Chapter 12

Pathetic

"Your boyfriend's a sick creep, that's what!" Ron shouted.

Pansy said nothing and turned her attention back on Harry as though Ron had stated a truism or something typical of him. Her expression of haughty curiosity turned to one of disgust again as she roamed her eyes over Harry.

"I'm sure Potter deserved it," she said. Then she turned back around and asked, "How come he hasn't done anything to the two of you?"

Ron gave a loud snort.

"Because your boyfriend's obsessed with Harry! Now that I've thought about it, he's been obsessed with Harry the very moment they met! Can I ask, have you two shagged?"

The change in complexion of Pansy's skin was evidently visible even from the other side of the dungeon as she stood in shock. Her dropping jaw also could have been hard to spot.

"Shut up! Who the hell d'you think you are, Weasley?" she screamed, as she stomped towards him and Hermione and drew her wand. "Where do you get off asking questions like that?"

Ron gave a noise of surprise. "Shittin'ell, I knew it. The fuck is a bleedin' faggot," he said, more to Hermione than Pansy. "Think about it. He's never fucked a girl in his life-"

"What makes you think you know Draco's never fucked a girl in his life?" Pansy shouted. "He's fucked loads of other girls…!" She blinked profusely at the end of her words, her chin quivering.

Ron was only too quick to oblige the hanging question. "Except you?"

"He's—he's…" Pansy's breath was catching with indignation, almost preventing her from speaking. "He said he's saving me for marriage! I'm the ultimate woman he wants to be with for the rest of his life! I don't care if he messes around with cheap sluts throwing themselves at him before then. I'll be part of the family!"

Ron scoffed and stared at her in silence. "And you believed that?" he blurted out, as he looked her up and down, almost as if reassessing her I. Q.

"I think that excuse is rather thin myself," Hermione harrumphed, in a level voice as if talking to herself, but slightly louder than usual. She thought 'vivacious' was a euphemism for something else, as it was a term once used by Rita Skeeter to describe Pansy. "I mean, he would probably want to sample what's he going to get in the future, boys being boys-" Ron frowned. "-and he's the heir of an ancient family of Galleonaires. I think I'd be trying things left, right and centre to try and get him to love me-"

"Of course I'm trying to do that, you Mudblood!" Pansy shouted at her furiously, her blond ringlets quivering on her head. "What d'you think I've been trying to do all this time?"

Pansy then seemed to realize exactly what she had just revealed. Still white from Ron's intimate question, her eyes had widened as she waited to defend herself against the next thing from Ron or Hermione.

"I still find it hard to believe Malfoy ever fucked a skirt in his life," Ron remarked, while Hermione's eyes had narrowed in thoughtfulness at Pansy's words. "Maybe a few blokes."

"Draco is not gay!" Pansy said.

"You wouldn't say that if you'd been here a few minutes before you came," Ron harrumphed.

"What was he doing with Potter then?" Pansy asked, half-shouting, but her curiosity had tempered her.

Pansy had barely finished her question when they all felt a deep vibration in their stomachs. Pansy and Ron looked into each other's eyes.

"I guess you'll find out for yourself," Ron spat, his voice dripping bitter bile. He stared with sympathy at Harry lying on the floor with his manacled hands raised above his head. "Unless he kicks you out before he starts, like he left just after you came; he can't seem to stand being in the same room as you."

"Ron, that's enough," Hermione whispered through the corner of her lips. "You're going to push her over."

Pansy said nothing back at Hermione and seemed satisfied to keep quiet. Her nostrils were flared after an expression of determination took over her face, whether it was to remain calm or prove Ron wrong. They all remained in silence as they heard Malfoy's progress towards them until the great wooden doors began to slide open with loud groans and admitted him inside.

Wand already in hand, Malfoy's eyes darted to Harry first before they landed on Ron and Hermione on the opposite side of the dungeon. Needless of words Ron swore at him just with the dirty look on his face while Pansy made her way over to him. Hermione kept her gaze at Malfoy steady and stale.

"Draco," Pansy cooed, as she embraced him. She evidently could not help a glance in Ron's direction but swiftly began walking besides him towards Harry. Malfoy said nothing to her until they reached him.

"Have they been good?" he asked her.

"Most of them," replied Pansy, as she threw a sneer over her shoulder at Ron.

"Oh Weasel was giving you problems? Potter…"

"Nothing I'm not taking care of," Pansy replied. She ran her hand down Malfoy's gelled hair. "What were you doing in America?"

"You know I can't answer that, Pansy," Malfoy responded impatiently.

"You want to talk upstairs then?" she asked delicately, her caressing of his neck and shoulder almost apologetic.

"No," Malfoy replied, rather bluntly. "I want to stay with Potter here. We haven't finished our bonding."

There was a loud and sudden clink of metal: Malfoy and Pansy peered behind them at Ron struggling in his manacles, a snarl of fury on his face. Malfoy gave a small smirk reserved for only his enjoyment and not meant to be necessarily visible to Ron to react further upon. He turned back around to Harry.

"Potter, look at me."

And for the first time since Pansy had arrived, Harry animated at once and lifted his head tirelessly to gaze into Malfoy's eyes, whereupon Pansy's eyes widened slightly, fighting against a haunted look on her face. She burst into laughter and stopped suddenly, her lips trying to form words but stumbling as she remained, if anything, stunned. But only for a moment.

"It's good to know you're still alive, Potter," she jeered. Then she giggled into Malfoy's ear, almost crawling over him. "What did you do to him, Dracy? He was acting like a vegetable when I was here."

