Foundations – chapter twelve – by Sara's Girl
Disclaimer: see chapter one. However, I do intend to reward myself for finishing this at last by going to see HBP again, and when I do, I'm planning to fully immerse myself in the slashy belief that Harry and Draco own each other. This is their future, and I shan't have it any other way :)
AN - This chapter is... I don't know how better to describe it but as a series of little dramas. Don't expect an 'OMFG' moment because this was never going to be that kind of story.
I've had the most fantastic, frustrating, wonderful time writing this story—thanks so much to everyone who came with me and especially to those who offered their thoughts and praise and questions. More times than I can count, I've been directly inspired by a comment/review. I never expected to write a sequel when I started 'Reparations' and certainly never one as long as this.
I'm not sure what I'm going to write next, but you can probably expect some oneshots from this 'verse, because I'm far too attached to it to let it go completely.
[Once again, I want to apologise for not replying to comments/reviews/messages—I really wanted to get this finished, and it took longer than I thought. I will reply to everything, because I appreciate those comments so much, but it may take me a little while.]
Someone recently told me there was too much sex in this story. If that's the case, then there's definitely too much in this chapter *delighted smirk*
As Harry surfaces from his much-needed sleep on Friday morning, the first thing that occurs to him is that he can breathe through his nose properly, which is a relief; there's still a bit of a rattle there, but everything feels much clearer and his headache seems to have dissolved completely.
The second thing that occurs to him is that Draco is still sleeping, stretched out and pressed against his side, one arm flung over Harry and his head resting on Harry's chest. Harry glances around the bare room, and is mildly surprised to remember that they're still at the Manor. When his eyes fall upon the bedside table, he notes the empty cup that suggests Draco has already been up, completed his grumpy mumbling and wandering around, and returned to bed, and he smiles.
It feels strange to be waking up here, but for reasons he can't explain, he hadn't wanted to just Apparate home and leave Clive and Narcissa after last night's decision. Draco hadn't argued, but had merely instructed Flimby to produce an obscene amount of food, and had then watched from the end of the bed while Harry ate until he could no longer move.
Now, as he lies very still and gazes at Draco's features relaxed in sleep, he casts his mind over the tangled drama of the previous day and muses that it's astonishing how vastly things can change in just twenty-four hours. Above everything else swimming inside his head rises the raw, vivid image of Narcissa Malfoy's gratitude, and he knows beyond all doubt that he's made the right decision.
It's strange, because he had expected to feel regret. Apprehension. Something, at least. But it's just not there—he feels refreshed and calm and lighter than he has in longer than he cares to remember. It probably helps that he's had a great night's sleep, and the half-flask of Pepper-Up that Draco had practically forced down his neck, and it definitely helps that Draco is warm and smells delicious and loves him, despite all of his idiocy.
It can't be long until he has to get up for work, but he doesn't much want to think about that.
Draco shifts against him and mumbles, "Skeeter, pancakes, hmm?" in his sleep.
Not wanting to wake Draco, Harry bites his lip in an attempt to stifle his laughter. Very carefully, he lifts a hand from Draco's back to stroke his hair, and freezes. Tied around his wrist is a length of soft, white string. As he stares at it, his heart pounds so hard that he's certain Draco must be able to feel it, and there's no stopping the smile pulling at his face.
Realising that Draco must have located and attached the new string to his wrist as he slept, Harry's smile stretches wider. He's unexpectedly charmed by the sneakiness, and more relieved than he'd like to admit out loud. He'd felt all kinds of wrong without it, as though something terribly important was missing, and when he'd realised that the original string had been accidentally vanished along with his wet clothes, there'd been a little pang of distress that he'd hidden from Draco.
He had felt a bit silly about the whole thing, though, and it wasn't as though he was going to ask for a new one. But a new one it is, and perhaps after yesterday, that's how it should be. It feels as though everything gritty and faded has been cleansed away, and if not a new start then it's at least a clean page, and he really needs to stop thinking in metaphors. String #2, he thinks instead. Stealth string.
"Sneaky bastard," he mumbles affectionately, slipping his fingers through Draco's hair.
"That is no more than a rumour," Draco mutters, stretching and wrapping himself tighter around Harry. After a moment, he assumes his habitual position of chin-atop-folded-arms on Harry's chest, and gazes at Harry with warm, sleep-soft grey eyes.
Harry pushes Draco's hair out of his face again, relishing the light drag of the string against his skin as he moves.
"String," he says, sliding his fingers over a pale cheekbone.
Draco lifts an eyebrow. "Because you looked weird without it. Because you're mine. Because I like string," he says, answering the question that Harry never asked. "You're going to be late for work."
Awash with silly warm feelings, Harry grins. "No, I'm not. I'm starting at ten."
"Alright, well then, I'm going to be late for work."
"How is that even possible, when you're already here in the same building?" Harry wants to know, attempting to hold onto Draco even as he tries to get up.
They struggle for a few seconds until Harry's slight weight advantage tips the balance and Draco collapses back against him with a light scowl. His hair brushes Harry's forehead as he exhales heavily.
"And that is exactly what they will all say if I walk into morning handover late," he mumbles against Harry's lips. Harry kisses him, and he tries not to smile. "And Fyz was on the late shift, and you know what he's like—it'll be innuendo central all day long."
Harry knows exactly what Fyz is like, but he can't pretend to be too upset about that. Still, he releases Draco and watches him rise and walk into the bathroom with open appreciation. When he disappears out of sight, Harry hastens to follow and doesn't think twice about slipping into the shower behind him, claiming a proper good morning kiss through the water and washing away the last traces of the previous day with satisfaction.
"You said 'Skeeter' in your sleep," Harry points out as he leans against the shower wall and watches the hot water turning Draco's hair slick and golden.
"That's because I find her very erotic," Draco offers without missing a beat.
"You're not funny, you know."
Draco smiles with his eyes closed and drags him under the water. "You know my heart beats only for you, Mr Potter," he pronounces with a theatrical sigh, and then opens one eye. "Anyway, it's your fault if I was dreaming about her, you were talking about her yesterday. What did she do this time?"
Harry manages to both snort and grimace at once. "Don't call me Mr Potter. Your mother calls me Mr Potter."
Draco smirks and murmurs an apology that he definitely doesn't mean. Harry shifts closer under the hot water and gives in, recounting the details of Rita's ambush outside the hospital, her deductions about Harris and Romilda, and Cecile's response and Tremellen-related suspicions. He hopes that Draco is listening, especially seeing as he asked, but he seems to be paying more attention first to washing his hair, and then to his task of unhurriedly kissing Harry's neck and murmuring softly.
"... and now I'm really wondering if... oh, that's nice... he is her contact after all," Harry finishes, somewhat unsteadily.
Draco, apparently, has been listening after all, as he detaches his mouth from Harry's neck and offers: "There's nothing Tremellen can do that would surprise me any more, but as for Skeeter... she didn't know about the Promise before yesterday afternoon, so she doesn't know about it now, and there's nothing to see if she were to look. I say let her publish."
Draco shrugs and tips his head back into the water. "There's nothing damaging there—you had a patient who died from a Dark curse. You, being you, went to see the caster of said Dark curse in Azkaban. That's all she has. In fact, if you give her a word or two, she might forget about being Obliviated, so to speak."
"You frighten me when you're all calm and philosophical," Harry says, but grudgingly, he knows that Draco is making a lot of sense. And the fact that he's now resumed that lovely neck kissing isn't helping matters.
Or maybe it is.
"I'll be giving her plenty of words next week," Harry adds petulantly.
"We're still doing that, then?"
"I think we'll have to, unless we want to go back to 'Evil Draco Malfoy's Latest Scheme to Corrupt Lovely Sweet Harry Potter'. And you never know, it might be a balanced, well-thought-out bit of journalism."
Draco laughs; it's a brilliant sound, and Harry hasn't heard nearly enough of it lately. He smiles and draws him closer under the hot water, looking at his new wet string where it encircles the arm resting across Draco's upper back. Harry breathes in the fragrant steam and feels all kinds of content.
"What about Tremellen, then?"
"Lost cause, hex on sight," Draco mumbles automatically.
Harry snorts against Draco's wet shoulder. "Do you think it was him, though? Do you think he's the source?"
"Probably. Stop talking about Tremellen in my shower."
And then Draco slides a wet hand up Harry's thigh, and he decides that's probably a good call.
When they wander downstairs some twenty minutes later, Draco seems to have forgotten all about not wanting to be late, and Harry is basking in such a haze of lemon-scented satiation that he can't be bothered to point this fact out to him. Or, indeed, to care that he's still wearing Draco's clothes.
When Flimby appears and advises that, "Mistress Narcissa is requesting Master Draco and Mr Harry Potter Sir to be joining her for breakfast," Harry snaps to attention and glances anxiously at Draco, who seems rather amused by the idea.
Harry has time, and he doesn't really know what he's nervous about—he doesn't think it's anything to do with Clive or the Promise, and the only thing left is this strange, irrational sense of 'the morning after'; he's never before had to look Narcissa in the eye after having blatantly spent the night with her son, and something about the idea makes his insides squirm.
Still, his feet carry him into the dining room without his consent and before he knows it, he's sitting next to Draco and opposite Narcissa at one end of the huge dining table that had so intimidated him all those months ago. To his silent amusement, Clive is seated at the head of the table with two fat tapestry cushions underneath him just so that he can reach his plate.
Narcissa looks up from delicately buttering a crumpet and her pale eyes glow as she quite obviously tempers an amused smile and glances between Harry and her son.
"Good morning, gentlemen," she says.
Beside Harry, Draco shoots her a long-suffering look and examines his plate. Harry forces himself to smile back and return her greeting, because he is not embarrassed. He's just not.
"Harry," Clive puts in, surprised. "Drake. How come you're here?"
Harry is just opening his mouth to respond when Narcissa leans slightly toward Clive and murmurs something to him that Harry doesn't catch. When the little boy looks back at Harry, his expression is both repentant and determined.
"What a surprise," he rephrases, gripping his fork tightly. "To what do we... own the...? Oh, no."
Anguished, he looks at Narcissa, who shakes her head and smiles. "Never mind."
Watching the little interaction, Harry can't decide if he's amused or alarmed by Narcissa's early-intervention school of perfect society manners, but Draco's soft snort of laughter at his side makes the decision for him and he smiles into his tea.
"We're here because we didn't go home last night," Harry says eventually.
Clive nods and finishes chewing a large chunk of sausage before he asks, "Why?"
Harry glances at Narcissa, who is gazing at something on the floor and extending her hand under the table. Idly, he wonders just what the poultry-loving Crup finds to enjoy from the breakfast table, and he also wonders—not for the first time—at Narcissa's selective approach to etiquette. He thinks that actually, he rather likes it.
"Because, erm, Draco and I had a lot of work to do last night, and we didn't get finished until late," Harry says.
"Is that so?" Narcissa offers without looking up, and Harry flushes.
He doesn't need to look at Draco, in fact, he's quite determinedly not looking at Draco, but he can feel the amusement rolling off him in waves, and the knee that's resting against his shakes lightly.
Flustered, Harry smiles at Clive and does his best to ignore both Malfoys, who are absolutely not helping. He's not sure what they should be helping with, but he can't help feeling that after only five minutes, this breakfast is already out of his control, and also that there should be some sort of solemn, serious conversation taking place that just... isn't taking place.
Still, he really should be used to this by now. With a resigned sigh, he glances down at his plate, on which several items have been placed by a very stealthy Flimby.
"Do you want my fried egg?" he whispers to Draco.
Draco says nothing but slides his plate closer to Harry's and engages his mother in conversation while Harry makes the transfer.
"I haven't got anything to give you," Draco murmurs out of the side of his mouth after a moment.
"You can give me something later," Harry replies under his breath, and is kicked hard under the table but doesn't care, because Draco looks suitably and irritably flustered. Payback is a wonderful thing.
When he turns his attention back to Narcissa and Clive, the little boy is spooning sugar into his tea and Narcissa is regarding him carefully over the top of her crumpet.
"Not too much sugar, sweetheart, it's bad for you," she says wearily, as though she's said it a hundred times before.
Clive pauses and looks at her, all innocence. "Drake puts loads of sugar in, 'specially at breakfast."
Harry grins, as Narcissa turns her arched eyebrow on her son.
"Traitor," mutters Draco.
It's true, Harry thinks, crunching into a piece of toast hastily just in case anyone expects him to comment.
He listens to the pointless and astonishingly good-natured bickering of his three breakfast companions and registers that—but for the haughty word-choices and opulent surroundings—this doesn't feel a million miles away from his meals at the Burrow. He takes a moment to wonder who would be more horrified to hear that particular observation: Narcissa, or Molly. It's a close call.
When, some minutes later, the conversation has settled and Draco is explaining some point of law-reform procedure to his mother, Harry turns to Clive, who is dangling over the side of his chair and waving a little piece of bacon in front of Zeus' nose.
The bacon is yanked from his little fingers by the bold not-dog, and Clive laughs with delight. "Mm?"
Harry studies him for a moment and sips his tea. Distractedly, he wonders if Flimby makes the tea using magic, and he suspects that he does; it never tastes quite right. Draco says he's a snob, but then Draco would know all about that, wouldn't he? The hot liquid scalds Harry's tongue and brings him back to the point. If he knows Narcissa, and he's starting to think that he does, she won't have explained to Clive what had transpired out on that portico in the dark.
It's only the tiniest flash of uncertainty that makes him glance up at her, and when she catches his eye, she shakes her head almost imperceptibly and then returns to her conversation. Fortified, Harry turns back to Clive, who has run out of bacon and is now holding onto the edge of the table and gazing up at him with expectation.
"I know that you were worried about being sent away," Harry begins, and pauses.
For too long, it seems, because Clive's blue eyes fill with tears and he reaches instinctively for Zeus, who jumps up and rests front paws on the edge of his chair.
Stricken, Harry curses himself and leans across the table, shaking his head. "No—no, what I was going to say was that I don't want you to worry about that any more... you're going to stay here, with Mrs Maf—Mrs Malfoy."
Clive blinks and twists his fingers into Zeus' white fur. When he speaks, his voice is very small. "How long for?"
Harry smiles at him, chest tight. "For a long time. Until you're grown-up and you want to go and live somewhere else," he says, and suddenly there's a hand on his knee under the table and he's grateful for it, even though he knows Draco's not even looking at him.
Clive smiles and then bites his lip as though he's expecting a catch. Zeus snuffles and chews the edge of the tablecloth. "For really? For proper?"
"Yeah, for proper," Harry echoes, hoping Narcissa can't hear him and his encouragement of poor grammar. "I promise."
Clive does smile this time and wraps his little arms tightly around Zeus—to Harry's mind, his muted but genuine pleasure is already a little bit Malfoy, and he can't for the life of him remember whether that, too, is Narcissa's influence, or whether he's always been that way.
After a moment, he leans toward Harry and asks, "What about my mum?"
Almost without thinking, Harry slides one hand off the table and winds it into the one resting on his knee. He swallows hard. "What about your mum?"
"Do you think," Clive begins in an almost conspiratorial whisper, "do you think she'd think that was alright?"
'Promise me you'll find him somewhere safe and comfortable to grow up, people that'll love him.'
Struggling with the intensity of the memory, Harry glances at Narcissa.
"I have met Miss Granger, Draco," she's saying. "I'm certain you make quite a team."
Harry can see her quiet pride now, he can see it everywhere; her formality is no more than a thin, shiny veneer. A transparent thin, shiny veneer at that, and he supposes everyone has to protect themselves from the world one way or another.
'Took you long enough, grumpy-face,' admonishes his inner Romilda, and for the first time since her death, he doesn't mind hearing her. His eyes sting a little bit, but it's fine.
"Yeah," he says, addressing Clive at last. "I think she'd think that was alright."
Clive nods solemnly. "OK." He strokes Zeus thoughtfully for a minute or two, and just as Harry is about to butt into the conversation between Draco and Narcissa, he asks, "Who will look after Mrs Mafloy?"
"I'm not sure she needs anyone to look after her," Harry says, though even as he does, he is doubting those words. Everyone needs someone to look after them.
"What if something happens to her?" Clive whispers, and Harry's stomach twists.
"Nothing's going to happen to her," he assures, knowing it's a foolishly bold statement, but not knowing what else to say to a small child worried about having another parental figure taken from them. "Her family can look after her. That's what families do."
"Drake?" Clive chews his lip and glances at Draco appraisingly; Harry tightens his fingers around Draco's under the table. "Who else?"
Harry exhales slowly. Children, he's learning quickly, are able to ask the most incisive questions without really meaning to at all. "You," he says, and Clive smiles.
Zeus returns his paws to the floor and begins gnawing on a bright blue shoelace. "That is not for you," Clive admonishes, looking down at the Crup, but he doesn't pull his foot away.
"And Zeus," Harry adds. Draco's thumb skates over his palm and underneath the new string and Harry's heart rate accelerates at the words forming on his tongue without his permission. When they come, they're uttered in barely a whisper, but Clive nods, satisfied: "And me."
Once he's finished breakfast, said goodbye to Draco and held a whispered conversation with Narcissa about various practical things that still need to be addressed, it's nine forty-five and Harry barely has time to Apparate back to Grimmauld Place, hunt down a set of almost-clean robes and dash for the hospital. Although there's still a little bit of smoke wisping around him as he strides into Gen One, he doesn't regret finishing off that flask of Pepper-Up because the last of those stuffed-up feelings are now completely gone. Not that he was sick in the first place, of course.
Either way, the contentment he feels is rippling off him in waves and the contrast to yesterday's mood does not go unnoticed, even as he half-listens to his supposed mentor's pontificating across the corridor and stares at him, attempting to find some sign of guilt in his posture or voice or stupid moustached face.
"Someone got some last night," Terry murmurs, not without envy, as he leans beside Harry on the nurses' station and pretends to take notes on what Tremellen is saying to the group.
Harry continues to look straight ahead, but smirks and doodles another green spider on his chart.
"Why is it," he murmurs out of the side of his mouth, "that when I'm in a good mood, you lot always assume it's something to do with sex?"
Cecile, who actually is taking notes, looks up. "Because it invariably is? Everything's about sex."
"Is it bollocks."
"They're often involved," Terry points out, and Harry's just glad he had reconsidered 'My arse!' as a retort. He doesn't need Terry to tell him how that's often involved, he really doesn't.
"...not that I seriously expect any of you to be able to manage that," Tremellen is saying across the corridor.
"Prick," Cecile mutters darkly.
"That as well," Terry adds, dark eyes bright with amusement when Harry flicks him a quick glance. "Sometimes more than one."
Cecile snorts and Harry stares down at his page full of green spiders. Sighs. "My life doesn't revolve around sex, you know."
"Well, if I was going out with Malfoy, I'd—"
"Cecile, please don't finish that sentence."
"Hear hear," Terry whispers with feeling, though Harry suspects his reasons are somewhat different.
"Pair of prudes," Cecile says. "What's with the glow, then? Did Rita Skeeter give in to public pressure and throw herself from the roof of Prophet HQ?"
"There's a thought. No." Careful not to draw attention to them, Harry continues to 'write' and stare ahead, but shakes back his sleeve to display his wrist—now exactly as he prefers it: string-wrapped and Promise-free.
Two sharp inhalations later, he shakes the green fabric back into place.
"What did you decide?" whispers Cecile. "Honest Dave?"
"No," Terry cuts in, before Harry can answer, eyes flicking to Harry and then back to Tremellen. "NRM."
"Like fuck," Cecile hisses across Harry, and he leans back slightly to allow them to look at each other. For whatever reason, he's rather amused, and decides to let them get on with it. He draws another spider, this time with long, pointy teeth.
"Have you quite finished?" Harry murmurs, glancing at Tremellen, who is still talking, addressing most of his words to the obsequious, standing-far-too-close Daisy and Lisa.
"Cecile, get your hand in your pocket," he says, and Cecile groans loudly enough to break Tremellen's stride; he glares viciously at all three of them and then carries on.
"Oh, for fuck's sake," she hisses and rolls her eyes, unimpressed. It's not the money; Harry knows that—it's the losing, especially to Terry.
"Aha." Terry grins and nudges Harry with his shoulder. "She had you at Libere Ostendo."
Harry grins back and chews thoughtfully on his thumbnail. He suspects that she actually had him quite some time before that, if he's honest.
"I thought you hated all that archaic pureblood crap," Cecile says, sounding wounded.
Harry shrugs. "I don't know." Suddenly he can feel Draco pressed warm behind him, those affirming words whispered against his ear to complete the ritual, and the release of powerful ancient magic, and it's a rush. "It's growing on me."
"Hmph... do you think you did the right thing?" Cecile asks, tone turning serious.
"I know I did."
"Well, that's good," she concedes, but she's still muttering under her breath about 'five sodding Galleons' when Tremellen finishes his tirade and calls out a question to her.
She clearly has no idea what she's just been asked, and the momentary rare panic in the muddy green eyes is unexpectedly heartening.
Harry writes 'Because it would interact with the Wolfsbane Potion' on a sliver of his paper not covered by spiders, and kicks her in the ankle.
"Because it would interact with the Wolfsbane Potion, Healer Tremellen," she says, flashing a dangerously sweet smile.
Tremellen nods and glares at Harry. For a split second, before he remembers himself, Harry glares back.
Harry hurries down the busy shopping street and curses the fact that the stupid Daily Prophet office is right smack-bang in the middle of Diagon Alley. He's walking quickly because he doesn't particularly want to speak to anyone—in fact, he'd rather no one noticed him at all, but he knows how unlikely that is—and because he doesn't have a lot of time. He's using his lunch break, yet again, for something other than lunch, and it's no small wonder that he never gets time to fucking eat.
That being said, when he'd received Skeeter's owl halfway through the morning, food had been the least of his concerns. He's read the brief, demanding letter several times, and she doesn't sound impressed at all.
'WHAT DID YOU DO TO ME?!' he had read aloud to Cecile, when she'd asked if he was coming to the canteen for lunch, and she'd had the good grace to screw up her nose in mild remorse and offer to explain everything to Terry and Eloise in his absence.
"Quietly," he'd instructed, and she'd sniffed and muttered something about Slytherin stealth that had made Harry laugh, mostly because despite her small stature, Cecile is one of the loudest people he knows.
When he enters the Prophet building, he fully expects everyone to stop what they're doing and gape at him, and he's not disappointed.
"She'll see me," he insists to the hard-faced receptionist, who's the only person in the office not to be staring at him as though he's a three-course meal.
"Do you have an app—"
"She will see me." Harry waves Rita's letter illustratively. "Believe me."
The receptionist curls a glossy pink lip and remains sullenly silent, but Harry is unmoved. He stares down at her with his hardest expression, and though he's not certain how skilled he actually is at intimidation, he's prepared to give it his best shot. Finally, she capitulates with a weighty sigh and points him in the direction of Skeeter's office.
Something spiteful curls inside Harry as he observes her complete lack of grace. "Have you ever considered that you might be in the wrong job?" he says, just before he turns away.
He doesn't see her expression, but her sharp, affronted gasp follows him across the main floor of the Prophet office, and it's with a pleased little smile that he knocks and enters Rita's office without waiting for permission.
The room is small but garishly decorated and he suspects that any amount of time spent within its walls would give a normal person a headache. Everything in sight is upholstered or draped in stripy, spotty or animal-print fabric, and framed headline articles line the walls, plus a number of journalistic awards that must be fakes. They must be.
Harry blinks to clear his vision and finally focuses on the little blonde woman scribbling furiously behind the desk. She looks up at the sound of the door clicking closed behind Harry and glares at him.
"Harry Potter. Well, well." Her tone is acidic, and even at the mention of his name, the dreaded Quill jumps to attention from the top of a filing cabinet and hovers at her shoulder.
Clinging to his good humour, Harry refuses to be riled, and merely leans against the wall opposite the desk and folds his arms. He's channelling Draco's 'just let her get on with it' attitude as hard as he can, and to his secret pleasure, her scowl only deepens at his display of nonchalance.
"What did you want to talk about, Rita? Your receptionist was really rather rude to me, you know."
"She's rude to everyone, that's why they hired her," Rita says almost sulkily.
She rises from her desk and takes several steps closer to Harry, bringing with her the cloying odour of freesias, which Harry only notices now they are meeting in such a confined space. Draco would be going mad right about now, he thinks, oddly pleased that he's not here conducting this... whatever it is.
"Well, that's not very nice."
Rita fixes him with a look. "Whatever you did to me yesterday—that was not very nice."
"I didn't do anything to you yesterday," Harry says, quite truthfully.
"I know you did!" she insists, eyes narrowed behind her spectacles. "And where's my notebook? Fortunately for you, a good reporter always keeps two copies of everything."
"That is fortunate. I have no idea where your notebook is," Harry says, less truthfully this time. Only slightly, though, because it's not anywhere, he supposes, it just... isn't... any more.
Rita's red lips twist and the green Quill quivers behind her. "What did you do to my memory?"
Frustration and confusion distort Skeeter's sharp features. "There was someone there with you, I know there was! What did she do?"
Knowing he's going to have to stray into outright lying now, Harry forces himself to remain still and hold eye contact. He flicks his tongue over his dry bottom lip and thinks, not for the first time, that some pre-meditation would have been useful here. He has had a lot on, he informs his subconscious defensively.
"There's no need to be like that. She helped you. She is a Healer, you know. You were all over the place when we found you outside the hospital, you didn't even know why you were there!" he improvises, flicking his gaze around the walls; alighting on a particularly lurid headline about his own insanity and Draco's Dark powers, he hits upon inspiration. "I've seen it before, you know... nasty things, they are."
"Wrackspurts," Harry says, pouring everything he has into keeping his face straight and his arms crossed.
"You're giving me Wrackspurts? Credit me with some intelligence, Harry."
"Oh, I am," he soothes, as the lie becomes more comfortable. "The bigger the brain, the more attracted they are to you."
The little woman is fuming, but her rage is impotent and she knows it. Harry hadn't expected for a moment for her to believe him, and even though she doesn't, he feels oddly powerful.
"I don't believe you."
He smiles. She can't prove a thing; he knows it, and she knows it. "I don't care."
For long seconds, Rita regards him with hands on her hips, and Harry stares right back, trying not to choke on the heavy floral scent and silently cursing anyone who has ever advised him that dealing with the press is easier than ignoring them. Like fuck it is.
"I know you went to Azkaban," she offers after a moment in an abrupt change of tack. She indicates what must be the duplicate notebook on her desk.
Just give her something, he tells himself. She has no memory of the other conversation. "I did, yes."
Visibly surprised at the easy surrender, she hesitates. "And you were Romilda Vane's Healer, were you not?"
"That's also correct. Although I'd like to know how you know that." Harry grits his teeth.
"I bet you would." The trademark smirk appears at long last, and he wants to hex it off her face.
"I'm serious, Rita. Whoever told you that was breaking patient confidentiality, and I want to know who it was."
She sighs with mock pity. "Never give up the source, Harry, you know that. First rule of journalism."
"You've literally no conscience, have you?" he says, irritated. "Were you born that way, or did it just rot away over the years?"
The smirk deepens. "You've been spending too much time with Malfoy, Harry."
Harry snorts and pushes off the wall. He's getting nowhere with this, and it's probably better that he scarpers before he says or does something that he might regret. If he hurries, there might still be time to grab some lunch, too. Chance would be a fine thing.
"I've been spending exactly the right amount of time with him, actually. If we're done here, I need to get back to work," he says, and turns to leave.
"Who's got the child?"
He stops, one hand on the doorknob, but does not turn to face her. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Yes, you do."
"Think I'll tell you?" he says, heart pounding suddenly.
Harry lets go of the knob and turns, incredulous. "Fuck you. This isn't a negotiation," he mutters, even though it feels very much like one, and he doesn't like it. Not one bit. As though he'd trade Narcissa and Clive for the name of her St Mungo's contact—he's not that fucking desperate.
"No need to be rude."
Harry laughs dryly and without warmth. "Look. Write what you want about Harris. He deserves everything he gets."
"Can I quote you on that?" she asks, quick as a flash.
"Be my guest."
Harry watches as the Quick-Quotes Quill dives into action at the tiniest wave of Skeeter's hand. He rolls his eyes and yanks the door open.
"I'll see you next week, then," she calls after him, sounding a little bemused. "You and Malfoy! Four o'clock!"
"You think I don't have other appointments?"
He pauses, several feet out into the main office, which has fallen completely silent at the sight of him. "Five-thirty. Take it or—"
"—leave it? When did that become your personal mantra, Harry?"
Harry ignores the stares of the Prophet employees and walks quickly through the office, past the uncouth receptionist and out into the noisy, bustling relief of the afternoon crowds in Diagon Alley. Impulsively, he buys a double cherry-crunch ice cream cone from Fortescue's in lieu of lunch and eats it as he weaves through the crowds of shoppers, most of whom are also staring at him. Not that anything else is new.
He wonders if he's achieved anything at all, really. Cecile's safe, at least, and that's something. And she doesn't know about the Promise. But he's still doing the bloody interview and he still doesn't know whether he has more of a reason than ever to hate Tremellen. He licks cold, soft sweetness from where the ice cream has dripped onto the back of his hand and wonders if Draco would've fared any better—he's certainly a better liar and a better Slytherin, but Harry suspects that his wand hand would have been twitching from the first sight of Rita's tasteless office.
"No, Cornelius, it's almost two o'clock, we don't have time to look at racing brooms," a weary-sounding lady says to her pouting child as she drags him past Harry.
"But mum," whines Cornelius.
Harry watches them, amused, as he finishes his ice cream. Then, registering the words and realising he's going to be late back to work, he crunches the last of his cone, wipes sticky hands on his trousers and makes for the nearest Apparation Point.
"What is it?" Not-Draco glances at Harry with sharp dark eyes, and Harry gazes through the smoky haze of the Dragon and Snitch until he sees what Draco is looking at with such interest.
"It's a snooker table," a weirdly-blond Ron cuts in knowledgeably.
"Oh," says Draco, eyes wide.
"Actually, it's a pool table," Hermione corrects, coming back to the table with their drinks and pulling up a stool beside Harry. She shakes back golden curls. "Snooker tables are much bigger than that."
Ron sighs, disappointed, and when Hermione turns away to further explain the new feature of their favourite end-of-the-night pub, Harry rolls his eyes in solidarity, and Ron grins.
"Same thing, isn't it? Putting balls in holes with a stick," he mutters.
"Well yeah, but how long have you known Hermione?"
Harry picks up his drink and sips it thoughtfully. He's not quite drunk, but, having refused to let Skeeter and her leopard-print curtains ruin his mood, he's warm and calm and mellow. Knowing that Clive is safe and happy—as happy as he actually does, anyway—at the Manor with his Mrs Mafloy gives Harry a little spike of satisfaction every time he remembers it, and his best friends have so far accepted the decision with a mature serenity for which he's grateful.
He suspects, though, that Hermione in particular has learned her lesson about bad-mouthing Narcissa in front of Draco, and he only hopes that he isn't in for the ear-bashing of a lifetime as soon as Draco leaves the room.
"Look," she's saying, and pointing over at the table, where two intrepid witches are finishing off a game. "You make the white ball hit the others, and try to get them into the pockets. I've played a couple of times with my dad. It's quite difficult, actually."
Beside Harry, a Firewhisky-unsteady Ron snickers. "Even I know not to say that to him."
Harry grins and opens his mouth to agree, when Hermione glances over at them and he wonders. Sure enough, Draco is draining his blueberry and soda and getting to his feet.
"Come on, Weasel." He indicates the table with a careless hand. "I need an opponent."
"Who're you calling Weasel?"
