Author's notes: Written for the hd_inspired "Back to School" Fest. Prompt no. 36 by magelet: Good old potions accident/misfired hex/etc. that gives either Harry or Draco a change in how others perceive them. As in, they totally still think the way they do normally and nothing has changed on the inside, but whatever their actions or words are, people on the outside keep misinterpreting it to be something else. Good or bad or whatever is up to the author. Additional words: bunnies, Giant squid, Mrs. Norris.

The first and last parts in italics are directly taken from JKR's HBP (p. 488f and 596 of the Bloomsbury British edition for Children, Bloomsbury, 2005).

I apologise for the misuse of Greek and for writing something that might not fit the prompt entirely, because I was too stupid to think up a situation in which the hexed speaker wouldn't realise from the reaction of the others what was wrong with him. Magelet, I sincerely hope that you will enjoy this fic!

Thanks to Tuulia81 and Jaelle for listening and to Ayes for her wonderfully detailed, fast and patient beta-job. She pushed me to write a better story and made it fun!

Concrit and feedback are always welcome.

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The Translation Job

"Call no man a foe, but never love a stranger."

(Stella Benson)

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Choose a Language

Outside the bathroom, Harry pressed his ear against the door. He couldn't hear anything. He very quietly pushed the door open.

Draco Malfoy was standing with his back to the door, his hands clutching either side of the sink, his white-blond head bowed.

"Don't," crooned Moaning Myrtle's voice from one of the cubicles. "Don't ... tell me what's wrong ... I can help you ..."

"No one can help me," said Malfoy. His whole body was shaking. "I can't do it ... I can't ... it won't work ... and unless I do it soon ... he says he'll kill me ..."

And Harry realised, with a shock so huge it seemed do root him to the spot, that Malfoy was crying – actually crying – tears streaming down his pale face into the grimy basin. Malfoy gasped and gulped and then, with a great shudder, looked into the cracked mirror and saw Harry staring at him over his shoulder.

Malfoy wheeled round, drawing his wand. Instinctively, Harry pulled out his own. Malfoy's hex missed Harry by inches, shattering the lamp on the wall beside him; Harry threw himself sideways, thought Levicorpus! and flicked his wand, but Malfoy blocked the jinx and raised his wand for another –

"No! No! Stop it!" squealed Moaning Myrtle, her voice echoing loudly around the tiled room. "Stop! STOP!"

There was a loud bang and the bin behind Harry exploded; Harry attempted a Leg-Locker curse that backfired off the wall behind Malfoy's ear and smashed the cistern beneath Moaning Myrtle, who screamed loudly; water poured everywhere and Harry slipped over as Malfoy, his face contorted, cried, "Cruci-"

"OMILIKA FIDII!" bellowed Harry from the floor, waving his wand wildly.

Malfoy staggered from the force of the spell as it struck him squarely in the chest.

And … nothing happened.

Then Malfoy straightened up, panting slightly from the impact. "What was that, Potter? Resorting to useless spells now, are we?" He wiped his hair away from his face with the back of his hand, whilst keeping his wand trained on Harry at all the times. "For a moment there, I thought that you were going go gut me alive." He sneered. "But then, that's a move not noble enough for you, is it? All the better for me, if you haven't got it in you."

With the immediate tension of the battle between them having been broken, Harry scrambled to his feet, his wand arm still pointed at Malfoy. "Better for you, indeed. Not all of us can be cowards and traitors." He gave a shrug and indicated over his shoulder towards the door. "I'm off, Malfoy, and you better not follow me. You hear that?"

Malfoy snorted. "I think you've got this the wrong way around. You're the one who keeps stalking me, remember? Maybe no one's let you in on the big secret yet, but I'm not part of your fan-club."

Harry took his time and gave Malfoy the once-over. Dark circles under his eyes and a blotchy nose stood starkly out on his otherwise pale face. Malfoy looked like shit, in spite of his biting remarks.

"This is getting old. I have better stuff to do." Slowly, Harry started to back away, step by step, like someone retreating from a wounded animal, not sure whether it would lash out any moment. The enormity of the spell's failure had begun to sink in and made him almost shake with anger.

Once in the corridor, he broke into a run towards Gryffindor Tower. Most people were walking the other way; they gaped at him drenched in water and fired question after question, but he answered none as he ran past.

He felt betrayed; it was as though a beloved pet had turned against him. What had the Prince been thinking, to copy such a useless spell into his book? It had clearly been marked 'To Confuse Your Enemy', but it did nothing alike. If anything, it had given Malfoy time to recover, and it was only Harry's luck and Malfoy's preference of talking instead of fighting that had saved him in the end.

"What happened to you?" Ron was standing at the top of the stairs to the boy's dormitory, staring at Harry's soaked trousers.

"I had a little run-in with Malfoy in Moaning Myrtle's bathroom."

Ron's eyes widened and a grin broadened his face. "You did? So? Did you hex each other?"

"You bet. Malfoy was about to Crucio me so I used one of the Prince's hexes, but it didn't do a thing. Can you believe that?" Harry fumbled for a dry pair of trousers and began to change.

Together, they went back into the common room, where Hermione and Ginny were anxious to listen to Harry's story. Harry hadn't even noticed them earlier in his frantic run up to the boy's dormitory. With everyone so keen to hear from him, Harry was eager to recount his encounter with Malfoy.

"You did what?" Hermione rounded in on Harry. "Harry, don't tell me you used an unknown hex on Malfoy? I've said this before and I'll say it again: the Half-Blood Prince is a dangerous person. What if the curse seriously hurt someone? You could have killed Malfoy."

"Come on, Hermione!" Ron groaned and rolled his eyes. "Give Harry a break! It's not as if Malfoy's an angel, is he? For god's sake, he tried to attack Harry with the Cruciatus curse. It was pure self-defence," he finished triumphantly.

Hermione wasn't persuaded as easily, though. Harry had to listen to another round of Ron and Hermione bickering with each other while Ginny threw him sympathetic looks. She was decorating her Charms essay with pictures of Kneazels and bunnies frolicking in the margin. Harry smiled inwardly. Not that he wasn't used to his best two friends acting like they did, but Ginny's renewed attention made his heart break out in a wild gallop. Not even hunting the Snitch on his broom felt so good.

In the end, they decided that while it had been stupid to use a hex with an unknown result, nothing bad had happened. Every time Hermione went all McGonagall on them, Ginny sprang to Harry's defence, and that alone had been worth the whole commotion.

***

Draco stayed long enough in Myrtle's bathroom to convince her that she couldn't tell anybody what had happened. She returned after Harry left: her face pearlier and her eyes huge behind her thick glasses. He talked to her endlessly, but she continued to shake her head.

"I don't understand you," she said again and again. "Stop talking like that. It's not very nice of you, after all I went through."

How typical of Myrtle to only think of herself! In the end, Draco pleaded one last time and, as a distraction, asked her to visit the Giant Squid. He left the bathroom hoping for the best. It wouldn't help his cause if she spread the news; it was important to let people know his version of the events.

He found Pansy sitting in the common room, busy writing her Potions essay.

"You won't believe what happened to me," Draco began his tale.

Pansy looked up, seeming slightly startled. Instead of launching herself onto him like she usually did, she stayed in her seat and eyed him warily.

