Firstly, all future chapters of IP will be posted to the cassie_and_rhysenn list and FictionAlley FIRST, so if you want it hot off the press, you can find it either on the C&R list or even receive an email notification from the IP review board. I will post here on ff.net with a time lag of 48 hours to a week, depending on the situation.
This chapter is dedicated to the regulars on the cassie_and_rhysenn list. You folks are the best cure for writer's block if there ever was one— always forthcoming with great reviews, cookie responses, wild IP speculations, IP anthems ("Just Snog Already!" the official IP motto), favourite IP quotes... thanks for being so supportive, it does mean a lot.
Thanks to Minx, Heidi and Celeste for beta reading, and doing a great job at it on such short notice!
Chapter 9: The Edge of Reason
But love can hope where reason would despair.
Ironically enough, it was the soft sound of a door clicking shut that sent Draco's mind back into the realm of consciousness; the oblivion of darkness scattered as rays of wakefulness streamed back like silver light behind his closed lids. A dull pain in his temples was all that remained of the sharp agony he remembered just before everything had gone black— and Draco could still feel the memory of falling, plunging through an endless expanse, gripped by nothing but fear...
A quiet rustle jolted him out of the chilling memory and back into reality. There was someone in the room with him. Draco kept his eyes closed, not moving a muscle, his ears keen as he heard soft footsteps pacing near him, drawing closer; footsteps echoing in the warmth of silence, weighted with careful confidence yet tentatively hesitant, and completely unmistakable.
Harry's footsteps, of course.
Draco didn't need to open his eyes to know that Harry was standing barely a few feet away from him. He could sense Harry's presence near him, could feel the exciting tension that laced the air between them. It was an exhilaratingly painful sensation, one that made him feel like reaching over to touch Harry; at the same time it made him want to just fall back into the empty nothingness that he had emerged from, so that Harry would go away and not be there when he woke again.
Even as his confused stupor faded, the fragile remembrance still clung to the fringes of his mind in a surreal vision of reality. Draco couldn't be sure that it wasn't just a figment of his delirious mind-moments, just before he had lost consciousness; but he remembered opening his eyes, and the first person he had seen was Harry. And Harry had been leaning over him, and holding his hand; he had seen Harry's lips move, whispering silent words, words that felt tender and pure and so comforting, words that said that everything would be all right.
But he knew better, Draco thought bitterly. Everything would never be all right. It must have been a dream. Just another dream.
The last vestiges of pain in his body ebbed away; Draco vaguely wondered how far he had fallen, and how badly he had been hurt. He would have very much liked to sit up and inspect his bruises, if not for the fact that he seemed frozen in a waking coma simply because Harry was standing next to him. Yes, Harry was standing right next to him, somewhere directly to his left— he could feel it.
Just then the door opened again, and Draco heard the sound of Madam Pomfrey bustling into the room, accompanied by the tinny clattering of a tray being set down on the bedside table, presumably carrying his medicine. Draco realised that he was feeling rather hungry.
"Potter, you should be lying down," Draco heard Madam Pomfrey chiding, confirming what he had known all along. "I just fixed your ankle, and you shouldn't be walking all over the place..."
"Is he all right?" Harry's voice spoke up quietly, underscored with concern. Draco's heart did a funny little skip— actually, it felt more like a feather being dropped in a vacuum. It was a dense fluttery feeling, which didn't feel very right but felt pleasant all the same.
"He'll be fine," came Madam Pomfrey's curt reply, "no broken bones or cracked ribs, just a little shaken up. The fall looked a lot worse than it really was, frankly."
"But he got badly scratched when he crashed into the bushes..." Harry's soft interjection was still doubtful, and quietly anxious.
"I cleaned them up, most of them were just surface injuries." Madam Pomfrey sounded impatient, and she repeated, "He'll be fine, in fact he should be awake anytime now. The Nurture Spell has a mild tranquillising effect, but that should wear off soon. Nothing to worry about. Now I want you to go back outside, and sit down in the waiting room for another good fifteen minutes. If you feel well enough by then, you can go back to your dormitory. Now shoo, Potter, out with you."
"Thanks," was the last thing Draco heard Harry say, and then the door closed, and he knew that Harry was gone. Trust Harry to be so polite even when having been told to go away.
Draco kept his eyes closed and continued to pretend to be asleep as he mulled over what he'd just heard. The conversation cast some light on what had happened— apparently after he had fallen off his broom, which was the last thing he could remember doing, he had crashed into the bushes and scratched himself quite badly. And Harry had come over to see if he was all right.
Draco tilted his head back and bit on his lower lip. For some reason, that mattered much, much more than everything else he'd heard.
Madam Pomfrey had refused to let anyone who wasn't a blood-drenched Seeker into the hospital wing, so Harry was alone; he sat down on the sofa in the waiting area outside the room Draco was in. Technically, he mused wryly to himself, he didn't even qualify to be there, either, since he had been stained with Draco's blood and not his own.
Madam Pomfrey had been so relieved that he wasn't badly injured that she hadn't even paused to question why he had emerged so unscathed from the alleged 'collision', while his counterpart had been knocked unconscious. Harry did sustain a swollen ankle, but that was about the extent of his injuries after he had cleaned off the smears of Draco's blood on his arms and hands. Harry suspected that quite a lot of blood had gotten onto his robes too, only that he hadn't been able to see the stains since his robes were scarlet to begin with.
At least he's all right. Harry leaned onto the cushions, entwining his fingers behind his head and resting back against the palms of his hands. He'll be fine. At least until he gets out of here.
Harry knew that Ron and Hermione would probably be outside waiting for him, but for some reason he didn't feel like seeing them right now, or the rest of his team for that matter. Spirals of confusion encircled the dazed, fragmented thoughts in his head as he replayed the Quidditch match over again in his head, for the millionth time...
Draco almost catching the Snitch. Draco getting hit by the Bludger. Draco flying as if his mind was miles away, his movements slurred by such mechanical hesitance. And finally, Draco falling, and that terrible echo of solid silence as he hit the ground—
Harry snapped out of his sinister reverie, and he spun around, startled— and saw Hermione peering into the hospital wing, a look of frank worry on her face. She had opened the door so quietly that he hadn't noticed.
