Perry’s shoulder, trying to look into his face and discover what was wrong with him. He seemed to Harry to be caught between two states, which made him wonder if he was struggling under Imperius. Harry didn’t know what he was looking for. Peregrine’s eyes looked back at him, fearfully, and blinked.

Ron came forward to try Alohomora on the door himself, not trusting Malfoy.

“We’re trapped. We’re seriously trapped in here,” he told Harry. “You’ve taken us hostage,” he told Perry, who had sunk back onto the tortoise shell, his legs tucked under him.

He looked tragically resigned, as if a weight he knew would fall on him had fallen, and squashed him, as he knew it would. Something about him had an off-putting effect. He was surrounded by furious and frightened people who only stared at him instead of demanding answers or begging to be let out.

Perhaps no one wanted to know what plan was at work in this attic with them, Harry thought, finding himself racking his brains for something to do, rather than silently stare.

Ginny set the furniture banging itself against the floor (most who had been sitting on it got off, but not Peregrine, who let himself be jogged up and down) and enhanced her screams of “Help” with Sonorus. Everyone joined in, while Peregrine stared ahead.

*

It was strange to remember that stage later, when things had been made clear. The time for this was not deemed right until everyone was worn out with despair.

Harry looked up as he heard a foot tread on the creaking floor. Everyone did, and was held by the sight as if it had them by the throat. Peregrine Cartwright was curled up on the floor, and, seeming in some troubling way to be standing in him, rising out of him, was an older boy, dark and sleek, looking around him with pleasure and confidence.

“I thought your minds might be more at rest if I introduced myself,” he said. “The unknown is said to be the most frightening of all, and I don’t want to be needlessly unkind. I am known at this time as Tom Riddle, but I do prefer to be addressed, with more formality, as Lord Voldemort. Yes, you are tiresomely incredulous,” he continued. “But it is indeed ‘really me’.” Pansy Parkinson flushed violently. “There is more of me than there is of other people. That is all you need to know.”

“You’re not quite all here, though,” said Harry. “So there’s not that much of you.”

“Ah yes, the Potters’ son. I’m sure you felt very brave when you killed the basilisk. And I’m sure you’re very proud of your brave parents. Fortunately for both of us, they will feel less brave at the prospect of your death.”

“They won’t,” said Harry, foolishly, really. He knew they would, but at that moment he wanted them to be inhumanly calm, prepared to give up their son rather than yield in any way to this pompous boy, and the wizard out in the world who still contained him.

Looking around him, he could see that many of the students had been strategically chosen; people like Draco Malfoy whose parents were quite likely to be interested in joining Voldemort but could do with a push, and people like himself, whose parents would never consider it and whose submission would therefore be a great coup. If his parents refused to treat with Voldemort, he could kill Harry and still call it a good day’s work. It was disaster, and the lives of those in the attic had become forfeit even if they were allowed out of it alive.

“We have to think of something,” Harry muttered to Ron.

Ron took a moment to respond. He nodded slowly. “A plan. We need a plan,” he said numbly.

So that was all arranged.

*

The whole Peregrine Cartwright/Tom Riddle thing was awkward. For some of the time, Perry was just Perry, almost the same slightly odd thirteen year old Harry vaguely remembered. If he’d always seemed morose, he was even less cheerful now. He seemed to feel the strain less of the prospect of an early death than the pressure of concealing the exact role he’d played in events while he tried to join the ranks of his fellow victims. He’d been possessed, he said, and that much seemed obvious, but possessed how, and for how long, and whether he could have done anything about it, he chose not to make clear. Even if the others could have felt friendly and trusting towards Perry being just Perry (and some of them felt sorry for him, and tried) this was made much more difficult by the fact that Tom Riddle was quite frequently lurking in there. It was quite easy to tell when this happened, once they’d familiarised themselves with Just Perry’s mannerisms, but that did not compensate for the suddenness.

The attic wasn’t really big enough to leave Perry in isolation for most of the time, but when they saw Riddle in him they would shrink instinctively, finding themselves on the other side of the room without conscious memory of getting there. Riddle did not take on his own form again, but Harry thought that was choice rather than inability.

“I can’t really picture him just sitting around with us. I suppose it would take away some of the glamour,” Ron whispered.

*

“I thought things would happen quite quickly,” said Harry. “I thought something would happen.”

“I didn’t think we’d have to worry about starving to death,” said Ron.

Harry thought two more days passed after this. They were very unpleasant, and he had to keep reminding himself that he’d always expected to have to deal with unpleasantness. Then Tom Riddle also brought up this concern that this were not going as expected – or so it seemed to the onlookers who were not privy to the conversation that was taking place in Perry’s head.

“No!” Perry finally shouted with triumphant tones, lying, sweaty, on the floor. “I didn’t leave the message. And you never noticed I didn’t because I was too clever for you. I am a brilliant Occlumens. My mind is as strong as steel. So no one knows we are here.”

“And that’s good because…?” asked Pansy Parkinson, looking as if she was considering kicking Perry.

Perry was back on the “mind as strong as steel” track, and Harry almost wished she would. It was like watching embarrassing amateur dramatics with the knowledge that there was something very disturbing driving the histrionics. But then Riddle seemed to give him a good talking to, and Perry’s body language gradually became more subdued. Everyone eyed him very warily as he slowly got to his feet. Perhaps Riddle would get impatient with Plan A and skip to Plan B: killing them all. They weren’t expecting Perry to open the door. No one’s reflexes were especially quick, though Pansy managed to rush forwards and might just have made it if there hadn’t been some kind of force field around the door that she bounced off of.

“I suppose you can tell how he got where he is,” said Draco Malfoy. “He doesn’t use magic like other people.” The cold looks sent his way seemed not to disturb him.

“If he comes back, we need to ask Perry what the fuck he’s been playing at,” said Ron. “Were you as weird when you were possessed, Gin?”

Ginny shrugged. “Just about,” she said. “I think Perry thinks he can have his cake and eat it. Have Tom’s company and the excitement of it without letting himself be just a tool.”

Harry thought that the excitement must surely have changed into something darker and heavier by now. He wondered if it mattered, whether Perry still had (if he ever had) any power to stop playing if he was no longer enjoying the game.

“It must make it different for him,” said Harry, “Knowing who’s possessing him – more like having an imaginary friend who’s real, if you see what I mean. You never got to understand what was happening to you, so I guess you weren’t as likely to think you were in control.”

Ginny looked as if she was going to say something, but got distracted.

Perry came back, which they had not been sure of. They weren’t glad to see him, though neither did they feel abandonment could have improved the situation.

“We’ve got food,” said Perry. He was speaking as Perry, yet they could feel Riddle, cold and sardonic, present somehow even in words that were not his.

“But does anyone know we’re here? Didn’t you see anyone?” asked Susan wistfully, obviously imagining Dumbledore coming across a Voldemort-possessed student and sorting the whole thing out at once.

“No one saw me,” (Not the same as him seeing no one, Harry noticed) “but I did leave the note this time. So probably all your Mummies and Daddies will be along soon, which is what you wanted.”

“So it’s really like we’ve just been kidnapped,” said Draco, looking cheered. The eerie waiting, with its hunger headaches, had somehow been cancelled out, apparently, leaving him, more than ever, one of the more content with the situation.

“I bet they’ve already guessed what’s happened. I mean, even if they didn’t get a message, obviously we’ve been missing. And they’ve probably told our parents, I mean they should have done. So they’ll probably all already know what they’re going to do,” said Pansy. She made it sound simple. Harry envisioned students being calmly plucked out of the attic one by one, like chocolates from a box, the children of the stonily strong-minded left behind, unappealing. He could not really believe there would be any stony, strong-minded parents.

“So why didn’t you leave that message the first time? If you could manage not to do that, maybe you could have managed not to get us all up here. How can this be your idea of fun?” asked Ron.

Perry looked at Ron with determined scorn. “Why does anyone do anything?”

“I’m asking why you did this.”

“To see what happened?” said Perry, asking rather than telling. Harry thought they should remember that, quite apart from the obvious fact that Perry didn’t want to talk about his inner workings, Riddle was present. If by chance there were things Perry had managed to keep from him, and it seemed like there might be, he didn’t need to be told about them.

There was food, Perry reminded them by slightly raising his laden arms, and food, they were willing to admit, was really what they cared most about now.

In a little while, Harry told himself, he must try and make a plan, if only to pass the time. Surely there was a bright, clever, daring plan in the ether, just for him.

If he had been moving oddly slowly towards it, weighed down by the very thing that necessitated it, Ginny had been moving even slower. Having started earlier, during the surreal nightmare that had been her first year at Hogwarts, she got there first. She had spent her time in the farthest corner of the attic from Perry, but now she wandered gradually towards him, taking her time, having genuine conversation with the people between them, so that no one noticed her progress.

Harry noticed it when she was behind Perry, her back turned to his, leaning down to get another sandwich. Hunger or deliberate bravery, he noted in passing. She ate the sandwich, and drifted past Perry. People began to pay attention when she suddenly seemed to have dashed back. Some of them had a vague impression of her hand having flicked out and snatched something from Perry. Perry would have pounced on her but Anthony Goldstein had instinctively held him back, and Ron joined him.