Malfoy merely snorted. "Do you want Tibby to escort you out?" he asked her.

Pansy's face crumbled. She lifted her chin in an attempt at haughty dispassion as she retracted her limbs from Malfoy. "Yeah," she replied quietly.

"Tibby."

POP!

"Tibby is being glad to serve Mast Malfoy," the elf squeaked.

"Escort Pansy out, will you?"

"Tibby is being-"

"Oh shut up, you brainless shitsack!" Pansy snapped, as she marched towards the doors, leaving Tibby behind with a raised hand that had been ready to take hers. Hermione gave a wan smirk of satisfaction. "I have a test to prepare for anyway," Pansy tossed behind her.

"Pansy," Malfoy called out.

Pansy stopped at the door, spun around, and stood quietly expectantly. She appeared slightly embarrassed of her behaviour.

Malfoy strode over to her. He hugged her before pulling off and saying, "I'll see you on Friday, yeah?"

"Yeah," Pansy said, in a low, doleful voice. She turned around, ignored Tibby, and exited the dungeon. Meanwhile Malfoy was looking down on Harry, who was still looking up at him expressionlessly.

"Malfoy, I swear if you…" breathed Ron hotly. "Can't you see he's just…? Just leave him alone, all right?"

"Aren't you a little presumptuous, Weasley?" Malfoy said, a smile in his voice, staring at the red-haired boy over his shoulder.

Ron kept Malfoy's gaze as he strained rather than leaned forward against the manacles. "You know you're a sick fuck, right?" Malfoy cocked his head sideways. "Just look at you…" Ron scanned the fitted striped suit down and up again. "Harry's had enough, all right, Malfoy?"

"That's not for you to decide, now is it, Weasley?" Malfoy rejoined, turning away from Harry, who dropped his eyes from the back of Malfoy's slicked hair to nod appreciatively at Ron. He tried to will as much saliva as possible to gather in his mouth and swallowed painfully a few times to moisten his throat.

"Where've you been? Banding around with your fellow Death Eaters and that snake of yours, eh? Off to America, were you? For what? I hear the scenery is shittier than London."

Malfoy's face had paled to appear whiter than usual at the insult to his master.

"They were Death Brothers," he responded, more calmly than he looked, "not Death Eaters. There was only one-"

"Oh those little blokes we saw around the table," said Ron, remembering. "They did look our ages. I was wondering."

"The Dark Lord has more important things to do than twisting the arm of a politician."

"Oh shame, so he threw that particular lowly task to you and those Death Brothers then," Ron drawled. "Oh and that one Death Eater."

Malfoy made a soft noise of disbelief. "Severus is the highest-ranking Death Eater there is, you git. He's the Dark Lord's right-hand man."

"Right," Ron said shortly. "And what are you?"

Malfoy stared at him quietly for a few moments, and Ron could not tell if it were out of indignation, embarrassment, or incredulity, or all of the above.

"I don't need to answer that. I don't need to be talking to you, either." With that, Malfoy spun back around and strode towards Harry, the hay crunching under his dragon-hide shoots.

"Nothing, that's what!" Ron yelled across the room. "Nothing!"

"Ron!" Hermione hissed, again through the side of her mouth. But Ron was in full flight, the crack of his simmering anger unstoppable, like a whip already snapped.

"Think you can come here and feel powerful. It's a tiny world here, ain't it? Why don't you go try and get respect out there in the real world. Why don't you go suck Voldy's dick off. You don't scare us, you pale, spineless bitch."

"Ron, you mustn't!" Hermione screeched, but it was too late as Malfoy had raised his wand.

"Expulso!"

It was Ron's saving grace that he had time to prepare for the curse as it travelled almost in slow motion from one end of the dungeon towards him. His freckles stood out in the blue-white light of the curse as he ducked his head and the spell gouged the wall behind him, leaving a whole the size of a beach ball over his head. He closed his eyes as chunks of rock fell onto him and shook crumbles out of his hair.

"You want to test me, Weasley?"

"I haven't started," Ron retorted. And he drew breath. "You really have a nerve-"

"Shut up," Malfoy snapped, cutting across him. "I don't need to hear you talk."

"You really have a nerve coming in and looking big with your little wand," Ron ploughed on recklessly, "when you can't even answer what you are to Voldemort."

Hermione stared at Ron open-mouthed. A warm colour rose up her cheeks. Behind Malfoy, Harry was staring wordlessly at Ron, but a trace of pride was barely visible in his blank face.

"Your dead dad would be so proud of everything you've accomplished. Even Snape, your buddy, had the heart to tell you you're not doing shit, that he expected better of you. What actually can you get right?"

For a split second Malfoy looked ready to throw another dangerous spell at Ron. But then, with a huff of fury, spun back around and stomped towards Harry as he unbuckled his pants.

Seeing this, Ron shouted, "Malfoy!"

"You want to keep talking, Weasley, eh?" Malfoy said, pushing down his trousers. Below him, Harry's chest began to rise and fall rapidly, and his legs were moving restlessly against the floor, scattering the hay there.

"MALFOY!" Ron bellowed. His face had gone an explosive scarlet.

"Here, on behalf of your friend, Potter," Malfoy said quietly, as he wrapped a hand around the crown of Harry's head and with the other forced his mouth open, feeding it his penis. "You know what'll happen if you bite."

Harry was hyperventilating. His hands were fisted and wrists tensed against his manacles, his one leg had bended off the hay, eyes closed.

"Don't worry, I'll get it there in a minute," Malfoy whispered reassuringly, of course speaking of his growing erection.

