Author Notes: Thanks so much to jinx71, MimiTaylor, silvertiger12, Silver Angel 7, Allanna-San, craza2k, TheLionsPaleProtector, emeralddragonchild, Katina, won-wonismylover, RavenclawBest, Kristen, Dragenphly, banner, nickainai, asdf, GaiazHeart, Conny1908, MintaPotter, Pretty Racing, Mananeh, Lady of the squirrels, Lerra, pixiedora, Beebs, Caliope Amphora, Julie, CAP.L, Nigelous, Vessa8, Zesty, Kathryn Merlin, fourth-face-of-the-goddess, DestinyEntwinements, mis-HD, Julia, mernpip4ever, Morena Evensong, Glass Diamonds, SilverPhoenix69, snottygrrl, Arafel2, exiledsaphire, MidNite Phoenix, hunt4me, ineXpressible, The Stopper, chaotically-clever, kumak, DreamChaser Lissa-chan, yanalala, Danish Pastry 28, Sandinmyhair, Airlady, GRL, Paddycakepadfoot, juniper, ura-hd, pinkMINE, makalaseri, TheSilverbow, angel hakusho, zeynel, shadowcat15, xxbabysparklesxx, linareyes, Reighn, Teya Teacup, Chandra Moon, Ice, dyingonthursday, FieryAries313, cherrybubbles12, brionyjae, mayfaire, Lady of Faerie, IssaLee, som, DrAcO/hArRyGiRL, pinK miKan, MoosiesRule, Silver Tears 11, Mordyn, Sieltjuh, chocolatedemon, MyOriginalIntent, QueenB23, possible-chobit, Abi2, janellio, Jepp, Lily Evans Potter Black Lup..., Grief Euphoria, coriander, lav-katie-hp, Bella618, SusannahMio, Lindsey, Purveyor of Darkness:Tyrini, circenikos, txcalbud, Miss Bowtruckle, GundamPilot13 Diana Raven, CannonFodder, twisted miracle, eliza452, MoonstarDust, and ivich sartre for your reviews :)

And thanks to CalĂ­ope Amphora for your beta work. I really, really appreciate it :)

BTW, kumak, Mordyn, Conny, and won-wonismylover: to quote Hermione, "Well spotted!"

So, I was supposed to post one last chapter and the epilogue, but somehow it morphed on me. The last chapter became two chapters, and the epilogue will be posted next Friday.

Chapter 20

March 18 - March 21

Day 171, Thursday

Harry kept his eyes closed as he debated the pros and cons of throwing up yet again. Realized that the 'pro' list was distressingly short. Normally throwing up felt disgusting and horrible while it was happening, but brought a sense of relief once it was over, an end to the nausea that preceded it. Not right now. Right now not much seemed to help. Even the various spells and potions Pomfrey kept dosing him with only gave him brief respites before it came back in full force, accompanied by pain, fatigue, and a generalized conviction that life, as a whole, sucked.

Nausea, pain, and fatigue, against a lovely background of boredom. Three days into this latest hospitalization, that was another big theme of his life. He turned onto his side and began a mental list of his visitors, to cheer himself up and to keep his mind busy. Hermione and Ron, of course. And Neville, Ginny, Seamus, Dean and Tracey Davis, Colin, Dennis, Justin, Professors Dumbledore, McGonagall, Lupin, and Trelawney - a real misery-magnet, Ron called her - Hannah, Terry, Mandy, Padma, Lisa, Stephen, Luna, Ernie, Susan, Pansy, Blaise... he wondered if he should start sorting his visitors by house, or by day they came, or by age. To entertain himself, and to push aside thoughts of the one person conspicuous in his absence.

He wasn't surprised that Draco hadn't visited. Not after the way Harry had broken up with him. He winced as he remembered the cruel things he'd said, the callous way he'd stalked off, and didn't blame Draco at all for staying away.

He turned onto his back, swallowing against at the renewed nausea from the movement, but bored of being on his side. Let himself wish he hadn't walked out on Draco for all of a minute before reminding himself of the many reasons why he had.

"I think he's asleep-" he heard Pomfrey say, and he turned his head - carefully - to see who was asking for him. Sat up quickly and immediately wished he hadn't, as his stomach threatened to empty itself again.

"God, Harry - here," Draco was by his side in an instant, one hand on his shoulder and the other grabbing a bucket that had been left next to the bed. "D'you need-"

"No, no, I'm all right-" Harry mumbled, eyes closing again and trying to figure out who he should look at once he felt a little steadier. It was a real toss-up - although "toss" was probably a bad word to be thinking of right now - whether to look at Draco, or the person with him. "Healer?" he finally said uncertainly.

"Mr. Potter," Healer Esposito said quietly as Harry opened his eyes again, gratefully noting that his nausea seemed temporarily under control.

"What are you doing here?" he asked, and frowned as she and Draco exchanged an uneasy glance. Looked questioningly at Draco, who was still holding his shoulder.

Esposito cleared her throat. "I got an urgent owl from Miss Granger about your recent illness. I'd like to examine you, if you don't mind." Harry nodded, completely mystified. "Mr. Malfoy?"

Harry's frown grew deeper as Draco did not step back to give her room to work, as Harry had expected him to, but instead let go of Harry's shoulder and grasped Harry's right hand with his own.

"What are-"

"Trust me," Draco said shortly as Esposito took out her wand and pointed it at their joined hands.

"Lux Vinculum," she said tersely. Nothing happened, and Draco breathed out and started to draw back, but Esposito quickly shook her head at him, closed her eyes, and repeated firmly, "Lux Vinculum."