The tightness on Harry's features relaxed slightly, although tension still frayed the edges of his voice.
"Hi, Hermione," he said, shrugging off the memories of the Quidditch match until later.
"Are you all right?" was the first question out of her mouth.
"Yeah, I am," he said tiredly, offering her a small wan smile. "Pomfrey'll chase you off when she comes out of that room, but until then why don't you come in."
Hermione cautiously eyed the closed door, which led to the room where Draco was resting, before sliding into the waiting room and shutting the door behind her. She crossed over to sit next to Harry, and her shoulder brushed against his in a gesture of silent comfort. She said nothing for a few moments, but finally spoke up when Harry remained silent as well.
"How's Malfoy?" she asked quietly. Her voice shimmered with a reluctant concern, although it was undoubtedly genuine.
"I don't know," Harry answered dully. "Madam Pomfrey says he'll live, so I reckon he will. But don't ask me what happened out there, because I haven't the faintest idea. Maybe Malfoy can enlighten us when he wakes up."
"You mean you don't..." Hermione started.
"No I don't." Harry said shortly. "I don't have a damn clue what happened out there just now, only that I was drenched in Draco's blood, and there was blood all over the place, and he wouldn't stop bleeding." He broke off, and shuddered. "It was horrible."
"Everyone thinks you two collided," Hermione said, a careful tone in her voice.
Harry sighed. "And what do you think, Herm?"
"I think there's more than what meets the eye," Hermione said neutrally, although a small shrug of her shoulders betrayed her perplexity. "I saw just what everyone else in the stands saw, Harry. But I know that little bit more about the— the situation with you and Malfoy, and that makes all the difference."
"So you think the ghastly potion has something to do with it, too." Harry's voice was still wooden.
Hermione sat back against the cushions of the sofa. "I've tried," she said simply. "I've tried to tell myself that we should take it at face value, that it was just an unfortunate collision, like everyone else thinks. Ron is downstairs having a quick word with the team— he's positively livid, he believes Malfoy tried to knock you off your broom in mid-flight. But... but I can't convince myself that's the truth. I just want to ask you first, what really happened."
Harry shook his head slowly. "I can't tell you."
Hermione bit her lip, and drew a sharp breath at the deeply shaken tone of Harry's voice.
"I can't tell you because I don't know either," Harry continued, staring down at his palms; he stretched his hands out in front of him and turned them over. "I don't know how it happened, and I don't know why. I don't remember colliding with Malfoy's broom, but then again I may be wrong. Maybe our broom tails brushed, and some freak aerodynamic phenomenon sent his broom careening. I don't know. But what I do know is that—" Harry's voice faltered slightly, "is that it didn't work."
Hermione's heart skipped a beat. "What didn't work?"
"The healing," Harry said, slumping backwards with a defeated sigh. "Do you remember what I told you, about Malfoy taking that damn knife and slicing a gash down his chest? And when he took my hand and pressed it to his wound, it healed. Well, I tried that just now, on the pitch, when he was bleeding so badly I thought he'd just bleed to death if I didn't do anything. But it didn't work. Nothing happened. Nothing at all."
"And what does that mean?" asked Hermione slowly.
"That's a really good question," Harry answered softly.
The atmosphere in the Gryffindor common room that evening was mixed— the official word from Madam Hooch had been issued during dinner, and it was decreed that the Slytherin-Gryffindor match earlier in the day would be counted abandoned due to the loss of both teams' Seekers (which would, theoretically, have meant the match would continue forever if not halted). The re-match would be scheduled for a later date, to be subsequently announced.
The Slytherins, of course, had been highly pleased by this; the Gryffindors, however, were not, since they had been leading by a tidy margin before the accident. However, the Gryffindors all rallied nicely in support of Harry, and repeatedly told him that it wasn't his fault the match got cancelled in mid-game. Anyone taking a look at Harry's woebegone expression as he slumped in front of the fireplace would have understood why his teammates were trying their best to comfort him.
"It really wasn't your fault, that git Malfoy wrecked it all," Ron was saying for the umpteenth time, and Harry really wished that he'd stop saying that.
Seamus nodded in agreement. "Malfoy was just trying to get back at you for what happened earlier, when we almost unseated him with that Bludger— and it was obvious that you were about to catch the Snitch, and so he went for all or nothing and collided into you."
Hermione frowned. "You actually saw the collision, Seamus?"
Seamus turned to her quizzically. "What else do you think happened? They both decided to dismount in mid-air at the same time?"
"But it was Malfoy who fell off first, and—" Hermione started to argue, but Harry spoke up firmly, cutting her off.
"It was a collision, Herm." Harry shot her the briefest of meaningful glances, then continued, "I don't think either of us actually intended to crash, but we both did, and it's too bad, especially since Gryffindor was winning."
"But that's all right, Harry," Ron said confidently, giving Harry a bright smile. "We'll steamroller them all over again in the re-match. Look on the bright side— we'll get to kick their butts twice in the same season. And hopefully Malfoy will be too injured to play Quidditch for, oh I don't know, forever."
"Ron," Hermione said sharply, although she was still watching Harry carefully.
"Does anyone know what happened to Malfoy?" Harry asked casually, although Hermione saw the glint in his eye and noticed the swiftness of his question in response to Draco's name being mentioned.
"I heard he's in a coma," said Ron hopefully. "Weren't you in the hospital wing with him, Harry? You could've switched his medicine, or something."
"Yeah, especially with those Bogus Pills from Fred and George's Wizard Wheezes," Dean chimed in, chortling. "Malfoy won't exactly be Sleeping Beauty when he wakes up."
"Yes, and Madam Pomfrey will have such a hard time figuring out who to throttle for that," Harry answered dryly.
Hermione sat quietly and watched the boys animatedly dissect the day's game before it was stopped, as well as discuss strategy for the re-match. She noticed that Harry wasn't participating as much as he should be, which was odd, especially since they were brainstorming about his favourite topic. He looked distracted, and except for the occasional nod and short remark, he appeared as if his mind was a thousand miles away...
Or maybe not so far away— just down the corridor, first winding staircase on the right, two floors below. The hospital wing.
Hermione got to her feet and gathered her books without saying a word, making as little noise as possible. But Harry, perceptive and observant as he always was, noticed that she was leaving, and raised an eyebrow questioningly.
