Harry had no special reason for prowling the second floor corridors that evening, other than sheer boredom and the faint suspicion that he was going mad. If he had to revise his Transfiguration or Arithmancy notes one more time, he felt sure that his friends would find him gibbering in the library stacks. So he had made a flimsy excuse and left them hard at it while he went out to clear his head. Even Ron had barely raised his head when Harry left; he was doing poorly in Herbology and needed every spare second, so Harry didn't even bother to invite him along on his wander.

Technically, it wasn't even against the rules, which did rob the experience of some of its glamour. So he rambled along, balancing his wand on his right forefinger the way Ron's brothers had taught him. It was stupid, it was childish and it was exactly what he needed at the moment.

What he did not need, he decided, was to hear the flat, meaty sound of a fist hitting a body. The choked cry that followed further convinced him that this was not going to be his night. He caught his wand in a business-like grip and listened carefully, trying to find the source of the thumps he could hear falling with a mathematical rhythm. He winced as he crept to the door of the classroom at the end of the corridor. Some poor bastard was getting the stuffing kicked out of him. It definitely sounded like more than one person doing the beating but he heard only one voice crying out. Harry felt his teeth gritting together. After growing up with Dudley, he hated bullies. That hatred sent him through the door of the classroom with a shout.

As surprised as the bullies were, Harry suspected that he was the most bewildered in the room. Four Ravenclaw upper class boys were frozen in the middle of systematically beating Draco to a bloody pulp between them. He had not been able to think of him as "Malfoy" ever since he had heard the boy had been disowned by his father after being rescued scant moments before taking the Dark Mark.

"Get out of here, Potter, this doesn't concern you," one of the Ravenclaws said warily.

Harry looked at his one-time nemesis who was lying on the floor, curled in on himself, wheezing and dripping blood from a split lip and a cut over his eye. The acid burn of memory bubbled in Harry's guts and he clenched his fists but tried to speak calmly.

"This doesn't look like much of a fair fight, Foster."

Foster ran a hand across his sweaty face and smiled grimly. "It's not supposed to be, Potter. Malfoy's had this coming for a long time and we're finally giving it to him." He swung a booted foot into Draco's ribs. "Just leave us to it, there's a good lad," Foster grinned, "unless you'd like to join us?"

It was, Harry supposed, the look of spiteful calculation on Foster's face that did it. That, or overwork. It couldn't possibly have been the sight of Draco opening his one functioning eye, looking at Harry silently, then closing his eye again with an air of resignation. As if he knew that Harry Potter would never lift a hand to help him.

What Harry actually did was cast a wide-ranging Jelly Legs Jinx. Childish but effective, especially considering that two of the boys had just been winding up to follow Foster's punting example. Their looks of outrage as they hit the ground would have been funny if he had not been so blazingly angry.

"What's he done to you lot?"

Harry sent the shortest Ravenclaw's wand skittering over the flagstones to the door before the boy's hand could close on it. He dodged a hex fired off by Foster, who had regained his legs more quickly than his housemates.

"He's been a bastard for seven years! And everyone knows he's a Death Eater, come back to spy for his father and You-Know-Who," a boy he vaguely remembered was named Weatherby growled as he tried to hit Harry with an Expelliarmus. Harry turned it back on him and sent him crashing to the ceiling where he stuck like a flattened spider. Weatherby's wand went skittering over to join the first.

Foster tried diplomacy next, as he and Harry circled Draco's cowering body.

"Look, Potter, it's not as if you're the only one who has the right to beat the bastard bloody. Let the rest of us get our licks in, too."

He cast a Blinding charm at Harry as he spoke. In retaliation, Harry used the bastardized spell that Gilderoy Lockhart had used to accidentally remove the bones from his arm in his second year. Foster collapsed into a sludgy heap of unattached leg muscles before Harry sent him smacking into the ceiling, pinned next to his co-conspirator. His boneless legs hung down and swung gently like stockings drying on a line. Foster had managed to hang onto his wand, but he was no match for Harry's skills and it clattered into the pile at the door.

His final opponent was a true Ravenclaw; the boy sized up the odds, looked at his two companions who were pinned to the ceiling, the third who was still jinxed on the floor, and he gave up. A flick of Harry's wrist sent his wand toward the door. Then Harry sent the last two of Draco's attackers to rest on the ceiling and wondered what to do next. He decided that pocketing his opponents' wands was a sound move and did so.

"Why the hell are you protecting him, Potter? Have you gone over to His side, too?" Weatherby growled.

The words made the ready rage inside him flare high, then the sheer absurdity of the accusation struck Harry and doused him like cold water. "No, I have not joined Voldemort," he said carefully and loudly, just to rattle them. "Neither has Draco. All you had to do was check his arm."

"He's a right bastard who deserves it!" the littlest Ravenclaw whined.

"Four against one? You beat him bloody because he was what?...Snide? Arrogant? Made a nasty remark about your sister?

"He never laid a hand on any of you," Harry said flatly, although he wasn't certain if Draco had ever set Crabbe or Goyle on anyone. When none of the other boys contradicted him, his sense of fair play breathed a sigh of relief. The Ravenclaws were all looking resentful but thoughtful and ashamed as they hung from the ceiling. It made an interesting tableau.