A band of shining Celtic knotwork slowly took shape around Harry's wrist, twisting around it and disappearing into thin air.

Draco swallowed hard and covered his mouth with his hand, shaking his head slowly. "Fuck, no."

Esposito nodded grimly, then waved her wand and the band of light disappeared.

"What..." Harry said dazedly, a sinking feeling in his stomach.

Esposito rubbed her face wearily. "Well. There you go, that's the nature of your trouble right there."

"What is?"

"You're suffering from the effects of an incomplete bond."

"A what?"

"A bond without a bond-mate."

Harry frowned. "I've been... bonded again?" Esposito nodded. "But... the shock from the first one knocked me right out. Wouldn't I have noticed if somebody cast another bond spell on me?"

"Maybe. But I believe that your original bond was never dissolved. I believe that during your supposed unbonding, Mr. Malfoy was simply freed from the bond, and you were not. You've been suffering from the effects of not having a spouse when your body is convinced you have one." Harry blinked at her, unable to fully process her words. "The nausea, the headaches, the various discomforts - you experienced all of that at the beginning of your bond, whenever you were too far apart. Your bond is no longer new, so you were able to go for much longer before it became intolerable, but your body has started to react to the distance."

"That's not possible," he said flatly. "That bond was dissolved. I saw it. I felt it being removed - I couldn't feel what he was feeling any more. I still can't."

"Yes, well, that kind of mental rapport requires a two-way bond," she said grimly. "Besides, how do you feel right now?"

"A bit ill, but I'm-"

"Feeling better than you did a few minutes ago," she interrupted him. "Physically, at least. Right? When we walked in, you looked like you were about to be violently ill. Now you don't. And I believe it's because Mr. Malfoy is touching you."

"But how - it's been months, and I felt fine right after the unbonding, and-"

"You also had various charms cast on you around the same time as the supposed unbonding. The one I just pushed past was hiding the bond itself. The rest were most probably spells to mask the symptoms you were going to experience, so that nobody would be able to figure out what was happening until it was too late."

"So how did you?"

"Granger said that you'd been feeling like you had ants crawling across your skin," Draco said quietly. "I remembered you said something like that while we were bonded."

Harry looked at him. Shivered a bit at the dark, troubled look in his eyes.

"How..."

"We're not sure," Esposito said. "It was almost certainly done by either McKay or the Healer at your unbonding."

Or Lucius Malfoy, Harry thought dazedly, and noted the way Draco averted his eyes. "The... Healer?"

"Miss Granger asked why I hadn't been here for your unbonding. I had fully intended to be, if the caster was found, but I just happened to be ill for two weeks right when Mr. Malfoy's father found McKay." She pressed her lips together. "I'm told he made quite a fuss over that; demanded that I come supervise, wouldn't hear of anybody else," she said grimly. "Apparently they had a time getting him to accept anybody else, but he finally did. Healer Bernard Colchis."

"What does Colchis say?"

"He very conveniently stopped working at St. Mungo's about three weeks after your unbonding. Went to work at a hospital in France, we were told. But he's not there any more. Can't be reached. The Aurors have been called in to the search."

"And you think he was... that somebody got you out of the way, so that Colchis could come and..."

"Yes. Professor Dumbledore was also supposed to be present at your unbonding, but just happened to be called away to a meeting with a representative of the Finnish centaurs. Who turned out to be under the impression that Dumbledore was the one who'd called for a meeting with him. At the time it was thought to have been a simple misunderstanding, but in retrospect..."

"Seems a little convenient, yeah," Harry said dazedly.

"I can only assume that Madam Pomfrey and Professor McGonagall, and possibly the Ministry Record Keeper and the two of you as well, were put under some variation of a Confundus spell. So that you would hear the words of the proper unbonding incantation, not notice additional spells being cast at the same time, that kind of thing." Harry nodded, remembering how quickly and efficiently everything seemed to have been done that day. He'd seen absolutely nothing to make him think anything was going on but the simple ending of a spell and registration of the end of a marriage. "That would have been a little more difficult to do to Professor Dumbledore and myself."

"But there were Aurors there as well, wouldn't they have-"

"It's possible they were under Confundus too," Esposito said heavily. "Though one of them is also mysteriously missing."

"That sounds like a lot of spells for one or even two people to do," Harry said slowly.

Draco swallowed hard. "You can say it, Healer," he said, his voice tight. "You think my father was also involved."

Esposito gave him a brief sympathetic glance and nodded. "I would guess that it took all three of them: McKay, your father, and the Healer, to cast the necessary spells. It seems to have been well-planned. Well-executed, too. Unfortunately."

Harry sat back, trying to process all of it. "So... I'm really still bonded."

"Yes."

"To Draco."

"We're not sure about that part, but I'd say yes, most probably."

"But he's not bonded to me."

"No."

"And... I'm ill because I'm... missing him?"

"Essentially, yes. You need him to be near you, or you suffer withdrawal. And if you are apart from him for too long, you eventually become ill."

"So what's the cure?"

"Mr. Potter..." she heaved a deep sigh. "It all depends on what happened - whether it's the same bond or a new one, and who cast it, and how. Best case scenario: if it's a new bond, cast by Healer Colchis, we need to find him and have him remove it. Or, if we can't find him, but it's just an incomplete bond, you merely need to bond with somebody; it doesn't matter who." She took a deep breath. "Worst case scenario, if it's the original bond that was cast by McKay, which is what I think... then only Mr. Malfoy can complete the bond. And with the caster dead, if Mr. Malfoy re-enters the bond, it will be permanent."