"You old ferret-face," Ron mumbles as he hauls himself to his feet with a triumphant glace at Harry, but there's no malice in the words.
"What about me?" Harry protests.
Draco turns those strange dark eyes to his and smiles slowly, setting off those weird, unsettling Draco-not-Draco feelings in the pit of Harry's stomach that he only gets on Friday nights.
"You'll distract me. Won't you?" he adds, almost in a whisper, and Harry's mouth turns dry.
Draco nods and motions impatiently for Ron to follow him; Ron does, weaving slightly, and before long they are leaning over the table and examining it carefully, turning out their pockets for Sickles and arguing over 'sticks'.
"Reverse psychology," he says to Hermione, now almost certain that she sent Draco away on purpose.
She glances up at him and her eyes confirm his suspicion. "Maybe."
"Go on, then. Let's hear it."
Hermione fiddles with her glass, and for once in her life appears to be struggling for words. "You were always going to choose her, weren't you?" she says at last.
Surprised, Harry frowns. "Was I?"
"When you came to my office on Monday, it was as though you were looking for someone to talk you out of choosing her. I think you thought I'd do that."
Struck by the uncomfortable truth of that statement, Harry isn't sure what his response should be. He sips his drink, concentrating on the raw burn in his throat, and waits for the words to come to him.
When the question comes, it's surprisingly plain. "Why didn't you?"
Hermione sighs softly and stares straight ahead at the spectacle of two purebloods determinedly trying to thrash each other at Muggle pool.
"I don't know. I suppose because it didn't really matter what I thought."
"It matters to me what you think, Hermione," Harry says softly.
She smiles faintly and squeezes his hand for a second. "Thanks. What I mean is... look, I know I can be a little bit... over-involved sometimes..." She pauses. Sometimes? Harry's subconscious scoffs, but he silences it. "But you're my best friend, you know? The point is, you've made some pretty crazy decisions, especially recently, that have turned out really well."
Hermione smiles, meeting his eyes with an odd little flush, and then turns to look over at the table, where not-Draco is flattening himself to the baize and drawing back his cue with an expression of utter concentration. Harry can't stop the smile or the warm little lick of pride inside him.
"Draco is a crazy decision?"
"You know he is," she says into her drink. "And the thing is, I don't think I'll ever be Narcissa Malfoy's biggest fan. I'm sorry, Harry, but I just won't. I think she's a terrible snob and she's unlikely to be winning any Mother of the Year awards any time soon, but I know that you have some sort of relationship with her, and I know you wouldn't make that sort of decision lightly however impetuous you can be about some things, and... and I saw them at your open day and Clive obviously thinks she's wonderful, and I know you're waiting for me to tell you off, and I'm not going to do it!" she finishes, all in one breath, dropping her hands into her lap and staring at Harry, bright-eyed and breathless.
Harry stares back, touched and surprised by not only the uncharacteristic outburst, but the trust and approval buried somewhere amidst it all. Warmed, he doesn't know what to say, so he shifts his stool closer and slings an arm around her shoulders. She rests her head against his shoulder and he sniffs experimentally at her floral scented hair.
"Thanks, 'Mione," he says at last.
"You have a new string," she observes, glancing down at his hand.
Harry's stomach leaps pleasurably as he also looks at string #2, and he half-considers telling her all about Marley, but quickly decides that some things are best not raked over, however tempting they might be.
"Mm," he says instead.
"I think he does love you, you know."
He does know. Tightening his arm around his friend, Harry smiles. "I know he does."
Hermione falls silent; she rests warmly against him and cradles her glass near to her face, dark blonde waves cascading over Harry's shoulder as they both watch the pool game and listen to the buzz of Friday night all around them.
Ron and Draco are doing surprisingly well, and appear to be evenly-matched in terms of skill. With only the black ball remaining on the table, Ron leans over to take his shot, and it's then that Harry notices what Draco is doing. He stands some feet behind Ron, leaning against the wall, cue held loosely in one hand and the other... raised ever-so-slightly from his side, with the very tip of his wand poking out of the end of his sleeve. Just as the cue ball makes contact, his lips move and the black ball bounces harmlessly off a cushion and away from the corner pocket.
Frustrated, Ron growls and holds out a hand, stepping back from the table and muttering something that looks like, "Fuck's sake. Go on then, Malfoy."
"He's cheating," Hermione says suddenly, sounding scandalised.
Harry smiles, more amused than he probably should be. "I know."
As Draco pots the black ball and wins the game, Ron groans. Draco turns and catches Harry's eyes across the room as though he knows Harry's been watching him, and the dry smirk does dangerous things to the tightness of his trousers that he hopes Hermione doesn't notice.
They return to the table, Ron shaking his head and muttering about 'bloody Slytherins' as he often does. It never fails to amuse Harry that what is intended as a grave insult by Ron is without exception taken as a compliment by Draco. He wonders if he should tell Ron this.
"I'm naturally talented, Weasley," Draco is saying as they come to a stop, just next to the table.
Ron folds his arms and squints at Hermione, who still has her head on Harry's shoulder, and then at Harry. "I hope you're not trying to steal my girlfriend, Harry, because..." Looking around at Draco, Ron grimaces, "I don't fancy yours much."
Draco pulls a face at him behind his back, and Harry raises an eyebrow, caught between amusement and indignation. Hermione rolls her eyes and he releases her, kicking out Ron's stool so he'll sit down. He does, and Harry's not surprised; alcohol tends to make him somewhat compliant.
"I doubt he fancies you either, Ron," he offers.
Draco sits down heavily beside him. "Certainly not. Your freckled arse is of no interest to me."
"My arse is not freckled, thank you very much!"
Hermione blinks innocently, and offers, "Well, actually..."
"Please don't." Head flooded with unnecessary images, Harry groans and looks at not-Draco, who looks very pleased with himself indeed.
He's actually relieved when the conversation turns away from Ron's arse and toward more familiar ground; Hermione asks to hear the story of Rita being Obliviated by Cecile, even though she's already heard it at dinner, and her obvious delight makes Harry happy to oblige.
Draco listens patiently, even though he's now hearing the story for the third time, and slides his fingertips under Harry's string under the table.
Ron is still muttering about freckled ferrets when, two hours later, they stumble out into the night and Apparate home.
Having become accustomed to having Saturday mornings to themselves, this one too passes without incident, following the well-worn pattern of Hangover Potion, lazy sex, tea and toast, shared showers with a high incidence of more lazy sex, and as many crosswords as they can lay their hands on. When the last clue has been filled in, Harry stretches out on the sofa with his head on Draco's chest and Summons Narcissa's book. Draco props it up against Harry's back and reads until only four chapters remain, and only complains a little bit when Harry gets biscuit crumbs all over his white shirt.
Everything, for once, is as it should be, and it isn't until the following morning that Harry feels as though something is amiss. It takes him a good few minutes after waking to realise exactly what it is. It's after eight, and yet Draco is still curled into his side and there's nothing to suggest that he's risen and returned as he sometimes does. He's warm to the touch, more so than usual, and each slow breath is somewhat scratchy. Carefully, Harry strokes Draco's hair out of his closed eyes and bites his lip guiltily. He's dead. When Draco wakes up, he's so very dead.
But still, that's not it. Harry looks up, and it's when he catches sight of the transparent door that it registers. Clive's not here. He struggles now to remember a Sunday here that hadn't started with a sleepy little shape in the doorway, blinking and wondering about breakfast. Harry exhales hard and shakes away the strange feeling of loss with some effort; he knows he's being irrational because in reality, the little boy had been here for less than two months. That's all.
And yet. Confused, Harry lowers his head and presses his mouth to Draco's hairline, tasting his skin and brushing his lips over fine, citrusy blond strands. When Draco doesn't stir, he slips out of bed, drags on a pair of boxers from the floor and crosses the hall to stand in the doorway of the empty bedroom.
He doesn't really know what he's doing, but he does it anyway, looking around at the pictures stuck to the walls with coloured drawing-pins and blu-tack that Draco brought home especially from his stationery cupboard. He looks at the bedside table, empty of the photograph of Romilda that Clive only sets down at night, and he looks at the dog-covered quilt cover and wonders if he should give it to Narcissa, or if she's bought him lots of better ones already. Probably.
With a strange ache in his chest, he steps into the room and picks up his crackle-glass sphere from the floor next to the bed. The glass is cold and heavy, and he cradles it in his arms protectively. He releases a gentle sigh and pads back into their bedroom, setting down the sphere as quietly as possible, and Draco still doesn't move.
Once downstairs, he fishes the tea things out of the cupboard and stares at the tin of cocoa for a long time; it's the third tin that he's had to buy in as many months, and though this one is half full, he suspects that it will remain that way. Tapping a teaspoon against the counter in an erratic rhythm, he shuts the cupboard and wonders if he is, in fact, going mad.
It's not that he's doubting his decision—definitely not. And he's still not ready to be anyone's father, but still... he'd failed to factor in the little hole that Clive would leave in his life. In their lives, he supposes, but he's not sure what Draco feels about it.
"It's been a day," he says, glancing at the top cupboard as he pours the tea. "I'm pathetic. I bet he's having a great time away from our boring house."
The cupboard door flaps defensively and Harry rolls his eyes. "That's not very nice. And did I say you were boring? No. I did not."
"It's not my fault he can't understand you, is it?" Harry inhales the fragrant steam as his tea brews and looks at the ceiling. He hasn't got any Pepper-Up in and he only hopes that Draco is in a forgiving mood when he wakes up and realises that Harry has been... generous with his cold. The one he didn't have.
The cupboard door batters back and forth noisily. Harry just about stops himself from spilling milk over the counter and glares at it.
"Shh," he hisses. "You'll wake Draco, and then I—" Harry stops, hearing what sounds suspiciously like a sneeze.
And then another.
"Oh, now you've done it," he tells the cupboard, which is now silent and motionless, looking for all the world like a run-of-the-mill kitchen fitting.
Harry grabs the hot cups and hurries upstairs. When he walks into the bedroom, Draco is half-sitting up, supporting his weight on his elbows, hair wisping into his eyes, looking absolutely murderous. As Harry sets down the cups on the bedside table and tries very hard not to smile, he sneezes again.
"Morning," Harry attempts, sitting on the end of the bed with one foot tucked underneath him.
"What have you given me, you absolute—" Draco wrinkles his nose, sneezes again and then scowls at Harry. "You... oh, fuck, this is disgusting," he complains, sniffling and shaking his head, before wincing and going very still.
"I wouldn't do that," Harry advises, remembering the pounding headache all too well.
"Thanks." Draco lifts an eyebrow and then shivers.
"I brought you some tea," Harry says.
When the tap at the window comes, he gets up to let in the owl with the heavy Sunday paper without even looking away from Draco, and closes the window hastily before the cold air infiltrates the bedroom. Draco picks up the nearest cup and sits up in bed to drink it, knees pulled up under the bedclothes; over the top of the cup, unhappy grey eyes fix upon Harry, and he doesn't know whether he wants to comfort or mock, perhaps a little of both. Gently mock, at least. Harry knows he must be feeling lousy, but Draco's disgruntled kitten expression just makes him feel stupid and smiley inside.
It doesn't surprise him for a single second that Draco is a terrible, terrible patient, though.
"I don't have any Pepper-Up," he admits, "but I'll go out and get you some. Failing that, I bet Molly's got a bottle."
"What kind of Healer are you, exactly?" Draco sniffs.
"A terribly unprofessional one, probably." Harry sits up straighter at the end of the bed, picks up the folded newspaper and holds it in front of him, pretending to make notes. He sighs dramatically and looks at Draco. "I'm afraid it's bad news, Mr Malfoy."
Draco bites his lip as though he's trying not to smile. "You're not funny."
"I should hope not. This really is of the utmost gravity, Mr Malfoy," Harry continues, staring down at the Quidditch scores as though they contain true portents of doom. "In fact, you're going to have to let me have a closer look. Just to... you know, make sure."
"Make sure what? And I certainly hope this isn't just your standard bedside manner," Draco says, and then sneezes twice in a row, as Harry abandons the paper and crawls under the sheets with him.
"Shush." He tugs the empty cup out of Draco's hand and pulls him close, pressing his air-chilled flesh against Draco's overheated skin. After a moment or two's discontented mumbling, he sighs softly and relaxes into Harry, still sniffling.
"No Weasels today," Draco says into his neck.
"Alright. But I still have to go."
Pushing away his strange little unsettled feelings, Harry gently tilts Draco's chin toward him and kisses him. He's warm and sticky and sour-tasting but Harry says nothing, even though it's probably disgusting. Struggling for breath, Draco pulls back after a moment and looks at him, puzzled.
"This is all your fault, you know," he says, and drapes himself back over Harry's chest.
Five minutes later, he's asleep.
Several hours later, having left Draco with a stack of books, a pot of tea and an instruction to drink the fucking Pepper-Up Harry went to three different shops to find, or else there'll be no sympathy, Harry Apparates into the back garden of the Burrow. He's greeted by mingled mouth-watering cooking smells and Arthur, who's standing almost right behind the back door.
"Hello, Harry." He smiles and peers behind Harry at the empty back garden. "Where's young Malfoy?"
"He's at home. He's not coming today."
"Oh." Arthur sags slightly, visibly disappointed, and Harry's secretly pleased. He isn't really sure what Draco and Arthur find to talk about, but after that first time at the New Year party, they always seem to gravitate toward one another when put in the same room.
"I gave him a cold," Harry advises. "So he's sulking."
Pale blue eyes widen in understanding, and then crease up in sympathy. "Well, that's a shame. I had some things to show him in the shed. Still, I suppose there's always next week," Arthur sighs, and ushers Harry toward the table, where various other Weasleys and their partners are now scraping up chairs.
"Less one, Molly!" he calls, and she turns from the stove to smile at Harry and issue a frazzled greeting.
Harry smiles back and lifts a hand briefly before sliding into a seat between George and Hermione. As usual, Molly waves away all offers of help and levitates the last of the plates onto the table before she sits, glancing around with flushed satisfaction at her extended brood.
"Take him some chicken, Harry," she says, and he looks up from his plate.
"Your young man. Take him some chicken when you go, there'll be some leftover. You can have the bones if you want," she adds brightly. "You know how to make soup, don't you?"
"Oh, he does," Ginny says darkly, as though those three weeks of vegetable soup were his fault alone.
"Thanks, Molly, I'll... yeah. Thanks." Harry feels his face heat for no good reason that he can see, and pretends intense interest in his carrots. He's aware that Molly's attempts to mother Draco from afar represent the acceptance that's been so long in coming, and he wonders if he should tell Draco to expect a sweater this Christmas. Whether he should tell Molly that Draco doesn't like bright colours.
Beside him, George is smirking and muttering, "Your young man," under his breath.
Harry waits until no one else is looking and gleefully pokes George in the back of the hand with his fork. When George yelps and swears and attracts a sharp reprimand from his mother, Harry grins. He hopes Draco's ears are burning. And if he's taken the Pepper-Up like he was supposed to, Harry suspects they will be.
"Mum," Ron says through a mouthful of chicken, "tell Harry about your course!"
Harry looks up with interest but Molly shakes her head quickly. "Harry doesn't want to know about that. I probably won't be doing it, anyway."
"He does," Ron insists, pointing with his fork. "Don't you, Harry? Mum's going back to school."
Harry smiles, surprised and pleased for her. "Really? That's great; what're you going to do?"
The tight anguish on her face is unexpected, but the brisk smile that replaces it after a moment is very familiar.
"Nothing much, this and that, you know how it is. Nothing important, I expect I'll still have plenty of time on my hands," she says quickly and then turns to speak to Hermione before anyone else can get a word in.
"What was that all about?" Harry murmurs, mostly to himself, and exchanges a 'search me' glance with Ron across the table.
Arthur leans closer and attempts to mumble something to Molly, but she waves him away until he shrugs and continues with his meal. Deciding that it's probably politic to leave the issue alone until he has some clue of what the issue is, Harry does the same, allowing George to draw him into a very strange conversation about whether or not girls with a sense of humour would appreciate an exploding bouquet (and not that he's an expert on girls, but Harry reckons probably not).
Once stuffed full of food, he makes for the back door. Hermione is sitting on the bench with her cardigan pulled around her, but no Warming Charm, and he sits beside her.
"What made you rule Molly out?" she asks, turning to him.
"You mean with Clive?"
"Yes. I know you were considering her."
Harry slouches back on the bench and thinks. "I didn't really. I didn't rule her out as such... I just... it fit. I chose Narcissa, I didn't discount Molly. If that makes sense. I know she's a brilliant mum."
Hermione exhales shortly and throws Harry an odd little smile. "That's not what I meant. I didn't think you were dismissing her skills as a mother, I was just curious, I suppose. She doesn't know, you know." Hermione looks at him pointedly, and a couple of things drop neatly into place.
"She doesn't know that I'm not still looking..." Harry sighs and rubs his face. "Right. But we never even talked about it."
"That's because you never talk about anything," Hermione says, which stings a little, even though she has a point. "I think she just wanted to... keep herself available, if you needed her to step in. You know how she is."
Guilt and something that aches lies heavy in Harry's stomach. He shakes his head. "I'd never expect her to put her life on hold, though. Surely she knows that."
"'Course she does," Ron says, closing the back door behind him and shoving his hands into his jeans pocket against the mild April chill. "She's doing her self-sacrificing bit."
"Oh. That." Harry nods, because it's obvious now.
"She's impossible," Ginny adds, stepping out into the garden too, hands on her hips. "I'd tell her to stop it myself, but I think she probably needs to hear it from you."
Anyone else? Harry thinks, staring at the door again and waiting for Neville, George or Arthur to appear, but none of them do. After a moment's silence, he realises that everyone is looking at him expectantly, and he gets to his feet, lifting hands in a gesture of resignation.
"I'm going, I'm going."
Ginny smiles sweetly as he passes her at the door and he rolls his eyes. He finds Molly at the kitchen table, leafing through a shiny booklet which she hides under a roasting tray when she sees him.
"What's the course about?" he asks, sitting down next to her and folding his arms on the rough grain.
"Oh, Harry, it's nothing, really."
He sighs. No use beating around the bush, is there? "I don't need you to look after Clive, if that's what you're worried about." He shakes the string under his sleeve and extends his bare wrist for her inspection. "He's going to live at the Manor with Mrs Malfoy."
Molly stares at him for what feels like a long time before she reaches out to gently touch his wrist, as people seem compelled to do. "Narcissa Malfoy?"
Warm, rough fingers wrap tightly around his wrist; Harry's fingers slide against the tabletop as he startles at the sudden movement.
"Because... it was the right choice. For Clive." Harry holds her searching gaze with some effort.
"She's a very cold woman, Harry," she whispers almost fearfully, and he knows that she really believes that, but his head is all-at-once flooded with images to the contrary.
When he looks right into her eyes and says, "No, she's not," Harry feels more like a grown-up than he has ever felt.
Molly gazes at him with eyes full of anxiety and she does not let go of his wrist. Harry waits for the questions that hang heavy between them; when they come, he answers them, because he owes her that much, and because she's been waiting quietly in the background all this time, all ready to take on yet another child. For him.
He gets the impression that her anxious scepticism will only be relieved by time, but he can deal with that. When she finally releases his wrist, there are red pressure marks wrapped all the way around it, and he watches the evidence of her unease fade slowly before his eyes.
It's with a rush of warm affection that he finally manages to extract the course prospectus from underneath the roasting tray and persuade Molly to show him the painting classes she's interested in.
"I didn't know you painted," he says, surprised.
"Well, not for a long time, I haven't, but they say you never forget," she says, and he looks up from where he's flipping through the pages detailing various courses: Advanced Charms, Perfecting Non-Verbal Magic, Creative Embroidery, Crup Psychology... "Silly, really, but it's quite exciting."
"It's not silly," Harry says, observing the enthusiasm in the well-worn face, and knowing that had he asked, she would have given up her plans in an instant. It's her life now, he thinks, and as he submits to her rib-crushing hug before he heads home, he knows he could never have taken it from her. Gasping slightly, he accepts the plate of leftovers because it's easier than arguing and Apparates into his living room.
He balances the covered plate on one hand and retrieves his list from between the pages of 'Brown's Healing Essentials'. For a moment, he stares at it. Then, with a little awkward juggling, he draws his wand over Molly's name, making the scrawled letters disappear into nothing. He doesn't understand his own impulses sometimes, because he's left clutching a ragged piece of parchment containing nothing but the words:
Narcissa Malfoy—Libere Ostendo
And for reasons unknown, he slides the parchment back into the book, replaces it on the coffee table and heads upstairs to check on the progress of Draco's sulk.
The bedroom is filled with soft green light, and he's puzzled until he notices the crackle-glass sphere, which has been replaced on the bedside table and now contains dancing green flames. He wonders how Draco managed that; he's never been able to get anything but blue light out of it.
Approaching the bed, he squints and tries to ascertain whether or not Draco is sleeping. The sheets are pulled up around his shoulders and the blond hair, tinted faintly green by the light, fans out over the pillowcase. He seems very still, even as Harry draws close, but the potion bottle at the bedside is almost empty and Draco's breathing is markedly less stertorous than it had been when Harry left.
He smiles, guilt lessening, and sits carefully on the edge of the bed. As he looks at Draco and wonders whether or not to wake him, he notices that the usually pale skin is slightly flushed. It shouldn't be; Pepper-Up, despite the name, doesn't do that, and with concerned Healer head firmly in place, Harry leans over and touches the hot forehead with the back of his hand.
One grey eye opens and Harry frowns, noting the unusual dilation of the pupil that holds even as it adjusts to the softly-lit room.
"Hi," Draco whispers, and he sounds fine. Or at least he does until Harry pulls up his eyelid with the pad of his thumb and leans closer. "Stoppit," he hisses, and Harry lets go.
"I'm just checking," he says, wounded. "It's dangerous to ignore new symptoms, you know."
Both eyes are open now, and Draco's mouth twitches repeatedly until he has to turn and bury his face in the pillow, clearly very amused indeed. "I'm fine, believe me."
Irritated, Harry folds his arms and waits for him to explain what's so funny. Draco's bare shoulder shakes as he laughs silently, still flushed warm, and it's then that Harry realises that he almost always sleeps with his arms outside of the sheets, fingers twisted into the bedclothes, and right now both are very much hidden under the... oh, for fuck's sake. Harry closes his eyes and scrubs at his hair, casting around in his head for a reason, any reason at all, for such stupidity.
He's not running a fever or anything ominous like that, he's... Harry swallows hard and forces himself to look at Draco, who is now very still and looking right back at him with intense eyes and a warm almost-smile. Humiliated and tingling with arousal, Harry stares back and picks at the sheets.
"What're you doing?"
"Nothing," Draco insists, but the deliberate drag of his tongue across his bottom lip and the languid stretch under the sheets say otherwise, and Harry's embarrassment is swept away in a flood of something else entirely; something warm and delicious.
"Mmhm." Harry gets to his knees and crawls across the bed to settle behind Draco, suddenly unable to dislodge from his head the image of Draco lying here touching himself all afternoon. Not that it's an unpleasant image. But... while he was having lunch with the Weasleys—really. "Arthur was missing you," he adds, kicking off his shoes and socks and stretching out behind Draco under the sheets.
"Please don't talk about Arthur Weasley when I'm hard," Draco pleads in a tortured whisper. "Or any Weasley, for that matter."
"Oh, are you?" Harry murmurs, heat curling low down at the implication. "Thought you weren't doing anything?"
"Well, I'm not... not any more," Draco says, turning his head on the pillow to meet Harry's eyes in a flash of challenge and invitation.
Harry grabs the top edge of the sheets and tugs them down to thigh-level, taking a long moment or two to admire the graceful line of Draco's back as he curls on his side, to run an admiring, worshipful palm down over his ribs, the smooth jut of his hipbone and the warm, lean thigh, before he presses himself tight and fully clothed behind Draco, propping himself up on one elbow in the pillows and gazing down at exactly what he's not doing.
"I see," he manages, mouth dry and breath caught at the sight.
One pale hand grips at the white sheet beneath Draco, and the other, while motionless, is wrapped tightly around his own hard, flushed cock; those fingers are shiny-sticky from the steady leak that draws a soft moan from Harry with the knowledge that he's been dragging it out, making it last. Lying here, naked, bathed in green light and pushing slowly into his own hand, over and over again.
Almost fully hard himself now, Harry pushes closer against the naked skin, wishing he could feel it against him and yet drawing a strange little thrill from being fully dressed when Draco is naked and hard and spread out for him like this, eyes heated, completely still. Waiting. Harry wraps his hand around Draco's hip and kisses his shoulder softly.
"Are you going to help, then?" Draco says.
"No," Harry whispers, even though his gut wrenches pleasurably at the thought. "I want to watch."
For long seconds, Draco says nothing, but Harry hears the hitch in his breathing and he doesn't miss the way those fingers twist harder into the bedsheets. "You are a deviant. I knew it."
"Yes. Show me," Harry requests, kissing his shoulder again and watching intently the new sticky bead of fluid that leaks from Draco's cock, giving him away instantly and almost overwhelming Harry with the urge to give up his self-control, lean down, pin Draco's hips to the bed and take him into his mouth, catch that hot, salty leak on his tongue. At the thought, his whole mouth fills with saliva and he swallows hard.
"There's not a great deal to it, really," Draco says at last, but that hand moves, and Harry watches it, transfixed.
Slowly, achingly slowly, Draco slides that tightly closed fist over his hard, slicked cock. Long, unhurried strokes, and there's something about the soft sigh and eyes falling closed as he resumes the action that makes Harry almost certain that he has been doing it for half the afternoon. And god, it's so fucking hot. It's not as though he hasn't ever seen Draco touch himself before, but that's been in the middle of sex and not the same at all, not like this aching languor, not like just doing it for the sake of doing it, because it feels good.
Harry sweeps his palm over the lightly-haired thigh again in an effort to stop himself reaching out and touching where he really wants to, and Draco gasps and lifts into the touch, lifting into his own hand at the same time and shifting back, twisting so that he's almost draped over Harry; as Harry repeats the caress, he lifts that leg and hooks it back over Harry's hips until he's stretched out, eyes closed and hips raised and seemingly aware of little more than where he's being touched.
His warmth seeps through Harry's clothes and the little stripe of Harry's belly where his sweater has ridden up is suddenly electrified with the skin-to-skin contact. Still, Draco strokes himself with agonizing slowness and Harry glances, torn, between where his cock is sliding in and out of his hand, and his flushed face, rapid breaths, teeth digging into his lower lip hard.
So hard now, trapped in too-tight jeans, pushing up into the crack of Draco's arse and making him groan, he leans down to press hot, open-mouthed kisses against Draco's neck, inhaling the scent of his skin and tasting it gently.
"So, what were you thinking about?" he asks, gripping his hip tight enough to leave bruises.
Draco gasps a breathless smile but doesn't open his eyes. "Not telling you."
Intrigued, Harry kisses him again, dragging his tongue over the hammering pulse-point and along the angle of Draco's jaw. "Why not?"
A dry whimper snaps Harry's eyes down once more, and he chews on his lip as he watches those strokes picking up speed, hips lifting helplessly into each one now and pushing back into Harry again as though he's seeking out the rough drag of denim against his bare skin. The hand that had been gripping the sheets comes up to curl around the back of Harry's neck.
"Because you wouldn't believe me," Draco whispers, opening his eyes and turning his head at an awkward angle, demanding to be kissed. Harry obliges immediately, sliding their lips together and swallowing the breathless little cries for as long as he can, before he has to know.
"Tell me. Please."
Draco looses a rough laugh/gasp and looks at him, head tilted back and eyes darkened. "This. I was thinking about this. I wanted you to come home and find me."
Harry's heart twists violently and he's ludicrously, painfully turned-on. Staring, dry-mouthed, at Draco sprawled out over him, exposed and so close to the edge and staring right back at him, eyes flickering in the strange green light, Harry sees how exposed he is, how he's offering this part of himself, because Harry asked and because he wanted to. He wants to. Realising he's being allowed to hold, cradle something powerful and fragile, Harry is intoxicated.
"And is this what you wanted?" He grips Draco's hip harder and kisses him again, slower and gentler this time, asking questions and hoping for answers.
"I'd hoped... you might... help me," Draco mumbles against his lips. Faster now, faster and more erratic, Harry can feel it without even looking. "I'm close."
The words are a shock of electricity down Harry's spine, jolting to his cock and before he knows what he's doing, he's releasing Draco's abused hip and wrapping his hand around Draco's, following and steadying his strokes over the hot, hard flesh and slipping his thumb over the slippery head with each one.
"Like that, you mean?"
"Yes," Draco pants, watching with him for a moment before lifting his chin again, and Harry only lingers a second or two longer, watching their tangled fingers flying over Draco's cock—so beautiful—before he kisses Draco, kisses him hard and desperate and thorough. Messy and full of ragged, caught breaths and grazing of teeth and hot, slick tongues. The cinnamon-pepper taste of the potion is warm in Draco's mouth and Harry seeks it out.
A low groan and an, "Oh, Harry, fuck please," slips out as Draco pulls his mouth away and Harry presses his mouth against the salty-damp hair, watching every line of Draco's body tense as he whimpers and comes and spills himself hotly over both of their hands, hips lifting clear away from Harry's in a tight arch that resolves itself as Draco relaxes and drops, warm and heavy, back against him.
Harry watches, barely breathing, as their joined hands move together in one, two, three long, hard strokes, encouraging the last of Draco's release from him, and then drags his eyes away to kiss him through it, soft and slow, feeling and delighting in his shudder as the last of the aftershocks fade away.
Carefully, Harry extracts his hand and slides it, sticky palm down flat, over Draco's sharply-lifting ribs and back down, stroking him and finally coming to rest at his waist, pulling him closer at a strange angle. Mouth still buried in dishevelled blond hair, Harry smiles. He feels oddly as though he's been given something, and the overwhelming urge is to say, "Thank you." But he won't, because that would be weird, to say the least.
Unfortunately, every suitable post-sex word—in fact, every phrase he knows other than 'thank you'—has been expunged from his vocabulary, and in the end, it's Draco who speaks first.
"I love it when a plan comes together," he says, opening his eyes, blinking, and allowing a slow, satisfied smile to spread across his face.
"I thought you were suffering horribly," Harry says, lifting an eyebrow, relieved for a distraction from not saying thank you. "How did you get from dying to... wanking with intent?"
Draco snorts. "You were gone a while, you know. I drank the potion." He indicates the bedside table with a sticky hand and then lets it flop back down on top of Harry's. "I had to do something to entertain myself after I'd read all of that ridiculous stuff you brought home."
"Down there on the floor."
Genuinely puzzled, Harry leans up on his elbow to peer down at the floor, where, sure enough, there are copies of the Healer Code of Conduct, Ethical Guidelines, St Mungo's Employee Handbook and various other dry publications that he'd collected with the hope of figuring out exactly what'll happen to Tremellen if indeed he is the person supplying information to Rita Skeeter. He hadn't expected Draco to read them, but he doesn't know why he's surprised that he has.
"You read these?"
"I did. They're ambiguous at best and fucking incomprehensible at worst," Draco says, stretching and pulling the sheets back up over himself. He turns over, curling on his side and facing Harry. "You're going to have to ask someone."
"Aquiline," Harry mutters, twitching his hand to cast a wandless Cleaning Spell that makes Draco jump. "Sorry."
Draco lifts an eyebrow and slides a hand under Harry's sweater to stroke his back. "Just cold, that's all. Why are you still dressed?"