"Pardon?"

"Potter just attacked me." There was no need to tell the exact place and circumstances of his encounter with the Golden Boy. "We duelled. And when I was about to finish him off for good, he used a spell on me that had simply no effect. If he's all Dumbledore's got up in his sleeve, the Dark Lord's already won." Pansy had worried enough about Draco's silence in the last few months. It would do them both good to let her hear such positive news.

"Are you making fun of me?" Pansy's voice interrupted Draco's happy musings.

"Pansy? What's wrong? Stop glaring at me like that, will you? Can't you see nothing bad happened?"

"Draco, whatever you're playing at, stop it! This is some idiotic game of yours, isn't it? I don't know how you could think talking like that could be considered funny. Maybe tomorrow you'll act like your usual self again. I clearly hope you will."

She gathered her quill, parchment and books from the table and stormed from the room. Draco stared after her, bewildered. What was eating her? "Women," he murmured, more to himself than to anybody else. Then he made his way to the boys' dormitory. No one else bothered him. Vince, Greg and Blaise were all fast asleep, and Theo was in the bathroom. Draco went to bed without another strange encounter.

***

Pansy didn't appear at breakfast, so Draco had no opportunity to ask her about her bewildered reaction the other night. It wasn't like she was avoiding him; Pansy sleeping in was nothing out of the ordinary. His dorm-mates, on the other hand, acted a little weird. When Draco asked Greg to pass him the butter, it earned him a dark look instead, something so unusual that Draco almost dropped his knife. Though, when he had finally had enough and deigned to reach for the damned butter dish himself, Vince handed him not only the butter, but his favourite Orange marmalade as well.

"That's better," Draco hummed to himself, thickly layered his toast with butter and marmalade, and took a hearty bite.

Their first lesson that morning brought another Defence Against the Dark Arts class. Snape swept down on them like a hawk, more ill-tempered than ever for some reason. Draco grinned. Even though Snape was pressing him hard these days to reveal his secret, he still favoured Draco in his classes. So when Snape asked the students to sum up the properties of Inferi for another time, Draco confidently put up his hand and started to tick them off his fingers.

He only stopped when he heard one of the Gryffindor girls scream.

"Ten points from Gryffindor! Compose yourself, Mrs Brown," came Snape's voice, unperturbed as ever. "There is no need to panic."

"Professor Snape, she's afraid! And for good reason." The Mudblood rushed to defend her fellow house-mate.

Draco had to suppress a snort. When would that bint ever learn that acting like a fool and butting into other people's business was only going to cost her House Points?

"This, Mrs Granger, is not upon you to decide. Anyone acting childishly in my class will get points taken from their house. Another ten points from Gryffindor for twice interrupting my lesson," Snape snapped. "This is Defence Against the Dark Arts, as you may have noticed, had you not all been too busy filling your heads with nonsense. So it might be worthy to study how not to panic, when things unusual or out of the ordinary happen."

Snape, Draco decided, had a point. But what was all that rubbish about 'unusual'?

"Why is everyone acting like I've grown two heads all of a sudden?" Draco asked. "Are Gryffindors really that dumb that they don't know it's common for students to answer questions in class?"

Snape eyed him closely. "If my guess is correct, then you, Mr Malfoy, have no idea what has happened to you, have you?"

Draco stared at him in confusion. Was this another trick to gain his confidence? Snape must be getting desperate. He felt his professor's gaze bore into his eyes, tugging at his mind with brash questions. Draco wouldn't let Snape enter his thoughts. He averted his eyes and closed his mind firmly against the intrusion, just like Aunt Bella had taught him to do. With so many witnesses around them, Snape gave up quickly, but spoke up once again.

"You've been hexed with the Omilika fidii, Mr Malfoy, and to my knowledge there exists no counter-curse. You must suffer the consequences until it wears off on its own." He smiled thinly at Draco.

"Hexed? I don't understand." Images of Potter in soaking wet trousers flashed through Draco's mind. "There's nothing wrong with me!"

"Let me explain, Mr Malfoy. I, as well as the rest of this class, can't understand a word you're saying." He paused, clearly waiting for his message to sink in. "That is, there might be one person who can." His thin smile widened, and he turned to the Gryffindors, who stared at him with dawning horror on their faces.

"I'm quite sure that you, Potter, can translate Mr Malfoy's words for us, can you not?"

Potter stood, red cheeks burning in an otherwise deadly white face, and said nothing.

"Can't you, Potter?" Snape demanded with a lot more insistence.

"I- yes, Professor Snape. Yes, of course. Why can't anyone else?" Potter blabbered like the idiot he was.

Snape's icy silence could have cut through glass.

And then understanding broke through to Potter. He looked like someone had told him his favourite Quidditch team had just won the championship and simultaneously hit him in the stomach with a Bludger.

"He's- but that can't be ... Can it?"

"Can it, Potter? You tell me," repeated Snape, his voice dangerously soft.

"Parseltongue, Harry! He's speaking Parseltongue!" shrieked Granger.

"Your moments of inspirations are highly uncalled for, Mrs Granger," said Snape. "Another ten points from Gryffindor for interrupting my lesson once again, and being an insufferable know-it-all."

Draco slumped down further in his seat. Now he had the explanation for Pansy's angry reaction yesterday evening, and for Greg's irritated glares at the breakfast table earlier today. Nobody heard anything but hissing sounds whenever Draco opened his mouth to speak! Unlike with Potter in second year, nobody had a way of connecting his hissing to that of a snake's – there had been no snake around for others to see what Draco could do. His friends might have thought that he was making fun of them. While the brainless Gryffindor must have feared he was going to transform into a snake or become the next Dark Lord.

Talking to snakes – last year Draco would have found this cool. Right now he felt devastated. He needed to be able to communicate on his own, and here he was, incapable to communicate at all. He might be still able to get into the Room of Requirement, but he couldn't order Vince and Greg to watch any longer.

"... our expert in that particular field will have to help you out," Snape's voice interrupted Draco's glum thoughts.

Potter sprang to life. "What?"

"Pardon me. Mind your tongue, Potter. You will help translate Mr Malfoy's words for us. As you might have noticed, he is capable of understanding common English, so all you will have to do is convey the meaning of his hissing to anyone he wishes to communicate with. After the lesson, I shall inform the Headmaster of Mr Malfoy's condition, and I'm certain that he will not object to this solution. I'm sure you would not want me to investigate the circumstances of Mr Malfoy's state any deeper."

Potter the Parselmouth, given the task of translating for Draco. Draco looked at Potter, who looked almost as miserable as Draco felt himself. Under different circumstances, he would have enjoyed Potter's distress and bossing him around. It had been fun in second year, when Potter had been forced to skin Draco's shrivelfigs. But now? Draco knew that Potter had been tailing him all the time. Draco's task was cumbersome enough; all he wished was to be left alone.

***

"Harry," Ron groaned that night at dinner, "it's almost like you've been made Malfoy's personal house elf!"

The Great Hall was buzzing with students discussing the events of the morning.

"Let's not even think about it," Harry muttered glumly.