Harry was looking at Perry, kicking and biting and struggling to get to his wand, and wondering if he too was needed to restrain him. He didn’t see what Ginny was doing, but only heard the whoosh and felt the warm wind that swept the attic. Fiendfyre: always a good way of destroying Horcruxes and anything else. Harry looked away from the fireball and Ginny’s set, hypnotised face to Perry, in time to see Riddle leave Perry. Perry looked startlingly soft and young; Harry had been used to seeing him edged with Riddle and had forgotten what he was really like. Riddle was now screaming in the midst of the fireball. Why would he want to go and be in there, Harry wondered stupidly.

Aguamenti!” screamed Susan. The water had no effect on the flames that had taken hold. Harry, driven like the others to the edges of the room, realised that they were all going to die.

*

The universe shook itself impatiently.

*

The universe stood still for Draco as he stood on top of the tower with his wand raised, and he knew he had to make up his mind before it began again. No more burning rooms, he thought nonsensically.

“Where can I be safe?” he asked.

Dumbledore told him. Draco tried to fix it in his mind. He lowered his wand. If this was what he was doing now, what came next?

He didn’t know why Dumbledore had bothered to plead with him, because it was too late. Snape came up to finish him off before Draco could even make up his mind to go back to the original plan and have one last go himself. And then they had to run for it and everything seemed so wasted and pointless. He couldn’t carry out his mission and he couldn’t join the other side. He felt so weak, and he’d wanted to feel so strong. He didn’t understand how things had ended up this way.

*

Draco didn’t feel any better, or not much, once the night was over. The Dark Lord had chosen Malfoy Manor for his quarters, but this seemed to confer less power and privilege on the Malfoys than Draco would have thought. He could see that his father was not getting quite what he’d expected and wanted, either.

What they really wanted, Draco realised, was the quiet, prosperous life, complete with Muggle-loving fools to complain about, that they’d had in the Dark Lord’s absence. They’d made a mistake.

Draco didn’t want to be here, where it was only becoming clearer that he was the worst, most useless Death Eater, taken seriously by no one. Perhaps it was not too late to find somewhere else to be. Like Number 12, Grimmauld Place.

He had to talk to his mother.

“Mother, when I was on the tower with Dumbledore, he said there was somewhere I could go if I didn’t want to do it. He said you could come. He told me where it was.” Draco was too ashamed of what he was proposing to actually propose it, but he had made it clear. It was too late to take it back, but he didn’t think his mother would be angry with him. Unless this time he’d really shocked her. He became convinced in the silence that he had.

“I can’t come,” said Narcissa at last. “I can’t leave your father, and he will not want to leave. Not yet, at least. Also, if I came it would look more serious. A teenager running away alone is different. He could be anywhere, and could have gone for a number of different reasons. If I went, it makes it look more sensible, more planned, I think. More something to quash. I will understand if you leave. But you had better understand that if you leave, they will look for you and kill you if they find you. Don’t tell me about your plan. But think about it very carefully.” She had sounded almost abstracted for much of this, calmly considering, but became more fervent, wanting Draco to understand exactly what she meant.

Draco didn’t even have a plan. His mother hadn’t really added to his peace of mind. Not only was she staying behind, which he had half expected, but she had not made him feel either of his options were validated. He got the idea she wanted him to have a plan to leave here, and would be disappointed if he continued trailing around here, but thought the plan should be a proper guarantee of safety. He felt more unsafe about staying or going than before. And there seemed something unattractive about leaving his parents like a rat off a sinking ship. He would surely not be able to contact them once he left. They would be on opposite sides of a war. Why had his mother not told him it was a terrible idea?

He never did make up his mind in the end. He just went.

*

He screamed. Dumbledore was back, demanding something of him. He covered his head so he wouldn’t have to see, hoping the running feet he could hear would do something about it. He dared to look up some moments later, when he felt his wand being snatched out of his sleeve. He would have liked to enter with it in his hand, but he’d known it wouldn’t send the right message. Remus Lupin was looking at him coolly, holding him at wandpoint.

“We knew Dumbledore gave you the address,” said Lupin. “So though we have not been able to use the place as a safehouse, we have been checking it every day.”

Draco wondered if he should apologise for keeping them waiting, but was distracted by being magically bound and levitated into a dining room. He’d expected it, he told himself, as Lupin summoned members of the Order (the Order he was hoping to join, God, this felt so unnatural) to interrogate him. He hadn’t expected them to be nice to him, unsuspicious and welcoming. He hadn’t expected it to feel quite so much like letting himself in for being taken hostage, though.

They gave him Veritaserum. So there went his plans to appear noble. Draco wished Veritaserum made you feel drunk or something, so you wouldn’t mind hearing your own voice telling people things you didn’t want them to know, and looking at their faces while they were listening.

“I think he’s harmless,” said Sturgis Podmore. “But he seems to be coming to us like we’re a charitable institution. I suppose we have to take him, but it’s a bit of a burden.”

“I’ll try and be useful,” said Draco. “I will.” He hated the taste of sincerity in his mouth, like soap, like humbleness, and would have liked to slip into comfortable irony and impudence, that committed him to nothing, but a wiser part of him knew what was appropriate.

“The problem is he’s so likely to switch sides; I can foresee all kinds of situations,” said Hestia Jones. “It’s a shame we can’t get him to take an Unbreakable Vow.”

“I might take one. You could tell me what, exactly, you’d like me to vow,” said Draco.

There was a long silence. “No. It’s not you that means we can’t, it’s ourselves,” said Hestia.

“I don’t think we’ll be involving you in much for a while. We’ll have to have a think about how we can best use you. We are glad you’ve come here,” said Lupin.

Draco smiled thinly, unconvinced. They turned to immediacies, like what was going to happen to him right now. The answer seemed to be “Get on with whatever else they’d been doing that day and leave him here,” though it obviously felt lacking.

“We can use the place again now. So there will be people coming and going. And I think soon we’ll need somewhere to offer as a refuge. I’ll just go and tell Kreacher to get some shopping in,” said Hestia.

There was some more going through was he really, really in earnest, with the members reminding themselves of the more reassuring things he’d said under Veritaserum, and then Draco was left alone in an empty house. It was a lonely anti-climax. He comforted himself with the thought that they were obviously all shitting themselves about whether he was going to sell them down the river. If Dumbledore had still been around, he’d probably have been better able to convince them that he was a reformed character. Draco tried to like the idea of himself as an icy chill within the Order of the Phoenix, but now he was in the Order he wanted it to be something warm and strong and secure that he could join to make himself feel right again. But he’d brought himself with him.

*

It got better, or at least, for whiles at a time he’d think he was beginning to settle in before realising that no, it was still strange and horrible and wrong for him. Draco was bored for so much of the time, but when people were there it was usually difficult. He felt they never forgot he was a Malfoy. It was like he was playing a part in a play that he wasn’t sure whether to make eye-catchingly innovative or a lineless crowd member. All that he did know was that he mustn’t be himself.

At first they would have him make the tea, to test his willingness as a humble junior not-really-member, and then go away without hearing the meetings. Draco didn’t try to listen anyway; he had no appetite for knowledge these days. Soon, however, they steeled themselves, and opened up, just in time for most of what Draco heard to be about getting Potter safely to the Weasleys. He’d almost forgotten that The Other Side was essentially Potterland, though now he didn’t know how he could have. Some of them were going to disguise themselves as Potter and act as decoys in case of attack. So risky, thought Draco, and remembered that self-sacrifice was what he’d signed up for.

“What about Draco?” asked Bill Weasley. “He’s got to do something sometime.”

Everyone looked at him. Draco was recoiling, hopefully not too visibly. This was what he’d signed up for, he reminded himself again.

“He’d lose his head,” said Moody in the end. “We need to toughen him up. Then he can do something sometime. I never did get to teach Defence Against the Dark Arts.”

Oh joy. Moody had not been among those brought in to interrogate Draco; Draco suspected this was in case he frightened Draco back to the Death Eaters. Draco knew Moody had wanted to run all kinds of magical tests on him but had not been allowed – more because they were a waste of time and Moody’s crackpottery was not to be encouraged too much than to protect Draco.

*

Moody’s lessons were one of Draco’s dips into despair. It was like mental torture – it was mental torture. Moody was a vaguely more humanoid Dementor, whose presence made Draco feel his own hollowness. He had nothing to offer in response to Moody’s attacks, no strength or wit or comprehension. It was like Moody was his own nothingness. Realising that he had learned a little scraping of something, that he was quicker physically and mentally than he had been when he’d started, was one of his delusive periods of cheering up.

Then they all went off to provide Potter with his escort, and Moody was killed. That was a shock. The war that killed people rather than just making Draco miserable was more real than it had been since he came to Grimmauld Place. And if Moody, who had seemed so formidable, could be killed by the side Draco had abandoned… For once he didn’t have to pretend; everyone was a little stunned.

“Does Potter know I’m here?” Draco asked Lupin quietly, towards the end of the meeting.

“Not yet. I think, on the whole, he’ll be pleased.”

Draco wasn’t sure why he wanted Potter to know about what was, really, his submission to Potter. His “I give in, you were right.” But also, perhaps, his “Look at me.”

