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Chapter Seven—Comfort Is Part of Survival
"And so you are really leaving us, Harry?"
Harry leaned back and smiled, a little uncomfortably, at Healer Emily Pontiff. He hadn't gone to fetch her. He'd merely started to clean out the desk in his cubicle, and somehow she had known and floated over to him.
He couldn't help being a little in awe of her, even when he wasn't watching her save lives with her finely controlled magic. She had a face like a stone angel's in a Muggle graveyard, and wispy gray hair floated around that face like a maze of cobwebs. Her wand, birch wood, hardly rivaled her skin in its pallor. She had pale gray eyes, but kept them half-shaded with lowered lids that had fooled patients before into believing she was asleep or meditating. Harry felt himself falling silent, his muscles relaxing, in the intense aura of peace and serenity she carried about with her.
Now, for the first time, it struck him as he gazed at her that this was how Narcissa Malfoy would look when she was older, if her hair lost some of its color. Frowning, Harry glanced down at his desk again and slid several headache potions into a satchel. He didn't want to think about the Malfoys in that way. They seemed to blithely assume that they could become more important to him than anyone else simply by striding into his life. But Harry knew the association would only be temporary; he could heal Lucius and go back to his daily routine.
Except that that routine won't be at St. Mungo's, anymore.
"Healer Emptyweed told me you were leaving because of a disagreement over who should handle Lucius Malfoy's care," Healer Pontiff continued, and leaned against his desk. "Is that true?"
Harry nodded, still staring at his desk. Was that a bit of parchment he needed crammed into the back of the drawer? No, only a scrap on which he'd once played a game to amuse himself. He shut the drawer with a bang and lifted the satchel to his shoulder, grimacing as the sore place in the center of his back pulled. "It's true."
"Harry." Pontiff's voice was gentle as she stood and came around the desk, holding out her wand towards his back. She murmured a charm, and the place where the Beetle's Bite had hit him began to glow blue. "You would leave the rest of your patients, and the good you are doing here, because of an argument over a single one?"
"He couldn't tell me who would replace me," Harry replied, bowing his head. The next spell Pontiff used spread warmth like massage oil through the sore area, and he sighed in relief. "And someone had already threatened Mr. Malfoy's life twice, once by canceling the stabilization fields I'd cast on him. I couldn't take the chance that the new caretaker—well, wouldn't take care, and that he would end up dead. I've had enough people dying on my watch."
Pontiff placed one hand on his shoulder. "No one sane who thinks about the war thinks that," she reassured him.
Harry smiled ruefully back at her. "I know that, but I still think it." He turned away before she could scold him and rested the satchel cautiously against the middle of his back again, nodding when it brushed the former sore spot with perfect comfort. "Thank you."
"It looks like someone may have threatened your life as well."
"The Beetle's Bite doesn't threaten life," Harry said. "Xavier was annoyed at me, that's all." He knew Healer Pontiff would know who he was talking about. Somehow she had managed to quietly inform herself on every aspect of his life even when he kept silent out of shame or frustration.
Pontiff sighed. Then she said, "Comfort is part of survival, Harry."
"I know," Harry said, glancing back at her and smiling. He was grateful that she had passed to generalized healing advice instead of the uncomfortably personal comments that Hermione would have tried to make. "The patient heals better when he can rest on a soft bed, look out a lighted window, and eat good food."
"You mistake me this time," said Pontiff. "Comfort is part of your survival too, Harry. I have watched you with growing distress these past few weeks. You cast yourself into work as if it were a remedy for a bruised heart or smarting pride. It is not."
"I've done the best I can to heal all my patients," Harry said stiffly. When Emptyweed doubted his abilities, he thought it one more part of the man's stupid attitude concerning him; when Healer Pontiff did the same, it actively hurt. "I don't think I've neglected them just because I broke up with Xavier."
"And again you mistake me," Pontiff whispered. "You have not neglected your patients. You have neglected yourself."
Harry shook his head impatiently. Not even from Pontiff could he accept coddling. Various people in his life seemed to take turns acting as if he needed to spend months on a tropical island "recovering" from what Harry knew were perfectly normal occurrences in everyone's life. He snapped back, didn't he? He managed to heal every time. Just because he had broken up with everyone he'd dated so far didn't mean he would always do so. He brooded for a while, but that was only normal. He hadn't let his bad luck sour him on life or love.
He failed to see what Hermione, or Healer Pontiff, or Ron, wanted for him other than that.