"MALFOY!" Ron shouted. "GET THE FUCK AWAY FROM HIM!"

Harry made a familiar gagging noise, a sweet sound to Malfoy's ears. Harry's head shot backwards against Malfoy's hand, and his throat bulged, threatening to deliver his vomit into his mouth.

"There you go," Malfoy breathed, with a loving caress in his voice. The hand behind Harry's head forced him back into Malfoy's groin, where Harry made another gagging noise and scrunched his face.

"Malfoy, for fuck's sakes, man!" Ron screamed, his voice now breaking with emotion, "leave him alone!"

Malfoy looked over his shoulder as he thrust back and forth into Harry's mouth.

"Keep talking, Weasley."

Ron screamed incoherently and fought against his binds.

"Ron! Stop it! You're hurting yourself!" Hermione cried at him, as she stared at the drop of blood dripping from under his manacle. Ron gave that arm a cursory glance before resuming his near-demonic glare at Malfoy's back, below which the pale cheeks of his buttocks glowed like golden buns in the torchlight, narrowing as they tensed with effort in his forward thrusts and rounding plumply as he pulled out like two conjoined moons.

"You realize this makes you a pillow-biting faggot, right, Malfoy?" Ron yelled, nearly in tears. His teasing words had the ring of those of someone clutching at straws, a final swipe before collapsing on the ring floor.

"A mouth is a mouth, Weasley," Malfoy replied, his voice slightly slurring with lust. "It has no sex, or a face. Right, Potter? Come on, Potter, you can take it."

Frowning hard, legs kicking frantically like he was trying to keep afloat, Harry tried to turn his head away but the hand behind it and the other under his chin jerked and made him engulf that all too familiar thing, now a weapon, used to intimidate and threaten.

"Malfoy…" Harry moaned around his penis. "Please…"

"Come on, Potter… Shut up…"

Without withdrawing from Harry's mouth, Malfoy kicked his pants completely off, torchlight throwing soft light onto the pale, slender legs like two glazed breadsticks.

There came a few moments of silence in which from behind Malfoy seemed to have relented in answer to Harry's pleas. But Malfoy in fact had parked the furthest into Harry's mouth as he could, holding his member still against the velvety wall of Harry's throat.

"Oh fuck…" mewled Malfoy, in so high a voice it sound like a song of pleasure. His thighs quaked as Harry's legs began to kick most violently and as he looked the closet he had ever looked to vomiting. But then suddenly, with the clapping noise of a loud wet cough, a voluminous white, bubbly stream of mucous hurled out of his mouth, drenched Malfoy's penis, and dripped off Harry's chin onto his chest, sliding down along the faint tracks of the previous load that Pansy had seen. Malfoy withdrew with his face screwed up in revulsion. He waved his wand and the mucous on his penis and Harry's face disappeared. And he delved inside once more.

"Come on, Potter, you can do it…" Malfoy cooed at Harry's crying face. The way he looked from down there… Harry's nose bending against his abdomen as he entered to the hilt in his mouth, those few instances when Harry's eyes shot up to him to beseech his mercy, lengthening his face, his cheeks hollowing, making it look so innocent… sent an addictive thrill of power through Draco's body. He slowed his pace and slid in and out smoothly, forward and backwards across Harry's tongue, touching the back of his throat with every thrust.

It felt to Harry like Malfoy was stabbing his throat with each thrust. He closed his eyes again, pinching more tears out the corner their corners, as he realized begging would not relieve him of this torture. Closed his eyes against the revolting sight of his spit gathering and foaming across Malfoy's length, against the feeling of it dripping down his chin, against the tap of Malfoy's scrotum against his chin, against the squishing, clucking noises of battered saliva inside his mouth…

"Look at me!" he heard Malfoy command, and his eyes flew open. Malfoy withdrew from his mouth, spat on him, and slapped him across the face. He then stuffed his penis quickly back inside. After a few more lusty grunts, again he made sure to, agonizingly slowly, approach the furthest point he could reach in Harry's mouth before he gave a long, singing moan that sent a shiver down Harry's body and shot his seed down Harry's throat.

"Oh yeah… Ah yeah… Come on…" Malfoy withdrew again, banged his head against the wall in front of him as though to waken himself, and climbed over Harry, forcing his face into the warm and musky underside between his legs. Malfoy threw his head back and sighed, weaving his hands through Harry's hair almost lovingly…

"Swallow my balls, swallow them…" And his hands went from softly caressing to a demanding grip against the back of Harry's head as he ground his face into his groin. "Kiss them, yeah…"

Behind them, Ron had hung his head, staring at the hay below him, a teardrop hanging from the end of his nose.

"Look at me…"

Malfoy pulled Harry off and stared at him. He spat into his face once more, commanded, "Look at me!" again as Harry closed his eyes reflexively, and as he intended, enjoyed the face of a humiliated hero, staring into him, the eyes of someone absolutely defeated. He spat in his face again and smeared the bubbly blob over Harry's face, carefully avoiding the lower part. He threw Harry's head backwards, stepped back, and smirked at the sight in front of him for a final time: the underside of Harry's chin as Harry stared at the ceiling of the dungeon, his chin soaked in saliva and semen, mucous running down his torso, over his pubic hair, and between his legs.

Malfoy exhaled deeply again, throwing his head back and closed his eyes. He sniffed, opened his eyes, and waved his wand at his groin, which was cleaned.

"Finished are you, Malfoy?" Ron asked. He sounded quite calm. "Satisfied?"