*

In what felt to Draco like no time at all, Potter, Weasley and Granger were living with him, finding themselves all of a sudden on the run. It wasn’t that much less frightening than the Dark Lord moving into the Manor, he thought. “It’s not that much less frightening than the Dark Lord moving in with us,” he said, to break the ice. They laughed a bit, but went back to looking awkward. Much awkwardness followed – much trying to include him in conversation and much going away to have conversations privately.

“There’s things we’re not talking to anybody else about,” Potter and Granger assured him earnestly.

If he hadn’t been on his best behaviour he’d have suggested they were off having threesome sex. Come to think of it, he envied their threesomeness. They seemed such a unit.

After a while, he began to see that they were not always a unit. Sometimes they were Ron/Hermione and Harry, and sometimes, when Harry was feeling this, he came to talk to Draco. Mostly about the weather, at first.

“I still have to actively work at not insulting you,” said Draco. “It’s like a nervous habit.”

“Oh, me too,” said Harry. There was a pause. “Do you regret the choice you made?” he

asked, bringing up the more serious issues in their minds for the first time. “I don’t mean it like scrutinising your loyalty,” he hastened to add; “I’m not asking officially, I just wondered how you were feeling.”

“I don’t know. I regret all available choices, I suppose. I think they’re all pretty shit.”

Harry nodded solemnly. “The argument for choosing us, of course, is that we’re working to

change that and give people more choices.”

“I’m not playing much part in that. Or any.” Draco didn’t mention that that was another

example of shit choices all around: play a useful, dangerous, difficult part or continue feeling awkward, disliked, distrusted, and extraneous.

“Yeah, I think we do need to find something real for you to do,” said Harry.

Draco was silent for a moment. “Do you think “we” are going to win this war?” He could not yet say we without ironic quotation marks.

“In the end we will,” said Harry. “But I don’t think you can do it, fight against Voldemort, I mean, just because you think you’re going to win and then everything will be easy for you again. You have to do it because being on his side is worse than losing against him.”

Draco nodded slowly, feeling as if he was being chastened. “But thinking about how you’re going to win and then everything will be great can help you to fight. Look at it this way, if you want Slytherins to be on your side, rather than dying nobly all alone, then remember we bring our Slytherin selves – and Slytherin strengths.”

“I know, I know, all that stuff about houses uniting. I didn’t mean to make it about that. Just, please, don’t get discouraged and go back to the other side. That’s what I wanted to say.”

“I wouldn’t dare go back to the other side. I’d be killed horribly, wouldn’t I? You’re stuck with me,” said Draco, only now fully realising this.

*

He didn’t entirely stop resenting Harry. He stopped hating him personally, and believing that when Draco couldn’t see him he rolled around in his fame and glory as the Boy Who Lived with the disgusting glee of a pig in a pig-sty. But Harry was still the centre of everything, the opposition against the Dark Lord. Whatever Draco did, he would never be as important. It didn’t matter if Harry didn’t like being important, or if being the person who had to bring Voldemort down was demanding and frightening. Draco did begin to think, though, about the separation he made between ideas of importance, fame and praise, and doing difficult and frightening things. Even in a habitually unfair world, Draco was beginning to see that it was illogical to covet one while instinctively rejecting the other. Perhaps, in envying the appearance of the thing, he had all along been fascinated by the thing itself.

Even to be Lupin, he thought, mortified, would be something. They had forgotten about teaching him things after Moody’s death, but Lupin remembered, and as well as giving him some lessons himself had said “You could go over a few things with him, Harry.” Lupin may have been hired out of pity but he was, Draco admitted now, quite good. To be good at fighting the Dark Arts was almost as glamorous as being good at the Dark Arts, and he’d already tried and failed that. He moped for a while. He suspected both of them, when it came down to it, were too real and nasty for him.

He tried, though, even while living in his failure.

“It’s great to try,” said Harry one day, alarmingly seeming to pick up on Draco’s inner monologue. “Neville is better than you when he tries than you when you don’t. In fact, he can be pretty good. So you’ve got no excuse not to do what you can. More than the other subjects, Defence is about what you are more than what you can do. I think that’s what I like about it.”

“But that’s what I worry about,” said Draco, not looking at Harry. “I can’t change who I am.”

“I think you can, in a way. I think you can change what you do with yourself. Like you can try at this instead of what you used to be doing, and I think that makes all the difference in the world.”

The problem with trying was that it meant feelings like this, as Draco tried to swallow his pride and his resentment of Harry being the one to give advice on how to be a better person. Trying meant admitting he wasn’t perfect already. It was hard and it went against the grain.

*

The others were especially busy discussing something secret these days. Draco didn’t exactly think they should tell him about it, especially as they claimed they didn’t talk to anyone else about it either, but it still made him feel a little hollow. Especially when they could not contain the momentous thing, whatever it was, and got to the stage of thinking of little things to contribute to their discussion when they were not alone, and would step aside for a moment to mutter, or pass a note.

“Maybe we should take Draco, to help,” said Harry, out loud, in the end.

Hermione and Ron looked at Draco, startled.

“I don’t think we should,” said Hermione. “Because of him as well as because of us. It’s not fair to take him to do something dangerous without telling him why we want to. Well, when I put it like that, I suppose people do that all the time. But we shouldn’t. We’re going to the Ministry,” she explained to Draco.

“I don’t mind if I don’t know exactly what you want to do there. I know that everything you want to do is really about one thing,” said Draco, his heart thumping. He felt as if he was on the verge of a great transformation, that he welcomed even as it did violence to him.

“No. It wouldn’t be a real choice. I don’t mean we have a goal that you wouldn’t agree with if you knew, but you might not agree with our way of going about it. And we can’t give you the chance to help us think of a better one. But thank you for offering,” said Harry, in a manner that obviously closed the matter.

So he didn’t go, and he was relieved, but then disappointed. That was the way to be a different person, he thought – to do different things, and think of little else besides the desired difference. He hoped when a real opportunity came he wouldn’t freeze like he had on the Tower.

*

Draco wandered around the house when they had gone to do their thing at the Ministry. Perhaps they would not return, or at least, not all of them. It was clear from what they had said that they were doing something not only dangerous but stupid, perhaps badly thought-out. If it was Weasley who didn’t come back, he must be careful not to show too clearly that it would be “only” Weasley as far as Draco was concerned.

They did all come back, but only for a second, and it was Weasley who, being nearest, shot out his hand for Draco just as Draco realised they were not alone, and they were gone again.

*

If his self of a few months ago could see him now, in a tent with Potter, Weasley and Granger. The drollness cheered him a little, but it was worse than sharing a house with Potter, Weasley and Granger had been, and not just because of the increased proximity. They claimed that their mission had gone well, mostly, but there was plainly something they were worrying about. Draco had expected them to contact the Order and ask where they should go now, but no, camping for the foreseeable future was the plan. He was a little thrown off too by the fact that he barely needed to whine about things like missing Kreacher’s cooking; Weasley and Potter apparently minded even more. He found himself having a lot of conversations with Hermione, who was clearly the one making the most effort not to succumb to sullen fractiousness. The sense that they were ignoring the dragon in the room made these conversations fairly unsatisfying, however.

Ron grew harder and harder to tolerate. Draco had to sit on himself hard not to show his irritation, because he was pretty sure that if he did Harry and Hermione would take theirs out on him. Abstaining from retaliating was like playing the saintly little boy in Snape’s classes to infuriate them, really, but in a more subdued note and more realistically.

Despite everything, it was depressing when Ron left. Draco wished he could point out to Harry and Hermione how annoying he’d been and have them agree that it was good to be without him, so the tent would be without this dreadful, dragging feeling of unease. But he knew it didn’t work like that.

A night or two later, he thought things over, absent-mindedly watching Harry’s side rise and fall across the tent. If Harry and Hermione could continue without Ron if they had to, then what possible use was he, who didn’t know what they were trying to achieve? Instead of trailing behind them without questioning, he should ask himself where the best place for him to be was. Surely it wasn’t really in this tent. Whatever happened in the end, he wouldn’t be able to claim he’d had a hand in it at this rate.

Now, he realised, suddenly still and breathless, was a good time, if ever there was one. Harry and Hermione were both asleep. The tent was quiet; only the sound of quiet breathing and the wind in the trees to be heard. It seemed suddenly a nice sound. If Draco was to slip away, he would have to leave them a note. Mysterious disappearances were really not what Harry and Hermione needed right now. He Summoned a piece of parchment and a quill and carefully slid upright, hoping the scratching of the quill wouldn’t waken them.

I’m going to go back to the Order. I don’t think this is the right place for me to be.

He put it on his pillow. If this didn’t work, he could just come back and replace the note with himself. He wondered what the other two would think, on seeing it.

Draco felt very brave, slipping out of his warm(ish) bed into the cold night. He scrambled through the trees, not looking back. He was still near enough to the tent to return in a matter of moments. He took out his wand. He’d never tried this before, though he’d been taken through the theory a couple of times. He hadn’t wanted to fail. Draco thought of the way he’d felt when he was ten, and thought he was a child flying prodigy, and the way he’d felt when he thought he was going to go to the Ministry on that mission. A mixture of fear and triumph, like the beginning of great things, that was what he wanted.