Harry sighs contentedly at the touch and shifts closer; the movement presses his flooded cock up against rough, restrictive denim and the sigh turns into a soft moan. He'd almost forgotten about that. Somehow. Draco's eyes are warm and enquiring, and he manages, "Because it's about eight o'clock, and most civilized people are still dressed at this time?"
He's not sure why it's a question.
"And since when," Draco says, tugging at Harry's sweater until he pulls it over his head and casts it to the floor, "have we been 'most civilized people'?"
Then there's a hand pulling at his fly and another scraping a blunt nail over his nipple and Harry just stretches out on his back on the warm sheets and allows it. "Concede your point," he mutters, smiling lazily.
"I'll concede your point in a minute," Draco threatens obliquely.
"You gave me a cold, so now you have to show me your cock, those are the rules," he adds, scrambling to his knees to efficiently divest Harry of his jeans and underwear, and then curling back down close at his side, mirroring Harry's earlier posture with one elbow in the pillows, supporting his head on his hand and skating the other down Harry's chest, over his stomach, to wrap securely around his neglected erection. The tight squeeze with exactly the right pressure pulls a deep groan from Harry that he can't bring himself to be embarrassed about. Not any more.
"Didn't know there were rules," he says, forcing his eyes open to look first up at Draco's calm expression, and then down to where those pale fingers are gripping and sliding firmly over him, contrasting sharply with the flushed, darkened skin.
"Oh, there are," Draco says, allowing mock-seriousness to lace his tone. "Though this is the first time I've enforced them."
"Good," Harry says, a funny little spike of delight pushing up through the aching sensation of arousal, even though he knows Draco is teasing. Mine, he adds silently.
Or at least he thinks he does, until, "Yes, yours."
And then it doesn't matter anyway, because Draco is sliding a thigh between his and pressing himself warmcloserperfect all down Harry's side, and brushing blond strands across Harry's face as he leans down to bring their lips together. Blood racing and aching and yet so ridiculously comfortable, Harry leans up into the kiss and pushes shamelessly into Draco's hand as he picks up the pace.
Already more than a little aroused after watching Draco, he knows that speed isn't going to be a problem here, and it's only stubborn pride that makes him hang on as long as he does when he's being touched like that and kissed like that and he thinks it's actually Draco's fingertips sliding into the hair at the back of his neck that tips him over the edge; he shivers and the fist around his cock tightens and he comes with a long, broken moan, hand coming up thoughtlessly to wrap around Draco's again as the white heat rips through him and splashes warm over their skin.
"Mm," Draco says against his lips and sighs gently, pulling away for a moment as Harry breathes deeply and luxuriates in that never-want-to-move-ever-again feeling.
He apparently retrieves his wand, because a soft, tingling sensation washes over Harry before he's clean and dry, and he smiles without opening his eyes. Blindly, he holds out an arm for Draco, but he's not forthcoming, and Harry opens one eye. "What?"
"Book," mutters Draco, hanging off the end of the bed.
Harry frowns, puzzled. "Hm?"
"Book's down here somewhere. My mother's book. It's Sunday," he says, as though no further explanation is required, and perhaps it's not.
Harry casts a glance at the haphazard pile of Healing booklets on the floor and reflects that if Draco's read them, he doesn't have to read them, which can only be a good thing; he would never have asked him to do so, but seeing as he has, Harry trusts implicitly in his superior attention span for the written word, and his ability to pick out relevant information. He also allows himself to enjoy the little warm feeling set off by Draco's respect for ritual and tradition—their ritual and tradition.
Finally, Draco locates the book and crawls back up to the pillows with it. For a moment, he cradles the book against his bare chest and regards Harry, and then holds it out to him and curls beneath the sheets once more, resting his head on Harry's chest and tangling their legs together, and Harry is reminded that although Draco does respect tradition, he also lacks Harry's fear of change.
Harry runs his fingers over the worn leather cover and the smooth, shimmering text of the title.
"You want me to read? Seriously?"
"There's only a few chapters left. I'm exhausted and weakened by illness," Draco says, but Harry can feel the smirk against his skin.
"Illness, of course." Harry snorts dryly and opens the book anyway. He's not certain about this at all, but he flicks to the place they're up to and finds a yellow sticky-note slapped at a messy angle in the centre of the page.
#29 – You actually have a very nice speaking voice, despite some of the things I may say in order to wind you up. Please read to me. I'm very tired from the lovely handjob/blowjob/good hard shag you've just given me.
Harry laughs, lifts the sticky yellow note and fixes it to Draco's bare shoulder so he can see the page.
"And when did you write this?"
"An hour or two ago," Draco admits, lifting his head to prop his chin on Harry's chest, grey eyes innocent. "I was feeling uncharacteristically optimistic."
Harry flicks his hair from his eyes and heaves a long-suffering sigh. Draco smiles, sensing his surrender. Love you, whispers Harry's subconscious, and he lets it. Love you, you manipulative sod.
"Yes," he says. Pauses. Draco's smile brightens. "I'm sure you were, now be good."
Harry Summons extra pillows and lounges in a semi-upright position with a warm, naked, 'I'm behaving myself, I promise' Draco draped all over him.
"'As the day of the trial approached, and quickly, Rex found himself looking at Susanna as she looked at the unmoving photographs of her family and wondering—though he tried to stop himself—how she could stand to breathe the same air with him, when if it hadn't been for Rex and his refusal to let things lie, the lives of five members of her family would not be hanging in the balance. 'We all make choices,' she'd said, 'and you were mine.' And yet, though he heard her words, the heavy feeling refused to leave him.'" Harry pauses. "He's going to do something daft, isn't he?"
Draco stops playing with his string and sighs. "Don't interrupt," he complains. "If you do, you remind me that it's just a story."
Amused, Harry lifts an eyebrow, but when he starts to read again, he keeps his questions and commentary inside his head. Despite his reservations, he soon finds a comfortable rhythm, and finds he doesn't mind doing the reading at all. Draco is silent and almost completely still, only the flicker of his fingers over Harry's wrists and hips, and the sheets revealing that he's awake.
The sense of foreboding that had originally prompted Harry to comment, though, only deepens as he approaches the final chapter. "Without me, there will be no trial," he reads, totally caught up in the image of the tortured protagonist stalking off into the night.
Then, he falls silent. He's not sure if it's because it's the last chapter and then another one of their comfortable little rituals will be over, or because he's not sure he wants to know what Rex is going to do and as such what Narcissa is trying to tell him, or because Draco started the book and the stubborn part of Harry is insisting that he should finish it, too.
But whichever way, he isn't about to tell Draco, so he holds in his sigh and opens his mouth to begin the last chapter, but Draco is shifting and the book is being tugged out of his hands.
"You are beyond help, do you know that?" he says crossly, but Harry knows he's not. He curls on his side to read and Harry curls around him from behind, pressing his face into a warm shoulder and pulling the sheets around them and not caring what anyone would think if they could see this.
"I know," he says. Kisses Draco's shoulder. "Finish it."
"I told you she didn't know anything," Draco says, leaning over Harry's shoulder as he reads the Prophet at the kitchen table on Monday morning.
"Doesn't stop her from pretending she does though, does it?"
"Well, no." Draco crosses the kitchen and drops bread into the toaster. "But..." he trails off, and Harry looks up to see him gazing at the toaster in confusion.
"What's the matter?"
Draco shakes himself. Glances at the chair next to Harry, eyes narrowed, and then shrugs and presses the little red button. "Nothing."
Harry watches him for a moment, wondering if he, too, is missing someone. Someone who maligned his toast-making skills, but always ate the results anyway. He smiles at Draco, who is now frowning and muttering to himself, and returns his attention to the article.
Of course, she has waited until the day their agreement terminates to publish, and as a result, the story of Romilda Vane's murder has been kicked from a perfunctory article buried near the back of the paper right onto the front page, with a screaming headline and several full-colour photographs: a nice one of Romilda, looking younger and healthier than when she'd first come to Harry as a patient; one of Harris, staring blankly into the camera and doing little more than blinking slowly every few seconds; and of course, the obligatory shot of Harry himself. He's scowling, eyes flashing, and wearing his green robes, so he can only surmise that the picture has been taken outside the hospital.
He suppresses the chill at the memory of Harris' dead eyes and reins in his instinctive—if fainter, now—guilt response at the sight of a smiling, vital Romilda, and scans Skeeter's article wearily. She's managed to make connections all over the place, some accurate and most not, and he's almost impressed by her dedication and flair for the dramatic.
She quotes information from several 'reliable' sources, one of which, Harry thinks with satisfaction, will soon be unemployed, just as soon as the Azkaban Regulatory Commission gets his owl. The others, well... even as Harry reads and grits his teeth and holds onto the edge of the table a bit too hard, he forcibly reminds himself to wait this one out.
He remembers all too clearly the last time he suspected Tremellen of some nefarious deed, and it's just so fucking easy to do so; it comes naturally. But, unlike he very nearly did over the whole Chromia X fiasco, he's not going to jump blindly this time. His patience is nascent and fragile, but it is also borne out of bitter experience and he's determined to hold onto it this time.
Draco sits down at the table and crunches into his toast. The warm, savoury smell fills Harry's nostrils and when he shoots out a hand to steal the second slice from the plate, Draco merely lifts an eyebrow and sweeps the newspaper around to face him, his expression plainly conveying: you take my toast, I take your paper.
"Have you seen this? 'The Harry Potter Connection—who is caring for his murdered friend's child?'"
"Yeah. At least she doesn't know about the Promise," Harry sighs and takes another bite of stolen toast, gazing at the upside-down gallery of photographs representing Rita's speculations as to who could be looking after Clive, not that she knows his name, thank goodness.
"Indeed. Oh, good grief. My mother's actually on this list."
"Molly Weasley, Minerva McGonagall... oh, for the love of—Hermione? Oh, Hermione's going to be mad," Draco breathes, sounding like he's caught somewhere between amusement and horror.
Harry rubs his face, stopping when he realises he's smeared buttery crumbs all over his skin. "On the plus side, she hasn't written a word about you. For once."
"I know. I almost feel left out," Draco deadpans, and Harry rolls his eyes.
The weird thing is, he can't help but wonder what Velecia Robbins' family will feel when they read the article; their daughter was murdered, too, and yet she garners no more than a two-line casual mention because she never had anything to do with Harry. Sighing heavily, Harry gets up from the table and resolves, once this bloody exclusive is over with, to stop reading the Prophet completely.
"How's your mum going to feel about this, do you think?"
Draco looks up and licks butter from his fingers. "She won't read it."
Harry smiles. "Smart woman."
He draws Draco to his feet and into a tea-and-toast flavoured kiss, before releasing him reluctantly, flipping his work robes over his shoulder and Disapparating.
He waits until late afternoon to head to the second floor; his vague recollection of her busy schedule leads him to suspect she might actually be in her office at this time, and more than that, he's trying to put as much time-distance between his contacts with Tremellen and Aquiline in order to decrease the chance of saying something he might regret.
He's tried the Hermione approach—acquiring all of the literature he possibly can on the subject; he's so far successfully avoided the Harry Potter approach, which would have involved storming up to Tremellen and yelling at him in front of as many people as possible. This, he is trying very hard not to think of as the Draco approach, even though he knows it is. It's only by reminding himself of one or two of Draco's more irrational moments that he can allow himself to feel alright about that.
As he rounds the corner, Kelly steps out of a patient's room, muttering to herself darkly and sheathing her wand at her belt with a violent shove.
Startled, she looks up at him and her irritable expression dissolves. "Harry! How's it going?"
"Fine, fine... but what's the—oh." Harry scrunches up his nose in sympathy as Kelly turns to display the long dribble of expectorant sliding from the ends of her hair and down one blue sleeve."Mr Magellan's still here?"
Harry throws her an extra-thorough Cleaning Spell. Even though she's clearly capable of her own, the friendly gesture does not go unappreciated, and Kelly smiles gratefully.
"I saw the paper," she says, looking up from the examination of her freshened sleeve. "Did you really go to Azkaban?"
"Yeah, Kel. I did. It was horrible. Don't bother going."
"I won't," she says, lifting an eyebrow. "I'm not daft."
"What are you saying?"
She smiles and folds her arms. "Nothing. Hey, are you coming up here in the autumn, after you finish your first year?" she asks suddenly, and her eyes widen. "Is that why you're here now? To see Healer Aquiline?"
"That's a lot of questions," Harry says, slightly thrown. "I haven't a clue where I'm going in the autumn. I'll probably stay in Gen," he says honestly, ignoring Kelly's wrinkled nose. "But yes, I'm here to speak to Healer Aquiline, is she in her office?"
She nods and tucks a bit of purple hair behind her ear, expression dismayed as she turns to walk away. "Why would anyone want to stay in Gen?" she wonders aloud.
"Thanks, Kel," Harry says to her retreating back, and goes to knock on Aquiline's office door.
When he enters, she's sitting at her desk, leaning back in her leather chair with one hand resting in her lap and the other trailing fingers into the soft blue light from her little silvery box. As her gaze sweeps over Harry, she smiles faintly and flicks her fingers through the light.
"Healer Potter ought to know that he is far too generous with his gifts," she says, without opening her mouth.
Harry looks at the floor to hide his smirk. "I have no idea what you're talking about."
Aquiline lifts a dark eyebrow and closes the little box. She draws her chair closer to the desk and folds her arms on the ebony surface, expectant. "Not that it isn't pleasant to see you, Healer Potter, but I'm assuming there's something you require from me."
"Advice, really," he admits, also leaning on his side of the desk and curling his fingers around the edge of a convenient case-file.
Aquiline's sharp eyes drop to his wrist and she stretches out a hand, once again touching his hand with cool fingers but staying respectfully clear of string #2, just like last time.
"I wondered, when I saw the paper this morning," she says, withdrawing her hand at last.
"You read that..."
"...codswallop?" Aquiline supplies, and Harry smiles in spite of himself. "I did. But you have made a choice—I knew you would. A good one at that."
Harry frowns, momentarily distracted from his primary goal. She doesn't ask to hear his choice, and he doesn't volunteer it. He wonders if the choice really had been so inevitable that everyone other than him has long known about it, or if there's another implication to Aquiline's statement.
"Do you recall what you promised?" she continues.
"Traditional applications of that Promise were simpler—'I will get married', or 'I will produce an heir', for example. But the magic is cleverer than that; some say it's almost sentient. You made a more complex, specific promise, about safety and love, if I remember correctly."
As he stares into clever dark eyes, Harry's heart quickens. The implication is far from lost.
"Are you saying that the magic itself had to... what, approve? That if I'd made a poor choice, I'd still have that thing around my wrist?"
"Essentially, yes. It wouldn't have let you make a poor choice," Aquiline says. "That the claim has dissolved tells me that you did the right thing. You honoured your promise to your patient."
For a second or two, Harry doesn't speak. He's losing count of the surprising number of people who have conveyed that very same sentiment over the last few days, but for whatever reason, this one hits him right between the eyes and the flood of warm relief makes his chest sore and his eyes sting. Just for a moment.
"I did the right thing." It might be a question, but he thinks probably not.
Aquiline shrugs. "I knew you would." She gazes at him in silence for what feels like a long time, before reminding him why he's here: "Advice?"
"Right... sorry." Harry pastes on what he hopes is a neutral expression. "I wanted to ask you about patient confidentiality. Or, more specifically, the implications of breaking it."
The dark eyes narrow and Harry feels like sitting right back in his chair, but he stays where he is. "Breaking it to the media, perhaps?"
Harry isn't sure if it's Aquiline's intelligence or his pathological lack of subtlely, but he knows right away that she has put two and two together with frightening alacrity and there's very little point in pretending otherwise. Still, he'll have a go.
"As an example, if you like," he says, attempting to keep his tone neutral. "What would happen to a Healer who did that?"
Aquiline exhales slowly. "It would depend on the circumstances, and the Healer's past record, but it's a serious disciplinary offence. Suspension without pay, I would imagine. But," she continues when Harry opens his mouth to reply, "I know what you're thinking, Healer Potter, and it's a dangerous game to play. The burden of proof is entirely on you, and I suspect you like to forget it sometimes, but we are Healers, not investigators."
Gripping the file tighter in tense fingers, Harry affects a casual shrug. "It's a hypothetical question."
Aquiline smiles grimly. "No, it's not."
Harry sighs and looks away from her, casting his eyes around the gruesome posters and overloaded bookshelves. "I just needed to know," he says at last.
"That's what worries me," Aquiline replies. The shimmer of her silent Tempus catches his eyes, and he turns back to the desk. "I have a meeting, Healer Potter."
Hurriedly, he gets to his feet and nods, knowing he is being dismissed. "Thanks for your help, Healer Aquiline, I... thanks."
"Do me a favour," she says, rising and Summoning various items into her arms from all around the room. Harry ducks. "Think carefully."
That'll be the day, whispers a dry voice that sounds a lot like Draco. "Will do, Healer Aquiline."
She turns, just before opening the door. "It's a full board meeting," she says. "Will I give Augustus your love?"
The studied innocence of her tone pulls a snort from Harry before he can stop himself. Flushing slightly, he plunges his hands into his robe pockets and smiles. "Be my guest," he says, and then curiosity gets the better of him once again: "How are you able to... never mind."
"Professionalism's a funny thing," she says, hearing the question regardless. "From you, in this case, it compels deference, from me, respect." She pauses and opens the door, waving Harry ahead of her and into the corridor. "When the other person fails to hold up their end of the deal, I like to address the balance. Creatively."
"I see," Harry says faintly, watching her lock up her office with a complicated flick of her wand.
"Good to see you, Healer Potter," she says with a small, pointy-toothed smile, and Disapparates.
The sun is setting as he leaves the hospital, and after a moment of staring at the stunning pink-gold-orange sky and breathing in the cooling air outside the hospital, Harry decides to walk into Muggle London and pay his favourite snarky coffee-seller a visit. It's been a while since his last visit, what with work and Foundations and looking after Clive, and it's been even longer since he ordered any weird syrup combinations for Draco.
The sullen-faced woman brightens when he enters the shop but her exasperated scowl quickly returns when along with his ground Kona and double espresso, he orders a cinnamon-spearmint latte for old times' sake.
Her lip curls as she adds the syrups and shakes her head. "You haven't bought any of these disgusting things in a while," she observes. "I hoped perhaps it was just a phase. A bad taste phase."
Harry smiles and fishes out the Muggle money he's changed, inhaling the aromatic air of the shop like the addict he is. "You may well be right about the bad taste, but it isn't actually me who drinks them."
The salesgirl grimaces and fits plastic tops to his hot cups. Takes his money. "Hope she's worth it."
"You could say that," he says, taking the proffered paper bag and offering her a smile that she doesn't return, not that he expects her to; she rarely smiles anyway, and she's hardly likely to start when he's committing heinous crimes against coffee.
The wind is picking up a little when he Apparates outside the Manor gates, so he hastily applies a Warming Charm to the bag and quickens his pace up the drive. When he reaches the house, Draco and Fyz are standing out on the portico, involved in either an argument or at very least a heated debate. Draco rakes a hand through his hair in exasperation and leans against his favourite pillar; the blunted golden light softens his features and slides muted shadows over his skin that Harry wants to trace with his fingers.
By contrast, Fyz looks uncharacteristically agitated and he stands just out of the reach of the faded light, all dark robes and sharp angles. As Harry climbs the steps to join them, he's fishing loose tobacco out of a dragonhide pouch and frowning.
"Brought you something horrible," Harry says, holding out the offending coffee to Draco.
Both men glance up at him, having been too involved in their discussion to even notice his approach.
Fyz lifts an eyebrow but Draco smiles, surprised, and immediately pulls off the lid to guess the combination of flavours. "Cinnamon," he says. "Mint."
"Ew," Fyz supplies.
"What kind of mint?"
Draco frowns and sips the frothy liquid. "Spearmint. That's... interesting."
Harry watches the shifting expressions on his face with a barely-concealed smile—could it be that at long last he's managed to bring Draco a coffee he doesn't like? "Interesting?" he repeats.
Draco's eyes glow as he seems to catch on. "Intriguing," he rephrases, taking a long drink and licking foam from the corner of his mouth, eyes never leaving Harry's. "Thank you."
"Draco," Ginny calls from the entrance hall. She looks around the door and lifts a hand in greeting before continuing. "You said you wanted to speak to the community before evening activities."
"That does sound like something I'd say," Draco sighs and excuses himself, still pointedly sipping his coffee as he follows Ginny into the house.
Fyz lights his cigarette with the tip of his wand and glances at Harry, agitation still evident. "Are you going to speak to Mrs Malfoy?" he asks suddenly.
"Er, I might do... why?"
"You should know that she's read that stupid article," Fyz says. "The one in the Prophet."
Surprised, Harry turns to him. "What? Why?"
"I was reading it out here on my break and she came out."
"So you said, 'Hey, Mrs Malfoy, want to read Rita Skeeter's latest?'" Harry demands, crossing his arms awkwardly around the paper bag.
"No, but she looked at me and said, 'May I see your newspaper, Mr Caruso?' and she scares me," Fyz says defensively, lifting his chin in a small gesture of defiance that's completely at odds with his usual mellow demeanour.
From his position facing the door, Harry sees Narcissa a split-second before Fyz hears her, and the look on his face cuts right through Harry's apprehension.
"And I thought you fearless, Mr Caruso," she says, voice even but eyes warm as she nods to Harry.
Fyzal's dark eyes widen and he exhales a messy curl of smoke before setting his features and turning around to face Mrs Malfoy. Despite his tendency toward the inappropriate, Fyz does have a good deal of natural grace in social situations. When he chooses to use it, anyway, and Harry watches with interest as he vanishes his half-finished cigarette and smiles politely at Narcissa.
"How kind of you, Mrs Malfoy. Would you excuse me?" With an apologetic glance at Harry, Fyz slips back into the house.
Clearly enjoying herself, Narcissa watches him go, and continues to gaze back into the entrance hall, much to Harry's confusion. On the plus side, she doesn't seem overly distressed by the article, but then he knows better than to assume anything about Narcissa Malfoy. After a moment, a muffled clatter-scrape on tile announces the arrival of a skidding Zeus, followed by Clive; they thunder out onto the portico in a mess of fur and small limbs, causing Narcissa to sigh softly.
"Harry!" Clive cries, catching sight of him and abandoning his game of chase. The blue eyes light up and Harry soon finds himself being hugged tight with surprisingly strong little arms wrapped around his thighs. "You've been away for ages."
Harry stares down at the little boy, rendered speechless by the sudden rush of warmth that had enveloped him from the moment those round eyes had fixed on him with such obvious delight. It's silly, he knows it is, but Clive has missed him, too, and suddenly he can't keep the smile from his face. He bends to pick up the little boy and swings him into his arms; Clive laughs and fastens his arms around Harry's neck. He smells of violet soap and not-dog and wax crayons, and it's wonderful.
"I'm sorry," he finds himself saying, voice soft. "I've had a lot of work to do, but I didn't forget about you."
"I know," Clive says. "Drake said you work too bloody hard."
Harry barely stifles his laughter and has to bite his lip painfully hard at the earnest expression on the child's face. At Narcissa's sharp cough, Clive frowns, pensive.
"Drake said a bad word, which I'm not going to say," he rephrases, twisting around for Narcissa's approval, which he gets in the form of a resigned nod. "What's in there?"
Harry drops his eyes to where Clive is pointing and sees the crumpled paper bag still containing coffee, which dangles precariously from one arm. "Coffee," he says, and gets a 'yucky' face for his trouble.
Still cradling Clive carefully against his hip, Harry looks over the top of his head at Narcissa; she hasn't moved from her spot next to the door but is now leaning down to scratch the head of an enthusiastic Zeus, who has lost his favourite playmate to Harry.
"It has indeed been 'ages'," she says, looking up. "Are you avoiding me again?"
"Definitely not this time, Mrs Malfoy," he assures, smiling. "Just time-poverty."
She lifts a delicate eyebrow and straightens up. "So you were, then. Last week."
Sheepish, Harry has to concede: "Er, yes, a little bit."
Narcissa's mouth lifts at one corner but she says nothing, just looks out at the sunset. Harry looks at her, noticing that the same gentle light that was so forgiving to Draco's sharp features seems to make her look older.
"I was hoping we could talk tomorrow, after I've finished work," Harry adds.
"I will be here."
Harry hides his little smile and glances at Clive, who is zipping and unzipping his coat with quiet absorption. "You saw it, then?" he says, deciding on directness.
"I did. I must confess, it only confirmed my poor opinion of reporting these days," Narcissa sighs.
Distractedly, Harry casts a soft little spell to make his zip sparkle when it moves, and Clive laughs. "I'm sorry about her," he says, still unsure if Narcissa is even upset at all, but deciding to play it safe anyway. "She doesn't know anything for certain, but I'm afraid that anything to do with me tends to invite a lot of speculation."
She nods and sweeps her hair carefully over one shoulder. "There is only one way to avoid speculation, Mr Potter."
Startled by the calm, resigned response, Harry gazes at her for a long time. A soft, cool wind lifts his fringe from his forehead. She stares serenely back at him, and Zeus clatters and clicks around her feet.
Zip, zip, zip, goes Clive.
"I know," Harry says at last. "I'm hoping this interview's going to put an end to speculation about Draco and I, but I'm probably being a bit optimistic."
"What's a spec-ra-layshun?" Clive wants to know.
"Erm..." Harry meets wide blue eyes and thinks. "It's when people don't know something, so they guess and make things up instead," he attempts.
"Because people always like to know everything," Harry says.
"Like you," Narcissa murmurs, stepping closer, and for a brief moment, Harry isn't certain whether she means Clive or himself, but then she smiles and holds her arms out, and Harry impulsively kisses the top of Clive's head and hands him over. "Almost bedtime, isn't it?"
Clive mumbles incoherently into her robes.
"He's doing alright?" Harry whispers.
"Yes," she says softly, eyeing him carefully. "Are you, Mr Potter?"
Harry looks away from her and out over the darkening grounds as he considers the question. There's something about Narcissa, especially these days, that compels honesty. "I'm getting there," he says. "Pera gratia."
"Reverto," she murmurs, clicks her fingers for Zeus and swishes inside.
The early shift on Tuesday means that Harry finishes work in plenty of time for his five o'clock appointment with the Ministry adoption lady, and he even has time to change his clothes, get coffee and drop into Hermione's office on the next floor up beforehand. Hermione is pleased to see him but seems a little disappointed that Harry doesn't this time come bearing pink cakes, he's amused to note.
On her advice (nagging), he manages to arrive five minutes early for his appointment, and the tall, neat-haired lady whose name he's never been able to recall for long waves him in with a businesslike smile. Harry hasn't seen her for well over a week, and as yet she doesn't know that he's fulfilled his Promise—he'd wanted to tell her in person, and at the same time retrieve the forms he needs for Narcissa to sign.
The magic of a properly-executed Deathbed Promise is immensely powerful, apparently akin to that of ancient Blood Magic, but Harry knows that in situations like this—weird situations, he supposes—it never hurts to make things official. Ministry employees rely on paperwork almost as much as their Muggle counterparts, too, regardless of any snobbish bristling that tends to occur when Harry points this out.
"Tea, Mr Potter? Do have a seat."
"Please." Harry sits in her uncomfortable carved chair, pulling his sleeves down over his hands, even as he does so, wondering why he's hiding from her. This is Draco's sweater, anyway, the dark grey one he's borrowed and yet to return; he's uncertain what made him throw it into his work bag this morning, but it's categorically not for any kind of sentimental or sappy reason. No.
"Now," she says, handing him a cup that's far too hot, "I think I may have found the perfect couple for you. Mr and Mrs Ellis are absolutely lovely and quite happy to take on a child of Clive's age and, erm, background," she continues, enthusiasm faltering slightly at Harry's hard look.
"What do you mean, his 'background'?" Harry demands, voice soft but still gripping the silly thin cup a little too hard. He doesn't know why he's arguing; the point is surely moot, and yet... something rankles, and he jumps.
"I meant no offence, simply that a child with uncertain lineage can be more tricky to place," she says, sipping her own tea delicately. "Those aren't my views, Mr Potter, just my experience."
Placated somewhat, Harry nods. Looks at the tea she has made, which is far too orange and has a greasy sheen to the surface. He sighs. "Sorry."
"Anyway, Mr and Mrs Ellis have a lovely three-bed just outside the city, and..."
Harry allows her to talk without really listening. He feels for the childless Mr and Mrs Ellis, but comforts himself with Aquiline's words—that the magic approved of his decision. Romilda's magic.
He waits until she finishes and then sets his untouched tea down on the desk. Wanting to address her, he scans the desk frantically for anything with her name on it, but draws a blank. Ms W—something, maybe. Warner. Wallis. Warburton. Fuck it.
"I hope I haven't wasted your time, but I came here today to tell you that I've fulfilled my responsibility... I've chosen a home for Clive. I just need the papers, if you don't mind," he says.
Taken aback, she stares at him with her mouth open for a moment or two, before appearing to recover her professional facade. "I'll have my secretary draw them up, Mr Potter, of course. I'll just need the names," she says, picking up a quill.
"Just one name," Harry says, holding eye contact. "Narcissa Malfoy."
The adoption lady drops her quill. She leans heavily on the desk and shakes her head. "No."
Irritated, Harry lifts an eyebrow. "No?"
"I can't. As I said, the Promise has already been fulfilled." Harry links his fingers together firmly in his lap and refuses, absolutely refuses, to show her, even though he knows he's being petty. "And even if I could, I wouldn't. That is my choice."
Two spots of colour appear on her cheeks and she inhales sharply. "With respect, Mr Potter, how could you be so short-sighted?"
Irritation flares into anger and Harry hangs hard onto his control. "Excuse me?"
"I'm staggered that you could be so short sighted," she repeats. "What happens when he reads about the war? What happens when he goes to Hogwarts and the other children find out who his 'mother' is?" she continues, hands lifting into air quotes. "You haven't thought this through!"
Just about still in his chair, Harry digs his bitten fingers into the arms until the carving starts to cut off his circulation. Heart pounding, he stares back at her, and when he speaks, he knows his tone is barely civil.
"I have thought this through every which way, believe me. I have thought and thought and thought, and difficult as you may find it to understand, I've made the right choice and the Promise agrees with me," Harry says, an uncomfortable prickly energy rippling under his skin even as he sits very still.
"The right choice...? The right choice for whom? Mr Potter, that little boy needs a proper family, and I have a whole cabinet full of decent, honest couples who can't have children of their own," she says, indicating the shiny cupboard with a careless hand. "I understand that she's looked after him a little bit, but this isn't... this a child's life, and you can't—"
"I know it is!" he interrupts, and the prickly heat whips up. One or two sheets of parchment on the desk flutter and then come to rest. "I know! How can you think I don't know how serious this is? All I've thought about is how serious this is for the last two months, and now I've made a choice, and it's a good choice, because this is gone, see?"
Shoving his chair back, Harry lifts his sleeve and exposes his clean wrist to her even though he doesn't want to, and then yanks it back down and drops heavily into his seat.
"I know you can't overrule my decision on this, and you know it, too, and stupidly I thought we could understand one another, but apparently not, so I'll tell you what—I'm going to sit here, and you are going to draw up those papers yourself, and then I'm going to leave, because honestly, if I have to justify this decision just one more time, it will be one time too fucking many," Harry finishes, barely pausing for breath, eyes hot, head pounding, and as he stares defiantly at her, already wondering what the hell he's just done that for, an ornate stained-glass lamp in the corner explodes violently, scattering the floor with coloured glass.
She turns slowly and stares at the remains of her lamp. Harry slumps back in his chair and releases his death-grip on the wooden arms, instead crossing his arms over his chest and dragging stale air deep into his lungs, fury fading with each long exhalation. As the hot ire slips away, guilt slips in to fill the spaces, but he holds it back with grim determination, knowing that while the...er, delivery might've left something to be desired, he stands by the message.
