"And you still don't have your shoes, Harry!"
Harry winced a bit as his future mother-in-law wailed this last right into his face. He had learned more than he liked to know over the last few months about Mrs. Weasley's lung capacity.
He hoped that wasn't something Ginny had inherited.
"I'm sorry," he said, staring at his trainers. He didn't see why he couldn't get married in those, in fact, since the trailing hem of the long golden robes would conceal them, but he knew better than to say that around Mrs. Weasley. "It slipped my mind the other day after I spent so long in Madam Malkin's."
He wondered why he didn't mention seeing Malfoy in Diagon Alley. He could have. He could have said that seeing Draco made him sick to his stomach, so that he had to Apparate back to the Burrow immediately.
But it would have been a lie.
And the bloody thing was, he felt worse about lying and saying Draco was horrid than he did about concealing the Courtship from the Weasleys.
It's casual. I can break it off whenever I like. It's more like Malfoy and I establishing a mutual admiration society, anyway. We trade a few gifts, reconcile a few old disputes, and then move on with our lives. My marriage is for the good of the wizarding world. I always knew that. At the very least, it'll distract the Prophet from that fear-mongering about escaped Death Eaters.
Malfoy should want me to get married, in fact. It'll take pressure and attention off his parents for a while.
Harry heaved a sigh of relief as his conscience stopped whispering to him and then looked up in alarm as he realized that Mrs. Weasley was in the middle of an emphatic sentence.
"…just have to go with Ginny this afternoon, that's all."
"What?" Harry asked stupidly.
Harry whirled around. Ginny stood on the steps that led up to her bedroom, her hand wrapped around the railing and her face white and still. She was looking back and forth between her mother and Harry as if she thought it was Harry's fault they were in this situation.
Well, maybe it was, Harry thought mutinously, and stared at his feet again. But it was Malfoy's fault, too.
"Harry will go with you this afternoon when you get your shoes fitted, Ginny," said Mrs. Weasley, with a firm nod of her head. She looked delighted with herself, the way she had all along when she managed to solve some problem by tying together two wedding chores. "He can have his feet measured whilst Master Cobbler's trying to coax you into slippers."
Ginny stared a moment longer. Then she clenched her jaw and nodded, sweeping down the stairs. Harry was still blinking as she walked past him, grabbed his arm, and tugged him out the door. Harry yelped and stumbled, running to keep up. Mrs. Weasley watched them go with a pleased smile—she always looked that way when they touched one another, as if she expected grandchildren the month after the wedding—but then she vanished up the stairs at a run, yelling for Hermione.
On the lawn, Ginny whirled around to face him. Harry jumped out of reach. It looked as if he might have the chance to test the yelling skills she'd inherited from her mother after all.
"Thank you so bloody much," Ginny said, but in a soft voice. Her withering glare made up for it, though.
"I don't know what you're talking about," Harry said in a cautious voice. He rubbed his arm, and winced. Her grip had been strong. He was certain he would find finger-shaped bruises if he looked under the cloth. He wasn't weak enough to actually look, of course. "They're just boots."
Ginny opened her mouth, then pursed her lips so hard that Harry thought she would split them. "Oh, never mind," she said. "Sometimes you wouldn't see the obvious if it drew a wand on you." She held out her arm, and tapped her foot when Harry stood there. "Well, come on. The sooner we go to Diagon Alley, the sooner we can get this ridiculous matter of your carelessness settled."
Harry wasn't sure he trusted her to Side-Along Apparate him in that mood, but he was also not suicidal enough to argue. He meekly offered his arm, and Ginny hooked hers around it and roughly vanished with him.
Harry sighed and stared down at his feet, clad in gleaming dragonhide boots that the owner of Francine's Fabulous Footwear had assured him were all the rage this season, even to be married in. Harry didn't care about them, except that he hoped they would keep Mrs. Weasley from destroying him in a rage. He cared that it had been two bloody hours and yet Ginny hadn't come out of the back of the shop.
Harry regarded the curtain separating the front from the back with a jaundiced eye. The space looked small, not much larger than five or six wizards standing side by side. But he could hear Ginny giggling madly every now and then, and the bland replies of the wizard fitting her, some sort of apprentice to Francine. Perhaps the bottoms of Ginny's feet were ticklish and she squirmed and had to be fitted again every time, Harry thought. It would explain the delay.
It would also be one of the many things he didn't know about her.
Why am I marrying her?
It was the first time the question had ever occurred to him without an immediate answer springing up to fill the void in his head. Harry frowned and shifted uneasily again. He loved Ginny. Or, well, at least he liked her as a friend. He admired her for surviving in the brutal maelstrom that was Hogwarts during her sixth year. He admired her for wanting to fight in the final battle. He respected her as a person.
But was that enough to bond with someone for a lifetime, the way that Bill and Fleur had done, and have children together?
I always thought I would learn to love her after we had children together.
Harry shuddered and then sat still, staring at the wall. It was true, but he had never put it to himself in those terms before, and it was a hell of a thing to discover that he thought about his fiancée, whom he had been certain he was marrying for love.
He lurched to his feet, feeling suddenly sick for life and alertness and motion. The wizard behind the counter blinked at him as he made for the door.
"Where are you going, sir?" he asked. "Your lady isn't done yet."
Harry cringed. He didn't think the wizard was in the habit of calling most of the female customers of Francine's Fabulous Footwear "lady." It was just another sign of the exaggerated deference that surrounded him and Ginny, and which he didn't want to surround them. He shook his head and said, "Tell her I went for a walk," then ducked out the door.
He strode rapidly down the middle of Diagon Alley, his head bowed to escape the inevitable curious stares at his scar. Some people called to him, but Harry ignored them, and their voices died into confusion. The real Harry Potter, they must be thinking, wouldn't treat anyone so discourteously.
