Quietus

~~

and kisses are a better fate
than wisdom

-E. E. Cummings

In the aftermath, Draco realized he was shaking.

He didn't know how long he had been; it would have been impossible to tell. The very walls of the Great Hall had trembled with the force of Potter and the Dark Lord's magic, and his mother's pale, elegant hands had clasped his arms like shackles, her iron grip transmitting her own quiet, continuous shivers as the battle crescendoed, and through the endless, breathless instant before the Dark Lord fell.

But in the relative hush after the battle—after the elation had settled, and the air was heavy with the whispers and quiet sobs of friends and siblings and parents and teachers taking stock of their losses—as he stood in the light of sunrise amid the wreckage and the dead, his parents curled around him like inverted commas, he found his hands were shaking, and he was unable to stop them.

It was over.

*

He lost track of time for a short while, the seconds slipping by as smoothly as the silent tears that traced damp paths across his mother's face.

He grew dimly aware of the noise and activity rising around them as the survivors' shock wore off and the process of recovery began—bodies removed, tables replaced, knots of students (and adults, even) passing a somewhat dazed-looking Potter from hand to hand like a Quaffle. The Hall began to fill with daylight, bright and relentless, as though this were just any ordinary morning—as though the world hadn't upended itself in the light of dawn.

Eventually, Draco found himself seated with his parents at one of the long tables, his mother's fingers still curled, claw-like, around one of his arms, her blank expression telling him she likely was not even aware of the fact. On his other side sat his father, looking shocked and broken, his face bent nearly to Draco's shoulder. Lucius' hands lay palms-down on the tabletop, shaking with fine, almost invisible tremors.

Thankfully, in the bustle that gripped the Hall, no one seemed to take notice of them. Draco scanned the milling crowd warily, half expecting that, at any moment, he'd find himself and his family taken into custody by Aurors loyal to the new regime (there had to be one, he was certain—he'd distantly overheard Shacklebolt already being addressed as "Minister"), or, worse, seized by bloodthirsty Weasleys or others of their ilk, all too eager to inflict their own version of justice on those with poor enough judgment to have chosen the losing side.

Nobody approached them, though; no one seemed even to realize they were there—aside, perhaps, from Potter, whose gaze, in sweeping the width of the Great Hall, had glanced across them, his eyes connecting with Draco's for the barest fraction of a heartbeat, before moving on, dismissing him entirely.

Draco knew, under the circumstances, that he should be grateful Potter apparently considered him all but beneath his interest. Instead, the dismissal burned in an odd, uncomfortable, and all too familiar way.

His eyes narrowing, he watched Potter as he made his way from group to group, his exhaustion clear in every line, even as his body remained in motion—patting arms and backs in comfort; accepting tearful, grateful handclasps; embracing the fellow battle-weary.

He remembered, uncomfortably, the slick slide of Potter's palm against his own as Potter had grasped his hand to save him, and failed. Then—mercifully, almost unbelievably, except that this was Potter, nothing was unbelievable with Potter—the return, the firm coil of Potter's fingers around his arm, dragging him to safety, and the unholy blast of heat at his back as he shrank against his savior, arms curled so tightly around Potter's midsection that it had been a wonder he'd ever managed to let go.

Draco closed his eyes and took a slow, shuddering breath.

When he opened them again and surveyed the Hall once more, he saw that Potter had finally detached himself from his throngs of admirers and taken a seat next to Loony Lovegood. Potter's shoulders were slumped, his dark head bowed, and Draco wondered, for one confused moment, whether Potter actually had managed to fall asleep in the midst of all the post-battle activity. But when Lovegood spoke to him, he turned his head a fraction. Even from Draco's vantage point, the weary lines and shadows on his face were clear, and Draco wondered when had been the last time Potter slept.

Draco's sheer terror had denied him a full night's restful slumber for months now, but even he wasn't mad or arrogant enough to argue that his own level of sleep deprivation probably could compare with that of Undesirable Number One, on the run for months from one of the most powerful Dark wizards the world had ever seen.

His gaze traced the curve of Potter's cheek, the tight line of his jaw, and he swallowed, feeling the weight of the debt he owed Potter—his freedom from the (so pathetically unanticipated) nightmare that had been subservience to the Dark Lord, even his very life. Lovegood shouted something incomprehensible, but Draco's eyes stayed on Potter, watching as he made a sharp motion—and was gone.

Draco blinked. But the space where Potter had been remained empty.

Frowning in perplexity, he glanced from side to side, but saw no trace of Potter anywhere. It was as though he'd simply...disappeared.

Even as the realization struck him, his eyes sought out Weasley and Granger, and he watched as, as one, they turned to face someone who wasn't there, then stood and made their way out of the Great Hall, carefully not looking to either side.

Draco rose to his feet, feeling the sharp pinch of his mother's nails as she refused to relinquish her grip on his arm. His father looked up at him, his expression terrifyingly blank. "I have to go," Draco said.

"Draco..." his mother said, one of her hands grasping for his.

Gently, he pried her fingers off his arm. "I'll be back," he said. He touched her hand; it still trembled. "I'll be back," he promised. And, as unobtrusively as he could, he made his way toward the doorway.

*

In daylight, the battle-scarred castle was nearly unrecognizable.

Empty windows, blown out by the force of the fighting, spilled sunlight across glittering glass and haphazard chunks of stone that littered the hallways. Draco picked his way through the corridors, following the quiet pitch of Potter's voice, which hovered just far enough ahead that he couldn't understand what Potter was saying, only hear the low, exhausted drone of it, and the occasional gasp or exclamation from Granger or Weasley. The portraits on the walls were empty, the staircases eerily still, and over everything seemed to lay a fine coating of dust, as though the battle had concluded eons ago and not, in truth, no more than a bare hour before. Tiny particles shifted and crunched underfoot as he walked, making Draco fear they would announce his presence prematurely. But either the noise was far less than it seemed, or the trio were too absorbed in their conversation to note the sounds of a shadow tailing them through the corridors, for they never paused or turned around, and Potter's voice never ceased its unintelligible monologue.

When he realized they'd disappeared up the stairwell to the Headmaster's office—and heard, oddly, applause ringing out from the top of the staircase—he hesitated and eventually slumped against the wall near the gargoyle that guarded the entrance, and which now listed rather drunkenly to one side. "You with them?" it groaned.

"Er. No," Draco answered.

"Just as well," it muttered, then subsided into silence.

Draco rubbed the heels of his hands over his eyes, feeling the exhaustion starting to catch up with him. It had been a long night, a long year. It had been around this time a year before that he'd begun to realize what a dreadful, horrific mistake he'd made in pledging himself to the Dark Lord's service, in defiance of his mother's furtive and frantically expressed wishes. It was around that time, too, that he'd experienced the misfortune of Potter happening upon him in a lavatory at one of his lowest moments, and when Draco had lashed out instinctively in fear and anger, Potter had lashed out in return with a curse that nearly killed him.

Draco sank to his heels, his body curled protectively over his thighs as he remembered the sizzling agony of the curse rending his flesh, the sudden smell and slickness of blood, the shock of pain and blood loss that had caused him to fall, helpless, into the water, convinced he'd seen his own death in the startling Avada Kedavra green of Potter's eyes.

He'd been only distantly aware of Potter's hoarse protests, of Myrtle's screams, of Professor Snape's strangely melodic countercurse. It wasn't until Snape and a flustered Madam Pomfrey had installed him in one of the hospital wing's not-entirely-comfortable beds that he'd even dared to hope he might live.

Madam Pomfrey had dosed him with blood-replenishing potions—which made him feel at least a bit less like a corpse in waiting—and a draught of Dreamless Sleep, diluted so as not to overwhelm his already shocked system. He'd tumbled into nothingness while the restorative potions did their work, relieved to unburden himself, however briefly, of the terror and the pain and the humiliation.

He'd climbed muzzily to wakefulness some hours later, the tall, mullioned windows of the otherwise empty ward revealing an ink-dark nighttime sky dusted with distant stars. He closed his eyes again, grasping for the slumber that so recently had escaped him and finding it just beyond his reach. And so he lay in the darkness, breathing in, breathing out, feeling the slow expansion and contraction of his lungs, the stretch of skin across his chest, the faint tug of new scars.

And that was when he realized his were not the only breaths to disturb the near-silence.

He focused on controlling his breath, feigning sleep, and listening, hard, to the almost-silence of the night-dark ward: the faint drip of a leaky sink; the slow draw and release of his own breath—and, yes, there—another's breathing, not quite in sync, not quite in counterpoint, and close—very close.

Long minutes crept past as Draco concentrated on breathing—in, out, slow, slow, slow—nearly lulling himself back to sleep, but for the near-inaudible whistle of breath low and to his left. Not a ghost—ghosts didn't breathe. Not another patient—the sound was too close. Not a friend—surely a friend would have woken Draco, if only to brag about having spirited his or her way to the hospital wing in the night, away from the eyes of any patrolling professors.

He didn't dare attack—he could sense that he was still too weak to come off better in a fight. And so he waited, and breathed, and waited.

Finally, when he'd been on the verge of convincing himself the sounds were nothing more than the feverish imaginings of a lonely, weakened mind, there was a sigh and a quiet rustle of fabric. Then, a whisper.

"Reckon you're really asleep." The rustling again, as whoever it was crept closer. Draco could feel a ghost of breath against his skin as the visitor approached the bed. Kneeling, Draco guessed, from the origin of the whisper; he or she must have been slumped against the wall, waiting and listening.

"I just—" The whisper started again, then cut off as the person sucked in a harsh breath. "I know I'm a shit for not saying this to your face, but you'd never let me near you if you were awake, and it's—" A forceful exhalation, and Draco was near frozen with the realization of who was hovering invisibly over his bed. "It's something I have to say."

A few moments of silence. Then: "I'm sorry."

The whisper was ragged. Not a token apology, then. Not something said merely to appease the demands of another. Deeply felt, and confessed in the dark of the night to one assumed unconscious.

Genuine.

It took everything in him not to rear up and cast a frantic Lumos just to see the look in his eye—to see what contrition looked like on Harry Potter. But he held himself still, and breathed, and breathed, and listened.

The mattress shifted ever so slightly, and Draco assumed Potter had rested his hand or elbow on the edge of it. His proximity made Draco struggle not to tense—he could probably count on one hand the number of times he and Potter had ever been closer than at wands' length.

"It's—look, it's not as though you were a complete innocent today, either," Potter went on, his whispers verging on hisses. "I know what you were about to cast on me, and I've felt it before. I wonder if you ever have." Potter went silent again for a few moments, and when the whisper returned, it was softer again. "I wonder if you'd have meant it enough for the curse to take."

Potter exhaled. "I'm sorry," he whispered again. "I should never have—I didn't know what that curse even did, and when I saw all the blood—" He sucked in a breath, then released it slowly. "It was—horrible. It—I don't know how people can do that. How they can just hurt other people, and not care."