"Right," she says, voice slightly higher than usual as she turns around to face him once more across the desk. She sets down her tea cup and nods, clearly rattled. Through the guilt that he's clawing back, Harry feels a twinge of satisfaction, and the creeping knowledge that perhaps he does like to rant, after all. "Papers."
Harry sits, arms folded, and watches her locate two sets of forms; he watches her open a new jar of Ministry-approved tamper-proof ink; he watches her place a small pair of square glasses on her nose and he watches her fill in the relevant details with deliberate precision, as though she hasn't had to perform the task herself for a long time.
"I need her full name," she says without looking up, tone neutral.
"Narcissa Regina Malfoy. Clive doesn't have a middle name."
When she looks up some fifteen minutes later and slides the papers across the desk, Harry grabs them up and rolls them carefully into his coat pocket. He gets to his feet and yanks at the zip, remembering the chill wind, and she looks at him askance. More so. Flicking his eyes down over his coat, he sees the sparkles from the charm he cast to amuse Clive, and almost smiles.
She opens her mouth to say something and appears to think better of it, and Harry decides to leave before he can really say anything stupid or break any more of her furniture.
"Thanks," he says shortly and stalks out of her office, yanking the door shut behind him.
Full of horrible exhilaration, he walks quickly, and makes it almost all the way to the end of the corridor before he stops and turns around, cursing himself both inwardly and out loud all the way. He draws one or two curious glances from passing Ministry employees, but he's used to those. Not bothering to knock this time, he opens the door and hangs onto the handle, waiting as wary dark eyes lift to meet his over the top of a flimsy tea cup.
"Sorry about your lamp," he says, drawing his wand and carefully restoring it to almost as good as new. He suspects that the coloured pieces are in the wrong places now, but it'll do. She says nothing, only nods slowly as though he's an insane person, and when the question leaps unbidden into his head, he goes with it, as it's marginally relevant and... well, it's something to say: "Who funds the children's homes?"
Harry puts his wand away and shrugs. "Any of them. The Ministry-approved ones in London. Do they get money from the Ministry?"
The adoption lady frowns, thoughtful, as though she wants to forget his earlier outburst ever happened. "Well, some. A basic funding stream, but... most of them rely on donations. Benefactors. Why?"
"Doesn't matter. I'm leaving now... really, this time."
He doesn't catch her response as he pulls the door closed again and retraces his steps. He walks at a more sedate pace this time, hands in pockets, the edges of the parchments grazing his fingers and reminding him that they're still there. Fucking Ministry, he thinks. They've got tons of money, he's certain; taxes since the end of the war have been horrendous. And yet, they're not spending it on vulnerable adults or children. Figures.
The place isn't quite as bleak as Harry remembers, but things tend to look different with a little bit of sun, he supposes. As he crosses the well-kept grass and weaves in and out of the rows of headstones, he fights down the feeling that he's being completely daft by coming here. He's never been the sort of person who visits graves, not really. For a person who has seen so much death, he wonders now if that's unusual, not that it matters.
He's never needed a lump of engraved stone in the ground to remember the people he has lost, and he supposes that's part of the reason why he hasn't been here since the funeral. Yet today, for whatever reason, he feels as though he has something to do. Something to finish.
Five thirty-something on a Tuesday evening is apparently a quiet time, cemetery-wise, and there's no one else there as Harry finds the shiny new slab of black marble he's looking for, but he still glances around self-consciously as he sinks down to sit cross-legged in the grass next to it.
For a long time, he does nothing, almost enjoying the stillness and the wind rippling through his hair and the grass. He pulls the sleeves of Draco's sweater down out of the sleeves of his coat and fiddles with them, wondering if Draco would laugh at him if he was here now. He hopes not.
"Hi," he says at last, glancing at the stone and then back at his hands. "I brought something to show you."
He extracts the parchments, complete but for Harry's and Narcissa's signatures, and waves them in the general direction of his address. He's used to talking to things that can't—or shouldn't—talk back, so he supposes he can do this.
"So, I did it. Well, almost, but she is going to sign it, and this thing on my wrist is gone, so... thanks for that, by the way," he adds with a rueful smile that he suspects she would've appreciated. "Narcissa Malfoy. Not quite what you envisioned, I'm sure, but... I've got a pretty good feeling about it. OK, so I think she's training him up to be a little Slytherin already, but you know... there really are worse things to be."
Harry replaces the papers in his pocket and drops his hands into his lap. He gazes for a moment at the chiselled gold lettering—1981-2004—and shudders involuntarily.
"I'm sorry I haven't brought him here. Mrs Malfoy's pretty good with... you know, death, so she might. I hope you aren't disappointed in me because I didn't keep him myself. Part of me... part of me wishes I did, but I wanted him to have... everything, you know? He's a brilliant little boy, Romilda, he really is... you did a really good job. He looks for you all the time—Draco told him that you were watching him from the stars, and I don't know if I believe that," Harry says, aching a little but catching his breath, "but I think I want to."
Falling silent, Harry lets his eyes close and allows himself just a moment to hurt for the others. All the senseless losses that he keeps circled tight and locked away. Just for a moment, he lets the dull, heavy pain wrap around him, fingers threading into the cold grass at his sides, and then, he exhales slowly and forces it to fade into the air around him.
"I hope they're not watching all the time," he says wryly, opening his eyes, and a sharp, freezing-cold gust of wind rakes through the trees, buffeting his face and hair and collar and knocking the breath from him. Shivering, he smiles, and levels an arched eyebrow at the headstone.
Feeling lighter, he scrambles to his feet and checks his pockets one last time. "Bye, Romilda," he whispers. "Wish me luck... I think I'm going to need it."
Finding the front and entrance hall of the Manor deserted, Harry heads for Narcissa's sun-room, but that, too, contains no signs of life. Puzzled, Harry is just contemplating a search of the third-floor corridors when an anguished Flimby appears with a crack and refuses to let Harry get in a word until he's spent several minutes apologising for missing Mr Harry Potter Sir's arrival.
"Really, that's alright," Harry manages at last, and having forcefully instructed the elf not to punish himself, he heads to the East Wing with the papers burning a hole in his pocket.
Harry hangs back at the doors for a moment or two and takes in the relaxed scene of the lounge, where the post-dinner, post-groups, post-work residents gather in groups around the table and fireplaces and on the floor to chat and write and play games.
There's something about the atmosphere in the evenings that makes them Harry's favourite time to visit, and though he suspects there will only be two staff members still around—Draco and whoever's on the late shift—unlike at the old Chem Dep, all the patients here recognise him, and the ones who glance up at the sound of the doors opening smile or lift hands in greeting, or gesture for him to come and join in their debates. He enjoys a special, almost confidante-like status as Draco's partner and not-quite-an-authority-figure, and he likes it that way, but right now he has other fish to fry.
When his eyes flick over to the far end of the table, he's entertained and yet not-all-that-surprised by what he sees. Narcissa is sitting elegantly in a hard chair turned out to face the room, legs crossed at the ankles and eyes trained on a spot by the nearest fireplace, where a slightly-subdued Gretchen is ruffling Zeus' fur and two of the male residents—Gerard and Reuben, he thinks—are showing Clive a complicated game involving lots of little coloured tiles.
Harry smiles to himself as he approaches the table. Sometimes he thinks Narcissa has come a long way when it comes to accepting her son's chosen occupation and those 'waifs and strays' who come with it, and sometimes he wonders if perhaps it was always there, one way or another. He hasn't seen her in here since the place opened, but the fact that the residents around the table are paying her no mind whatsoever suggests that perhaps she's a more frequent visitor than he realised.
Over on the hearth-rug Clive laughs, hands full of shiny tiles, and just for a moment his eyes flick over to Narcissa at the table. She smiles at him, and he returns to his game, seemingly satisfied. Seeing that all the nearby chairs are occupied, Harry hoists himself up to sit on the edge of the table beside her, and she greets him with a small sigh and a raised eyebrow.
It's interesting, he thinks; the power-balance between them is a perpetually-shifting thing, and he should probably give up trying to explain it, but here in Draco's lounge, his Foundations, Harry doesn't feel one bit intimidated by Narcissa Malfoy. He flashes a smile and rests his hands on the table, watching with interest the twitch of her nose as his fingers smudge the flawless patina of the wood.
"Hello, Mrs Malfoy."
"I've been expecting you," she says without taking her eyes off Clive.
Harry bites his lip and shifts on the table. As he takes off his coat and folds it messily next to him, the rustle of parchment seems deafening to his ears. Surely he can't just do it here, though...
Why not? demands the little voice. It's just a signature. It's nothing that would surprise any of these people sitting around the table, not that any of them are paying attention to Narcissa and Harry anyway. Uncertain, he takes advantage of her distraction to chew on his thumbnail and rip away the miniscule amount of growth that's somehow occurred while he hasn't been looking.
"I finished the book," he says suddenly. The words just come out, and he opts to go with them. "We finished the book."
"Dog Rose?" she says, turning to him, and he nods. "Did you enjoy it?"
If she's surprised by the tangent, she doesn't show it, and Harry frowns, searching around for words. "Yes. But the ending was really sad," he says at last.
"'Sad' is a little black and white, don't you think?" Narcissa twists around slightly to rest one arm on the table. "I think it is... bittersweet."
"He killed himself," Harry insists. "What part of that is sweet?"
Narcissa smiles faintly. "He sacrificed himself. For love, for honour... so that others might live, depending on how you look at it. He decided that Susanna would prefer the lives of her five brothers over the presence of a man she hadn't ever really wanted."
"But she did, didn't she?" Harry argues, caught up suddenly. "She did love him."
"Perhaps she did, but the world would never have understood, Mr Potter." Narcissa's eyes hold his for longer than is comfortable, and Harry hates himself for giving in first, but he looks at his shoelaces and grips the edge of the table again. "Yes, I think she did," she relents after a long moment.
Harry huffs softly and half-smiles at the floor. "In the spirit of the debate, Mrs Malfoy... and assuming that I'm Rex, seeing as he's the man who doesn't know when to give up—though I'm thinking maybe he did, actually—then... what's the lesson?"
Narcissa's soft laughter is a rather lovely sound, and he looks up without meaning to. "What makes you think there is a lesson? I think you'll find that if anyone was using literature to make a point, it was you. I merely wanted to give you a character with whom you could identify."
Her eyes are warm with something like amusement, and Harry's face is absolutely not heating. At all.
"So you're not trying to tell me that I should do myself in and do everyone a favour?" he says, lifting an eyebrow and trying not to sound so petulant. Trying, and failing. And it's not as though he's ever actually believed anything as literal as that, but... well.
"Mr Potter, why are you so determined to believe that everything I do or say is wrapped in layer upon layer of subtext?" she says, and the absolute ridiculous truth of it whacks Harry so hard that he can't quite control the snort that escapes and he has to turn away from her.
The trouble is, when he forces himself to look back, the corner of her mouth is twitching dangerously as though daring Harry to let out the laughter bubbling in his chest. So he does.
And he never expected to end this day or indeed start this conversation by laughing with Narcissa Malfoy, but there it is, and as he grins and brings up a hand to scrub at his face, she allows the little smile to break free and it's quite beautiful. Clive looks up at the sound of laughter and Harry watches astonishment, confusion and then pleasure flicker across his face as he glances between Harry and his Mrs Mafloy. Harry returns his smile and pulls in a deep, calming breath.
"I think I'm just used to looking for it," he says at last, feeling he should say something.
"Unsurprising," she concedes with a sigh, and he wonders if she's thinking about her son, too.
Finally, gathering himself, Harry retrieves the papers from his coat pocket. Here, anywhere, he decides. Fuck it.
"I went to the Ministry today," he says, and holds the parchments out for her to take. "I thought we could... I'd be really...er, I'd really like you to sign them. And then no one can argue, no one at all."
She is silent for some time as she scans the words, and when she lifts her head to look at Harry, the pale blue eyes are intense. "I'm certain they will try," she says, and Harry decides he doesn't even need to tell her about the adoption lady. "But yes, I will sign. Of course I will."
Even though he knew she would, Harry is acutely relieved and he exhales in a rush. Their previous conversation on the speculation of the press and the Wizarding community at large echoes in his head, and he knows, hopes, that she's right about the only real solution.
"You do know that when we return these, signed, to the Ministry, all of this becomes a matter of public record?" he says.
"Yes, of course. I do know how adoption works in our world," she says, and then there's a gentle sigh. "It's all very well hiding away here for the moment—he's four years old, and easily entertained. But he will tire of my company and the walls of this place. Facing the world is inevitable; it is merely a matter of time."
Relieved, Harry nods. "OK, well, we just need..." he pauses as Draco and Marley step into the lounge.
When Marley catches sight of them, he frowns and takes a little step away from Draco. Harry sighs and rolls his eyes, and Draco continues to gesture and talk rapidly, pushing up his sleeves as they cross the floor, stepping over and around residents on their way to one of the notice boards.
Narcissa is rising and smoothing the wrinkles from her robes, papers still in hand, as she calls out to her son, "Draco, perhaps Mr Potter and I may use your office for a moment or two?"
Draco turns, snapping surprised eyes to Narcissa and then to Harry, who jumps down from the table and follows her. Glancing down at the parchments, he meets Harry's eyes once more and they exchange a significant look. Draco nods quickly.
"It's unlocked, but don't you need a witness?"
Narcissa says nothing, and Harry nods, mind racing. He hadn't really thought about this part in much depth, and it's only now as he turns from Draco to look into enquiring dark eyes that he realises the only professional adult unrelated to either himself or Narcissa is...
"Marley," he says, and those eyes widen in surprise. "Would you? It's just a signature."
Marley stares at him and Harry doesn't think he's ever seen him lost for words before. He can't help thinking it's an improvement; he's reasonably decorative after all, and much less annoying when he's not talking.
"Sure thing, Wonder Boy," he says, and Harry sighs. "Thanks," he adds unexpectedly.
Just for a split-second, Harry catches astonished grey eyes as they all head in the direction of the office. He shrugs, and Draco's expression is an incongruous but gratifying mixture of confusion and gratitude. He wonders if Draco would be surprised if he knew what Harry knows, or whether he's just unwittingly scored points by reaching out to Marley again.
"I'm only going down the hall for a minute or two, sweetheart," he hears Narcissa reassure an anxious Clive, and then light fingertips slide and tighten the string around his wrist, and he smiles without looking at Draco, falling into step beside him and rubbing his thumb over the lines of Draco's palm before releasing him.
"Are you well, Mr Marley?" Narcissa enquires behind them, and Harry is interested to note that her tone, whilst polite to a fault, is far from warm. Marley's response is equally careful, subdued, and Harry allows the little blot of satisfaction to spread inside him—not for what Marley doesn't have, but for what he himself does. He supposes he's worked bloody hard for it.
"Quill?" Draco offers; he holds out his favourite raven-quill to his mother, then leans against the bookcase with watchful eyes and crossed arms and does not say another word.
Harry watches her bend gracefully to the desk to sign, and then takes the quill from her; she doesn't touch him but her eyes are clear and as Harry flattens down the parchment and admires her signature, he feels like he should say something profound but suspects he's used up his quotient of profound for the week. Perhaps even the year.
He takes a deep breath, signs his name on both sets of forms and steps back, holding out the quill and allowing Marley to complete the procedure. Just before he touches the point to the parchment, Marley glances up and meets Harry's eyes and despite the gravity of the situation, his head is all-at-once full of the smoky bar and that unexpected admission and there's a pang somewhere low down that feels like... if not sympathy, at least understanding.
Unseen to Draco, Harry finds a small smile and Marley's mouth twitches at one corner, just for a second before the more genuine smile is swallowed up by the trademark sparkling grin, and Marley scratches his elaborate signature across the thick parchment. Harry sighs. Yep... he's still a flash bastard.
"Alright then," Harry says softly and flicks his wand to tightly roll and seal the parchments.
"I should get back, Mr Potter," Narcissa says and excuses herself, followed in a swish of chocolate-coloured silk by a quiet but defiantly-theatrical Marley.
Feeling curiously deflated, Harry stands next to the desk and shoves his hands into his pockets. He knows it had to be done, but in the end, it was nothing but three names scratched onto parchment. Not like the quiet, intense thrill of fear out on that wind-whipped portico, surrounded by ancient magic and whispered words in Latin and the dissolution of something he could actually feel, something that was a part of him for a little while.
All of this tangling with Malfoys has probably made it inevitable, but it's still disturbing.
Fuck, he thinks, gazing down at Draco's snake rug, and remembering his conversation with Cecile.
"Thinking," Draco murmurs from behind him. "Thinking very loud."
"I was thinking that maybe I'm getting a taste for archaic pureblood crap," he admits, turning to face Draco, who is still leaning against the bookcase.
Draco's slow smile flips his stomach and washes his day away with effortless ease. He uncrosses his arms and holds out a hand; Harry takes it without hesitation and presses himself firmly against Draco's warmth, sinking a hand into soft hair and brushing his mouth over the nearest stretch of available skin, which happens to be Draco's jaw, soft and sharp under his lips.
Strong arms wrap around Harry's waist and neck, and Draco tilts his head back to encourage the kisses, humming contentedly despite the hard shelves that must be digging into his back.
"She was rude to you, wasn't she?"
"Your mother?" Harry mumbles against his skin, stalling deliberately.
"No." Draco leans in and nips at his earlobe with sharp teeth. "That harpy from the Ministry."
Harry exhales messily and pulls back to meet searching grey eyes. "Well, yeah. But I was rude back. I blew up her lamp."
Draco smirks. "Oh, lovely. I... yes," he offers and kisses Harry.
Harry lets him. And kisses back harder. And wonders if Draco is the only person who would think lamp-exploding was lovely.
It's a distinct possibility.
Draco pauses mid-kiss. "Are you wearing my sweater?"
"Think there's any point setting out some ground rules with her, or will she just ask whatever she wants anyway?" Harry wonders aloud, lying flat on his back, sideways across the bed, staring at the ceiling and probably making himself late for work.
It's the morning of the dreaded exclusive, and Harry isn't exactly relishing the prospect of welcoming Rita Skeeter and the photographer she's insisted on into the Manor, but he agrees with Draco that it's the lesser of two evils—the place is big enough to keep her well away from Narcissa and Clive and the residents, it's not as though she hasn't been inside already, and neither of them are prepared to even let her set foot inside Grimmauld Place. Even the thought of that woman sitting on their sofa, where they... their sofa, anyway, makes Harry scowl at the ceiling.
Across the bedroom, Draco snorts. "Are we really doing this? Grey or blue?" he says, rifling through all three of his drawers and sighing.
"Yes, although I really have forgotten why. And... what?" Harry leans up on one elbow, puzzled.
"Blue..." Draco holds up a sweater, looking harassed. "Or grey?"
"I don't know about that stuff," Harry says desperately, though there's a little part of him that's pleased to be asked. And another little part that's rather affected by the unusual insecurity in the face of Prophet photographers. "And anyway, I like you in black," he adds before he can stop himself, flushing horribly.
Draco smirks and looks back into the top drawer. Harry leaps up and grabs his work robes, running an absent hand up Draco's bare back and kissing his neck. "I'll see you there, alright?" he mumbles against the warm skin, and Draco nods, leaning into the caress for a moment and then pushing him away with a clear 'you'll know about it if you're late' look. Harry takes his point and Disapparates with a grin.
Harry's day is frantic even by his usual standards, owing to staff shortages and a Kneazle Pox outbreak that has rendered Gen Two a quarantine area, and leaves Harry, Cecile and the rest of the Gen One team dealing with the overflow on top of their usual patients.
He has to Scourgify his robes twice and doesn't have time to stop for breath until mid-afternoon; by the time he makes it to the Manor—clean and showered but still slightly damp—he's humming with irritation (not nerves, though, definitely not), and still a bit disgruntled that 'I have to do an interview with Rita Skeeter' hadn't been enough to secure him the white chocolate and raspberry flapjack. Despite a promising showing in the pre-game conversation, Cecile had pipped him at the last moment with a disturbing tale of phlegm and expanding noses that he doesn't much care to revisit.
Flimby greets him at the door with anxious eyes and informs him that, "Miss Skeeter is already being in the parlour, Mr Harry Potter Sir. Master Draco is asking you to join them right away."
Harry rakes a not-nervous hand through his damp hair, thanks Flimby, and heads for the first-floor parlour, all the while fighting the feeling that he's walking to his doom. He just hopes the whole thing is over quickly—fast and unpleasant, like a Stinging Hex, maybe.
Stupid fucking media. He opens the door.
The acid-green Quill hovers at Rita's side as she gazes expectantly at them some twenty minutes later, and as Harry gropes around for a response, he's forced to revise his Stinging Hex theory—this isn't like a Stinging Hex at all. It's like many, many Stinging Hexes, cast one after another by some sadist who just doesn't get tired.
"It's not a difficult question, now is it, Harry?" Rita presses.
He blinks at her, cursing himself at having allowed himself to wander off on a tangent, because now all he can think about is Stinging Hexes, and he doubts anything like that would be a wise response to her question about what had first attracted him to Draco. Unless he wants the entire Wizarding world to think he's a complete sexual deviant.
Draco is sitting beside him on the low velvet chaise, close but not touching, and to Harry's consternation, his eyes are almost as expectant as Skeeter's. He's also wearing black, which after their earlier conversation sends a little thrill through Harry that almost makes up for the unpleasantness that is this experience.
"No, it's not a difficult question," he says at last, gritting his teeth. The struggle is finding a level of honesty that he's comfortable with—after all, he'd like it very much if everyone started to believe that he actually loved Draco of his own free will, but there's only so much he's willing to share. "His accomplishment. I admired him as a professional, a colleague. And then I found out that he has a nice smile, when he chooses to use it," Harry adds, flicking a sidelong glance at Draco to see what he'll do.
He's found so far that watching Draco's reactions to his answers is far more interesting than the questions themselves, and he suspects he's spent more time looking at Draco than at Skeeter, seated opposite them on a large wing-backed chair. Which is fine, because he hasn't any particular desire to look at her anyway.
"Hmm," says Rita, and the Quick-Quotes Quill scribbles furiously.
Grey eyes meet his for a brief moment and the surprise in them makes Harry want to smile, but he bites the inside of his mouth and looks away to pick at his nails instead. He can feel Draco's eyes on him, though, and it's not an unpleasant feeling. Distracting, but not unpleasant.
As he picks at a sore spot next to his thumbnail, Rita asks Draco another stupid question and Harry is barely listening to the calm response. He's been pleasantly surprised so far that she hasn't asked anything to make him lose his temper, though he and Draco have both exercised their right to 'no comment' more than once, much to Rita's irritation.
Personal questions, though, have been another matter, and while he's not surprised one tiny bit, he's been swimming against a tide of embarrassment for a good fifteen minutes now. Not that under any circumstances he's letting Ms 'the readers will want to see all aspects of your passionate relationship, Harry' and her grinning photographer see any of it.
'How do you spend your weekends together?' she'd wanted to know some ten minutes ago, and Harry had hesitated for far too long wondering how to twist the honest answer of 'we have sex and do crossword puzzles' into something suitable for the Saturday supplements. He thinks he managed it. Eventually. Though Draco had seemed far too amused by the whole thing for someone who hadn't wanted to do this just hours before.
"...about six weeks," Draco is saying, and Harry resolves to start listening. Six weeks of what? When he once again glances at Draco, there's a strange little smile on his lips and Harry hurriedly looks away, this time at Skeeter, who smirks, leans forward and crosses one leg over the other.
"So, boys," she says, and Harry rolls his eyes. "Gentlemen," she amends, which is somehow even worse, but the desire to keep this short has Harry once again biting his lip. Rita glances at her notebook and her eyes glow as she looks between them once more. "I know we've been discussing your time working together in Chem Dept as the—"
"Chem Dep," Draco corrects, irritated. "It's short for 'dependence', not 'department'."
"It was," Rita murmurs almost too softly for them to hear, but she hasn't reckoned on Draco's excellent hearing and the fact that she's leaning almost right into Harry as she bends to rummage in her handbag. Or perhaps she meant them to hear; it's difficult to tell with her.
Harry feels Draco stiffen beside him and hears his enraged intake of breath. The closure of the old Chem Dep is still a sore point, even four months on, and he thinks that's pretty low, even for Skeeter. Eyes narrowed, Harry turns to her.
"Don't fucking push it, Skeeter," he says, and she blinks, all studied innocence.
"Always so sensitive, Harry," she murmurs, red lips twisting.
He snorts. "You wouldn't know sensitive if it jumped up and..." he manages, before there's a warm palm sliding along his thigh, just for a moment, and a softly-voiced, "Not worth it," and then the hand is back in Draco's lap and the grey eyes are fixed upon Skeeter's smug-but-slightly-startled face.
Placated somewhat, Harry takes a calming breath and almost smiles at Skeeter. No point enraging her at this point, he supposes, though what he wouldn't give to introduce Evil Peacock to a shiny new snack. OK, he tells himself forcefully. Stinging Hex. Stinging Hex, Stinging Hex, Stinging Hex.
"You were saying?"
"I was saying that although we've been discussing your time together at the hospital as a turning point in your relationship, but what everyone really wants to know is... truthfully... does this really go back a lot further than that? Perhaps to your schooldays? The readers love a secret romance, you know," Rita confides, leaning forward even more.
"No, er... no," Harry splutters, staring at her in disbelief.
Draco heaves a long-suffering sigh. "I highly doubt that that's what everyone really wants to know, but in any case, no, we were not involved at school. I think it's fairly well-established that we didn't exactly get along at that time."
With some effort, Harry keeps his hands in his lap and picks a bit more, resisting the temptation to chew, and wonders why he couldn't have just said that.
"I see," Rita is saying, "So it was more like a build-up of undeniable sexual tension, then? All that fighting in the corridors? I'm sure you knew there was something behind it."
"Undeniable sexual tension?" Harry repeats faintly.
"I thought so!" Rita beams and the Quill scribbles away beside her.
"No," Harry says, horrified. "No, I... oh, god. She doesn't really need us to be here, does she?"
He turns to Draco, who is gazing straight at Rita with impressive composure, but there's a faint flush to his skin and the pale fingers wrapped around the knee closest to Harry flicker and clench just enough for him to notice, and his heart races at the sight. It's as good as an admission, and it's very, very interesting indeed.
"This is going to be a wonderful article," Rita sighs, and Harry groans inwardly, lifting a hand to rub at his face. "Draco," she continues, and it's all kinds of wrong to hear her using his first name. "Of course, another thing everyone wants to know is how a former Death Eater could end up with Harry Potter... the hero of the Wizarding world, the saviour of the Light, the slayer of You-Know-Who... et cetera," she says, waving a demonstrative hand.
... 'Dark Lord Vanquisher,' Harry adds silently to her list of ridiculous titles and can't decide whether he wants to smile or hex her really, really hard. Perhaps both.
"Your readers will believe what they want," Draco says, sounding resigned, and Harry turns to look at him, "but maybe because those are things that we were for a little while. Not things we are now. It'd be nice if people could let go of the labels, but I doubt that's going to happen any time soon."
"But you were actually a Death Eater?" Rita says after a moment, glossy lips pursed.
Draco releases a withering sigh and glances pointedly at the faded Mark that's well within her line of sight, sleeves—as usual—rolled up to his elbows. He exchanges a glance with Harry. The Quill scratches away merrily.
"Wait, I didn't say anything, what is that thing writing?" Draco demands, leaning forward.
"Just getting all the little background details, nothing for you to worry about," Rita says, flashing a not-very-reassuring-smile.
"Are we nearly fucking done here?" Harry says, drawing a soft snort of amusement from Draco. The choice of language is deliberate now—he knows she won't be able to repeat it in print, and that it'll irk her something rotten, and he's no longer sure why he ever thought that was a bad thing.
Rita scowls. "Unless you have a final comment on the subject, I want to get some photographs before we lose the light."
At her words, Harry realises that the light is indeed softening for the evening and he doesn't even want to think about how long they must have been sitting here. The greasy little man seated on an ottoman, clutching a large camera, looks up with interest.
"Oh, joy," mutters Draco, but Harry sees the hand that lifts to rake his hair into place.
"I do have a final comment, actually," Harry says suddenly, and Rita, who had turned away to confer with her photographer, whips back around, eyebrows raised.
"It's... well... people are always banging on about letting go of the past, and moving on, and yet everyone's so keen to hate Draco out of some sort of misguided concern for me. If they're really concerned, they need to understand that I made a choice... I chose him, and he chose me, and if nothing else we deserve a bit of sodding respect." Harry pauses and shrugs. "Er, that's all."
Rita sets the notebook and Quill aside, gives Harry an odd little look and turns back to the man with the camera.
Stinging Hex, Harry tells himself as they stand and sit for an endless series of photographs. So many Stinging Hexes. She positions them in front of the fireplace, by the windows and eventually on the chaise where they started out. Harry decides to let her get on with it, having told her in no uncertain terms that 'exclusive' means that not only will they not be talking to any other reporters, but that this is the one and only chance she's ever going to fucking get, too.
Still, if there's anything worse than being photographed without his consent, it's being forced to pose.
"For Merlin's sake, won't you at least try to look like you belong to one another?" Rita snaps, hands on hips.
"I think you've already had a picture like that some time ago," Draco says drily, but he inches closer to Harry on the chaise anyway.
That bloody hedge. "I'm sure the photographs will do whatever they feel like, anyway," he adds, pulling a face at Rita and relishing the warmth of Draco's body as he too leans closer but still feeling horribly uncomfortable. The eyes behind the green glasses glitter as she stands back and looks at them, clearly imagining circulation figures and another ill-gotten award for her office wall.
"Forget I'm here," she says, and that might be the most ridiculous thing Harry's heard this year.
"Right," he mutters. "That'll be no problem." But, hands still firmly in his own lap, he does turn his head and meets Draco's 'Oh, really?' expression and warm/exasperated grey eyes head on; he hadn't expected the warmth for whatever reason, and it's too sudden for him stop the automatic smile that tugs his lips and the camera flashes and Harry really, really fucking hates them all.
"That's better," Skeeter says brightly.
"Stinging Hex," Harry mutters under his breath and looks away from Draco, rubbing the soft nap of the velvet beneath him, first one way and then another.
"One of each of you on your own, and then I'm done," Rita is saying, and Draco is muttering to himself and rising from the chaise, a careless hand dropping to Harry's thigh for leverage from the awkward low seat. "Over by the window, do you think, Devlin?"
Harry doesn't hear the photographer's response because as the three of them move to the other side of the room, his eyes fall suddenly on the open crocodile-skin bag sitting at the foot of Rita's chair. Heart racing, he glances up to where Rita, Devlin and Draco are engaged in a frowning-and-hand-waving sort of discussion about light levels and paying him no mind whatsoever.
Surely Rita Skeeter, former Slytherin, isn't the sort of person to leave her little book of contacts lying around in an open handbag? Harry hopes that she might be. Quickly, he darts forward and drags the heavy bag toward him with one finger. He rifles through the contents whilst flicking glances up to the other occupants of the room every few seconds. Perfume, lipstick... both overused, he thinks; quills, Fizzmints, spare glasses, Sneakoscope... not a very good one, he suspects, as he's now closing his fingers around a small black book and thumbing through the pages, and it's not making a sound.
Names, lots of names, in alphabetical order, too; she's organised, he'll give her that.