She shot him a significant look, and nodded once; he held her gaze for a few moments, and even if he didn't understand what she had meant, his eyes were still filled with unconditional trust. Trust that she knew what she was doing, and that even though he didn't know what she had in mind, he knew that she would do what was best.
Hermione was already halfway out of the portrait hole when Ron called after her, "Hey! Where are you going?"
"To the library," she tossed over her shoulder, "I need to check up on a book before closing time."
Without waiting for a response from them, she slipped through the portrait hole and was gone. Once outside, Hermione checked her watch— it was just after eight, and hopefully most of the students would be back in their common rooms by now. She walked along the torch-lit corridor, took a turn off down the first winding staircase on her right, and headed for the hospital wing.
Draco swung his legs over the side of the bed and stretched, wiggling his toes and staring at them as if they held all the secrets of the universe. The numbness in his body was almost gone, replaced by a vague, familiar sense of unease, like the tremors of an earthquake before it broke to the surface; dense, solid and extremely unsettling.
It had been barely ten hours since he'd arrived in the hospital wing and he was already bored out of his mind. A few of his Slytherin friends had come to see him earlier— Vincent and Gregory of course, as well as Blaise Zabini and Pansy Parkinson, who had fawned and cooed over him as if he was an injured baby bird.
But all he could care about was that Harry had come in to see him.
Is he all right?
Harry's voice had been filled with such depth of genuine worry that Draco could almost have sworn that Harry did care about him, after all. Almost. But then he had walked out, and Draco hadn't seen him since. It was absurd, even expecting that Harry would come back to see him. Why would he do that?
Because he was Harry. If there was anything that Draco had learned in the past few weeks, besides the supreme torture of wanting to sink to his knees each time Harry walked by, it was that Harry possessed a certain nobility that was beyond anything that he had expected. Even though nobility was just a farce, a charitable shadow of love, it was still something special nonetheless. And some irrational part of him had spent the day hoping each time the door opened that Harry would walk in again, that Harry would come over and say something, anything at all, and make everything feel all right, just for that little while.
But Harry never did come back.
"Still got ten toes there, or only missing a couple?"
Draco looked up, and saw Hermione standing in the doorway, an inscrutable expression on her face. Either he had been so deep in Harry-thought that he hadn't heard her opening the door, or she had entered so silently that it was like some bizarre new form of Apparition.
"Aren't visiting hours over?" Draco said irritably; he set both his feet firmly on the floor, although he didn't get up.
"They are." Hermione walked over to stand at the foot of Draco's bed, and crossed her arms. "But I told Madam Pomfrey that I was just delivering you a message, so she said I could come through."
"A message?" Draco's heart leapt, and did a funny little ricochet within his ribcage; the gloom inside him changed into a glimmer of hopefulness. "From— from who?"
"No one," Hermione said nonchalantly. "I just needed a reason to get in here, that's all."
Much to Hermione's surprise, Draco actually looked crestfallen for the briefest of instants, before the disappointment quickly dissolved into indifference once again. But she had noticed it, all the same.
"How are you feeling?" she asked, somewhat grudgingly.
"Just spiffing," Draco replied, "it's invigorating to free-fall twenty feet off a broomstick every once in a while. Next time I'll just have to try a cliff."
"Nice theatrical show you put up today," Hermione remarked crisply. "Very sensational and all. So, what really happened?"
Draco snorted. "Theatrical, Granger? If I'd wanted theatrical, I'd have streaked naked through the Great Hall, or go-go danced on the Potions classroom tabletop. I would have made Longbottom turn into a pink flamingo and dance the flamenco. I would not, however, have kamikaze-crashed my broom and almost killed myself in the process."
"Pity about the 'almost' bit." Hermione's mouth quirked in a suppressed smile. "And you do have a thing about dancing, don't you?"
"I hate dancing." Draco made a face. "Everyone knows that."
"Well, it figures." Hermione paused. "Anyway, you still haven't answered my question— what exactly happened up there? What did you do?"
"Did you have your face buried in a book during the match, Granger?" Draco shot Hermione a look that was pointed enough to carve ice with. "I fell off my broom and almost broke my neck, haemorrhaged from multiple injuries, and then mercifully passed out. But I heard that Potter came cluttering down as well, so I'm sure he's furnished you with a frame-by-frame account of the gory details."
"Everyone thinks you and Harry collided in mid-air," Hermione fixed Draco with a level gaze. "Was that what happened?"
"What does Harry say?" Draco asked immediately.
Hermione sighed. "He's not sure. He doesn't remember a collision. He reckons the tails of both your brooms could've entangled, and it was just a freak accident. Although," she added, "there are a fair few of the mind that you deliberately zoomed into Harry so the match would be halted and re-played at a later date."
Draco let out a scornful laugh. "Since when, Granger, do you know me as such a self-sacrificing person?"
"I do know that you'd do anything for glory," Hermione replied, without a trace of a smile, "and that beating Harry at Quidditch is something you've wanted for a long time."
Draco's eyes narrowed. "So you think I crashed into Harry on purpose, too."
"No," said Hermione diplomatically, "I don't think that. I know what I saw, Malfoy, and I also know that what happened goes deeper than just a case of bad timing. And I want to hear how it happened straight from you, and more importantly, why it happened."
"Why it happened?" Draco gave a bitter, humourless smile. "Isn't it fairly obvious, or did you take a Bludger to your head?"
"I know it has something to do with the love potion," Hermione said impatiently, "but as far as I know love potions don't bring on bouts of sudden unconsciousness, or induce mid-air collisions."
"You don't know anything, Granger." Draco replied calmly, his grey eyes hard and filled with tense emotion like shimmering pearl. "I can tell you the first thing to know about love potions, and it's that they impair judgement. In every aspect of your life, every time a certain someone is around."
"I know that—" Hermione began, but he cut her off.
"When I see him, it feels like everything around me shatters and heals in a single moment, and when I look at him the background just fades to a shifting blur." Draco spoke in a colourless monotone, as if speaking about a distant life far removed from his own; the words seemed to tumble from his lips out of their own volition, like a repressed tide rushing up to shore.