"So at least now we know what the spell does!" exclaimed Hermione. "It's turned Malfoy into someone who can only speak Parseltongue. And the spell's addled his mind so that he can't tell the difference any longer."

"I wonder why he's still able to understand what we say, though," said Ron.

Harry shrugged. "No idea and, frankly, I don't really care, either."

Hermione's eyebrows shot up. "Honestly, don't you two ever listen? Snape told us that the Omilia spells are a family of spells that affect only the language-production part of the brain. The spell to make you understand Parseltongue is Katanoisi fidii. Varying the second part of the Omilia and the Katanoisi, one could alter the brain to understand and produce any language – that's how translation spells work. Fascinating, isn't it?"

"But I used-"

"What's that supposed to mean?" asked Ron.

"-Omilika fidii, not Omilia!"

"Just a moment, Harry, I'll get to that in a minute." Hermione straightened and leaned forward in her seat. "For example, Ron, if you ever needed to have a quick conversation with a French wizard, you could use Omilia galikae and Katanoisi galikae and wouldn't need a translator."

"Then why don't people use the spells all the time, and still bother with learning French?"

"Oh, isn't it obvious? Think of what's happened to Malfoy! The spells change your ability; you can speak and understand French, but you lose all your English. You wouldn't want that, would you? And more so, any high-frequent switching between two or more languages could end in massive cellular damage to the brain."

"Oh. But if these are all legal translation spells, I don't understand why the Prince's marked the Omilika fidii as one to confuse an enemy," Harry said.

"I checked the library on translation spells this afternoon. The Prince must have altered the standard Omilia to the point that it couldn't be broken. And more so, the fidii-part makes it a Dark spell because it's directed at Parseltongue and not a human language like French or German. The spell's adjustments to languages like Mermish, Fairy or Gobbledegook are discussed as a grey area – think about the injustice against other magical beings! But of course a wizard or witch would get confused when they were suddenly able to talk to snakes-"

"Especially when surrounded by others who'd be afraid of them being Parselmouths and connected with the Dark Arts," Harry added, nodding heavily. He had had more than enough personal experience with the irrational reactions to someone being able to talk to snakes.

"But- wait a moment! I talked to Malfoy in the bathroom. Does that mean I used Parseltongue? I don't think I did – or at least I hope I didn't."

"That's where the difference between Omilia and Omilika comes into play. The person hexed with Omilika fidii would still understand their usual language, and therefore not realise the difference. The poor guy wouldn't even hear himself hissing – just like you Harry, when you're talking Parseltongue. What a nasty hex!"

"Hermione!" groaned Ron. "Don't forget that it's Malfoy we're talking about."

"I wish I'd used a different hex on him, though." Harry interjected. "One that wouldn't have given Snape any ideas of connecting me with 'personal translator' for Malfoy. I bet he'll love chasing me around in class."

"But Snape's right, Harry," Hermione objected. "No one else can do the job better than you. Or at all, for that matter."

"As if Malfoy can't write!" Ron exclaimed, while voraciously attacking a chicken's leg. "Honestly, Hermione, sometimes I think that you'd even try to find an excuse for why a Dementor sucks people's souls."

"Eww, Ron, can you please stop doing that? Chew with your mouth closed." Hermione scrunched up her nose. "And to answer your statement yes, there is an actual theory on that. Did you know that they were once Veela?"

Both Harry and Ron groaned in unison, which indeed prevented Hermione from giving them another lecture about whatever theory she had recently read.

"Look on the bright side. You might get a bit of fun out of it," Ron said while he and Harry were awake in their four-poster beds that night, unable to sleep.

"How does that work?"

"Well, you could translate whatever he says into rubbish. That'd show him."

"Sounds like fun. But then all he'd have to do is write a note saying I'm translating utter crap and accuse me of lying."

"Damn. Yeah, you're probably right." Ron shifted on his mattress. "Pity. It would've been a dream come true, wouldn't it?"

Harry laughed and felt lighter than he had in ages. Translating for Malfoy would be an unwelcome burden, but then being able to discuss the ongoing events with Ron would give him enough chances to laugh away his distress – something that Malfoy wouldn't be able to do. Harry couldn't imagine Malfoy trusting him with personal messages for his friends. The job would definitely focus around school stuff.

***

Malfoy, as it turned out the next day, wasn't able to write as much as a word. He hissed in anger when he picked up his quill and failed to copy the instructions on the board. He could draw lines and dots without a problem, but as soon as he tried to cover a word, he got stuck. The letters were garbled and looked more like the drawings of a pre-schooler than the writing of someone capable of reading and writing for the last ten years. When Harry casually told Malfoy this, the other boy glared at him.

"Having the time of your life, Potter? You can mix up whatever I want to say and I won't be able to stop you. I mean, I can't even tell anyone that you were the one responsible for that bloody hex!"

"How does it feel to be at another person's mercy, Malfoy? Isn't this the perfect opportunity for you to practise your service at the feet of Voldemort?"

Harry grinned when he saw Malfoy flinch. "You can't even stand his name now, when you share his ability to talk to snakes? What a piss poor Death Eater-in-training you make!"

"What are you two fighting about?"

Harry looked up.

Snape was standing inches away from the desk Harry had to share with Malfoy. He looked positively livid.

"I do not see any reason for the two of you to cause such a ruckus in my class. Potter, either you have something to translate, or you should both be working in silence on your assignment. I see no reason for you to discuss matters of any other proceedings; you wouldn't have anything competent to add to the conversation. So which is it? What are you keeping from me, Potter?"

"Tell him you're the one who hexed me," Malfoy hissed at Harry's side.

"Answer me, Potter." Snape's voice was colder than running through a ghost.

"I won't!" Harry answered Malfoy in Parseltongue.

"Stop hissing this instant! Twenty points from Gryffindor for showing disrespect towards a teacher. And you will answer my question. Now!"

Harry's thoughts raced. He had to come up with something, anything, to appease Snape. "Malfoy was simply angry because he couldn't even write a single letter. I told him not to get himself worked up about it," he said and then added, "Professor Snape," for good measure.

Snape glared at him and then addressed Malfoy. "Is that true? You can simply nod or shake your head."

"If you don't agree, I'll tell him that you hang around the Room of Requirement all day long. He'd love to know that, don't you think?" Harry muttered under his breath.

If looks could kill, Harry would have turned to ashes long ago.

Malfoy nodded towards Snape, indicating that he needed no further attention from him.

"I'll make you pay for this, Potter," Draco said moments later, while he handed Harry the chopped liver.

"You do that," said Harry, his voice sounding eerily calm even to himself, and he threw the liver into the bubbling cauldron.

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Listen and Repeat

Over the next few weeks, Malfoy didn't try anything stupid again. He was quiet in class and in the times between lessons he kept mostly to himself. It suited Harry just fine. Baby-sitting Malfoy was bad enough, but it would have been absolute torture with Malfoy talking all time. Harry hated the fact that he had to translate for Malfoy even at meal-times. The first time Harry had sat down with Malfoy at the Slytherin table, there had been uproar, only calmed down by the double intervention of Snape and Dumbledore himself. It was the one thing Harry and Malfoy could actually agree on: Malfoy had no intention to talk about any other subject than school as long as he needed Harry to translate his sibilants into words.