Come on, come on... glancing up again, he sees that Draco is indeed now standing next to the windows and shaking his head as Rita tries to persuade him to uncross his arms for the photograph... focus. T. And there it is—there's that fucking name in black and white. Or not, actually, there's that name in horrible bright green ink:
He notes a whole load of other scribble that he can't decipher: possibly an address, Floo co-ordinates, and what looks like a date, but he can't be certain. Either way, the flash of the camera startles Harry and he hastens to replace the book and kick the handbag back to its original position just as Rita turns and calls for him.
Simmering as he is with impotent rage, Harry barely registers being asked to stand somewhere and look at Dervish or whatever his name is and smile or not smile or something; he just does it, and if Rita is surprised by his compliance she doesn't say so. He's seen it now with his own eyes—Tremellen's name in Skeeter's contact book—and he just knows he's the one who's been leaking confidential information.
But, he thinks, as the camera flashes in his eyes yet again, a name in a little book proves nothing. Absolutely nothing. As Aquiline had hinted, the St Mungo's board will want far more than that before suspending one of their own, because who is he? Inside the hospital, he's not the Harry Potter who can put an Azkaban guard out of a job with a little help from an obliging Auror and a strongly-worded letter. No, he's just a first-year trainee, and Tremellen is a department head. He's small and Tremellen is big, and he hates it.
And somehow, knowing and being powerless is worse than not knowing at all.
He really, really needs to let this go, he knows that, because the only people who can give him the proof he needs are Rita fucking Skeeter and Tremellen himself.
You're just going looking for trouble, says probably-Hermione, and Harry scowls. The camera flashes again.
"Alright, enough," he snaps, blinking.
The man backs off and lowers his camera, Skeeter pastes on a smile and goes to retrieve her bag and notebook, and at Harry's side, Draco eyes him with guarded concern.
"Well, this has been interesting, boys," Skeeter says. "Look out for the article this Saturday."
She looks far too satisfied with herself and Harry feels a little bit sick at the prospect. Draco clicks his fingers for Flimby, and asks him to escort Ms Skeeter and Mr Devlin to the Floo with a level of politeness that impresses but does not surprise Harry.
"Augustus Tremellen," Harry blurts as she's turning away.
Skeeter pauses and regards Harry very carefully. "What about him?"
"I know he's your source."
"Come on, Harry, we've had this discussion. I can't give up my source," she says with an infuriating little smirk, which grows as she seems to reconsider, adding: "I might trade you for it, though. Same terms as before."
Harry shakes his head and wishes he'd just kept his big mouth shut. He knows she's going to find out about Narcissa soon enough, when he takes the papers to register at the Ministry, but he'll be damned if she's going to find out from him as part of some sordid deal.
"Manners cost nothing, Harry," she says. Nods. "Goodbye, Draco."
"Skeeter," Draco manages, and then she's gone, trailed by Flimby and Devlin.
Harry groans and collapses onto the baggiest, most comfortable-looking sofa in the room. After a moment, Draco joins him and sinks back against the cushions, thigh pressed tight against Harry's.
"Well, now we've done it," he says, and Harry snorts.
"And I'm never doing it again. Ever. Please remind me of this evening if I ever again decide that talking to the press is a good idea."
"Mm," says Draco, resting his head on Harry's shoulder. "What was all that about Tremellen?"
Enjoying the warm weight and the soft, lemon-scented hair under his nose, Harry sighs. He suspects it's a temporary state of affairs, but he suddenly doesn't want to talk or even think about Tremellen.
"Tell you later," he says, reaching for the nearest pale hand and smiling contentment when those fingers wrap slowly around his. "Promise."
When Harry does tell him what his handbag-snooping turned up, Draco seems caught between grim admiration, a deepened disgust for Tremellen, and—as Harry had predicted—the 'leave it alone' line that he's already heard from Aquiline.
"Smart woman," Draco says, when Harry tells him this, and though Harry knows they're both right, at least for now, forgetting about it is easier said than done.
That being said, as Saturday draws ever closer, it's difficult to think of much other than exactly what Rita is about to do to the public profile that most of the time he doesn't care about. And even as he drags himself out of bed on Saturday morning to open the window for the post owl, he's still telling himself that he doesn't care; the weird roiling in his gut is probably the last bit of his hangover from a heavier than usual Friday night, that's all.
The flashing red 'Special Edition' banner at the top of the paper makes him roll his eyes, and he discards the main paper and extracts the weekend supplement. He crawls back into bed beside Draco and spreads it out on his drawn-up knees. Draco shuffles closer and gazes at the front page, too.
"Oh, fucking hell. She's put us on the cover."
"She has," Harry almost-whispers, already feeling his face heat.
And of course it's the worst photograph, the one that caught him completely off-guard—and he's not the only one, he realises as he stares down at the picture now. His photo-self gazes at photo-Draco, who lifts an amused eyebrow until they make eye contact... really intense eye contact, at that... and as photo-Harry smiles slowly, photo-Draco's mouth twitches, and god, they just stare.
Stare, and smile, and Harry didn't even know he could smile like that. It's a moment, and now wizards across the country are opening the Prophet and looking at it. Looking at them, as they stare at one another like no one else in the world even exists.
"Fuck," is all Harry can manage, and he hasn't even dared to look at the article yet.
Draco makes a dry little sound and says, "Looks like we're about to, doesn't it?"
For long seconds, they both continue to stare at their photo-selves staring at each other, and Harry doesn't know whether to feel aroused or horrified; he's caught halfway between the two. And then Draco hooks a warm thigh around his under the sheets and reaches out to flip through the pages.
"I'm thinking we should just get this over with," he mumbles and Harry nods.
"Good plan." His eyes fall on the title of the article and he groans out loud. "'The Saviour and his Reformed Rogue—inside the world's most controversial relationship'? Oh, no. No, no, no."
"Shh," Draco says from under his chin, sounding suspiciously like he's trying not to laugh, "I'm trying to read."
"Won't," Harry mutters, kissing the top of his head and poking him in the ribs at the same time, but he falls silent to read, too; it's not as though he's not curious.
And, oh, fucking hell. It's a three-page full-colour article, and there are several other photographs, though fortunately none are quite as intense as the cover shot. He finds himself admiring the one of Draco by himself in front of the window with the soft evening sun behind him; his arms are crossed and his eyebrows raised, and the pose reminds Harry instantly of the photograph from Chem Dep that Fyzal had caught him looking at all that time ago, but there's no warmth in Draco's eyes for Rita Skeeter. He looks cool and imposing and very, very beautiful, but utterly detached.
He doesn't even know where to start on the picture of himself alone—he's never liked looking at photos of himself anyway, and this is no exception. He looks furious, and he's certain it's not flattering... at least until he feels Draco shift against him, hears the soft little hum of approval and watches pale fingers skate over the picture and the expression of his photo-self softens just for a moment.
"Nice," Draco murmurs, and returns to his reading without another word.
Alright then, Harry concedes, baffled but pleased inside, maybe he doesn't look too bad.
With a concerted effort, Harry forces himself to read the article properly. He soon realises that, instead of opting for a straight interview format, Rita has used some of their actual answers and a great deal of what she had referred to as 'background information' to spin a dramatic, cliché-ridden picture of their relationship. He doesn't suppose he expected anything less, but it's still a sight to behold.
After some searching, he manages to find her more serious questions buried in amongst the tripe, but for the most part it's apparent that Skeeter has turned her sensationalising talents to the sappy romance angle, twisting their words in her effort to depict them as two tragic romantic heroes...
"...divided by the world, and united by passion," Harry reads aloud. "Kill me now."
"Shh," Draco says again, but he's shaking with silent amusement against Harry's chest, and Harry can't suppress his grin as he adds,
"Oh, look... 'Though on the surface they appear to be an undemonstrative pair, the slightest touch and soft word from Malfoy instantly reduces the Boy-Who-Lived from seething anger to calm acceptance'." Harry snorts. "When was that?"
"That was when you nearly ripped her head off. I knew that fucking quill was writing down what we were doing as well as what we were saying," Draco says. "And why does she keep calling me 'Malfoy'?"
"I don't know... but at least that's your actual name, unlike half of the things she calls me," Harry points out, jumping slightly when a thoughtful mouth fastens itself around his nipple. "And... mm... it must be better than some of the things they used to print about you," he ventures, uncertain.
Draco pulls his mouth away and glances up at Harry, eyes wide. "No, this is worse, I've decided. It's so much worse. I mean, listen to this: 'Malfoy stops, mid-response, to gaze at his lover with adoring stormy eyes' – does that even make sense? I don't stare at you like that!" Draco protests, frowning. "And do I have stormy eyes?!"
Harry snorts and glances back at the article. "I don't know.... do I have broodingly handsome features and a dizzying aura of power?"
Draco's laughter is not appreciated, Harry decides, looking down at him with a raised eyebrow. OK, so it's ludicrous, but he doesn't have to laugh quite so hard.
"Oh, fuck... you're... pouting," Draco points out gleefully, grey eyes sparkling and mouth stretched wide as he looks up at Harry and really gives in to what is essentially a fit of giggles.
"I don't pout," Harry says. "I'm manful and heroic and... brooding."
But it's no good; with just one more glance between the stupid article and Draco's uncontrolled amusement and he's lost along with him. Harry allows his grin to spread across his face, knocks the supplement to the floor and grabs Draco's wrists, rolling them over and pinning him to the bed.
"Of course you are," Draco whispers, shaking underneath him and breathless with laughter.
"Doesn't mean you don't pout," is added in a shaky undertone and, not having an answer to that, Harry leans down and silences the mocking mouth with a kiss.
The wide smile curves against his lips and the breathless connection of tongues feels wonderful, even as Draco continues to laugh softly into his mouth and even though he tastes like Hangover Potion. Warmth curling in his chest, Harry releases Draco's wrists and deepens the kiss when his hands come up immediately to tangle in his hair.
Relishing the feeling of warm, bare skin pressed together everywhere, Harry shifts and arches under the sheets until they slip down to his waist, arranging himself into a messy sprawl between Draco's thighs with chests and hips and mouths sliding together. Article or no article, he loves Saturday mornings like nothing else. They feel like a combination of blank-canvas opportunity and a laziness that isn't quite the full-on lassitude of a Sunday, but that feels like warmth and pointless debate and that makes Harry feel like any moment not spent doing this is somehow wasted.
He doesn't think he's ever told Draco that, or indeed how he would go about it, anyway.
A caught breath and a moment's pause in their unhurried kiss, and Harry's smile stretches wide again as he feels the gorgeous warm hardness slowly unfurling against his belly; he lifts into the hand that's now sliding down his back to grip his arse and obligingly pushes his own hard cock against Draco's hip. The movement is slow and drawn out as he revels in every inch that his hot, sensitised skin drags over Draco's, and he opens his eyes and pulls the kiss back until it's no more than a lingering brush of tongue tips and the kind of eye contact that burns.
Though he's no longer laughing, Draco's eyes are playful as he pulls Harry's glasses off and drops them over the side of the bed. Hair thrown across his forehead and the pillow, he smiles with one side of his mouth and stops trying to flatten Harry's hair into his eyes, instead allowing the points of one-day's-growth along Harry's jaw to drag against his palm.
"You look good in that photograph."
"Erm... what? Which one?" Harry manages, startled.
"The one on your own. You look a bit fierce," Draco offers, tracing Harry's bottom lip with his thumb. "In a good way, of course."
"Fierce in a good way?" Harry repeats, amused. Supporting himself on his elbows, he rocks his hips against Draco's in a slow, deliberate attempt to make him moan or gasp or catch his breath.
The resulting soft whimper makes Harry ache, and he pushes forward again, fully hard and flooded with want.
"Yes," Draco says, rough-toned, tracing fingertips everywhere and arching into Harry's languid rhythm, "perhaps she had a point about the brooding and whatnot."
Harry tries to scowl, but he suspects the result is closer to a smile, and he doesn't care all that much anyway. "Maybe she was right about your stormy eyes," he whispers against Draco's mouth, hoping to provoke him for reasons unknown.
"Fuck off," Draco mutters but kisses him anyway and wraps a firm hand around the back of his neck to keep him in place, spreading his legs wider and shifting position until their cocks slide together, full length hot and hard every time Harry moves his hips.
"Won't," Harry whispers, still close enough to share hot breath, "and anyway..." He hesitates, debating the wisdom of voicing the thought that is perhaps the proof, should he have needed it, that Draco Malfoy and his... ways... have ruined him utterly.
"And anyway what?" Draco pushes up against him slowly and smiles, wrapping a warm leg around Harry's back and staring up at him in silent inquiry, the eyes in question unguarded and soft silver-grey. Not stormy at all, but then what does Rita Skeeter know about these things?
Harry digs his fingers into the sheets and frowns. "Anyway, you have beautiful eyes." He coughs. "So there. Draco Malfoy," he adds, for no good reason.
And he doesn't know what the big deal is, because he knows he's said scarier things than that before, but he hasn't ever been so specific, and anyway, analysis is beyond useless here because either way, he's hot all over and his heart is hammering at a dizzying pace and fuck, he's such an idiot.
"Harry Potter, you are so full of crap," Draco says, but he's smiling that tiny little smile that means he's really pleased.
Harry grins, suffused with silly warmth, and kisses him. Just once, though, because Draco's expression is a challenge and regardless of where they might've been heading, Harry can never resist a challenge. He reluctantly pulls away from the delicious alignment of their bodies and shifts to sit astride Draco's thighs, resting hands on pale hipbones and enjoying his puzzled expression.
"I'm serious," he says, casting thoughtful eyes over the sprawled-out naked form underneath him.
"I highly doubt that," Draco says, stretching his arms out to his sides and lifting an eyebrow.
The elegant stretch, the expression, the low tone, all of it goes straight to Harry's cock and he presses his palm against it with a sharp intake of breath; his eyes never leave Draco's face and when those eyes drop to follow his hand and then darken instantly with arousal, a jolt of pleasure forces him to press down harder and bite his lip.
"Shh," he whispers, smiling.
This isn't about him, after all. Not right now. He doubts he has the words, but he wants, needs, to show Draco how beautiful he is. Harry thinks that is the right word, too, even if isn't the most masculine one he's got. There's 'handsome' of course, and of course he's that, too, but... Harry frowns and runs an idle hand along the heated flesh of Draco's cock, drawing a rough 'yesss' from him easily. Handsome is for people like Marley. It's shiny and perfect and a bit lacking, somehow.
No. Draco is beautiful. Yes he is.
Harry releases the hard flesh and leans down closer, smirking and whispering right against Draco's ear, "Yes... as I was saying, you have beautiful eyes."
Draco shivers. "Yes?"
Harry smiles against skin that still smells a little like smoke from the night before, and he couldn't care less. Still tastes good, he decides, licking right down to Draco's collarbone and flicking his tongue over the salty hollow of his throat. "Yes," he confirms. "Yes to this bit as well, I like this bit."
"Is that so?"
"It is, actually," Harry mumbles, noting the quickening breath that betrays Draco's attempt at composure as he trails kisses down over his chest.
"What are you doing?" Draco wants to know, and Harry glances up to meet his eyes but doesn't stop running his tongue around his navel or drawing his fingertips over the pink-silvery scars that litter the pale skin. He doesn't need to see them now; he knows exactly where each one starts and ends, how each feels under his tongue, and he knows all the dips and hollows and grooves where his hands fit, perfect spaces for imperfect hands.
"Approving of you," Harry says.
He indicates the scars and the shallow dip of Draco's navel, gazing up into heated grey eyes and ignoring the warm, sticky leak of his cock and the smell of his arousal so close to his mouth that it's driving him mad with desire.
"Yes to these."
"Oh," Draco whispers, propping himself up among the pillows. His breath catches and Harry wants so badly to make him fall apart.
"Yes here, as well," he says against first one elegant hipbone and then the other, barely resisting the urge to lick the desperate hardness that twitches toward him. Instead, he grazes his teeth over the jutting bone and accepts Draco's dry moan with a hunger that makes him leak and stiffen against the warm thigh underneath him, which shifts to press delicious friction against his cock.
Which he attempts to ignore, because he's caught up in the powerful belief that what he's doing is of vital importance. Whatever he is doing. Worshipping, he suspects, if it's possible to suspect anything while kissing the warm inner thigh of a beautiful blond man, trying to untangle oneself from the sheets and enjoy the hand stroking one's hair all at the same time.
As he shuffles further down the bed, a flash of colour in his peripheral vision reminds him of the magazine article that he hasn't really forgotten, and he hurriedly looks back to Draco, anchoring himself in those eyes and understanding. They've given a little of themselves to the world with that fucking article, just a little bit, in return for some understanding or at least some peace, but the world can't have what's real; they can't have what's here in this room.
They can't have his Draco, the one with all the barriers lowered. The one laid out like this, hard and flushed and sticky, watching Harry with curiosity and arousal and absolute trust and letting him play his strange little game, because he loves him. And because he likes it, Harry suspects, quirking a smile and bending to kiss the inside of one ridiculously graceful ankle, licking the two, small, incongruous freckles there, and all the way back up until he's resting his chin on the soft, flat plane of Draco's belly and looking up at him.
"Yes," he manages, licking dry lips and stroking his palm over Draco's thigh. "Especially when they're wrapped around my back," he adds, and the grey eyes widen and darken.
"Not done," Harry says.
"Why am I not surprised?" The heavy anticipation in the tone completely fucks up Draco's attempt at sarcasm, and Harry grins.
Harry scrambles to kneel over him, ignoring the noisy protests of the mattress, and leans down, hair sticking to his damp forehead. He kisses Draco until he pants and kisses back frantically and reaches for him, and then pulls back, watching him sink back into the pillows and all but cross his arms. But he doesn't resist, and Harry loves it, because Draco has made a sodding art-form out of driving him to the absolute edge of reason with fingertips and kisses and touches that are almost exactly where he needs them, and to turn the tables—even if just this once, because god knows he doesn't have the patience usually—is immensely satisfying.
"This has my special approval," Harry informs him, kneeling back on his thighs once more and dipping his head to lick a slow, hot circle around the glistening head of Draco's cock, groaning at the sensation and the taste of the sticky leak against his tongue. Wrapping his mouth around the hard, heated flesh and hearing the strangled cry of relief and the muttered, "Fuck, Harry," and watching long, pale fingers clench helplessly into the crinkled sheets at the flick of his tongue.
"Yes," he whispers, pulling away with a wet sound and licking his bottom lip. Disappointed grey eyes snap open and try to fix him to the spot, but he's already sliding closer again, slipping sweat-damp chests and bellies and cocks together, and he's so hard that he could finish it right here, just gliding together, close and hot and dirty, but he doesn't want to go like that.
"That's not very nice, Harry," Draco complains, and Harry recognises his own oft-uttered words.
"I know. And I like this," he whispers, grasping Draco's left wrist and dragging his tongue slowly over the marked skin as he has so many times before, holding eye contact, "I like this very much, because, well..." Breathless now, he rubs his face against the damp skin and smiles. "Because I'm a terrible, terrible deviant."
"You're insane," Draco says, reaching up to smooth Harry's messy fringe from his eyes. "You're an insane deviant."
"Yes." Harry slides close, breathing him in, needing more now. Yes, love you, yes.
"So, now that I'm thoroughly... approved of... what are you going to do with me?" Draco murmurs, and those eyes are suddenly dangerous as well as desperate.
Harry's heart jumps and his cock jerks against warm skin. He's lost. "Anything you want."
The soft morning sun warms his bare back and lights Draco's dazzling split-second smile. Makes his eyes glow silver. "I want you inside me," he says simply, and as Harry bites down a whimper, he knows that he was never in control here, not really.
"I think I can manage that," he mutters, and honestly, he doesn't really give a fuck.
The stuff in the glass jar that he Summons into his hand doesn't smell of anything; at least it doesn't to him, but it always feel slippery and warm on his fingers and the temptation is to spread it everywhere, but he doesn't. He twists and circles and works his fingers inside Draco, trading slow kisses and mumbled non-words as the hot channel grasps around him and he seeks out that spot that reduces Draco to beautiful incoherence. Finds it, and uses it. Little circles and hard strokes, watching his eyes as the seams start to fray and break and he's so open.
"Come on," is sighed gently against his lips as a warm, slick hand slips between them and over Harry's trapped cock, forcing a gasp from him. "Need you now."
Harry isn't about to argue with that. He draws back and looks, just looks for a moment. His vision's slightly blurred but he can see well enough the elegantly dishevelled mess of the man he loves, the heated eyes fixed upon him, those long, pale legs drawn up as he waits. And though Harry inhales heavy expectation along with sweat and arousal and Draco, he's completely relaxed, and it's wonderful.
And it's just so natural. Before he knows it, he's sliding slowly inside Draco, biting his tongue against the delicious tightness, watching his cock twitch against his belly and then trapping it between them as he buries himself as deeply as possible and encourages those legs to wrap around his waist.
"Yes," Draco says, reaching up to slide firm hands down Harry's back, pulling him in tight.
"I know," Harry rasps, staring down, pausing to just feel that incredible heat wrapping around him, gripping slowly and—beneath him, the grey eyes flare with intent—deliberately, rippling a fierce ache through him and threatening to pull his release from him before he's ready.
Sheets crumpled under his hands and forearms and knees, he reaches for Draco's mouth, claiming it in a slightly scratchy kiss, and pulls out slowly, barely breathing. Almost all the way, and the air is cool against his wet skin for a moment before he slides back inside and groans with relief as his tortured, sparking nerve endings whisper, 'finally', even though the waiting has been all his own fault this time.
He doesn't know how Draco does it, honestly he doesn't. There are fingernails cutting into his back and his buttocks and Draco shifts beneath him, silently demanding and encouraging more, deeper, now, please, and Harry thinks...
"So good. Please," Draco whispers, and Harry stops thinking altogether.
He moves, sliding himself in and out of that tight heat with a slow, deep languor that feels so fucking good that it's all he can do to hang onto a regular rhythm and brush his mouth over Draco's with each inward stroke, absorbing his shudders and protecting the soft little demands and strange endearments that his sharp-tongued lover would never admit to when he wasn't open and needy and aroused to breaking point.
But he is, and he does say them, and Harry keeps them all. He keeps, 'Oh, there... please', and 'Yes, oh, fuck, I love your mouth', and 'You utter stubborn bastard', and 'Perfect, isn't it? Just fits... you and me... yes.'
He stores them away and whispers back, and when Draco drops one arm to the sheets, stretching out, Harry reaches for it, smiling at the fingers that immediately twist under his string, his string #2, and strokes his cock into Draco that little bit harder. Time is blurring but they're both sweat-sticky all over and Harry's trembling when Draco tips his chin back, breaking their kiss.
"Green eyes," he murmurs.
Draco's eyes, whilst lust-hazed, are hopelessly sincere, and Harry pants, frowns, pushes hard and rolls his hips. So close. "What about them?"
"I lied, in the interview. About..." Draco pauses, blinking slowly as he tries—and fails—to conceal a whimper. "About why I... what it was that I... it was your eyes. So fucking green."
"But I've always had green eyes," Harry mumbles, logically, he feels.
The rush of suspicion that had hit Harry in the interview returns with enough intensity to put him off his stroke, and he hesitates, losing rhythm and staring down into the grey eyes. "How long, Draco?"
Draco laughs, and he feels it everywhere. "Too long. Oh, fuck, don't stop."
He doesn't stop, but the heat is pooling in his belly and ripping around his spine and Draco just feels too good around him, and he doesn't want to come yet, not without Draco and not without knowing, so he slows even more, gritting his teeth and hanging hard onto his control.
At his wrist, Draco's fingers tighten and twist reflexively until the string is almost cutting into Harry's skin and while the sharp sting feels good, he doesn't relish the prospect of snapping another string.
"Hey, careful..." He moves his fingers.
"It won't break," Draco says, meeting his eyes with an odd heated defiance. "Not unless you want it to."
Harry smiles messily, and he can't explain the sting in the back of his throat to match the one at his wrist, or the painful rushing ache in his chest, but he steals one last kiss before he sits back and grips Draco's hips—one hand still covering his—and strokes hard into him, making him cry out. And again. Watching the tight, slick hole grip around his cock, watching Draco's eyes and his mouth and drowning in his short, harsh breaths. He still needs to know.
"How long? You'd never tell me... how long have you found me interesting?" Harry demands breathlessly, circling his hips and oh, god, he doesn't have long.
"Oh... that's not... you manipulative..." Draco closes his eyes, groans and lifts shamelessly into the stroke. Harry does it again.
"Since sixth year, alright?" Draco relents, desperation roughening his voice. "Now just fucking... oh..."
"This?" Grinning, so hard, heart flooded, Harry fists Draco's cock in time to his strokes, picking up the pace, knowing they're both close and suddenly wanting to fall right over the edge and drag Draco with him.
"Yes, yes, yes," Draco whispers, lips moving in a desperate litany.
"Want to see your eyes."
"Mm?" Draco's eyes snap open.
"Beautiful," Harry whispers, pushes longhardslow and comes with a low groan. Biting his bottom lip, he continues to circle his hips and slide his fist over Draco's cock as he rides out his orgasm; he shudders hard but hangs onto the eye contact, barely aware that he's whispering, pleading, demanding, "Please, Draco, please," until those eyes lose focus and Draco jerks and whimpers and tightens around him, spilling warm and sticky over his hand, twisting the string around his other wrist hard enough to hurt.
Drained but peaceful, Harry stares down at the mess on their skin as Draco closes his eyes and smiles lazily, relaxing his death grip on Harry's wrist.
"Your turn to clean up," he murmurs and Harry snorts. Still, he obliges with a whispered Cleaning Spell and withdraws on shaky legs, crawling over the tangled sheets and wrapping himself around Draco. As his heartbeat slows, he buries his face in Draco's neck and inhales the scent of their combined exertion.
"Sixth year, then?" he can't help asking after a moment, too satisfied to suppress either the smirk or the delight in his voice.
Draco stiffens and then relaxes. Sighs, and then threads a hand through Harry's hair. "I still thought you were a complete prat," he insists.
"But you thought I was interesting."
"I hated you. But I wanted to fuck you into the floor."
Amused, Harry grins against his neck and flicks his tongue out to taste the salty skin. "I'm not sure how receptive I would've been to that at the time," he says.
"That's putting it mildly. I think you might've actually killed me."
Harry's about to protest when the vivid, sobering image of that bathroom swims before his eyes and his stomach turns. Exhaling hard, he tightens his arms around Draco. "We've come a long way," he offers at last.
"I still want to fuck you into the floor," Draco says, but he shifts impossibly closer anyway and his fingertips trace the words he doesn't say into the skin of Harry's back.
Harry smiles. "Later."
Once they drag themselves out of bed, shower and venture downstairs in a cautious attempt at a traditional Saturday, it doesn't take long for the owls and fire-calls to start.
At the first sight of four owls hovering outside the kitchen window, Draco groans, drops his head into folded arms on the table, and refuses to look up until Harry pulls up the chair next to him and shoves the envelopes in his direction.
"Draco, look... they're not Howlers this time," he says, pretending he's not also astonished that not one of the four envelopes is red.
Slowly, Draco sits up and rakes fingers through his hair, eyes wide. "Well, that's... odd."
For a long time, they stare at the envelopes on the table, at one another, and back at the envelopes. Finally, Draco rolls his eyes and takes two of the envelopes; setting down his tea, Harry does the same. The contents of the letters are surprising, to say the least.
"Witch Weekly wants us to do a photo shoot," Harry says, eyebrows in his hairline as he stares down at the colourful text. "Together."
Draco makes a strange little sound and reaches blindly for Harry's cup, still staring at the letter in his hand. "Fyz says... oh, god. Fyz says that my mother found the article very interesting." He looks up at Harry, eyes pained. "He says, this time he did say, 'Hey, Mrs Malfoy, want to read Rita Skeeter's latest?'—does that make any sense to you?"
"Unfortunately. Do you want to hold him while I kick him in the crotch, or vice versa?"
"You're a savage," Draco says, sipping Harry's tea. "We'll take turns."
Harry snorts, reaching for the second letter. It's not as though she wouldn't have read it eventually anyway, but at the same time, it's useful to be able to blame someone for the fact that he's going to struggle to look Mrs Malfoy in the eye for some time.
"'Harry, dear, what a lovely article'," Harry reads aloud. "'You both look very handsome (although, would it kill Draco to smile?) and very much in love. If I'm honest I think I knew that, anyway. I don't mind admitting that I was wrong, at least not on this occasion. I hope I'm not the only one. I look forward to seeing you both tomorrow... don't be late, I'm roasting a leg of lamb. My best to Draco, Molly Weasley'," he finishes faintly.
"Lamb," Draco approves, and his mouth twitches up as he meets Harry's eyes for a moment. "This one's for you, actually." He indicates the letter in his hand. "Your friend Cecile."
"Oh, god. What does she want?"
"She wants you to know that she can't wait to see you on Monday to, and I quote, 'rip the absolute living piss out of you'."
Harry laughs, setting down Molly's note and reclaiming his tea. "Can't wait."
"She also says you owe her a new tablecloth because it's your fault that she spat coffee all over hers," Draco adds.
"Yeah, well. She says a lot of things," Harry says darkly, rising from the table to make toast.
Or, at least, attempt to make toast, because after being distracted by three more owls and four fire-calls, all he's actually managed to produce is a pile of stone-cold, half-burnt bread that he has to banish with a flick of his wand and a grumbling stomach. Draco is no help whatsoever, garnering far too much enjoyment from seeing Harry fail at toast-making.
Clive would be laughing, too, if he was here, Harry thinks, imagining the little boy sitting next to Draco, trading the significant glances and conspiratorial whispers that Harry used to pretend not to notice. Sighing, Harry shoves more bread into the toaster. Draco glances up from his third re-reading of the article and frowns.
"What's the matter?"
Draco lifts a dubious eyebrow, but is distracted from further questioning by Hermione's voice calling their names from the living room fireplace, followed seconds later by a whoosh of flames, a clatter and a 'Mind what you're doing with your elbow, Ron' as they announce their presence. Harry had been wondering when they'd turn up. He and Draco exchange glances.
"In here," Harry yells, Summoning two extra cups and filling the kettle again.
He doesn't know why he even hung onto the tiniest hope that his two best friends might just let this one slide by, but that last little shred is utterly obliterated by Ron's appearance in the kitchen doorway, brandishing a well-thumbed copy of the Prophet supplement, grinning almost wide enough to split his face and bellowing:
"'Undeniable sexual tension,' admits Harry, when asked about the truth behind his antagonistic relationship with Malfoy during their school days—you heard it here first!' Learn something new every day, mate!"
Harry scowls ineffectually and sets the kettle to boil with more force than necessary. Hermione appears behind Ron and slips into the kitchen, muffling her giggles behind her hand.
"That was totally taken out of context!" Harry protests, and Hermione just giggles harder. "Draco, tell her!"
Draco merely smirks and kicks out a chair for Hermione at the table, which she sinks into, dark eyes sparkling as she nudges Draco with her elbow and speaks rapidly to him under her breath.
"Divided by the world..." Ron reads, stepping dramatically across the kitchen to lean against the counter where Harry is wondering if there's anything he can put in his friend's tea that'll shut him up.
"Fuck off, Ron," he says instead, just about refraining from sticking out his tongue.
"I can't believe she wrote this crap—well, I can, but... bloody hell, mate." Ron's freckled nose wrinkles as he looks up from the paper to regard Harry. "Did you know it was going to be like this?"
"I knew that whatever she wrote was going to embarrass me horribly, yeah. I just didn't know quite what angle she was going to take with it. Apparently, this is what shifts newspapers."
He hands Ron a steaming cup and glances across the kitchen, where Hermione is once again grinning and Draco looks murderous, and Harry would bet his entire coffee stash that Hermione has said something about 'stormy eyes'. He smiles.