Draco didn't know why he was confiding this in Hermione Granger, but he knew that if he didn't tell someone, he might just explode. "Do you know how much time I've spent watching him, over these past couple of weeks? Let me just tell you, a lot. I don't think I'm exaggerating if I say that in some ways, I know Harry better than any of you do. For instance, which hand does Harry use to push his hair out of his eyes?"
"Um," Hermione said uncertainly, looking thrown, "his left?"
"Always his right. And do you know that he likes to walk with his hands in his pockets, unless he's carrying books, in which case he always carries them on his left hand because his right is his wand hand? Do you know what is always the first thing he takes out of his bag when he sits down at his table in class?"
"His parchment?" Hermione suggested, realising that she hadn't a clue. "Or his quill?"
"No. His bottle of black ink." Draco gave her a serene, mildly smug smile. "Isn't it surprising how much you actually don't know about someone you thought you knew so well?"
Hermione, for once, couldn't think of anything to say in reply to that.
"Well," Draco continued in a low, measured voice, "I guess I've been noticing so much about how Harry behaves because the potion makes me particularly sensitive to his feelings, and his reactions to me. I'd be able to tell when Harry's looking in my direction, without even glancing up. And this— this destructive connection, it doesn't get better with time, you know. It only gets worse. Which was why— during the match..." he trailed off.
"What?" Hermione sounded almost breathless. "What do you mean?"
Draco bit his lip, and looked away. "The whole atmosphere this morning was more tense than usual— emotions were heightened by the excitement of the Quidditch match. I could plainly tell when Harry was angry, and his rage disrupted the precarious balance of the entire dynamic between us. It was—" he broke off, casting for words, "it was like drowning, where all you see when your head breaks the water surface is a crimson sky, and all you see when you're dunked under is a sea of blackness. I guess it was more than I could take, at that very instant, and I blacked out."
Hermione was staring at him, open-mouthed. "Harry made you fall? Why— why was he mad at you in the first place?"
"Because I almost caught the Snitch," Draco said, without missing a beat. "I wasn't the only fiercely competitive Seeker on the pitch today, you know. Especially since Harry has never known the opposite of victory. He was playing to win, love potion or not."
"Harry couldn't have been that angry at you," Hermione protested, albeit weakly. "He was watching out for you, throughout the game— he was genuinely very worried that with the complications of the love potion, you wouldn't be able to last the entire match."
"And right he was," Draco said, cynicism lining his voice. "Believe me, Granger, he was angry at me. He was positively furious. I could feel it— perhaps too much— and I couldn't repel it or handle so much raw emotion all at once, and that's why I passed out."
Draco sat back on the bed, leaning against the headboard as he stared off in the distance, immersing himself in the torrid recollection of that moment which splintered and burned like nothing he had ever experienced before. It had been a wave of crashing scarlet, pure red without the slightest shadow of black or dilution of white— the colour of anger, the colour of pain, the colour of passion, the colour of love.
Love, which was a summation of all these, and everything more.
Draco forced himself to stop dwelling on the scorching memories; he looked back at Hermione. "So, now you know why."
"Harry hasn't got the faintest idea of this, you know," Hermione said, a grave frown knitting her eyebrows.
Draco gave a wry shrug. "Sometimes it's easy not to notice other people's feelings."
"Harry's not like that," Hermione insisted, automatically leaping to her friend's defence.
Draco held her gaze unflinchingly. "I know."
They sat quietly for a few long moments, sharing a troubled silence. Finally, Hermione spoke up.
"What are we going to do now?" She sounded anxious and unhappy.
"Maybe there's nothing left to do," Draco said softly, and the unspoken tone of defeat in his voice was overwhelming. He raised his eyes to Hermione's. "So, did Harry ask you to come here?"
Hermione shook her head. "No. I wanted to come and talk to you myself. Harry— well, he's still rather shaken up by the whole thing, and I thought it'd be best to leave him be for a while before thinking of what to do next."
Draco looked away, letting his gaze fall on the white floor tiles, so clinically clean and well scrubbed. "He came in to see me today."
Hermione didn't seem surprised. "He's been worried about you. He's been worried if you'll be all right, and he—" she was about to tell Draco about the failed healing attempt on the pitch, but decided against it at the very last moment, "he was the first person by your side right after you fell off your broom. And right now he's so confused about what happened up there— he doesn't know why or how, and he definitely hasn't a clue that he was the cause of it."
"Are you going to tell him?" Draco asked, a flicker of obscure light sparking in his eyes at the mention of Harry's name once again.
"Do you want me to?"
"I don't know." Draco said offhandedly, although tension was evident in the tightness of his shrug. "It's up to you."
"Don't give me that!" Hermione looked annoyed, and gave Draco a stern look. "You jolly well make up your mind if you want me to tell Harry or not. You aren't going to shirk that decision onto me."
"Do you think that he'd be better off knowing?"
Hermione considered for a moment. "I don't know," she finally said truthfully.
"Then do what you think is best."
Draco leaned over and poured himself a glass of water from the jug by his bedside, then took a sip. He stared into the water, as the rays of amber light glanced off the liquid colourlessness of it, catching spectrums of rainbow as they were dispersed through the pure transparency of water and glass. He swirled the water listlessly, creating a miniature whirlpool in his glass, which immediately dissolved when he stopped the movement.
"We are so damn trusting nowadays," Draco said aloud, talking down to his drink. "We just take everything for granted, and don't even think twice about how one small twist in events can alter our entire lives. I don't mean that we don't care about what happens to us— I mean that we assume too much to care enough. Take this glass of water, for instance," he raised the glass in his hand, as if offering a toast, "I'll just drink it when I'm thirsty. I'd never even think to suspect that it could be poisoned, and that this might be the last sip of anything I ever take."
Hermione gave Draco a quizzical look. "And why would the water be poisoned? Because Madam Pomfrey thinks a nil fatality rate among her patients doesn't look good on her record?"
"Don't be obtuse, Granger, it's just an analogy." Draco gave her a withering look, then went back to gazing morosely down at his glass of suspect water, from which he took another sip. "Anyway, even if it's drugged, it can't be any worse than the state I'm already in— the love potion is magical poison, running in every drop of my blood. And it won't kill me," he let out a short bitter laugh, "at least not yet. And definitely not quickly."
"There must be a way to counteract the love potion," said Hermione stoutly, determination in her voice, "even if a direct counterspell doesn't exist, there must be a loophole somehow."