Malfoy glanced at him briefly to give him a flat look.

"Fuck you, Malfoy…"

But Ron's mouth hadn't moved. Malfoy turned back to Harry, who sat on the floor glaring up at him, a fire still burning in his eyes. Malfoy's lips trembled.

"What did you say?" Malfoy asked, his face threatening to break into a wild grin. He prowled slowly – half-dressed and all – towards Harry.

"I said…" Harry began, taking a deep breath, "…fuck you." He spat on the floor, but it was more a means to clear his mouth than a gesture of disrespect.

Malfoy's thin legs carried him across the distance between him and Harry. He had crossed his arms, and his mouth was hanging slightly open in wonder at Harry's temerity.

"Fuck me?"

Harry didn't deign to nod. His chest rose and fell slowly and deeply.

Malfoy stared into Harry's face for a few moments. "Say it to my face."

"Fuck you."

Malfoy's eyes narrowed. He raised his wand, to which Harry's eyes darted, but he quickly trained them back on Malfoy's silvery ones.

"You don't scare me, Malfoy," Harry said quietly. "What are you going to do with it?"

He had to look undefeated in front of his friends.

"Do I really not scare you, Potter?" Malfoy asked, imitating Snape's dangerous lilt in his voice. "Answer me."

Harry quietened. His green eyes clouded for a moment and his lips trembled before, as if drawing the words from deeper inside, his mind's arms shaking with the effort to plumb them up to his lips, fighting against those which were trying to be wrenched from him, said, "Yes."

"Really, Potter?" Malfoy breathed. But he lost the menacing nuances in his expression as it became one of crude aggression, blunted even further by frustration. "Think I won't hurt you some more?"

"You can't hurt me," Harry spat, at which point a muscle jumped in Malfoy's neck. "Like Ron said, what can you do?"

"I can torture you!" Malfoy snarled.

"You? An Unforgivable?" Harry said, green eyes widened in half amusement and double astonishment. "Dream on."

"Crucio!"

The pain seemed to hit before the spell reached him. Harry screamed at the top of his lungs as his muscles felt like they were being wrenched from their bones, as his body contorted awkwardly and arced at an almost impossible curve off the wall.

"Draco…!" Harry cried.

Malfoy stopped the spell, exultation resplendent in his face. "Say I don't scare you!"

But Harry sunk against the wall and gasped, his chest rising and falling rapidly, the muscles in his thighs twitching. His eyes had bulged with shock that Malfoy was capable of performing the Cruciatus Curse.

"How do you feel now, Potter?" Malfoy yelled, his voice high, thin, and shaking. Harry thought his features seemed for the moment much more angular and carved: handsome though Malfoy was, Harry thought he looked quite ugly now in the moment of such pernicious satisfaction.

Harry drew his legs up into him but tried to keep his eyes fearlessly on Malfoy, who, seeing this, dived towards him. Malfoy grabbed his ankles, pulled his legs apart, and straddled him, breathing heavily himself. He clutched a handful of Harry's hair and pulled until he had Harry's chin almost vertical.

"How do you feel now, Potter?" Malfoy repeated, as he trained his wand at Harry's face.

Harry tried to calm his breathing and blinked several times, but his gaze did not waver from Malfoy's eyes. He thought how of much Malfoy and Justin Finch-Fletchley were alike: both were quite handsome in their own respects, but both had shown a potential for careless sabotage. Justin was the sweet-faced, freckled boy who had spread the rumour (which were truthful, unfortunately) of Harry being a Parseltongue, thereby bringing much uncomfortable suspicion on Harry. And Malfoy, he had too many wrongs to count… And it wouldn't do to miss Malfoy's question.

"Answer me… Your breath smells foul…!"

Again Harry's lips trembled as he fought against the words being wrenched from him. "Hot."

Malfoy snorted at him, but judging from the swift change in his expression from maliciously satisfied to quietly stunned, he had evidently thought Harry had been referring to his Cruciatus Curse warming him up like chicken rotating above a spitfire and not to the fact that he had grown an erection that was now pushing up in between Malfoy's legs: Malfoy seemed to be jolted as though Harry's thighs were exposed cables and jumped slightly off him. He gave a whoop of incredulous laughter.

"This is—this is brilliant…!" Malfoy exclaimed in ecstasy. "You sick poof…" He rose off Harry and stared down at him. "Oh yeah, that little chat we had a week back… I almost feel sorry for you, Potter. But I can't afford to feel sorry for my favourite slave. You must realize how pathetic you are, yeah?"

Indeed Harry did. …That the very same person to whom he was enslaved and to whose whims he was subject was also a source of physical attraction; he had told Malfoy as much five days ago. Yes, he did feel pathetic. But he still would not answer.

"Answer me."

"I'm pathetic."

"There you go. The truth shall set you free…" Malfoy's lips twitched slightly. The irony hanging between them was so sweet Malfoy could taste it should he care to lick the air. "You want me to leave you alone?"

Harry, after a moment, nodded.

Malfoy snorted again. "Beg me to leave you alone."

"Please leave me alone, Malfoy."

Malfoy stood silently for a few moments, savouring the plea like he had that sweet irony. He then sighed in satisfaction, and his eyes roamed over Harry's wet torso, whereupon his lips curled back. He turned away from him and grabbed his pants.

"Another day, another orgasm, Potter," Malfoy said, even as Harry's penis pulsed at the sight of those slender, wheaten stalks slipping into the pants, the crease between the two buns disappearing as they were covered in black. A click told him that the belt had secured the pants. Malfoy ran his hands over his sleek hair, straightened up, sighed, and made to head for the door.