"But if I'm near him he feels better," Draco said. "Couldn't I just be near him till the bond isn't so new any more?"

"Your mere proximity won't help forever. Eventually he'll need more than that. A bond doesn't merely require closeness from the focus of the bond, it requires a reciprocal bond from them. At a certain point, all the proximity in the world won't do much if there's no bond beneath it."

They stared at her in dismay.

"Why don't we reserve panic for when we know more," Esposito said gently. "I'll be monitoring you, Mr. Potter, and running a few tests on you. This looks like something that took a long time to plan and carry out; we're not going to figure it all out in a day."

"How long..."

"I don't know. We'll be doing our best to keep you stabilized. If Mr. Malfoy can stay with you, that'll likely give us much more time to figure it out."

There was an uneasy pause.

"Would you like me to leave you two-"

"No," said Harry, as Draco said, "Yes."

"Which is it?"

"Yes," Draco said firmly. "We need to talk." He sat down on the bed as Esposito left.

There was a long pause, before Draco quietly said, "I'm sorry."

"For what?"

"For... everything," Draco said with a wry smile. He was still holding Harry's hand, and Harry started to withdraw, suppressing a wince as he let go.

Draco frowned. "Does it not make a difference, having contact?"

"It does, but..."

"But we're not a couple any more, so you're going to be a proper noble Gryffindor and keep your hands to yourself even if it makes you throw up." He rolled his eyes. "God it's a miracle any of you manage to stay alive. I don't mind, you twit." He took Harry's hand again.

Harry pressed his lips together, refusing to let his hand relax in Draco's. "What if I do?"

"Look, I'm willing to stay here if you need me to-"

"D'you think your father wouldn't disown you again for doing that? Especially if he's behind this?"

"He's not here right now."

Harry sat back, turning his face away from Draco. "Draco... why are you even here? Why do you care?"

"Why wouldn't I?"

"I broke up with you, remember?"

"Yeah, I remember. I also remember you were a fucking bastard about it, and said a lot of things that pissed me off for days."

"And that's why now you're helping to undermine your father's latest plot to kill me?"

"You'd never said anything like that before. You're not a spiteful person. You get pissed off, but you never get... hurtful, like that."

"You'd pissed me off. A lot."

"Even Pansy saw through what you were doing with that, Harry," he said heavily. "And so did I, after I let myself think about it."

Harry sighed, letting the topic drop. Better than going into detail over who had said and done what, and just how transparent his own motivations had been. Next subject.

"You know, this does explain a lot..." he said thoughtfully. "It was still the spell, that's why I didn't feel all that different. I couldn't sense your feelings, but I still needed to be with you, and I... I wanted to touch you." He shook his head, turning back to Draco. "And I thought that when we did get back together, that it was exactly the same as before because I'd never, you know, had sex with anybody else before, so I was just used to feeling... the way I did, because I was back with you."

Draco was looking away miserably, his face flushed, and Harry frowned at him. "What is it?" Draco shook his head quickly. "Draco."

"Nothing."

"Come on, what is it?"

"Nothing. Just drop it," he muttered irritably.

Harry frowned, confused. "You look like you're - I don't know, you're angry at something I've-"

"You heard the Healer, with no mutual bond you can't tell what I'm feeling!"

"But you-" Harry withdrew his hand again. "Listen, you don't have to stay here out of a sense of obligation or anything..."

"Oh, not this again," Draco muttered.

"Draco, you don't have to help me. You didn't do this to me. You're not your father."

"No, I'm not."

"That's a compliment, you git!"

"Thanks ever so," Draco said tightly.

"What the hell is the matter with you?"

Draco sat back, arms crossed, lips set in a thin line.

"Look, I don't know what I'm supposed to have done wrong this time-"

"No, you didn't do anything wrong!" Draco shot back angrily. "You've got every excuse for what happened, don't you?"

"What? What excuse?"

"You feel the way you feel because-" his breath caught and he suddenly stopped, his anger fading as abruptly as it had arisen and replaced with... something else Harry couldn't identify. He looked down, his face half-hidden by his hair, and slowly forced the words out. "You... you feel the way you do because of a spell." He cleared his throat. "I do because... because I just do."

Harry winced, abruptly realizing the depth of his tactlessness. He would make a list, he promised himself fervently. Stupid, Stupid Things I Have Said To People I Fancy. He would read it every single night, and perhaps that would inspire him to think before he spoke, so that he could stop adding to it.

Or maybe it would just inspire him to never open his mouth again. Either would be good.

Except silence really wouldn't help right now. Blast. "It, it's not just the bond for me either," he blurted awkwardly, kicking himself for the tight, uncomfortable set of Draco's shoulders, the defensive expression on his face. "It's not just about - about sex, it - it wasn't just that, even before the bond ended."

Draco shrugged, still not meeting his eyes.

"Look... you've been where I am. You know the spell can make me want to go to bed with you, but it..." he trailed off, inwardly squirming at putting his feelings into words, but making himself push on. Knowing that, however embarrassed he was about to feel, it probably didn't compare to how exposed Draco felt right now. "It can't make me miss you, or, or want to hear your voice. It can't make a smile from you feel... the way it feels. It's not a love spell. There's no such thing."

Draco swallowed hard. "Yeah, well, even with the spell, you still split us up."

"And you just said you'd figured that out," Harry pointed out. "If the spell was all I felt, I wouldn't have sent you away, would I? If all I wanted was to - to fuck you, it wouldn't have mattered to me whether you got hurt by it or not."