Harry knelt down and touched Draco's shoulder. The other boy uncurled slowly, breath whistling through his bloody mouth. His open eye met Harry's concerned gaze and blinked in confusion.

"Can you stand up?"

Draco nodded slowly and started to clamber upright. Harry offered him a hand, then just reached down and tugged when Draco refused it. His involuntary winces and gasps made Harry suspect that Draco was hurt worse than he wanted to let on. "My hero," Draco drawled in a poor imitation of his usual arrogant tone.

"At your service, you slimy Slytherin," Harry shot back irritatedly, slinging one of Draco's arms around his shoulder. Draco kept the other arm cradled close to his body and Harry wondered if it were broken. They started for the door.

"Potter, are you going to let us down?" Foster asked.

"No." Once again, he had to half-carry Draco and Harry was getting annoyed about this.

"There are spiders up here!" one of the boys wailed.

"Good," Harry growled and got them out into the corridor. "Wh..." Harry began, but Draco interrupted him.

"I don't want to talk about it."

"I..." Harry tried again.

"Leave it, Potter!" Draco didn't look at him.

Harry manfully resisted the urge to drop him right there in the middle of the second floor corridor. He got them to the head of the stairs before saying quickly, "Hospital wing or Slytherin tower?"

"The tower." But then Harry saw the thin trickle of blood coming from the ear closest to him.

"Hospital wing, it is," he said with mock cheeriness, over Draco's increasingly garbled and faint protests. By the time he staggered into the Infirmary, Draco was unconscious.

The flurry and bustle of the next hour made Harry long for his earlier ennui. After telling his story to Madam Pomfrey, he was forced to repeat it to a fiercely glaring Snape, and then to Professor Dumbledore. All the time he was talking, he was aware of the nurse moving back and forth behind his chair, chanting spells and pouring potions down her oblivious patient.

Then Snape and Dumbledore left him sitting there at Madam Pomfrey's desk as they retreated a few paces away and had a brief but intense exchange. Harry focused on a benighted painting on the wall and tried hard to look as if he were not listening avidly.

"Poppy says there are older bruises and wounds; it's not the first time he's been beaten this term."

"He has made many enemies in his time here."

"This cannot be overlooked, Albus! They must be punished." Snape's whisper was strident.

"This is very unlike those students..."

"They half-killed the boy! If Potter hadn't happened along..." Snape rubbed fretfully at his forehead. "Potter, of all people. It defies understanding."

"Does it really, Severus?" Dumbledore inquired softly. "You see nothing familiar about this situation at all?"

Snape sucked in a breath, as if shocked, or hurt. "Yes, I do. Once again, a Slytherin has nearly been killed and the perpetrators will be let off with a slap on the wrist and a piece of candy."

There was a bitter silence.

Dumbledore's voice was soft and sad when he spoke again. "Let it not be said that I cannot learn from the mistakes of the past, Severus.

"Harry, you have their wands?"

At Harry's nod, Dumbledore waved him over and held out his hand. Harry dropped the four wands into the headmaster's hand and watched as they were secreted in one sleeve. "Pinned to the ceiling, you said? What curse did you use?"

"A Fixative spell," Harry said, slightly embarrassed. He had had to become very good at reconditioning spells, given the sheer number of times he had broken his glasses or his broom.

"Ahh. Intriguing use of a simple household spell; I have never considered its offensive applications before. Goodnight, Harry. Thank you for bringing this situation to our attention. Five points to Gryffindor for selfless action in defense of a fellow student." Dumbledore smiled gently at him before turning away in a swirl of blue wool.

Which left him at the mercy of Snape's acid stare.

"Will Draco be all right?"

Snape looked at him coldly. "Apparently. He may have some hearing loss; there is a fracture in his skull." Snape stopped speaking and looked even more coldly at Harry. "It is none of your concern, Potter. Go to bed."

The sheer unfairness of it robbed Harry of any retort he might have made. Finally, he just wiped his fingers against a damp patch on his shoulder, then showed his blood-smeared fingers to the Potions master. When Snape's eyes narrowed, Harry said quickly, "It's not mine," hoping that Snape would understand.

After an endless minute of scrutiny, Snape said, "Five points to Gryffindor, Potter." He looked as if his teeth hurt.

Harry blinked and knew he that looked like an idiot. Snape raised an eyebrow and then simply turned and walked away.

Harry had just protected Draco (Malfoy!) from what was probably a richly-deserved beating. Severus Snape, Bane of His Existence, had assigned him points. The evening had gone from dull to surreal in mere moments, a state that Harry had become all too familiar with since entering Hogwarts.

It was definitely time for bed.

Harry fended off Ron's questions about his disappearance until they were seated at breakfast. A nod in Hermione's direction and she left the group of girls she was sitting with to come to join them.

"Why are all the Ravenclaws glaring at you, Harry?" She handed him the books he had abandoned last night in the Library without comment.

Ron craned his head to look over his shoulder and his eyes widened. "They are! What did you do last night, Harry? And why didn't you come get us?"

Harry took a sip of tea and started his story. Before he was done, Seamus, Dean and Neville had stopped trying to look as if they weren't eavesdropping and were fairly staring at him, open-mouthed. Ron looked confused and Hermione determined.