Potter went quiet, and when he spoke again, his whisper was so soft, Draco had to strain to hear. "I know you're a Death Eater," he said, and there was something close to defeat in his tone. "I've suspected. But when Snape was trying to heal you, I saw the edge of the Mark under your sleeve. I know you're—well, you're kind of a wanker, to be blunt. But you're not stupid, generally. I don't know why you'd choose to be stupid about something like this. Something this big."

The sound of rustling again, and the faint weight lifted from the mattress. When the whisper came again, it was harder to hear—perhaps Potter had stood. "I hope I don't have to kill you before all this is through," Potter said. "I hope I don't have to kill anybody. I nearly killed you today out of pure ignorance and stupidity, and—I don't want to feel that way again. I don't want to do that again, not on purpose."

Draco could imagine Potter standing over the bed, looking down at him, shrouded in cold, deep shadows. He was silent so long, Draco thought perhaps he'd left. But then the soft words began again. "I don't know why I bothered to come," Potter said. "You won't know I was here, and you'll wake up hating me as much as ever, if not more, and I could hardly blame you for it." A sigh. "There's trouble coming. Darkness." The quiet huff of a laugh. "I sound like bloody Trelawney." Another sigh, and sounds that spoke of agitated fidgeting. "I might hate you kind of a lot some days, but you don't deserve to die—not at my hand, and not at Voldemort's."

It cost Draco herculean effort not to flinch at the name.

"So, I'm sorry," Potter said. "I'm sorry I cursed you like that, and probably confirmed every horrible thing you've ever thought about me. I always—" A dry, humorless laugh. "I always thought of myself as one of the good guys. But apparently even the good guys can do stupid, horrible things." A pause. "Maybe someday I can apologize to you face to face. When all this is over, and we can talk like civilized people. Assuming either of us gets out of it alive."

There was the faint sound of movement again, and warmth hovered over Draco's shoulder, as though Potter had nearly reached out to touch—but hadn't, quite.

"For what it's worth," Potter whispered, "I hope we both do."

The quiet rustle of fabric retreated, and Draco could hear the receding whisper of Potter's trainers against the stone floor as he left the ward.

Draco had opened his eyes and stared into the darkness for a long time. When sleep finally dragged him back under, it was threaded through with shadowy dreams that left him feeling exhausted and ill come morning.

And when, months later, he'd found himself face to face with Potter at the Manor, separated from him by no more than a hand's breadth, those brilliant green eyes a swirling, so-Potterish combination of pleading and defiant, he'd remembered those urgent whispers, the quiet wish for mutual survival, the clear remorse—and he'd lied.

He'd seen something flare in Potter's eyes at his words—something like gratitude, or like satisfaction, or both—before Potter had been torn away from him and condemned as a prisoner.

If Potter and his cronies hadn't devised their own way of breaking free from captivity, would Draco eventually have found a way to release them? He wanted to think he would have—he'd known already, at that stage, that Potter was his and his family's only hope for escape from death or a life of servitude to the Dark Lord. But he wasn't brave. He wasn't Potter. He didn't willfully put himself into danger for the sake of others.

As he sat in the wreckage of the castle corridor, he drew up his knees and propped his elbows atop them, covering his eyes with his hands as he, once more, concentrated on breathing.

He might have wished otherwise, but he knew—always, deep down, he knew: He'd never been brave enough.

*

The clatter of the staircase lurching into motion startled Draco into lifting his head. He blinked into the light that spilled through one of the broken windows.

He could hear the murmur of Potter, Granger, and Weasley's still-quiet voices as the staircase turned, and he scrambled to his feet, dusting off the seat of his trousers just as the staircase deposited the trio back at the entryway.

All four froze, staring.

Finally, Potter took a step forward, only to have Weasley clamp a hand over his arm. With his other hand, he'd drawn his wand. "Harry, don't. It could be a trap."

Darting his gaze among the three of them to watch for any sudden movements or any change in expression, Draco slowly lifted his hands, palms outward. "I want to talk to Potter," he said.

Potter's face was nearly gray with fatigue, but his gaze was still sharp as it took in the whole of Draco and weighed him. "All right," he said.

"Harry!" Weasley protested, his wand held steady, leveled at the center of Draco's chest. "He's just a dirty—"

But this time it was Granger who held out a restraining hand, grasping Weasley's shoulder. "Ron," she said, and her voice, like Potter's, was low and exhausted. "Stop."

Weasley swung to face her, his expression incredulous. "You can't seriously mean to—"

"I do," she said firmly. "The battle is over, Ron. The war is over."

"There are still Death Eaters on the loose!"

"Yes," she agreed, her voice not changing in pitch or tone. "And they reportedly fled the castle."

Weasley bent closer to Granger, his voice dropping to a low hiss that Draco still could hear easily in the eerie stillness of the castle. "He has the Mark, Hermione."

Draco felt his stomach lurch as he realized his cuffs—buttons long since lost in the chaos of the battle—had slipped to his elbows when he'd raised his hands, and the Dark Mark was on full display—as though held up on purpose to taunt the three of them. His gaze shifted to Potter, who watched him with a cool, thoughtful expression.

"He does," Granger said. Her hand didn't move from Weasley's arm.

"Go on ahead," Potter said, gaze still on Draco. "I'll catch up."

"Harry!" Weasley said, then cut off with a yelp, rubbing at his shoulder. He turned to scowl at Granger, whose hand had lifted from Weasley's shoulder and now rested on her hip. "God, you're exactly like Mum," he muttered.

She arched an eyebrow. "I should hope not," she said with a speaking look, and Weasley's ears promptly turned scarlet.

Draco couldn't help the grimace of distaste that he could feel flicker across his features.

"We'll see you in a bit, Harry," Granger said, looping her arm through the now-docile Weasley's and beginning to lead him away. "And you," she said, drawing Draco's gaze. Her eyes were cold and threatening. "If we don't see him within ten minutes, I'll know whom to look for."

He inclined his head, and she turned away, pulling Weasley after her. He turned back to Potter, who still regarded him with a mild, contemplative expression.

"Potter," he said.

"Malfoy."

Now that he'd found Potter, now that he'd got him alone, he found himself uncertain. "I—" He swallowed, slowly lowering his arms. In the swirl of shadows and dusty sunbeams that painted the hallway, Potter's eyes were very dark and very green as his gaze rested on Draco. "I wanted to say—thank you."

"You're welcome," Potter said evenly. His gaze didn't waver.

"I want to—" He drew in a breath. "I need to—to help out. To do something."

Potter frowned. "What do you mean?"

Draco lifted his chin, his jaw tight. "I—I owe you, Potter," he bit out. "I need to do something."

Potter's neutral gaze turned colder. "If you're saying you want to help sort out the post-war mess out of some sense of obligation—the answer is 'no,' Malfoy."

Draco stepped closer, and Potter held his ground. Draco could almost feel the warmth radiating from his skin in the cool, shadow-strewn corridor. His hands—wretched, betraying things—itched to reach out and touch, to grasp at Potter like they had in the mad escape from the Room of Hidden Things. In a year of cold, shivering fear, Potter and that stupid, heedless, incredible escape from Fiendfyre had been the first and only source of heat, and he yearned for it again in some strange, unidentifiable way that made his hands tremble.

He clenched his fists at his sides.

"It isn't obligation," he said. "Or, it isn't only obligation. I need—" He closed his eyes, sucked in a breath; this was going all wrong. "I need to do something, Potter."

When he opened his eyes again, Potter's expression had reverted to blankness. "Why?" he asked.

"What do you mean why? I just told you, I need—"

"No," Potter cut him off. "Why do you need to help? Why now?"

Because I've been a coward too long, he couldn't say. Because I suffered at the Dark Lord's hands, too. Because I owe you. Because I want

"Because it's what I should do," he said.

Potter shook his head. "Not good enough, sorry." He turned and began to walk away in the direction his friends had gone, his strides brisk and, if Draco wasn't mistaken, angry.

"Stop!" Draco snapped.

To his surprise, Potter did stop, but he did not turn around.

"What do you want?" Draco demanded, fighting to keep the desperation from his voice. "Why won't you let me help you?"

Potter did turn, at last, his expression utterly dispassionate. "Because I don't trust you, Malfoy. Mere hours ago, your friends tried to kill me."

"I didn't—"

"No," Potter said. "But you hardly tried to stop them, either, did you?"

"I did try to stop them!"

Potter laughed. "So you could turn me over to Voldemort alive. Hardly a ringing endorsement for your supposed change of heart."

Shame and anger mingled, producing a sick, burning sensation low in his chest. "You don't know what it was like, Potter," he said in a low voice. "You have no idea what it was like to serve him, to live with him—"

Potter walked forward, moving directly into Draco's personal space, and his bright eyes had turned dark, almost black, as his face came close to Draco's. His voice dropped nearly to a growl. "No," he said, "you're right. I don't know. And that's because I didn't choose to serve him. I would never have chosen to serve him, and not only because he'd marked me as an enemy almost from birth." Caught in the mesmerizing strangeness of having Potter's dark, intense focus narrowed in on him alone, he stood stock-still in the corridor, Potter's breath buffeting Draco's face as the angry words spilled from the mouth of the Chosen One.

"I would never have chosen to serve him," Potter snarled, "because he was evil. And that you failed to recognize that sooner is your folly, Malfoy." Potter stepped back and ran a hand up over his face, lifting his glasses to rub tiredly at his eyes. When his hand dropped, his gaze had lost its piercing quality and subsided into something that was still angry, yes, but in equal part, undeniably, weary. "Look," he said with a sigh, "I get it, sort of. You were young, you put too much faith in your idiot father—" Draco fought down the instinctive urge to defend him. "—you were stupid and bigoted and immature enough to crave power, but not care how you got it. I understand how it happened." He ruffled a hand through his hair, the strands lifting to reveal a glimpse of the scar that streaked across his forehead, and when he spoke again, his tone was raw. "But that doesn't mean I have to forgive you for it, not just yet. Not before I've had the chance to bury the friends who died for me tonight. And not before I'm convinced you're not just using this as a self-serving opportunity to get back into the good graces of the wizarding world."

Draco opened his mouth to respond, then closed it again, his jaw tightening.

"For what it's worth—" Potter's voice had turned soft. "—I hope this change of heart is genuine. I—" He sighed. "Maybe it makes me an idiot to say so, or even to think so, but I believe you're truly remorseful, or at least that you have the capacity to be. But, well—" He laughed, a short, derisive sound. "—I feel like I've hardly slept in a year, and I just watched the most evil Dark Wizard in the world fall on his own curse, and it's been a long, strange night and I'm tired, damn it, and my judgment is maybe not what it ought to be. So I can't trust it, and I can't trust you." He rubbed a hand along the back of his neck, as though attempting to massage tension away. "I'm really not the person to be talking to right now," he said. "I don't particularly want to talk to anyone until I've slept at least ten hours. I don't even know how you found me."