Ahead of him, Ron spat in his direction, a look of revulsion twisting his features. Behind him he heard, "I really like it when you let your hair hang loose. It's really sexy."

Malfoy turned around, rather slowly, to face Harry, who smiled into his face and quirked his eyebrows. Malfoy held those eyes for a moment, and then he headed for the door.

Harry grinned and laughed rather at himself as the doors groaned shut, for the truth of his words were so unbearable he could do nothing else but laugh.

Yes, he did feel pathetic.

It was several minutes after the great doors had shut Malfoy out of sight.

"I'm so sorry, Harry," Ron sniffed. "I don't why he thinks it's fun… I don't know… The sick fuck… He'll pay for this…"

"It's okay, Ron," Harry soothed quietly.

"That was so-" began Hermione.

"No it's not okay!" Ron shouted, cutting across her. "It's not! He can't do that to you! It's evil! It's… unfathomable…! I mean, is that what they do to the Muggles and half-bloods they catch? Voldemort's people?"

Neither Harry nor Hermione answered him as they let the silence wash over them. Ron studied the caked trail of blood on his arm from his wrists to his elbow.

"You said Voldemort," Harry observed, after a moment. Though the width of the dungeon was considerable, it was also so quiet that their voices could carry to the other side with ease.

Ron stared at Harry from across the dungeon before he broke into a shy grin. He looked away from the tiny speck of white that was Harry's toothy grin back and set his eyes on Hermione, who also smiled bashfully and looked away quickly.

"Don't worry, Ron, he won't get at me – I won't let him," vowed Harry, shaking his head determinedly as he stared at the small dot of Ron's face. He raised his chin and pulled his neck, straining against the collar around it. "He won't have me. He'll never have me. He'll have my control, but he won't have my soul. I promise you."

Harry knew Ron needed those words more than he did.

"Thanks, mate."

When Ron glanced aside at Hermione she saw her fit to burst into a tearful episode.

"You boys…!" she said, in a low squeal, as a tear fell down her cheeks and she sniffed. Both boys, even though they were still taken aback by how fast he had changed emotions as she had smiled not less than five seconds before, knew how much she desired to hug them at that point. They both looked down at the hay longingly.

"We just have to hang on!" Hermione mumbled through her tears, as her bound hands could not wipe them away. "He'll get bored of it. Just hang on, Harry…"

At the words, Harry dipped his head further to scrutinize the hay more closely. Despite himself, there was a rather huge part of him that was bitter Ron and Hermione were not suffering, maybe not exactly as he was, but they were not at all. This bitterness had been festering quietly for days, it gave it power only when he dwelled on it, and with each day it grew harder not to be resentful, and harder to summon a compulsion to expel its cancerous and insidious influence. But today, in that moment, he tried again, and closed his eyes.

"I love you guys."

Hermione looked up at him and sniffed.

"We love you too, Harry," she said, urgently and desperately, smiling at the meek form sitting on the ground.

Harry nodded and closed his eyes to absorb those words, let them awash over him… but there was still something lacking…

"I love you too, Harry."

The words were spoken without hurry but bore a mellow, steady, rich meaningfulness. And Harry lacked no more.

"I love you too, Ron."

Several quiet seconds passed as Harry studied Ron's face: Ron was clearly mustering his courage to speak.

"You know I really don't mind if he does it to me, Harry. I'll do it for you."

Harry smiled at Ron's talent to change a solemn moment into one of comedy.

"It's okay, Ron. I can handle it. Thanks for the offer!"

Ron snorted.

"I wasn't actually serious, you know."

"Uh-huh," said Harry, nodding dismissively. They both grinned.

"What flavour is it?" Ron asked. "Vanilla Vice?"

Harry shook his head, his stomach rumbling with the reminder of the Fortesquean delicacy.

"Fur of ferret."

Slowly, one by one, they fell into a stomach-paining fit of laughter they were unable to contain for a long while. Even Tibby's sudden but regular appearance in the dungeon with a loud POP did not halt them. If anything, it made it worse. As Tibby dawdled towards Harry, who was wiping his tears away with his shoulder, she looked around at the hilarity and her face closed off: she appeared to have gone to a place in her mind reserved for moments such as these when her masters would mock and laugh at her, a place reserved to be visited during the cruellest moments of humanity. She might have thought this one was one such moment.

A few chuckles racked Harry's body as Tibby inspected the iron bands binding his wrists against the wall. The amusement, however, vanished altogether as he stared at Tibby walking away, at her teacloth bearing the Malfoy insignia. Harry wondered when he would get his, for his humanity had been defaced and he was reduced to little more than what Tibby was.

After Tibby left, but not before checking Ron's and Hermione's manacles as well, Hermione sighed, "I would give anything for a new face."

"Yeah. Even Marietta Edgecombe's looking good now," Ron said, pulling a face.

There was a huff.

"I wonder, Ron," Hermione began, in a tone Ron and Harry knew, or Ron perhaps just a little more, "if we would still be friends after I gained weight."

"Maybe," Ron muttered. "Difference is she's ugly and fat. She hasn't got much working for her, now does she?"

Hermione huffed incredulously again, shaking her head. "I can't believe you. It's like you didn't attend Hogwarts, the school of a man who once said – just two years ago – it matters not what someone is born, but what they grow to be!"

"I never said she was born fat and ugly," Ron rebuffed breezily. "No child is born ugly, Hermione," he chided, as he shook his head magisterially. "And she might have gained the weight along the way."