Thank God. He had a Patronus, a fox. It seemed beautiful to him; he wanted to pet it. He sent his message to Lupin, after some indecision, just because he was the Order member he’d seen most of, and leaned back against a tree to look at the stars and wait.

*

It was the right thing to do. He did brave things for the Order, went on perilous missions and fought duels and used his wits and cunning to lead on the other side and beat them. He never wanted the war to be over. He was the perfect Draco, a fighter after all.

*

The universe felt nauseated.

*

“There’s been another outbreak,” said Draco at break time. “Mother’s just discovered that the grounds are full of them.”

“There’s always one that gets missed,” said Harry.

“At least,” said Draco.

This was time-passing pleasantry in which Harry was more interested than Draco. Malfoy Manor almost always was full of Horcruxes. Harry took a quasi-professional interest as, if he became a Horcrux Hunter on leaving school, which he very likely would, he would spend a good bit of time at Malfoy Manor. His parents were keener on the Auror Department; being Aurors themselves they thought it would be nice to hand it on, as well as arguing that when all was said and done, a Horcrux Hunter was a glorified Niffler. Harry didn’t quite like to say that the idea of going to work with his parents was a little unappealing. When he was little, he had thought that surely by the time he was grown up someone would have thought of a way to get rid of all Horcruxes, for good, and there would be no need for people to keep rounding them up. Now there was less than a year to go, it didn’t seem that was going to happen. Perhaps when he was a Horcrux Hunter he would learn things about them and he would be that person.

There was a faint sense of an unspoken question about Draco, as there often was – “How come you’re here? Where are Ron and Hermione?” Harry had learned that his friendship with Ron and Hermione on the one hand and with Draco on the other could coexist well enough as long as he hardened himself to ignore these touches of tension when they came from Draco or Ron. Protesting that of course you wanted to spend time with someone who was in fact pissing you off at the minute was not much fun. In some ways, though, Harry thought he almost liked having a friendship that no one else especially approved of. It lent their time together a kind of just-between-us quality.

“Hermione’s showing Ron where to find the books he needs for his Astronomy essay,” said Harry.

“Mother wrote back about something I asked, as well as about that,” said Draco.

“Oh?”

“You could come and stay over Easter if you wanted,” said Draco.

“Oh!” exclaimed Harry. It was a surprised Oh, but a pleased one. Visits during the holidays had never really been considered, for one reason and another. The Malfoys had been Voldemort supporters, and, thanks to Voldemort actually being at Malfoy Manor when he finally created one Horcrux too many and splintered all over the place, the site had more Horcruxes than any other in the country. Not a place the Potters (or many other people) would want to send their child, and this was understood. Harry had been prepared to fight for Draco to be invited to his own house, but Draco had felt it would be awkward to come and stay with people he knew disapproved of his family. Also, the Malfoys were probably all for the idea, and Draco probably thought that in going to stay with Harry he might come too close to doing

what his parents wanted him to do and everyone thought he was doing: schmoozing up to the Potters.

Things were different now. Harry was seventeen, and his parents couldn’t stop him going where he wanted if they had been so inclined. As it was, he could quite sensibly make the visit sound like a good idea; if he was going to become a Horcrux Hunter in a few months it would be as well to see how he got on in a place where a Horcrux might pop up at you anywhere, anytime.

“That’s great,” said Harry. “I’ve heard so much about it; it’ll be good to finally see it.”

Draco smiled. Home must be a little depressing for him, Harry thought sometimes. So often full of people. All those broken nights when a cascade of diary-Horcruxes fell on his head. Parents always complaining about their poverty and inability to sell the Manor.

It would be good to see Draco at home, too, thought Harry. He liked it when he got to see Draco in a new light. He’d been highly amused when Draco had become a bit of a pin-up among some of the girls, for instance. His tendency to occasional sullenness was now apparently attractive brooding. Draco had only stopped obnoxiously playing up to it when Harry could see him when Harry’d started trying not to laugh instead of laughing, because it would bring on a defensive inquisition into why Harry hadn’t ever tried to get a girlfriend. Apparently politely restrained mirth was more embarrassing than outright laughter, knowledge which Harry applied more deliberately in the future.

*

As he’d expected, his plans for the Easter holidays did not meet with resistance. He hadn’t expected to feel as grateful for this. Harry’s parents were the only ones who did actually make Harry feel uneasy sometimes about his friendship with a Death Eater’s son, and, unlike Ron and his godfather, for instance, they never actively tried to dissuade the friendship. Though Sirius’s problem seemed to be mostly with Draco the son of his cousin Narcissa Black rather than Draco the son of Lucius the Death Eater. They all could have died, Harry and his parents, if the Order of the Phoenix had not realised that one of his parents’ friends was a spy. Lucius Malfoy had probably been privy to that plan, and Harry did feel strange when he remembered that.

He remembered his dad taking as much pleasure as anyone else in the poetic justice meted out to the Malfoys before Harry went to Hogwarts. One minute you were, presumably, feeling yourself honoured among Death Eaters, playing host to the Dark Lord, and the next the Dark Lord’s soul was in thousands of further splintering, multiplying, diminishing pieces, much of it occupying everything in your house. All those heirlooms that had to be destroyed. It was more than they deserved that that great snake hadn’t been in residence.

That had happened when he and Draco were four. Draco claimed to have been too young to remember the Dark Lord. Harry wasn’t sure he believed him. Draco didn’t like to admit to feeling less than happy and secure, even as a four-year-old.

*

When he first came face to face to Mr and Mrs Malfoy on the platform, Harry’s first reaction was one of some dismay. Such eager, toothy smiles and handshakes and “So pleased to meet you”s and Lucius elaborately letting him go through a door first. What if he really didn’t like Draco’s parents and he couldn’t hide it? Draco would be hurt. Thankfully, by the time they were having a drink in The Leaky Couldron before Floo’ing home, the Malfoys had remembered that they were experienced adults capable of keeping calm and being subtly charming and urbane. Harry didn’t have to care what they were really like as long as he could get through a conversation with them without obviously gritting his teeth.

Malfoy Manor still looked very nice, though he knew all the furniture they had now was imitation.

“We are going through quite a bad phase at the moment, but fortunately the room next to Draco’s is prone to nothing more alarming than duplicates of my emerald and diamond necklace,” said Narcissa. “Do remember that if you find yourself feeling irritable, or even just a little cold, look to see if there’s a necklace nearby. They usually arrive by stealth.”

Harry had encountered Horcruxes before, at Hogwarts. They were always the same diadem Horcrux, and there were only a few every year, and fewer with each year. Perhaps Hogwarts was special and had more ways of being inhospitable to the Horcruxes’ way of always leaving plenty in hiding, to reappear once the previous generation had been destroyed. At the Sorting Feast Dumbledore advised the first years to think of it as a little like a doxy infestation. He had handled a true Horcrux once, the stories said, and found it more malignant than any of them were now. Harry had picked up a diadem once, and had been unable to tell if it was his imagination that made him feel almost guilty and resented, as if he was holding the bone of someone who had hated him. He almost was, of course, but there was something more gruesome about the feeling than he’d expected. He thought it would be a kindness, really, to destroy all the Horcruxes and end whatever existence Voldemort had. His life-force must be at about the level of bacteria, Hermione had said, spread so thin. Harry didn’t like to think of it and that, really, was why he wanted to be a Horcrux Hunter and why his experience with the diadem hadn’t put him off.

When Narcissa had shown him into his room, Draco showed him the rest of the house, without saying a word about Horcruxes.

*

It was nice to be able to sit and talk with Draco without time constraints and the feeling that there was somewhere else to be and other people to be with. Hard, too. The temptation to reach out and touch was much nearer than it had been before, under a tree in the grounds out of sight of the Manor, no one else around, or in Draco’s room at night before saying goodnight, Draco lying on his stomach on his bed, chin propped on his hand. Harry spent so many conversations imagining kissing Draco, and apparently it never showed. It astonished him that such a gap between reality and appearance was possible, and Harry was hardly a master of disguise. He wanted to lie naked in bed with Draco and talk casually and look sideways on the pillow and see him smile. He thought about what came between, too, but that he didn’t feel able to disguise, and saved it for wanking sessions.

He tried extra hard to enjoy the time he spent at the Manor, because he was aware now that this was something with an end. He wasn’t going to spend years like this. He’d get sick of it and do something. Forget himself one day and kiss Draco, or make a melodramatic confession, he didn’t know what, but he was sure both that it wouldn’t be planned and that it would happen. Then it would be awkward. Draco could pull the shutters right down when he wanted, and Harry wouldn’t want to hang around for that.

*

The universe finally admitted that there was no putting all these bits of Tom Riddle back together again.

*

Draco sank onto his knees. It felt as though he himself was sinking, coming to rest at the dregs of himself, sliding past all his lost opportunities. He’d reached the end of the line and for a moment he thought he could achieve resignation, but then he was wrenched by a fresh spasm of agony at the notion. He sobbed into the flames, needing to reach out, unable to help himself in any other way.

“What happened, Draco?” asked Pansy, kneeling down to him at once in her room.