"I saw you disappear," Draco said dully. "I was watching, in the Great Hall."

Potter blinked at this, clearly startled. "You were—" He shook his head. "Of course, you were," he muttered.

Draco waited for the condemnation of him as a dirty Slytherin spy, or whatever other insult Potter was working up, but none came.

Potter scrubbed both hands through his hair this time, leaving it a snarled mess. "I'm going to Gryffindor Tower," he said, "and I am going to bed, and I am going to sleep for however long I possibly can. And then, maybe, I can start thinking clearly and rationally. But right now—" He rolled his shoulders and unsuccessfully fought a yawn. "Right now, I'm basically all but useless. So, maybe another time, Malfoy."

"Another time," Draco echoed. "Right."

Potter turned and began to walk back down the hallway, his strides a little slower than before, though no less purposeful. Then he halted and turned slightly. "Malfoy?"

Draco's brows lowered. "Yes?"

"I doubt it means much, coming from me," Potter said, "but—I'm glad you're not dead. And not only because your mother might have killed me herself if you had been."

Draco struggled to find an appropriate response, but the reference to his mother had thrown him completely. "OK," he said, his tone dubious.

Potter smirked and strode away.

This time, Draco let him go.

*

After Potter's departure, Draco stepped backward carefully through the debris that littered the hallway until his back met the castle wall, then he slid slowly and inelegantly down it, coming to a rest crouched on the floor, his legs drawn to his chest, his forehead bent to his knees.

He could hear the incongruous sound of birdsong through the shattered windows, feel the faint caress of a late May breeze—chill yet, but holding within it the promise of warmth.

By the time he identified the sound of boot heels clicking smartly against stone, he'd lost track of however long he'd been away. His mother probably was worried.

"Mr. Malfoy! Whatever are you doing up here?"

He lifted his head to see Professor McGonagall staring down at him in bafflement.

Something Potter had said struck Draco then, and he scrambled to his feet.

"Waiting for you, Professor," he answered. "I think—" He took a steadying breath. "I think you might be the person I need to talk to right now."

*

To Draco's surprise, his entire family was permitted to return to the Manor after the battle, and—more startlingly—they were informed no charges would be filed against them.

He didn't think it had anything to do with the request he'd made of Professor McGonagall—nor of the protracted discussion with Minister Shacklebolt and a few others (Potter noticeable in his absence) that had followed—but, whatever the cause, he was not about to take the reprieve for granted, especially since he knew he had only a few scant weeks in which to enjoy it.

His mother had never questioned him regarding where he'd disappeared to that day (his father, Draco suspected, had barely noticed his absence, in the face of his own shock). When he'd returned to the Great Hall, more than two hours after he'd left it, his mother had enfolded him in her embrace and held him tightly, as though she knew that something had shifted, that something would make such opportunities scarce in future.

Mothers, she had told him before, often sensed such things.

Their return to the Manor had been somber. The house bore the stamp of the Dark Lord's prolonged residence as clearly as if it had been Marked—everywhere Draco turned, he could feel the oily residue of the Dark Lord's magic, see the traces of his occupancy on the floors and walls and furnishings—a trail of dust and decay and disorder.

For the first time in his life, home held no comfort—only memories of pain and betrayal and utter, mind-numbing terror.

This, too, his mother seemed to sense.

"We'll go to France," she said, seated next to him in the gardens. It was June, and the gardens hummed with life—so unlike the interior of the Manor, its spaces cold and dark and empty. He'd found himself retreating here more and more frequently as the days passed, and he'd been unsurprised to find his mother doing the same.

His father had enclosed himself in his study upon their return and rarely emerged. One of their few remaining house-elves (freed and, against her will, allotted wages by decree of the new government) brought his meals to him every day, and appeared in the dining room in the evenings to report on the condition of "Mister Lucius sir." Her constant woebegone expression, and the tension that suffused his mother's frame with each evening's update, made Draco want to blast in the door of the study and shake his father by the scruff of the neck until he realized what his despondency was doing to his family.

But he lacked the courage for even that much action, it seemed.

"I can't," Draco replied, not looking at his mother. "But perhaps you and Father—"

"No," she said sharply. "We will not leave you."

Draco's breath dragged through his lungs as fear tightened his airways. "Mother," he said, his voice low—not that there was anyone around to overhear, not these days, but habits endured, and the way he had begun to shake, he wasn't certain he'd be able to support his own voice at full volume anyway. "I have to tell you—"

Her hand settled on top of his on the bench. "You're leaving," she said.

"I have to," he said, miserably. "I shouldn't—I'm not supposed to tell, but—"

Her fingers tightened around his. "Then don't," she said. "I'm sure whatever it is, it's important."

"It's—I have to, Mummy." The old name, unused since long before his Hogwarts years, slipped out before he'd realized, and he felt the tremor that shook her fingers.

She was silent for a long moment, then said, "Do you know what happened in the forest, the night of the final battle? Have you heard?"

He shook his head; he'd been content to avoid thinking of that night overmuch. And the Prophet, thankfully, was more interested in reporting rogue Death Eater sightings and obituaries of the fallen than with rehashing the action of the battle.

"Potter found us," she said, a distant quality to her voice as she, too, stared absently into the flowering trees. "He came to us, just as the Dark Lord had said he would. And when the Dark Lord cursed him, he fell. By all rights, he should have been dead." She drew a slow breath. "I lied and told the Dark Lord that he was."

"You?" Startled, Draco turned fully to face her. "You…lied to the Dark Lord? To protect Potter?"

Her eyes were fierce when they met his. "To protect you. So I could return to the castle and find you, and so that we all might have some small hope of surviving the night, if not the next regime."

Draco swallowed. "Potter mentioned—something about you—but he didn't say—"

"You spoke to Potter?" his mother asked.

"I—" He swallowed. "Yeah. Just for a bit, that night. He was—" Draco laughed, a little bitterly. "He was Potter."

"He was—" She paused, thoughtful. "He was extraordinarily brave, to approach the Dark Lord. He thought he was coming to his own death. He didn't even raise his wand to defend himself."

Draco turned away, feeling shame whispering over his skin again, like so many times before. "You were brave. You lied to the Dark Lord. I don't think I could have."

"I wasn't the first person in this family to lie in order to protect Potter," his mother said in a cool, calm voice.

He turned to face her again, startled. "I—you knew?"

"I know you," she said simply. "I know when you're not telling the truth." Her hand squeezed his, her touch cool and certain and grounding. "I've known for weeks now that you were hiding something."

He turned fully toward her, wrapping his free arm around her so he could bury his face in her shoulder the way he had when he'd been a child. Startled, her hand flew up to settle lightly on his hair. "I wish I were as brave as you," he said, his voice muffled against the fine silk of her robe.

"Oh, Draco," she sighed, and she wrapped both arms around him, hugging him close. "You are. And you will be." They held each other in silence for several minutes, the most overt display of affection he'd shared with either of his parents in more than half a lifetime. He struggled not to shiver, thinking of what the coming weeks and months likely held. And when his mother pressed a soft kiss to his temple and murmured, "Wherever it is you're going, my little dragon, just—come back to me," he only clung more tightly, holding on while he could.

*

The Portkey arrived by owl late one night the following week, set to activate at dawn.

He scribbled out a note to his mother—she'd find it soon, or else one of the house-elves would—and waited for the first fingers of dawn to touch the sky, too keyed up to fall back asleep.

Even so, the sensation of a hook behind his navel caught him off guard, and he landed sprawled on his arse in a kitchen that tickled at a vague memory from childhood.

Two faces gazed down at him, one disapproving, the other clearly trying (and failing) to hold back a smirk.

A broad, freckled hand reached out to help him to his feet, and Draco attempted (and probably failed) to cloak himself in dignity as he rose.

"I don't know if you've met Charlie Weasley," Professor McGonagall said, and the man with the smirking, freckled face reached a hand out again, this time to shake. He had wide shoulders and a strong grip, and Draco found himself remembering a letter tucked in a book he'd forcibly borrowed from Ron Weasley in first year, and recalled that this man worked somehow with dragons. When Charlie relinquished Draco's hand, Draco gave him plenty of space. The twinkle in his eye told Draco the small backward step he'd taken had not gone unnoticed.

"Weasley," McGonagall said, "is helping to coordinate our intelligence operations. He's come up with the plan for your safekeeping."

Draco wasn't certain how "safe" and "dragon-taming," or whatever this man did, went hand in hand. But, after all, Draco was the one who'd effectively sold his soul to the Order of the Phoenix.

To say that McGonagall had been surprised at Draco's offer to help rout out the remaining Death Eaters would have been an understatement. She'd beckoned him up the stairs to the Headmaster's office, sending her Patronus dancing down the dim corridor behind them. As he'd sat in one of the chairs in front of the Headmaster's desk, generations of headmasters past had scrutinized him from the walls, some appearing outright hostile. But, in the portrait directly behind the desk, Albus Dumbledore had given Draco a slow, deliberate nod of approval, a small twinkle shining in his eye, and, inexplicably, some of the trepidation Draco felt began to fade away.

He had a lot to atone for, he'd told McGonagall, his gaze unwillingly darting over her shoulder to meet that of the former headmaster, who offered him a beatific smile. He wanted to stop the remaining Death Eaters from attempting to stage a comeback, he said. And, he pointed out uncomfortably, he most likely knew their hideouts and their habits better than anyone who'd sided against the Dark Lord all along.

Some minutes later, they'd been joined by Kingsley Shacklebolt, the Weasley patriarch, and one of the Weasley sons, whose scarred face made Draco squirm in his chair, as he suspected he knew how the man had acquired them. But the pale eyes had looked at him only with interest, not judgment, as Draco, on McGonagall's instructions, made his case to the newly assembled group about why he should be enlisted to support the anti-Death Eater efforts.

Minister Shacklebolt had authorized the use of Veritaserum, as a precaution. Draco wouldn't have said he blamed the man, but it was still an experience he would have preferred to have lived without. Even now, the memory of the compulsion it had induced in him to speak truthfully, openly, and completely made his guts twist, going as it had against the very ethos of Slytherin House.

But it had been enough to convince them, enough to land him in this chill kitchen with a headmistress and a dragon-tamer, with his fate effectively held in a pair of broad, burn-scarred palms.

"Have a seat, Draco," Weasley said. "I have plans for you."

*

Draco would never have called himself vain.

(Pansy, he acknowledged to himself, might have disagreed with him there.)

But when he was forced to confront the prospect of living—at least part of the time—with a different face and identity, he instinctively balked.

"It's for your own protection," Weasley sighed. "For Merlin's sake, it's not as though we're forcing you to Polyjuice into a girl at regular intervals, or something similarly drastic. It's just a location-based Glamour charm, so only senior-level Order members can identify you."