Hermione's jaw dropped.

Ron's lips twitched. "Kidding?"

Hermione, for an instance, seemed she would not indulge him. But she could not help a smile from breaking widely on her face.

Ron winked at Harry, who chuckled as he realized what Ron had just done.

"But please don't try it when if we ever end up married, and I' not sa-"

This time it was Harry's jaw to drop. He quickly glanced at Hermione, who snorted.

"Who said I was going to marry you, Ronald?" she blurted, cutting across him. She laughed at him. "That is so hideously presumptuous!"

"I didn't—I—I wasn't saying I was going to marry you!" Ron gibbered. "I said if we were ever to-"

"Mate, give up!" Harry wheezed. "Give up…"

"No I really didn't mean—You didn't even let me finish my sentence and hear what I really wanted to say!" Ron fumed.

Ron could not enlist Harry in support of his case as Harry was adrift once more in hilarity, shaking his head at Ron's demanding glare.

"Yes," Ron continued ahead, leaving Harry and Hermione, "as we were saying, it would be really nice to see new faces."

"Not Edgecombe's though, yes?" Hermione suggested, lips trembling.

"I wasn't thinking of human faces particularly," Ron ground out, his words clipped angrily. "Perhaps Dobby's?"

"Oh, Dobby," Harry sniffed smilingly, before he could think.

POP!

And the elf appeared. And for the second time, Dobby was frozen where he stood.

"Dobby," Harry said in surprise, looking at the elf, but speaking in a level voice had never used with his best elf friend, "I wasn't meaning to call you."

But Dobby seemed unable to reply and only to stare at Harry, at his hands seemingly removed from his wrists by the iron bands, and at Harry's exposed and soiled nether region.

"Dobby… Dobby is so sorry, Harry Potter…" whispered the elf. But if he was shaken before he was certainly stupefied by Harry's next words.

"I don't need your sympathy, Dobby, or Dumbledore's."

"Harry Potter," Dobby said, again in so low a voice that Ron and Hermione were surely straining their ears to hear, "Dobby wasn't knowing about Harry Potter's… and…" Dobby turned his little to peek at Ron and Hermione, also bound, before he turned back to Harry and continued, "…his friends'… situation."

Harry snorted. "Situation," he said, with the perhaps unintended effect of spitting the words out at Dobby's feet.

"Dobby is—Dobby is..." But Dobby stopped himself before he could offer another apology as tears began welling in his golf-ball-sized eyes. "Dobby didn't know, Harry Potter!" And Dobby let loose, leaking a veritable fountain of tears on the ground. "Dobby must be punishing himself… Dobby…" Almost frantically, Dobby's washed eyes darted around the dungeon for something with which to hurt himself. Finding nothing, he sprinted headlong into the grimy wall against which Harry sat and tottered backwards as he rebounded with stars swirling around his head, dazed.

"Dobby, stop it!" Harry ordered, as Dobby shook his head and began to throw himself head first against the wall again. He did not care to see Dobby punish himself – he did not have the patience. "Stop it! Just go, all right! I wasn't calling you. It was Ron that made me."

"Oi, don't let him go that quick!" Ron said, with a rather vicious-sounding note in his voice. "Oi, Dobby, see what's happening now, eh? See what your precious Harry is going through? Malfoy's cleaning out his stomach 'cause you didn't want to save him!"

"Ron, you can't put a guilt trip on Dobby, he's innocent!" Hermione berated.

"Innocent my freckly arse!" Ron snarled. "He was here before, wasn't he? Harry told us. He must have seen the 'situation' then! No, Hermione, I'm not letting you do this; I'm not letting you give him a pass just 'cause he's an elf. He has a conscious, doesn't he? Isn't he accountable like human beings? You want them treated like human beings, right? Oi, dough face!"

"Ron!" Hermione shouted.

"Bugger me if I've lost my kindness with him, Hermione!" Ron screamed back. "But he should've done something to save Harry!"

"Ron, he said he got orders from Dumbledore!" Harry yelled, not without a new bitterness towards his former headmaster.

"So what?" Ron fumed, as Dobby shook in his six striped and multi-coloured socks. "Why does he have to listen to him to the letter? Can't he make up his own mind? You shouldn't have been going through this!"

Harry turned away from him and looked at Dobby, who was avoiding his eye. "Dobby, just go. Sorry I called you..." Harry felt his heart crack. "You did not have to see this…"

"Yeah and after you leave," Ron shouted at the elf, "make sure to tell Dumbledore you found his favourite student and only the world's most famous teenager happy and healthy!"

For a few moments, in the silence punctuated by Ron's heavy breathing, Dobby shook quietly in front of Harry, staring at the spot on the floor much like Harry had during Pansy's watch, and trying to master his hiccupping. A solitary tear dropped from his wrinkly chin, but by the time it fell onto the hay Dobby had gone.

There was a sharp crack that rented the air briefly as a figure appeared from thin air in front of a simple hut. The tall figure was hardly visible under the midnight as he was wrapped in dark, flowing robes and stood still where he had appeared moments before. The figure seemed to take in his surroundings before fixing his eyes at the garishly electric green thatch-roofed square hut in front of him. He took a few cautious steps towards it, his hesitance justified as the hut seemed to belong to the larger structure against which it leaned, this one an equally eye-watering ice-cream blue. But soon enough he was at the green hut's door, on which he rapped three times.

"I'll be but a second," called a voice from the other side of it. The man under the dark robes snorted.