Harry snorted and dug his hands into his pockets. The real Harry Potter was a sodding prick at the moment, and felt like one, he thought. He was marrying a woman for whom he felt nothing more than intense affection, and he was letting a Courtship continue when he knew very well that nothing would come of it.
Well, at least one of those he could do something immediate about. He slowed his pace, looking for a shop that sold ink and parchment. He would owl Draco and tell him the truth, that he was so confused at the moment that the Courtship wouldn't be a good thing for either of them. Draco needed to find someone more worthy of his gifts and his pretty words.
Someone seized his elbow. Harry opened his mouth to yell, but the same person clapped a hand over his mouth and tugged him backwards. Harry found himself in the middle of a side alley, perhaps even the same one he had hidden in the day he received Draco's Courtship letter. He dug an elbow into his captor's stomach, or tried, but the man avoided him easily, and then leaned forwards and whispered into his ear.
"Really, Harry, you don't even recognize your lover when he clasps you in an amorous embrace?"
Harry shivered, the small hairs along his ear standing up. Then he swallowed and said, "I'll be quiet."
Draco seemed to understand, because he released him, but he turned him around in the next instant. Harry blinked, his eyes adjusting to the shadows after the intense sunshine of the Alley for an instant, and then nearly struggled to get away again.
Draco was leaning towards him, face transfigured with desire and warmth. He looked as if he were an owl about to pounce on a small and juicy treat. His eyes burned, and his fingers crept out and stroked down Harry's jaw and throat in an odd manner. After a moment, Harry realized that it was because they were trembling.
Something hissed. The white Wingmalkin pushed his head over Draco's shoulder and parted his mouth in a soundless snarl directed at Harry.
"Yes, he goes everywhere with me," Draco murmured, noting the direction of Harry's gaze. "He's been precious, someone devoted to me because of who I am, and not because of the money I spend on him or the entertainment I offer. Though I'm sure he gets plenty of entertainment out of me, all the same." His smile flashed brilliantly for a moment, and Harry began to hope he would get out of this with his sanity intact.
Then Draco focused on him again, and his smile turned predatory, whilst his eyes glittered. He touched Harry's face again, this time with a reverent motion.
"Do you know what it means when the person being Courted sends gifts?" he asked, his voice almost as soft as his cat's hiss. "Especially a gift like this, thoughtful and expensive?"
Harry fought to keep from groaning. Of course sending Draco a gift couldn't be seen as the offering of thanks and an equal exchange he had intended it as. Of course Draco would manage to warp the meaning in his own mind.
"I didn't look up that part of Courtship traditions," he said, trying to sound charmingly confused. "In fact, I only had one short conversation with Hermione about it. I—"
"You're mine, Harry," Draco said, and kissed him again.
Harry opened his mouth in a soundless cry. The sheer passion of the gesture forced him backwards, into the old wall behind him. Draco hadn't kissed like this, hadn't dared, when they were aloft, but now—
Harry's world reeled. There was a tongue in his mouth, sweet and hard and insistent, and Draco had forced a leg between his, and everywhere there was a coaxing demand that ripped moans from his throat and motion from his hips and warmth from his groin. He thrust back before he realized what he was doing.
And it felt so good. So far beyond anything he had experienced with Ginny.
He angled himself so that he could rub furiously against Draco. Draco laughed and gasped encouragement, one of his hands rising to tangle in Harry's hair and tilt his head. His other hand skimmed down Harry's chest to rest on his groin, splayed out, not squeezing, but offering a flat surface for Harry to rub against. And he must be amazingly coordinated, because all the time, he never left off the kiss or the curling darting motions of his tongue in Harry's mouth.
Harry felt excitement grip him and heave him up, his gut tightening painfully. His throat was dry, and he drank at Draco's tongue, sucked and pulled. He whined in a piercing tone as he felt his orgasm coil in his belly, the first orgasm he had shared with another person—
And Draco pulled back, leaving him empty and yearning.
Harry nearly reached for him. Then he dropped his hands back to his sides and wiped off the sweat against his shirt. "Why?" he whispered, unable to get any breath behind the word.
"Because," Draco said, looking as self-satisfied as the Wingmalkin on his shoulder, which had begun to groom its muscular tail, "sending me a gift says that you want to initiate an equal exchange of gifts. A deeper bond. You're not just being chased, you're chasing. You're letting me know my suit is welcomed and that you won't drop it suddenly because you're bored. You're mine now."
Harry stared at him in dismay. Then he gestured to his erection, which was already smearing the front of his pale robes with wetness. "This why," he said. He wished he sounded smarter, but that wasn't going to happen at the moment.
Draco winked at him. "The Courtship is about desire," he said. "And if you think desire is only delicious when fulfilled—" He laughed, the sound rich as ice cream and causing Harry to thrust his hips forwards involuntarily. "You have much to learn about it.
He slid away, the Wingmalkin looking over his shoulder to hiss disdainfully at Harry. Harry fell back against the wall and shut his eyes.
Oh, yes, he knew why Draco had done that. To make Harry want him more, to build up Harry's own longing to the point that he would become Draco's just as his gift had apparently said he would.
But he wasn't prey to the longings of his own flesh, was he?
Harry's eyes snapped open. Draco had Apparated out already, of course, but he didn't care. It was just as well there was no one around to witness the expression on his face right now, he thought.
For once, he was going to make a decision on his own, not influenced by any Weasleys, or Draco, or the future of the bloody wizarding world. He needed to think about it and decide what he wanted.
The idea was exhilarating, and Harry, after casting a few necessary spells to control himself, walked out of the alley with a grim smile on his face.
And never mind that he could still taste Draco's tongue in his mouth.
Harry sat in the Weasleys' attic, this time with the door locked and several subtle repelling charms on it. Hermione had looked at him knowingly when he asked her to teach him those spells, but she hadn't asked any questions. Harry thought she must have used them some of the time to escape wedding preparations.
He had ink and parchment in front of him, but this time, he wasn't writing a letter to anyone, except maybe to himself. He had already composed a list of things he wanted.