Draco's protests subsided as he wondered just how much Weasley knew about the events of Draco's sixth year that had led to his brother's scarring, or whether his choice of threats had been a random but well-chosen one. The laughter lurking in Weasley's eyes seemed, unfortunately, to indicate the former.

"In about an hour, many of the senior Order members will be gathering here for a formal debrief with you," Weasley went on, all business again. "We'll need you to reveal the location of every Death Eater safe house or other hideout known to you. However, we also need to keep you accessible to the Order for the foreseeable future, partly to keep you safe in case the Death Eaters begin to suspect you've turned against them, and partly because we may need to enlist your expertise again at a moment's notice." He paused. "We may or may not need to send you on occasional missions to make contact with Death Eaters. That, I promise, would be a last resort."

A chill ran up Draco's spine—less, strangely, at the thought of his own potential danger than at the realization that— "What does this mean for my family?" he demanded. "If I'm in danger, then certainly they are."

"Malfoy Manor is under round-the-clock protection by the Order," McGonagall informed him. "It has been since your family returned to it."

He blinked, surprised. "But I never saw—I mean, no one told me—"

"You weren't meant to know, or to see," McGonagall said. "Potter informed us of your mother's actions during the battle, and made us aware that she could be a potential target for rogue Death Eaters who may suspect her of treachery."

Draco felt cold. "My mother?" he choked. "Then why can't I be there instead of—of—wherever it is you're putting me?"

"Because you are of more use to us in an Order-run property," McGonagall replied brusquely. "And because your mother would be no better protected were you there with her, regardless of what you may be telling yourself right now."

Anger had him sucking in a breath to tell the old bat precisely what he thought about her dismissal of Draco's protection, but Weasley reached across the table to settle a hand on Draco's arm, startling him into stillness. "Don't take offense, kid," Weasley said, his voice disarmingly kind. "And don't worry—as long as they don't go seeking out any new alliances with stray Death Eaters—which I'm pretty bloody confident your mum has no plans to do, given what she did—they'll be fine."

Draco took a steadying breath and settled back into his chair, casting a dark look at McGonagall for good measure. She appeared amused at his effort.

"After the meeting," Weasley continued, "we'll take you to the house where you'll be staying."

"Home sweet home," Draco muttered.

"For the foreseeable future," Weasley agreed, not sounding at all apologetic.

"Splendid," Draco said.

*

In the Order safe house, they told him, his name would be Malcolm—close enough to his real name, Weasley said, that he should be inclined to respond to it without much thought. They would put about that he was a distant—albeit, thankfully, not ginger—cousin of the Weasleys who was aiding in intelligence operations.

The Glamour charm, as they demonstrated for him, activated as soon as he entered the protected perimeter of the safe house, darkening his hair and altering his features broadly enough so that he wouldn't put anyone in mind of a Malfoy, yet subtly enough that Draco didn't find himself wholly unrecognizable in the mirror.

Most important, it concealed the Mark entirely.

It was a deft piece of spellwork, he had to admit, and McGonagall looked pleased when he said so, and said she'd pass the compliment along to Professor Flitwick, with whom she'd worked to perfect the charm.

They showed him his room and the belongings that had been procured for him. They demonstrated the property's sole, heavily protected and closely monitored Apparition point, in the very back of the cozy, two-bedroom cottage. They gave him a brief tour—the kitchen, the sitting room, the fireplace, which was not connected to the Floo Network.

They failed, however, to mention he'd be sharing the quarters, until his apparent part-time housemate made his presence known through the faint pop of Apparition before he swept into the room, a broomstick clutched in one hand—not a Firebolt, Draco noted numbly—while the other shoved back the hood of his cloak. He all but skidded to a halt when confronted with McGonagall, Charlie Weasley, and, Draco devoutly hoped, a complete stranger.

"What's going on?" Potter asked.

"Harry, I don't think you've met Malcolm," Weasley said, slinging an arm around Draco's shoulders. Draco fought the urge to stiffen them at the contact, and attempted to relax into the embrace as though they were family. Judging by Potter's dubious expression, he wasn't terribly successful at it. "Another Weasley cousin. Distant, as you can tell by the hair!" He ruffled his hand through Draco's darkened locks, and it was all Draco could do not to glare. The corner of Potter's mouth quirked upward. "He'll be helping me out with a few things," Weasley went on, "so we're installing him here for a while. Easier access, you know."

"Right," Potter said, setting his broomstick down in the corner and removing his cloak as he stepped closer to Draco, the previous hint of a smile disappearing into a suspicious frown. "I don't remember you from Hogwarts."

"Home-schooled," Weasley said, thumping Draco on the back.

Potter swept him a look. "Does he not speak for himself?" He stared hard at Draco, and Draco was sharply reminded of that long-ago moment when they'd stood face-to-face under the chandelier in Malfoy Manor. He imagined his inner monologue at this moment was similar to what Potter's must have been then. You don't know me. You don't know me!

"My father was unwell," Draco said, altering his vowels in what he hoped was just pronounced enough a fashion to disguise his natural accent. "My mother required my assistance at home, so I trained with her and with local tutors. Rest assured," he was unable to resist adding as he drew himself to his full height—barely taller than Potter these days, but still, just taller enough, "my education was not lacking."

Potter considered him for a long moment, then turned back to Weasley, clearly dismissing Draco. "He'll be working with you?"

"Yes," Weasley said. "He has a—specialized skill set that will prove very helpful to the cause, I think."

"And you trust him?" Potter asked, his gaze sweeping over Draco once more.

"I do," Weasley said.

"We both do," McGonagall added. "And he's here on Kingsley's order."

Potter hesitated, then nodded. "All right," he said, then, to Draco's surprise, stuck out a hand. Slowly, Draco grasped it, and they shook. "Sorry if I seemed rude," Potter said with a shrug. "Can't be too careful, you know. It's nice to meet you."

"Likewise," Draco said, his voice sounding odd to his own ears.

Potter seemed to take no notice, though. He tossed the cloak over his arm and grabbed his broomstick. "Sorry, have to run. Meeting with Kingsley and the team at Grimmauld in a few minutes and just wanted to drop off my things." He ducked into the front entryway, and returned a moment later, his hands freed, tossing a wave at the three of them as he made his way back to the Apparition point. "See you later!" With another pop, he was gone.

Draco turned a hard stare on Weasley, who was rubbing a hand through his hair, an embarrassed grimace twisting his mouth. "Yeah, I probably ought to have mentioned that."

McGonagall sighed.

*

Draco hadn't been allowed to bring any of his own belongings, for fear they'd be recognized, so he was forced to make do with what had been provided for him—dull clothes, pedestrian books, a wireless with a crap tuner. He was tempted to poke into and prowl about Potter's room, but accepted that this was a rather terrible idea all around. He'd no wish to find himself on the receiving end of another of Potter's curses, thank you very much.

However, Potter hadn't bothered to close the door to his room, so he couldn't see any harm in just looking.

Not that there was much to look at, as it turned out—a couple of books, a photo album, a battered rucksack, a stray pair of socks on the floor. Overall, it seemed unnaturally tidy and devoid of personality for someone who was as much of a force of nature as Potter.

But perhaps Potter only resided here part of the time and resided elsewhere on a more permanent basis. It wasn't as though they'd actually discussed the situation at any length, and neither Weasley nor McGonagall had volunteered much information other than that, yes, he was sharing the house with Potter and, yes, they were concealing Draco's identity from him for a reason. The fewer people who knew Draco'd been formally enlisted to their side, the lower the odds he might inadvertently be revealed as a turncoat. In fact, Weasley had mentioned in an offhand manner, they had every intention of spreading rumors that Draco was working actively against the Order, in order to provide a cover should they require Draco to make contact with other Death Eaters personally.

The thought sent a chill through him.

To distract himself, he nosed his way through the rest of the small house. He wondered who, if anyone, from the Order had lived there properly, or if it was a stray cottage they'd annexed somehow in the name of the cause. There was little in the way of personal effects in the house—shelves of Muggle literature in the sitting room, brightly colored dishtowels in the kitchen, a peculiar clock on the wall with three hands, at least two of which had stopped, and none of which seemed to be telling the correct time. A door that probably led to a cellar of some sort refused to open, no matter how much he tried to force it, and in spite of a few small spells he cast at it, so he eventually gave up the effort and flopped onto the sofa with one of the room's many tedious Muggle novels—something about a family isolated on the moors, and a mysterious, brooding man. Draco thought he might be able to relate.

Around dinnertime, food appeared in the kitchen, delivered by unseen hands. So at least the Order seemed to have enlisted some house-elf help, which was a relief given that Draco didn't know the first thing about cooking. He carried his plate to the window and looked out at what was to be his prison for the next however many weeks or months, while the Order and the Auror corps struggled to track down the escaped Death Eaters. There was nothing much to see from the window—the house seemed to have no immediate neighbors, and a leaden sky hung low overhead, spitting raindrops.

Sighing, he settled back onto the sofa and eventually dozed off. Later that evening, Potter found him there, the Muggle novel open facedown over his chest. Draco cracked a yawn and blinked stupidly at the sight of Potter before recollection returned and he remembered that, yes, this was his new reality now.

Potter was standing in front of the sofa, smirking at him. "Wuthering Heights?"

"Shut up," Draco muttered, sitting upright and running his hands through his hair. "It was a way to pass the time."

"Can't say I've read it—" Potter snatched up the book before it could tumble off Draco's lap to the floor. "Hermione—my friend Hermione, one of my best mates—" As though practically the entire wizarding world didn't know Harry Potter and his two shadows by now. "—claims it's all romantic twaddle. But I definitely caught her sighing over it once in the Gryffindor Common Room," he added with a grin, and even Draco couldn't help but snicker at the image of Granger being caught out.

Potter sat on the other end of the sofa, turning the book over in his hands, fingers stroking gently along the spine. "Bedtime reading?" Draco couldn't help needling.

Potter looked offended at the very suggestion, and Draco laughed. But Potter's expression turned solemn. "No, just—thinking. This belonged to a friend of mine."

"The person who owned the house?" Draco asked.

"Yes," Potter said. "Well, one of them, anyway." He glanced around, his mouth tipped downward in what looked like it might be sorrow. "They barely lived here. They'd just bought the house when they married, which was precisely when the whole world was starting to go to hell." His fingers played lightly over the book's cover. "After she found out she was pregnant, she lived with her mother for a while, because it was safer. But eventually their son was born here."

He fell silent, and Draco watched him frown absently at the book for a few moments before prompting, "Where are they now?"

"Dead," Potter said shortly, his fingers tightening around the book. He glanced up at Draco, and Draco's shock must have shown on his face, because he hastened to backtrack. "Not the baby," he clarified. "Teddy lives with his grandmother now. But Remus and Tonks—" A slow sigh. "They died in the battle."