"I'll be fine," he said, and offered her a grin and news that he thought would distract her. "I'm going to Malfoy Manor to serve as private mediwizard to Mr. Malfoy for a time, and after I've solved his case, he'll give me enough money to set up my own practice."
Pontiff smiled, but it was an abstracted expression, as if her thoughts were elsewhere. Harry didn't mind. Her thoughts were elsewhere most of the time. "The Malfoys are one of the old pure-blood families," she said.
"I know that," Harry said patiently. Sometimes the people in his life acted as if he didn't know the most basic facts about the wizarding world, either.
"They think of debts differently," Pontiff said. "They think of connections differently. Because someone else so rarely does something they can acknowledge as worthy of them, or does something for them at all, they tend to seize anyone who does and hold him or her close." She looked him in the eye. "I would see that you know what you are getting into, before you go traipsing off to the Manor."
Harry stared at her incredulously. "Do you believe Mr. Malfoy would keep me prisoner in the dungeons until I used healing magic to torture his worst enemy for him or something?"
"I fear that you are no longer as independent as you would like," Pontiff told him. "A Malfoy's gifts are not poisoned, but they are heavy."
Harry shrugged. "I'm only interested in their Galleons."
Pontiff gave him a light, amused smile, of the kind that he almost never saw on her face, and reached up to touch his cheek. "You never could have been, Harry, or you would not have made a good mediwizard."
Harry flushed and clasped her hand for a moment, squeezing, before he stepped away and strode down the corridor. "I won't say goodbye," he called over his shoulder. "The next time you hear of me, I'll be a private mediwizard with my own name and reputation!"
"That you already have in my eyes, and the eyes of anyone else who truly knows you." Pontiff smiled at him again, this smile more of her usual kind, distant and mysterious and filled with starlight, and then turned and wandered away. Officious Healers like Emptyweed had tried to accost her before for not maintaining a brisk stride in the corridors, but not even the St. Mungo's administration would listen to them when she had so many successful healings to her credit.
Harry shook his head and walked back down to the lobby and the Floo. He did like Healer Pontiff, but sometimes she was too distant from the world. She didn't understand the realities of a deal like the one Harry had made with Lucius Malfoy. There was no reason that it should last longer than the healing would take, because there was nothing else Harry and the Malfoys had to offer each other.
Really, Harry asked himself, could they want me for friendship? Companionship? Someone to argue the finer points of blood prejudice with?
No. He snorted. The only thing he might have been able to offer them was the "glory" of a close association with the Boy-Who-Lived, and not even the Malfoys were stupid enough to exploit such a faded and worn thing.
I made a good bargain.
"Stay there for a moment."
Harry, just climbing out of his own fireplace, paused and raised an eyebrow. Malfoy stood on the far side of the room, his hands clenched at his sides and his breathing so fast that Harry wondered absently if he had been running about the house in pursuit of Kreacher.
"Don't tell me you're a painter and you need me to model for you," Harry said, tilting his head back and striking an absurd pose. "I haven't seen any sort of a palette or eye for color. Mind you, you've got the air of pretentious importance down pat."
"I want you to stay there," Malfoy said between clenched teeth, "because then I might not kill you. Do you have any idea how stupid that was, running off to hospital without a bodyguard when someone just threatened your life?"
"I thought I explained about the Beetle's Bite." Harry deliberately stretched, letting Malfoy see that he didn't wince from the place of the spell's impact. No need to tell him that it had hurt and Healer Pontiff had removed the sting. "And can I be blamed when my 'bodyguard' refused to come with me?"
A dull flush climbed Malfoy's cheeks, and he took a step closer despite his own injunction. "You act as if you despise your own life," he said in a low voice. "What would you tell a patient of yours in the same situation who insisted on climbing out of his bed and rushing off to do emotionally intense work, no matter what the spell he'd been hit with was?"
Harry frowned and turned his face away. He was bored of the conversation. "We have more important things to talk about," he said.
"Someone tried to remove me from your father's case," Harry said briskly, moving past Malfoy to the door of the library. "I informed him of this, and he's decided that St. Mungo's isn't safe for him anymore. He's going home to Malfoy Manor. I'm to follow him, and stay there until I've cured him."
Malfoy froze. Harry grinned and walked up the stairs, listening. He counted to ten before Malfoy came scrambling and racing after him.
"What?" he demanded, sounding out of breath, when he reached the top of the staircase.
