Title: Shadow-Boxing

Disclaimer: J. K. Rowling and associates own these characters. I am writing this story for fun and not profit.

Pairings: Harry/Draco

Rating: R

Warnings: Angst, sex, established relationship. Ignores the epilogue

Wordcount: 4000

Summary: Harry hears the rumors everywhere.

Author's Notes: This is the fifth fic in my 'Seasonal Processions' series, based around the neopagan holidays, and the direct sequel to 'The Golden One.' This fic is for Mabon, the first day of autumn.


"What's he doing with him?"

"We'll never know."

"I think we could. If we just asked him."

"He wouldn't answer us." The second voice was older, kinder, and had the air of someone who had spent a lot of time trying to figure out the mysteries of the world before she had to accept that there were some that would never have an answer. "That kind never do. They're entirely under the enchantment of the man who ensnares them—or the woman—and they never look up or back."

"But someone ought to rescue him. Does he have any idea who Malfoy really is?"

Harry whirled around. He had half-listened to the conversation until that point while he waited for his cuppa, assuming it was about any one of the numerous scandals whirling around inside the Ministry at the moment. But his relationship with Draco was not one of those scandals. He and Draco had been together for months, lovers for weeks, and he wouldn't stand for these gossiping women's words to reach Draco's ears and spoil that.

The gossiping women blinked at him and stood up straighter, as if they assumed that he was auditioning for someone to take Draco's place. The one who had spoken first was younger, as Harry had assumed, with a nose that wasn't unattractive if you were into knives and bright orange hair. The older one was Hilda Lamort, one of the Aurors Harry sometimes worked with.

"If you have something that you think I ought to know about Draco," Harry said, his voice so cold that several people in the queue flinched back from him, "then you can say it to my face."

Lamort's face took on the tired, patient expression that Harry had seen before when she was questioning someone under Imperius. "It's nothing you would care to hear," she said gently. "You'll defend him no matter what, so why distress yourself by listening to words that you won't like?"

"There's nothing going on that I should know about," Harry said. "I know there isn't, because I would have been the first to hear of it. And I know Draco. He could never betray me, I know he couldn't."

Lamort gave the young woman with her a significant nod, as if to say that she had known how it would be. "They're all like that, the infatuated ones," she whispered, loud enough to make heads swing around.

Harry stalked out of the queue. He couldn't stay there without doing damage to someone, and he would rather that he didn't get called into Kingsley's office before he'd even had his tea. He would get the cuppa somewhere else.

"That's the way it is, mate." Ron shrugged and shook his head. "It doesn't mean that anyone has solid proof of anything that Malfoy's done since the war. They hint and they whisper about it, and that's all they dare do. But I think this is the first time that you've really paid attention to it."

"It's not," Harry said fiercely. He was pacing around their office with an energy that he wished he could put to good use—fucking Draco, for preference. But they had to be apart during the day since they worked for different Departments in the Ministry, and he had to sit down and write reports if he didn't want Kingsley to take it out of his hide. He flung himself into his chair hard enough to send it sliding across the floor to the wall. Ron winced, but didn't say anything. "I would have heard them if they'd said it since we started dating."

Ron gave a complicated sigh and scratched the back of his head. "It's—look, Harry, would you have reported scandalous gossip about Hermione to me right after we started dating?"

Harry had to shake his head. "But that doesn't mean you wouldn't have heard it," he added stubbornly.

"They're finally daring to say it in front of you," Ron said, seemingly changing his position slightly. Harry supposed he should be glad that Ron gave him credit for a fully functional pair of ears, rather than just insisting that he had to have been ignoring everything bad someone could say about Draco. "I reckon that's the difference. They expected you to break up, and you didn't. So now the rumors have started that Malfoy's enchanted you."

"Oh, is that all?" Harry had pictured something worse. But then he thought of the kind of thing the papers would print about Draco if they really thought he'd put a spell on Harry, and once again began to simmer with indignation. "I'll tell them he hasn't."

Ron sighed. "It's the kind of rumor that comes the more to life the more you deny it, Harry. You can do anything you like to work against it, and still it'll show up to trouble you. Why shouldn't it? People are envious of Malfoy's happiness, and anyone would envy him because he's dating you."

"It should be the other way around," Harry muttered. He was the only one who knew what Draco was like in private, fully opened-up now and safe around someone he trusted. Someone he trusted to make him safe, Harry thought dolefully. And now these rumors had started again, and the likely consequence was that Draco would retreat into himself.