Draco sucked in a breath. He remembered Professor Lupin, and could recall now seeing his body among those laid out at Hogwarts that terrible morning. He hadn't realized one of those bodies also had been that of his cousin Nymphadora, whom he'd never met, and knew of only because his mother had whispered to him of her once when he'd been a child—secretly, she'd never stopped listening for news of her estranged sister, much as his Aunt Bellatrix would have been infuriated if she'd known. He'd never forgotten his mother's vivid description of Nymphadora's Metamorphmagus abilities—they'd fueled his magical daydreams for years with hope that perhaps his own such abilities lay deeply buried and would emerge when he began to learn magic properly at school. But no such luck.

It was strange to think that now he never would meet her, but that he resided in her home and had been reading what no doubt had been one of her books. And she'd left a son—he hadn't realized she'd left a son. He recalled the Dark Lord's quiet taunt—Will you babysit the cubs?—and repressed a shiver.

He looked up to see that Potter was watching him, a glint of curiosity in his eyes. "I'm sorry," Draco said. "It's—I lost people—a close friend—in the war, too, so I know it's—it's hard."

"Yeah," Potter said, turning away to look at the clock that hung on the wall. Draco only now saw what had failed to register earlier in his cursory examination of the house—it was a magical clock, and the two longest hands—presumably representing Nymphadora and Lupin—had stopped, while, even as he watched, the smallest hand shifted backward two notches to a section he couldn't quite read from this distance, although it seemed to make Potter smile in a distant sort of way.

"So did they—your friends," Draco asked, "did they donate their house to the Order?

Potter settled back into the sofa, fingers playing with the book once again. "Not precisely. They willed it to me and to Tonks's mum to keep in trust for Teddy. Andromeda was the one to suggest using it as an Order safe house, at least on a temporary basis." He closed his eyes and sighed. "We can only hope the war will be long over before Teddy comes of age."

The soft light from the lamp behind him played over Potter's face, limning his features in a way that made him seem older, leaner, and, strangely, more dangerous. Draco shifted on the sofa, suddenly uncomfortably aware of Potter's nearness and unsettled by his openness—he knew the conversation they were having would never have occurred if they'd been Potter and Malfoy, rather than Potter and obscure Weasley cousin. The thought made the old flame of resentment burn low in Draco's gut—but then Potter turned his face and smiled crookedly at Draco, and he nearly gasped as the resentment was all but extinguished, leaving behind another kind of heat entirely. Draco knew he was staring, but Potter didn't seem to notice.

Draco cleared his throat. "So is that why you stay here—to keep the house safe?"

Potter laughed, stretching his arms over his head in a way that had Draco helplessly following the long, strong lines of them before he forced his eyes to meet Potter's shadowed green ones once more. "No, I live here because it's quiet and it's remote, and frankly I've had enough of people for a while."

Draco recoiled slightly. "Ah," he said. "So now they've saddled you with a housemate against your will—"

Potter sat upright. "No, no," he said, setting a hand briefly on Draco's knee. "Don't worry about that. I just —" He grimaced. "I get so tired of all the well-meaning sympathy, or dealing with people who are too in awe to talk to me properly." A corner of his mouth curled upward in a small smile. "You don't seem to be in awe of me."

"You don't seem terribly awe-inspiring, Potter," Draco retorted, then blinked in horror at what he'd said.

But Potter tipped his head back and laughed, then leaned in to grin at Draco. "I think we're going to get along fine. And it's Harry."

Draco blinked. "What's Harry?"

Potter smiled. "My name. Call me Harry. No need to stand on formality if we're going to be sharing quarters for a while."

"Harry," Draco tried, and the name felt strange on his tongue.

"See, that's better." Potter rubbed a hand through his hair, somehow managing to turn its usual disorderly nest into something even messier.

"I didn't want to seem…impertinent," Draco said, wondering how long it would take for Harry to feel even remotely natural to him.

"No, it's fine," Potter said, flashing him another quick smile that made something twist in Draco's chest. "The only person in the Order who still calls me Potter is Professor McGonagall, and I don't think that's a habit she'll ever break. Even Kingsley calls me Harry now. 'Sides—" He propped his feet up on the coffee table. "—Getting called Potter by someone close to my age reminds me too much of Hogwarts and this one Slytherin who always said my name like it was an insult."

Draco felt his breath freeze in his chest. "Oh?"

Thankfully, Potter didn't seem to notice the sudden strained tone in Draco's voice. "Yeah," he said, tilting his head back and closing his eyes. "He was a shit. Although—" He sighed. "—I guess, to be fair, we both were shits to each other. But his mother lied to the Dark Lord during the last battle so that I could escape." A frown twisted his lips. "And I think Malfoy, in the end, actually felt bad about the role he'd played."

Draco picked at the seam on his trousers, trying not to sound too interested. "Is he one of the Death Eaters we're trying to track down?"

"Oh," Potter said, "no. Malfoy and his mum have been granted pardons—" Draco couldn't help sitting up in shock; no one had mentioned this fact to him, and he'd have been surprised if his mother knew, even knowing how closely she tended to play her cards to her vest. "—and we're still deciding whether to charge the father with anything." He shrugged. "Although if they stay put and stay quiet until this whole mess is over, he may wind up with a pardon, too, even though he was a pretty key player in the war."

"Then why pardon him?" Draco asked, genuinely curious.

"Compassion?" Potter said. He shrugged. "It'll all come down in the end to how remorseful he is, I think. He seemed pretty shaken by it all at the end of the battle, and I think he may have learned his lesson about attempting to help bring a total madman to power." Yes, Draco thought. "But we'll see," Potter added.

Draco fervently hoped, for his father's sake—and his mother's— that Potter remained inclined toward compassion. He wasn't certain what another term in Azkaban might do to his father, who was already broken in so many ways.

Potter stood, startling Draco out of his reverie. "I'm for bed, I think," Potter said. "See you in the morning."

Draco watched him go, then drew his knees to his chest, contemplating the utter strangeness of having a fairly long, completely civil conversation with Harry Potter.

To his surprise, it wouldn't be the last.

*

They never quite settled into anything as pedestrian as a routine, but their ease with each other seemed to grow as the weeks stretched on through the summer.

Draco occasionally was summoned to Order Headquarters for closed-door meetings with senior Order strategists (always late at night, the better to conceal Draco's identity from any stray Order members in the house) regarding the best ways to track and apprehend Death Eaters who were within the Order's sights.

Potter—Harry, Draco had to remind himself sternly far too many times, lest he make Potter suspicious with repeated slip-ups—sometimes would disappear for days at a time.

"What is it you're doing?" Draco finally asked him.

Harry shrugged. "Bit of this, bit of that. I sometimes help capture Death Eaters when we find them. I also put in shifts on guard duty at a few different places."

Like Malfoy Manor? Draco wanted to ask, but didn't. Somehow, the notion of Harry Potter on guard duty for the Malfoy family was too strange to contemplate, even in light of what he knew Harry had done for them already—and the strange, unsettling friendship that was starting to grow between him and Harry.

They weren't mates by any stretch of the imagination—the very idea was laughable—but the longer they shared quarters, and the more Draco got to know Harry, even in just small ways (for someone who was arguably the most famous person in the wizarding world, Harry could be oddly closed off and protective of his privacy), the more Draco…well, liked him.

It didn't help that he caught occasional glimpses of Harry shirtless, clad in only a towel, as he walked from the bath to his bedroom in the mornings. Or that Harry's smiles—whether easy and affable when he was in a good mood, or hard-won when he was in a sour one—never failed to set something alight within Draco that felt curiously, disturbingly close to the elation he'd always felt at winning a Quidditch match.

Draco wasn't lacking in self-awareness enough not to have realized that he preferred men to women—although, for the sake of appearances and familial expectation, he'd dated exclusively the latter in school—but this flickering, growing attraction to Harry almost frightened him, so unexpected was it, so potentially devastating.

So it was all the worse when Harry returned from Order Headquarters one night and promptly began smashing plates in the kitchen.

Draco scrambled in from the sitting room and gaped at the mess Harry already had caused, before grabbing him by the arms—the contact sent a jolt through him that he fought back—and manhandling him away from the cupboards and their store of innocent dishware. "What has got into you?" he demanded.

Harry glared at him and twisted his arms out of Draco's grip. "Oh, nothing. Just the pleasure of discovering how spectacularly wrong I was."

Harry stomped out of the kitchen, and Draco followed, completely at sea. "Wrong? About what?"

"Malfoy!" Harry shouted, and Draco jumped, fearful for one shattering instant that Harry had discovered his secret. Harry grabbed a pillow off one of the armchairs and flung it across the room, where it landed with a whump.

At least it's not dishes, Draco thought absently as he hovered behind Harry, noting how his chest rose and fell with the force of his breathing, how his fists clenched and unclenched. "What happened?" he asked, his voice quiet, striving for calm.

"Rumor has it," Harry bit out, "that Malfoy's been reaching out to Death Eaters in hiding. That he's helping them." He laughed, a dark, angry sound that sent a shiver of fear up Draco's spine. "I should have known not to trust him. I should have known." He slammed a fist against the wall, and Draco jumped.

Draco cleared his throat. "If it's just a rumor, then—"

A low growl rose out of Harry's throat, and he slumped against the wall, a hand rubbing through his hair. "He's been missing from the Manor for at least a month, possibly longer. His parents claim no knowledge of his whereabouts. And he was spotted near a known Death Eater hideout just days ago."

Draco wondered who actually had been spotted, or if the story had been fabricated whole-cloth to lay groundwork for future outreach attempts. He clasped his arms around himself to ward off a chill. He knew what he was doing was important, was necessary. But that didn't mean he enjoyed contemplating the prospect of Potter-style confrontational heroics. Sneak attacks had always been more his style.

"Maybe," he ventured, knowing he shouldn't, "it wasn't actually him—?"

But Harry was shaking his head. "No, it had to be. Charlie and Kingsley wouldn't have brought it up if they weren't all but certain." He sighed, some of his initial anger seeming to have deflated. "I probably shouldn't have said anything," he admitted, "but it'll probably be part of your next discussion with Charlie, whenever that is, so hopefully no harm done."

"No," Draco said, trying not to sound as frightened and defeated as he felt, "probably not."

Harry dropped into the armchair whose pillow he'd so sorely abused and rubbed tiredly at his eyes. Draco took a seat on the sofa, perched on the edge of the cushion as he watched Harry. "Why does that upset you so much?" he couldn't help asking. "I remember you saying he was a Death Eater. And, well—" He smiled a little, hoping it wouldn't look nervous. "—It's not as though he switched sides and joined the Order, did he?"