Harry turned around to look at him for a moment. His face was flushed with his sudden run, and his hair had become disordered and floated around his head rather like Healer Pontiff's. Harry was surprised when heat swirled in his groin. He apparently liked the softer, more surprised Malfoy, if only because when he was surprised it was easy to take him off-guard.
And the existence of attraction doesn't mean you have to act on it, he reminded himself as he opened his bedroom door and began Summoning his robes, textbooks, a few completed potions, and pillows. They went into a traveling bag like the one Hermione had used to carry their necessary items during their flight from the Death Eaters. That's the lesson Malfoy has yet to learn.
"I'll stay in the Manor with you for a few weeks," Harry went on, casually leaning against the wall as the bag packed itself and glancing back at Malfoy. "Your father has agreed to set me up in a private practice as soon as I've cured him."
Malfoy continued to stare at him. Harry grinned. "Just because you were in the House of the Snake doesn't mean you have to forget you possess eyelids," he said.
Then Malfoy did something disturbing. He grinned too and leaned forwards, resting his hands on the door on either side of Harry's head. So close, Harry could smell his slightly sour breath and feel the drifting hair tickle his cheeks. He felt every muscle in his body come to attention, and shivered in irritation. He didn't like responding this way. Yes, Malfoy had the kind of physique that Harry usually admired, and he was certainly handsome enough, but his mind wasn't at all attractive.
"Good," Malfoy whispered. "I know what went wrong, now."
"What went wrong?" Harry frowned, his mind pulling out of the haze into which it had started to drift. "With your father, you mean? You have some idea about the linked curses? Why didn't you tell me?"
"Not about that." Malfoy laughed softly. "Why would I know about healing when I've never seriously studied it? Besides, I have absolute faith in your skills, and I know you'll return my father to normal without help. No. I meant I know why my attempt to seduce you went wrong."
"I should hope you would," Harry said, ignoring his pleasure at the declaration of faith, "after I told you in great detail." He shoved at Malfoy's shoulders, trying to make him step back. He leaned in again further and breathed gently on Harry's ear instead. Harry shivered and leaned his head back on the door before he could stop himself. His ears were one of his sensitive places.
"It's a challenge," Malfoy said. "I haven't had to seduce anyone the way I'll have to seduce you." He sounded delighted. "It'll involve more self-control than I've had to use before. But I'll have you in my bed at last."
"You wouldn't like me in bed," Harry said dryly, and finally got an ankle behind Malfoy's left leg and twisted. Malfoy staggered away from him, graceless and nearly falling before he got a hold on the wall. Harry straightened up and pretended to be very occupied in adjusting his robe. He was disappointed in himself. A few flattering words and a few breaths on his ear, and he was about to curl up and let Malfoy do whatever he wanted? He would have to be very careful when he lived in the Manor. Being on his own ground would give Malfoy confidence.
"I can't imagine you being anything but graceful and passionate in bed," Malfoy said.
Harry gave him an irritated glance and heaved the full bag. He'd just made the idiot flail about. Did that not count with him? "I'm not," he said. "I'm very boring. Just ask Francis."
"The fifth person I dated," Harry murmured as he snapped his fingers to summon Kreacher. The little house-elf appeared and bowed. Harry nodded to him. "Would you make sure Ron and Hermione learn that I'm gone to Malfoy Manor and that I'm perfectly safe?" he asked.
"I don't know about perfectly," Malfoy said in a thoughtful tone.
"Shut up," Harry advised him, and looked back long enough to catch Kreacher's nod. "Good." He hung the bag over his shoulder and looked at Malfoy. "What Floo address do you use for the Manor? Just 'Malfoy Manor?'"
Malfoy opened his mouth for a moment. Then he shut it and swallowed. Harry raised his eyebrows. "Is it under the Fidelius? Your father didn't mention that."
"No," Malfoy said, in a calm tone. "It's Malfoy Manor, as you surmised. I need to go ahead to open the connection for you, though. It automatically responds to someone of the blood, but it would simply bounce you out if you tried to enter it without an invitation."
Harry rolled his eyes as Malfoy left the room. He suspected he would be hearing phrases like "of the blood" quite a bit in the near future. It was the way pompous pure-blooded idiots apparently talked.
But Malfoy seemed to have taken a hint and retreated a bit. Perhaps he would remember, as Harry had told him, that he was attractive to other people and there was a whole wizarding world of them out there.
"Mr. Potter. Be welcome to our home, as one who shares our blood and has our good will in mind."