“I fucked up. I was supposed to kill a bunch of Mudbloods – they were hiding in a house and I don’t even know exactly what happened – I was by the back door and they decided to make a break for it. And if the others hadn’t seen what was happening before I got a chance to stun some of them, it wouldn’t have been so bad. But they yelled from the stairs to kill them and I paused because I don’t think I can really do that yet and I didn’t want to look stupid. And someone managed to get in a couple of AK’s over my head and it came very close to me. And a lot of them managed to get out of the back door and get on brooms and get away, and I was just standing there doing nothing, and then… There were all these Death Eaters running at me and I ran away. And the Dark Lord himself said “Get back here, boy” and I didn’t. And I came home because I didn’t really know what else to do, but now I am, Pansy, he’s seriously going to kill me. I’ve been rubbish, to be honest, Pansy, I don’t know why he would keep me around.”

“You should have come here,” Pansy said, as if she’d have solved all his problems at once if only she’d known. “Get in the Floo properly.”

“We’ll run away,” she said when he got there, her hands on his shoulders.

“Where to?”

There wasn’t anywhere, really, which was why they ended up at the Burrow, as the only way Pansy could think of to get in touch with the people fighting on the other side. Draco could not really look the full horror of his life, and Pansy’s only idea, in the face, so he was very passive. It was surprising how much you could pretend that what was happening wasn’t happening, he discovered during the encounter at the Burrow. Pansy seemed not to need to do this, buoyant on barefaced cheek. Draco supposed one of them needed to admit they were begging refuge of the Weasleys for refuge to actually be gained.

Not long after that, Draco and Pansy found themselves in a building somewhere, Muggle, Draco thought. It seemed to be a house that had been half-heartedly converted into offices, now mostly dismantled and abandoned. They were in the company of some crates of malodorous potion and some sheaves of paperwork originating from the Ministry, both of which the Order had confiscated during a scuffle. Draco had not heard of a scuffle during his so recent time as a Death Eater. Of course, it was probably hardly worth mentioning, but then again, no one told Draco anything and he seemed to have stopped making it his business to find things out.

“You can go through the paperwork, and set aside anything that seems as if it may contain anything we’d like to know about. All sorts of apparently boring details may be valuable, I’m sure you’ll be able to tell what kind of thing might be useful,” said Lupin. “And mind yourself around that potion, it’s probably volatile. I’ll see how you’re getting on in an hour or so.”

They were left alone, which rather surprised them. “They’re seeing if they can trust us while they’re not breathing down our necks,” said Pansy.

The prospect of work seemed to make the world go by at its normal rate again, rather than whizzing by in a blur of colour. Pansy felt it as well as Draco, and she hadn’t been so deliberately setting her life spinning so as not to look at it. Draco picked up some of the parchment, dispiritedly. It all seemed to relate to the finances of the Ministry – the canteen, the Floos, the cleaners.

“I bet if they had to look through this themselves they just wouldn’t, even if they thought they ought to make sure,” said Draco. “They’re just making us do it to prove they can.”

Keeping his attention on the statistics and quibbling letters about how large a pinch of Floo powder people should take was hard. Draco wandered over to open one of the crates. There were two large jars of the potion in it, the lid of one knocked askew. It was a translucent sea green, the texture frothy. “It’s not something I recognise,” said Draco.

“It’s probably a valuable Dark potion,” said Pansy.

The same thought seemed to strike both of them. “Do you think they’d notice if we took one of the jars? We’d need some money, wouldn’t we, at some point? Or maybe it would be better to transfigure a bit of this parchment into a jar and take some of the potion out…”

The jar created, Draco began to dig some of the potion out of the jar already open. He thought he’d spilt it for a moment when it began to trickle down the sides, before realising it was boiling over of its own accord. Draco and Pansy were at least bright enough to have begun to back away as the potion frothed into the crate faster and faster. They hit the floor with the first explosion. They didn’t even have their wands out, so there was little question of taking quick-thinking magical action.

The noise was worse than the fear. Draco’s whole body hurt with it. He wanted to look to see where Pansy was, but the light was blinding when he moved his arms away from his face for a moment. He wasn’t sure when it ended. Pansy got up first, and tapped him between the shoulder blades. Her face was awed and sombre.

Looking up, Draco saw that all the objects in the room had become a sticky layer coating the floor, and a lot of the walls and ceiling were on the floor. The explosion had taken out oddly deliberate looking chunks, he noticed, like a pattern. His focus became a little clearer and he saw that the wall that was left was shaped like letters. Swivelling to read around the room, he was leadenly unsurprised to spell out LORD VOLDEMORT.

“Not what the werewolf would like to come back and find,” said Pansy.

Neither of them knew why the explosion was shaped like the Dark Lord, but they felt that if they were Lupin, they would take it as a sign, revealing Draco and Pansy’s true loyalties. Maybe that was what it did mean. Draco didn’t think he’d know what loyalty felt like anymore.

“Let’s run away,” said Draco. Perhaps you only needed to run away once for it to become a habit; perhaps otherwise they’d have stopped to weigh up their options more precisely. But they could not resist the easy relief of the moment. Leaving things behind was a good feeling, Draco thought.

*

So that was how things became so terrible.

“Everything has gone so wrong,” said Pansy, sounding gleeful.

Draco almost didn’t reply. “Didn’t that become obvious a while ago now?”

“I know, but it hasn’t got better. Everything is still so terrible, what’s going to happen to us?”

There was the thing where they didn’t have anywhere to be or anything to do or anything to live on. Having TRAITOR written across both their hands didn’t cheer them up. Draco’s Splinching wound that wouldn’t heal was a worry. Possibly worst of all was what they could only imagine was some kind of aftereffect from the potion explosion. For some hours every day they died, as far as they could make out, unable to either fully inhabit or fully leave their clammy, cooling bodies. Pansy claimed she didn’t know what went through her mind when it happened. It was entirely possible she didn’t; Draco was left with only vague impressions himself. Impressions of argument mostly, sitting down at a round table with people he knew but who were hidden in the dark, to fight his corner, defending himself against accusations or else joining in a more general quarrel about how things really went. Sometimes it seemed as if all this took place within a giant clock. He supposed it spoke of his feeling that he and Pansy were in suspension between two worlds all the time, as they were, even when not undergoing this strange curse.

“The war could end without us even knowing,” said Pansy.

They didn’t go hungry; they had all sorts of ways of stealing money and food, and they could create magical fires, and got better at cooking food on them. They were still very conscious of lacking home comforts, staying in horrid Muggle places no one seemed to care about, and always fearing that Muggles, Death Eaters or the Order of the Phoenix would come upon them.

“Maybe we should try and get a lot of money,” Draco had said at times. “So we could live somewhere.”

Pansy never seemed enthusiastic. Draco supposed she felt it would be committing herself to a particular kind of life, a ruined, inferior one. Draco wasn’t quite sure she would stay with him. After all, the situation was surely not as extreme for someone who was not a Death Eater. She seemed to have outgrown her crush on him and Draco thought that sometimes they both wondered why she was here.

Draco didn’t know why Pansy seemed to take pleasure from how perfectly awful everything was. Most of all, he thought, he wished the wound on his shoulder would heal. He had to lie flat on his back to sleep.

*

Draco had had little idea of time since they entered Limbo, so he couldn’t say how long it was after they ran away that he and Pansy were wandering disconsolately down the street, when who should bump into them but Harry Potter. They all squinted crossly at each other, the wind whipping their hair into their faces, before Draco felt his eyes widen while he saw Potter’s and Pansy’s do likewise. He was about to belt off down the street, but Pansy got a firm grasp on his coat. Potter laughed a little in astonishment, partly, Draco suspected, because of his own look of panic.

“I think we should come back with you and explain things,” said Pansy. “Do you think we’d be killed? Because if we won’t be killed then we’re coming with you.”

Potter looked at them. “I don’t think you’ll be killed. I don’t know what will happen. But I think you had better come with me.”

Even though he wanted someone to heal his Splinching wound and take the curse off him and take him somewhere warm and cook him a hot meal, it chafed to go with Potter. Now he was leaving it, he liked his position on the edge, a lonely abstainer.

*

He did get the things he wanted, though, so that was something. People weren’t really angry with them, he thought, though that seemed to be mostly because they hadn’t expected anything better. If they were kind it was in a patronising way, shaking their heads about the sorry state they’d got themselves into.

“We thought the potion you blew up was designed to convert people into following Voldemort,” Granger said, as it occurred to her that perhaps no one had bothered to tell them about it. “It’s a mind-control tool worse than Imperius, even. It carves out all the pieces of the soul Voldemort cannot use. The state of the room was like a physical representation of what it does to a person, a metaphor. I suppose what you experienced is some kind of strange, incomplete effect due to inhaling it or having it spattered on you or whatever it was you did.”

“So it’s as if the force of the potion, not being able to harm our actual souls, just tried to force them out of our bodies?” said Pansy.