A happy life.
A reasonable amount of privacy. (He wasn't mad enough to think that he would manage to escape the attention of the press for the rest of his life, even though that would have been ideal).
Someone who loves me for who I am and not for my scar or my fame or the fact that I killed Voldemort. (He wasn't sure yet whether he would put Malfoy in that category, or whether he would call the emotion that Draco claimed to feel for him love, but it did seem, from the way that Malfoy had acted, that at least it wasn't the scar or the fame that he was interested in).
Some way to make Ginny happy, or leave her happy.
Harry paused and sucked the end of the quill thoughtfully when he looked at that last item on the list. Because, of course, the main question was: what kind of family? The Weasleys? The children he had envisioned having with Ginny, although he could picture their pranks more easily than he could their faces? The Malfoys?
He did have to shudder at the thought of that last. Draco might want him, but Harry could see no way his parents would ever welcome Harry into their house. Of course, they had no reason to leave the Manor for at least the next two years, so Harry could avoid them easily if he did choose to join Draco.
To join Draco. What exactly would this Courtship mean?
Harry leaned back in the chair and folded his hands behind his head, staring at the ceiling. Hermione had said the Courtship was a more casual relationship, something the couple could work out on their own. Harry had no idea what Malfoy might want, unless he took his letters at face value, and even then, wanting someone to be happy didn't give a specific set of guidelines the way a marriage seemed to.
So, since I can't know what he wants without asking him, I'll do two things. I'll send a letter asking him, and I'll decide what I want.
And there's a third thing, too. Harry grimaced and sighed, shifting his seat. He had never looked forwards to talking to Ginny since the marriage preparations began, at least about something that wasn't Quidditch or how mad her mother was acting. But now…
I have to find out how much she wants this. I have to find out the reason she's marrying me, how much of it is other people's expectations and how much is her own desire.
But first, he could write the letter to Malfoy, a less intimidating task. Harry settled a fresh sheet of parchment in front of himself and began.
I have to ask you what the Courtship means. You've described me in ways that make me blush—
Harry hesitated, then decided that line couldn't possibly be as revealing as the letter he had sent Draco with the Wingmalkin, which was full of rambling declarations he should have crossed out.
—and I know you want to have sex with me. But what is this, other than that? Why not choose someone you know better, someone you know would be in sympathy with your politics and your interests? I don't think there's anything we both like other than Quidditch and flying, and we really tried to defeat each other at those things, not to share them.
I do think I want to share something with you. But I need some more rules, some definitions. Are you looking for a few days of sex and nothing more? Because I might be willing to accommodate you if you are, but this seems awfully stretched out for that and I wish you had asked me before I was going to marry Ginny.
I know this isn't a marriage, but what is it? I know what I want. I want something that lasts, at least for a while. I want something where I try to make the other person happy and they try to make me happy. I want someone I can play pranks with and avoid the press with and fly with. And kissing would be great, too, but the reason I wanted to marry Ginny in the first place was that she was a friend. You and I have never been like that.
I'm sending you another few gifts. It won't do to let you get too ahead of me.
Harry smiled, sealed the letter in an envelope, and began preparing Draco's gifts. This was the part he really liked. Receiving the gifts had been nice, seeing the memories of his parents had been wondrous, but in the end he felt more comfortable imagining someone else's face lighting up than getting presents of his own.
He clipped a curl of his hair from his head and tucked it firmly into a separate envelope that he would attach to the first. Draco was sure to recognize it; Harry didn't think anyone else had hair that looked like the feathers of a molting black phoenix. And Draco would know that Harry trusted him, because the hair could be used in Polyjuice Potion or certain nasty spells. Harry was saying that he didn't think Draco would use it that way.
For his second gift, he would have to go to Diagon Alley and buy a cheap ring. After the Wingmalkin and the wedding preparations, he simply couldn't afford any more expensive gifts right now, but the ring wouldn't be the point. It would be the spell that went along with the ring that mattered.
Grinning wildly, he crept past the kitchen where Mrs. Weasley was scolding several cousins who had made some candied fruit wrong, tiptoed outside the wards, and Apparated.
The moment's perfect.
Harry winced, and felt the pull in his shoulders. All afternoon, he'd been moving chairs around, first by wand and then by hand when his magic began to grow exhausted, in different patterns so that Mrs. Weasley could consider seating arrangements. But that was less laborious than some other things she'd had him do.
No, what caused him the most pain and the most hesitation was knowing that he needed to speak to Ginny about the reasons she was really marrying him.
And he hadn't done it yet.
Stirring restively, he leaned against the table for a moment and watched Mrs. Weasley and Ginny. Molly had been distracted from the chairs by some detail of a hair hanging from the back of Ginny's head. She scolded her quietly but continuously now, her head jerking like that of a terrier who held a rat.
Ginny nodded and nodded, staring at the ground. She never tried to say anything back. Harry watched her hand, though. It gripped the arm of a chair, and it had slowly grown white-knuckled.
At the very least, she has to be tired of all the preparations, he thought.
Mrs. Weasley abruptly snapped her head up and turned away, her eyes wide. "The biscuits!" she cried, and rushed into the kitchen, where something was burning. Harry hadn't been aware she was cooking.
He turned back to Ginny. She was collapsed into the chair she'd been pulling and shoving about, her head tilted back so that she stared at the sky, her hands clenched in her lap.
Harry shifted. Ginny looked so tired that he didn't like to disturb her.
But what if what you're going to say can free her from that burden? he reminded himself, and so he cleared his throat. Ginny cast him what looked like an expression of surprise and sat up with a weary little grunt.
"Yes, Harry?" Her voice was flat and uninterested.
She doesn't want to marry me. I can tell.
But, Harry reminded himself, he couldn't decide that without hearing a statement one way or the other. So he cleared his throat again and said, "Ginny, why are we getting married? I mean," he clarified, when she opened her mouth and her face went pale enough it made her freckles look like dots of blood, "why do you think we're getting married? Do you love me enough to go through all this? Do you—want to?"