The door clicked once and twice before it swung open, spilling soft light at the robed man's feet, and out poked a rather skinny, brown-skinned, and hook-nosed man wearing a turban on his head.

"In you go, Severus," the man said quietly, as he opened his door wider.

The man in the dark robes swept briskly inside without a word. As the other man shut the door behind him, Snape stumbled slightly and stopped a little further than halfway into the one-room hut, as if he had intended to stand in the middle of it but it was just so small he had overshot his aim.

The Indian man hissed and rubbed his hands as he trotted past Snape, who blinked only after the man had made it to the tea kettle whistling on a low table made up of stacks of tomato cases. Beside the kettle was a candle stick stuck onto a saucer by the melting wax, giving the only source of light in the room. Snape looked around: there were two mattresses lying on top of each other in a corner covered with a single but heavy-looking maroon blanket. Beside the slim pillow that rested at the head of the bed was another tomato crate with two horizontal wooden planks for shelves seemingly holding the man's affects. On top of the crate lay a radio.

"Charming," Snape drawled.

"Tea, Severus?" the Indian asked, as he poured into a mug while his weight sunk the makeshift bed. When Snape declined, the man frowned at his form. "You sure you don't want a seat? You may share my bed as you have observed I don't have any chairs – I've rather had as distinct and lengthy a lack of visitors as I have never had before in my life." The man lapsed into chuckles. He dropped two spoons of sugar from a sorry-looking metal cup that seemed to have been beaten into shape by any random Mr Singh walking down the street.

"I'd rather stand if you don't mind, Dumbledore," Snape said.

"Be my guest!" trilled the other man. He sipped his tea so humbly it was as though he were grateful for this one small pleasure, and his dark-brown eyes twinkled at Snape, who stared at his face quietly.

"You like my nose, Severus?" Dumbledore asked. "I modelled it after yours! I was always so envious! But I must still concede yours looks better by far still! It's nothing to marvel at as you surely are!"

Snape paused for a moment before he gave a practiced snort as though he had just heard a crude joke – or something that had been spoken like a joke – but did not wish to be so impolite as not to react to it, though he would rather have not. But such was one example of the occupational hazards encountered in the employ of Albus Dumbledore.

"It's a kind of magic irreplicable!" Dumbledore continued to praise Snape's nose. "How do achieve that stunning curve?"

Snape sighed impatiently, and Dumbledore squinted at his flaring nostrils.

"No, I certainly didn't put that into my calculations," he muttered. "Nothing a pinch of bat droppings cannot cure, I'm sure. You know they do have some remarkable qualities, bat droppings, at least according to the latest Potioneer's Dig-"

"Dumbledore!" snapped Snape, who now seemed particularly vexed, "it may have escaped your brilliant mind but do I have a megalomaniac to deceive. I should think this meeting, thus, will not take long?"

"Forgive me, Severus," Dumbledore said quietly. "I was merely expressing my adoration for your nose. Vastly skilled as I am, I could not do a competent job at replicating it." When Dumbledore knew where to look and, as he had thought, spotted the thudding veins in Snape's temple, he desisted and became more obliging. "So what can you tell me, my boy?"

Snape's angry expression ebbed away quickly. He assumed a cold, business-like air.

"Your updates, you mean?"

"Yes, those. I live by them."

"The Dark Lord is closer than he has ever been to taking Wizarding America for his own. For the Muggle side, we have placed the very influential Senator Grassley under the Imperius Curse. We had to dispose of the secretary, I'm afraid-"

"Naturally," Dumbledore muttered, after he sipped his tea. "A simple utter of 'Obliviate' wouldn't suffice, of course."

"-Combine this," Snape went on, "on our side, with our own replacement for Consenate Pius Clarkson in BOMUSA, you'll be hard-pressed to stop the wheels of revolution from turning. It is, I believe, the Dark Lord's most brilliant attempt at subterfuge, his finest hour. Only The Herald has managed to catch wind of it, a newspaper left with a just a semblance of its original voice since it moved up into high society. And as we've seen, this stratum of society has proved itself most fearful of the Dark Lord. Case in point: the Malfoys."

"Yes, the Malfoys…" Dumbledore said quietly to himself. "Draco, the poor boy. Is his mother still away?"

"I think so. I have not been to the manor as my schedule would not permit, though the Dark Lord will make it a point to step by this Wednesday. But I believe she's still at large. Where, I do not know. But it was a foolish whim." Snape spat the words with a bitter harshness. "Best she stays where she is, for the when the Dark Lords finds her missing on Wednesday I doubt he'll be pleased."

"So you don't know how Harry might be doing?" Dumbledore asked. Snape didn't deign to respond. "I'll have to summon Dobby again."

He sipped his tea. Snape watched him as he did, and his next words seemed to be of an urge he had tried to quell since, perhaps, as early as the beginning of the conversation.

"Whatever are you working on in this place, Dumbledore?" Snape demanded.

Dumbledore's eyes sharpened at Snape. He swallowed and put the mug down.

"It's so ghastly hot and dusty here the frequent splashes of bright colours seem something of a gesture of defiance against the elements."

Snape stared at the brown-skinned man sitting on the corner of the bed. "You haven't answered the question. So you've squatted in here and frequented the local tavern, is that it?"

"I wouldn't insult the owners of this cottage, they've been very kind to let me rent it," Dumbledore said solemnly. "And those taverns have proved very useful, if harmlessly fun indeed. Otherwise how, for instance, would have picked up the Merlin Sun and discovered that MAV tests were being rolled out across Britain while you were occupied with Voldemort's plans and unavailable to inform me? How would I have acted against that?"