At the beginning all the Slytherins tried to make him communicate, but Malfoy turned them away. On his better days he resorted to nodding or shaking his head, whereas he simply ignored them on his worst. Finally, they gave up.

"Fine!" exclaimed Parkinson, after another attempt had gained her nothing but a cold-shouldered treatment. "Have it your way! Just remember to give me a hint when you can talk again, won't you?" She had abandoned every attempt at lovesick simpering and was pouring fury all over Malfoy. "Never mind that I actually care about you!"

Harry watched Malfoy closely.

There was such an air of ease on his face that it could only be forced. His shoulders were drawn almost painfully tight and he stared ahead, unblinking for so long that Harry's eyes watered merely from watching him.

And for the first time it occurred to Harry that maybe Malfoy would have liked to talk to his friends, and that he was probably miserable about being isolated from them. Malfoy had never seemed like the type to confide in anyone; he probably preferred minions to friends, so naturally he would rather keep his worries to himself than try for a semi-functional exchange under a Gryffindor witness. Harry himself would have done the same, were their positions reversed.

At times, Malfoy also kept disappearing. He would simply slip away from Harry after class and Harry wouldn't meet him until their next lesson. It was unnerving, especially because Harry first feared that Malfoy used the Room of Requirement in those periods. But when he checked on the Marauder's Map, he found the dot labelled with Malfoy's name not gone, but rather parading up and down the seventh-floor corridor.

When the tiny dot stayed transfixed in one place without moving about, a gleeful smile hit Harry's lips. Malfoy wasn't able to get into the Room for some reason.

But even though Malfoy couldn't keep Crabbe and Goyle around any longer to stand guard for him, and even though he wasn't able to enter the Room any longer, he still managed to emerge unseen by Harry. So, while Harry was constantly compelled to trail behind Malfoy in class, he couldn't use their enforced closeness to find out what Malfoy was really up to.

***

Draco had not felt this alone in his life ever before. Admittedly, he was constantly followed around by Potter, but at the same time he was constantly shunned from his friends, too. Not that he had wanted to confide in them before he was cursed, but at least he could have listened to their banter and joined in their jokes, however faint-hearted. He missed Pansy's devoted cuddling, and would have even welcomed Vince's angry refusal to take Polyjuice Potion for another time.

It was foul: Potter was the only person who didn't shy away from him as soon as Draco opened his mouth to speak. Draco had noticed how everybody flinched in class whenever he hissed at Potter. It was an ingrained reaction to snakes and to their connection with the Dark Lord. Even the Slytherins were no exception. Only idiot Potter, Boy Wonder and Hero-in-Training talked to him like nothing bad had befallen him. Actually, they had exchanged more civil conversations in the few last weeks than in all the six years they had known each other. If one could call Pass me the roots of Mugworth, will you? or Tell McGonagall that the correct answer is thirty-five seconds civil conversations. It turned out that the fastest Transformation had been below fifteen seconds, and his answer earned him another full-front preach by that Gryffindor harpy. But at least Potter's translation had been correct. Not that Draco would have had any means to prove it had Potter decided to wrong Draco's answer. Draco suspected that attacking Potter bodily in class would have earned him yet another detention and laughter from everyone on top of it.

So Draco hissed at Potter while the students shuddered in their seats, and then Potter translated Draco's words to the frosty looking teachers, who nodded, while looking at Draco as if it were entirely his fault. His nerves had been worn thin a long time before this. So many times, he decided to not say anything at all.

Pansy's pain was hard to watch, but at the beginning of the third week and after another harsh rebuke, she eventually resigned to her fate and turned her hurt first into vitriol, then disinterest. Vince and Greg pointedly ignored Draco when he set about to go to the Room of Requirement. Draco knew a lost fight when he saw one, and had always tried to keep away from those. He would deal with both of them when things were back to normal and he could talk again.

To make matters worse, Draco couldn't even get into the Room. The last of his hopes were shattered when he faced the blank wall in the corridor of the seventh floor for the first time after getting hexed. He walked up and down, his mind focused on a single thought – I need the Room of Hidden Things, I need the Room of Hidden Things, I need the Room of Hidden Things. It had worked before, like a charm, but it didn't work now. Thinking alone didn't do the trick, and whenever Draco tried to murmur, he failed likewise. The wall obviously didn't understand Parseltongue, and the hex must have messed with his mind as well, changing his thoughts into something other than English, even if Draco himself didn't feel the difference.

His attempts were futile, but he couldn't stop himself from trying. Maybe it was because he had no other options left, but he kept returning to the seventh floor again and again, walking the corridor, thinking and hissing and refusing to give up, until he reached breaking point. Devastated, he slumped down the wall, legs drawn to his chest. His eyes stung and his stomach cramped up so that he almost doubled over. He forced himself to take deep, steadying breaths, while his fingers curled into fists, betraying his efforts, and an angry sound tore from his lips. "I can't do it. I can't work on it. Why- why-?" He hugged his legs and rested his head on his knees, so that they dug hard enough into his eyes to prevent himself from collapsing even more. "I'm so- a- afraid ... I don't want to die," he whispered, and knew that even if he sat in the Great Hall and screamed the ugly truth right into the faces of everybody, no one would understand any of his words.

He didn't know where else to go. Sanctuary was not an option. He had no other place to work on his assignment, for all his tools were hidden in the Room of Hidden Things, along with the Vanishing Cabinet. He couldn't ask any of his friends, for none of them could understand his hissing. And Potter was even less of an option. Couldn't he ask him, though? Draco considered the idea for a moment and then snorted. It was a sign of how desperate he felt if he was contemplating Potter's help with the task of bringing down Dumbledore.

Oh, the irony of it all! All year long, Potter had wanted to find out, but Draco had been too clever for him. And now, when Draco was so close to the finish, Potter still had no clue. Whereas Draco, who had wanted to be left alone all year, was now truly and unbearably alone, with no one left to help him. He felt like someone stranded on an uninhabited island, with a hungry shark patrolling the coast line. When the caretaker's ugly cat appeared and hissed maliciously at him, she only reminded him that he had not just one guard watching his every step, but many.

***

Harry never noticed that he had stopped using English when talking to Malfoy. Malfoy's constant hissing provided as much inspiration as a snake's picture. It had always been on the verge of impossible for Harry to realise when he was talking Parseltongue, and he only noticed the difference this time when Ron stared at him incredulously in Charms.

"You can still talk English to me, Harry," Ron told him with a forced grin, once Flitwick had left and they were packing up their things.

"Erm- sorry, Ron. I didn't realise-"

"I know you didn't. You never do. Especially not when talking to him."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean that you go Parsel on him all the time." Ron looked much more serious, and Harry felt a shiver running down his spine. "What's the point, Harry? I can't understand a word you're saying. And it's not as if you need to keep everything you say to him a secret. Or do you? Tell the truth. Do you?"

"Don't be daft, Ron." Harry laughed and punched him on the shoulder to chase away his friend's concern.

"I'm not being silly. It's only that-" Ron broke off, as if unsure whether to stir the waters or not.

"What is it?"

"You almost look as if you're friendly when you talk to him these days. You haven't become friends with the git over the last few weeks, have you?"

