Thank you again for all the reviews! This is the last chapter of Soldier's Welcome; I'll be starting the second story in the trilogy about a week from now. That one will be called Ceremonies of Strife and cover the second year of Auror training.
Harry thought the moment of staring, fascinated silence lasted for several minutes, but it couldn't have, because Portillo Lopez plunged past them and ran up to Dearborn, and she couldn't have thought she had a chance of saving him if he had been lying there several minutes.
That was the kind of thing Harry had to tell himself as he stood up and touched Draco's arm so Draco would continue to know that he was there. The world around him seemed dazed and shaky, echoing the way he felt. When he looked at things, it took his eyes and brain an instant longer than usual to come together. When he studied the dead, his emotions seemed mired in mud. He would feel the urge to cry when he was studying a broken wall instead.
He watched Portillo Lopez working frantically over Dearborn and stroked Draco's shoulder in the meantime, because he could feel how tense Draco was at the thought of losing his mentor. And of course Harry didn't want Dearborn to die either. Sometimes, he'd been a prick to Harry, but that didn't mean he deserved death, any more than it had meant Snape had.
Then Portillo Lopez gave a cry that sounded—wounded was the only description that Harry could put on it. He looked back in time to see her staring at her fingers, and a patch of empty floor beneath them. He wondered where Dearborn's body had gone. Had someone snatched it away or Apparated it away so that they could give it a proper funeral?
His eyes had focused on the pile of dust before his brain let him know, as much from Portillo Lopez's babbled comments as anything else, what it must have been.
"He crumbled beneath my touch," Portillo Lopez whispered. "It's as if he had been dead for years, with no life-force left in his body. As if he was a still image, like the tapestries you see sometimes in ruins that preserve their original forms but will crumble if you touch them." She covered her face with her hands.
As people crowded around her to reassure her, Harry heard the tramp of marching feet. He whirled to face the far end of the Atrium, stepping forwards so that he could shelter Draco and perhaps the others, and lifted his wand.
Ron and Hermione came into view, running madly the moment they saw him, shouts breaking from their throats. Behind them were the dark red robes of the War Wizards, come, at last, and too late.
Harry spread his arms wide to embrace his best friends and grunted with the impact of their hug, while trying to use the pressure of his shoulder to comfort Draco.
"As we gather this day to remember the fallen, I hope that everyone here will demonstrate the bravery and heroism they did…"
Draco bowed his head and let the useless words wash around him. Useless words couldn't change the fact that the War Wizards had been far from the Ministry when they were most needed, and that the Aurors had fought the incursion of Nihil's forces alone. Useless words couldn't make him feel better, when he knew that they were in the middle of a second war so soon after they had escaped from the first.
Useless words couldn't make Dearborn come back.
He sneaked a glance around at the spectators who stood about him, studying the expressions on their faces. They mostly consisted of Aurors, but there were other Ministry employees who had fought beside the Aurors on that dreadful day. Most of them looked grim. Some were weeping; Dearborn had not been the only person who died in that chaos. Other people wiped away leaking tears with their sleeves and stared at the Minister as if they expected him to make it all better.
Minister Shacklebolt stood in front of them all on a raised stage of what Draco's eyes had first seen as bones but his mind knew was really white stone, conjured for the occasion. The graveyard around them was bright with newly-turned earth. Draco hadn't realized before now that the Ministry owned several cemeteries around the country, where they buried people who died in the line of duty—at least, if their families would allow that.
In Dearborn's case, there hadn't been any family to ask. His parents were dead. He had had one brother, Caradoc, who had been a member of what Harry called the Order of the Phoenix and who had vanished during the first war with the Dark Lord, probably to be killed by Death Eaters. Dearborn had given his life for the past ten years to the training of young Aurors and sometimes fieldwork if he was needed. So the Ministry had accepted that he would want to be buried as an Auror and done it with full honors.