There, he'd said it. And it was less hard than he'd anticipated. In fact, Harry thought, shaking his head a little, it was less hard than waiting for Draco's letter the last three days had been.
Ginny was staring at him. Harry had the impression that other emotions moved in her eyes, just beneath the surface, but her shock was so great that he couldn't tell what they were. He stepped close to her and clasped her hands. To anyone watching from the door of the Burrow, it would look like a private moment between the lovers. Harry hoped that most of the possible observers would think they'd had few enough of those lately, and leave them to it.
"I don't want all the fuss," Ginny whispered at last. "I wish we had eloped, or I had cut my hair. It would serve my mother right."
"But what about being married to me?" Harry stared into her eyes, still searching for the other feelings buried there. He wished she would stop blinking slowly the way she was, as if she were trying to stare into the sun. He needed her to wake up from the daze and tell him the truth. "Could you—I mean, do you want to be married to me? Or not?" He reached out and swept the back of his knuckles down her face.
Ginny sucked in a deep breath, as if she needed all the air in the garden to make a decision. "I don't know," she said, and the last word came out almost as a wail. The next moment, she had buried her head against his robe and started sobbing.
Harry cradled her, running a hand through her hair, and stared at the far wall of the garden for endless seconds. That didn't sound very promising, but maybe Ginny was just overtired with all the bustle. Maybe she would be all right when they got into a house of their own.
But I don't want to share that house with her.
And so Harry realized that he made his decision after all, without even thinking about it. No, he couldn't have the family he wanted with Ginny. Maybe Draco was the wrong choice, too, and the bond they were building through the Courtship wouldn't last, but at least he knew that his passion for Ginny was thin and attenuated, too small to stand up to the likes of the blows it had been assaulted with.
"Gin," he said firmly, "I can't get married to you."
Ginny blinked at him, and started to open her mouth, but at that moment Mrs. Weasley stepped out of the house and called with authority, "Ginny! I need to trim that hair!"
And Ginny was on her feet and scuttling across the garden, her shoulders hunched as if against a blow. Harry stared after her, at a loss.
He had not realized that he was not the only one who might have trouble making up his mind.
Amid all the bustle and all the confusion, it was almost a relief to find a peremptory letter waiting for him next to his bed that night.
We need to talk. Malfoy Manor, five minutes after you read this. I know you can remember it well enough for Apparition coordinates.
Harry drew a swift, glad breath as he dropped the letter. Maybe another decision had been made for him. Draco sounded brittle and furious about the last gifts that Harry had sent him, and he'd gone back to calling Harry by his last name. That probably meant he wanted to break the Courtship with some incomprehensible pure-blood ritual, and then at least Harry would have the choice of just a marriage with Ginny or no marriage instead of thinking that it was a choice between people.
Not even a choice, remember? You made it.
But Harry shrugged as he draped his Invisibility Cloak over his shoulders and sneaked down the stairs, past people sleeping the deep sleep of exhaustion. He hadn't announced his decision to anyone except Ginny yet, who certainly hadn't told anyone else. So for the moment, it felt private and like he could change it if he wanted to.
Even though he probably couldn't.
Harry snorted softly as he stepped out onto the Burrow's lawn and walked beyond the anti-Apparition wards. He was just a mass of contradictions, wasn't he? And Malfoy was probably one, too, for wanting him.
He closed his eyes and recalled the Manor without effort. Even if it had changed somewhat since the war, Harry thought the image of the place where Hermione had been tortured was burned into his retinas.
And that's another sign that he's given up on me, too, isn't it? He wouldn't be so callous as to refer to why I know the Manor if he hadn't.
It was with a strange confidence that Harry Apparated. If the Courtship had gone on too long, if he'd tried to depend on it too much, then he might have been devastated Malfoy was breaking it. As it was, while it would hurt, it wouldn't be the end of his world.
He was glad. He'd faced that often enough for one lifetime.
He opened his eyes after finishing the Apparition, and saw the Manor's gates gleaming before him under the moonlight, and the path running up to the house beyond them, and a ghostly white peacock stalking across the lawn by itself, plaintively calling.
And in front of the gates stood Draco, with his arms folded and his hair uncovered so that it flashed in the moonlight. By the time Harry fully took note of him, he had unfolded his arms and was striding rapidly forwards. Harry unhooked his wand and hopped to the side, ready for a duel.
Draco ignored the wand as if it had been a stick, and Harry was so astonished that he let him do it. Draco had him gripped by the shoulders a few moments later and was shaking him until his teeth rattled in his head and clipped his tongue. Harry tried to pull back and shoot an ankle out so that he would catch one of Draco's legs and trip him, but then he was caught by Draco's words.
"Do you know what that bloody ring did to me? I don't know where you learned that bloody spell, but I'm sure it's illegal. Fucking Merlin, Harry, I was wearing that ring when I was trying to have a serious discussion about the family's finances with Father yesterday!"
Harry tried to maintain the seriousness that Draco probably wanted him to have, but the image of Draco squirming about with an erection—Harry had enchanted the cheap ring to make Draco feel like he was being stroked and sucked at the most inconvenient moments—made him snort and then shout with laughter. Draco stared down at him with what was probably disgust when the laughter shook Harry loose from his hold and made him roll on the ground. At last he snarled, and Harry heard real danger in his voice.
"I suppose that's your ridiculous revenge for my leaving you hard and wanting in Diagon Alley?"
"Of course it is." Harry wiped tears away from his face and sat up, grinning at Draco. It struck him as entirely fitting that Draco was standing above him with pristine clothes and a mocking sneer and that Harry was in the dirt at his feet. That was the way that other people would always see their respective positions towards one another. Draco was a fool to try to change that. Harry was a fool for wishing it otherwise, in fact. "I don't know why you think that I'll agree to be yours just because you said I was, or because I sent you a gift without knowing every single nuance of your silly pure-blood traditions. This is what I'm like, idiot. Always fighting you, always stronger than you." Draco's eyes flashed. Harry saw an opportunity to drive the knife deeper. "Your rival, not your lover."