"Let me get this straight; you protected Draco Malfoy from four Ravenclaws who were beating him up?"

"Sod that, Hermione! Snape gave you house points?"

Harry had to laugh. Trust Ron to stick to the essentials. Hermione glared at them both, then said, "That explains the Ravenclaws trying to make Harry burst into flames with a look. But why aren't the Slytherins doing something about it? I mean, it was an attack on one of their own."

"Maybe they don't know he's been hurt yet?" Dean offered. Malfoy wasn't anywhere in the Hall.

"At Hogwarts? Please," Hermione grimaced. "Slytherin House knows all the gossip before it happens. So why aren't they plotting anything?" She watched them placidly eating breakfast, displaying none of the expected smirks, eye twitches or whispered conferences that had always marked the beginning of a retaliatory action in the past.

"I don't think they care," Neville said slowly.

The others all exclaimed against the idea, but Harry privately agreed with him. After all, not one week ago, Draco had been crying on his shoulder about Snape rescuing him from service to Voldemort at the cost of the Potions master's arm. There was no way in hell that his rival would have done that had he not been at the end of his rope. And he certainly had been alone last night, making him easy pickings for the strategic Ravenclaws.

The idea of Draco ostracized by his own House gave Harry a mean little spike of pleasure. Which was followed by a weaker but more gratifying pang of sympathy as he recalled the times Gryffindor House had withdrawn its support from him for some infraction, real or imagined.

The whole school knew that Draco had been disowned by Lucius Malfoy. Perhaps his housemates had removed their support from Draco because they knew he wouldn't be able to help them advance? Harry wondered if the Slytherins were really that heartless and calculating, then shook his head at the notion. It had to be more than that. Dumbledore had said it last night -- Draco had made a lot of enemies in the six and a half years he had been at Hogwarts. His position and name had always defended him when circumstances might not have rallied his friends around him. But those friends were now almost all sworn Death Eaters and gone from the school, leaving him at the mercy of the schoolmates he had taunted and teased for six and a half years.

"He deserves it," Ron said with relish. "He's been a complete bastard to anyone who wouldn't toady to him ever since we got here. I'm going to enjoy watching him get what's coming to him."

"No, you're not," Hermione said crisply. They all stared at her as she continued and her chin raised a little. "He's a git. But from what Harry said, this is more than just some bullying. A skull fracture is no joke; they could have killed him last night. We have to do something."

"Hermione," Ron groaned, "please tell me you're not about to say what I know you're gonna say."

She said it anyway.

By the time breakfast was over, Hermione had the six of them arranged into three teams of watchdogs, each assigned to watch over Draco when he emerged from the Hospital wing. Harry sighed with a complicated mixture of annoyance and a kind of relief; at least he wasn't completely alone in his insane impulse to keep the Slytherin boy from being pounded into a grease stain before the end of term. Dean and Neville and Seamus seemed willing enough to go along with the idea, although Ron still looked sulky and bewildered.

As they gathered up their books and started to leave the Hall, Harry fell into step with Hermione.

"Why did you do that?" he asked softly.

She sighed, then looked at him. "In my old school, I was the smartest girl in the class."

He snorted; no surprise there.

She continued, "And I was the shortest and my hair was funny looking and my parents weren't well-off." She broke off suddenly and looked away.

Harry shoved his shoulder into hers in a friendly way. When she looked up with a thin smile, he smiled back and nodded to let her know that he understood. After all, he had once been the funny-looking kid with bad clothes, too.

"You're a nice person, Hermione," he whispered and grinned a little as she blushed, then turned and walked quickly away toward her next class.

They caught up with Draco on their way to Potions. He was just being boxed into an alcove by two of the Slytherin boys whose names Harry could never keep straight. It had only progressed to shoves and slurs when Ron and Harry walked straight into the middle of the huddle, neatly flanked Draco and used their forward momentum to propel him on down the hallway between them, right out from under the furious eyes of his housemates. It was a modified quidditch maneuver that he and Ron had used very successfully on the Weasley brothers whenever they played a pick-up game at the Burrow.

"What do you think you're doing?!" Draco hissed, trying to yank his arms free.

"Saving your skinny ass, you idiot," Ron bit out, tightening his grip and pushing the other boy inexorably towards the Potions classroom.

"I don't need your help, Weasel!"

Ron stopped dead, forcing all three of them to a sudden halt and ignoring hurrying classmates who brushed past them, intent on making it to class before the period began. "Malfoy, you're a sorry excuse for a wizard and I hate your guts. But Harry and my bleedin' girlfr…oof!" His breath whooshed out when Harry jabbed him firmly in the ribs behind Draco's back.

"Shut up, Ron," Harry said. "We're going to be late for class," he added, then jerked his head back at the two lurking Slytherins. "It's us or them, Draco. Your choice."

Draco's furious expression fractured into sheer confusion. Harry didn't bother to wait for his answer. The two Gryffindors grabbed Draco's sleeves and hustled him down the corridor; the three of them skidded into the Potions classroom in the nick of time.