And it was probably a good idea to stop there before he said anything even more asinine. He cleared his throat, waiting nervously for Draco's response, his chest uncomfortably tight. Let himself relax slightly as Draco nodded uncertainly. He hesitated a moment, then tentatively reached for Draco's hand again and drew Draco closer, sighing in relief as Draco slowly relaxed and then hesitantly ran his hand up Harry's arm to his cheek.

"Does it really feel like at the beginning of the bond?" Draco asked curiously.

Harry nodded, letting himself lean into the touch.

"Shit. That's awful."

"Pretty much." Harry shifted in the bed, acutely aware that though Draco's presence was immensely helpful, he still felt like hell. From pining away for his bond-mate. How bloody ridiculous. It sounded like... "Oh god," he groaned and closed his eyes, then laughed softly.

"What?"

"This is just so... I'm in a Veela romance novel!"

"What?"

"Hermione, she found Lavender Brown and Parvati Patil reading Veela romances a few years ago. Apparently they're pure rubbish, they're about-"

"I know what Veela romance novels are, Harry," Draco snickered. "When we were twelve Pansy was addicted to them."

"You're joking. Pansy?"

"Wanted to write her own, actually. And she was convinced my father was lying and Malfoys really were part-Veelas, so she kept writing stories where I found my mate but my mate didn't want me and I died of a little broken Veela-heart or something." Harry laughed. "I finally did a spell on one of them, changed the hero's name from 'Draco' to 'Neville.' She never wrote another word."

Harry snickered. "Hermione still reads them."

"You're not serious. Granger?"

"Uses them as study breaks. She says some of them are actually very good."

"Of all the things I'd want a Muggle-born to understand and appreciate about our culture, Veela romances..." Draco shook his head, amused.

"It's funny. They sound so stupid. But it's like so many things in the wizarding world - it sounds impossible to people who didn't grow up with it; like how can you literally die of unrequited love? But it's just par for the course in this world." Harry stopped, realizing his voice was taking on a rather bitter tone from the sudden seriousness of Draco's expression.

"Harry-"

"No, don't. We don't know for sure that - let's just do what the Healer said, wait till we know for sure before panicking."

Draco chewed on his lip and nodded, and they lapsed into silence.

ooooooo

Day 173, Saturday

"Draco?"

Draco smiled at his mother's face in the fireplace. "Mother. Is Father home?" he asked.

"No, he's at the Goyles'," Mother said, puzzled, and Draco breathed a small sigh of relief. "I thought this was Severu-"

"I got Professor Snape's permission to use his fireplace. Mother, I need to ask you a few questions."

"Yes?" Mother looked distinctly uneasy, and Draco wished he had time for a proper chat with her. He and his mother hadn't spoken since Father had disowned him, though she'd hugged him tightly as he'd left the manor after being marked, letting him know that she at least wasn't still angry with him.

"You know Potter's ill."

His mother's face went curiously blank. "I read that in the paper, yes."

"Is our family involved in this?"

Mother hesitated, clearly torn. "Draco, your father-"

"Father hasn't told me anything. But I'm being asked questions, and I don't want to reveal anything I'm not supposed to because I'm being kept in the dark again."

Mother sighed. "I keep telling your father that. He keeps so much from you that you ought to know."

"Well?"

"I don't know everything, love."

"Can you tell me what you do know?"

Mother took a deep breath. "Yes, your father's involved. He's... he planned this very carefully. How much do they know over there?"

"The Healer who handled our bond came back. She did a test on Potter and found that he was bonded, but she doesn't know for sure whether it's the same bond as before or a new one. Or whether it's an incomplete bond with no spouse or a bond with me as the focus." He paused. "She also doesn't know whether Father's involved or not."

"Good."

"They suspect him, though."

"I can imagine. As long as they don't know for sure, we'll be all right."

"They're going to find out. McKay's dead, but they're looking for Healer Colchis and one of the Aurors who was here with him."

"They won't find them," Mother assured him.

Draco took a deep breath. "Why didn't Father tell me any of this? Did he not trust me?"

"No, that's not - he just didn't want to put you in a difficult position."

Draco suppressed the urge to roll his eyes. "He could've said something."

"He thought it would be best if you didn't know." She paused. "Your father worked on this for a long time, Draco. He spent weeks working out the details, practicing-"

"Weeks?" Draco repeated. "When did he find McKay?"

"A few days after your interview with the Prophet came out."

Draco sat back, stunned. "That was before our Christmas exams."

"Yes."

"But the unbonding was done near the end of January!" Mother nodded. "He left me in the bloody bond for weeks after he'd found the caster?"

"He didn't want to. But he needed to give the Dark Lord some compensation, for having taken part in the healing circle."

"This is his compensation? Cursing Harry with an incomplete bond?"

"It was the easiest thing to do. Hogwarts is full of wards to prevent Dark Magic, and he knew it would be difficult to get close enough to Potter to curse him, and any curse he tried to cast would be detected right away. Using an existing bond made it difficult for anybody to detect anything going wrong, because the spell itself was fairly old. And it was hidden under a few new charms that wouldn't be noticed if they were done in the hospital wing, as they were all medical spells."

Draco nodded thoughtfully. "And all of this is meant to... kill him? With a broken bond?"

Mother nodded.

Draco took a deep breath, trying to keep his face impassive, knowing he was failing utterly as his mother gazed at him worriedly.

"Draco... this is for the best." He stared at her. "Love, I know you... care for him," his mother said hesitantly. "But please don't forget who he is. He's... his death will be unfortunate, but it's necessary."

"What do you mean?"

"Sweetheart, you must know what's going on. I know your father's not pleased with you, but surely your friends-"

"I don't know anything," Draco broke in. "Nobody talks to me any more."