“Maybe what happened while we were hovering was part of it too,” said Draco. That arguing, as if he was the subject being hammered out, perhaps that was him fighting in some way for his soul? On the one hand, he liked the grandness of this idea, on the other, he didn’t actually like thinking about souls much. The memory of those strange dreams stayed with him, though, clearer now that his mind was less fogged with discomfort and hopelessness. There were so many ways for things to go, he remembered someone, perhaps even himself saying. Could one narrow course of events reveal all the world that lay within just one soul? Of course not. And someone else had said that the one narrow course of events was a test and either you passed it or you failed. Some of these ideas were tools to dig further, to another layer of dreams, where there were other narrow courses of events.

“I did this before, you know,” Draco announced. He turned to Potter, who was moodily scribbling something on a piece of parchment, unable to restrain his pride at discovering the uncharted territories of his own mind. “Defected to your side, I mean, and did it better. I learnt a bit about Defence, from Moody and Lupin and you, no one’s bothered about it here, and I got all inspired and everything.”

“Sorry?”

“This happened before. Somewhere. This isn’t the only way things happened. I can remember a little bit of it, right at the bottom of my mind.”

“That’s the potion speaking, Malfoy. Come on, you’re better now, you should be able to spot when you’re talking rubbish. Impossible rubbish, I mean,” said Potter.

Draco shook his head. “It’s not rubbish,” he said quietly. Potter looked at him for a moment and went back to his parchment. Draco wondered if they’d ever been friends. Maybe, he thought. Something about Potter’s body, its lines and gestures, like the bowed head; he thought it could have been fondly familiar once, known and recognised in that particular way. Maybe he was imagining it.

*

“Is Pansy,” Harry lowered his voice, “sleeping with Hermione?”

“We haven’t talked about it,” said Draco. “But I think she might be. Granger can be a bit transparent.”

“Can’t she just,” said Harry grimly. There had been something knowing and flirtatiously adversarial between Pansy and Granger. It might have been dismissed as Pansy just messing with her, but there was something about some of Granger’s pink responses. “It’s hardly the time,” Harry said.

Draco shrugged. “I guess they have to have something else to think about sometimes. It’s definitely doing good things for Pansy’s interest in the cause.”

“I thought she was mad about you, anyway?”

“Not so much these days. I hadn’t even thought about that, actually. It’d be pretty funny, all that when we were younger, if Pansy’s a lesbian. Seeing as I’m gay too.”

“Oh. Oh right. Ron’s… not very happy,” said Harry.

Draco thought Ron and Hermione had actually been rather a nice couple, though he couldn’t remember now where or when he might have thought so. Still, he thought Pansy and Hermione might be good for each other too. There was a taut, lively energy between them.

It was strange to find himself looking at things that way – that someone might be with one person or another, and either way was okay because the other way got their chance. It occurred to him that he’d stopped his mental digging prematurely. So things happened more than once. Was that really a matter of simple, if disputed fact, or did things only begin there? Was there one true way he ought to be helping them all towards? Were they all bumbling about until they got things right? Were they time travelling or something? Instead of feeling clever for working things out, he felt as if he’d only just realised he was lost in a maze.

“I still know what I said I knew,” said Draco. “And it’s not impossible rubbish.”

Harry sighed. “I guess it’s only fair that I should be in this position. Usually it’s me trying to convince everyone to believe me about something bizarre.”

“So you should try and take me seriously. Just ask yourself what if or think maybe.”

“Are you thinking of something like reincarnation? Though I thought the point of that was to get better, and we don’t seem to have got very far, by the sound of it.”

“I don’t know. Maybe we are supposed to be trying to get better, and we’re just not. Maybe we have to realise what’s happening to know what we’re supposed to do.”

“The thing is, even if it wasn’t just you, with various reasons for being a bit unstable, saying this weird thing, I wouldn’t really want to get into it. I can’t have another massive thing to worry about. Even if it was true. I just don’t think I could.” He looked away from Draco.

There was something of quiet panic about him, as if he thought he could feel his burden slipping from his grasp whether he willed it or no. Draco had wanted to ask, “But what if it’s part of the thing you’re already worrying about, and you have to?” but now was not the time to add to the burden. He wanted to lift the burden from Harry, but on the other hand, there was something he liked about Harry sitting there under it. That was a weird thing to think, partly because not long ago he’d thought he hated him, and partly because perhaps it was wrong to like him better for being miserable.

“Do you want to do a bit of Defence, then?” Harry asked.

*

Damn it. Just as he was making some headway.

*

Harry stayed to see it done, so Ron and Hermione did too. They stood uphill, some distance away, both of them gripping his arm. Kingsley Shacklebolt stood a little further down, watching Nathan Whittaker, the only werewolf contact Remus had managed to make, tear into the body Arthur Weasley had found. They had all agreed that the body sufficiently resembled Harry – not enough that one could have been mistaken for another alive, but dead and mangled, certainly. The scar had been scored into his forehead. Nathan claimed that for the first few moments of his transformation he retained enough sense of his human self to carry out its errands, and in case this was not true Kingsley had magically flip-flopped the corpse about to make it appear tempting prey.

It was too dark to see much, though of course the moon helped. Just the shape of a wolf worrying something on the ground.

“I think he’s getting bored of it,” Hermione whispered. Harry waited a moment longer, but the wolf’s movements were indeed becoming desultory. They Disapparated.

It felt so solemn, like a ritual to denote the end of something. It was strange to remember that this was only the means to keep going. If Harry was supposed dead, and those who opposed Voldemort pretended to be, or really were without hope, then, the theory was, the feeling that they were a breath away from defeat would remain, secretly, still a breath away. Harry, Ron and Hermione would continue looking for the Horcruxes, and Voldemort would surely stop tearing the country to pieces looking for them.

They were still killing hope for a lot of people. It was a bad night.

*

They could not allow themselves to have any contact with the Order, so they had no idea whether the body was found and identified as intended, or whether any werewolves had been punished for usurping Voldemort’s privilege.

“At least he isn’t going to be exactly satisfied by the news,” said Harry. “That would be a little too much for me to think about.”

“No one’s fighting against him now,” said Ron. “Just trying to keep safe.”

“Voldemort will be more in power than he ever has been,” said Hermione. “In a while, we must get some Muggle newspapers. He’s never been in quite this position before.”

Something about this phase disturbed Harry. He felt almost as if he ought to be remembering something connected to what positions Voldemort had been in before. Going to sleep was particularly maddening. Every time his mind began to drift the more awake parts of his mind would wake up even more and point and say “Pay attention! See if you know what you don’t know you know!” But then there was no dreaminess to pay attention to. When he finally did fall asleep, he dreamt he was watching the clock in the Entrance Hall at Hogwarts like a cat watching a mousehole.

They made themselves stay in the woods for a long time, not willing to enter even Muggle civilisation. When they did, walking up a Muggle high street feeling very wide-eyed and resisting the urge to run away or Disapparate at unexpected noises, they saw Draco Malfoy walking down the street towards them. He was not looking at them, but around him, as wide-eyed and nervous-looking as them.

Shit,” whispered Hermione.

They wobbled about on the pavement. There was no time to get themselves out of there and be sure he wouldn’t see them.

“We’ll have to take him,” said Harry, and the others nodded.

He thought there might be a fight, right there, in front of the Muggles, but it was easy. Draco practically walked right into their arms before he saw them, and then it was too late. Harry almost laughed at the look on his face.

So there was Draco, bound in their tent, and all Harry, Ron and Hermione could do was stare down at him, puzzled.

“We haven’t kidnapped him before, have we?” asked Hermione.

“You’re feeling like that too?” asked Draco, suddenly enthusiastic. “I’ve been feeling like that ever since I ran away! Like I’d done it before. I’m sure I’ve met up with you lot before, too. It just doesn’t make sense, though. I can remember my life, all the way back, and there’s none of this stuff in it.”

Hermione sat down on her bed. “Someone’s done something to us, like I did to my parents,” she said.

Harry and Ron, still standing threateningly over Draco, wands at the ready, felt a little wrong-footed by the sudden change of topic.

“You ran away?” asked Harry, groping his way back to pertinent questions about the present.

“Yes. I don’t think anyone likes it now, you know. Even a lot of the people on our side don’t. It doesn’t feel like real, everyday life. It’s… stale, and there’s more fear for everyone. I think a lot of people didn’t quite realise that when you support the Dark Lord being in power, that’s what you get. He’s in power, no one else,” said Draco. He sounded thoughtful. His hostage status seemed a little incongruous. “I just didn’t have the patience to go on pretending.”

“So what was the big plan?” asked Harry.

“You overestimate me; I didn’t have one of those. I thought everything was bound to end badly for me sooner rather than later, so it would be nice to see if I could get a bit of peace first. But – but maybe it won’t end badly. If we don’t know what’s true. Maybe the worst things aren’t true,” said Draco, obviously finding this thought cheering.

“I think we have ended up spending time with you before,” said Ron. “But are you horrible or not? I can’t remember.”

Draco laughed. “I’m sure it’s a matter of opinion.”

“But what do we do?” asked Harry, feeling the panic rising. “Why are we talking like we’ve solved something? We don’t know anything!”

“I don’t suppose you saw Groundhog Day, did you, Harry?” asked Hermione. “But maybe we’re stuck repeating the same bit of time over and over again and there’s something we have to do – maybe it’s you!” she said to Draco. “Maybe you have to learn to be a better person!”