"Whatever you say, mate," Ron said. "But the problem is that no one will believe you. Defend him, and everyone will just pat your head indulgently and say behind your back that of course it's one of those spells, the ones that bind you to fall more deeply into love with him when someone tries to wake you up."

Harry blinked. "What spells? They would be Dark Arts, and I can't remember anything like them in our Auror training courses."

"You know," Ron said, and seesawed his hand back and forth. "Those spells. The ones that everyone knows exist but no one likes to talk about."

"Oh," Harry said in disgust. "The ones that everyone is sure are behind young pure-bloods running off with unsuitable Muggleborns." There'd been a rash of that in the last few years, and of course their parents had gone mad and tried to blame the Muggleborns.

Ron nodded. "So, even if you could somehow prove that no spell existed and you're just dating Malfoy because you like him—" his voice was full of wonder, and Harry winced "—it wouldn't help. They would move to the next position, which is that it's some kind of deep and subtle potion. Or that you were helplessly in lust for him, and confusing that with love. They're going to believe that you'll wake up someday and walk away from him no matter what you do."

Harry closed his eyes. Draco could deny it all he liked, but Harry knew he was sensitive to the atmosphere of the Ministry. He'd been so deeply stung by the rumors, insults, and pretended friendships meant only to mock him after the war that he'd closed himself off from everyone, and it had taken Harry months of patient work to cross that barrier. This meant that the barriers were probably up again.

He groaned and buried his head in his hands.

"Rotten luck, mate." Ron clapped him on the shoulder. "Let me know if you want me to hurt someone for you, all right? But it would take an open attack. And most of these people can say truthfully that they're only repeating something they heard someone else say." He paused thoughtfully. "It's like shadow-boxing. All this effort to win, and you can still never touch your opponent."

"I heard the rumors today."

Harry's fingers froze on Draco's shoulders. He'd been trying to massage Draco to get him to relax; no surprise, he'd come home from work tense and edgy. He hadn't said anything about the rumors. Harry'd hoped that they would pass by Draco, at least for now, hopefully forever, but at the very least until Harry could figure out how to deal with them.

"I'm sorry," Harry said, and then resumed the massage, because he could think of nothing else to say that would sound appropriate.

Draco made an angry sobbing sound and tore himself away, whirling around with pale face and glinting eyes. Harry knew that the anger hid helpless and desperation, and that helped him to deal with it. Draco wasn't angry at him, Harry reminded himself. He was angry at the bloody wizarding world that wouldn't give him a chance.

"You're sorry," Draco said scathingly. "When you know that these rumors would never have started if not for my association with you."

Harry took a deep breath. This sounds an awful lot like he's angry at me. But again, he knew that wasn't true. Draco shut down when he was faced with someone trying to hurt him, and it wasn't strange at all that he would lash out at Harry in an attempt to drive him away, or show that he couldn't be driven away.

"I know that," Harry said, meeting his eyes. "The problem is, I don't want to go anywhere, and I don't know what to do about it yet. I reckon you have to decide whether you want to do anything about it, and if you want me gone."

Draco stared at him, one hand reaching out to clutch at the dinner table. Harry still hadn't managed to convince Draco to move in with him. His house was small and poor, but Harry met him there more often than at his own. He knew the contrast between their houses made Draco self-conscious, and he didn't want to hurt him.

Or see him hurt. But that was happening anyway.

"I don't want you gone," Draco said at last, voice deeper and brow screwed up. "But you're going to leave when the rumors get to be too much for you."

Harry shook his head, never letting his gaze vary. "I won't, unless you want me to."

"Everyone leaves," Draco said bitterly, and turned his back, pacing in front of the table. "I don't know why I should think that you would be different."

Harry took a deep breath and held it until he didn't want to shout. Yes, he knew why this was happening, and he knew that Draco's quick temper had served as his defense for years, holding up his pride against people when he couldn't bear for them to see how much they'd hurt him.

"Listen, Draco," he said at last. "I'm going to try and stop the rumors."

Draco turned his head and showed him an ugly sneer. "How can you? You know that everyone you confront will hedge and say that they just heard someone say it, or they can't be harmed for talking of suspicions."

"I don't know yet," Harry said. "But I am going to try."

"You can't." Draco flung himself back into a different chair and covered his face with his hands. "Words are the enemy," he whispered. "And shadows. The pranks they used to pull on me when I still believed that people might be in love with me or offer me genuine friendship hurt, but at least I knew how to turn my back on laughter. Rumors are—different. They could ruin my reputation at the Ministry. They could drive me out of my job. They could lose me you."