Mother nodded sadly. "Love, I'm sorry. You can't blame them, though. Once all of this... unpleasantness is over, you'll have a chance to redeem yourself. Once Potter is out of the way and we take our rightful place. This is for the best, darling. Almost everything is in place, and then... it'll be all right, you'll see."

Draco nodded, his eyes on the floor as they spoke of inconsequential things for a little longer and then said their goodnights, a worried look on his mother's face as she disappeared from the fireplace.

It was all for the best, and it would all be all right. Except that it wasn't, and it wouldn't be.

Why don't we reserve panic for when we know more, Esposito had said. Well, now he knew more, and knew that the worst-case scenario was exactly what they had to deal with. Now would probably be an excellent time to panic.

Except he felt no panic, just dread and helpless anger at his father. For putting Harry through this, for putting him through this. For letting him go back to Harry with no idea that he would be undoing months of his father's careful planning. For taking him back into the family, but with a bloody brand on him to remind him not to disobey again. Even if obeying meant watching someone he cared about slowly die, with Draco holding his salvation in his hands.

He rubbed his forehead as he headed back towards the hospital wing, wrestling down his fear and resentment. All he could do was to shut it down, try to buy Harry some time, and hope like hell that somebody was able to pull a yet another bloody miracle to save him - again.

ooooooo

Day 174, Sunday

Pansy gazed at the two boys a few beds away in the hospital wing, wondering if Granger was as creeped out as she was by the way 'Weasley' was holding Potter's hand and stroking his hair back off his forehead, talking to him softly and trying to keep his nausea at bay. Even after three days of this, it was difficult to get used to.

"This is just so... odd," she commented, wincing at the unfamiliar voice coming from her throat. "I wonder how Blaise is doing with the Weasleys."

"I'm sure they're all right. Though I must say I'm still surprised he agreed to do this," Granger commented. "I thought he wasn't talking to Malfoy in public any more."

"No, he's progressed all the way to monosyllables now. Going from that to studying together again in the library won't be that far a leap, especially if it looks like I'm there as well. And nobody from Slytherin will sit with Draco anyway, so unless Weasley forgets which fork to use or tries to pick out his own clothing, they should be all right."

"I hope so." Granger looked over at the hospital bed, where Potter had apparently gone to sleep. 'Weasley' had stopped talking and was now simply holding his hand and gazing at him with a thoughtful expression that looked utterly out of place on Ron Weasley's normally rather witless face. "This is... strange."

Pansy couldn't help but agree, as she twirled a lock of long red hair around fingers of a hand that boasted more freckles than could be found on Pansy's entire family. "Where did you get the polyjuice, anyway?" she asked Granger. "You couldn't have made it yourself."

"No, it takes a month to brew. Ron's brothers have a contact in Hogsmeade who deals in... questionable potions."

"You Gryffindors. We're always underestimating just how devious you can be. Good idea, by the way."

"I thought they were both going to be ill when they first took it," Granger smiled slightly.

Pansy snickered. It had been hard to tell who had been more horrified by his transformation at first: Weasley or Draco. Serious as the situation was, Pansy had to admit that it had been immensely amusing to the rest of them to watch the dismay with which they'd stared at one other, Draco's elegant expression of disgust on Weasley's peasant face, Weasley's dull-eyed discomfort marring Draco's fine features. And later, the swaps between Draco and the three other seventh-year Gryffindor boys - calling themselves the Gryffindor Polyjuice Squad, of course - had each offered its own brand of hilarity.

Less amusing for Pansy had been this morning's body swap between herself and Girl Weasley. At least she was pretty, even if it was a rather common, freckley prettiness. And they were much the same size, which meant they only had to swap outer robes and ties, unlike Ron Weasley and Draco, who had to do an entire wardrobe exchange. An affront to elegance, it was, Weasley shrugging into Draco's finely tailored school uniforms, while Draco tried very hard not to wince at the coarse feel of Weasley's patched garb.

"Thank you, by the way," Granger said hesitantly. "I know it's not easy for you. And I know... I know you don't want Malfoy to be involved in this."

"No, I don't." But there was no talking to Draco about it any more, so Pansy had decided to save her breath and just try to help him not get caught doing the stupid things he wanted to do. "You know Draco can't do this forever, though. Eventually somebody'll catch on. Weasley will have to answer a question in class, or Longbottom will melt a cauldron or Finnigan will... well, be Finnigan..."

"Or one of you two will sneer at the wrong person."

"Not as likely. The only people around me and Draco are people who know what's going on."

Granger nodded. "Parkinson..." she said hesitantly. "What do you think is going to happen?"

"I thought you'd know. Haven't you been studying bonds day and night?"

Granger nodded, glancing at her copy of Mariage and Bonde Spells: A Compleate Guide. "It's a fascinating subject. I had no idea wizard and Muggle marriages were so different. I was at Bill Weasley and Fleur Delacour's wedding, and it looked very much like a Muggle wedding. Even the words they used were very similar."

"Really?"

"Well, they used this one..." she flipped to the section on standard incantations and pointed one out.

I bond myself to you. I give you all that I am, for the rest of our lives...

Pansy rolled her eyes. What a shock, a Weasley and a part-Veela, choosing one of the sugary ones.

"It was lovely," Granger said, smiling nostalgically. "I knew there was an element of magic to it, I just didn't know the details. And I didn't know there were so many different variations of the spell."

Pansy tskd impatiently. "Of course there's different variations. You wouldn't use the same words to bond two people who are already in love, versus two people who've just met, would you?"

"No, I suppose not." Granger paused for a moment. "Do you think... I know the Healer doesn't know for sure, but she really thinks the only cure is..."