Draco's eyelids drooped over his eyes, and suddenly his face wasn't funny at all. "Why can't you be both?" he whispered, and then he dropped down so he was kneeling on Harry's chest and began to kiss him again.
Harry, through sheer startlement, tried to pull away. Ginny had never kissed him like this, had never been so insistent, and hadn't shoved her tongue into the corners of Harry's mouth as if refusing to give him an escape or pushed it down his throat as if seeking his heart.
But, as Harry's breathing began to speed up and he noticed that his hand had risen to lock in Draco's hair and keep his head still, he realized this was exactly the way he liked to be kissed.
Draco's knees crushed his chest. Harry rolled them over so that he was on top, and then Draco pushed at him and toppled them over again. Harry groaned and kissed and pushed and thrust, one fist beating an irregular tattoo on Draco's chest. Draco locked a leg around his hip and held him still, his tongue and his teeth never ceasing their regular clicking, darting motions in Harry's mouth.
At last he pulled back and said softly, "You're mine. This isn't something that can be denied, Harry."
Harry shut his eyes for long moments. His palms stung from scrapes with dirt ground into them. His legs ached from the awkward position he'd been in for so long. His mouth was full of a taste, his mind full of a knowledge, that he thought he'd never get rid of now.
"If I'm yours," he said, voice uneven, "then you're mine, too."
Draco leaned towards him, eyes burning like stars. "Why," he whispered, "did you ever think I would be anything else?"
Harry reached towards him, mind wiped clean of anything except the knowledge that he had to hold Draco.
But Draco slipped through his hands like water, and walked to the gates, and looked over his shoulder, and said, "There's one step left of the Courtship, the most dramatic," and then went back into the house, leaving Harry to stare after him in incredulous frustration.
Harry came to a decision the next day, after several hours of thinking matters carefully over. There was next to nothing he could do about Draco—he would do what he wanted when he wanted to do it, and Harry knew a letter urging him to hurry would only create more delays—but he had to settle matters for Ginny.
So he set out to corner her.
This was surprisingly difficult.
Ginny had decided that this was her day to Help Her Mother. First Harry found her baking cookies, then washing her hair, then practicing conjuring the more ephemeral decorations, glamours and the like, that wouldn't be hung until the day of the wedding itself. And she kept her back determinedly turned towards him and her head ducked aside each time.
Harry eventually decided to just remain near her, because that way he could catch her when she was done and before she could move on to the next task. She would have to pay attention to him then.
But that was a mistake, because that way Mrs. Weasley could pounce on him.
"Harry! Just the boy I wanted to see." Mrs. Weasley bustled up beside him, extending a mass of knitting that Harry accepted with clenched teeth, trying not to resent that she'd called him a boy instead of a man. "Hold this, dear, and think as hard as you can about the day of the wedding."
"Why?" Harry stared at the knitting with a jaundiced eye. It had ominous frilly edges to it. "I already have my robes."
"I know, dear, I know," Mrs. Weasley soothed him, whilst winding a loop of thread around her left hand and raising her wand with her right, "but I wouldn't trust Madam Malkin to put decorations on the robes, especially not the ones required for a special wedding like this. The lace that goes around the cuffs—"
"The what?" Harry tried to yank his hands away, but somehow, when he wasn't looking, the knitting had twined itself far more firmly about his wrists than he knew was possible. "I'm not having any lace on my robes!"
Mrs. Weasley's face took on the slightly stiff smile it was apt to acquire when Ginny talked about cutting her hair. "Yes, you are, dear," she said. "It's part of the traditional ornamentation, back in the days when men and women weren't so uptight about having entirely separate clothes."
"Yeah?" Harry said flatly. "Well, I am uptight about it, and I'd prefer not to, thanks." He gave another pull, and several threads unraveled.
"Harry." Mrs. Weasley looked at him with large, shining eyes now, and even Harry couldn't tell whether her tears were coming from genuine hurt or only irritation. "Please. You know that we've planned all this for months, and now there's less than a month left, and you can't possibly want to back out now—"
Harry distinctly heard Ginny catch her breath behind him. He glanced over his shoulder and found her eyes fixed on him. But other than that they had a feverish shine, they gave him no clue what she was feeling. Maybe she was angry, maybe ready to cry herself.
"Hold still, Harry," Mrs. Weasley reprimanded him, in a softer tone now, since she must think he was cooperating. "After the lace on the cuffs there's only the lace collar, and I meant to discuss the decorative wig with you, and what do you think about a style that'll lift your hair away from your forehead and make you look your best?"
"And expose my scar?" Harry swiveled his head back to stare at Mrs. Weasley.
"Well, yes." Mrs. Weasley smiled at him and gave him a little motherly pat on the shoulder, which made Harry have to spit out bits of thread. "I understand that you don't like people looking at it, but you really do look so much better when you have your fringe out of your face, instead of trying to hide beneath it like a shaggy little lion!" She chuckled. "And then there are the doves that you'll want to let fly—"
In that moment, as he stared into her eyes, Harry understood an incontrovertible truth.
She's mad. She's gone insane. She's planning the wedding for the wedding's sake, and coming up with more traditions that we can add to it for the sake of tradition, not because she really wants to use them or because Ginny told her she required them. Well, and because I'm paying for it and she doesn't have to worry about expenses, but still.
He scrutinized Mrs. Weasley's face more closely, and saw the grainy dark circles under her eyes and the way her hand holding the wand trembled.
She's gone mad, and she's tired, and she'll probably collapse of exhaustion after the wedding's over, or even before. Her dream is eating her alive.
I'm the only one who can rescue her from it, since I have no idea what Ginny will do.