"'Controversy aside, this partnership crackles like a...' It's fucking awful," Ron reiterates, shaking his head, though his dismay doesn't seem to stop him from grinning like a loon.
"Well, then, stop fucking quoting from it," Harry says, equal parts amused and exasperated. "Anyway, your mum said it was a lovely article," he can't help adding.
Ron shudders. "Yeah well, she loves all those cheesy romance novels as well. She's mad for anything a bit mushy."
"True." Harry doesn't disagree with that assessment, but secretly he's rather pleased about Molly's owl, and if it finds its way into the bedside drawer with some of his other important bits of paper, well, nobody needs to know about it.
"I don't even know where to start on this," Ron says, closing the supplement and displaying the front cover in all of its staring, not-quite-smiling and more staring glory.
Harry sighs, and definitely does not blush. Somewhere above Ron's head, the top cupboard creaks gently and Harry flicks his eyes up to it.
"I know," he mutters. "And now would be a really lovely time to help me out."
He doesn't expect much, he has to admit, but he waits. Ron wiggles the offending image in his face and grins even more, and then there's a small squeak of hinges, and Harry has never been prouder of his cupboard. Quick as a flash, the door shoots open and a packet of coffee is ejected at speed into the back of Ron's head.
Unfortunately, it's his favourite coffee and he has to move fast to Summon it into his hand before the bag breaks all over the tiles, but Ron's startled yelp is very satisfying.
"What the hell was that?" he demands, touching the back of his head and looking around.
Harry holds up the rescued bag and shoots a mock-glare at the cupboard. "Sorry. You know how kitchen fittings are."
Ron eyes him with suspicion, folding the paper in half and leaning back against the counter to drink his tea. He gazes across the kitchen at Hermione and Draco, who are once more absorbed in conversation, and Harry looks with him.
"Why is everything in your house a bit unhinged?" Ron asks, eyes resting on Draco.
Harry smiles and shrugs. It's all kinds of surreal having Ron and Hermione here on a Saturday, but it actually feels alright. Change, he considers, might be OK sometimes.
"Ron, I really don't know. But you're here, aren't you?"
Ron laughs. "Fair enough." He glances warily at the cupboards behind him. "Have you got any biscuits?"
Harry ignores Draco's protests on Sunday afternoon and manages to drag him to lunch at the Burrow, much to the delight of Mrs Weasley and her leg of lamb. Harry's both warmed and baffled by the emergence of this 'incurable romantic' side that he's only seen once or twice before, and though it's disconcerting that it's taken Skeeter's worst reporting yet to drag it out of her, he can certainly cope with it.
Draco, on the other hand, is terrified by the questions and the attempted hugging and the warm fuzziness from the fierce little woman, and he disappears into Arthur's shed with him at the first chance he gets, leaving Harry to his fate.
Harry doesn't mind too much; he's used to handling Molly by now. Ginny, of course, is merciless, and like Ron seems to take great delight in reading his own misquoted words back to him, along with theatrical hands to the forehead and so much mock-swooning that before he knows it, he's laughing. And then before she knows it, he's giving his wet-fish hex a practice-run ready for Monday morning.
He stops off at the Ministry first thing to register the signed papers and formalise—in official, bureaucratic terms—Narcissa's adoption of Clive. He finds a smile for the girl at the desk who first gapes at him, then blushes furiously, and then tries to hide her expression of shock as she glances through the documents.
"Um, so... Mr Potter, you are aware that once these are filed, they become a matter of public—"
"—record, yes. I know." Harry leans on both hands on her shiny counter and tries to focus on the matter in hand, instead of wondering whether she's read this weekend's Prophet, because by now, who fucking hasn't?
"That is to say," she adds, fiddling nervously with her quill, "only if someone comes looking for them."
Harry laughs shortly. "Oh, someone will. Thanks for your help."
He can feel her eyes on him all the way to the door of the Document Registry Office, and she's not the only one. Of course, he's used to being looked at, but this is almost as bad as it was just after the Prophet had outed them. Staring bloody eyes of Ministry employees track him all the way across the cool, echoey Atrium, and it's unnerving. Because now he's certain they're thinking about sexual tension and stormy passion and all those sorts of things.
He expects those stares as he steps into the hospital, too, and he's not disappointed. There isn't that sweep of absolute, shocked hush like there had been last time, but instead a general low hum of conversation, flickering eyes and smirks and grins interspersed with eye-rolls from many of the male staff members and soft, susurrant exchanges between little groups of Healers and nurses as they follow Harry's progress across the foyer.
It's fine, he thinks. It's just this once. Fucking Skeeter. Stinging Hex.
Cecile is waiting for him, he's sure she is. She's been on the night shift and looks both disgusting and exhausted as she spins around on a chair behind the nurses' station, but her face brightens immediately as she spots him.
"Go on, then." Harry smiles, lifts an eyebrow and leans on his forearms on the wooden surface, expectant.
"Five Galleons for the tablecloth."
"Bugger off, what's it made out of, Acromantula silk? And anyway, it's hardly my fault if you can't keep your fluids in your mouth where they belong."
Cecile snorts and folds her arms, swinging from side to side in the chair. "Don't be facetious. Anyway, you never answered my owl, which was extremely impolite. But then again," she says, smirk blossoming, "I expect you were too busy having undeniably tense sex, weren't you? Do you play kinky Slytherin-Gryffindor games?"
Harry covers his inappropriate little flicker of interest—how has he never thought of that?—with a stern look. He hopes. "Kindly fuck off, Cecile. Do you know how many people owled me this weekend?"
"No." Muddy green eyes light with intrigue. "How many Howlers?"
Harry frowns. Someone's rubbery shoes squeak on the shiny floor and he wrinkles his nose as a particularly powerful blast of lavender wafts out from a nearby ward. "None."
"As I thought." She pauses and turns a slow, smug rotation in the chair. "They've been... converted."
"Don't say that, it makes us sound like a religion," Harry protests.
"What, like the Church of Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy?" Eloise suggests, squeaking up beside him and dumping an armful of charts on the surface. "Or should that be the Saviour and his—"
"Don't you dare."
Eloise smiles sweetly, and not for the first time, Harry thinks that spending so much time with Cecile has... Slytherin-ised her somewhat.
"What do you mean, anyway, converted?" Harry presses, sticking his tongue out at Eloise.
Cecile lifts a tired eyebrow and waves her hand vaguely. "This lot. I think your open day was probably a start... I think everyone realised that Malfoy wasn't a total evil bastard, and then, well... the Daily Prophet says scary Death Eater, everyone thinks, 'Ooh, scary Death Eater'. The Daily Prophet says tragic romantic hero..." she shrugs.
"You don't actually think people are so easily led," Harry says, unsure if it's a question or not.
"I do. Monkey read, monkey... form an opinion." Cecile frowns. "You know what I mean. I'm tired. I'm going home in a minute, I just wanted to wait for you and make sure you knew just how hard I laughed at you looking all googly-eyed at Malfoy in a national newspaper. That's all." She sighs with weary contentment and stretches, and Harry has no qualms whatsoever in applying a covert wet-fish that makes Cecile jump and scowl.
"That's gratitude," she mutters.
"Bye bye, Cecile," Harry sing-songs and waves to her as she gets up and traipses toward the exit. He turns to Eloise, who's leaning over the nurses' station hunting for a pencil. "Do you think she's right?"
She purses her lips. "I don't know. I think people probably do believe what they read, most of the time because it's easier than having to think for themselves, but if you ask me—can I borrow your pencil?"
"Mm?" Harry rummages in a pocket and hands over a stub of a pencil, hoping Eloise doesn't notice the chewed bits.
"It's not the article... it's that photograph," Eloise says. She makes a swift notation on the chart in front of her and then turns large dark eyes up to his.
"The, erm... googly-eyed one?" Harry cringes.
"Yeah, but that's not what she said before you got here. And no, I'm not telling what she said, because I promised her I wouldn't. The thing is... I don't think anyone could look at that picture and think you didn't love him, that's all," Eloise says, embarrassment settling over her mousy features as she holds Harry's startled gaze for a moment or two before looking at the floor and smoothing non-existent creases from her pale blue robes.
Harry's heart jumps and he finds himself swallowing hard for no good reason as he stares at the top of Eloise's head. He hadn't thought of it that way before, only in terms of the exposure, the humiliation factor. And though that's very much still there, if any part of that stupid over-the-top article quietens the conspiracy theorists and the haters then... perhaps he has something to thank Rita Skeeter for.
Which is a very disturbing thought.
"Thanks, El," he says at last, and he's grateful when she looks up and smiles at him; it's a pure smile this time, with nothing lurking behind it, and he grins back.
With her words and Cecile's swimming in his head—alongside Ron's and Hermione's more constructive thoughts, once they'd managed to stop laughing—Harry throws himself into his work. Gen Two is still off-limits and there's still far too much to do, but he doesn't mind. Barely anyone actually mentions the article directly to him, but he swears there are more knowing smiles than usual amongst the patients, and he definitely sees one or two inching suspiciously familiar publications under their pillows and blankets as he approaches.
With Cecile at home bonding with her dressing gown and Terry on the late shift, Eloise is his sole voice of reason and she obligingly times all her breaks to coincide with his. They brave the canteen and drink brown swill and speculate on Tremellen's scant presence during a staff shortage, which doesn't surprise either of them as much as it should.
When Harry does see the man, he can barely rein in his instinctive snarl; he manages it, but wishes he hadn't bothered when the first words out of the prick's mouth are, "I see you've been selling your private life to the press again, Healer Potter. As if we didn't already know more than enough about your sleazy relationship with Malfoy."
Fuming, Harry clenches his fingers around his wand and tries to breathe slowly through his nose.
I saw your name, he wants to say. I saw your name in Skeeter's book. If anyone's whoring themselves to the press, it's fucking YOU.
"I was under the impression you had a choice whether to read the newspaper or not, Healer Tremellen," he says instead, and it's an immense effort to keep his voice even. "If that's not the case, I'm sorry. Would you excuse me... I think my patient's calling for me."
When he turns away, he lets the silent snarl escape, wishing he had a room full of vases to smash. He can't help thinking that Tremellen's glaring and moustache-twitching are even worse than usual, and he wonders whether Rita has called and told him that his least favourite subordinate is onto him... probably. Have to protect the source, after all.
As he makes his afternoon rounds, Harry pushes Tremellen into the back of his head—because he has to, and because the good humour and amused, appraising glances of his patients are starting to have a weird mood-lifting effect on him; he fights it for a little while and then gives in and allows it to carry him along.
Still, when he passes Terry arriving for his shift on his way out of the foyer, Harry lets him get about as far as, "So, what about that undenia—" before he casts his second wet-fish hex of the day, grins at Terry and steps outside to Disapparate.
The evening air is warm and fragrant as he wanders up the drive to the Manor, and he's almost halfway there before it occurs to him that he has no real reason to be there at all—he's not bringing a new resident; he doesn't have anything vital to discuss with Narcissa, and Draco isn't planning to work late. He stops for a moment in the middle of the gravel drive, scrubbing at his hair and wondering if he should just turn back and go home.
He's here because... he just wants to be, perhaps. Harry rolls his eyes at his own stupid indecision, even though there's no one here to see it, and is just about to start up the drive again when he catches the movement in his peripheral vision. Triumphant, he turns quickly and stares down at a startled-looking Evil Peacock.
"Ha," says Harry, exultant at apparently interrupting the little bugger seconds before a strike.
The black eyes are fathomless but the shiny feathers ruffle in obvious irritation before the peacock appears to reconsider, darting forward with an almost 'oh, fuck it' air of nonchalance and heading straight for Harry's knee.
He thinks not.
Before he can really think about it too hard, Harry spins back around and takes off up the driveway toward the Manor at top speed. He kicks up sprays of gravel and almost stumbles a couple of times as his shoes slide in the tiny stones but he soon finds his balance, his rhythm, and it's brilliant. He can't remember the last time he really ran and it's exhilarating, even if he is running up a gravel path to confuse a peacock that's far too clever for its own good.
He runs until he's out of breath and slightly warm, skidding to a stop with the Manor in sight, resting his hands on his thighs and grinning like a loon. Scanning the horizon, he can just about make out a skulking dark shape standing at the junction of drive and lawn almost exactly where he left it, and he fancies it looks unimpressed. He hopes so.
Feeling a bit sheepish now and hoping no one was looking out of the window, he completes his journey at a more sedate pace and almost manages to avoid bumping into Narcissa in the entrance hall, but not quite.
Clive and Zeus are demonstratively pleased to see him, but Mrs Malfoy's gentle eyebrow-lift and soft, "Good evening, Mr Potter," are positively steeped in subtext, whatever she might have him believe, and for a brief moment he thinks he'd rather she'd seen him dash-stumble up her drive like an idiot than have read that article.
Still, if she's not going to say anything—at least not in as many words—then neither is he.
"Good evening, Mrs Malfoy," he offers, and then makes for the East Wing as quickly as politeness will allow.
When he enters the lounge, he casts his eyes over the evening activities before spotting Lupe at the notice board. He joins her and watches as she pins what looks like a new rota to the dark green felt and then steps back to regard it with critical dark eyes. After a moment, she seems to notice him, and turns to grant him a brief nod before returning her eyes to the board.
Harry hides a smile. He doesn't suppose she's ever going to be a talkative person, but even so, as one of the longest-standing residents she commands a quiet respect from the community. And, even though he knows it's bad to think in such terms, she's Harry's favourite, something which Draco finds endlessly amusing.
'Why do you always like the grumpy ones best?' he often asks, and Harry doesn't have an answer for that, other than that it's lucky for Draco that he does.
"I ran away from the peacock just now," he offers, with a sidelong glance at Lupe. "I think it really confused him."
Her eyes don't leave the board, but her slow smile is rewarding. "Perhaps... one day, you should bite him back, also."
Harry laughs softly. "Perhaps. Hey, who's on the late?"
Lupe sighs and looks at Harry; her dark eyes are quite disparaging enough to answer the question without words.
"Marley," he mutters, and the words are out of his mouth before he can stop them. "You know that day... when you said..." Harry drops his voice, "...when you said you thought he was jealous? Who did you think he was jealous of? What were you going to say?"
Lupe's mouth twitches upward at one corner in an almost-smile, and then she affects a small shrug. "Not supposed to gossip," she murmurs.
Harry stares at her. "Now you learn the rules," he says under his breath, and she really smiles this time, but says nothing more.
Stymied by better self-control than he's ever going to have, Harry leaves Lupe to her rota-gazing. It takes him almost fifteen minutes to reach Draco's office as he's stopped every few feet by various little knots of residents and their 'read this, Harry'-s and their 'guess what, Harry?'-s and their 'will you bloody tell her, Harry'-s.
"Have you seen my mother's smug face?" Draco inquires from behind his desk, barely pausing to acknowledge Harry's weary nod before adding, "Will you fetch me some paperclips before you get comfortable? Please?" he appends at Harry's stern look.
Harry goes, of course he does, even if he is muttering for the entire short distance about servants and what they may or may not have died of.
The soft lighting glows inside the cupboard as Harry steps inside, and he looks around, allowing himself a moment of quiet pride. He made this. Well, alright, he and Fyz made this, but still. It isn't until he starts hunting around for paperclips that he realises Draco has moved absolutely everything around again, and whatever bizarre filing system he's employing, Harry hasn't a hope of understanding it.
"Enjoyed the article, Wonder Boy," comes the voice from the door, and Harry bangs his head on the bottom of the shelf above the one he'd been searching. "Interesting pictures... almost like you're trying to glare us all into submission."
Harry straightens up and turns, rubbing at the back of his head. He frowns, irritated and a bit confused; it's not the bang on the head, either. He's just not quite sure what to do with Marley.
"For your wall, Marley," he murmurs in an undertone, and Marley's dark eyes lift from the overly-casual examination of his nails. He thinks Marley is teasing him, like he always has been, and he only hopes that by doing the same, he doesn't make the idiot cry or anything.
Marley huffs and flicks his hair back from his face but there's a small smile and the tiniest hint of a blush threatening when he says, "Fuck off, Wonder Boy."
Harry rolls his eyes and grins; insults, he can deal with. And OK, it's still a little awkward, but he suspects that asking Marley to witness for him with the adoption papers has gone some way toward evening things out. A gesture of trust for a gesture of trust, he supposes, and with that done, he can weigh the fact that Marley finds him attractive against the fact that he finds Marley to be a bit of a wanker, and come out with something manageable.
"I don't think you really want me to do that," Harry says, and then throws Marley a rope. "Know where I can find paperclips?"
"He put them right at the top," Marley says, pointing and flashing a bright smile. "I think he likes having an excuse to use the ladder."
"Thanks." At that moment, the door is pulled fully open, and the cupboard floods with natural light.
Marley jumps, eyes widening when he sees Draco, though he recovers himself with creditable alacrity and flashes that dazzling smile, already slipping past his boss and into the corridor even as he's saying, "If you will move everything around, Draco... just had to show Harry where you put the paperclips."
"I'm certain we'll manage without your assistance, Marley. Don't you have work to do?" Draco's voice is crisp, acerbic, and Marley disappears without another word.
Harry watches Draco watch him go and wraps his hand around one hard, smooth rung of the ladder.
"I told you he likes you," Draco says, and despite his neutral tone, Harry's heart pounds.
"What do you mean?"
Draco lifts an eyebrow and steps into the cupboard, pulling the door almost all the way closed behind him. He leans carefully against the shelves and stares at Harry. "I mean exactly what you think I mean, so don't pretend to be ignorant."
There goes the secret-keeping, then. Harry lets go of the ladder and rests against the opposite shelves. His mind is racing, trying out and discarding possibilities at an impressive rate. "You knew?"
"Yes. I didn't know you did, though."
"I... well, only since last week. When he followed me, he told me a few things that surprised me," Harry admits, reaching back to grip the nearest shelf. He's not sure why he feels quite so affronted, but he does. "Why didn't you tell me?"
Draco folds his arms across his chest. "I could ask you the same question."
"Yes, well," Harry mutters. "I didn't want to complicate things between the two of you."
Draco snorts, but his voice is soft when he speaks again. "You wouldn't have believed me if I'd told you."
"I...yeah," Harry concedes, head suddenly full of tentative words and tense admissions exchanged on a cold lawn, saturated in pond-water and hanging onto wet, chilled fingers for dear life. "I wouldn't have."
"I think everyone knew, except you," Draco adds unexpectedly, and when Harry scowls, much of the discontentment drains out of the grey eyes.
"Fantastic," he mutters, bracing against the shelf and staring at the floor. "Another testament to my observation skills."
"I didn't mean it like that, idiot."
Harry looks up, caught immediately in the prickly warmth of Draco's expression. Heart twisting, he sighs. "How did you mean it then, wanker?"
"I just meant that if you didn't know, I wasn't about to make you feel uncomfortable. And... not knowing when someone likes you... I don't think that's a bad thing, for what it's worth."
Harry thinks it may be worth a great deal, but something still rankles about this whole thing, and he has to ask. "Do you really not do jealousy?"
"Well, you said it," Harry points out, because even as he stands here in an oversized stationery cupboard having this bizarre discussion, the idea that he's alone in experiencing those sharply possessive feelings scrapes at his insides and stings behind his eyes. He's far from expert at this, he knows that, but surely if you love someone, then those feelings are natural?
"Did I? Well... anyway, of course I do, just not when it doesn't matter," Draco says.
"I don't matter?"
Draco rakes a hand through his hair and then drops both to curl around the shelves behind him in an unconscious mirroring of Harry's posture.
"You exasperate me completely, do you know that?" he mutters, and Harry does know that, but he wisely says nothing; the feeling is entirely mutual, in any case. "It doesn't matter because you and Marley aren't ever going to be... a thing, even I can see that. The idea of it is ludicrous. If I'm... envious, it's of Hermione, or Weasley, or... my mother."
"Are you ever going to call him Ron?" Harry demands, already knowing he's focusing on the wrong point, but forging ahead regardless.
"Is he ever going to call me Draco?"
Harry exhales in a messy rush. "Alright." Frowns. "Wait, your mother?"
Draco's eyes narrow and his fingers slide against the shelf. "Yes, those people you have a special little bond with that I don't understand, alright?"
"Hermione and Ron I can understand, but your mother?"
"Yes. You have your book thing, and your little in-jokes about Latin that I just don't get, and I always feel like you've been talking about me when you've been to see her but neither of you ever tell me anything about it," Draco says, all in a rush, and he looks so petulant and exposed that Harry's scraping feelings are replaced by something warmer and altogether more pleasant.
Leave it to Draco to actually be jealous of his own mother, Harry thinks, and releases the shelf to close the small distance between them. It's comforting to know that he isn't the only one who worries about stupid stuff.
"Your mother and I have a strange little relationship," he concedes, and Draco's eyes are wary, even as Harry wraps a hand around the shelf at either side of his head and presses close. "But I like you best."
"Liar," Draco murmurs, but he smiles and winds his fingers into Harry's hair. "Now what?"
"Now I'm going to kiss you until you stop being an idiot. It's going to take fucking ages," Harry advises, leaning in and brushing their lips together.
"This isn't getting my paperclips found," Draco complains, but his tongue is hot and flickery against Harry's and Harry doubts he minds too much.
"Of all your insane ideas," Draco whispers, scowling into his coffee cup, "this is one of my least favourite."
Amused, Harry prods the sugar bowl across the table at Draco's silent request. "It's not an insane idea, it's an experiment."
"I doubt those two things are mutually exclusive."
"I like it when you use big words," Harry says under his breath, receiving a swift kick to the ankle and a grudging little smile for his trouble.
"Behave," Draco says, but he at last releases his (third) coffee cup from its death grip and pokes experimentally at the pasta salad on his plate, which, as far as Harry can see, is absolutely fine. He frowns and spears a shiny bean of some kind on the tines of his fork, holding it aloft for Harry's perusal. "What do you think that is?"
"I don't know. A bean of certain death?" Harry improvises, biting into his messy sandwich and expecting to be kicked again, but Draco merely releases a long-suffering sigh before shrugging and sliding his fork into his mouth a little more slowly than he really needs to, and Harry looks down at his plate, hiding a smile. He still gets warm, squirmy feelings from watching Draco eat, and he has absolutely no doubt by now that the smug git does it on purpose. "Anyway," he says, swallowing a mouthful of bread and chicken that's actually not quite as good as St Mungo's canteen equivalent, "you were the one who wanted to have lunch together."
"And from that, you managed to extrapolate 'lunch in a Diagon Alley establishment on a weekday, with all of these people staring at us'?"
Harry glances around the small cafe just in case anything has changed since he last looked, but no—Draco's right—they're still staring. The waitresses are staring, the Gringotts employees and others in smart business robes are staring, and the young mothers with clambering children are staring. Granted, some of them are trying to pretend they're not, but Harry knows better by now. It's unnerving, but he can deal with that, because he and Draco are sitting together, sharing a meal in a public place without disguises of any kind, and so far, not a hex or a harsh word has been thrown.
"Looks like it. And you're here, aren't you?"
"Yes, well." Draco lifts his chin in a well-worn gesture of defiance and he goes for the coffee cup again. Though he's relaxed a little since they've sat down, his posture is still all rigid, harsh lines and he holds himself as though he's expecting to come under attack at any moment.
Knowing instinctively that reaching over and touching Draco's wrist or tense fingers like he wants to will only set him further on edge under the weight of all the staring, Harry keeps his hands to himself and wraps them around his hot cup instead. After a moment, he slides a little way down in his seat and brushes his knee against Draco's warm inner thigh under the table.
"Thanks," he says, and surprised grey eyes snap to his.
"Just... thanks." Harry's voice is soft, even though it doesn't need to be; he hasn't dropped the subtle Muffliato since the waitress brought over their food—being seen is one thing, but he can't see any cause for the patrons of Mrs Miggins' Cafe to listen in on their conversation. "I know it's been horrible for you since everyone found out. And I know this sounds..." Harry scrapes his bitten nails against the hot ceramic of his cup and casts around for words that don't sound maudlin or dramatic; he's not sure he manages it. "I know this sounds however it sounds, but you only got all that grief because you were with me, and I suppose I'm glad you didn't just... decide it wasn't worth the hassle."
Draco stares at him over the top of his cup. Harry can't see his mouth, but his eyes flicker with some unnamed emotion and there's an almost imperceptible softening in the set of his shoulders.
"Did you think I would?" Draco says at last. "Decide you weren't worth the hassle?"
Harry doesn't miss the subtle alteration of his words, and something twinges low down inside. He inhales his coffee steam but doesn't drink it. "I don't know," he says honestly. "I hoped you wouldn't."
"Harry, you're nothing but hassle. You're a never-ending series of hassles. You should come with a warning label."
Draco lifts an eyebrow and sets his cup down. Taps his fingers on the cream-coloured tablecloth. "What I mean is, I always knew what I was getting into with you. If you remember, that's why you had to talk me into it in the first place. Or insult me into it, more accurately."
Harry can't stop his smile now, but he manages to affect an indignant tone, even though he knows Draco is right. "Where's your respect for my brilliantly subtle seduction technique? Malfoy," he adds, just because it's been so long since he said it.
Draco looses a small sound of amusement and a split-second sparkling grin that's so unexpected, Harry forgets to breathe for a moment. "Subtle? Please. Not to say that I didn't enjoy it immensely."
"I know you did."
Draco says nothing but picks up his fork again, apparently searching his salad for more mystery beans. Harry watches him, chewing thoughtfully on his forgotten sandwich, and reflecting that their communication has come a long way over the past few months. And OK, so it's nowhere near that ideal of tactful-yet-direct, say-what's-on-your-mind-and-discuss-it-like-adults candour that Hermione espouses, but they're doing alright, and anyway, Harry suspects that even Hermione can be wrong sometimes.
If his mother is anything to go by, Draco's probably always going to err on the oblique side with his interactions, and actually, Harry wouldn't change him. He likes notes and strings and he likes being mocked in a busy, steam-filled cafe with his thigh resting against Draco's, and he even likes the way the waitresses and the Gringotts people and the mothers watch Draco lick vinaigrette from his bottom lip, because Draco's eyes are on his the entire time, and he's Harry's, and they could be anywhere.
A little warm, Harry smirks and licks a speck of mayonnaise from his knuckle, watching the grey eyes flicker with interest. He decides to stop before someone turns up and takes another embarrassing picture, if they haven't already. Not that it matters now, he supposes, biting into his sandwich in a decidedly un-seductive manner, the first one seems to have done enough.
"Do you know what's really disturbing?" Draco says, looking around.
"That's a very open question."
"Shut up. It's... it's like everyone believes exactly what Rita fucking Skeeter tells them to." Draco waves his fork at the other occupants of the room, who are still flicking curious glances their way in between bites of their lunches. "Look at them—half of them hated me a week or so ago, and now..."
"Now what?" Harry presses, reminded strongly of his conversation with Cecile just days before, a conversation which had in no small part prompted his decision to drag Draco out for lunch in public today. Just to see.
"Now they're looking at me, at us, like we're..."
"Like we're what?"
"Just look!" Draco hisses, and stares pointedly over Harry's shoulder. Frowning, Harry twists around and his eyes quickly fall on the counter, where the middle-aged waitress and her pretty blonde counterpart are leaning on the glass display case containing the cakes and staring at them, sighing gently every few seconds.
It seems to take a few moments for them to register that Harry has turned around, and then the blonde is elbowing the other one in the side, prompting two more soft sighs. Disconcerted, Harry quickly turns back to Draco, who has finished his lunch and is scrutinising the bottom of his coffee cup.
"Disturbing," Harry agrees.
"I told you."
"Cecile has a theory about that," Harry says, as they rise from the table and leave the warm cafe. It's been a pleasant if unsettling interlude, but they have hospitals and treatment centres to return to. The alley is noisy and colourful and bustling as they step out into it, all conversation and people and animals and mingled smells that Harry still enjoys in small doses, but Draco's unwanted sensory overload is clear on his face, and Harry doesn't protest when fingers wrap around his wrist to pull him more quickly to the nearest Apparation point.
There are stares here, too, and just as they cross into a quieter part of the street, a young man with blue eyes and a bad haircut turns from gazing into a shop window and scowls at Draco.
"Wanker," he mutters before sneering and disappearing into the crowds.
When Draco releases his wrist, Harry turns to him, and to his astonishment, Draco is smiling. It's a real, proper smile, and it's baffling.
"Well, that's almost a relief," he offers.
Harry shoves his hands into his pockets and pokes at the scratchy fabric of his shrunken work robes. He really has to get back. He supposes Draco will still be inexplicable after he's finished his shift.
"I don't understand you sometimes."
Draco's smile widens and he lets out a little happy sigh, not unlike those of the smitten waitresses.
They don't have the time or the inclination to venture out again in public together for the rest of the week, but even when he's alone on the streets of Wizarding London or at work, Harry finds that the staring is holding at a steady-but-manageable level. The articles continue, as do the repeated owl-requests for interviews from a wide range of publications, some of which Harry hasn't even heard of before. He's not sure if he wants to, either.
He can barely believe it, but Cecile is being proved a little more right every day—much to her not-very-secret delight—and for the most part, Rita's exclusive seems to have turned the tide. It's baffling and exasperating, but Harry doesn't mind too much, because the increased reporting on the Potter-Malfoy relationship has another welcome side-effect:
Narcissa Malfoy's adoption of a tragically orphaned child is no longer the big news it might've been otherwise, and for that, Harry would happily endure Rita Skeeter and her Quick-Quotes Quill all over again. Not that it's going to come to that.
It had been no accident that those papers hadn't made it back to the Ministry until immediately after the Prophet article had gone to print. Harry, with the help of a Slytherin-to-the-core Narcissa, had delayed the registration deliberately in the hope of throwing everything Malfoy and Potter-related out into the open in one fell swoop. The getting-it-all-over-with approach had appealed to Harry, and Narcissa had suggested, with unusual optimism, that perhaps one story would eclipse the other.
Harry had not been hopeful, but having decided that it couldn't hurt, he waits for the articles to begin appearing, and he isn't disappointed. It takes good old Rita until Friday to find and publish the truth about 'Harry Potter's Child and the Death Eater's Wife', and the other newspapers aren't far behind her, churning out their own versions of events with predictable inaccuracy.
Narcissa reads the first article, turns up her delicate nose, summons tea from Flimby and then banishes the entire newspaper with a careless flick of her wand. Clive, blissfully unaware of the media's designs on his makeshift family, is allowed to scramble into her lap and she holds onto him while he leans over the arm of her chair and dangles duck-flavoured treats just out of Zeus' reach.
She doesn't ask to read the others, and Harry doesn't volunteer them. Harry reads them, though, and so does Draco; Harry watches him from the edge of his office desk as he paces back and forth, devouring the lurid, scathing words with furious grey eyes, and Harry lets him rant with the office door closed, because no one should have to read unkind words about their own mother in a national newspaper.
The reports vary from scathing ('what's the world coming to?!') to confused ('what would a Malfoy want with a child who might not be a pureblood?') and everything in between, and for almost a week, there is something about Narcissa and Clive in one newspaper or other every single day. And then something wonderful happens.
Someone turns up an old photograph of a teenage Harry and Draco at Hogwarts, one in which they're standing in a courtyard, wands drawn and fists clenched at their sides, clearly mid argument. Harry doesn't know who took it, or who sent it in to the Prophet offices, but they do, and suddenly, no one is interested in Narcissa Malfoy any more.