Snape was just stepping through the connecting door from his office when the odd trio clattered in. One eyebrow lifted slightly as he considered the two panting, red-faced Gryffindors and the pale Slytherin. The rest of the class was silent, some waiting in terror, others in malicious glee. Snape disappointed them all by failing to glare or verbally dissect the latecomers, merely waving them to their seats and turning to write his instructions on the board. Ron and Harry went to their usual places. Draco stiffly seated himself at an empty desk left in the No Man's Land between the clumps of Gryffindor and Slytherin students.

Class passed peacefully enough. Anyone who might have pulled a prank was too distracted, wondering about the strange ménage of Weasley, Potter and Malfoy. Draco worked by himself. Harry steadfastly refused to hear any whispered inquiries and Ron, having received a proud and happy smile from his beloved, settled down to his work with a cheerfully distracted grin on his face. Even Snape's sharp eye upon them couldn't entirely wipe away his happy expression.

When class ended, Snape dismissed them with a frown. As the students gathered parchments and quills and clattered out, the impromptu Gryffindor security service pantomimed an argument over whose turn it was to bodyguard the distracted Draco. The Slytherin boy hadn't even gotten to his feet. Instead, he sat staring into his book bag as if he had never seen it before.

"Draco, remain behind. You three, cease loitering and get to your next class," Snape said coolly.

Harry, Ron and Hermione silently shrugged their shoulders at one another and trooped out. Of course, Hermione failed to completely shut the door to the classroom and they all stopped immediately outside and strained to hear the conversation within.

"Draco, are you all right?"

"Yes, sir," the boy answered dully. They could hear him suddenly start to shove his belongings into his bag and rise.

"Sit down!" Snape said. "What were Potter and Weasley trying to do to you?" Outside, Harry shook his head and sighed; Snape was back in form, obviously.

"Nothing, sir."

Ron and Harry stared at each other; Draco Malfoy was overlooking a chance to get them into trouble with Snape?

"You're certain?" Snape's voice held a note of concern that Harry recognized from the Infirmary the previous night. Harry sighed again and wished that the Potions master would remember exactly who had dragged his precious Slytherin's ass to the Infirmary in the first place.

"Actually, sir, I think they were trying to help me."

"Really," Snape drawled.

"Weasley said something about having to 'save my ass' because of Potter and his girlfriend."

"And why would Potter and Granger want to 'save your ass'?" Snape drawled. "And from whom?"

"I don't know and I'd rather not say, sir." Draco's voice held the merest suggestion of a quaver and Harry wondered how many times in the past Draco Malfoy had ever dared to refuse to answer his Head of House.

"I see."

There was silence for a time, then Snape spoke again. "I believe the Gryffindor heroes may be exercising their talents upon you. Your altered status cannot have escaped their notice and they have taken it upon themselves to be your champions."

The sneer in the Potions master's voice made Harry want to growl and even Hermione's teeth were tightly clenched. Ron threw his hands in the air and mutely demanded to know why Harry and Hermione had ever gotten him into this.

"Potter must have told them about last night."


"What should I do, sir?" Draco's voice held more steel in it than Harry had heard from him in weeks. Apparently there was a backbone in there somewhere and Draco was determined to make his Head of House proud.

"Do nothing. If Potter and his friends want to play hero and save you from your enemies, then let them. You certainly lack any other allies just now."

"Except you, sir."

"Of course. But I cannot always be there to intervene. Indeed, it would make the situation far worse if I continually rescued you. That much favoritism would only further antagonize your foes." The voice of experience seemed to sharpen the Potions master's tone. Harry remembered Snape's pensieve and swallowed the little bubble of shame that always arose when he thought of how Snape had been treated as a child by Harry's own father and godfather.

"Since they seem prepared to fight your battles with you, I suggest you befriend Potter and his friends. Try to remain with them when you can. Has anyone bothered you in the Slytherin dormitories or Common Room?"

"No, sir. Everyone has followed your instructions to the letter. No one says or does anything to me there." Draco's voice was dull and Harry remembered what it had been like when no one in Gryffindor would talk to or even look at him. Another unwanted pang of sympathy for Draco made him grimace.

"Is there anything else, sir?"

"No, Draco." Even Snape sounded like he wanted to sigh. "Remember what I have said."

"Yes, sir." Scuffling noises indicated Draco rising and shouldering his books.

"This situation will not last forever, Draco. Make new alliances and outwait your enemies. Patience and courage will see you successful."

"Courage? Isn't that for Gryffindors?"

"The House of the Snake does not lack for courage, Draco. Do not forget that. There are many ways to meet the impossible in order to triumph. Gryffindors tend to rush in headlong and they often get themselves killed. Slytherin courage is formed of endurance and patience."

"Better a live Snake than a dead Lion, sir?" There was an echo of the old Draco Malfoy in those words and Ron rolled his eyes at Harry and Hermione.

"Exactly. Now go."

The three Gryffindors scrambled to retreat from their listening post. Hermione led them up the corridor to the first turning, where they waited for their new charge.

"Nice of Snape to volunteer us for bodyguard duty," Hermione grumbled.

"You already did that!" Ron whispered loudly.

"Yes, but I did it because I felt sorry for him, not because…" her voice trailed off. Harry and Ron looked over her shoulder to see Draco Malfoy standing behind her. No one said anything for a long moment. Then Draco said evenly, "We'll be late for DADA," and gestured politely for Hermione to take the lead.