Harry groaned and covered his eyes with one hand, his glasses dangling from the other, before he took a deep breath and replaced them, meeting Draco's eyes. The weight of his gaze made Draco draw back, startled by the guilt and unhappiness and, yes, anger he saw swirling in Harry's eyes. "I think he wanted to, once. I never told you, but—he approached me, just after the battle. Said he wanted to help, that he owed me." He laughed a little, a touch of bitterness leaving it jagged at the edges. "Maybe he was just taking the piss. Maybe it was all part of some great Death Eater plot to get inside the Order, and I was right not to trust him then." He rubbed his hands against his knees, flexed his fingers. "In any case, I brushed him off. Told him thanks, but no thanks, and sent him on his way." His eye twitched, and he looked down again. "What if it was a genuine offer of help, and I sent him straight back to the Death Eaters?"

Draco sat back, stunned. "Potter—" He caught himself too late, noticing Harry's flinch. "Harry. You can't blame yourself. You can't have known for certain what he meant, what he intended." The next words burned him to say, but he'd come to realize they were true. "You have good instincts about people. If you chose not to trust him, you probably were right," he concluded, unable to keep all the bitterness out of his voice.

Harry was silent for several moments. Then, "Thanks," he said, his gaze flicking up to meet Draco's. "I hope you're right. I—" He swallowed. "It helps, a little, to try to think of it that way."

Draco forced a smile. "Glad to be of help," he said, and rose from the sofa.

"Oh!" Harry said, standing. "Are you going to bed already?"

"I have a headache," Draco said flatly.

"Oh," Harry said, frowning. "All right. I—sorry if I, er, caused it."

"No," Draco lied. "Not your fault."

He turned to leave, and Harry caught his arm. Surprised, he turned back to meet Harry's eyes, which had turned oddly intense. "Thanks," Harry said, his gaze holding Draco pinned. "I mean it."

Draco blinked, then swallowed before nodding his head mutely. When Harry's hand dropped from his arm, he told himself he didn't miss its warmth.

*

As summer aged into autumn, Draco's life seemed to take on a surreal quality.

His meetings with Charlie Weasley and, more and more frequently, Minister Shacklebolt became both more regular and more tense. As he'd suspected, the story about him being seen near Death Eater hideouts had been fed to members of the Order, and particularly certain well-placed field operatives and Aurors, in order to prime the situation should the Order determine Draco's intervention would be useful. He smiled his fakest smile and lied and told them he was prepared, that he was eager, to go into the field if they determined he should do so. And then he returned to the safe house, and the protection of his Glamour charm, and shook off Harry's entreaties to talk in favor of retreating to his bedroom alone to shiver.

When he wasn't being summoned to nighttime strategy meetings, and when Harry wasn't disappearing for whatever it was he disappeared for, they found ways to amuse themselves around the cottage.

Draco had long since made his way through every bit of Muggle literature on the shelves—the whale tale, the desperately unmarried daughters, the stoic governess, the goddamn kid who called everyone a phony, and on and on—so he'd been forced to seek other outlets for amusement. He'd attempted to challenge Harry at wizard chess, but it turned out that in spite of years of playing with Ron Weasley—who'd returned to Hogwarts, along with Granger, for a proper seventh year, it seemed— Harry was total crap at it, so it turned into an exercise in frustration, with Draco repeatedly burying his head in his hands and groaning at whatever awful move Harry had made. By the end, he'd become convinced Harry was torturing him on purpose—a supposition proven true when Harry had grinned and remarked, "You're more fun to wind up than Ron is. Typical Weasley temper."

Which was just a thousand different shades of wrong.

One evening, after Draco had carelessly commented that he missed Quidditch, Harry had blinked and asked how he'd played Quidditch if he hadn't been enrolled at Hogwarts? Draco had cleared his throat and muttered something about a community league and pick-up games with the Weasley clan, which had seemed to satisfy Harry's curiosity, thankfully. And it had led to the two of them scrounging up scrap paper and sketching out play after play, then arguing over the merits of each until the early hours of the morning. By the time they'd parted, Harry's eyes had positively glowed at him.

Draco was reasonably certain that it wasn't his imagination that he'd noticed Harry, well, looking at him more frequently. He suspected he was doing a poor job of hiding his own regard, which was mortifying enough—perhaps there long had been, deep down and wholly unacknowledged, some small measure of attraction at the root of Draco's repeated attempts to antagonize Harry back at school. But certainly it had never been like this—he'd never realized how infectious Harry's laugh was, how bright his smile, how amusing his sense of humor could be when Draco wasn't the butt of the joke. He'd catch himself smiling helplessly at something Harry said, then try to smother it before Harry caught him at it—but he was reasonably certain he'd failed on many occasions.

Because perhaps the most surreal thing of all was that Harry was smiling back.

One quiet, rainy afternoon, Harry decided they should try Apparating within the cottage. Draco, lying supine on the sofa, turned his head to give Harry an Are you mad? expression; the cottage, similar to Hogwarts, was spelled within an inch of its life to prevent Apparition anywhere but the designated Apparition point.

But Harry just laughed. "Come on," he said, grabbing Draco's hands and dragging him bodily from the sofa.

So, he made the attempt. Over, and over, and over again, he made the attempt. But he could feel the matrix of spellwork fighting him, pressing in on all sides, practically squeezing him into place when he tried to concentrate fiercely on his goal destination only a few feet away.

Exhausted, frustrated, and on the verge of a headache, he gave up and sat down, watching Harry continue the fight for a while longer. At one point, he seemed almost to flicker—it had been practically unnoticeable, to a point that Draco thought at first that it had been a trick of the light. But Harry had turned to him with a grin. "I'm getting there, Malcolm! We'll try again tomorrow," he'd announced, and could not be persuaded otherwise.

Over the course of weeks, between meetings and absences and other distractions, Harry forced Draco to practice with him on a semi-regular basis. After a while, he began to catch Harry's enthusiasm for the seemingly insurmountable challenge—the fight against the odds, to do what could not, should not be done.

And then, one day, Harry did it.

To Draco's stunned amazement, Harry disappeared from Draco's side and reappeared a scant few feet away. He spun around, jaw hanging agape, to see what surely had to be a mirroring expression on Draco's face, and actually leapt into the air. "Yes!"

Draco had laughed. Damn Harry Potter for always, always managing to defy expectations. "Now you just have to show me how to do it, you prat."

Harry had bounced back up to him, grasping Draco's arms, his grin almost blinding. "I think I have it! It's a matter of seeing through the network of spells—there's a chink in it, and if you concentrate on finding your destination through that—" To Draco's shock, he wrapped his arms around Draco and clenched his eyes shut. Realizing suddenly what the damned fool was attempting to do, Draco grabbed onto Harry tightly just as he felt the breathless squeeze of Side-Along Apparition take him. In the next instant, he found he was across the room, Harry still wrapped around him.

Draco goggled, then laughed helplessly. "You," he pronounced, "are bloody amazing sometimes."

Something shifted in Harry's expression then, his mouth falling open as he stared into Draco's face, which Draco could feel was flushed with mirth and excitement. "Malcolm," Harry said, and leaned his face into Draco's.

Shocked, Draco dropped his arms from around Harry and abruptly pushed him away before Harry's lips could make contact. "What—what are you doing?"

Harry staggered slightly, then caught his balance, his expression one of utter confusion. "I thought—" He cleared his throat and straightened his posture, but his face burned with humiliation. "I thought you wanted it. I thought we both wanted it."

"I—" Draco scrubbed a hand over his face—the face that wasn't even his face, the face of a made-up Weasley cousin with a made-up name and a made-up life story, who walked around carrying Draco's brain and blood and heart inside, so woefully underprotected. "I thought you had a girlfriend," he said, still covering his face.

Harry's silence was drawn out long enough that Draco finally dropped his hand and opened his eyes to see Harry's incredulous expression. "How can you not know? I thought the whole Weasley clan knew we'd broken up months ago." He grimaced. "She made it very well known that she wanted someone who wouldn't put the pursuit of Death Eaters ahead of her."

"Oh," Draco said, stupidly. "I—we don't exactly talk family gossip at the meetings I go to. Nobody mentioned."

"Ah," Harry said, his face carefully blank.

"I'm sorry," Draco said helplessly.

"Yeah, well," Harry said, a hint of anger bleeding into his tone, "I guess I read the situation wrong, is all."

And how was he supposed to counter that? How, in his current situation, could he possibly say, No, you had it right, you had it completely right, and I've wanted you for ages, but you don't want me—the actual me, the one you don't realize you know—and if you did know it was me, you'd never want me at all?

So he said nothing.

Harry turned his back on Draco and climbed the stairs in silence.

Draco sat on the sofa and struggled not to cry like a goddamn first-year.

*

When Weasley informed Draco at their next meeting that he needed Draco to make contact with one of the escaped Death Eaters they'd been tracking, whom they were certain was the key to finding at least one, and possibly more additional Death Eaters, it almost came as a relief.

Almost.

He wished profoundly, though, that the Death Eater in question weren't Rabastan Lestrange, brother to the husband of his crazy dead aunt. Rabastan had lived in the Manor with them the previous year, along with a coterie of other Death Eaters. And he'd known Draco since Draco had been a child. He suspected the task would be easier with someone who was a stranger to him, or at least someone whom he at least hadn't developed an intense and personal dislike for by the age of ten.

But this, after all, was what he'd volunteered for.

*

The night he was to begin waiting for Rabastan at an inn an Order spy had noted he visited on occasion, Draco came down the stairs and donned his traveling cloak, then paused at the edge of the sitting room. Harry sat in the armchair he favored, a book on his lap.

They'd barely spoken since the evening of the aborted kiss. Harry's avoidance of him had been pronounced, and any attempt Draco made to speak with him (which, granted, were few and feeble) was met with a blank look or a turned back, or both.

Draco wanted to say goodbye, but he knew he'd receive no response but a stiffening of Harry's shoulders as he studiously refused to look up at Draco.

And so he simply left.

*

Afterward, Draco would think that he should have realized something was amiss as soon as Rabastan spied him among the thin crowd at the inn and dropped into the chair opposite Draco's with a too-genial, "Ahh, my favorite almost-nephew."

"Rabastan," Draco bit out, deliberately leaving off the "uncle" the man had insisted Draco call him when Draco had been a child, in spite of their being only the most tenuous familial connection between them.

"Heard you'd flown the coop," Rabastan said with a grin, settling in comfortably. "Bet your mum is a right mess, wondering where on earth you'd got to."

Draco lowered his voice. "I've been trying to find my way back to the Dark Lord's followers, but it's been difficult to find any of you."

Rabastan eyed him. "And how'd you manage to find me this time?"

"I remembered you owned property in this county," Draco said, which was the truth—and was one of the pieces of information he'd passed along to the Order at the first opportunity. "I figured if I searched enough inns and pubs, I'd eventual come across you."

Rabastan tipped his head back and laughed. "And right you were, right you were!" He rose to his feet. "Come along, then, let's not dally. I know what you've been looking for."