"Loophole?" Draco eyed her incredulously. "What do you think this is, Hermione? A rule that we're trying to evade? Love plays by no rules, and this isn't a game to start off with. It's a mistake, and some mistakes can never, ever be rectified."
"So you're just going to live with it?" Hermione goggled at him in disbelief. "You're just going to accept this as a mistake, as if that's going to help anything now? What about Harry?"
"Harry, for your information, isn't the one who's going to lose his sanity under the prolonged influence of the love potion," Draco said through gritted teeth. "Harry, incidentally, can actually just get on with his life, bearing no scars of the potion, and he can just walk away and go back to being normal."
"No, he can't," Hermione said hotly, glaring at Draco. "If you think that you're the only one affected by the love potion, you're wrong. Ever since you showed him the seriousness of the potion by cutting yourself and having him heal you, he's been worried about this whole mess like you would never imagine. He's hiding things from Ron just to protect this horrid secret. He's cutting class and sneaking around just to talk to you. And I've never seen him play so badly at Quidditch in all his seven years. So stop behaving like you're some martyred saint, and use your time more productively to think of a solution to this, because I know there's a way out somehow."
"You know, you sound like bloody Mathilda Miggs, the Mad Muggle's Mum." Draco sounded mildly disgusted. "Just listen to yourself: 'I know there's a way out somehow!' Please, spare me the bright-eyed idealism."
"Oh stop being such a prat, will you?" Hermione snapped.
"Look," Draco slumped backwards onto his pillow. "I think 'I've had a rough day' is a huge understatement. So maybe I'll go with 'It's the concussion talking'. Either way, I'm not in the most optimistic of moods right now, and this conversation isn't making me feel much better."
Draco closed his eyes, and for an odd instant Hermione was struck with how vulnerable and fragile he looked, framed with an air of tired innocence.
"I've been wondering," she said slowly, "if a Memory Charm might work. To make you forget that you're under the influence of the potion altogether, and perhaps even wipe out the whole memory of drinking the potion in the first place."
Draco shook his head. "Won't work. Memory Charms are inferior in power to the Imperius Curse, and even Imperius doesn't work at all while the love potion is in effect. You see—"he took a deep breath, and there was a quaver in his voice, "Memory Charms and Imperius, they mess with your mind. Love potions mess with your heart."
Hermione looked at Draco, and for the first time in her life saw the sheer helplessness and confusion in his eyes, brutally truthful; and she saw that beneath the veneer of arrogance and apathy, he was actually scared, because he had no idea what to do next. Lack of control in a situation was apparently not something he'd been taught to handle, not in the Malfoy household.
She heaved a deep sigh. "You really should get some rest." She turned to leave.
"I need to talk to Harry." Draco said, his voice sounding more than a little constricted.
Hermione glanced back. "When?" was all she said, and Draco was surprised; he'd half-expected her to ask what he wanted to talk to Harry about.
"As soon as possible. Tomorrow night, nine o'clock. Same place, he knows where."
Hermione rolled her eyes. "Yes, storage room on the fifth floor, Astronomy Tower." She paused. "You sure know how to pick a place to meet— you do know what most people who frequent the Astronomy Tower at night actually go there for, don't you?"
Draco managed a grin. "Yeah, the point being that they'll all be too busy to notice us sneaking around."
Hermione harrumphed. "As long as you two don't get influenced by the snog-happy couples there."
Draco gave a hollow laugh. "Don't worry, Harry will make sure we stick to the agenda." He watched as Hermione reached for the doorknob, and then added softly, "Thanks for coming."
Hermione stopped and gave him a sidelong look. "I'll tell Harry you said hi."
"Just tell him to be there tomorrow night."
"So did you manage to talk to Malfoy last night?" was Harry's greeting to Hermione the next morning, as they left the common room to go to breakfast in the Great Hall.
"Yes," Hermione replied succinctly, but said nothing more. In truth, she wasn't sure what else she wanted to tell Harry about their conversation.
"And?" Harry pressed impatiently. "What did he say?"
"He says that he wants to meet you tonight, in the storage room on the fifth floor." Hermione glanced furtively around to make sure Ron wasn't listening in; Ron was a short distance away, asking Seamus about the other houses' match fixtures and hypothesising the likely table standings.
"Tonight?" Harry frowned. "Whatever for? What does he want to talk about?"
"I don't know," Hermione answered honestly, "he didn't say. But he seemed like he really wanted to talk to you."
"Did he know what happened up there yesterday?" Harry persisted. "Why he fell? Why I couldn't heal him?"
"I didn't tell him about your trying to heal him, he seemed troubled enough as it was." Hermione shot Harry a sideways look. "What about yesterday night— what you said in the common room? Did you suddenly remember that it had been a collision after all, or was it so that Ron and the rest wouldn't suspect otherwise?"
"They all think we collided, and I think it's the best version for us to stick to," Harry answered slowly. "So what did Malfoy say?"
"Malfoy reckons he'll be discharged from the hospital wing today, and so—" Hermione started, before Harry gently touched her shoulder and pulled her aside, slowing their pace.
"Hey," he looked straight at her, and his eyes were filled with earnest anxiety. "Look Herm, you're avoiding my question, and I can see that. Is there something that I should know about what happened up there yesterday? Please, Herm, tell me what he said."
Hermione bit her lip. "It's kind of hard to say, Harry."
Harry's expression hazed over with concern and unhappiness. "Did Malfoy ask you not to tell me?"
"No," Hermione said, her dilemma showing on her face. "It's just that— oh, Harry, it's you."
"It's me?" Harry blinked. "What...?"
"You, Harry," said Hermione gravely, "You happened yesterday. Malfoy fell because of you, and he's fallen for you, and..." she trailed off, and sighed heavily.
Harry was staring at her, looking thunderstruck. "He fell... because of me? So," he looked utterly confused, "what does that mean? That we actually did collide?"
"No," Hermione said, sounding agitated. "He says that you were mad at him, because he almost got to the Snitch earlier, and your anger was somehow magnified by the effect of the love potion. He could actually feel your anger inside his head, Harry, and it got too much for him to take and he blacked out and fell off his broom."