Harry's was not the only sigh to echo in the corridor behind them.

The situation was actually surprisingly tolerable, especially when Dean and Seamus took over after DADA. There had been only a few half-hearted attempts to interfere with Draco's spell-casting and one pitiful effort at cursing his quill. The respite seemed good for him and Harry noted the other boy sitting straighter, an arrogant tilt back in his chin.

Neville and Hermione's after-dinner shift wasn't quite as free of incident, but they appeared back in the Common Room at curfew looking very satisfied with themselves. They said nothing, but Neville had a tendency to grin smugly into space and Hermione kept flexing her right hand and rubbing at her knuckles. Harry and Ron grinned at each other and snickered a little at the poor planning of whoever had gotten in Hermione's way.

Two of the Ravenclaws that attacked Draco were expelled the next morning. The two younger boys were sometimes seen around the castle in the evenings, dragging heavy buckets with downcast expressions. The trophy room had never gleamed so brightly.

They gradually got used to the near-silent omnipresence of Draco Malfoy. He was unfailingly courteous to Hermione and struggled mightily to be so with the rest of them. He and Ron occasionally forgot themselves, but matters were usually resolved without bloodshed or wandwork. Some of the Gryffindors whinged about Draco's presence at meals until Harry and the rest decided to sit at the very foot of the long table, so far removed from the other students of Gryffindor House that the rest of the school whispered and giggled about it. That situation was suitably resolved a week later when a red-faced diplomatic contingent from the head of the Gryffindor table publicly invited Draco to join them at dinner.

Harry was surprised at the lack of interference from the professors; no one but Snape seemed to even notice their efforts. Of course, the fact that no one had mentioned the black eyes, the occasional scorches in the hallways or the sudden appearance of purple whiskers on two Hufflepuff students might be construed as silent approval of their tactics, but one never knew at Hogwarts. Of course, the Potions master had a glare that could cut fog and they often found themselves under surveillance, but he never said a word either. It was unnerving.

Draco turned out to be a whiz at Arithmancy and after watching their pitiful struggles, he had gravely offered to tutor Neville and Seamus. He was surprisingly patient with them and Ron had fairly stared until Draco had looked up with a secret smile and said, "Someone had to get Crabbe and Goyle through the last six years." Unfortunately, he was about as apt at Herbology as Ron was, but the two could condole with one another and Neville was pleased to be able to return the favor. They all began to have some hope of passing their exams.

The loss of his place on the Slytherin Quidditch team had hurt Draco. No one had seen him fly since the start of term. One Sunday afternoon, Harry had had enough of studying and of his silent companion. He let his broom clatter onto the table beside Draco and said, "Come on, let's go flying."

"Push off, Potter. I've got Transfiguration and Arithmancy to get through today." There was no heat in Draco's words and Harry now knew the tone for the closest the other boy could manage to friendly.

"We did Transfiguration with Hermione yesterday and you could teach Arithmancy. Come on, get your broom. The weather's about to change." A summer storm threatened the golden afternoon and he itched to be out and in the air before it hit.

Draco never looked up. One long finger slid down a page, then turned it with a crisp motion. "My broom is gone, Potter. Go away and play now."

Remembering the sick feeling he had had upon seeing the splintered pieces of his Firebolt, Harry managed to ask, "Who…?"

"I don't know and I don't care. It's done, Potter. Leave it and leave me alone!" Draco slammed the book shut and stood up abruptly. Harry's hand on his forearm stopped him. He roughly shrugged it off and glared at his one-time nemesis.

"You," Harry poked him with his glove, "Need. To. Fly. Now, pick up the broom and let's go fly." He turned away, calling to Ron that he was borrowing his broomstick and left the room. His silent willing for Draco to follow must have worked, because there was a second set of footsteps behind him when he reached the broom shed. Without speaking, they both mounted and kicked off over the sun-drenched pitch. Harry released a practice snitch and they chased it for over an hour with not a word spoken between them.

The stress of the past few weeks had finally begun to slip away from him and Harry felt his face relaxing into a smile. Draco appeared to be feeling the same and they landed in a more genial silence than they had enjoyed. The first few drops of rain had just begun to spatter down when Draco reached for the handle of the broom shed door. His fingers touched it, there was a flash of silver hexlight and the boy fell without a sound. Harry grabbed at Draco's shoulder and he, too, was consumed in silver light. Rain drenched them both and they lay there in the mud until Ron came in search of them a few minutes later.

It was the pain that woke him, Harry decided. No one could possibly sleep through the sheer agony that throbbed through his entire body. His faint moan brought a starched rustle and a strong arm to his aid and something slick and cool was poured down his throat. Four swallows and he could distinguish light from dark; six and he could hear words instead of murmuring boulders crashing over him. By the time he had drained the glass, the world had come back into some kind of focus and he felt like he might have some control over his limbs again some day.

"Wha'ppened?" he slurred around the rim of the glass.

It was taken away and Madam Pomfrey's plain and deeply concerned face came into view. "That is exactly what we would like to know, Potter. Why were you and Malfoy out on the pitch in the pouring rain? Were you two having a duel?"

"Draco? 's he ok?!" Harry regretted speaking quite that emphatically as his head throbbed viciously, but at least most of the words had come out separately that time.