"Now you're just being ridiculous, really. I'm doing what needs to be done for that translation job, that's all. And I use Parseltongue because I sometimes forget that I'm even speaking it at all. You know how I get – give me a snake, and I'll start to hiss."

Ron laughed, still a tad uneasy. "So you still think Malfoy's an annoying git? You aren't chumming up or something?"

"Well, he doesn't say that much, to be honest. He hasn't tried anything since the first day. He acts almost civil. But it's not as if we've become best mates or anything."

"Just remember, he's still a Malfoy and he still follows You-Know-Who. I don't want you to get hurt, is all."

It was only later that day, when Harry watched Malfoy sit among the other Slytherins in the Great Hall, that he realised how shunned Malfoy was. He didn't laugh with his friends. They didn't address him any more. When Crabbe passed around the jug of pumpkin juice, he put it down beside Malfoy's plate in such a casual way, as if Malfoy wasn't even there and there was no other spot on the table to place it. Harry saw Malfoy's hand creep forward and touch the jug, almost as if he had to assure himself of his presence before he dared to take it and pour himself some juice. It was then that Harry felt something akin to compassion for Malfoy. The emotion was uncomfortable, even inappropriate, and Harry hastened to shut it down.

.

Practical Exercises

Reaching the Slytherin dungeons at night after another lonely watch in front of the Room, Draco realised that he had missed the other boys going into their common room. In the hope that he was too early, he settled to wait for them. When neither Vince or Greg, nor Blaise or Theo turned up in the next hour, it became clear that they must have passed the entrance before Draco. This meant that Draco was condemned to wait some more or, probably, spend the night in the corridor.

Damn! Draco couldn't believe his bad luck. He needed someone's help to get inside; just like the wall on the seventh floor the entrance to the dungeons couldn't understand his hissing. But none of his friends had bothered waiting or coming back for him, not even Pansy. He had got used to the rising tempers of Vince and Greg, to their refusal to stand guard for him – not that he needed them there right now. But he needed them here in front of the Slytherin rooms. The feeling of helplessness welled up in Draco like a Hippogriff's attack – it hurt. "I'm fucked," he whispered to himself.

Draco slid down the wall, sat on the cold stone floor and resigned himself to a night outside. If his shoulders shook ever so slightly, who was there to notice?

"Malfoy, wake up!"

Draco felt a hand shaking him roughly and opened his tired eyes, squinting at the person who crouched beside him: Potter.

"Let go of me!"

Potter snatched his hand away as if burned. Draco felt the lingering warmth on his shoulder and realised only then how cold the rest of his body felt. Why on earth did it have to be Potter, and what was he doing in their part of the castle?

"What do you want from me?"

"Why are you sitting in the corridor?"

"How did you find me?"

"Can't you just-"

"Just-"

"-answer my question!" they both finished in unison and sat looking at each other expectantly.

Potter took charge again. "You first! Why aren't you inside?"

Draco fought with himself. The words I missed my friends raced to the tip of his tongue, but they were closely followed by And they didn't bother to look for me. It sounded too pathetic to bear. The lame excuse I like it here wouldn't do either. He shrugged.

But Potter didn't need his explanation. "Of course ... you can't get inside on your own. And the others ..." His voice trailed of and the rest of his conclusion was mercifully left unsaid.

He studied Draco, and, from the look on Potter's face, Draco could easily deduce how miserable a sight he must be. Pathetic enough for Potter the good-doer not to rise to the occasion of riling Draco. Draco felt anger well up inside his chest. Potter, always willing to be merciful. Draco hated him, hated Potter for being generous and honourable and having friends that stuck by him, and himself for being a coward, cowering in front of the one person who could destroy his family forever, a useless boy not able to repair a magical device and stupid enough to get himself hexed. Hexed by Potter. And Draco's hate for Potter grew beyond measure – Potter, who in spite of being a pathetic, merciful excuse of a hero, had also used an unknown hex on Draco with disastrous results. He was the reason why Draco had ended on the floor in front of his own dormitories, freezing cold and unable to get inside on his own. He was the reason why Draco couldn't fulfil his assignment. He would be the reason for any damage to Draco's family.

"You," snarled Draco, leaping to his feet, "you did all this. I hate you!" And he directed a punch right at Potter's face.

Potter, the stupid plebe, obviously solved all his problems with fists and brawls because he blocked Draco's fist with the ease of someone who was in control. "Don't," he said. "It's useless."

Potter was right, Draco knew. He threw another punch at Potter nevertheless. He was beyond caring.

Potter blocked him again, did some unexpected twirl and locked Draco in a tight grip. Draco struggled to escape and threw more badly aimed punches at Potter, determined to fight him tooth and nail. But Potter simply tightened his grip and Draco felt Potter's lips at his ear, Potter's hot breath whispering to him.

"Don't fight. You can't win."

And then Potter started laughing. He laughed so hard that Draco felt his whole body shaking, but he didn't ease his grip, never, until Draco went limp in his arms not only with the bone-shuttering realisation that Potter was right and that he, Draco, couldn't, but that also his parents would ... They would ... suffer from his ... incapability.

"I can't win."

"You can't."

And Draco was fighting again, but not to hit, only to get away, because his eyes were burning from the lack of sleep. Or so he had to assume, because anything else would prove Potter to be even more right and more in control, while Draco was the one who struggled to remain on his feet in the middle of a downpour of events.

He then realised that Potter had started whispering again.

"... let you go, will you listen?"

Draco nodded frantically. Anything. Anything to get away from Potter and his damn attentiveness.

Potter slowly released his arms and Draco forced himself not to bolt. He didn't trust his voice not to quaver, so his simply stepped away from Potter and tried to flatten his ruffled hair.

"You know," Potter started carefully, "I could let you in. You only have to give me-"

"The password. As if." Draco's indignation overran his need for dignity.

"I wouldn't tell. I swear it."

"Why?"

Potter shrugged. "Don't know. Must be stupid."

"No, I mean, why were you here in the first place? Why did you look for me?"

"I knew you were here, and I wondered why you stayed such a long time outside your dormitories. I thought, that maybe-" Potter hesitated "-maybe you needed help."

Draco was lost. He couldn't even find the words to mock such reasoning.

"Do you trust me?" Potter eyed him openly.

Draco shrugged. Potter was reliable, in a very peculiar sort of way. He would always do what he thought was right, no matter the consequences. Draco had seen Potter plunge headfirst into the biggest mess without a second thought when there was someone to be saved. Potter didn't plan; he acted on mere instinct most of the time. Granger – she was a completely different matter. But Granger wasn't offering. This was Potter whose offer Draco had to consider. If Potter believed that Draco trusted him, maybe Draco could use Potter's trust to his own advantage. And besides, right now, Draco wanted to stop feeling cold and miserable more than anything else in the world. To feel the relief of sleep for at least a few hours before his thoughts would resume their ceaseless wandering.

"Yes, I trust you." He swallowed around the lump in his throat. "The password is 'Phineas Nigelus'."

Potter nodded, slowly, then turned and repeated the word, addressing the black stone wall. The shimmering stones shifted, leaving an archway for Draco to pass through.

With his sanctuary so close, Draco felt exhaustion take over. He quickly turned towards Potter.

"Thank you."