Draco rose and followed him out of the inn and into the darkened village lane. Rabastan abruptly set a hand on Draco's shoulder, and the pull of Apparition caught him by surprise.

The first blast of the Cruciatus Curse caught him even more so.

He doubled over as agony lanced through him, fighting to reach his wand—an old one of his father's that didn't always respond to his whims as promptly as he might wish—but blast after blast of the curse kept him writhing on the floor. Then the curse stopped, and he managed to turn himself just far enough to make out his unmourned former Uncle Rodolphus, wand fixed on Draco, as well as Rookwood and Rowle.

Rodolphus grinned, striding forward to kick Draco in the midsection, which sent ripples of agony throughout his body along nerves already sparking from prolonged exposure to Cruciatus. "We've been waiting for you, little turncoat," Rodolphus crowed. "You give us too little credit if you didn't realize we've known about your change in alliances from almost the moment of the switch."

Draco sucked in a breath to speak, and it turned into a gasp of pain. "H—how?" he managed.

All four of the men laughed. "Rookwood over there," Rodolphus said, "is an unregistered thrush Animagus. So he simply—" He wiggled his fingers. "—flitted around until he heard something interesting." He leaned forward with a threatening smirk. "Imagine his surprise that it should be the son of the Dark Lord's disgraced former right-hand man turning traitor."

The handle of his wand slid slowly, smoothly, and unnoticed into his palm as he braced himself.

"We don't take very well to traitors, do we, boys?" Rodolphus said, his smirk growing. "And that goes for their mummies as well."

His stomach felt like a block of ice as he grasped the implication.

Rodolphus pointed his wand at Draco's heart. "We'll give your regards to your mummy when we see her in a little while," he said. He tilted his head and smiled. "Goodbye, traitor."

Apparate! Apparate! APPARATE! Draco focused with every pain-wracked inch of his body, and he disappeared just as Rodolphus cast the Killing Curse.

*

He landed on his knees on the doorstep of Order Headquarters, doubled over in pain, and pounded his fist against the door. He was on the verge of attempting a blasting curse when it swung open to reveal tartan robes. Above him, McGonagall gasped. "Mr. Malfoy—"

"The Manor," he gasped, unable even to raise his head to look at her. "The Lestranges, Rookwood, Rowle—they're going after my mother next. Please!"

She raised a cry of alarm and sent her silver cat Patronus racing away even as she levitated Draco through the doorway, careful not to touch his overly sensitized skin. "I'm alerting the team stationed at the Manor, and we'll send reinforcements immediately," she said, her brusque, no-nonsense burr infinitely comforting for once. "You need a Healer—don't worry, we'll get you—"

But by then, he had, mercifully, passed out.

*

When he woke, he'd somehow been restored to his narrow bed in the little cottage he shared with Harry. The room was dark, the house quiet, and the agony, somehow, was only a faint sense memory along his skin.

He moved tentatively, breathing a sigh of relief as the waves of nightmarish pain he'd expected failed to materialize. He grasped his wand and cast Lumos to see a collection of nerve-restoration and pain potions lined up neatly along the nightstand, along with instructions for their use. He sat up to examine them and wondered, suddenly, how whichever Order member had delivered him here had explained his condition to Harry.

Assuming Harry had even cared.

Rising carefully to his feet, he padded out of the room and saw that Harry's door was ajar, the room dark. He made his way down the darkened stairs, wondering if Harry had disappeared for one of his days-long absences. Then he nearly went flying as his foot struck an obstacle near the base of the stairs.

In a heartbeat, Harry had leapt to his feet, grasping Draco by the arms to steady him. "Are you OK?" he asked, his voice sounding strange.

"Yeah," Draco managed, though Harry's tight grip was sending tingles of pain up his arms. "Thanks." He rested a steadying hand on the stairwell wall and cast Lumos once more, Harry's face coming into stark relief before he seated himself once more at the foot of the stairs.

"What's wrong?" Draco asked.

Harry took a deep breath, his hands rubbing at his cheeks. Had he been crying? "There was an attack on Malfoy Manor tonight. You were away when the call for reinforcements came. Three Death Eaters got through our defenses."

Draco sat down, hard, on the stairs next to Harry. "What happened? Is M—is Narcissa OK? Is—"

"Narcissa and Lucius are fine," Harry said, and Draco nearly collapsed as the tension drained from his body. "And the Death Eaters are dead," Harry added, his voice nearly a snarl.

Three Death Eaters, Harry had said. So what had happened to—but Draco wasn't technically supposed to know…

"Then it sounds like it was a successful mission, wasn't it?" Draco asked. He didn't understand why Harry was crouched like this, alone in the dark, if the Manor's defenses had come through, in the end. There was something Harry hadn't told him. He set a hand on Harry's shoulder, not caring that his fingers probably were digging into Harry's flesh. "What else happened?"

Harry turned toward him, and his face was tense with a peculiar sort of anger mixed with sorrow. "Narcissa's at St. Mungo's—she had to be sedated," he said. Then he took a slow breath. "It seems the Death Eaters informed her they'd just killed her son."

*

It was very strange, being dead, but not dead.

"I'm not!" he'd wanted to shout at Harry. "I'm not dead, see?"

But there had to be a reason Harry hadn't been told, so he kept his mouth shut, and instead simply wrapped an arm around Harry's shoulders, feeling deep in his bones the surreality of comforting Harry Potter through his grief over Draco's own death.

For grieving Harry was. Draco didn't understand it, especially after Harry's rage over Draco's supposed betrayal only a couple of months earlier. To be fair, Harry didn't really seem to understand it, either.

"I didn't even like the git," Harry said, swiping at his nose. Which, well, Draco had long understood this to be true, but he didn't necessarily want to hear it confirmed. "It's just—he was one of my schoolmates, you know? Even if we never got on. And we—" He sighed. "He was that burr in your sock that irritates you when you walk. He was just always there. He made his presence known." He shrugged. "For better or for worse, he was part of what defined my years at Hogwarts, even if it was just by throwing everything into relief by showing what not to do."

Draco knew he should take offense to that, but it was difficult with Harry's shoulders shaking subtly under his fingers.

Then he realized Harry was laughing. "He—he had this song. Fifth year. He was so proud of it. This stupid song he got the Slytherins to sing to Ron during Quidditch matches." He laughed again, but it was softer. "It actually wasn't a half-bad song."

In the dark, Draco pressed his forehead to Harry's shoulder and hated, hated that he could feel himself starting to fall in love with the hopeless git.

*

At the first opportunity, Draco demanded a meeting with Kingsley and McGonagall—and, to his surprise, he received a summons to Headquarters almost immediately.

"Why am I dead?" he asked.

Kingsley and McGonagall exchanged glances. "It seemed prudent to let the lie stand, at least for now," McGonagall finally said, "rather than acknowledge we knew of your whereabouts."

Draco's hands curled into fists. "And you're just going to let my mother think I'm dead until you've no further use for me?"

"She knows there's been no body recovered," McGonagall said. "We've been very clear about that, and that there is reasonable doubt as to the veracity of the Death Eaters' claim."

"Reasonable doubt, that's fantastic," Draco snarled. "Did you explain that to Harry, too, or do I just let him keep moping about my supposed death?"

Kingsley and McGonagall's eyes met again, and there was a brief, unspoken exchange between then before McGonagall turned back to face him, her surprise evident. "I hadn't realized Potter—cared for you that way."

"He doesn't," Draco said, the admission tearing at him in a way he'd never, ever admit. "But we were schoolmates. It's upset him."

"And you're concerned for him," McGonagall said softly.

"Isn't that what I just said?" Draco snapped.

At that, McGonagall gave him the oddest smile, almost like she was proud of him.

"Don't worry," she said. "I'll talk to Potter."

"Good," Draco said, feeling a bit lost, although not sure why.

Shacklebolt cleared his throat. "You may be interested to know that the Lestrange brothers and Thorfinn Rowle were killed during the attack on Malfoy Manor."

Draco nodded. "And Rookwood?"

Again, the exchange of glances. "There was no sign of him there," Shacklebolt said. "We do have Aurors and other resources on the lookout for him."

"It may help to know that he's a bird Animagus," Draco said, noting the surprise in both pairs of eyes. "A thrush."

"Well," McGonagall drawled, and Draco almost imagined he could see her whiskers twitch, "that does give us some new directions in which to look."

*

If nothing else, the events on the night of the Manor attack left the atmosphere in the safe house feeling marginally less tense.

Harry remained subdued, though, even after what he knew had been a long discussion with McGonagall. Charlie Weasley dropped by one evening with a few token decorations for the approaching holiday—a small tree, a bit of garland, a wreath for the front door.

"A display of holiday cheer for the neighbors we don't have?" Harry had drawled at Weasley. Weasley had only shrugged, and Draco had found himself unwillingly reflecting on how very much he enjoyed Harry's sarcastic side when it wasn't directed at him.

But Harry went outside into the cold and dutifully pounded a nail into the front door on which to hang the wreath. Draco set up the tree on a side table. Together, they hung the garland along the fireplace, then stepped back to take in the effect.

"Sad," Harry pronounced.

"Profoundly," Draco agreed.

They smirked at each other for a moment, then Draco's gaze faltered, and he turned away.

"I don't suppose you'll actually stay here for Christmas, will you?" Draco asked.

"Oh," Harry said. "No, probably not. Ron and Hermione will be home in a few days, so I'll probably end up at the Burrow." There was a long pause while Draco fussed with one end of the garland. "Won't you be there, too?" Harry asked. "Or will you go back home to your immediate family?"

Draco hadn't even considered the fact that he was, for all intents and purposes, a Weasley in Harry's eyes, so naturally he'd be expected to spend the holidays with some branch or other of the Weasley family. He wondered if the Glamour charm could be adapted to apply outside of these walls as well, because, well— "Home," Draco said, "is not really an option right now."

"All right," Harry said, and left it at that.

*

In spite of the cottage's festive touches, at night, Draco's dreams always seemed to be filled with birdsong—the taunt of an escaped Death Eater, one who knew Draco for what he truly was, and one who'd vowed revenge on him and his family.

He always awoke, shivering, in the morning light, the empty branches of the tree outside his window mocking him.

Until one night, it wasn't the morning light that awakened him.

He blinked awake to find the room rapidly filling with smoke. Acting on instinct, he rolled out of bed to the floor, stripping off his pajama top and casting Auguamenti to dampen it before placing it over his nose and mouth as he crawled. There were no flames in his room, but smoke was pouring in through the crack beneath the door. With intense trepidation, he cast a cooling charm on the doorknob as a precaution, and opened the door.

Flames licked up the staircase and barricaded the hallway between his room and Harry's.

"Harry!" Draco barked, choking on the smoke. "Harry!"

But Harry's bedroom door stayed closed.

Oh, Merlin, he thought desperately, if Harry Potter dies on my watch… But the thought was too horrible even to contemplate.