“God, I hope it isn’t Voldemort,” said Harry.

“Oh dear. We would certainly be here a long time.”

“Are we sure about this? Maybe we’re just making ourselves think this because we’re all pissed off with the way things are,” said Ron.

“It would make sense,” Hermione admitted. “We’re all under a lot of stress. Still, it is unlikely that it would begin to manifest the same way in all of us. Obviously we haven’t seen Draco for ages, and it’s not like we’ve talked about these thoughts between ourselves, is it?”

“And you’re not dead, Harry! I did feel… puzzled, when I heard you were.” Draco obviously felt he’d sounded a little too exultant.

“I’ll untie you, shall I?” said Harry. He more than half expected it to be a big mistake – maybe Draco had been trying a bizarre and rather clever way of taking them off-guard. But it seemed to be alright. Draco made no sudden movements.

The rest of the day passed surprisingly quickly, considering they mostly just asked “But what should we do?” Draco seemed less bothered than the rest of them by this question.

“We should be intuitive,” he said. “Do whatever comes to us.” Harry thought Draco quite liked the idea of a world that was constantly running away from the consequences.

Funnily enough, something did come to Harry in his sleep.

“There are Horcruxes like diadems at Hogwarts,” he said, before he’d even opened his eyes, in case the knowledge slipped away. “Or one, at least.”

“What’s a diadem?” asked Draco.

“A tiara thing,” said Hermione. “They used to pop up from time to time, didn’t they, and we used to have to take them to Dumbledore to be destroyed. Or was there just one, in a room with a lot of other things?”

Having two different impressions of events that both felt about as real was maddening.

“Anyway, let’s go!” said Harry.

“To Hogwarts? Now?” said Draco.

“Didn’t you nearly burn to death once when we went to look for this Horcrux?” asked Ron, screwing his face up. Draco recoiled. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!” Ron said. “It seems a bit stupid to worry about something you’ve already come through.”

“We’ll very likely be back in this tent before long whatever happens,” Hermione sighed.

Harry paused a moment in making sure he was ready to go. “I wonder if all four of us are crazy.”

This was ultimately irrelevant, and soon there were no excuses not to leave.

“So how do we get into Hogwarts?” asked Draco.

“We go to Hogsmeade, to the Hog’s Head. There should be a way into the school from there,” said Harry.

They walked into Hogsmeade brazenly, walking straight down the middle of the road in plain sight. It was a lovely morning, not as hot as it would be later in the day, a balmy breeze caressing their hair. People stopped and stared after them, their hands to their chests. Harry waved at them and walked on.

Aberforth Dumbledore was waiting for them at the door of the Hog’s Head. “Want to get into Hogwarts?” he asked.

“Yes, please!” said Hermione.

Aberforth was obviously perturbed, his actions, as he led them inside to the portrait of a little girl, slow.

“Yeah, we’ve done this before,” said Ron. “Apparently once wasn’t enough.”

Once they were inside Hogwarts, for a moment Harry couldn’t remember what to do next. Of course, the Room of Requirement.

“The Seventh Floor!” he shouted, and off they hurtled.

They all piled into the corridor on the left, breathless, and stopped. Almost more put out than afraid, Harry took in the sight of Lord Voldemort waiting for them.

“Reports of my death have been exaggerated,” he said, for something to say.

“I am glad of it. I was disappointed when I thought I had been deprived of the opportunity to kill you myself.”

Harry’s impatience with this self-indulgent melodrama again cleared his mind.

“Look, Tom Riddle, (it had felt good to call him Tom Riddle last time) you’re dead.”

Voldemort’s face looked more expressive than Harry had ever seen it. He looked as if he had suspected this for some time and was reaching the end of his ability to deny it.

“Avada Kedavra,” said Draco, and Voldemort dropped dead. Harry, Ron and Hermione turned round to see Draco staring at his wand in horror. “It just slipped out,” he said. “I think I was just wondering what would happen if someone did that, and then it was me.”

“I suppose you can think of it as more like throwing darts at a picture of someone,” said Harry. “I don’t know how much responsibility you can take for killing someone who already died.” There was also the “thought as bad as deed” school of thought, though it didn’t seem appropriate to mention it.

“I don’t know what you’re looking like that for,” said Ron. “You killed Voldemort, Malfoy. I’d dine out on it forever.”

Draco laughed.

“Is he really dead? We don’t have to destroy the Horcruxes?” asked Hermione.

“I think we already did,” said Harry. “Draco could kill him because he was already dead.”

“So now what?” asked Hermione. “Do you think time is running again?”

“I think I’ll have a look at the clock in the Entrance Hall. I had a dream about it,” said Harry.

From the Entrance Hall they could hear Amycus Carrow lecturing the students at breakfast about how they must take possession of the new, pure world that had been provided for them.

Hermione shuddered. “Surely that’s not reality.”

Harry looked up at the clock, which nearly reached the ceiling, feeling a little intimidated.

“Open it if you’re going to,” said Draco.

Alohomora,” said Harry.

The case swung open. Among a lot of silver pendulums and other clock workings twitching away, there was nestled a blue glass ball. Harry picked it up with his hand wrapped in his robe. The glass was murky, but it looked as if it was divided into many different chambers, each crammed with cogs and pins and things that ticked.

“What shall we do with it?” asked Harry.

Ron jogged his hand so he dropped it, and kicked it at the wall, and ground the shattered pieces into the floor.

*

Harry sat up in bed, wildly disorientated.

“Harry?” he heard Ron say. He opened his curtains and found David Gates, one of the seventh-year boys they were sharing a dormitory with this year, lighting the torches, looking shaky.

“That was it,” he said. “We came back to Hogwarts.”

“Sorry?” said David.

“This is reality – the one true way things happened,” said Harry. He thought now that he ought to have known the difference all along. There was something hard and singular about real life that could not be counterfeited.

“What happened?” asked Ron, drawing back his curtain to reveal himself sitting cross-legged at the end of his bed. “It was like a dream but so long. We went somewhere.”

“We did. But it wasn’t real.”

“It was morning just a moment ago, I don’t want to be in bed,” said Ron. He sprang up and began to change. “I want breakfast; we didn’t eat anything before we came here.” His tone was full of displaced aggrievement.

“Did Draco Malfoy just kill Voldemort?” Harry asked incredulously.

Ron paused. “Wow, I remember that, I think he did.”

“I think I was dead just now,” said David, in a choked flat tone. He was Muggleborn, so it was more than likely.

“You should come down to the Hall and have some tea,” said Ron.

Harry wished Dumbledore was alive. They would go downstairs, and find him ready to explain everything. He wondered if Dumbledore in the alternate worlds had known what was happening.

The door flew open.

“Are you all here?” asked Hermione.

“Well, Dean and Seamus didn’t come back, remember, but everyone who should be here is,” said Harry.

“Everyone is going downstairs to the Great Hall. It’s so strange when you think we only just came up. I feel so jetlagged,” said Hermione, sitting down on the end of Neville’s bed. “I don’t know how I’ll ever feel normal again. I’ve lived whole lives in a single night.”

“Less than,” said Harry. More than anything, now, the relief of being himself again was overwhelming.

Harry forgot to put on socks or shoes, and was only belatedly aware of his bare feet, chilled by the stone floors. He didn’t bother to conjure his socks; he had caught sight of the clock in the Entrance Hall.

Alohomora!”

“There is nothing there, Mr Potter,” said Professor McGonagall, standing by the door to the Great Hall.

“I stamped on it just a while ago,” said Ron.

“You seem to have had the right idea, Mr Weasley,” said Professor McGonagall. “I can’t pretend I am better informed than the rest of us as to the events which have just taken place, but I will be addressing the students when everyone is here.”

They all looked around them as they sat down, as if expecting to find someone who had not been here the last time they were all sitting here, a survivor of the alternate worlds. Harry felt the full impact of his experience for the first time. He knew what it was like to be raised by his parents now. He had more memories of Remus and Sirius, of Fred. Why was he feeling lost and irritable and vaguely ill? He had undergone a fabulous miracle, he should be feeling blessed beyond belief.

My God. I slept with Pansy Parkinson,” said Hermione, apparently catching sight of Pansy and unable to control herself turning sharply to Ron and spitting this out.

“Oh yeah, you did, didn’t you?” said Harry.

Ron didn’t seem to know whether he should be hurt, angry, calmly accepting or amused at Hermione’s expense.

“Ginny!” he said as she entered, glad of a distraction.

“Ginny!” said Hermione, having just encountered a disbelieving look from Pansy.

“Hello,” said Harry. “I don’t remember seeing much of you after the first go-round.”

“Well, I don’t think you took much notice of me in the world where me and Colin tried to have a torrid affair while both having a crush on you, for instance. There was something very unsatisfying about that world.” Ginny sighed. “It was very sad in some ways to come back here, but I can’t deny I like this me best.”

Harry caught sight of Draco whispering to Pansy, and was thinking that he hadn’t been so bad a lot of the time, and he would have to go and talk about stuff with him, when he remembered that he’d been friends with Draco. He’d had a crush on him. He even remembered how it had felt to fancy him. He really had been another person, hadn’t he? It was astonishing how much you could be altered.