"The first two could happen," Harry said, and reached over the table to lay a gentle hand on Draco's arm. "The last one, never."

Draco showed him the sneer again. "Ah, and now, of course, you'll claim that Gryffindors are models of faithfulness, and I should never have suspected you."

"No, I wouldn't say that, either," Harry said. "There have been times during this conversation when I had to remind myself that you had the right to be angry. I don't think I would have had to do that if I was a perfect model of faithfulness."

He expected more rage, but Draco put his head on one side and studied him. Then he started to smirk. Harry raised his eyebrows at him. "Mind letting me in on the joke?"

"You would never admit that to anyone else," Draco said. "I'm the only one who gets that admission, gets to see into that crack in the façade of moral perfection that you present to the world."

Harry rolled his eyes but put up with the teasing, especially because Draco grew calmer and easier to deal with after that. Harry knew he wasn't perfect, but it suited Draco to believe that he had been trying to be and that Draco's influence had corrupted him. Fine, he could believe that. It wouldn't hurt Harry.

Those comments, on the other hand, did. Harry was still going to try and track them to their source tomorrow.

"Why would you want to talk to me?" Lamort's face was hostile as she confronted him, her arms loaded down with scrolls that she'd taken from the Ministry archives. Harry wondered what case she was researching for, and then told himself not to get distracted thinking about that. Lamort could be a good Auror and still a bitch. Harry had met plenty of Aurors in the past few years who were like that. "I saw the way you felt about me the other day."

Harry grimaced. He hated what he had to do; it felt disloyal to Draco. The fact that Draco would probably view it as natural, either because he would think it was a precursor to Harry leaving him or because he thought it was natural for people to be somewhat underhanded, was beside the point. "Listen," he said, lowering his voice. "How else did you expect me to react in public? I'm dating the bloke. I can hardly turn my back on him and declare that that's over now. My friends and the world in general expect more of me than that."

Lamort's face cleared slowly, like the clouds from the sun following a brief shower. "So you do believe that he could…?" Her voice trailed off invitingly.

"Have enchanted me? Maybe." Harry made a show of rubbing his head and looking around. "I don't know. I feel differently when I'm away from him." That was the truth, of course, but the words had a different origin than Lamort would believe they did. Harry couldn't lie, but he had become expert in twisting words to their own purposes.

Lamort cocked her head and studied him as if she wondered when he had changed. "I heard the rumors for the first time last week," she said, keeping her questions to herself for now. "No names then, just the implication that someone in the Ministry had used the Imperius Curse on a prominent Auror."

Harry blinked as if outraged. His immunity to the Imperius Curse wasn't common knowledge, and he wondered now if he should have made it so. But then he thought of the way Ron had said these rumors worked, and mentally shook his head. No, they would have said that it was a potion if they knew about the Imperius Curse immunity. Or another spell, or anything else that would keep the rumors alive while dismissing the inconvenient known facts. "When did you start hearing my name?"

"This week," Lamort said promptly. Her eyes were sparkling now, and Harry thought she rather enjoyed being able to share gossip with the object of the gossip itself. "And every time, there were more details. He used the Imperius Curse on you on the first day of spring." She gave him a sharp nod. "Everyone knows the first day of autumn is coming up soon, and that the Imperius Curse settles in for good six months after it's used."

Harry had never heard such a thing, which only showed him that Aurors who were ordinarily smart could be real idiots sometimes. He took a deep, cleansing breath and smiled at her. "Well, it would be good to notice if it really was getting stronger. I don't think it is, or else how could I come here and talk to you?"

Shock wiped Lamort's face as clean as a slate for a moment. Then she shook her head and said, "Maybe you're a spy for him. Maybe he's listening and looking through your ears and eyes right now." Her hand inched towards her wand. "You can tell him that I think his enchantments on you are disgusting, and that I'll never cooperate with them."

Harry blinked in return, then sighed noisily. "No," he said. "Listen, Lamort." Maybe honesty would work best after all, though he thought it more likely she would find some way to twist his words around against him. "I—I only heard the rumors the other day, myself, and they distress me. Essentially, they're saying that I couldn't have chosen anyone unexpected of my own free will. I'm so easy to control, I'm such a puppet, that someone could jerk me around for six months with a spell or a potion and I wouldn't notice. If that's true, why hasn't Kingsley called me in to speak with me yet? He wouldn't want an Auror who couldn't maintain that much awareness about him."

Lamort squinted, but she had an answer for that, as he had thought she would. "Kingsley ignores what he chooses to. As long as Malfoy leaves you the ability to act like an Auror, then the Ministry's not going to do anything."