Draco let his gaze fall briefly on the stone, carved with nothing more than the name DAFFYD DEARBORN, the dates he had been born and died, and the Latin inscription Cum summo honore, before he looked away. He had to find some other target for his gaze; otherwise, it would start watering, and some people would make unfortunate assumptions about a Malfoy's possible weakness from that.
The gathering was encircled by a large panoply of War Wizards. Draco sneered at them, but half-heartedly. He'd done some asking around since the battle, and one thing had become abundantly clear: the Ministry didn't call them up often because the War Wizards were expensive. They cost a lot to train, to maintain, to find places that would permit them to exercise their magic without Muggle notice, and to outfit, never mind the pay they got for heading into dangerous situations like the hunt for Nihil.
As much as he disliked it in one sense, Draco could understand the pure cold practicality that had concentrated the War Wizards in the places Nihil had been thought most likely to haunt instead of keeping them circled around the Ministry. If that had happened, then Nihil would simply have struck somewhere else, and then the public could make a justified outcry about those expensive wizards protecting people who should be able to protect themselves.
Last, his glance went to Harry, who stood quiet and proud beside him.
Harry had never once left his side in the last few days until Draco asked him to. He hadn't always spoken, either, but simply sat reading in the same room, offering the quiet strength of his presence. He had touched Draco's shoulder with a flat hand, had embraced him, and had kissed him when Draco had said that he wouldn't object to that. Draco had never known how comforting it would be to have someone there he could turn to if he wished and ignore the rest of the time. Malfoys were supposed to bear their grievances privately, in silence.
I like this way better, Draco thought, and leaned his shoulder into Harry's. Harry had been paying more attention to the Minister's speech than he had, but he still had the time to give Draco a quick glance and a smile.
"And the heroism of those who have fallen should remind us…"
Draco rolled his eyes and turned to the left to study the spectators over there again. This was the reason that he didn't feel he had missed much by ignoring Minister Shacklebolt's speech. It was all repetition, over and over again, of the same few themes and key words. If someone could feel better from that, they were welcome to take the comfort that should have been Draco's and spread it all over themselves.
He caught a glimpse of a tall woman with long dark hair, standing with her head bowed, whom it seemed as if he should know. He watched her idly for a moment until she turned towards him and smiled at him.
It was Nusquam. Draco couldn't be mistaken in that pale face or those brilliant blue eyes.
He pinched Harry's arm, and Harry looked, too, with a muttered exclamation about how Draco didn't have to pinch so hard. The moment he saw Nusquam, he stared, his mouth falling open and slack, and Draco could have no doubt that he recognized her, too. Why shouldn't he? They had been face-to-face with her in one of their worst battles, more than close enough to know her later.
Nusquam turned and took a few steps in the direction of the outer cordon of War Wizards. Draco opened his mouth to yell, to alert someone to her presence.
Her body dissolved into golden spheres of light that swirled into the sky and were gone in moments, popping like bubbles.
Draco shut his mouth and swallowed. The weight of Harry leaning into him from the side felt less reassuring than usual.
Nowhere is safe.
To Harry's astonishment, they didn't make the trainees clean up the Ministry. Instead, they hired professional cleaners and curse-breakers and pushed the trainees back into their classes as if they didn't want to remember what had happened.
Or, more to the point, Harry thought more than once as he bent over a page of notes taken in the new Offensive and Defensive class under Pushkin, as if they want us to concentrate on other things.
The weeks seemed to gallop from that point forwards. They had essays to write, classes to attend, spells to practice, exams to revise for. The instructors hurried them from point to point, scarcely giving them enough time to stop or slow down. Harry was lucky if he got to exchange a few words with Ron and Hermione about anything that didn't relate to their classes.
Hermione still wanted to investigate the Death Eaters' caches, but, as she said regretfully, there was no time. Ron was interested in the report Harry and Draco had of Nusquam at the mass funeral, but again, there was no more time to do anything about it. And the instructors seemed uninterested in hearing about Nusquam, telling Harry and Draco flatly that they had other things to worry about, and anyway, the Ministry was preparing a new offensive that would take place during the summer—a time when they would be out of classes but still should not act so as to embarrass the Auror program.