"For Draco to bond permanently to Potter."

Granger nodded. "Do you think he might do it?"

"I don't know. I don't think so."

"If he doesn't, Harry will probably die."

"I know."

"And Malfoy would just let him?"

"Draco doesn't owe him anything. He's not the one who put this curse on him."

"I know that. But he cares about Harry. Anybody can see that."

Pansy sighed. "He cares about his family and our cause as well, Granger."

"Is it really that important to you? Being a pureblood, following Voldemort?" Pansy gave Granger a startled look. So odd, how a Muggle-born who had the most to fear from the Dark Lord could say his name with such lack of fear. "Is it so important that you'd let somebody you care about die for the cause?"

"Yes," Pansy said simply.

"I couldn't do that," Granger said after a moment, her voice slightly shaky. "Just give up somebody else's life for some grand-"

"Excuse me?" Pansy cut in incredulously. "You've not done anything in the last seven years that entailed a sacrifice? Never once put a cause ahead of a life? I must say I'm surprised, because off the top of my head I can think of at least three occasions, if the stories that have gone around about your little Golden Trio are at all accurate. Even as far back as first year, you were doing it. Or was that whole story about you and Potter almost letting Weasley get killed by a homicidal chess piece exaggerated?"

Granger bit her lip. "That was different. He chose to-"

"This is a war, Granger. You have to make hard choices in a war. Don't you dare look down on Draco just because his choices are different from yours."

"It's not looking down - it's, I don't understand you at all-"

"And that's why you don't belong in our world."

Granger bit her lip. "But I'm not... look, I didn't ask to be a witch born to Muggle parents. None of us Muggle-borns did. What are we supposed to do? We can't not use our magic-"

"You come into our world and bring your blood and customs in, and that's destroying us."

"Don't you think that excessive inbreeding would eventually destroy you too?"

"Granger, I know the Weasleys look like walking ginger advertisements as to the dangers of inbreeding ourselves into imbecility, but the pureblood wizarding community isn't actually that small. And we intermarry with foreign wizardkind quite a bit. We don't need your 'new blood,' nor do we want or need your foreign ideas and customs. Nor do we need the other danger you bring with you, the danger of exposing our world to the Muggles."

"And what about leaving us Muggle-borns out in the Muggle world, with nobody to teach us how to control or use our powers, or how to hide them from the Muggles? How does that help wizardkind?"

"I don't want to get into a political argument with you, Granger. You just don't understand us."

"So help me to understand," Granger said, distressed.

"There's too many of you for us to help you all-"

"But if we're willing to learn-"

"- and you don't want to listen to us anyway. You don't think we've got anything worth learning. You don't trust us."

"I do."

Pansy raised a cynical eyebrow, and Granger had the grace to look embarrassed.

"I do. I've learned. You told me back at Halloween that... that some of you could be human too. And I wasn't listening, because I thought I understood what you were all about. But I was wrong, and I'm sorry."

Pansy frowned at her suspiciously, and Granger crossed her arms in a defensive gesture, but plugged on determinedly. "Maybe if I'd been a little less suspicious, we could have got on better. And when Malfoy's father brought McKay in, we would've been able to see that Harry and Malfoy were actually happy together. And maybe Malfoy would've been able to tell his father where to stick McKay, and stayed bonded to Harry."

"I very much doubt that."

"Do you think Malfoy and Harry belong together? If there were no politics involved, do you think they would want to be together?"

Pansy sighed, remembering her conversation with Draco about just this topic. Finally nodded grudgingly.

"Well if the politics had been worked out back then, maybe-"

"That's still pretty far-fetched, Granger. Even if they were happy together, they'd been bonded against their will, and they were still too young to settle down for life with anybody, let alone each other. I don't think they would've stayed bonded, no matter what we did differently."

"They might have, though," Granger said stubbornly, and Pansy shrugged. It didn't make much difference at this particular point in time. "And I'm sorry that... that we didn't make things easier for them. Because I didn't trust you, and I pushed you away." She took a deep breath. "And I want to make it up, somehow - and not just because I want you to convince Malfoy to... well. I - whatever happens to Harry, I'm willing to do things differently. To listen to people like you. Even to trust you."

Pansy gazed at her thoughtfully.

"This world is my home now. My loyalties are here. I don't want to destroy it any more than you do."

"I don't understand you."

"I'm not that different from you."

Pansy raised her eyebrows. "I wouldn't expect you to see that as a positive thing."

"Why not?"

"Maybe because your kind always seem to think you're above us."

"And you don't think you're above us?"

Pansy inclined her head slightly, conceding the point.

"We're really not that different," Granger repeated stubbornly.

Pansy thought for a moment, then gave a slight shrug, tentatively accepting the olive branch being held out. "Maybe. Though frankly, I don't see it much in you." She paused. "Now, Potter, on the other hand... him I can understand, sometimes. Breaking it off with Draco and getting Draco good and pissed off so he wouldn't want to return." She smiled slightly. "Might've made a good Slytherin after all."

"Don't insult him," Granger said with a small smile.

Pansy chuckled. "I'm not."

Granger looked up as Draco approached, Ron Weasley's unremarkable features set in a very Draco expression of worry and strain.

"How is he?"

"He's getting worse," he said dully. "I'm not sure how much I'm helping any more."

"What are you going to do?" Granger asked.

Draco looked away.

"Malfoy... you know what he needs-"

Draco shook his head. "I can't."

"I know your father took you back into the family, but he's never really going to forgive you," Granger said, a little desperately. "And you're finished in Slytherin anyhow-"

"I can't go back to him, Granger. Even if I wanted to."