"Really?" Harry asked. Fury made his voice soft, but he doubted that Lamort would know anything about that. "The same man who came and sat by my bed for several nights when that Dark wizard from Yorkshire struck me down? He's the one you think cares only about my fitness for serving the Ministry?"

Caught off-guard, Lamort visibly flailed backwards. "It's just—it's not—" She broke off with a long sigh that chilled Harry and stared at the far wall of the corridor. "Just because the rumor seems to lose its consistency when you listen to it," she said finally, "doesn't mean it's not true."

Harry nodded. "But you have to ignore rationality to pay attention to it. That sounds like a pretty good test of falsehood to me."

Lamort frowned at him and turned her head this time as if she was listening to advice from someone invisible. Harry wondered if it was the relentless hive-mind of the Ministry, the one that had spread these rumors in the first place and kept them alive through challenges, effortlessly inventing countermeasures for the assertions of good sense.

Despite everything, he almost laughed, then. Draco would be astonished to hear that I can think in such complex sentences.

"We know lots of things that we don't share with the people who are beloved of the Ministry," Lamort said in almost sepulchral tones, opening her eyes wide and nodding to him significantly. "If you don't hear as much as we do, it's because you're closer to the Minister than we are. Of course we aren't going to share what we know with the government, when they might try to crush us."

Harry rolled his eyes. "Lamort, you work for the government. I really don't know what you're talking about."

Lamort pursed her lips in a disapproving way. "You've chosen your loyalties, Potter. The only thing I can say is that you chose them poorly." She pushed past Harry and stomped down the corridor towards the stairs at the end of it, with immense dignity.

Harry leaned back against the wall and rubbed his forehead. Well, that had been bloody useless. And now Lamort would probably go and tell her story to a sympathetic audience, and an entirely new set of rumors would spring to life like poisoned flowers.

Draco would come home with a defeated look in his eyes, and he would turn his head away from Harry's comfort.

Harry stood up straight again. While a cynical person could say that he was only doing this out of concern for his sex life, he knew that he was doing it because he cared about Draco as a person. He wanted to see him lift his head again and smile the way he should. He wanted to feel the touch of his hands in honest passion, not passion that he was only putting forth because he thought Harry would leave him otherwise.

It was hard to help someone so wounded. But Harry was committed, had been committed for months now. And no matter how many reassurances Draco needed, Harry would be there to give them.

"Well, Potter. This is…unexpected."

Harry waited with his eyes on the floor for a moment until he thought that he could smile when he looked up. He had to hide the grimace that had sprung to his face when he heard Draco call him by his last name. It was another sign of the walls that were rising between them, or would if Draco got his way.

Harry wouldn't leave Draco, and he wasn't about to let Draco take himself away, either.

"Isn't it?" he agreed mildly, raising his eyes and then rising to his feet. He saw Draco's transfixed stare, and smiled, arching his hips slightly. He had made sure the first thing Draco would see when he opened the door was Harry, sitting naked at the drawing room table, next to a hearth filled with the rich shadows of firelight. "I thought you could use something pleasant to come home to."

"I should never have given you that key," Draco said absently, but his eyes were locked on Harry's groin. Harry was already half-hard, and he arched his hips again in response.

"Oh, you say that now," Harry said softly, and made sure to keep his voice low and seductive. "But are you going to say it in a moment, when you're satisfying all your eager desires on my body?"

With a noise that was half bark of pain, half groan of lust, Draco sprang forwards and locked his arms around Harry's shoulders, his mouth to his, and his leg between Harry's knees.

Harry winced a little when Draco used too little lubrication and then pushed into him—they'd never done this before, with him in this particular position—but he was too grateful for the fact that Draco was shoving forwards mindlessly, not trying to hold back, to mind. He watched Draco's eyes close in desperate passion, his hips flex, his breath hiss between his teeth, and he felt Draco's orgasm more profoundly than his own.

Draco lay on top of him on the floor when he was done, nuzzling his face into Harry's neck. Harry combed his fingers through Draco's hair, marking the way its texture seemed to change when it was full of sweat, and waited for him to say something.

When he did, it was as unexpected as the sight of Harry sitting there naked must have been for him. "You're really not leaving," he murmured drowsily. "Even though they haven't stopped talking about us."

Harry swallowed. "No," he managed to say at last. "I never will." He thought of saying that they would find some way to defeat the gossip, too, but he knew Draco wouldn't hear him right now.

A few more sighs, and Draco was asleep, still atop him and buried within him. Harry lay there for hours, his hands and his mind both full of Draco.

The End.