He attempted casting Auguamenti on the flames, but they'd grown too strong already. He had to get into Harry's room to wake him, if he hadn't managed to escape already.

Crouching low to the floor, he thought frantically back to what Harry had said the day he'd managed to successfully Apparate within the house's no-Apparition protections. It's a matter of seeing through the network of spells—there's a chink in it. He clenched his eyes and concentrated, hard, on the feel of the spells blanketing the house—the way they wove together, the subtle patterns the lines of magic formed. And—there.

In the next heartbeat, he was in Harry's room, shaking him awake and dragging him to the floor. The smoke was worse in here, and Harry was gasping. "Mal—Malcolm. What's—?"

"Cover your face!" Draco shouted, pushing his wet shirt into Harry's hands and pulling their bodies together as he closed his eyes and felt once again for that tiny chink in the protective spellwork.

Suddenly, clear as day, he heard the sound of a bird singing outside the window. Draco opened his eyes to see, barely discernable in the glow from the flames consuming the house, a thrush clinging to the branch outside, singing gaily, as though laughing at the events unfolding inside.

In one vicious movement, Draco swung his wand toward the window and cast the strongest Reducto he'd ever cast, and as the window shattered and a burst of feathers exploded outside, he held on fiercely to Harry and pulled them both through the magic and out of the fire.

*

They landed with a crash in the hallway at Order Headquarters, Harry coughing into Draco's damp shirt, and Draco's Glamour charm gone with the cottage's protection. Harry's head lay cradled against Draco's Dark Mark as Draco shouted desperately for help.

Harry's eyes had gone round as soon as they'd Apparated, but he was coughing too fiercely to speak. "Quiet," Draco told him, his own throat and lungs burning. "I'll explain later, I promise I'll explain." Order members had begun to come running from the room at the end of the hall and from the basement kitchen. "There was a fire," he gasped. "We need—" Already, though, someone was lifting Harry from his arms, while someone else gathered Draco close. With the next breath, they were Apparating to St. Mungo's, and Draco lost track of Harry in the rush of bodies.

*

The Healers diagnosed Draco with minor smoke inhalation and gave him a restorative potion, as well as a warning not to inhale any smoke or fumes for at least three days while his tissues repaired themselves. They suggested it might be wise for him to stay overnight for observation, but Draco shook his head.

"Potter," he said. "I need to see Harry Potter."

A mediwitch with a kind face, remembering that they'd been brought in together, brought him to Harry's bed, on the far end of the Artefact Accidents ward. His condition had been worse than Draco's, she explained—more severe tissue damage relating to smoke inhalation, and greater trouble breathing. He'd been administered a mix of potions, as well as a sedative to allow him to rest while the tissues began to heal themselves. But, she told him as his fingers sought Harry's limp hand, he was welcome to stay if he wished.

Draco nodded absently at her and curled into the chair next to Harry's bed, one of Harry's hands held securely between his own. Outside the window, the sky remained dark, and around him the soft nighttime sounds of the ward rose and fell.

He touched Harry's fingers, comparing them to his own—shorter, probably stronger, nails ragged. He pressed their palms together, feeling how the curves of their life and heart lines corresponded.

He knew, realistically, that Harry could awaken and never want to see him again. He'd deceived him for months, after all, even if it was in the name of the Order. He hoped, though—rather desperately hoped—that perhaps he might be forgiven on that score.

He hunched forward in the chair, Harry's hand clasped within his own, and began to speak quietly.

"I'm sorry, Harry."

He paused and carefully cleared his throat, which still felt a touch raw from smoke damage.

"I'd list the reasons I'm sorry, except it would probably end up being a dreadfully long list, and I'm not sure either of us has time for that. Especially since I've no idea when your sedation is expected to wear off.

"You once came to me at night in the hospital wing and whispered your apology for using that curse against me. At the time, I wasn't certain I was ready to forgive you. Later, I realized at some point I had, without even knowing it. I never told you that." He shrugged. "Then again, I guess I wasn't supposed to know you'd apologized, either."

He watched Harry's chest move up and down with his breaths.

"I used to hate you, you know. Obviously. I hated that you stole everyone's attention without even trying—and, Merlin—" A rueful laugh. "—How I tried sometimes. I hated how easy you seemed with everyone. I hated how everyone loved you."

He frowned at their joined hands. "I don't think I understood until very recently how much you didn't want that. How much that took out of you." He smiled. "You know, after the first shock of it all, I liked being your housemate. You were more fun than I expected. You were rather less of a twat than I expected, too." He grinned, then let it fade.

"I'm sorry I couldn't tell you who I really was. I'd made a promise to members of the Order. They said it was for my protection, and for the Order's protection. But I think it ended up hurting you, and I'm sorry about that."

He hesitated, feeling his face flush, then plowed ahead. "I'm sorry I didn't kiss you. I wanted to—you have no idea how much I wanted to, how much I'd been wanting to. But it wasn't me. I couldn't let the first time—maybe the only time—I ever kissed you to be when I wasn't even myself." He scowled. "And that might have been the last chance I'll ever have to kiss you, so maybe I should have just bucked up and done it then."

He curled his fingers around Harry's wrist and felt the pulse thudding, strong and steady, under his skin. He drew in a ragged breath. "And, here, another thing—you see, the thing is, I wasn't clear, when I ambushed you in the hallway at Hogwarts. I wasn't entirely clear about why I wanted to help. It was partly because I owed you, yes." He scowled at Harry's slack features. "I know you didn't want to hear it then and probably wouldn't want to hear it now, either, but it's the truth. You saved my bloody life. And, sure, I lied for you at Malfoy Manor, and my mother lied for you in the forest, but we're Slytherins. Lying is what we do. You, though—you flew helter-skelter through animals made of flame to rescue someone who'd actively tried to do you harm. I don't even know how to cope with that kind of bravery, Harry. I just—" He sucked in a breath. "I wanted a chance to prove I could do something that was brave. At least a little bit."

He subsided into silence, angry at himself for being too cowardly to talk to Harry while he was awake, irrationally angry at Harry for not being awake to hear, and angry at hospitals in general for smelling so vile—it was an assault to his still-recovering respiratory system.

So he jumped when the hand he still held within his grasp curled around his fingers.

"If you're quite finished," Harry said, his voice a rasp.

Draco's gaze flew to Harry's to find him awake and wearing a pleased smirk at having startled Draco.

"How long have you been awake?" Draco demanded.

The fingers tightened. "Apparently about as long as you were when I visited you in the hospital wing."

Draco flushed to the roots of his hair, and Harry chuckled, before it dissolved into a hacking cough.

"Oh, Merlin, don't," Draco said, jumping from the chair to grab water for Harry off the side table. "You shouldn't even be awake, you complete idiot." He perched on the edge of the bed and helped Harry sit up.

"I'm the complete idiot?" Harry rasped between sips. "You're the one who Apparated the both of us out of a burning building locked down with anti-Apparition spells." But his hand lifted to alight on Draco's arm, and he was grinning—pleased, proud.

"Well, it's not like I could just leave you there to die," Draco muttered.

"Now you know how I felt in the Room of Requirement last spring."

Draco made a face. "Not the same. You didn't l—" He cut himself off, aghast at what he'd almost said. "You—you didn't even like me," he finished.

Harry's eyes had turned bright, though, and he drew one of Draco's hands to his lips to kiss his knuckles. Draco swallowed. "It's entirely possible to be both brave and selfish, you know," Harry said, smiling. "In fact, I'm entirely OK with it right now."

Draco laughed, a little shakily. "Yeah, I am—definitely selfish. About a lot of things." Definitely about you.

"As long as we're being selfish," Harry said. He set Draco's hand down and reached to touch his cheek. "I believe I'm owed a kiss that someone refused to give me before."

Draco closed his eyes, relishing the warmth of Harry's palm against his skin. "Are you even well enough? I mean, we can always—"

"Draco," Harry laughed, and something inside of Draco absolutely danced to hear that name on Harry's lips, "I'm not asking you to climb up here so we can have sex." Although Draco's knees turned to utter jelly just hearing the word on Harry's lips—lips that quirked upward at the corners as though in realization of his words' effect.

"All I want, Draco," Harry said, "rather desperately, in fact, is a kiss."

Draco stared at Harry's pale face, cast into light and shadow by the glow of streetlights outside the window, at the eyes that gazed at him more patiently than he deserved, at the lips that had fallen open, inviting. Waiting.

He bent his head, and their lips met for the first time.

Harry's lips were dry and chapped as they touched Draco's, his nerve endings taking in every ridge, every valley, every tiny contrast of rough and soft as lips caressed lips—slow, slow. Slow.

Draco's fingers lifted to touch the edge of Harry's jaw, fingertips seeking out the feel of soft skin and the subtle friction of whiskers just emerging. Harry turned into the touch, tilting his head as his mouth fell open a fraction more, and—oh. Oh.

Warm breath touched his lips, and he opened his own mouth, the better to fit it to Harry's. The first slow, gentle touch of Harry's tongue had Draco inching even closer on the narrow hospital bed, and Harry laughed softly into his mouth—and he wanted that, he wanted that always: Harry's mouth. Harry laughing. Harry's quiet joy his alone.

He touched his tongue to Harry's—slow, soft. Advance, retreat. The next, a touch firmer, and Harry made a small, helpless sound into his mouth. His fingers stroked in rhythm with his tongue as the kiss went on—slow, slow—the ward falling away around them as Harry's lips moved softly, slowly against Draco's, as they shared heat, texture, slow, deliberate caresses, as their breaths met and mingled, as their hearts beat in counterpoint.

"Draco," Harry whispered, pressing his lips to the corner of Draco's mouth. "Draco," he whispered again against Draco's lips, the word itself a kiss.

Draco closed his eyes, overwhelmed at the sensations that were coursing through him, and pressed his forehead to Harry's, and for a long moment, they just held each other close in the nighttime quiet.

When they drew apart, Harry's eyes blinked up at him, wide and green and vulnerable.

"Some rescuer I am," Draco muttered. "Didn't even remember to fetch your glasses."

Harry snickered, pressing another kiss to Draco's lips. "Guess we'll just have to stay close enough so I can see you clearly at all times."

"Such hardship," Draco murmured. He touched his lips to Harry's again, unable to resist, and threaded his fingers through Harry's messy black hair. "And it's Christmas Eve, too. Not a terribly promising way to start, getting burned out of one's home by a bloody songbird."

Harry drew back to blink at Draco in confusion, then shook his head. "There's a story there that I'll get out of you eventually."

"Later," Draco agreed, pressing his lips to Harry's lightning-bolt scar.

"Mmm," Harry said, smiling and lacing his fingers through Draco's. "Well, maybe it wasn't the best start to Christmas," he said, touching his lips to Draco's once more. "But I definitely like how it's shaping up."

Don't forget to go back to H/D Holidays on LJ and leave feedback!