Harry felt as though he would like to collapse many times during the following weeks, but he had Draco to concern him—Draco, whom he didn't think had recovered as well as he had pretended to from Dearborn's death—and Hermione's grim determination that he would pass all these courses. Many questions occurred to him, but he put most of them out of his mind to think about later.
Two things only would not be put so conveniently aside.
The first was his private choice to spend some time alone at Grimmauld Place during the first weeks of summer. There was a book on necromancy that he needed to read so he could make some decisions.
I haven't done anything wrong. And in fact, I'm going to read the book so that I don't.
There's nothing wrong with thinking about it.
The second was a sight he saw during their Battle Healing exam, which, to his astonishment, he managed to pass because his knowledge of wounds and healing spells as used in defensive magic more than made up for his piss-poor knowledge of potions. He glanced up from healing a slash that a Slicing Curse had left in a flesh dummy and saw Portillo Lopez bending over to address another student. Her hair was disordered, her sleeves singed. As well as proctoring the exam, she'd been on hand to stop some of their more intricate incantations from going wrong.
A piece of her robe on the shoulder was burned away. Harry's tired eyes focused on the skin beneath, and it was as if he was back in the aftermath of the battle again, trying to make sense of what those eyes were telling him. He blinked and blinked again, and finally it snapped into place.
It was a small dark symbol, something Harry didn't think he would have noticed in most cases. It was this hyper-sensitive attention he was feeling at the moment that made it seem so special. He thought it looked like a wheel, and in the center, along the spokes of the wheel, were drawn odd, tapering leaves and black berries.
He reached out to nudge Draco with an elbow, and then remembered that Portillo Lopez had separated them for this exam. She didn't want their compatible magic unduly influencing the results.
Portillo Lopez straightened up, and the robe slid over the mark. Then she came over to examine Harry's work, and he forgot about the symbol for the moment in the nervousness of whether he was about to pass.
He and Draco both passed, and met after the exam for a celebratory snog. Harry told him then, when they had finished the kiss and drew back, at least with him feeling unaccountably shy, about the symbol on Portillo Lopez's shoulder.
Draco froze. Then he rolled upright and Summoned one of his Potions books. He leafed through the pages, frowning, then held out the book towards Harry. "Is that the plant you think she had in the tattoo?" he asked.
Harry focused on the leaves and the black berries, and nodded. "Yeah, I think so."
"That's belladonna," Draco whispered. "Deadly nightshade. Why was she wearing it, I wonder?"
Harry shook his head helplessly and pulled Draco back down for another kiss. He and Draco had both been too exhausted to go further than that in the past few weeks, but he was hoping—
Draco shoved back suddenly, one hand flat on Harry's chest, and shook his head. His hair was loose around his face, his eyes so glazed that he had to blink several times before he could focus on Harry, and Harry was at least glad to see that.
"I can't," he whispered. "Not right now, Harry. Not when we're about to part for the summer."
"But we'll see each other," Harry protested, pressing up until Draco could feel the ridge of his erection. "Won't we? You won't deny me the right to come to Malfoy Manor?" He cuddled close to Draco and lowered his voice. "Would you?"
"No." Draco licked his lips. "But, Harry, there's something my mother's hiding from me, I think, something I'll need time alone with her to get out of her. And you wanted to spend a week by yourself, at least? Didn't you?"
Harry nodded, collapsing back on the pillow and at the moment ready to tell Draco all about the necromancy book, if it would break apart this stupid distance between them. A second's thought convinced him what a stupid idea that would have been, luckily, but he couldn't help the whine that crept into his voice. "But we can do something over the summer? You promise?"
Draco ducked his head and rolled out of the bed. "Yes."
Harry stared at him, caught by the flatness in his voice. Then he reached out and seized Draco's hand before he could get too far away. Draco tensed, but didn't try to break his grip. Harry took a deep breath, so that his voice would be as gentle as possible when it came out. "What's wrong?"