Harry took a deep breath and focused his magic as closely as he could on the knitting that bound his wrists. It fell away in useless, cut loops and he held up his free hands, rubbing them.
Mrs. Weasley sighed, a sound that seemed to rattle in her lungs. "Harry," she said. "Now it'll only have to be done over." She blinked, and held up the knitting, looking from her left hand to the right for a moment as if she couldn't remember which was which. "You need to know—"
"No," Harry interrupted. His own voice was hoarse and shaky. Of course, his heart was beating so fast that that wasn't surprising. "You need to know that I have no intention of going through with this farce of a wedding, Mrs. Weasley."
Mrs. Weasley's face crumpled. "Harry?" she whispered, and this time, her voice was that of a little girl lost. But it wasn't louder, Harry thought, than Ginny's hard, relieved exhalation behind him.
"I can't get married like this," Harry said bluntly. "Not like a celebrity. I went along with it just because it seemed to make you happy, but I need more than that." He hesitated, wondering if he would manage to find the right words, then hurried on when he saw Mrs. Weasley open her mouth again. Maybe these weren't the right words, but he couldn't risk her voice overriding his and maybe convincing him and Ginny again. "I need something private, and something joyous, and something flexible."
Mrs. Weasley licked her lips, and then said in a falsely bright voice, "All right, dear. Perhaps you can Court Ginny."
"I'm sorry, Mrs. Weasley." Harry's heartbeat still hadn't calmed, which he thought was ridiculous. He rubbed his palms on his robes in an effort to free them from sweat. "I don't want anything about this wedding to come true at all. That includes marrying Ginny."
Silence so hard reigned after that that Harry wondered if he was about to be cursed out of the house.
Instead, Ginny squealed and jumped on him, wrapping her arms around his neck and showering him with kisses on both cheeks and his lips. Harry grunted in surprise and staggered backwards. Ginny followed him, clinging like a monkey, laughing, but Harry could clearly see tears sliding down her cheeks as well.
"That's not a girl's usual reaction to being told that a bloke doesn't want to marry her," was all he could think of to say.
Ginny jigged up and down in front of him, her hands clasping his, her face as bright as the day. Harry thought the last time he'd seen it like that, they'd still been at Hogwarts. "Oh, Harry," she said. "I didn't really want to marry you either, but I was going along with it for the family's sake. And maybe we could have been happy together, but I don't think so." She smiled up at him, cheeks so flushed that she looked like someone had slapped her. "I'm in love with someone else, you see."
Harry blinked. "That's a new one on me."
She laughed and let go of his hands to spin in a circle. Harry started smiling in spite of himself; she was so carefree. "The assistant wizard at Francine's Fabulous Footwear," she said. "The one who was fitting me in the back room, and who I was taking so long to see? We've been exchanging owls for months."
Harry felt like smacking himself. He should have known. "That's why you needed your shoes fitted so many times," he said.
"Well, good." Harry leaned over to kiss her on the forehead, ignoring Mrs. Weasley's sharp, "Ginevra." "Who's the lucky fellow?"
Harry felt as though his mouth had dropped permanently open. He swallowed and nodded slowly. Well, if Malfoy changed, why can't his friends change, too? "Congratulations," he said.
Abruptly, Ginny grabbed his hand and ran with him out the front door. Harry heard the crackle and hiss of a spell behind him and reckoned that Mrs. Weasley had finally lost patience and tried to curse them. Ginny was giggling and shrieking like a five-year-old as she pushed Harry towards the little shed behind the house where Harry and Ron kept their brooms. "Get out of here," she said. "Mum's bound to be a little displeased for a bit—"
A purple spell landed behind them that made the grass sizzle.
"A little?" Harry said, shuddering.
"A little," Ginny said, unfazed. "But I can face it better because I'm her daughter, and I'm not the one who actually broke the engagement." She winked at him. "Besides, don't you have someone of your own waiting for you?"
Harry suspected he was gaping again.
"You never were any good at lying, Harry," Ginny murmured. "And I might possibly have received some owls offering me money to break the engagement on my own, and then accepting my suggestions when I said that what you really needed was someone to fly to, not just someone to run away from."
"You're the one who gave the memory of the Gryffindor common room to Malfoy!" Harry said.
"Don't you think you should call him Draco now?" Ginny ducked a Cutting Curse, which Harry thought was aimed at her hair, and then shoved him again, more strongly, in the direction of the shed. "Just remember that I expect your firstborn child to be named after me."
"Men can't have children," Harry said, but then was nervous as he remembered that he hadn't known men could Court other men, either. "Can they?"
Ginny laughed at him hard enough that she was rolling on the ground, and thus missed another of her mother's spells. Grinning up at him, she said, "Why don't you go find out?"
Harry nodded and ran.
It was ridiculous, Harry thought, that he could have the courage to defy his mother-in-law—surrogate mother, really—over an enormous wedding that had cost her lots of time and effort to prepare, and yet he couldn't work up the courage to knock on the front doors of the Manor. Or even take his broom and circle the house, for God's sake.
He shifted his weight for the third time. He'd spent twenty minutes now standing outside the iron fence that surrounded the Malfoy estate and staring in like an orphaned boy in front of a sweet shop. Peacocks strutted past him, one with its tail half-plucked and neck curved as if it were trying to hide its face.
There's one step left in the Courtship, the most dramatic.
What had that meant?
Harry hesitated and licked his lips. Maybe he wasn't hesitating out of fear, he thought. Maybe he wanted that last step of the Courtship Malfoy had promised him.
Though whatever it is, I don't think it's likely to be as dramatic as breaking my own marriage into smithereens.
Harry cast one more thoughtful look at the house, and then Apparated to Diagon Alley and the Leaky Cauldron. He had no idea that Malfoy was home at the moment, he told himself. He was probably attending one of his numerous parties or walking through shops more posh than Harry had ever known existed, studying jewels through an eye-glass.