"Why not?"

"I'm... Harry didn't tell you what my father did when I went home, did he?" Hermione shook her head. Draco hesitated a moment, then took a deep breath and said, "I'm... marked." He put up a hand impatiently as she gulped and immediately jumped to the wrong conclusion. "Not the Dark Mark." He took another deep breath. "Don't know if Weasley or any of the others have told you, but I have a Malfoy crest on me. It looks like a tattoo." Granger nodded uncertainly, and Pansy wished she knew what the Gryffindors had made of it. Probably thought it was some kind of stupid Slytherin pureblood family pride thing. "It's the same as a Dark Mark, only it answers to Father. If my father wants me to come home, it'll turn black, and burn. Ignoring it will feel like hell. I join Harry and my life's pretty much over; my father will activate this thing, and I'll probably go insane before my eighteenth birthday. It doesn't sound terribly attractive." He breathed in. "And if I don't..."

Granger looked faintly green. "Well... maybe... maybe we can try to get rid of the bond, we're still working on..."

Draco gave her a scornful look. "Don't bother to - I know what's going to happen to him, Granger, don't try to sugarcoat it. You can't get rid of it. It's a bond and you've lost the caster. There's no other way around it."

"We got rid of the unbalancing spell."

"It's not the same! You don't understand - damn it, this is why Muggle-borns are no bloody good in the wizarding world! Yeah, an unbalancing spell, you figured it out, and aren't you clever. This is a bond, Granger. People have been trying to get rid of unwanted bond spells for centuries. Nobody can. Nobody."

"Nobody's supposed to be able to survive Avada Kedavra either."

"How much do you want to bet that the Boy Wonder is impervious to an Unforgivable and a broken bond? You've seen him. He's not surviving this. He's going steadily downhill."

"So what are you going to do?"

"I don't know!"

Silence.

"There's only one way to help him. To do that, put myself in danger, risk... pain and, and being bound to him when- and I'd have to turn my back on my father, my family... everything I believe in."

He went to the window, gazed out blankly. Pansy got up and followed him, putting a comforting hand on his back.

"There's no good way through this," he said, Weasleys' voice thick in his throat.

"The... the Dark Mark..." Granger said tentatively. "People survive it-"

"Not well."

"No." Granger swallowed hard, and Pansy wondered how much of her gentle tone towards him right now was due to his resemblance to Weasley.

Pansy sighed. "Your father has a lot more of your loyalty than he deserves. Family's one thing, Draco, but your father... Blaise is right. He's-"

"He's my father, Pansy," Draco said tiredly.

"I know-"

"And there's also my mother. And you, and my whole life, and... and everything..." he trailed off. "But... but I can't..." his voice broke and he leaned his forehead against the window, covering his mouth with his hand as his blue eyes filled and a sob escaped him. Pansy put her arms around him and pulled him close, and he buried his face in her hair, his shoulders shaking.

"Shh..." she soothed him and tried to swallow past the ache in her throat as he finally let go. Because he was right, there was no good way through this. No matter what happened, this was going to hurt. It already hurt.

Bloody fucking bastard Lucius Malfoy, she thought bitterly as Draco clung to her and she gently stroked his unfamiliar red hair, his sobs shaking them both. Wishing she had Lucius before her right now, so she could teach him a few things about being on the receiving end of an Unforgivable or two.

She looked up at Granger, standing helplessly, and nodded at her to go to Potter's bedside while she dealt with Draco. No sense having her just standing there like a lump, and Draco was going to be mightily embarrassed when he got himself under control again if Granger was still hovering around watching him fall apart.

Granger nodded, then looked up as the hospital door opened and two students walked in. Draco took a gulping breath and struggled to pull himself together, and suddenly Granger was right next to them.

"Sorry, visitors," Granger murmured, putting an arm around Draco, and Pansy was about to elbow her away when she realized that of course, it would look a little odd for people to come in and see Ron Weasley being comforted by his little sister while his girlfriend stood stoically by.

"Ron... you all right?" said Stephen Cornfoot, after seeing that Potter was asleep and leaving a set of notes on his night table.

Draco cleared his throat, hastily wiping his face and pulling away from Pansy and Granger. "Yeah, all right."

"How's Harry doing?"

Granger shook her head, and Justin Finch-Fletchley pressed his lips together grimly.

"Look mate... he'll pull through," he said awkwardly. "He's the Boy Who Lived, you know? No matter what weird shit he gets hit with, he walks away from it."

Granger gave him a small smile.

"Or you'll figure something out," he said. "You will. You and Granger, you're always pulling his arse out of the fire. You did it with both of them back in November, you can do it with this." He gave Draco an awkward clap on the back.

"Speaking of last November, has Malfoy been around?" asked Cornfoot. Pansy sucked her breath in and felt Draco tense up next to her, but Granger's expression didn't flicker as she shook her head.

"No, I didn't think so. Bloody hell," Finch-Fletchley said, shaking his head in disgust, and Pansy's hands balled into fists as she watched Draco's lips press together, bracing for the pinhead Mudblood Hufflepuff's inevitable denouncement of Draco's lack of attendance at Potter's bedside. "Never thought I'd feel sympathy for Draco fucking Malfoy, you know?" he mused, gazing at Harry. "Poor bastard. You're keeping him up-to-date, though, right?"

Granger made a noncommittal sound.

"Listen, if Harry wants to send him a note or anything, I can - well, no, I probably couldn't-"

"I could pass anything you wanted," Cornfoot said. "I'm his Charms partner anyway, it would just look like class notes. He's... he's worried as hell. Hardly said two words yesterday in class."