Harry was silent for a long moment; Hermione eyed him worriedly. "Look, Harry, it isn't your fault, what happened..."
They reached the Great Hall, and had to stop talking for a moment while they found their places and entertained several random interruptions from a few of their classmates. Harry slid into the seat next to Hermione, and sat silently as the food was served on the tables.
Hermione felt terrible seeing Harry so upset— she almost regretted telling him, although she knew that Harry deserved to know the whole truth since he was more intimately involved than even she was. But she had hesitated to tell him for this exact reason, because she knew that he would feel guilty, and blame himself for what happened to Draco.
It was decidedly inconvenient that they were at breakfast now, since she couldn't even have a proper talk with Harry. Glancing at Harry again, she caught him looking across the room, and she felt a dull flutter inside her stomach as she saw where he was staring: at Draco's empty seat at the Slytherins' table.
"Harry," she started to say, trying to think of something in comfort, but he curtly shook his head once, and signalled for her not to discuss it at the table.
Unhappy about the glum start to the morning, Hermione started buttering her piece of toast. Nibbling on her bread, she thought about what Draco had said to her last night— his words had a weighty, sinister echo to them, words like poison and blood, and mistakes that couldn't be rectified. But she still held to her belief that they would find a way out. Somehow.
And suddenly, as she raised her glass of pumpkin juice to her lips, the idea struck her out of the blue, as she stared at the silver serpent insignia emblazoned on the green banner hanging above the Slytherin table—
In the blood.
"Oh my god!" she exclaimed, jumping to her feet in a rush. "I've got an idea!"
Everyone turned to stare at her; Harry also glanced up at her, bewildered.
Hermione grabbed her piece of toast and crammed it into her mouth, mumbled something of which only the word "library" was intelligible, and bolted out of the Great Hall.
Seamus turned to watch her go, amusement on his face. "Well, ladies and gentlemen, that was the updated version of the 'Eureka!' episode. Hell of a lot less scandalous, though."
Harry checked his watch for the third time in the past five minutes— it was quarter to nine, and he was sitting alone on his bed in the boys' dormitory. Ron and the others were in the common room, but he'd opted to stay upstairs for some peace and quiet. He knew that Hermione was in the library, where she'd spent most of her time in between classes during the day, researching on potions that worked the same way in which antivenins did on snakebite poison.
It was a brilliant idea, Harry acknowledged; trust Hermione to come up with a clever plan like that. Apparently something Draco had said the day before had made her think of the love potion in terms of poison in the blood, which meant that an Anti-toxin potion should be able to purge the essence of the love potion. It was marvellously simple, and definitely worth a shot— he was supposed to brief Draco on this new idea when they met tonight.
A thick dusty book entitled Medical Magic sat on his bed— Hermione had given it to him to read, so as to familiarise himself with the basic concept of her plan. Harry flipped the book open to the last few pages, where the index listings in order of subject were. He easily located the entry on 'Anti-toxin potion', turned to the numbered page and started reading:
Anti-toxin potions are used to detoxify the patient's blood, which has been contaminated by poison, toxic chemicals or other alien substances, which may be fatal or cause medical complications. The Anti-toxin acts indiscriminately on all types of chemical substances, either consumed orally or intravenously introduced; as a result, all drugs will have to be subsequently re-administered once the Anti-toxin potion has been consumed. Most often used to nullify the effect of wrongly administered medication, the Anti-toxin potion works best on chemical substances immediately distinguishable in the bloodstream. The effect of the Anti-toxin potion is often discernable almost immediately, although it can take up to 24 hours to show results.
Harry stopped reading, and pondered for a moment. This Anti-toxin potion sounded like the perfect solution that they had been looking for. Of course, this book being a only a magical pharmaceutical reference, it didn't list the formula for the preparation of the Anti-toxin potion— that was what Hermione was hard at work in the library looking up.
Draco owes Herm big time, Harry thought to himself, as he checked the time again— it was ten to nine, and time for him to make his way downstairs.
As he draped his black school robes over the back of a chair so that they wouldn't be creased, something slipped out of his pocket and fluttered to the floor. Bending to pick it up, Harry realised that it was the note that Draco had written him less than a week ago. It was hard to believe it had been only such a short time. Since then and now, it seemed like forever had passed, as if every single moment between them had been taken out of the flow of time and stretched, filled to the brim with a chockfull of confusing, conflicting emotions.
Harry shook his head and tried to put the pervasive worries out of his mind— he slipped the note out of sight, and placed the book on his bedside table. Taking a deep calming breath, he exited the dormitory and made his way down the stairs, trying to appear as casual as he could. The other Gryffindors were sitting in the common room chatting and doing their homework, and Harry gave the excuse that he was going to see McGonagall about his Transfiguration term project before quickly ducking out of the common room.
His legs moved almost mechanically, remembering the solitary way to the storage room in Astronomy Tower even though he'd only been there once before. Some things were harder to forget, especially when his memories of that storage room were of knives and blood and rings and Draco.
He reached the storage room a minute before nine, and rapped on the door twice before cautiously opening it. As usual, Draco was already there, and this time he was sitting on the closed lid of a broad rosewood trunk parked at the far end of the storage room. Harry didn't remember seeing the trunk there before— maybe Filch had just brought it here, which wasn't a good thing since that meant this storage room wasn't as disused as they'd thought it was.
Harry quietly closed the door behind him, and walked a few steps closer to where Draco was sitting. Draco watched him evenly, not taking his eyes off him; Harry finally drew to a halt a few feet away from Draco. He opened his mouth, then realised that he didn't know what he wanted to say.
Draco finally spoke first. "How's your ankle?"
Harry blinked. "How'd you know...?"
"I heard," Draco answered offhandedly, slowly rising to his feet. He took one single step closer to Harry, never once breaking eye contact. "Quite a match it was yesterday, wasn't it."
"You're fine now?" Harry asked, his voice edged with concern.
His eyes flickered over Draco's body— the other boy was dressed simply in jeans and the Slytherin house T-shirt, which had the single Chinese character for 'snake' embossed across the front in bold, black calligraphy strokes. The exposed parts of Draco's arms bore almost no trace of his injuries sustained the day before, except for pale, light-pinkish hue of freshly healed skin; Harry glanced up at Draco's forehead, where a faint silver streak, like a trail of mercury, marked where Harry had tried to heal him, but had failed.