Harry would wait at the Cauldron and see what Malfoy did when the news of his refusing Ginny broke in the papers.
It isn't fear, or weakness, or the feeling of having gone as far as I can and wanting someone else to do part of the work, he told himself as he nodded to Tom and paid for a room for the night. No news had arrived here, at least, because he got no more than the ordinary hero-worshipping glances. It's just that I would hate to miss out on whatever Draco's got planned.
As he sat on the bed and thought about Ginny's reaction and her confession and Draco's probable reaction, he began to laugh.
And for the first time in months, the laughter sounded unforced, unfettered, free.
"Is it true that you refused Ginny Weasley?"
"Is it true that you're in love with someone else? Who?"
"Will you marry me instead?"
Variations on those three questions had plagued Harry all morning. He had been steadily forcing his way through Diagon Alley in an effort to find Draco, but the crowd had surged around him and shouted the questions into his face, until he had retreated back into the Leaky Cauldron.
People had tried to climb the stairs and hammer on the door of his room, too, until Tom had chanted a long string of words in Latin. Then there had been a sound like the roar of a lion, and a heavy thump that shook the walls in Harry's room.
Then there had been silence.
Harry lay on the bed, staring at the ceiling and gnawing his thumbnail whilst his mind spun in worried circles. Had he done the right thing by refusing Ginny? Yesterday it had seemed so simple: he would be free from the wedding preparations, he would free Ginny to go after the one she loved, and he would be free to pursue a relationship with Draco.
But now he wondered how his friends would react, and the rest of the Weasleys. Hermione, at least, would probably welcome the end of the wedding preparations with relief, but what about Fleur and all the Weasley aunts and cousins who had flooded the house for months to practice their parts in the event? What about Mr. Weasley, and Bill, and George, and Charlie?
What about Ron?
What gave Harry courage was the memory of his conversations with his best friends, both telling him he should back out of the wedding if he was unhappy, rather than go forwards with something that would change his life in so dramatic a manner. Hermione might have heard some of the truth from Ginny. Ron had seemed concerned about both his sister and Harry. Maybe he'd be disappointed at first—especially because Harry couldn't believe he would be in on the secret of Draco's Courtship—but he would come around.
Harry could only hope.
He was so deep in considerations of gloom and potential disasters that it took a long moment for the noise from the street to reach him. Gasps, shocked screams, cheers, and angry shouts mingled, rising from Diagon Alley. Harry stood up at last and went to the window of his room that overlooked the Alley. He wondered if they had discovered his presence, or if George had introduced some new product. Certainly, there wouldn't be joy mingled with the anger if it was a Death Eater attack or similar.
He stared out the window—and his jaw dropped for the third time in two days.
Draco Malfoy was advancing up the middle of Diagon Alley, and his magic must have held a clear path open in front of him through the crowds, because there was no way on earth that he could have been left unmolested otherwise. He wore a floating cape of white peacock feathers over his shoulders, and more bobbing feathers in his hair. His head was lifted and his face tilted back to the sky, his smile beatific. On one shoulder perched the Wingmalkin, hissing at anyone who strained against the barrier keeping them back.
Other than the feathers, Draco was stark naked.
Harry stood there a moment in a dream, staring. He felt as if he'd been turned to stone. This was simply one shock too many.
When he told me it would be dramatic, I didn't imagine anything like this.
For a moment, he doubted whether this was the gesture Draco had meant after all. Perhaps he was only doing this as a result of one of the crazy bets that he regularly made with his circle. Harry had no idea. He had no idea if Draco valued him this much, if he could ever fit into Draco's life—
And then Draco found his eyes and smiled, the insufferable self-satisfied smile that Harry had wanted to punch off his face more than once, and spun so that the back of the cloak was to Harry.
On the back in glittering letters as green as the Killing Curse glowed the words Property of Harry Potter.
Draco gave a graceful shrug, and dropped the cloak to the ground. Then he dropped the spell that kept him protected from the crowd. Several women and men ran eagerly forwards, their hands groping out.
Harry didn't think. He grabbed his broom from the floor, hopped onto it, and flew out the window.
For a moment, the Alley spun dizzily beneath him, but in moments he had oriented himself on the bobbing feathers that stood up from Draco's hair and the lashing tail of the Wingmalkin. At least a few people had fallen back with sharp red scratches across their face from the kitten's protecting claws, Harry noted dimly.
The next moment, he dived like a hawk.
Glimpses of buildings enclosed him like a tunnel, so fast did he descend, and then he was pulling up and steering through grasping hands and lashing arms and bobbing heads. He knew the proper moment to drop his hand and catch Draco's.
Memories tried to assault him—this was the way he'd pulled him from the Fiendfyre, exactly like—but Harry pulled and hauled, and Draco climbed, and then they were both on the broom, Draco's arms wrapped around his waist, his lips fastening on the back of Harry's neck as if he were a starving vampire.
His erection shoved into the curve of Harry's arse, and Harry couldn't help a short backwards thrust of his hips. Draco laughed, the sound rich and deep enough to make Harry start hardening.
"Get us out of here," Draco whispered into his ear, and then latched onto Harry's earlobe with devouring teeth, which didn't help.
Harry kicked himself out of the daze when someone else tried to touch Draco's thigh, and then kicked the broom upwards. Once again the buildings spun around them. Then they were soaring above the disappointed, shrieking crowd, with the Wingmalkin flying after them, all its claws shot and its fur standing on end.
"Where are we going?" Harry asked on a gasp, tilting his head back. "The Manor?"
"You think I'm going to last that long?" Draco whispered. "Fuck no. We'll go to your room. Just let me cast a Disillusionment Charm, to make them think we've Apparated."
It occurred to Harry to ask where he'd stashed his wand, but the sensation like an egg breaking over his head occurred before he could. The next moment, Draco cast a spell that imitated the popping sound of Apparition. The crowd's roar overwhelmed the noise of Harry's heartbeat in his ears.