Potter nodded again. "You're welcome. Try to get some sleep – you look like death warmed over." Then he walked away.

***

Waking up the next morning, Draco felt rested for the first time in weeks. He took his time in the bathroom, grooming, and finished with smiling to himself in the mirror. The common room was deserted, everybody already up in the Great Hall for breakfast. Suddenly, Draco found himself surrounded by Theo, Blaise, Greg and Vince. Not sure why, he felt a flash of wariness. Blaise had grown more impudent lately, demanding what he certainly felt was his rightful position as number one in their year, with Draco being occupied and unable to express himself.

"How did you manage to get back into our dungeons?" Blaise's voice sounded casual, but he didn't smile and kept his eyes fixed on Draco.

Oh shit! He hadn't thought of that! Of course, they must have wondered how he made it through the entrance. He could have told them a thousand lies, but his tongue was still useless, providing Blaise with another opportunity to try to bring him low. Shit, shit, shit!

"Get him!" That was Theo's voice. Theo, who always kept to himself. Theo, whom Draco had always thought to be cleverer than the rest of them.

Draco felt his arms pinned behind his back. It was useless to fight Greg's grip and so he forced himself to stand still. What little happiness he had felt minutes ago had left him completely.

Theo and Blaise had their wands drawn.

"We know you can't manage the password, Draco," Blaise said. His eyes were hard. "We also know how you did it, because there's really only one person who you can talk to these days."

With a sideward glance, he stepped away from Draco.

"Traitor." Vince hit Draco in the stomach. Just once – he was still a member of their House, after all – but it was enough to drive the air from his lungs and have him double over in Greg's clutch.

"What," came a sharp voice from the girl's dormitories, "is the meaning of this?" Pansy. She stood in the middle of the room, hands on her hips, her brows drawn together. "Have you all gone mad?"

"Do you know how he passed the entrance? When we went to bed, he wasn't in our dormitory and we were the last to leave the common room. But this morning, there he was, in his own bed, sleeping peacefully."

"So?"

"He must have told Potter the password."

"Must he have?" Her voice was cold and calculating. "And if I helped him inside? Did that thought ever occur to your flea-sized brains?"

Theo took a step towards Pansy, eyeing her closely. "So, did you help him inside, Pansy? Have you taken up the habit of sleepwalking recently?"

"Stop your theatrics, Nott. Unlike you, I'm loyal to my friends. So when I came into the common room long after midnight, because I couldn't sleep and didn't want to wake my room-mates, and I saw that Draco's token wasn't there, I opened the door and found him waiting in front of the portrait."

"Draco's token?"

Pansy's face contorted into a haughty sneer. "Yes, Nott. His token. We decided that he should use a token to indicate when he's inside, so that if the token was missing, I would know."

"As if you were talking to each other. He shunned you just like the rest of us."

"We do. We made up days ago. You're just too slow to notice."

Pansy, queen of the ball, actually smiled. If Theo knew what was good for him, Draco thought, he would tread carefully from here on. No one insulted Pansy about her social status.

Theo pursed his lips and back-paddled to safer territory. "And that token would be?"

"One of his white peacock quills. They're hard to miss."

"Pillock quills, I see. Do you still have it, Pansy?"

Pansy didn't so much as bat an eyelash. "Of course not, pillock. I handed it back to Draco this morning, while you four were busy plotting your little ruse."

"So you can't prove that your tale's actually true." That was Blaise taking charge again.

"I don't need to. I don't even have to defend him. This is Draco we're talking about. He's been loyal to Slytherin even before he was Sorted. He would've told you where to stuff your lies, if he hadn't been hexed. So you just shut up. And Greg, he was your friend from first year on, even someone with a head as thick as yours should remember that. Release Draco this instant."

Pansy's unfaltering determination did the trick. Greg, his ears red, stepped away from Draco, while she quickly walked to his side. She didn't speak again until the four boys had left the common room.

Draco wanted to thank her, but all she would be able to hear was another hiss. He stared into her eyes, overwhelmed by exhaustion. Unsure what to make of her intervention, he lifted his hand.

Pansy took it without hesitation. "It's okay, Draco. You have your reasons for ... for what you did. Even though you'll never tell me, I trust you to be loyal. And we really should have thought about that quill before." She smiled at him, neither in triumph nor in seduction, but with an air of gentle conspiracy. "Let's get you cleaned up," she said, pointing to his ruffled looks. "I'm not going to let you ruin your reputation by looking like something the cat dragged in."

And in spite of still being at his wits end, Draco heard himself laugh as she pulled him towards the bathrooms.

***

Meeting Potter at the Slytherin table was awkward, especially with Blaise keeping a close look on them for any signs of them getting along. Thankfully, Potter wasn't a morning person and didn't notice half of the glares Blaise sent towards him. On the other hand, maybe Potter was too used to Slytherin glares. And Blaise refrained from questioning Potter. Maybe Draco still had the upper hand in the dungeons.

Of course Potter, being the goodie-two-shoes he was, couldn't stop himself from questioning Draco after class. It was probably a compulsive streak.

"How are you?" Potter sounded almost hesitant, as if not sure whether he truly wanted to know Draco's answer to such a personal question.

"What do you care? Haven't had enough of sticking your nose into my life already?"

"I just thought about what your house-mates would do when they found out. Zabini kept throwing strange looks at us this morning."

Damn Potter and his saviour's complex! "What do you think they would do? Kill me? Because that's all Slytherins are capable of?"

"No." Potter's voice was calm. He looked tired, looked like he didn't seem to get much sleep lately. "I simply saw your wrists. You didn't have those bruises on you yesterday."

Draco swore. "Listen, Potter. I'm not your next innocent lamb to save, do you understand me? I can take care of myself."

Potter shrugged. "Sure. Whatever."

But being Potter, he couldn't let the issue go. He didn't address it openly, oh no. He kept throwing sideward glances at Draco, worried looks he must have learned from that ever-breeding mother of all Weasels. It was after their final Potions lesson in the afternoon, when everybody had left the classroom and Potter still watched him like Draco was something that threatened to either break down or explode any minute, that Draco cracked.

"What is it, Potter?"

Potter gave him a wide-eyed look that said I don't know what you mean. It failed to work its charm on Draco.

"You kept me under a close watch all day. Trying to count my freckles? Surely you've noticed by now that I have none. Go and count the Weasel's!"

Potter had the nerve to laugh. "You're such a drama queen, Malfoy. What exactly are you trying to prove? You're at your wits end, anyone can see that. All I want is to offer help."

The ignorance of Potter's statement almost drove Draco up the wall. "Offer your help? With what, exactly?! We're on different sides in this game, if you haven't noticed."

"We are." Potter grew severe. "But my offer still stands."

"Not from you!" Draco spat the words, furious with himself for allowing this kind of conversation, and even more furious with Potter for tempting him with the idea of sanctuary, of a way to escape. Potter, who implied that all Draco had to do was to re-think his options. But there were no options. Potter couldn't help Draco; he didn't have the power to stop the inevitable from happening, should Draco fail. Draco would- but no, he couldn't, he mustn't fail. And Potter, in whose world every evil found its deadly fate, in whose world you stood up to fight instead of kneeling down and kissing the hem of a madman's robes – Potter stood with his arms crossed over his chest, watching Draco and waiting for an answer he would never get.