"No, Mr. Potter, he is not. Answer the question; what were you and Draco doing out on the Quidditch pitch and why were you both unconscious when you were found?" Snape's cold voice slid down his back like ice water. When he turned his head, Snape was there, standing between him and the bed where Draco lay pale and unmoving.

"We went flying," Harry said with a sigh. Did Snape really never change?

Apparently not. "You expect me to believe that you two had a friendly pick-up game of Hunt-the-Snitch and somehow wound up in comas?"

"Comas?" Harry repeated stupidly. No wonder his head, and everything else, hurt. Then he pulled himself together and snarled back weakly, "You know very well that's all we were doing. Who's been protecting him the last two weeks, you git?"

Oops. The 'git' had slipped out. Harry closed his eyes and hoped he looked too pathetic to kill.

"Potter, you are within a hairsbreadth of being expelled for a deadly assault on a fellow student. Now, explain yourself!"

Without opening his eyes, Harry said slowly, "We were studying. We got tired. We went flying. I loaned him my Nimbus because someone destroyed his broom. When the wind got too strong, we came down. We were going to the shed to put Ron's broom away and …" his brows creased as he tried to remember. "There was light… a lot of it." He opened his eyes and the light stabbed them afresh.

"I think there was a curse on the shed door. There was a flash when Draco touched it."

"Which explains the burns on Draco's hand and why there aren't any on Harry's, Severus," Madam Pomfrey spoke up.

"Perhaps," came the grudging reply. Harry went to roll his eyes and decided to close them again for a while.

When he awoke from his drowse, he heard Dumbledore's soothing voice cutting across Snape's vicious whisper. "Again, Albus! He has been nearly killed again! This cannot go on."

It wasn't my fault, Harry wanted to say but the effort seemed like more than it was worth. What did it matter? Snape would never believe it hadn't been his fault anyway. Snape continued his harangue.

"Someone in this school has tried to deliberately murder the boy. And it nearly got Potter killed as well, this time. If Weasley hadn't tripped over them, they'd both be dead. Draco's heart had stopped and Potter wasn't breathing."

Harry had always thought it would be nice to NOT be a target for a while. But apparently you could get killed in the cross-fire, too. How disappointing. Maybe this feeling of helpless resolve was what Ron and Hermione felt every time they wound up here merely for being near him whenever Voldemort attacked.

"What do you suggest, Severus? I cannot put the boy in protective custody; I have not the right. In fact, that's a point right there - he is underage and has no legal guardian. Even when he graduates, he will not yet be of age."


Dumbledore's voice was heavy with disappointment. "She, too, has repudiated the boy. His name has disappeared from the school rolls at the Ministry. There is a new entry for 'unnamed male student' in the 7th year, however."

"Can we find someone to foster him?"

"He needs more than that and you know it, Severus. I am very much afraid that we shall lose him if nothing is done about it."

"Which is my point exactly, Headmaster." Harry could hear Snape's teeth grinding together and almost felt sympathy for him; the Headmaster could be extremely irritating when he chose. "How are we going to keep him alive long enough to take his exams and get away from here?"

"There are more ways to lose a boy than to death," Dumbledore reminded him.

"Well, I hardly think Draco will be joining the Dark Lord at this late date, do you?" Snape sounded as if he were biting off his words.

"There is more than one dark wizard in the world. A naïve young wizard with Draco's power and that enormous well of pain and hatred he carries -- well, he'd make quite a tasty morsel, don't you think?"

Harry wanted to gasp at the coldly calculating tone in Dumbledore's voice but it seemed to have the opposite effect on the Potions master. His voice, when he next spoke, was calm and business-like.

"Then what should I do?"

"I'm sure you'll figure out a solution, dear boy," Dumbledore said. "First, however, I would suggest that the boy needs a new name." With that, there was a rustle of velvet and the sound of the door opening and closing behind the headmaster.

"Oh, do stop trying to look as if you were innocently asleep, Potter. You do it badly and probably haven't been that harmless since you were a baby."

Harry gave it up with a sigh and opened his eyes, pleasantly surprised when the light did not stab into them. The Potions master was standing over him, glaring unpleasantly. Madam Pomfrey was nowhere in sight. "Sorry, sir. Will Draco be all right?"

"Possibly. It was a near thing, no thanks to you."

Harry sucked in his breath at the sheer unfairness of the man. Hadn't he just spent the last two weeks on body-guard duty while still trying to revise for exams and keep his mind off wondering when Voldemort would be coming for him next?

"Well, that's what happens when you rely on these fly-by-night volunteer security services, sir. I assume you'll be making your own arrangements from now on. I bloody well quit!"

Harry tried to turn onto his side and away from the Potions master. Unfortunately, his jangling nerves protested and his muscles seized and cramped and he was left slowly curling into a ball of agony. It was a pity he had no breath left in him; he knew some swear words that were perfectly apropos to the situation.

The spasms began to ease and he became aware of large hands wrapped around his neck, massaging firmly at his throat muscles before moving to pummel his tense back into submission. The reassuringly capable hands left him, then pulled him semi-upright in the bed and poured something bitter-cherry flavored down him. The heel of one hand jammed under his chin to keep him from spitting it back out. The other hand massaged the base of his skull which allowed the world to come back into as much focus as he ever got without his glasses.