Then Draco thrust into his arse again and bit his ear, and Harry turned the broom hastily back towards the Leaky Cauldron.
They tumbled onto the bed, somehow falling directly from the broom and leaving it to smash into the wall. Harry would have protested about scratches in the wood—it was a new-model Moonbrush—but Draco curved an arm around his neck and sucked on his tongue, and then he had better things to think about.
(Although he did notice from the corner of his eye that the Wingmalkin had taken up a perch on the windowsill from which it could stare at them disapprovingly).
Draco was tugging on his shirt and opening his legs wide enough at the same moment to cradle Harry's hips whilst thrusting against him, and for long moments the only thought in Harry's mind was that he was a marvel of coordination. Then Draco rolled over, and he was on top of Harry, and Harry experienced a sharp surge of excitement at the contrast of his weight and strength with Ginny's.
Another flick of that unseen wand, and Harry was naked. Not that he objected, especially when Draco reached impatiently down between them and grabbed his cock.
Harry had a better idea, though, and he wasn't going to let Draco control every bit of this encounter, even if he was temporarily on top. He grabbed both their cocks in his hand and then moved Draco's hand so that it was grasping both of them as well. Draco gasped in approval into his mouth and began to make immediate, forceful movements that Harry feared would end everything before he got a chance to enjoy it.
Therefore, he gentled his own rocking and traced his tongue in a slow circle around the outside of Draco's mouth. He gripped Draco's madly stroking fingers and held them still with his free hand, meantime speeding up his own hand. Their cocks rubbed together, a combination of slickness and warmth Harry had never imagined. He gasped as their heads caught against each other, and thrust two times before he slowed down and went back to his measured stroking.
"So good," Draco gasped into his ear.
Harry licked his mouth again, and thumbed the shaft of Draco's penis. Draco's eyes rolled back in his head. He shuddered. A peacock feather drifted down from his hair and brushed against Harry's shoulder, sending a mild thrill through him. Another had broken at an awkward angle and dangled past Draco's ear, making him look beautiful and ruffled.
"Imagine," Draco sighed, "what it'll be like when you suck me, when I fuck you, when I suck you, when you fuck me. Imagine a hotter, wetter warmth than this around you. Imagine me wanking you when I know what you like. Imagine—"
The warmth was intolerable, and so were his words. Harry flung an arm around his neck again and kissed him silent, clicking their teeth together and jumping with the pain of it. But the sensation dived to the base of his spine and joined the building slickness between their fingers, and the soft squishing sound of them rubbing together and the constant temptation to arch his back and bring them closer, and the intensity in Draco's eyes as he stared down.
It was all too much at last. Harry wrapped himself near, pressing his chest into Draco's until he vaguely thought Draco would carry the imprint of his muscles, and shuddered through the most satisfying orgasm of his life. Draco licked the side of his neck and coated his stomach with a dripping, sliding pool of liquid. Harry was startled to feel a greater sense of smugness and triumph than he had when he came.
It was a pleasure he could not imagine sharing with Ginny.
No more comparisons, he told himself sternly, and stroked his hands along Draco's back, scrabbling for a moment, because sweat down the spine and semen from his hand made his grip slick. This is what you chose.
Long moments later, Draco opened his eyes and slid off Harry like a snake to lie beside him. He brushed Harry's hair back from his forehead and smiled at him. Harry wondered when he had started finding the way Draco's mouth twisted attractive.
"You liked your last gift, I take it," he murmured.
"You do that again, and I'm going to punish you," Harry said, then blinked. Did I really just say that? It seemed Draco was going to teach him new sexual things about himself even after he'd thought he'd already learned every lesson.
Draco gave a faint moan and braced himself on one elbow to kiss Harry lightly, ignoring Harry's attempts to deepen the contact. "Not now, Harry," he sighed when he drew back. "I'm too worn out for another round."
"We'll see about that." Harry cast a glance down at Draco's twitching groin.
"For the moment," Draco said, and his voice had abruptly strengthened, "I want to know why you chose me at last."
"Because you weren't just the opposite of Ginny," Harry said, the reasons spilling easily from his lips without involving his brain, much the way the comment about punishment had. "Because you were someone different. Because I still want to beat you when we race across the sea next time. Because I was dreaming about you, even though I tried not to remember that. Because you left me longing, and I had to feel you satisfy me. Because I want to know how you've changed since the war, and why you chose me. Because I want you."
"All very good reasons." Draco bowed his head, his smile secretive.
"I don't know much about a Courtship," Harry confessed, propping himself up on one elbow in turn, "or how the marriage that comes from it is supposed to work."
"I told you," Draco said firmly, "it can be whatever we want it to be. It's flexible. For the moment, we know we want to have sex with each other. And I think sexual fidelity will have to be part of it, considering what a possessive lover I have." He pretended to pout.
Harry scowled at him.
"I wouldn't want anyone else touching you, either," Draco said, and for a moment his face became harsh as granite. The next moment, it had relaxed, and he flung an arm and a leg over Harry. "And I want us to be able to make each other happy, and do other things than argue. Other than that, I don't know what it'll be any more than you do. The duties and freedoms should be the ones we choose to take up."
Harry trembled for a moment. The words frightened him, and he didn't know why—until he tried to imagine the future, and saw only a gaping, windy tunnel.
He'd always had some sort of structure and control in his life. First the Dursleys, then Hogwarts, then the tutoring and studying for NEWTS, and then the expected happy ending with Ginny, and most recently the wedding.
"I don't think I know how to be free," he whispered.
Draco clasped his hand and his jaw and turned Harry's face so that Harry was looking at him. "I'll be there," he said quietly, with the force of a vow. "I promise."
And slowly, Harry's mental picture of the future acquired a companion, ornamented in white and gold, mounted on a fast broom, his smile taunting and his eyes full of brightness.
Harry found himself smiling strongly. He leaned over and placed his lips as close to Draco's as he could whilst still leaving himself room to speak.