Draco looked at Harry, remarkably calm. "Do I look fine to you?"
"Um," Harry cast about for words, "well, you seem all right, I mean, your body looks good— wait, I didn't mean it that way— as in, you seem better, physically." He paused. "I don't know about how you feel otherwise."
Draco tilted his head slightly. "Did Hermione tell you anything?"
Harry bit his lip, and nodded silently.
An obscure emotion flitted across Draco's face for a split-second, and he looked away. "So you know."
"Everything?" Draco asked tentatively, and there was a faint quiver in his voice. "About what— why it happened?"
"Yes," Harry said softly. "She told me."
A silence ensued— it wasn't an awkward or embarrassed silence, but a pensive one, borne on unspoken waves of helpless sadness. It was about the most intimate moment of non-physical contact that they'd ever shared— they were standing merely inches apart, and one step forward by either of them would swallow up the distance that lay between. But neither of them moved.
"Listen," Harry finally said, with a heavy sigh. "Hermione thinks she knows how we can fix this— it's a pretty good idea, and maybe—"
Draco suddenly let out a soft gasp and clutched his jeans. "Damn, my wand's vibrating."
Harry took a step back, and gave Draco an alarmed look. "I really hope you're talking about your literal wand..."
"There's someone coming!" Draco hissed, and swore creatively; he spun around and eyed the door behind them. "I think it's Filch. Dammit, we have to hide!"
Harry stared at the closed door, bewildered. "I don't hear anything."
Draco was looking wildly around the small room— he quickly strode over to the rosewood trunk and threw open the lid, revealing a fairly narrow hollow compartment within. His eyes lit up, and he turned to Harry. "Come on, we can hide in here."
Harry eyed the trunk sceptically— he hated enclosed spaces because they brought back unpleasant childhood memories, and this rectangular trunk reminded him far too much of a coffin, for him to be comfortable climbing into it.
"What is the matter with you, Malfoy?" Harry frowned. "I can't hear any footsteps, I think it's just people walking about upstairs."
"No," Draco said urgently, "someone is about to walk in that door and if we don't get out of sight now, we're in big trouble. Trust me, will you?"
Trust me. For some reason, those two simple words struck a chord within Harry, because they articulated something he had already been doing all this while— trusting Draco. Not because he had to, but because he wanted to.
"Oh, all right," Harry said reluctantly, crossing over to where Draco was standing by the open trunk.
Draco looked relieved. "Okay, hurry up and get in. Now."
"Are you crazy?" Harry turned to Draco incredulously. "And let you get in on top of me? No way."
"Oh, fine!" Draco snapped, exasperated. "I'll get in first, then."
He quickly stepped into the trunk and sat down, stretching his legs out; he lay backwards, such that he was flat on the base. The interior of the trunk was more spacious that it looked, since Draco seemed to be able to fit inside without any difficulty.
"What are you waiting for!" Draco hissed, glaring up at Harry. "Come on in! Someone's going to come in any moment now!"
Harry muttered something under his breath that sounded like "This had better be good, Malfoy, or else", gingerly stepped into the trunk, and carefully lowered himself on top of Draco. Their bodies were perfectly aligned, from shoulders to ankles— once Harry had settled himself inside the trunk, Draco reached up and pulled the lid closed over them. It slammed shut with a soft thud, engulfing them in darkness.
Harry blinked, his eyes trying to adjust to the pitch-blackness inside the trunk— he wasn't even sure if his eyes were open or closed, it was so dark that it made no difference. He braced his hands and knees on either side of Draco so that he wouldn't actually be lying on Draco's body— but after less than a minute his arms began to tire, and he finally allowed himself to rest his weight on top of Draco. He could feel the warmth of Draco's chest pressed against his, Draco's heartbeat drumming in counterpoint to his own.
The next thing they heard was the noisy creak of the doorknob being twisted, and the door opened, accompanied by familiar shuffling footsteps— unmistakably, Filch. He seemed to be huffing and panting, and there was the dull scrape of a sack being hauled over the floorboards. Filch's footsteps strayed dangerously near the trunk, and both Harry and Draco held their breath— but then the sound of his dragging feet grew distant again, terminating in the audible closing of the door.
"Is he gone?" Harry asked very quietly. It was too dark to see anything— he was vaguely aware that his chin was resting against Draco's left shoulder; he felt a few strands of hair tickling his nose.
"Wait," whispered Draco softly; from the direction of his voice, it seemed that his face was turned away from Harry's. "Just in case he comes back."
They waited in silence for a few more minutes— Harry could feel Draco's breathing quicken imperceptibly as they lay there, pressed close together, in the complete darkness. The lid of the trunk was bearing down on his back, and Harry shifted uncomfortably— this trunk was definitely not designed for two. Draco's knee was nudging against his calf, and Harry tried to adjust himself into a less compromising position, but failed for lack of room for leverage.
"I'm squashed," Harry complained irritably, fidgeting some more— his left leg was already going to sleep, and he realised that he had somehow managed to slip his right arm around Draco's waist. The fingers of his right hand were starting to feel cramped.
"Potter," Draco said through clenched teeth, "Will you please stop moving so much?" He sounded slightly breathless. "You're, um, creating... unnecessary... friction."
"What...? Oh!" Harry immediately froze in mid-movement, which was an even more uncomfortable position than before. "Oh! I'm sorry."
A few moments of absolute stillness passed; the silence was awkward and embarrassed.
"You can still breathe, you know," Draco finally said, in feeble jest.
"Huh? Oh, that's all right." Even Harry's voice was coloured with discomfiture. "I'm quite fine like this, it's okay."
Draco closed his eyes, and tried to immerse himself in the sheer darkness; anything to distract himself from how tantalisingly close Harry was, lying on top of him, and Harry's fidgeting just now had only served to rub him all the wrong ways, as it were. He could feel Harry's breath warm against his neck, blowing hot shivers down his spine— all he had to do was turn his head to face Harry, and they would be—
"Um, am I crushing you?" Harry asked; Draco shivered as he felt Harry's lips brush against his earlobe as he spoke.
"Yes, you are." Draco concentrated on stilling the involuntary quiver that ran through his entire body. Oh gods, this was more humiliating than he'd ever imagined— Harry could feel everything, every tremble and shiver of his body in response to their unbearably intimate proximity... it was mortifying.