Draco hated Potter even more, for all he was and stood for. And for the fact that, being all he was, he couldn't offer safety. There was no way to beat Potter in a fist-fight, and drawing his wand was a bad idea, too. But Draco had to attack anyhow, and irrational was the rule of the hour, so he leaped forward, letting his body carry all the weight of the punch.

It didn't help him, because Potter stepped aside, and within seconds he was behind Draco, who stumbled and staggered until the nearest wall broke his path. Too riled up, Draco didn't even feel pain from the impact and wheeled around to face his opponent. Potter laughed again and dug his fist into Draco's robes, yanking hard enough to disturb Draco's unsteady whirl even more. While Draco fought to remain on his feet, Potter drove him against the wall.

"You," Potter said, "are mad, like a rabid dog."

Draco snarled and struggled, but he had never been good enough at physical fights. Now he clearly remembered the incident on the Quidditch field in their fifth year, when Potter had punched him squarely in the face. Like then, Potter's face loomed huge above Draco, close enough for Draco to see the tiny pearls of sweat above Potter's upper lip. Any moment now, Potter would strike again, make Draco hurt. And Draco found that strangely, he wanted Potter to beat him up. It would be the good old black-and-white kind of pain, the one that hurt your body from the outside. Not the one that resulted from sleepless nights and stomach cramps, from veiled letter's from mother and scary meetings with his aunt. Draco found himself welcoming the kind of pain Potter would bring. And he brought his face just a tiny fraction nearer towards Potter, lest Potter would refuse him in the last moment.

***

Harry had stood, watching Malfoy closely for a change of mind. He looked so desperate, so much on the edge, that Harry wouldn't have been surprised to get called a liar to his face. In the middle of them staring at each other and the air singing with tension, Malfoy had attacked him with a punch thrown so badly that Harry couldn't help laughing. Malfoy fought on, even when Harry had pinned him against the nearest wall. Even when it was evident that he had no chance. It would have been a relief to beat some sense into the ignorant sod. But all of a sudden, Malfoy lifted his chin, almost like an invitation.

Their lips brushed.

And then, Malfoy buried his teeth into Harry's lower lip. It hurt.

Pulling back was no option, and so Harry moved forward, driving the frame of his glasses right into Malfoy's face. Malfoy opened his mouth, freeing Harry's lip.

Harry wouldn't exactly call it a kiss.

It was violent and harsh, with their teeth clacking together and Malfoy almost gnawing his way into Harry's mouth. It was desperate and frantic, full of anger and spittle, with Malfoy snarling and cursing and deepening the motion all at the same time. It was everything kissing Ginny wasn't. There was no tenderness, no playful nipping, no hand-holding and no embrace. Instead, they fought and hissed like angry cats, and Harry felt the hairs on his neck stand up. He had goose-bumps on his arms and found himself answering back; his arms came up in an effort to still Malfoy, to calm him down, to soothe him.

Malfoy broke off. "Don't you dare! Don't you dare go soft on me!"

He attacked again, and this time, Harry responded full force. This was what Malfoy needed, what both of them needed. Enough with carefully beating around the bush, enough with composure and civility. Harry rode on the wave of tension, high, and pushed Malfoy some more against the wall, hard enough to bruise. It wasn't as if Malfoy wasn't used to being pushed around. It wasn't as if Malfoy didn't want it.

Malfoy flinched, then swore and bucked his hips, and Harry abandoned his mouth and bit down on his neck, certain to leave more bruises on Malfoy's pale skin. Malfoy exposed his throat, like captured prey begging for mercy. And wasn't that exactly what he had been reduced to?

Harry shoved the thought aside; he didn't want to pity Malfoy, not now. Not with Malfoy writhing before him, left and right along the wall, his head undulating like a snake's. It was a bewitching sight, and Harry complied with the seduction.

Their mouths clashed together once more; Malfoy moaned into Harry's mouth and then, Harry felt Malfoy's hand sneak down towards his crotch.

"No, you don't!" He snatched the hand away and pinned it against the wall over Malfoy's head in a firm grip. His other hand found Malfoy's second hand and he secured it, too, uniting both of Malfoy's hands in one of his own. His free hand roamed Malfoy's body, rubbing his nipples under his shirt and feeling the ripple of Malfoy's skin under his fingertips. Harry gripped him hard above the hip, while Malfoy muttered a stream of obscenities into his ear.

"Don't go soft on me, Potter," Malfoy said again, as if he feared that Harry would stop any time.

Harry had no intention of stopping. He ground Malfoy even harder into the wall, rutting against him.

Malfoy moaned at the impact and clung back, his hips jerking in a desperate dance against Harry's. "M- m- going to-" Malfoy panted, and then he bucked once more, his hands slipping free from Harry's grip and-

Harry slammed Malfoy back into the wall and felt his own orgasm wash over him.

The first sensation that came back was the taste of blood in Harry's mouth. Spent and panting, he stepped away from Malfoy. He took his time to watch Malfoy come to his senses.

Malfoy's shirt was rumpled and pulled out of his pants, his tie was askew and his lips wore the colour of bruised red. He looked utterly dishevelled. A corner of his lip twitched upwards and his eyes shone brightly.

"Feeling all powerful and good now, Potter?"

Harry felt laughter bubbling up inside of him and let it free. "Pot and kettle, Malfoy. Don't you think so?" And he left Malfoy leaning against the wall, while he walked away with a grin on his face and a dearly missed lightness in his step.

.

Mind the Gaps

Nothing had been solved. Potter's offer still stood between them, even though their strange encounter had released some of the tension in Draco's bones. Who would have thought that that was all it took to gain a night of sleep, undisturbed by nightmares? Draco had to admit that getting off with somebody else had so much more potential than a lonely wank in the showers. The last days had seen no repetition of their mutual activity, and Draco was inclined to assume that the encounter had been a one-timer.

Not that he minded. He still stood firm in his belief that they were on different sides. Neither of them could afford going soft on the other. If Draco allowed himself to care for one person on the other side, he would have a conflict far larger to solve than he wanted to handle. Best to keep things as they were.

If only Potter would have acted accordingly.

He still kept glancing at Draco, and he appeared every now and then between classes, trying to lure Draco into a conversation. It might have been better than staring at the blank wall in the seventh floor's corridor, but Draco didn't want to take the risk.

Potter, on the other hand, felt no such restrictions.

"You want to go upstairs, don't you?"

Going upstairs had become their word for Draco, sneaking away to linger around on the seventh floor, wishing that the wall would finally show him the much needed door.

"I still want to know why you need to go there so badly."

Aside from It can become a nice and quiet little bathroom, if you get my meaning, there was nothing Draco could say to Potter, so he stayed silent.

"There's no way to convince you to come over to our side, is there?"

"No." Draco didn't know why he even bothered talking. Potter, stupid, stubborn Potter, who kissed just as stubbornly as he did everything else in life, would pester him all day long and never get it. "Why don't you stop it, Potter?"

"Because I can't see how you're going to make it on their side. You aren't tough enough."

Draco was too tired to snarl. June had come; he was running out of time. What else could he do?