Draco turned to face him, and Harry couldn't mistake the flat sheen in his eyes for anything but what it was.
Harry immediately leaned forwards and embraced him. "It doesn't matter," he whispered. "We'll go as slowly as you need to." He laughed, and hoped it didn't sound false. He was always worried that what sounded perfectly reasonable to him wouldn't to other people. "Can you really think that all I want from you is sex, when we've been together this long?"
"No," Draco whispered into his hair. "But I thought you might be getting—impatient. And there are so many other people who would go to bed with you in a heartbeat."
"I don't want them," Harry said fiercely. "I want you."
That was the right thing to say, because Draco's arms tightened around him, and he kissed the nape of Harry's neck. Harry held him and let him whisper the words he wanted to say, about how he thought this would change his whole life, and he wanted to, but he also wanted to be sure that he wouldn't regret it or think about it only under the shadow of other things, like the exams, and how the summer would be perfect…
There is no perfect time, Harry thought, the experience he'd shared with Ginny aching like an arrow wound in his chest. Only the time that you make.
But because he understood, he kissed Draco and let him go, with the prospect of a future to be looked for and won.
Draco sighed and shut his Potions books. Looking up deadly nightshade and the significance it might have when bound to the spokes of a wheel had yielded exactly nothing. There were tantalizing hints and clues, sometimes, in the descriptions of the potions it was used in, but Portillo Lopez was more than a potions-brewer. Draco couldn't be sure that that was the key to understanding what the plant meant to her.
He wasn't even sure if the tattoo was important, to be honest. Yes, it was hidden, but many people got marks they weren't exactly proud of, which they couldn't remove later and had to hide. (Draco glanced at his left arm).
Still, they couldn't afford to ignore what might be clues, and that meant he would research it over the week he and Harry were apart, and hope to have some answer by the time they came together again.
Draco smiled wryly. So that's it. I was mostly thinking about this to use it as a distraction from how empty the rooms seem with Harry gone, and now I can admit it to myself.
There was really no reason to delay any longer. Harry had already left for Grimmauld Place, and his mother had indicated that he would be welcome to return home to the Manor at any time. Draco had tried to put it off mainly because, here, he still had a sense of Harry's lingering presence.
He slid the book into a satchel that would shape itself to carry as many objects as he wanted, stood up, and walked to the fireplace. The instructors had given as many trainees as needed it Floo powder to allow them to travel home from the barracks, assuming they didn't want to Apparate or were headed for locations that were covered by anti-Apparition wards, like the Manor.
"Malfoy Manor!" Draco called, and the flames seized him and carried him away.
He stumbled out, coughing, onto the carpet of a small anteroom, and looked around curiously. This wasn't the usual room that the Floo connections were set to spit their visitors out into.
The carpet was thick and soft, a diamond-shaped pattern of red on black, and the soot that fell on it vanished at once, a sign that house-elves were not needed or welcome in this room. The furniture was ebony, the clock on the wall gold with black accents. Draco laid his satchel down on a small, shiny table and looked towards the door, wondering if an explanation awaited him there.
His mother did indeed stand in the doorway, and her smile was both proud and bloodless, as if she rejoiced in something that had happened but doubted that Draco would. She came forwards to take his hands, kiss his cheek, and smile into his eyes.
"Oh, Draco," she whispered. "Something wonderful has happened. Without notice. That is what I cannot understand. To manage this, that is one thing. It has been managed before. But to manage it without notice, so that we will not get in trouble, and yet we can have what we most want."
Draco blinked at her, wondering what in the world she was talking about. His mother turned and gestured to the doorway with one slender hand.
Draco looked up again.
His father stepped into the room, ducking his head slightly to avoid the lintel, and nodded to Draco. "I escaped Azkaban without their notice, my son," he said. He wore much the same smile that Narcissa did, but the haughty tilt to his head was all his own. "Welcome home."