Finally everybody seemed to be there. Some people had had to be brought out of hysterical crying fits, by the look of them.

“What we have all just experienced,” said Professor McGonagall, “Was You – Lord Voldemort’s final bid for never-ending life and power.”

Someone burst into tears.

“I do not mean that he was not, as we thought, entirely dead,” Professor McGonagall hastened to say. “At some point before his death he placed a device in the Entrance Hall, designed to alter reality, and continue altering it, until it alighted on a world in which he was successful. It is not surprising that we find ourselves here again as this kind of magic is not only Dark but deeply unreliable.”

Harry almost felt he should have expected it. Of course Voldemort would leave something nasty behind. Of course he would grasp for the lastest of last-ditch options.

Professor McGonagall went on about how she regretted that this should have happened when people were trying to recover from the previous year. She knew that it would take some time to fully comprehend their experiences. The staff would make allowances and always be ready to listen to troubled students. “It may seem as if it happened years ago, but remember how you felt earlier tonight.”

*

The next day or so was the worst for feelings of what Hermione called jetlag. It was hard to remember what was real in this world, and not to want to go back and see what happened in other times. A student ended up in the hospital wing because she kept having thoughts of killing herself to make sure this world was real – a plan she realised was fundamentally flawed.

“I wonder if it would be less weird if it was you, alone, it had happened to,” said Neville. “I think it would be easier to forget, if it wasn’t as real for everyone else as it was for you. You know things about other people that you didn’t know here, and they are real things. It’s a bit like seeing teachers in their underwear or something.”

Harry almost asked Neville what he’d been getting up to in the other timelines, but didn’t. He hadn’t been asking people about it unless they ventured something. Neville was right, there was something oddly personal about it. They all knew more about each other now, and Hermione and Pansy were hardly the only couple with astonishing memories.

One of the things that bothered Harry most was the realisation that he was more comfortable with himself as an orphan. From the perspective of reality, he found it hard to identify with himself as someone with that comfort and security. That Harry was perhaps a little like the James that Snape had seen in him.

Harry talked to Ginny. Apparently she’d had a little talk with Peregrine Cartwright. While people were trying to make allowances for things people had done in other timelines and not judge them for things they hadn’t done in this world, Perry had gone from unnoticed to notorious. Harry bet Professor McGonagall found it hard to restrain herself from hauling him up.

“We talked about Tom Riddle,” said Ginny. “I thought he might want to talk to someone who knew a bit about why he did it. I knew more in that world than I did in this; I never properly shook a certain faith in him in that world. It was very uncomfortable. I’m glad I set him on fire, though. That was a good feeling, though obviously it would have ended terribly.”

“And did he want to talk to you?”

“I think so. I think it helps you sort things out in your head to talk about what attracted you to him, and when you realised things weren’t quite right.”

“Ginny. Do you feel differently now about the things we talked about before we came here?” asked Harry. He felt it would connect him better to his real life to be with Ginny. She would be what mattered most. His worldview would have a centre and he wouldn’t have to look at the rest of it so much.

Ginny looked a little confused for a moment. “Oh, when I said I wasn’t sure I wanted to be with you? I’m even more sure about that, actually.”

“So we’re never getting back together?” asked Harry.

“I think I have to take the plunge and say it,” said Ginny. “Yes. We’re never going to be together. I don’t know what to say that’s not stereotyped. I really like you as a person. I hope we can be friends. It’s not you, it’s me – mostly at least. I’m seventeen, I don’t want to be tied down, and I think you do. And we just went through five different worlds, and in none of them did we have a romance for the ages. It’s a shame we never slept together, because I bet it would’ve been great and at least we could have said that.” She ran out of things to say and looked at Harry.

“Yeah. Okay. I suppose it’s best to be definite about it,” said Harry. He gripped her shoulder briefly. “Of course we’ll be friends.”

*

Eventually Harry got round to another thing that had been bothering him: Draco. Hermione had had some kind of conversation with Pansy, he knew. It didn’t seem to have gone too badly, not that Hermione would tell him anything about it, and if Pansy Parkinson could be mature, so could Harry. What bothered him, really, was the world with the Horcruxes everywhere. He’d properly liked Draco there, not just learned to tolerate him in outlandish eventualities. Strangely enough, though, he thought it might be those that made him most interested in how Draco was getting on. They, and the idea of choices and measuring up, had the most relevance to the real Draco. Sometimes Draco could be the best he could be, even under pressure, and it was good enough. Since Voldemort’s death Harry had taken to dwelling on the non-evilness of most people and found it reassuring. He liked thinking about all the reasons various people – sometimes people he liked, sometimes people he didn’t – would never make another Voldemort.

“So,” said Harry, having spotted Draco across the library and wandered away from Hermione. He’d been meaning to talk to Draco for a while; he just didn’t really want other people to know he was doing it. “Last time I saw you, you’d just killed Voldemort.”

“I tell myself about that so many times a day,” Draco said, unable to stop himself grinning. “I can’t get over it. I kind of think everyone should know, but I haven’t told anyone except Pansy.”

“How’s Pansy feeling about the whole Hermione thing?”

Draco looked thoughtful. “I actually think she’s quite keen.”

“I didn’t expect that,” said Harry.

“I think she’ll be a bit crushed if she goes for Weasley after all. Apparently they’re not together at the moment -- well, you’d know that better than us.”

“I suppose it’s a little like when someone turns out not to be dead, or wakes up out of a coma, and everyone has a different life now.”

“We used to be friends,” said Draco, darting his eyes up at Harry. “That was strange to remember.”

“Yeah,” Harry agreed. They were both silent, trying to think of something else to say. Memories of that friendship went through his mind. There had always been something a little sharp about Draco, but it had been dear and familiar. So many of his faults were still there, just arranged in a way that seemed so much more likeable than Harry had found this Draco. “I liked you,” said Harry. “So I guess I like you.”

Draco smiled. “Maybe not go that far.” He changed the subject. “I thought it would be odd to get back to schoolwork after everything, but it’s even odder now.”

“I think a lot of people are actually glad of the distraction,” Harry said.

*

It was easy after that. He talked to Draco every now and then, as if he were anyone else. It wasn’t a big deal.

“It’s been much better for me than I thought it was going to be this year,” said Draco. “Everyone’s so distracted, they don’t remember half the time that I really was a Death Eater.”

“What are you planning to do when you leave?” asked Harry.

Draco smiled. “Oh, I plan to be a spy. No idea how you actually go about that, though. I want it to be as much as possible like the universe where I came to the Order the first time. It felt great, in the end.”

“Me and Hermione never heard anything more about you after you left the tent,” said Harry.

“I was exactly what I wanted to be.”

“I meant to tell you, Kingsley wrote me a letter a couple of weeks ago. He mentioned you’d been amazing in that world,” Harry said.

Draco tried not to show he was pleased. “The Ministry must have been even more of a shambles than Hogwarts. So many people being confused about what job they’re supposed to be doing.”

“Oh yes, Kingsley said it was awful.”

“Are you going to go into Auror training when you leave?” asked Draco.

“I don’t know. Maybe I’ll be a spy too. I thought I wanted life to get back to normal – not that it ever was normal, really – and be very settled. But when that went out of the window, I changed my mind a little.”

*

Harry saw Hermione kissing Pansy in a dark corner. Ron seemed philosophical.

*

As the year passed, the present took over. People looked forward to Christmas and worried about exams the same as any other year. Harry remembered his intention in coming back to Hogwarts had been to take his leave of the castle, and school, at his leisure, and paid enough attention to time and place to do this.

Also at his leisure, almost enjoying it, he considered Draco. He felt there was unfinished business there. He was glad the world when they were friends had ended when it did because it would have been mortifying to come back to the real world and know he had to face a Draco with those memories. Nevertheless, it was frustrating not to know what would have happened. In that world he hadn’t known that Draco was gay. Or was he? Did that alter from world to world? But if he had been gay, and Harry had known it, he would have felt much more confident about finally making his move. He owed it to that pining self to try and get into Draco’s pants, Harry told himself. If it all went wrong, he told himself, it was only a few weeks until the end of term, and then he’d probably never have to see Draco again. And it was only Draco anyway, he tried to tell himself.

Really, it was more simple than he admitted. He liked Draco. He’d got used to having him around. He didn’t want to leave Hogwarts and never see him again. The image he’d had of lying in bed with Draco still appealed.

“Are you always gay?” Harry asked Draco, who looked startled. “I mean, in the universe where you and Pansy came to the Order, you said you were gay.”

“Yes. I’m always gay,” said Draco.

“I was wondering specifically whether you were gay in the universe where we were friends. Because I fancied you in that universe. I thought about it a lot.”

Draco stared at him. “Seriously?” Harry nodded. He could feel his cheeks were hot. “I thought about it a lot too. It made me miserable.”

“Seriously? We should have gone for it. We could have used a bit more happiness and light relief in all that.”

They held each other’s gaze, smirking, the tension a kind they could relish.

“We should go for it now,” said Draco. Their faces were closer together now. Harry moved forwards and their lips met.

*

Harry joined the ranks of those who after the very last of Voldemort found they didn’t have what they wanted, but came to want something else instead.

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