"What was it anyway?" he managed to choke out, the bitter-cherry potion sticking the walls of his throat together.

"Lightning Hex," Snape said shortly, releasing him to flop back gracelessly against the head of the bed. "Apparently someone hexed the door of the broom shed; we weren't certain until you woke up and told us what you'd seen."

"Fuck," Harry said, leaning his aching head back against the wall.

"Language, Mr. Potter," Snape said almost mildly.

"Well, what would you suggest, sir?" Harry asked resentfully, voice still hoarse.


Harry looked up to meet the dark glare. After a moment, he said, "How?"

"Patience. We wait, we watch."

Bewitched by that dark voice, Harry could only nod. The word 'we' seemed to promise that he, too, would be revenged on whoever had attacked him and… his friend. He sighed and looked past Snape to the silent figure in the next bed. He supposed that was what Draco was to him now. What a strange year this was turning out to be. "Yes, sir," he said softly, agreeing to whatever Snape had in mind.

"Meanwhile," Snape said crisply, "you are to rest. You will probably be able to leave here tonight."

Harry slid down under the covers again, grateful that his muscles seemed only a little stiff now. Sleep was taking him quickly and he wondered what had been in the potion Snape had given him. As his eyes closed, he heard the scrape of a chair and the sounds of Snape sitting down between the two occupied beds. After that, there was silence; not even the sound of Snape or Draco breathing. Harry fell asleep.

Breakfast on Tuesday morning was a subdued affair. The attack on Draco and Harry had been the hot topic of conversation last night when dinner began. After two minutes of Dumbledore's sad-eyed stare and admonishing speech, anyone who had anything to say on the subject was silent and shamed. The thought that anyone had gone so far to attempt to murder one of their own, even one as generally-disliked as Draco Malfoy was sobering; Dumbledore made it impossible to enjoy speculation and gossip on the subject. Harry's reappearance in the Gryffindor common room afterward had perked up that House's spirits a good deal, but they were far from a cheerful crowd in general on that rainy morning. When Dumbledore rose to speak again, shoulders all over the Hall sagged. Another lecture and they hadn't actually done anything yet.

"Good morning. This morning, you have the rare opportunity to see a ritual that is rarely performed today in the wizarding world. Of the various bonding rituals we have, this is one of the simplest and hardest to counter. I suggest you watch carefully and take note of what you see. Professor Snape?" The old wizard motioned to his colleague down the table.

Snape stood and strode down the dais; there was a collective gasp as the students realized that he wasn't wearing his usual black teaching robes. These were rich, deep velvet, trimmed with black satin. The effect was impressive. He carried a velvet wrapped bundle in his right hand and a heavy silver signet ring gleamed on his index finger. A small table had been conjured below the head dais; he set his bundle on it and said quietly, "Draco."

The blond boy had been released from the Infirmary that morning; Hermione and Neville had collected him and brought him, pale and unresisting, to breakfast. He had sat next to Ron and across from Harry and said nothing, toying with his toast and looking only at his plate. Now, he rose to meet the Potions master where he stood. Harry was bemused to see some confidence somehow back in his stride and wondered what he was about to see. The students were breathless and silent.

Snape's bundle was unwrapped and various items set out upon the velvet cloth. A gleaming silver knife, a ring, a roll of parchment, a crystal phial and Snape's wand were placed with potions-worthy precision. Beside him, Harry heard Hermione gasp, then say, "Of course! That makes sense."

"Please tell me they're not about to get married!"

Hermione glared and shushed him as Snape began to speak.

"This ritual of binding is older than the Ministry, this school and is said to go back to Merlin himself. Whether it does or not, the bond is unbreakable, therefore must be entered into on both sides with no reservations or hesitation." He held up the silver knife.

"This is blood magic." He waited for the murmurs to die down before continuing. "Not all blood magic is Dark, as you should have learned in your Defense classes." He spared a glare for the latest fool in the position who squirmed and tried for a haughty stare that failed miserably. "But all blood magic is powerful and nearly impossible to counter, so the words spoken here today are irrevocable. So I ask, before all these witnesses -- Draco, do you consent?"

The click of his throat as he swallowed could be heard before Draco said clearly, "I consent."

Snape nodded, looked at the boy carefully, then said firmly, "I, too, consent to this binding. Give me your hands."

Draco held his hands up before him, palms up. From where he sat, Harry could see them tremble slightly and he wondered what the hell he was watching. The only blood magic he had ever seen had been dark and his blood had been stolen from him for evil. What was Snape doing now?

The silver knife was in his hand and he quickly slashed across Draco's palms with the blade. Blood began to well sluggishly from the X- shaped marks in the pale skin and Draco cupped his hands to prevent any from dripping to the floor. Snape had begun to mutter a spell and a bluish glow was swirling up from his feet around them both. Bracing the knife in the palm of his artificial hand, the Potions master slashed his own wrist against the blade. Harry wanted to turn away as the red blood welled out in time with the man's heartbeat but he was too caught up in the drama before him.