The snarky little articles, when they appear at all, are pushed into the back pages in favour of repeated and in-depth speculation about what Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy were really up to when they were at school. Harry couldn't be happier. Draco brings out his best dramatic sighs and starts turning straight to the crossword page whenever he picks up the Prophet, but Harry knows he's relieved. For his mother, and for Clive, who doesn't know what's going on right now, but will one day.
Already, he's a clever child, and though Harry knows Clive must have inherited something from his unknown father, all he sees when he looks at him is Romilda. Clive has his mother's keen observation skills, that's for sure, and her natural curiosity shines out of him in question after question after question. Narcissa answers each and every one with a patience that floors Harry.
From what Harry can see, she, Clive and Zeus split their time between Narcissa's favourite haunts of sun-room, the third floor and the gardens, and Clive's favourite: the Foundations main lounge, where Narcissa likes to sit and look amused and resigned, while Clive and his not-dog vie shamelessly for the attentions of the residents.
As the end of April approaches, Harry is pleased to note that the little's boy's delighted laughter and genuine smiles far outstrip the spells of sadness, and he can barely remember the last time he saw Clive's eyes brimming with tears.
"Yes, and yes, sometimes. He's four, Mr Potter," Narcissa replies when Harry asks her anxiously if Clive is still sleeping through the night, and if he still cries.
He knows it's not his place to worry about Clive any more, but it's hard to stop. Harry suspects it's near-impossible to stop worrying about someone once you've sat up at three in the morning with them night after night after night, or when you've held them and let them cry all over you because their mummy is in the stars and isn't coming back, or when you've made a hash of answering their questions about bad people but they've wanted a hug from you anyway.
Still, he's safe and happy and that's what's important. Sick of looking into the not-really-spare bedroom and feeling daft and sad, Harry has taken to keeping the door closed. For some reason, though, more often than not he finds the door wide open again. He always shuts it without a word, but he really wants to ask Draco about it, because he's always in the house when it happens, and Harry sort of wants to believe that he misses Clive, too.
It's the little things, really. Because he can't deny that he appreciates having the house—and Draco—to himself again, and he doesn't miss the interruptions. Even a month on, the novelty hasn't quite worn off the fact that they can have sex all over the house, anywhere and any time they want, even with the doors open. And yet. Harry misses all the questions and the pictures and the strange little hugs. He misses it all, and it's not going away.
Say Anything, he thinks on a Sunday morning, the first one of May. The bedroom door is flung wide open because it can be, as he and Draco lie tangled together in satisfied silence, and if he just cranes his neck slightly he can see that yes, that fucking door across the hall is also open. Again.
Harry presses his face against the cold side of the pillow and sighs gently, picking at the tight knot of his string and rubbing it against the inside of his wrist. "Say Anything," he whispers, and for fuck's sake, one of them has to say it.
Draco's hand covers his, thumb stroking over the string as he presses full-length against Harry's back. Harry presses back against his chest, sticking hot, damp skin together and shivering at the breath on his neck.
"Say Anything?" Draco repeats, and he doesn't whisper.
Draco exhales hard against his neck as though coming to a decision. "I miss that sodding child."
Harry's heart leaps and he smiles against the pillow. "Really?"
"Yes, and I know you do as well, so don't even try to pretend otherwise," Draco snaps.
"Wasn't going to," Harry says, closing his eyes, and he really fucking loves Draco. Stupid door-opening idiot. "Didn't expect you to admit to it out loud."
"I'm excellent at admitting to things," Draco mumbles against his neck, wounded.
"Mm. Do you think maybe your mum would let us..."
"...borrow him once a week, or something?" Draco supplies.
Harry snorts. "He's not a library book, Draco. But yeah."
"I imagine so. This is dangerously domestic, you know that, don't you?" Draco lets go of his hand and sweeps a thoughtful hand down over Harry's ribs, hip, thigh, and back up.
"I think it's a bit late to be worrying about that." Harry stretches languidly into the caress and sighs. "Maybe we should go and talk to her."
"In a minute. I want to do some more dirty things to you with the door open," Draco advises, and then there's a warm mouth against his neck, and he thinks the conversation can wait a minute or two. Or twenty.
Or seventy-five, as it turns out, because conversations with Malfoy matriarchs about looking after children should not be conducted without at least showering first. And because Draco is very distracting in the shower, but they get there, and that's the main thing. Harry manages to persuade him to forgo the Floo and brave the ten-minute walk up the drive, and they find Narcissa on a wide marble bench with a book in her lap.
She glances up every now and then to watch Clive and Zeus as they tear back and forth across the lawn, and Harry looks around for Evil Peacock, but he's nowhere in sight. Perhaps he's smart enough not to try anything while Narcissa Malfoy is looking.
If she's surprised to see them on a Sunday morning, she doesn't show it. Polite greetings are exchanged and they join her on the bench. The chill of the marble spreads quickly through Harry's thin jeans but he resists the temptation to sit on his hands or cast a Warming Charm, and he refuses to feel embarrassed as, between them, he and Draco issue their request.
She says nothing for a while, blue eyes contemplative, and Harry turns away to watch Clive. He's wearing another new set of robes, Harry notices, and they're already covered in grass stains as he once more leaps up and attempts to tackle Zeus to the ground. Narcissa doesn't seem to mind, amazingly enough, and grass stains aside it's no wonder Clive is acquiring new clothes all the time; he's growing like a weed.
"I'm rather confused," she says at last, and Harry's eyes snap back to her. "Did you really think I would say no?"
"No need to be defensive, Mother," Draco says, but there's warmth in his tone and his fingers almost touch Harry's where they rest upon the cool marble between them.
"I... we didn't want to presume anything. He's your... it's up to you now, Mrs Malfoy," Harry adds.
"There are things I cannot teach him, Mr Potter."
Harry hesitates, thoughtful. Doubtful. "And I can?"
"I believe you can," she says, smiling softly and turning her face into the sun.
"What about me?" Draco enquires, with just enough insecurity in his tone to make Harry slide his fingertips close enough to touch. He hates that Draco still thinks he has nothing to offer, and he hates that his own mother is apparently only reinforcing that.
"It was a plural 'you', Draco. Now who's being defensive?" Narcissa says, flicking an eyebrow.
"I was merely asking..."
Harry sighs and leans back against the bench, disinclined to interfere with their Malfoy-Squabble. He's starting to think that they actually enjoy it, and that's fine. Let them get on with it.
When, after several minutes, they show no signs of ceasing their verbal sparring, Harry rolls his eyes and gets up from the bench with one last brush of fingers and a soft, "I'll just be over here, then," in case either one is actually paying attention to him.
He sits down on the lawn next to a panting, flat-out Zeus and watches Clive stroking the grass-scattered white fur.
"'Lo, Harry," he says, looking up with a bright smile. "I'm not tired, you know. But Zoos is tired... Mrs Mafloy says he's getting old."
Harry reaches out a hand to pet Zeus, too. "Do you know how old he is?"
Clive wrinkles his nose, pensive. "I can't remember. More old than me. Maybe as old as you."
"Wow." Harry doubts that very much, because of course, he's very old indeed, but then again, he hasn't a clue how long Crups live for.
"I know." Clive's voice is so grave, so Malfoy, and he knows it's daft because obviously they're not related by blood, but Harry all of a sudden wonders about a four-year-old Draco. He was probably a terror, but Harry bets he was a terror who could wrap Narcissa around his little finger.
"We were wondering, Draco and I," he starts, allowing Zeus to lick his fingers lazily, "we were wondering if you'd like to stay at our house sometimes. You'd still live here, with Zeus and Mrs Malfoy," he adds at Clive's anxious expression, "but if you want, you can spend a night every week with us... and you know, we can go out and do things..."
"Can we go to Dragon Alley?" Clive interrupts, eyes suddenly alight with interest.
"Dragon Alley. Mem... mef... Marley said you can go to Dragon Alley and they have ice cream in a hundred flavours," Clive says.
Diagon Alley, Harry thinks. Obviously. Bloody Marley. "Well, I don't know if they have a hundred flavours, but yeah, we can go and see, if you want," he offers.
Clive beams. Zeus struggles to his feet and the little boy hugs him enthusiastically, pressing his face into the white fur, eyes still on Harry.
"Will Drake come too?" he asks with a worried glance over at the bench, where Draco and Narcissa have stopped arguing and are now watching the three of them with matching expressions of carefully-guarded warm interest.
"Of course he will."
"OK, then," Clive says easily, and it's a done deal.
Relief is warm and sudden and it overwhelms Harry, ripping a huge, daft smile from him. He twists around, fingers threaded into sun-warmed grass, and meets grey eyes that, amazingly, reflect every last drop of that feeling back to him. Narcissa merely smiles faintly and returns to her book.
"We're going to Dragon Alley," Harry says, leaning back on his elbows in the grass and tipping his head back to gaze at Draco, who has abandoned his mother and come to stand behind Harry, arms crossed and hair falling into his eyes.
"Drake! Do they really have a hundred kinds of ice cream?" Clive wants to know, releasing Zeus and hooking little fingers into the pocket of Draco's jeans.
Harry watches uncertain grey eyes meet hopeful blue ones, and then scrambles to his feet.
"I don't know," Draco admits. "But there's only one way to find out."
There are not, as it turns out, a hundred flavours of ice cream at Fortescue's, but with a little help from a kind salesgirl, Clive counts thirty-six different varieties, and is just about persuaded out of trying them all.
Turns out 'You'll be sick' is about as much of a deterrent as it has ever been to Harry, but Draco's suggestion to come back every weekend until all the flavours on offer have been sampled, and then start all over again, is accepted with enthusiasm. Impressed, Harry grins at Draco over the top of Clive's head, and the affected nonchalance on the pale face is completely charming.
There's staring, of course there is, and Harry suspects that by doing something as simple as taking Clive out for ice cream, he and Draco have—whether they like it or not—bought themselves several days'-worth of headlines. He understands why Narcissa is reluctant to bring him to a place like this at the moment, but it makes him sad all the same, and honestly, he wishes more than ever that the bloodsucking lot of them would just fuck right off.
He also knows that Clive's going to be photographed, and the thought makes his skin prickle unpleasantly, but if the alternative is to keep him hidden away in the Manor until he's grown up, then it's no alternative at all. Harry's done making deals with these people. They'll just have to do their worst.
"Why is that man taking our picture?" Clive asks, sticky fingers pressed to the shiny tabletop as he leans around his gargantuan dish of ice cream to gaze at the not-very-well-hidden photographer. He doesn't sound distressed, only curious, but Harry still feels like throwing something. He knows a fair few Dark curses, after all.
"Because Harry's a bit famous, and because some people don't know when to mind their own business," Draco says matter-of-factly, digging a long spoon into a glass of raspberry swirl.
"And because that ice cream is ridiculously big," Harry adds, pushing away his frustration with some effort, "and he'll probably need proof to show his friends later."
"Ah," says Clive, and misses his mouth spectacularly, smearing green and pink ice cream across his chin. The camera flashes again, and the look that the little boy shoots the photographer is one of such pure challenge that Harry has to hide a smile.
"I'm willing to bet he wasn't this messy before he met you," Draco says, exasperated, as he withdraws a handkerchief from the pocket of his jeans and passes it to Clive, who examines it with interest and just carries on eating his ice cream.
"Is there anything you're not willing to bet on?"
Draco just smiles and squeezes his wrist under the table. The late-morning sun is bright and lights Draco's pale features and soft white shirt to perfection; he looks radiant and tranquil in a way Harry would never have believed was possible just six months previously. Just leaning back in his chair and gazing off down the alley, licking ice cream from a spoon, sitting with Harry Potter and a small child in broad daylight and looking—despite his serenity—like he'd take his wand to anyone who dared to challenge his right to do so.
He's still Draco, after all. And he's still a Malfoy. But he's different now, just a little bit.
Blinking, Harry turns to Clive. "Yeah?"
"You weren't listening. You were staring," Clive advises. "You do that a lot."
Harry scrapes the last of his blueberry sundae from the bottom of his glass. "Sorry."
Children are so fucking observant. He's really going to have to remember that.
Approximately five minutes after the three of them return to Grimmauld Place, Harry is reminded that not only is Clive very observant, but that he is careless and disorganized, and from a combination of the two arise sticky situations.
Clive asks for some paper to draw a picture of Dragon Alley and his ice cream and the naughty man with the camera. Harry, caught up in Draco's rant about his latest letter from the Ministry, once again refusing his application for funding, distractedly advises Clive to look in the living room cabinets.
The 'oh, fuck' moment comes a minute or two later, when Clive returns to the kitchen clutching not only the paper, but several shiny brochures that Harry had all but forgotten about.
"Mummy had some of these," he's saying, holding them out for Harry's perusal and pointing with still-sticky fingers at one of the shimmering words. "That says 'home', doesn't it? What are they for?"
Harry inhales sharply, heart clenching at both the innocent question, the pride in Clive's voice at recognising the word, and his own stupidity. He sits down at the table and scrapes up a chair for Clive, taking the brochures and helping him scramble up into it, grateful for the warmth of the hand on his shoulder, however fleeting the contact.
"It does say 'home', yeah... well done." Clive beams. "These are... they're places where some children go to live when they haven't got anyone to take care of them," he offers, voice rougher than he wants it to be as he remembers how close he came to sending Clive away.
"Children who have no mummy?" Clive says, eyes huge and sad. Harry hurts.
"Well, yeah, but not like you. You have me and Drake and Mrs Malfoy," Harry says, and it's a testament to the seriousness of the conversation that Draco doesn't chastise him for the mangling of his name. "Some people haven't got any family at all, so they go and live in a big house like this with lots of other children."
Harry opens the top booklet and shows Clive the photograph of the huge whitewashed building he and Narcissa had visited all those weeks ago.
"Oh," Clive whispers, staring hard at the picture with his lip caught in his teeth. "But what do they do when they're sad?"
Harry doesn't have an answer for that, and his heart breaks a little bit for the want of one. He can't picture Julie Loud Voice being much of a comfort to a sad child, but maybe he's doing her a disservice. And then he remembers Dave the Manc and his paint-peeling office, his world-weary empathy and wisdom and ill-equipped building that smelled like moss and real fires.
"They tell someone, the same as you do," Harry says at last. "Do you want to help me write a letter?"
Clive's crumpled face brightens at the suggestion, and he nods. Draco says nothing, but he and Clive seem to exchange a significant look over the top of Harry's head, and there's a soft brush of fingertips over the back of Harry's neck before Draco leaves them alone and begins what sounds like a mumbled negotiation with the top cupboard.
Harry Summons pen and parchment and pulls his chair closer to Clive's.
Dear Mr Holbrook (Dave), he writes, reading aloud as he goes to Clive, at his request. He knows all too well that throwing money at a problem isn't the best solution, but in this case, he thinks it might actually help. And it's both the least and the most that he can do to help right now.
It's not a long letter, but he doesn't think it needs to be. He thanks Dave for all his help, and asks that he please accept the first of what Harry intends to be regular donations to ensure the upkeep of the North London home. He also advises that if he sees anything named after him, then he's going to ask for his money back; the last thing he wants is a 'Harry Potter games room' or a 'Boy-Who-Lived adventure playground', even if he's fairly certain Dave isn't that sort of person.
"Is there anything else we should put?" Harry asks, looking to Clive, who is drawing a picture with lots of and lots of children with a white not-dog and a sky full of stars.
He draws in his pointed tongue, which had been sticking of the corner of his mouth in concentration, and looks up at Harry. "You have to put your name at the end of a letter."
Across the kitchen, Draco snorts with amusement and Harry directs a look at the back of his head.
"Alright, smarty-pants," Harry says, and helps Clive to add his name, too.
Harry Potter and CLiVe VANe.
Looking satisfied, Clive offers his picture, and Harry carefully folds it into the envelope with the letter.
Tomorrow, he'll owl it and set up some kind of regular payment. It's nothing much, he thinks, but Clive is now happily scribbling away with no trace of distress on his face, and that'll do.
"You're both insane," Draco observes, but he comes to sit at the table with them anyway, carefully levitating three mugs of hot chocolate that he has made by himself, without being asked. "And we're going to be late for Weasel Lunch."
"I think they'll manage without us, just this once," Harry says, kicking him gently under the table and picking up his steaming mug.
"Thank you, Drake," Clive says, looking up and going wide-eyed at the profusion of marshmallows floating in his cup. Harry has no idea where they came from, or why he hasn't got any in his cup.
Harry sips his drink, and it's only a little bitter. "Where are mine?"
"I saved some for you," Draco says, and his smirk sends a soft flood of heat through Harry.
"What for?" Clive inquires innocently.
"Erm," says Draco, and Harry laughs silently into his cup, planning to be no help whatsoever.
Over the next couple of weeks and via a process of trial and error, Harry and Draco settle on Saturday nights with Clive; this gives them a full evening and a weekend morning during which they can continue Clive's mission to sample every ice cream flavour Fortescue's has to offer, doesn't interfere with sacred Saturday mornings and doesn't incur the fearsome nagging that results when Sunday lunches at the Burrow are missed.
For once, Harry's life feels full in a good way. In a wonderful way. He's learning to ignore the daft articles and the still frequent interview-requests, and even the whole Tremellen fiasco has been subdued to the point where it's no more than a fussy, spiky niggle in the pit of his stomach, and that's only when he thinks about it. He's going to have to put up with it, he reasons, if he wants to spend a second year in Gen One, and perhaps at last, at long last, he's thinking of his career instead of revenge, or the ill-advised right thing.
It's a warm evening and a good two-thirds of the Foundations residents have abandoned the lounge to sit out on the grass. The glass doors of the dining room are flung open, and everyone is lounging in little groups across the lawn, talking and reading and laughing, the scent of almost-summer and cigarette smoke heavy in the air.
Almost everyone, anyway. Draco is conspicuous by his absence, and Harry knows that even though it's almost eight thirty, he'll be in his office. He'll be pacing and scribbling in his leather book and taking breaks to be rude to Hermione through the Floo, and Harry knows better than to disturb him. In just over two weeks, the Wizengamot will vote on Amendment 2741a and Draco's tension is getting the better of him, not that he'd admit it.
Harry, of course, has seen this cycle before, preceding their presentation to Hermione's committee, but this time Draco's nervous energy is reaching new levels, however much he tries to hide it, and Harry wonders how much of that is to do with the vote and how much is to do with revisiting the Wizengamot itself. The fact that Draco is doing this at all just serves as a forceful reminder of his strength of character, resilience and absolute bloody stubbornness.
Harry sighs, blinking against a wayward cloud of smoke from the group next to him, and resolves to go inside and retrieve Draco himself if he's not out by nine. He's quite prepared to be snapped at and worse, but these things have to be done. And if he doesn't rescue Draco from Draco, who will rescue him from himself?
"You played Seeker, didn't you?" Gerard is saying beside him, resting elbows on folded knees.
"I did," Harry says without looking at him. His eyes are caught on something black threaded into the grass, and when he picks it up, he sees that it's a soft, thin strip of leather, perhaps seven or eight inches long.
"Who was better, you or Draco?"
Harry snorts, wrapping the pliant little strip around his fingers. "Are you trying to start a war, Gerard? Considering that if you ask Draco, he'll say him, I'll say me," he says.
"Actually, Draco said you," Gerard says.
Harry's head jerks up. "Really?"
"He did," Gretchen offers from Harry's other side. "But honestly, you're all so obsessed with—oh, for... I keep finding those everywhere!" she says as her eyes drop to the little piece of black leather wrapped around Harry's hand.
Harry lets it unfurl and dangle back and forth in the light breeze. "What is it?"
"I haven't a clue how it got out here, but they're tied around the rolls of parchment when they arrive. New supplier, apparently," she adds with an eye-roll, and Harry vaguely remembers that she's the current resident Housekeeper or Head Cleaner or something like that. "I'm sick of picking them up all the time, but Draco reckons they're elegant. Want me to...?" She holds out a hand.
"No... I think I'll just hold onto this one," Harry says, wondering why people are always trying to relieve him of the odd little things he likes to play with.
"You're strange," Gretchen says without pretence, and Harry grins.
"I think that is the pot calling the kettle, Gretchen," murmurs Lupe from some feet away, leaning back on her elbows in the grass and blowing smoke into the air.
"Calling the kettle what?"
"Strange," Lupe says, and smirks at Harry.
He grins back and then looks down at his hands, listening to the buzz of conversation and joyful barking around him as he idly twists and weaves the supple leather around his own white string.
'Because you're mine,' he remembers, and, 'it won't break... not unless you want it to,' and the idea jolts his heart into a faster rhythm. The words, as usual, are out of his mouth before he can think too hard about them:
"Does anyone know a charm that makes something unbreakable unless you want to break it? I mean, I know an unbreakable charm, but..." He looks up and around at the thoughtful faces of Gretchen, Gerard and Lupe, as well as several others in earshot, but after a moment or two's consideration, they all shake their heads, apologetic in defeat.
"Sorry, no idea."
Harry shrugs and puts the little bit of leather in his pocket. Never mind, he thinks, I'll ask Hermione. Or look in a book, if I ever get near one for long enough.
When he gets up to drag Draco out of his office some time later, he's almost forgotten about it.
"Effrego Consentio," Narcissa says, from somewhere behind him.
Startled, he turns. He'd known she was there, managing to be sitting on a chair when everyone else is sitting on the ground, but the words are a surprise.
"Effrego Consentio? That's the spell I wanted?"
She nods, one hand gently stroking Clive's caramel hair as he curls, almost asleep, in her lap. "Yes. But you have to mean it."
Mouth dry, Harry searches the pale blue eyes for long seconds, and Narcissa stares right back. His heart is once again pounding and he thinks she knows it. No subtext my arse, he thinks.
"I do," he says. Pauses. "Mean it. Thanks."
With a little bit of bargaining, a few empty threats and a good deal of those persuasive skills that he apparently possesses, Harry manages to extract Draco from his office, wave goodbye to Ginny, who's on the late and conducting an assessment with two of her residents in the lounge, and leave for home.
They Floo, because Draco knows how to bargain, and curl together on the sofa with the instant noodles that Draco pretends he doesn't like. Harry, watching him devour them, begs to differ, but he's not about to start prodding, not when there's that little line between Draco's eyebrows, and not when there are faint but visible shadows under his eyes, and not when it's only ten thirty and he's already trying to conceal his yawns.
When Harry gets up to move the dishes and make tea, Draco sighs and stretches out along the sofa. Leaving him to it, Harry sits at the kitchen table for some time. He stares at the little bit of leather and taps his wand on the edge of the table. You have to mean it, he thinks. Sighs. Of course he fucking does.
"Effrego Consentio," he whispers, concentrating hard and drawing his wand along the little strip. For a moment, nothing happens, and then a soft green glow envelops the scrap of leather, hovers, and dissipates. Harry takes that as a good sign. It feels like it's worked.
Flap-bang, says the cupboard, and he looks up.
"I know," he says with a smile. "Are you impressed?"
The cupboard door swings all the way open and then closes itself with a neat click.
"Thank you. That's very kind."
Amused that—not for the first time—he's seeking approval from a kitchen fitting to do something weird involving Draco Malfoy, Harry scrapes his chair back and wanders back into the living room.
"Draco?" he says softly. "I..." he trails off, looking down at a silent, sleeping Draco.
For all his work-related stress, he looks utterly peaceful in sleep. He's laid out on his back in an elegant sprawl, right arm wrapped over his waist and left dangling with his fingers brushing the floor. His breathing is soft and slow, lifting wayward strands of pale hair that spill across closed eyelids.
Harry holds his breath for no good reason, hesitating for only seconds before dropping quietly to the floor and sweeping his eyes over that dangling hand, and of course it's the left. He smiles, admiring but not touching the black lines that mean all kinds of things these days.
He chews his thumbnail, relishing the familiar comforting drag of ragged salty skin against his tongue. There's a strange little thrill of anxiety in his gut about the strange little thing he's planning to do, and he can't rationalise it, despite his better attempts.
Letting the breath out slowly, he leans forward and ever-so-carefully slips the little black strip around Draco's wrist and ties a strong knot, leaving it tight enough not to slip off, but loose enough to be comfortable. He's just withdrawing his fingers and admiring the contrast of the thin black band against the white skin when the grey eyes slowly blink open.
Harry freezes and draws his hands back onto his thighs hurriedly, heart slamming into his ribs.
"Hm?" Draco murmurs, half-asleep, then frowns, apparently sensing the leather against his skin. He lifts his arm and gazes at the thin band of leather encircling his wrist, eyes unreadable and lips parted.
Harry waits, feeling squirmy in a way he can't explain. He fiddles with the knot of string #2 and wishes he was better at being sneaky.
Draco rubs his right thumb over the soft leather and still he says nothing, but there's a small smile tugging at his lips and Harry's so relieved he could almost cry. But he won't, of course.
Instead, he rises to his knees and crawls right up to the edge of the sofa. Draco, sensing the movement, turns onto his side to face Harry and reaches for him without a word. Harry leans close, sofa cushions pressed up against his chest, and meets eyes that are surprised and warm and a bit shiny.
He smiles, still barely daring to breathe, wanting to kiss him so much but waiting. Waiting for something, he's not sure what. He catches the newly-claimed wrist and presses a soft kiss there instead. Waiting. String and leather and Effrego Consentio, he thinks, because I'm yours and you're mine, and that's all there is to it.
"Yes," Draco says, and Harry laughs, because that's what he was waiting for.
"Yes. And you know, it won't break... unless you want it to," Harry says, pulling gently at the knot with his teeth, tasting the leather as it flicks against his tongue.
Draco smiles, breath catching, and his fingertips graze Harry's cheek. "You can be very underhand when you want to be, can't you?"
"I'm going to take that as a compliment."
"Yes," Draco whispers, eyes turning intense and Harry can't wait. He sinks his fingers into the soft, blond hair and leans down, reaching for the kiss that Draco reaches up for, gripping his shoulder and a handful of his shirt.
The kiss is slow and desperate; Harry pours himself into the hot caress of mouths that fit together as though by design, needing and attempting to tell Draco that he knows about all of those little things that they don't acknowledge out loud, the thoughtful and the silly and the covertly kind. That he loves him, just in case he's forgotten in the last minute or so.
"Draco," he murmurs, lips pressed to the corner of his mouth, breathless and dizzy.
"I know," is whispered against his hair, and it's enough.
When Harry stumbles, sleepy-eyed, into the bathroom the next morning, the note on the mirror reads:
#32 – I can only imagine that this was part of your plan, but I'm going to enjoy spending the day explaining my new accessory to my lovely staff team. Because they will ask. And I will get embarrassed. And they will mock me.
If that's not a reason to be cheerful, then I don't know what is. Heartless sod.
Harry grins at the mirror, mouth full of toothbrush. He hadn't even thought of that.
The day of the Wizengamot vote seems to arrive before anyone has time to catch their breath, and it's a tense and fidgeting-pacing-muttering Draco that Harry leaves behind as he Apparates to work. With a bit of bargaining and shift-switching, he's managed to ensure that—all things going to plan—he'll be finishing here in time to make it to the Ministry for Draco and Hermione's four fifteen slot.
Despite Draco's protests, there's no way that he's not going to be there. Much to Hermione's outward exasperation and secret delight, Ron is also planning to slip away from Auror HQ and watch from the gallery with Harry.
The morning has been surprisingly busy considering that Gen Two has been re-opened and for the most part, the patient-load for Harry and his fellow trainees has slackened. Tremellen, for reasons unknown, is in a foul mood, and Harry's attempts to stay out of his way and treat as many patients as possible mean that by two o'clock, he's been working for seven hours without a break. Flapjack or no flapjack, he's eating, and he ignores Cecile's remonstrations as he buys a plate of greasy chips and carries them over to their usual table.
Tremellen cuts across his path just before he gets there, coffee cup in hand, and does not stop to apologise for nearly knocking Harry flying.
"Bastard," Harry snaps, sitting down and glaring at Cecile and Eloise. "I really don't know if I can stand another year of him."
"I know," Eloise, sighs, touching his arm. "Especially knowing what he did."
Harry shakes far too much salt over his chips and eats them with his fingers. "Mm," he mumbles between mouthfuls, "even without that, though. S'just a prat."
"I can't believe you're even considering staying in Gen, Harry." Cecile frowns and fixes him with puzzled green eyes. She presses on, even though Harry thinks they've had this conversation about fifty times now. "Don't you want to specialise?"
"At some point, yeah. But I don't know what in, and it's getting a bit late to apply, and..."
"—but you can't want to stay down here," Cecile interrupts; she, surprisingly, has applied for Spell Damage, and there's no way she won't get it.
"Oh, thanks, Cecile," Eloise says drily, and of course... she won't be going anywhere at the end of the year, will she? And more to the point, she's been working with Tremellen for years now.
"Don't be daft, El. I didn't mean because of you. We'll still visit, won't we?"
"Don't 'won't we' me, I've already told you I'm staying put," Harry protests, and Cecile flicks cappuccino foam at him.
"Fine. Terry and I will still visit. And have lunches and things."
"You better had," Eloise says, folding her arms crossly on the tabletop. "I haven't spent nearly a year looking after you all to have you just abandon me the moment your first year's up."
"I'm not abandoning you," Harry says, nudging her arm and she smiles.
"We may have a problem," Terry announces, returning from the counter with his hands behind his back and wearing a grave expression... an even graver expression than usual.
Cecile twists around. "What?"
"I don't know how to tell you this," he says, "but there are no flapjacks."
Silence. All three of them gaze at Terry in disbelief. Such a thing has never happened before; this is most irregular. No flapjacks?
"So, um... what did you get?" Eloise asks at last, clutching her teacup anxiously.
Terry sighs and brings out a plate from behind his back, a small plate containing a sticky chocolate brownie, which he sets down in the centre of the table before pulling out the chair next to Cecile and sitting down.
"Ooh, this is weird," Cecile says, reaching out to poke at it with her finger.
"Be good, Cecile." Eloise bats her hand away.
"Where's the fun in that?"
"At least it's got chocolate on it. In it," Harry says, attempting optimism in the face of this weird, surreal, No Flapjacks state of affairs.
"I asked her what was going on," Terry offers, jerking his thumb over at the witch behind the counter, "and she said they just didn't make any today. She said there'd be some tomorrow, and I said that was no good." He pauses, dark eyes rueful. "I think we're lucky she didn't spit on it."
"Ew, Terry," Eloise complains, but he just shrugs.
"Who's going first then? I don't know about any of you, but I still wouldn't mind eating it."
"This is so incredibly wrong," Cecile sighs, and Harry's quietly amused. Not just because at least he's not the only one to cling to tradition, but because something so daft and inconsequential matters to her when she harbours such contempt for the traditions of her own family and of generations of pureblood wizards.
Still, she's taught him everything he knows. She has rolled her eyes and taken the piss and explained exactly why all of those traditions and ritualistic words are outdated and pointless, but she's done it anyway, because he wanted to learn how to impress Narcissa Malfoy.
Vegrandis tamen utpote, quod in usitas locum, he thinks, licking salt from his fingers. He's amazed he can still remember that. She must have done a good job at hammering it into his brain. Veneratio et gratia.
"... it was in my locker the whole time," Eloise is saying, and Harry's stomach performs a small nervous flip.
There's something in his locker, too. A small box. He doesn't keep much in his locker, preferring to use a bag or his pockets, but when he wants to hide something from Draco, it's the only place, because it's the only place Draco won't look. The little black box has been there for some time now, just waiting for Harry to be brave enough to make a statement. He's not afraid of making statements, not usually, but this one is a pretty big deal, he thinks. It's a statement of intention, he supposes. Or perhaps it's an offer.
Either way, it's one he wants to make, even if the thought of being rejected makes him feel a bit sick.