"I might not be tough enough, but I have no other choice."

"It's about Voldemort, isn't it?"

Draco flinched, and then shrugged. Did Potter really believe that he would answer questions so blunt?

"I could- If you would- I don't know-"

"What?" snapped Draco. Potter's stuttering was getting on his nerves.

"I could- you know ... help you."

"Bloody unlikely. How so?"

"If you tell me- if you tell me what it's all about- I could-"

"Would you open the door for me?" Draco interrupted the stumble of Potter's words. "Would you do that for me?"

Potter didn't answer immediately. "I could."

"Only if I tell you ... what it's all about, though?"

Potter nodded. "I could do that ... If you still don't want to go to Dumbledore."

Draco shook his head. "He mustn't know. You have to promise me that."

Potter's eyes narrowed. "Why?"

"He could use Legilimency on me to find out more. I can't have that."

Dumbledore, indeed, could not hear about Draco's assignment. And Potter mustn't know, either. So what in the name of Trelawney's old tea-leaves was Draco going to tell Potter in a minute?

"Okay. So, tell me."

"Let's go up there, first. Then I tell you, and you can open the Room for me."

They walked in silence. For the first time, the way wasn't nearly long enough.

Potter couldn't contain his impatience. "What are you doing inside that Room? What does it become for you?"

Draco could almost hear his father's voice inside his head. Careful now, Draco. Careful.

"I call it the Room of Hidden Things."

Don't tell more than you need to. Let him come to his own conclusions.

"You're hiding something, of course."

Draco nodded. He could do this. He could tell Potter what he needed to know, make him believe. He would think about the consequences later.

"I need to repair something for- for the protection of my family."

"Your family?"

"He has my parents. Don't you see? There is no other way. He will kill my mother if I don't succeed."

Potter shuddered and Draco thought of the stories he had heard, about Potter's mother dying for him. Draco's mother would not have to die for Draco.

"This is only for your family's sake? You won't use whatever you do against our side?"

"Only for my family's sake," Draco whispered. There it was: the veiled lie. This was the worst. Best repeat it, wrapped up in truth, to carve it deeper. "To protect my mother. To keep her safe."

Potter looked at him, his eyes burning green with good intentions. Brave, upright, good-doing Harry Potter. Draco cursed the spell that had thrown them together, that had made them- whatever they were, standing here together rather like two allies than enemies. With one ready to betray the other. Traitor – Vince's words echoed back at Draco. He was a traitor, first betraying the trust of his house, and now betraying the trust of Potter.

"I don't trust you," Potter said into Draco's thoughts. "But you're not the enemy, either. You've got to keep your mother safe. It's for her. But promise me you'll use it only for that, for her safety."

Draco nodded, swallowing hard. He wasn't sure if he could utter another single word.

Potter turned away from him and faced the wall. "This is insane," he murmured, more to himself than to Draco, who felt the urge to nod and scream, Yes, Potter, you dumbass, it is! Of course, Draco did no such thing and Potter started to pace the wall with "We need the Room of Hidden Things for Draco Malfoy. Please show us the Room of Hidden Things you become for Draco Malfoy."

When the door appeared in the wall, Draco could have wept with relief.

Potter stepped aside to let Draco through and looked at him expectantly.

"I owe you, Potter."

"You do what you need to, Malfoy."

Draco took a deep breath, stepped through the door and pulled it shut, leaving Potter standing outside.

***

The end of their arrangement came two days later in Charms. When Draco opened his mouth to answer one of Flitwick's questions, the tiny Professor immediately shook his head and declared Draco's answer lacking certain details. It was only Potter's sharp intake of breath that made him hesitate.

"Is something wrong, Mr. Potter?"

"Malfoy!" Potter exclaimed. "Professor, you understood what he said. The hex has worn off."

Flitwick clapped his hands. "Yes, indeed! I didn't realise. Well, this is certainly good news. We do not need any special seating arrangements for the two of you any longer, I believe."

The translation job was done. They were free to go their separate ways again. Draco could go back to the Room of Hidden Things after class without asking Potter for help, and Potter could go and do- well whatever Potter did these days when he wasn't trailing Draco.

Draco should have felt elated. But he only felt tired and slightly heavy-hearted. He would also have to deal with Blaise and the others for their treatment of his person. But this was secondary to repairing the Cabinet. Once the job was done and he had the Dark Lord's appraisal, dealing with insubordinate class-mates would be a walk in the park.

When the bell rang, Draco immediately started to pack his bag. Beside him, Potter remained uncharacteristically still.

"What's up with you?" asked Draco.

"Harry, come on! We can grab a bite and then go outside to catch a bit of sun," boomed the Weasel's voice across the classroom.

"Yeah, Potter, go on. Your little friend is calling!"

"Shut up, Malfoy!" Potter snapped. "I'm coming, Ron!" he called over his shoulder. "Wait for me outside, all right?"

The Weasel reluctantly retreated, and Draco smirked at the look on his face. He turned towards Potter. "So, what do you want, now that your job's done?"

Potter shrugged. "I really don't know." He rolled his shoulders as if preparing himself to throw a Quaffle. Then he thrust his hand towards Draco. "Here. Good luck."

Draco blinked at him. "You're ... wishing me good luck?"

"Obviously. You git."

Draco took Potter's hand and shook it, just once. "Thanks. Idiot."

They parted.

The castle walls didn't give so much as a rumble.

.

'Epilogue' Doesn't Mean 'The End'

Harry's eyes were smarting. The last days had been a blur. Malfoy had repaired the Vanishing Cabinet – Harry knew now why Malfoy had needed to get into the Room so desperately. Dumbledore – it still hurt to even think his name – had ignored Harry's warning and had swept him away towards that cave instead. Meanwhile, Malfoy had led the Death Eaters into Hogwarts in spite of what he had promised to Harry. And then, on the Tower, Malfoy had tried and not been able to kill Harry's beloved mentor. But Snape – he hadn't so much as hesitated.

The lump in Harry's throat was too large to swallow and made breakfast almost impossible, but the hate that burned in his stomach kept him going. Harry glanced around, at the worried faces at the Gryffindor table and around the Great Hall.

Over at the Slytherin table Crabbe and Goyle were muttering together. Hulking boys though they were, they looked oddly lonely without the tall, pale figure of Malfoy between them, bossing them around. Harry had not spared Malfoy much thought. His animosity was all for Snape, but he had not forgotten Malfoy's voice on that Tower top, nor the fact that he had lowered his wand before the other Death Eaters arrived. Harry did not believe that Malfoy would have killed Dumbledore. He despised Malfoy still for his infatuation with the Dark Arts, but now the tiniest drop of pity mingled with his dislike. Where, Harry wondered, was Malfoy now and what was Voldemort making him do under threat of killing him and his parents?

He didn't know. And his days of talking with Malfoy were over. Next time they met, they would be on different sides of the war, like Malfoy had predicted. Maybe they would raise their wands against each other, like on that day in Myrtle's bathroom. All Harry knew was that Malfoy still owed him. Strangely enough, Malfoy's betrayal didn't sting. And besides – like Dumbledore had once said whilst they'd been talking about Wormtail – one day it might even play to Harry's advantage.

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The End