Snape didn't speak, but his body had tensed as he was gripped by a need to know. "How have you acted?"

"I'll say I would rather not keep all my eggs in one basket," Dumbledore replied kindly. "I would also like to make the observation that the Merlin Sun is rather less myopic and, say, has a stronger spine that any of its counterparts in the Western media, even by The Herald Independent's standards; they would be stunned out their Barmees themselves that such, in their eyes, backward people would outdo them so."

Snape gave a cynical-sounding sort.

"So you've started thinking like them, have you?"

"It's part of the disguise, Severus," Dumbledore said, giving a small smile, but hardly a warm one.

"I still maintain that this is rather all uninspiring," Snape said. "I—I don't know what I was expecting…"

Dumbledore looked at the man in front of him for almost a full minute.

"There are many who are waiting for me to conjure a miracle, Severus," Dumbledore said kindly, smiling, "to somehow push the frontier of the dark side out of our court and even into theirs with just a wand and a bird. But I did not think I would have to count you among them." Dumbledore's voice grew colder. "You, who have seen my workings, how I operate. I'm no magician, Severus, and I am not Merlin, boast to have an award in his name though I may. I have my limits like any other mortal man. You of all people know this."

Snape pulled himself out of his seeming guilt and looked around the room. "Speaking of your little pet bird, where is it?"

Dumbledore's eye twinkled. "Somewhere."

But the familiar gesture did not seem to have the same effect on Snape as it would have a teenager starving for a father-figure. Snape looked away from Dumbledore's eyes at the flimsy pillow on which he rested at night. His eyes took in the room once more and finally resumed their gaze on the face of man in front of him, whose face was flickering almost wraith-like ever-so-slightly in the candlelight, the turban on top of his head recalling certain memories of Harry's first year at Hogwarts. But the brown eyes staring back at him seemed to scorch him, for he very swiftly stared at a spot behind the other man.

"Severus, I would not think it of you. But you have never been able to keep your thoughts from me," Dumbledore said, slowly and benignly, holding his cup on his lap. "I confess myself a tad bit more skilled in that area than Voldemort."

Snape tightened his gaze at the spot behind Dumbledore.

"If you were to, then I would say I don't know anything, Severus. It would strip me of everything I know, and that – forgive me the immodesty – is a considerable amount. I will not believe that you are considering what you are considering in this moment."

"Again, the picture is rather uninspiring, Headmaster," Snape said quickly, as if to defend himself.

"That may be, but appearances aren't everything. Again, you of all people would know that. You still love Harry, Severus, do you not?"

POP!

"Dobby can't be doing this anymore, Professor Dumbledore!" said a sudden, wailing voice.

Snape and Dumbledore fixed their eyes on the elf that had just appeared in the middle of the room.

"Dobby can't be doing this anymore… Harry Potter is suffering too much… Dobby is not wanting to listen to Dumbledore… Dobby must be doing something…!"

Dumbledore stood up and placed his cup on his table. "Dobby, I need you to calm down. You've come a tad earlier than I anticipated. Would you like a cup of tea?"

"ENOUGH!" Snape exploded. It seemed the offer of tea to the elf had set him off rather Dobby's statement that Harry was under duress at the manor. Mid-wail Dobby squealed and scuttled to cower behind Dumbledore's leg. Temple pulsing fit to burst, Snape breathed heavily like some beast in front of them. "You say Potter is suffering, elf?" Snape asked the elf menacingly.

But all that could be heard from behind Dumbledore's pants were sniffles.

Snape turned his glare on Dumbledore. "That's enough, Albus. That's enough. We stand here while Voldemort is poised to take over the Wizarding world, and perhaps even the Muggle world, for himself! And yet you… you… cower here in this… abomination of a dwelling?"

"You've lost your way, Severus," Dumbledore said, in a soft, angry whisper. At once Dobby's sniffles stopped, and the air in the small room, despite India's hot weather, felt to have dropped more than a few degrees. Snape too seemed to have been given incentive to pause. "I am not cowering! You've seen the strategy before, yes!"

"Strategy?" Snape bellowed, sloughing all timidity once more, eyes bulging. "You call this a strategy?" He waved indicatively at the room around them.

Dumbledore stared at the man in front of him. He took a step forward, and again his eyes seemed to scorch Snape enough to make him look away from them. And again, Dumbledore seemed to emanate a certain indefinable power.

"I beg you, Severus," Dumbledore said quietly, in a voice unlike any which he had ever used before, one whose words were of such desperation they simply could have issued from such a great man. "Do not abandon me. You are all I have left."

"You mean all you have left to spy on Voldemort!" Snape shouted, spit flying out his mouth. His lips had gone dry and white and his hands had fisted, almost ready for a physical fight. "Make it the only thing you had to spy on Voldemort!"

"Severus!" Dumbledore shouted, and the candlelight flickered out. When Dumbledore waved his hand and relit the candle, Snape was gone.

Dumbledore fell onto the mattresses behind him, staring at the air so recently occupied by Snape. Dobby squeezed himself out from behind his legs, tottered, and then gazed still teary-eyed up at him.

"Professor Dumbledore, is Professor Snape coming back?" he asked, in a small squeak. "But what is Dumbledore saying Professor Snape will do?" Dobby's lips wobbled, and a glistening yellow drop of snot poked from under a long nostril. "But what is Dumbledore saying Dobby must do for Harry Potter?"

Dumbledore stared at the innocent elf crying at his feet. He laid his hands in his lap.

"I do not know, Dobby. I do not know anything."