The sick feeling is suddenly replaced by a sharp pain as someone, he thinks Cecile, kicks him in the shin.
"Harry, it's your turn. What the hell are you thinking about?" she demands.
"Rings," he says absently, blinking and turning his attention to the chocolate brownie. "Alright, well..."
"Rings?" she repeats loudly, and then Terry is mumbling 'fuck' and Eloise is spluttering on her tea.
Bemused, Harry looks around at his friends for a second or two before he understands, and a bubble of laughter rises up in his chest. "Oh, for fuck's sake. Not that sort of ring. Napkin rings."
"Napkin rings?" Cecile repeats, and if it's possible, her eyes are even wider than they were when she apparently thought he was planning to propose to Draco.
"Napkin rings," Harry confirms, returning her significant glance.
"Napkin rings," she repeats faintly, dropping her chin into her hand. "Seriously?"
"Seriously, napkin rings. I think it's about time."
"OK, can everyone please stop saying napkin rings?" Eloise cuts in.
"And translate, perhaps," Terry adds.
"Harry is going to buy... wait, you already have them, don't you?" Cecile shakes her head and lifts an amused eyebrow. "You bought them when I told you not to, didn't you?"
"Might've. They were nice."
"What were?" Terry demands, leaning across the table on folded arms.
"The fancy obsidian napkin rings that Harry's going to give to Narcissa Malfoy in order to a) celebrate his new-found love for archaic pureblood crap, and b) essentially make a very bold statement about family," Cecile summarises, flicking smug Slytherin eyes to Harry.
"So, um... you're not asking Draco to marry you?" Eloise says, and her voice is loud enough to attract the attention of everyone at the next table over.
Harry groans and rubs his face. "No, I'm not," he says, equally loudly, and then: "Cheers for that, El. Watch out for the headline tomorrow."
"Sorry." She flushes and wrinkles her nose apologetically.
"You know what?" Terry levels a calculated glance at Harry, and then at the plate. "That is very mature, and positive, and dignified, and if I'm honest, I just don't think you're pathetic enough to have this," he says with a regretful sigh that doesn't fool Harry.
Harry snorts and resumes eating his cold chips. "Very convincing. That's fine, I'll have you next week."
"We'll see," Cecile says, thoroughly breaching protocol and stealing an entire corner from the brownie that Terry has won for reasons that Harry has missed.
"Off. Get. Cecile," Terry mutters through a mouthful of chocolate squishiness.
Beside Harry, Eloise sighs dramatically.
By three o'clock, Harry has already heard three different versions of the rumour about how he's going to propose to Draco, and he's grudgingly impressed by the sheer speed of the hospital gossip mill. Having tried denying it, and tried saying nothing, he can only surmise that it really doesn't matter what he says or does about anything vaguely gossip worthy, so he just lets it go over his head.
By ten to four, he has completed his last rounds and has commandeered the swivelly chair behind the nurses' station to reorganise his notes and review all the treatments he's currently using before he leaves for the Ministry. One hand flips through parchments, the other is trailing in the silver-blue light of his Retrievo-Box while he thinks, and he has a pen that doesn't belong to him in his mouth. He knows it doesn't belong to him because it tastes like stale cigarettes and that's all wrong.
When he spits it out onto the desk, Eloise tuts and makes a face.
"I wish she'd just ask him out," she says suddenly.
Surprised, Harry follows her gaze to where Cecile and Terry are arguing some way down the corridor.
He lifts an eyebrow and looks back down at his notes, amused. "Can't rush these things, El."
"Hmph. Just because it took you and Draco twelve years after meeting to get your act together, doesn't mean that's how everyone should do it, you know," she says, continuing before Harry has chance to get a word in. "Marcus asked me out five days after we met here, and we've been together for three years. Of course," she adds conspiratorially, "it did take a while before we had... oh, my god—are you recording me in that little box?"
Harry looks up at her sudden flush and horrified eyes as she notices his fingers curled into the light.
"No, I'm recording me thinking about whether I should put Mrs Grogan on a low dose of Slowing Solution," he says.
"But if I'm talking, won't it...?"
"Not unless I ask it to. It's attuned to me; it only does what I want it to." Harry withdraws his fingers and shuffles the notes in front of him. "And anyway, you didn't say anything, you nearly did."
"Shut up. Oh—" Eloise suddenly drops her voice to a whisper, "—Tremellen at, um... two o'clock."
"What...? Oh." Harry looks up just in time to see Tremellen striding across the now-deserted corridor, irritation written all over his face. He knows he's not doing anything wrong, and he also knows that it probably won't matter either way.
"Nurse Midgen, I do believe there are some beds in want of changing, if you've quite finished distracting Healer Potter."
Tremellen doesn't see the clench of Eloise's slender fingers that's hidden by the high ledge of the nurses' station, but Harry sees it, and it's only the thought of potentially missing Draco's Wizengamot thing that stops him from leaping to her defence.
"Just going, Healer Tremellen," she says, and departs with a sympathetic glance in Harry's direction.
Harry throws every last bit of fortitude he possesses behind keeping his expression and tone even as he addresses his boss, because he has about ten minutes to get to the Ministry, and that is far more important than anything this man might have to say.
"Healer Potter," he says, resting a huge hand on the shiny ledge at about Harry's eye level. Harry thinks perhaps he should stand up, but something keeps him where he is, some instinct that he's loath to ignore. "I hear that you plan to remain in this department for another year."
"Yes, Sir." Harry sighs inwardly; the last thing he needs is to have this conversation now, but there are still a couple of minutes until his shift officially ends, so he can't very well refuse to have it. Even if he wouldn't put it past Tremellen to try to make him late on purpose.
"I'm surprised that you aren't up to taking on a specialty."
The words are deliberate, Harry knows that, but hot irritation still licks at his insides as he folds his arms on the desk and meets Tremellen's cruel dark eyes. He's spent so much time trying to figure out why he's such a bastard, and perhaps... perhaps he just is one.
Harry knows that it's always been more about Draco than about him, but then again, Harry supposes that making him miserable is just another way to make Draco miserable. Still. Harry doesn't think he's ever hated anyone enough to compromise his career, his professional ethics, his patients.
"I'd just like time to consider my options, that's all. Healer Tremellen." I know what you did.
"I think you've lost your nerve," Tremellen says, and the words strike a sore spot, because those were the exact ones Aquiline had used.
Do not lose your nerve. And he hasn't. He really hasn't.
"I'm... I respectfully disagree, Healer Tremellen." Harry breathes through his nose and, without breaking eye contact, slides a hand over the desk for something to fidget with. Horrible pen, no, carved wood, and... yes.
Tremellen's moustache twitches. "You do realise I am the one to approve all Gen residencies? I can't afford to have Healers on my team who go all soft just because they lose a patient with whom they've become a little bit too close." The fingers on the ledge tap in slow contemplation and Harry silently fumes. He's fucking taunting him, knowing he can't do anything, the utter bastard. "I know all about that case; I made a point of reading her file. Interesting call you made. It seems that you and Malfoy have that in common, taking risks with the lives of—"
"No, this is not about Draco. It's not," Harry hisses, halfway out of his chair and leaning on the desk. "I know you're trying to make me angry for whatever reason, but you know what? Whatever happened to your son wasn't Draco's fault, and it certainly isn't mine."
The dark eyes narrow and a little thrill of apprehension ripples down Harry's spine, and he thinks he's going to regret mentioning Grant Tremellen, but he's almost beyond caring.
"Healer Potter, you forget yourself," he snaps. "You will not mention my son to me again."
"Fine, if you don't mention Draco," Harry counters, and fuck, he wishes he could just shut up.
Tremellen bristles, and even as Harry stands upright, the ledge of the station still reaches his chest and Tremellen seems to tower over him.
"You are out of order, Healer Potter. And this is not about Malfoy, it's about your patient and whether I think you are suitable for residency in this department."
Harry bites the inside of his mouth hard. In that moment, he couldn't care less, even if the rational part of his brain that he's trying to squash down is screaming that he really, really needs to start caring and stop arguing back, right now. He's going to be horribly late, apart from anything else.
But then there's a horrible little smirk pulling at Tremellen's upper lip, and Harry isn't having it. He's just not. He glares, feeling the tide of pent-up rage wash around inside him, and as his fingers slide on the carved box, he almost wants to laugh. Without really thinking about it, he dips his fingertips back into the pulsing light.
"About my patient?" he demands, voice soft but deliberately clear. "Romilda Vane, you mean? Oh, I know you know about her. I also know that you spoke to Rita Skeeter at the Prophet about her. Passed on confidential information, didn't you, Healer Tremellen?"
The dark eyes flash, and if he's surprised, he doesn't show it; he merely steps closer to the nurses' station and drops his voice into a soft, dangerous hiss. He almost sounds amused.
"You are more naive than I thought, Healer Potter, if you honestly think you can prove that to anyone who matters. And not only that, but it seems you really are as self-obsessed as they say—you really thought this was about you, didn't you? Don't flatter yourself, Healer Potter..."
He leans close enough for Harry to learn that his breath smells like cigarettes and pear drops, "...I have been her contact since before you'd even heard of this world, and that is not going to change just because you, as usual, can't keep your nose out of things that do not concern you."
Harry stays exactly where he is, and by the time Tremellen shuts up, they are almost nose to nose with only the solid barrier of the nurses' station separating them. Concentrating hard on transmitting every little detail into that clever silver-blue light, Harry ignores the sickening pounding of his heart and almost smiles. He's done it—practically by accident, but still.
With a delicious spike of triumph, he withdraws his fingertips from the little box and lifts it up onto the shiny ledge. "Do you know what this is?" he asks, no longer minding his tone; he's flying on adrenaline and he doesn't care how he sounds. "Because if you do, I suppose you'll know that if anyone's naive, it's you." He snaps the lid closed and slips the Retrievo-Box into his robe pocket.
From Tremellen's sudden stillness and slightly grey face, Harry surmises that he knows exactly what has just happened, and he does smile this time.
"My shift finished almost ten minutes ago, Healer Tremellen, so if you'll excuse me?"
Harry steps out from behind the nurses' station and casts one look back at the stunned department head. Well, he thinks, if the supercilious prick had actually ever observed him instead of just snarking at him, he'd probably have been able to avoid that particular trap. It helps that he thinks Harry is less than bright, too.
At the movement, Tremellen seems to shake himself and turns to glare at Harry. "Accio Box," he shouts, pulling out his wand.
He doesn't count on Harry's reflexes, and even as he feels the start of the pull against his robe fabric, Harry is throwing out a wandless counter-spell. He shakes his head and pats his pocket. "Er, no. I think I'll hang onto this, see what the board makes of it tomorrow."
Tremellen has glared at Harry many times before, but this is the first time he's looked as though he'd actually like to kill him. "I'd hurry up and apply for another residency, Healer Potter, because you won't be getting one in my department," he spits.
"Good!" Harry snaps and stalks away down the corridor, robes flapping around his legs and blood hammering in his veins. He nods to a startled Cecile, who flattens herself against the wall as he storms past; he doubts she's heard much because they weren't exactly shouting. Not that it matters.
It isn't until he's crossing the foyer that the cold horror starts to pool in his gut and all he can hear inside his head is: 'Oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck.' He's really done it this time. Even if Tremellen does get suspended, he'll be back soon enough, and even if the board forces him to reconsider Harry's residency, there's no way on this earth Harry can spend another year working for him after that.
"Fuck," he mutters aloud, casting Tempus as he walks. It's eleven minutes past four.
As he pushes through the streams of staff and patients in the overheated foyer, he's almost knocked down by an equally-harassed someone with dark hair and green and white robes.
"Sorry about that," he mumbles, licking his bottom lip after biting it hard in the collision. "Healer Aquiline," he adds, as she untangles herself and looks up.
She allows him a brief flash of pointed teeth and straightens her robes. "What's your hurry?"
Agitated, Harry shifts from one foot to the other and glances at the exit. Oh, god, Draco's going to kill him, but he can't afford to be rude to another department head today, and he doesn't want to be rude to Aquiline, anyway.
"Have to be at the Wizengamot in... oh, about three minutes," he says, and there's an unspoken '...and?' in her expression that he can't ignore. "And I think I may have just spectacularly ruined my career, but I don't really have time to worry about it."
Aquiline's dark eyebrows shoot up. "Does this have to do with what we discussed in my office?"
"Did you find...?"
Harry nods, still jittery with adrenaline and his fingers slip on the carved box as he withdraws it from his pocket and holds it up. "It's all in here."
Aquiline's slow smile almost calms his jangled nerves. "Well, that'll do it," she murmurs, eyeing the little box with clear delight.
"Yeah," Harry says grimly. "I really have to go, I'm sorry."
Nodding to Aquiline, he shoves the box back into his pocket and dashes for the door.
When she calls out, "Healer Potter!" Harry turns, hoping his irritation doesn't show on his face, fingers wrapped around the cold door handle.
"There is a place for you on the second floor next year, if you want it."
Blindsided, Harry hesitates. "Healer Aquiline, I—"
"Just think about it." She directs a pointed glance at the door. "Why are you standing here talking to me? You're going to be late."
She smiles and Harry opens his mouth. Closes it again. Nods. Rushes through the door and Disapparates.
"Fuck, did I miss it?" he demands, only just remembering in time to whisper as he crashes onto the viewing gallery and drops into the seat beside Ron.
"No, they're just about to start, but you've cut it pretty fine, mate."
"I know. Long story," Harry whispers and drags his sweaty green robes over his head and drops them on the floor. He traces nervous fingers over the hard shape of the wooden box now in his trouser pocket—still there—and with a massive effort shoves Tremellen and Aquiline and all of them into the back of his head.
In the pin-drop hush that cloaks the courtroom, Harry's harsh breathing seems deafeningly loud, but he's just scrambled up a ridiculous number of stairs and there's not a lot he can do about it. There's no one else in the gallery, but then he supposes that drug legislation isn't interesting to a lot of people, and the press are not permitted entry, for which he is grateful.
He hasn't been here for a very long time, and like Draco, doesn't have the happiest memories of the place, but hopefully that's all about to change. He leans forward and wraps his hands around the mahogany edge of the balcony, looking out over the court and inhaling air that's stale and serious.
"So what were you—" Ron starts, but Harry elbows him and he falls silent, because a solemn-looking wizard in black robes is standing and reading from a scroll:
"Amendment 2741a, Controlled Substances and Intoxicants Act, presented for consideration by Granger, H.J., Chair: Committee for the Protection of Vulnerable Wizards, Order of Merlin First Class, and Malfoy, D.A., Independent Consultant, Registered Manager: 'Foundations' Therapeutic Community."
The man turns to the row of distinguished witches and wizards wearing plum-coloured robes. He affects a small and complicated bow, and Draco and Hermione step out of nowhere and into the centre of the floor.
They are both dressed beautifully in dark colours, Hermione in elegant robes and Draco in a black suit with a long jacket that Harry hasn't seen before, and they look so dignified and accomplished standing there beside each other in front of the wise council that Harry is filled and warmed and lifted with pride for them both.
Draco speaks first, and although there's no obvious hint of nervousness, Harry can see the tension in his hands and hear the sharpening of that cut-glass quality to his voice that gives him away every time.
"Draco sounds even posher than usual," Ron mutters at his side, and Harry smiles at the floor.
Something in his best friend's posture tells him that, should Harry call him out on his use of Draco's given name, he's unlikely to hear it again. "Shh," he hisses softly instead.
Hermione takes over smoothly, glancing first at Draco and then around at the Wizengamot members with a calm smile. Harry is reminded—as if he needed reminding—of what a smart, graceful woman she's become, and Ron, who is grinning and flushed with pride beside him, obviously knows it, too.
They do not speak for long, as most of the arguments have already been heard at committee and via an intricate system of documentation, and the vote is the important thing here. Harry understands; the tradition, the ceremony, the importance of such a decision, as even something as small as Hermione and Draco's amendment is still altering the fabric of the law, and whichever way he looks at it, that's a pretty big deal.
"Miss Granger, Mr Malfoy, please surrender the floor," says the man in black. Draco and Hermione bow and retreat to their seats. They don't speak, but Harry watches them exchange anxious glances. He knows they're not about to start gazing up into the gallery and waving, but he wonders if they know he and Ron made it. He hopes so.
"What happens now?" Ron whispers.
"Didn't Hermione explain this to you already?"
Ron fidgets and leans closer to Harry. "Yeah, she... I think she did, last night. But, well... Indiana Jones was on."
Harry bites down on his snort of laughter in the hushed chamber. If he's honest, he only knows this stuff because Draco has talked about it so many times. Procedures in the legislative chamber are vastly different from those in the criminal chamber, and it was actually kind of interesting to learn about it, not that he told Draco that.
"When they've finished conferring, watch the little glass balls," Harry says, pointing to the bench, where there is indeed a small sphere of glass in front of each council member. "Green for yes, and red for no."
Ron nods. "Right. And how many green ones do they need to get?"
Harry glances at Ron anxiously. "It's a change to the law. They all need to be green."
"No pressure, then," Ron mutters, folding his arms on top of the balcony edge.
Anticipation is heavy in the room, and the muffled debate amongst the mostly white-haired witches and wizards seems to take forever. Harry chews on what's left of his nail and Ron rests his chin atop his arms on the ledge, letting heavy, impatient exhalations lift his heavy fringe.
"Rise," speaks the man in black, and Draco and Hermione get to their feet and approach the centre of the room.
Harry and Ron exchange glances; unsure whether they should rise, too, they scramble to their feet anyway. Just in case.
And then, barely breathing, Harry watches as one by one the tiny globes glow green. By the turn of the last wizard, Harry is completely caught up in it and doesn't know whether to grin or yell at him to hurry the fuck up.
Draco and Hermione remain motionless in the centre of the stone floor, and Harry glances at them for a split-second. Hermione's fingers graze Draco's dark sleeve and Harry has the sneaking feeling she'd grab his hand if they weren't in a courtroom.
The last wizard coughs. Leans forward. And it's green. It's green and they've done it.
"Yes!" Ron is whispering beside him, and Harry suddenly finds himself on the receiving end of an enthusiastic backslap that almost knocks the breath out of him. He grins and watches Hermione's delighted smile and Draco's slightly shell-shocked expression and then the man in black is saying something else, but it doesn't really matter.
When the session is declared closed, Harry and Ron grab their things and hurry down the many flights of stairs to greet the victorious team. Team Granger-Malfoy, Harry thinks. An unstoppable force.
The courtroom filters out into a small, light-flooded atrium, and as Harry and Ron step through one set of doors, Draco and Hermione step through another. She actually does have her hand wrapped around his wrist now as she talks rapidly and drags him along, but Harry finds he doesn't mind at all. Spotting them, she releases Draco and doesn't protest too much when Ron sweeps her into a rough congratulatory embrace and lifts her off her feet for a moment or two.
"Well done, 'Mione," Harry calls, but she's got a face-full of brown Auror robes and probably can't hear him.
"You were almost late," Draco says softly, when Harry's close enough to touch. He looks like he's trying not to smile too much.
"Almost," Harry agrees, throwing his discarded robes over one shoulder and meeting grey eyes that glow with pleasure. He reaches out and touches Draco's wrist, sliding fingertips over soft leather, still loving being able to return the comforting gesture, finally, after all this time.
After a moment, Draco's fingers curl around his and the smile, while directed at the marble floor, is let loose.
Fuck it, Harry thinks, and kisses him.
Harry's shoes seem unfeasibly loud on the shiny floor as he slips across the Manor's entrance hall some twenty minutes later. The celebrations have moved here by mutual consent, and the sound of warm laughter and conversation carries in on the early evening air from the lawn, drawing a smile from Harry as he withdraws the smaller of the two boxes from his pocket and opens it.
It's a strange gift, he knows that, but the twelve obsidian rings are really quite beautiful, and it's the meaning that's important, anyway. A decorative household gift for a familial bond or alliance. Not a conventional family, certainly, and a million miles away from anything previously generations of Potters and Malfoys might've imagined, but all the same; he and Draco and Narcissa and Clive are an odd little unit whether they like it or not.
Harry does like it, actually, but that's beside the point. He takes a deep breath and sets the box down on the customary table, just as he did that very first time. Turns, knowing he needs to get back outside before someone wonders where he is, and falters at the sudden cacophony.
Ginny, Fyzal, Marley, and Annette are clattering across the entrance hall, carrying various items and looking as though they're heading to join the impromptu party on the front lawn. Walking at a more sedate pace behind them are Narcissa, Clive and Zeus, and though he doesn't make a sound, all seven pairs of eyes fix upon Harry standing frozen next to that table.
"Clive, sweetheart, go with Ms Weasley a minute," Narcissa says, and something about her tone seems to compel the rest; they tear their eyes from Harry and spill out onto the portico to be greeted—enthusiastically, by the sounds of it—by Draco, Ron and Hermione.
She clicks across the floor toward him and he stands up straight. She wasn't supposed to bloody well catch him doing it, but then again, things rarely go to plan and he's quite capable of improvising.
"Vegrandis tamen utpote, quod in usitas locum," he says determinedly, and something makes him indicate the table, possibly the fact that he's standing right next to it, but either way he imagines he looks like an idiot.
And, oh... for fuck's sake... the box is still open. Harry bites down on the urge to laugh or swear or slap himself, and instead holds Narcissa's gaze. The pale blue eyes flick down to the box, widen momentarily, and then flick back up to meet his. He suddenly has no idea if this is supposed to be deadly serious or not, and he wants to grab his subtext-laden napkin rings and scarper.
"Mr Potter," she says at last. "Veneratio et... pera gratia."
And then she smiles. And Harry smiles back, relief flooded and light, and he definitely wants to laugh now.
Respect and grateful handbags. He thinks he might love Narcissa Malfoy a little bit.
"Thank you," he says.
She nods slowly. "You do realise, of course, that if you expect the gesture to be returned, you and Draco shall have to invite me to your house?"
Harry hadn't thought of that, and his eyes widen. "Right," he manages, already wondering what he's going to have to hide and where. Silencing Chatty McCupboard should prove interesting, especially since it'll be delighted to have another Black descendant with whom to communicate—Harry suspects that, like Draco, Narcissa will understand exactly what the difficult fitting is saying, and he's not sure that's a good thing. It knows too much.
"Shall we?" she says, gesturing toward the open doorway, and Harry thinks she looks far too amused for her own good, but he follows her outside anyway.
"There you are," Draco says as Harry jumps down from the portico and onto the lawn. It's a warm evening and everyone is lounging on the grass cradling glasses of something orange. "Hello, Mother," he adds and passes them each a delicate glass.
Narcissa's disdain for grass-sitting is written all over her delicate features and with a sigh, she pulls out her wand and conjures the chair that Harry is always seeing all over the place. Amused, he turns away to hide his smile and sniffs experimentally at the orange liquid that effervesces and sparkles back at him.
"What is it?"
"Pumpkin juice," Hermione supplies as Harry lowers himself to the warm ground between her and Draco. She's removed her formal robes and now sits cross-legged in trousers and shirtsleeves.
"I charmed it fizzy," Fyz adds with obvious pride.
"Can't have alcohol, obviously, but you've got to have something fizzy for a celebration," Ginny offers from her spot beside Marley, who is gazing enviously at Narcissa's chair and looking as though he's trying to keep his contact with the ground to a minimum. When Harry finds himself amused rather than irritated, he knows that he and Marley are going to be alright.
"A toast then," Draco says. He, too, has discarded his smart jacket, and Harry just knows it's hung very carefully somewhere even as they speak. His white shirt-sleeves are rolled up, exposing his leather not-string and his Mark and his strong, pale forearms; he's a little dishevelled and flushed and Harry really wants to touch him. At very least.
"What to?" someone asks.
"To change," Draco says, and his eyes meet Harry's for a split-second as he lifts his glass.
"To change," Harry murmurs, lifting his glass along with everyone else and feeling Draco's eyes on him as he swallows the sweet, fizzy liquid. To change, because... because some change is very good indeed. Change unfair laws and change difficult relationships and change perspective. Change viewpoint. Change public opinion and change the rules and change expectations.
...flapjacks, though—those are sacred.
"I have a toast," Fyz declares.
"Me too," says Ginny.
"And me," Marley says, not wanting to be left out.
Somewhere across the grass, Ron snorts, and Harry grins at him.
"Let me go first, because I have to run back in there in a minute and deal with all that drama you lot are leaving behind for the night," Fyz says, and Harry lifts an eyebrow, wondering if Fyz has forgotten all of the dramas he created for Draco during his own time in treatment. Harry supposes he kind of owes him for the desk thing, in hindsight, but still.
Fyz continues, holding aloft his half-empty glass: "A toast, to never settling. Fight the power!"
Draco rolls his eyes, but laughs and cries, "Fight the power!" with everyone anyway.
Fyz drains his glass and excuses himself, striding across the lawn and disappearing back into the house.
"A toast to unusual partnerships," Ginny offers.
"And a toast to stubbornness," Marley says. "Or determination, maybe."
"Why's it called a toast, when there's no toast?" Clive says suddenly from his spot at Narcissa's feet.
The question stumps the entire group, and Harry is impressed. By the time they finally stop speculating on the subject of toasts, Narcissa is rising from her conjured chair and heading for the house. When she returns, five minutes later, she's wearing a light cloak and fastening a silvery lead to Zeus' collar.
"What are you doing?" Draco asks, looking alarmed.
Clive, too, is fitted with a thin cloak and he takes the lead from Narcissa with a grave expression.
"We are going out for supper." She glances at Harry and then back at her son; her demeanour is calm and unruffled but Harry knows better.
"Why today?" Draco presses, and Harry thinks that's an interesting question.
Perhaps, he thinks, because today is one of those days when one or two significant events coincide and ripple out and set off other significant events, and somehow, without forethought or design, everyone involved becomes caught up in the exciting belief that this day is the day for action. And maybe it just is.
"Why not today?" Narcissa says at last, lifting an eyebrow that dares Draco to challenge her.
"We're going to a place where you can eat outside and it's alright for Zoos to go, too," Clive enthuses, and his excitement at the prospect of an outing with his Mrs Mafloy and his not-dog touches Harry.
"That sounds really exciting," Harry says, and Clive beams.
"Are you sure about this, Mother?" Draco almost whispers, and his fingers brush Harry's in the grass.
"Draco, I think it's time for all of us to stop hiding," she says softly.
"What are we hiding from?" Clive wants to know, winding Zeus' silver lead around a small hand. "Bad people?"
"No, sweetheart. Not bad people," Narcissa says and holds out a hand, which he takes. "You do not need to be afraid of bad people when you're with me."
They turn to leave, and Clive hangs back, sweeping round blue eyes around the assembled group.
"Bye..." he begins, and hesitates as though he's trying to remember everyone's names. "Bye, everybody," he amends. "I'll look after her, Drake," he adds.
Draco's expression is unreadable, but he nods and whispers, "Thanks," and Harry glances between them. Two strange individuals, both Malfoys (one in all but name), both pale-eyed and thoughtful and too clever for their own good, and though one's four and one's almost twenty-four, the similarities are striking and it's no wonder that Harry loves them both.
Beside Harry, Hermione laughs gently and raises a hand to wave at the little boy.
"Have fun," Harry calls, and he doesn't only mean Clive. Maybe next time they can all go together, he muses, and the thought startles him. He watches them go, heart tight, and crosses everything he has for them. He allows himself a moment to wonder how Narcissa is going to manage Apparating herself, a child and a not-dog, but he's sure she knows what she's doing.
"She is right for him, isn't she?" Hermione says, and Harry turns to meet her eyes. "You said they fit, and I can see it now."
"Yeah." He smiles and kisses her on the cheek. "I'm really proud of you, 'Mione," he says, and then scrambles to his feet.
He meets curious grey eyes for a second or two, and then walks away across the lawn, leaving the chattering group behind. He needs a minute or two, and it's been a while since he came this way, but nothing has changed. Perhaps the pond water seems clearer in the sunlight, and the grass isn't as muddy, but otherwise it's much the same.
Standing right at the water's edge, he drags clean air deep into his lungs and lets it out slowly. He withdraws the carved box from his pocket and contemplates replaying the moment that represents both his moral victory over Tremellen and his complete lack of anything approaching self-control. Self-preservation. Respect for authority. All of that stuff, it doesn't matter because he doesn't have any of it.
He's still holding the box and frowning when warm arms slip around his waist and there's a low, soft voice in his ear.
"I changed the law today."
Harry smiles and wraps his free arm over one of Draco's. "I know you did. You're a revolutionary. I'm very—"
"Don't you dare. I can and will push you in, fish or no fish."
Harry smirks and turns his head, mouth brushing Draco's chin. His breath huffs warm and pumpkin-sweet against Harry's lips. "I've got Tremellen," he offers. "In this box."
He doesn't need to see Draco to picture his expression. "Literally?"
"Shut up. I have him saying enough to have his arse thoroughly kicked by the board, let's put it that way. And he knows I do. And I might've yelled at him a little bit. And he might've said I could forget my residency... and Aquiline might've offered me one instead."
The arms around his waist tighten and Draco makes a pensive little noise against his shoulder. "And are all of those 'might've'-s really 'definitely'-s?"
"See... ornamental and practical."
Harry leans back into him a little. "What is, you?"
"No, idiot. That box. Are you going to take Aquiline's offer?"
Harry runs his fingers over the carved wood one more time before he slips the box back into his pocket and grips both of Draco's hands, crossing his arms over his abdomen and pulling them tightwarmclose together. He stares into the water and seeks out the flashes of the silvery fish under the surface.
"I don't know yet," he says, and it's the truth. "I need to think about it."
He knows he'd like working for Aquiline, but he's not sure if he wants to work full-time with Dark Arts victims. He doesn't want to say yes just because it looks like he has no other option, and he doesn't want to say yes just because Tremellen has accused him of losing his nerve.
He doesn't know what he expects Draco to say, but the softly voiced, "Alright," against his skin feels all at once unexpected, totally Draco, and exactly what he needs.
A soft breeze ripples off the pond and flicks blond strands against Harry's face but he says nothing; the peace is beautiful, and it won't last long.
"Do you think he's going to call her 'Mrs Mafloy' forever?" Draco muses, breaking the silence after barely a minute.
"What do you expect him to call her? As far as he's concerned, that's her name, and he knows she's not his mum."
"It's very formal," Draco argues, digging his chin into Harry's shoulder.
Harry snorts. "Yeah well, she's a formal sort of person, isn't she? I gave her some lovely napkin rings just now and she's still calling me 'Mr Potter'."
Draco inhales sharply and Harry can feel his surprise in the sudden tension of the body pressed up against his back. "You gave her napkin rings?"
Draco relaxes, smiles against the back of his neck, and strokes under Harry's string with the pad of his thumb. "You're a Malfoy now," he whispers, and the amusement in his voice doesn't quite cover the warm something-else that Harry strains to hear.
"Behave yourself," Harry says, but his pulse races and he tips his head back to brush his mouth against Draco's in a soft, contemplative kiss. "Maybe a little bit," he concedes.
"Napkin rings," Draco murmurs, derisive, and Harry frowns.
"They were nice ones. In a box and everything," he insists, and then he remembers something. Bloody Eloise. He chews on his bottom lip for a moment. "Draco?"
"Would now be a good time to tell you that everyone at work thinks we're getting married?"
Draco releases a heavy sigh, as though he'd been expecting nothing less, and he presses a resigned kiss to Harry's shoulder.
Harry smiles. "Love you too, Draco," he mumbles, mostly to himself, and looks at the shimmering surface of the pond. "Don't you fucking dare push me in."
Draco's laughter is soft and dangerous. Harry is screwed. He doesn't mind at all.