Pansy met Draco's eyes. Good; Weasley and company were sticking to plan.

"Hasn't said much since that whole disowning thing anyway," Finch-Fletchley commented. "God, that was ugly," he shuddered. "What kind of arsehole does that to his own son?"

"Don't tell me Muggles never disown their children," Pansy said, managing to not insert a contemptuous tone into Ginny Weasley's voice at the last moment, but Finch-Fletchley didn't seem to notice.

"No, they do, just... doing it in public like that, it was fucking sick." He paused, shrugged. "Then again, a lot of Muggles would've done it just because they found out their son was dating another bloke. Pot calling the kettle black, I suppose. Though you could've knocked me over with a feather when that Prophet came out."

"What, Malfoy and Harry back together?" Cornfoot chuckled. "Didn't surprise me."

"Really? I never would've imagined it. What with his family and all."

"He's not his dad, thank god," said Cornfoot. "Though I doubt his dad knows that. Not sure even he knows that."

"Too right. Speaking of, d'you think it's true, what was in the Quibbler yesterday? That that bastard's involved in this?"

"Harry's curse cast by Lucius Malfoy?" Granger shrugged. "Who knows. I'm sure the Aurors are on the case."

"Oh so he can rest easy, then. Can't find their pricks with both hands and a Locator spell, those idiots," Cornfoot said scornfully.

"Listen, we have class now, but tell Harry we came to see him and brought him his Transfigurations notes," said Finch-Fletchley. "And you let us know if there's anything we can do, right?" He clapped Draco on the back again. "He'll pull through, Weasley. He will. Granger's on the case."

Pansy gave a sigh of relief as they left, and turned as Potter stirred on the bed behind them. Draco wiped his eyes impatiently and cleared his throat, returning to Potter's side.

"Still you?" Potter asked, and peered at him more closely as he nodded. "What's wrong?"

Draco shook his head, taking Potter's hand, and looked up as the door opened again and Blaise and Ginny Weasley came in - and then Ron Weasley's polyjuiced form appeared from underneath Potter's invisibility cloak, once they'd ascertained that the coast was clear. Blaise cast a ward behind them, making sure that nobody would see Draco in the hospital.

Pansy felt an unpleasant displacement at seeing herself across the room, straight dark hair, upturned nose and all. Smooth, fine quality robes, not the worn and patched rubbish she and Draco were currently wearing. It was incredibly disorienting. She wondered if Draco was used to it yet.

The Weasleys approached, and it was so odd, seeing Draco's face with Weasley's expressions on it. Weasley's eyes widened slightly, then softened in sympathy as he took in Draco's red-rimmed eyes and flushed face.

"It's almost time, Malfoy," said Weasley. "He'll be here soon. Are you... you all right?

Draco nodded quickly.

"Switching time again?" Potter said, smiling slightly. "Who are you going to be this time?"

"Longbottom."

Potter snickered. "Good. Him I can take. You as Seamus is just a little too weird. I keep expecting him to show up and have a heart attack seeing himself holding my hand."

Draco chuckled. "Don't give me ideas, I might decide to snog you senseless right in front of him while I still look like him."

"Please, Draco, at least wait until I'm out of the room before saying something like that," said Pansy with a shudder, passing Ginny's Gryffindor tie back to her and nodding at Longbottom as he bypassed the wards and entered the hospital wing. "I'll have nightmares for a week."

"You and me both," said Weasley, and they all winced as the transformations started.

Ugh. What a disturbing process, every time. And Draco had been doing it several times a day for the last three days. She waited for him to complete his swap with Longbottom before giving him a hug and patting his arm. "I'll be back after class, darling. Do you want me to bring you anything?"

"No thanks, we're fine," he smiled at her tiredly, and she gazed at him worriedly for a moment before leaving with Blaise and a cloaked and polyjuiced Longbottom.

ooooooo

ooooooo

Author's Note Re. Voldemort being a half-blood, and whether any of the Death Eaters know:

The topic of Voldemort's blood status has come up in a few e-mails and reviews (e.g. people wondering whether Draco knows, what he thinks of it, etc) and I thought I'd post about it here for those who wondered but didn't write me. And also because the topic gets an insignificant little mention in the next chapter.

I wondered, before HBP came out, what would happen with the fact that at the end of OoP, Harry told the Death Eaters that Voldemort was a half-blood. I wondered what they would think or do about it, and whether it would be a big deal in HBP.

It wasn't. Bellatrix, who was outraged at Harry's blasphemy in OoP, was just as fanatical a Death Eater as before. Nobody else really mentioned it. It kind of went nowhere.

So I figure the Death Eaters fell into three groups: those who, like Bellatrix, refused to believe it; those who believed it and had their world turned upside down; and, by far the greatest group, those who found out it was true and thought to themselves, "Ah, yet another example of our Lord's tenuous hold on sanity. Not like we needed more proof, what with him being undeniably batshit insane. Hm. Must file this information away in case it's ever useful to me. Carry on."

I don't think it would cost him many followers. As Hermione says to Harry in HBP, "The Death Eaters can't all be pure-blood, there aren't enough pure-blood wizards left ... I expect most of them are half-bloods pretending to be pure. It's only Muggle-borns they hate, they'd be quite happy to let you and Ron join up." (p. 227)

I figure it would be kind of a 'thing we don't normally bother to discuss' among the Death Eaters. So in this story, I'm following (what I think is) canon. It's not a major plot point here.

Oh, and in case anyone's wondering: Veelafics? Are my favourite mind-candy. Most especially Dracoisaveelaandharryishismate :)