Still chanting his spell, Snape held his bleeding wrist over Draco's cupped hands. Draco's hands began to tremble even more, but he met Snape's gaze and steadied himself. Snape's murmur suddenly became louder and the words were briefly in English. "You are my son, blood and bone, heart and soul. I name you Draco Antoninus Snape. I am your father, Severus Tyresius Snape." Then his words dropped back into the murmured spells he had been chanting before. The blood poured down and it seemed to those watching that it should have overflowed the cupped hands by now, yet it did not. Draco's face flushed and he stood taller, hands no longer trembling. By contrast, Snape seemed paler than ever in his black velvet and Harry wondered how much blood this ritual required and whether Snape had that much in him.

The Potions master's murmuring voice rose to a strong finish and he snapped out the final word, "Ecce!" and the blue glow vanished abruptly. Snape pressed the wrist that was now sluggishly welling blood back against the flat of the silver knife and the bleeding stopped. Draco opened his hands and not a drop fell; the pale skin was marked by two reddened X's, but neither wound nor blood remained.

Clumsily releasing the knife to fall onto the table, Snape took up the phial and held it out to Draco to remove the stopper. Once open, he slipped his index finger over the opening and upturned the bottle before placing it back on the table. Oil glistened on his finger as he touched it to Draco's right eyelid and ear lobe, his right thumb and the bottom of his right shoe. One last touch to the base of the boy's wand and then Snape turned to face the crowd of breathlessly silent students, drawing Draco around, too.

He rested his right hand on Draco's shoulder and the silver signet ring caught the light as he said, "This is my son, Draco Antoninus Snape. His enemies are mine; his friends are mine. He is heir to my house and his children will be mine." He looked around the Great Hall, gaze resting longest on the Slytherin tables. Draco's housemates shifted uneasily; the Ravenclaws looked downright panicky. Then Snape swayed slightly and Draco's slight smile of triumph turned to alarm as he turned to offer his shoulder to his father.

Hermione, followed by Ron and Harry and the rest of Draco's unofficial bodyguard rose and began to applaud. With shrugs, the rest of Gryffindor House stood and followed their example. The applause, while not wild, was strong and sure and spread to the other tables until most of the student body and all of the staff were on their feet and applauding. Snape looked up, acknowledged the tribute with a short nod, then slowly left the Hall, closely followed by Draco.

When the applause died down, the Headmaster spoke in his peculiarly ringing voice. "If you have any questions on the origins or implications of the binding ceremony you have just witnessed, be sure to ask either Professor Flitwick or Professor Binns. Potions classes will be cancelled for the day. Enjoy your breakfasts."

Harry and the rest dropped back into their seats. "That was intense," Ron said, blowing out his breath.

"That was very old blood magic," Hermione said, face rapt. "Did you feel the power of it?"

"Yeah," Seamus muttered. "If you could harness it…" he speculated.

"You could become your own Dark Lord," Harry said flatly. The sight of that much blood flowing still had him shaky.

"Sorry, Harry," Seamus muttered and Hermione pressed her hand on his for a moment in apology for her thoughtlessness. Harry shrugged and began pushing his now cold porridge around in its bowl.

"What's wrong, mate?" Ron shoved gently against his shoulder. Ron, of the huge family and the loving parents and the genealogy he could recite back to the Norman Invasions. Harry was not yet ready to admit that the heavy feeling in his gut was part fear, part remembered horror but mostly plain grass-green jealousy. No one had ever poured his blood into Harry's hands and given him a new name; no one ever would.

He shook his head, then straightened up and tried to smile. "Nothing. It's just that I was really looking forward to Potions class this morning."

The catcalls and thrown sweet rolls restored more of his good humor and he returned his attention to his breakfast with something close to his normal cheer.

"At least we can stop worrying about Draco getting beaten up in the hallways," Hermione commented. "That should give us more time to prepare for exams."

"Like you need it, Granger," Draco's voice sounded lighter and more self-assured than it had in months. "The rest of you, however…" he teased, straddling the bench and dropping into a seat next to Neville. A steaming bowl of porridge appeared before him.

"Belt up, Draco. Just because you've got Arithmancy sewn up doesn't mean you'll do any better than the rest of us in Herbology," Ron shoved the sugar and cream at the other boy.

"Is Professor Snape all right?" Harry asked, noting that he hadn't returned to the Great Hall.

"Father is fine. The gift of blood took a lot out of him, though. He's going to spend the day resting." Draco's voice was unusually hesitant as he used the title 'father' for the first time.

"Do you feel different?" Neville asked shyly and Harry abruptly remembered that the other boy was as much an orphan as he himself or Draco had been.

"Oh, yes. I can't explain it, except that he's given me something of himself. He really is my father now." The look of wonder on Draco's face made Harry feel guilty for resenting the binding. He reminded himself that he was glad for his friend.

A sly grin the likes of which they hadn't seen for months suddenly bloomed on Draco's face. "Can you imagine what those fools in Ravenclaw are going to say, let alone my dear housemates?!" He dug into his cereal with a cheerfully vicious grin on his face that boded ill for anyone who even looked cross-eyed at him.

"Oh no," Hermione groaned. "Draco, play nice."

"I always play nice," Draco purred and the familiar sound sent shivers down their spines. The Gryffindors all stared at each other in dismay, realizing their fate. But it was Ron who summed the situation up succinctly.

"Fuck. Now we've got TWO Snapes to deal with!"