Harry shifted slightly again, and something which felt like cool metal slid out from the front of his shirt and made contact with Draco's skin— from the compact denseness and metallic weight, Draco immediately knew what it was. It was a ring, brushing against his bare throat, dangling from a chain that was linked around Harry's neck.
Draco's heart skipped a few beats. Could it be...? Was Harry wearing his ring around his neck?
Resting on top of Draco, Harry was suddenly made very aware of something stiff nudging up against his thigh— something that pulsed rhythmically against him, and his eyes widened; he didn't even dare to wonder what it was, and he exhaled in a rush of breath, the involuntary words "Oh my god, Malfoy" leaving his lips in a shocked whisper...
"Relax, Potter. That really is my wand in my pocket," Draco informed him, and Harry could hear a secret smile in his voice. He felt Draco's fingers close lightly over his left wrist; there was surprising gentleness in this simple gesture, and Harry didn't even think to pull away.
"I put a Surveillance Spell on this storage room," Draco continued to explain, in a low voice. "When anyone comes within a certain distance around this room, it'll trigger off an alarm, which causes my— literal— wand to vibrate to warn us." Draco parted his legs a little, and Harry's knee slid against his inner thigh. "That's how I knew Filch was coming over just now— and he's still lurking close by, because the wand is still vibrating, but it's getting fainter. When it stops we can get out of here."
"Oh." Harry gave a relieved smile. "For a moment I thought—"
"No, Potter, it wasn't because you're lying on top of me."
"You know something?" Draco said softly; he turned his face toward Harry, and felt the tips of their noses brush lightly— it sent a tingling sensation through him, fluttering through his nerves. His fingers reflexively tightened their hold on Harry's wrist; they were so close now, and he couldn't help it, he just couldn't—
Draco raised his head slightly and kissed Harry, letting his eyes fall closed as their lips met; and suddenly the swirling darkness felt like velvet perfection, and empty blackness became the colour of completion. His fingers released Harry's wrist, and moved to hold Harry's hand, their fingers entwining; everything else fell away like a collapsing dream, and all that mattered was what he had right now, what he held in his hand and what he tasted on the tip of his tongue, his mouth pressed against Harry's warm lips...
"Malfoy." Harry spoke Draco's name softly, his lips moving against Draco's; he didn't turn away, but he didn't kiss him back, either.
Draco forced himself to open his eyes; the bleakness of reality came streaming in once again, like black light in the glowing darkness. He let his head fall back against the base of the trunk, breaking the gentle kiss— he heard Harry say his name, but it wasn't the way he had imagined, those countless times in his dreams, where Harry had held him close and whispered his name: Draco.
"Malfoy, listen," Harry said again; his voice sounded odd, and strangely controlled. "Get a grip on yourself."
Draco felt his face flush with heat. "I didn't mean to."
"Never mind." Harry's voice was carefully veiled.
They lay in silence for what seemed like another eternity; Draco withdrew his hand, his trembling fingers disentangling themselves from Harry's.
Finally, when the vibration of his wand in his pocket had stilled, Draco spoke up, his voice still slightly shaky. "Okay, you can open the lid and get off me now."
They managed to push the lid of the trunk open and clumsily crawled out. Harry grimaced as he stretched his cramped muscles, then turned back to help Draco. He offered his hand, and Draco took it; they spent a few moments massaging their numbed limbs back to life, and Harry gave Draco a reproachful look.
"I'm never getting into a trunk with you again. I'm all stiff now."
"Oh, really?" Draco arched an eyebrow, and smothered a laugh. "My, Potter, I didn't know you cared that much."
Harry realised, turned red and looked extremely flustered. "I meant my arms and legs!"
Draco grinned as he smoothed back his tousled hair. "Whatever." His smile faded as he glanced warily toward the door again. "We'd better get out of here, it seems like Filch is on one of his rare visits up here tonight. I've been in this room dozens of times before and he hardly ever comes to dump stuff here at night. I've only ever almost bumped into him once, and that's why I always cast the Surveillance Spell now whenever I'm up here."
Harry looked impressed. "That Surveillance Spell is pretty neat."
Draco gave him a sideways look, mingled amusement and superiority. "Just one of those nifty Spells That Give You An Upper Hand. It's right up there with your little handcuff spell."
Harry blushed slightly, and couldn't think of anything in reply to that.
Draco took a few steps closer to him, and gave him an appraising once-over. "Your shirt's all messed up around the back." He reached over and deftly straightened out Harry's collar. "There." But he didn't move away.
Harry turned, and once again was face to face with Draco, standing far too close for comfort, yet it felt strangely right. Harry's expression sobered, and he gazed into Draco's eyes of stormy grey; they were the colour of a tempest building on the horizon, lined with troubled sadness overshadowing flickering hope.
"Listen, Malfoy, I'm—" Harry began, but Draco touched a finger to Harry's lips, silencing him.
"Don't." Draco's voice was twisted with anguish, and his eyes glistened with unshed emotion. "Don't say you're sorry, Potter."
"I wasn't going to." Harry said deliberately, his lips brushing against Draco's finger as he spoke. "I wanted to say that, I'm going to check how Hermione's plan is coming along. Then I'll let you know."
They shared an eternal gaze for the held breath of a moment— then Draco let his hand fall to his side, and he took a step back, the expression in his eyes shadowed and inscrutable.
"You go on first," he said quietly. "I'll wait a few minutes after you, just in case Filch is on patrol."
Harry nodded. "All right."
Draco said nothing more as Harry quietly opened the door, and slipped out into the corridor— instead he just lowered his eyes and looked away, until he heard the door click shut. Then he buried his face in his hands and sank to the floor, utterly exhausted— exhausted from wanting Harry, from forcing himself to do absolutely nothing about it, and from having once again failed to hold back from kissing Harry.
It was torture. Pure torture, and such fierce, helpless regret.
Don't. Don't say you're sorry, Potter.
Outside, Harry gently shut the door, but didn't take his hand off the doorknob; he leaned against the doorframe, shrouded by the hooded shadows woven with flickering torchlight.
"And I'm sorry, too." Harry whispered softly into the closed darkness.