Harry bowed to conceal the impulse to drop his jaw. He had expected to enter a large room covered with snobby portraits who would whisper about his Muggleborn mother as he went by, or maybe a small and shabby anteroom where they put visitors who were not worthy to enter through the front door. Instead, he had come out of the fireplace in what had to be the receiving hall of the Manor. Who they received there, Harry didn't know. Probably dragons.
The room was enormous, made of white marble, but faintly and warmly lit by star-like sparkles in the distance on the upper part of the arching walls and the ceiling. Closer at hand, red carpets and soft green ones warmed the marble in a way that Harry wouldn't have believed possible. Tapestries and landscapes, rather than portraits, covered the walls and surrounded him with a myriad of colors, gentle curves, and graceful magical creatures. Here and there, a candle glittered and caught on a shine of gold, or silver, or ivory. But none of it was overwhelming, and none of it screamed ostentation as Harry had imagined a Malfoy home would inevitably do.
Narcissa Malfoy stood in the middle of it all, clad in a red gown that softened her features and cold expression as the carpets did for the hall. And instead of regarding him with a face to rival a disgusted queen's, as he had been sure she would, she was reaching out to him with both hands, a faint smile on her face.
Harry remained bowed a moment longer than necessary, to stuff his surprise away, but then he had to raise his head and clasp her hands in return. He was sure his smile was strained, but they'd probably like that, he told himself. They would still want a visitor to the Manor to be impressed, though they might choose different means to make that impression than the traditional ones. "I—thank you, Mrs. Malfoy. Of course, maybe I should say that your husband shares my blood rather than the other way around." Maybe she would take offense at that, and then he would be back on familiar ground.
Narcissa's smile widened. "When someone has done as much for us as you have, Mr. Potter, how one speaks of the sharing does not matter as much as the fact of that sharing." Before Harry could protest that she'd taken the trouble to welcome him to her home with ritual words, she lifted her shoulder, and a floating candle came up to offer them both illumination. "If you will follow me? I chose your room, and whilst it is magnificent, it is also some distance from the entrance."
So Harry had to follow her up a sweeping staircase—less like a staircase than the terraced entrance to a temple—that blue-green tapestries along the wall made into a kind of underwater tunnel, and which, on a turn, became so encircled by green that it seemed to run through a forest. He looked around constantly for Malfoy or Lucius, but didn't see them. Maybe it was part of Narcissa's duties to welcome him to the house, he thought, and if she chose his room, it was only fair that she should escort him to it. And Malfoy would probably want to be with his father, to talk to him about strategies for keeping him safe from any further enemies.
Harry smiled suddenly. That was an advantage he hadn't thought of. Malfoy would have the opportunity to spend time around his father at home, and in more comfortable circumstances than he would have in hospital. That should coax him to stop paying so much attention to Harry. Maybe he would even decide that Harry was less interesting than Lucius, which was what he should have thought in the first place.
They passed into a third turn of the staircase, and now they seemed to parade across a beach, given the soft yellow color of the tapestries and the faint flickering veins of gold in the marble. Harry stirred uneasily, and tried to imagine what the room Narcissa had chosen for him would look like.
"Really, Mrs. Malfoy," he blurted out as they finally reached the top of the staircase, "I don't need a magnificent room. A comfortable one will do fine."
She glanced over her shoulder and gave him another smile, this one stronger. "I'm afraid there are no rooms in the Manor that are not both, Mr. Potter," she said cheerfully. "You will simply need to tolerate it."
And she turned and walked on, leaving Harry blinking and gaping. Had she just made a joke?
They reached the room at last, and Narcissa touched a bronze knocker on the wide expanse of the oak door. At least, Harry thought it was oak; he had no eye for such things. He put his hands behind his back, irrationally afraid that he would stain the knocker or bruise the door if he touched them.
Oblivious to his discomfort, Narcissa said, "This knocker is the center of your wards. It will secure them across the door so that no one but you can disturb them whilst you're in the room. When you come out, only touch the knocker if you wish to change them—to allow others to have access to your room when you're elsewhere, for example. Of course, the house-elves have access no matter what the settings of the wards." She flicked her fingers towards the knocker and murmured something under her breath, and the door swung open at once. As Harry passed through, he felt the flickering net of wards settle over his head and slide around his shoulders, apparently memorizing the contours of his body.
If the door had been intimidating, the room took his breath away. There appeared to be three of them, linked together: a loo off to the left side with a tub whose size Harry was afraid to contemplate; a room to the right that had enough bookshelves and wide windows he assumed it was a library; and a bedroom that shimmered with living green. The carpet was a deep green, the tapestries various shades of it, spinning out in blue and yellow towards the ends. Harry caught an occasional glimpse of polished wooden paneling between the tapestries, as brown as the trunks of trees. The doors of discreet cupboards opened here and there. In the center was what he took for a mound of moss at first; only when Narcissa moved towards it and his perspective shifted did he realize it was a bed. It looked as if it curved and dipped in all the right places, and the pillows were fluffy combinations of brown and green and pale blue that made Harry's head ache just looking at them and trying to reckon their softness. Sleek satiny curtains that could be pulled shut around the bed hung from poles carved to look like branches.
"I do hope you appreciate it," Narcissa said, turning towards him. The tone of her words was gentle, not insulting; her voice carried the anxiety of the hostess who wanted to make sure her guest was not uncomfortable. "Some of the other rooms are larger, but they don't have attached libraries. The house-elves have brought up all the books we have on healing, and of course there are spaces for any you brought with you."
Harry lowered his eyes for a moment. He was heartily ashamed of half the thoughts he'd had since meeting the Malfoys. People who could do this for him were neither as grasping nor as cold-hearted as he'd thought they must be.
And what do you really know of them? he asked himself. A few experiences during the war and some second-hand truths from the mouths of those who hate them. And meeting Draco nearly every day during school, of course, but he was a child then.
"Mrs. Malfoy," he said quietly, looking up.
"Please call me Narcissa." She smiled and stepped back so he could approach the bed, carefully guiding the floating candle away from the bed-curtains. "That's a privilege that family members have."
Harry shook his head helplessly. "I—you've done too much for me," he said. "I appreciate this, of course, but I don't deserve it. I'm only the mediwizard who's treating your husband. Not even a full Healer! You don't need to—" He paused. He had been about to say, "You don't need to bribe me to do a good job," but only now did he realize how insulting that would have sounded. "You don't need to put yourself out for me in any way," he ended up saying.
Narcissa took a step towards him, not smiling now. Harry held his breath, wondering if he would find out what lay behind the polite façade.
"Harry," Narcissa said when she was a pace or two away from him, "do you know how many people have ever saved my husband's life?"
"Er." Harry didn't want to speculate about what might have happened among the Death Eaters, but on the other hand, they had been in battles before. That had to mean someone had shoved Lucius out of the path of a curse, at least. "Two? Four?"
"One," Narcissa said. "And that was years ago, and the man who did it probably did it for his own reasons." Her mouth tightened with what looked like remembered pain. "You have done it twice in a few days, and for reasons that we now know are not self-interested. You will excuse me, I hope, if I honor you as I think you deserve."
Harry looked away, insides squirming. If Lucius had said something like that, Harry could have responded with an insult so his patient wouldn't be so stressed. If Malfoy had said it, he could have laughed. But it was different when Narcissa said it, in her grave, patient, sweet voice.
"Thank you," he whispered at last.
She stepped towards him and held out her hands again. Harry shifted his bag awkwardly to his shoulder and took them. Narcissa leaned in to lightly kiss his cheek.
"Be welcome to our home, Harry," she said. "Everything you may need or wish for is at your disposal. Including the good-will of everyone who lives here." She stepped back, curtsied to him, and swept out of the room. The door shut behind her, and Harry could see the brilliant sparkle of the wards engaging.
Only then did he realize that the Malfoys had trusted him with a room he could ward against them, if he wanted to.
Of course, there's probably some secret entrance or something, he thought, and let the bag drop awkwardly to the floor. It made a thump that sounded too heavy. He winced. Looking around again, he shook his head.
He could try to appreciate and be grateful for everything the Malfoys had done for him, but he didn't belong here. It was too bloody large, too luxurious, too graceful and gracious. Quite a different order of life than he was accustomed to.
He would have to steel himself against giving in, though. It would be easy to let the comfort tempt him, the same way it would be easy to let Malfoy's flirtation tempt him if he had no commitment to his job.
Harry smiled, then. The one thing no one had ever been able to fault him for, Emptyweed aside, was his commitment to saving lives.
And he would remember Healer Pontiff's warning, and not let himself expend too much strength carrying the Malfoys' heavy gifts. For example, he was going to spend most of the night studying, rather than resting in that decadent bed. The sooner he solved the mystery of Lucius's curse, the sooner he could escape from this overwhelming place.
He dug the books he'd brought out of his bag and hurried into the library.