A/N: This was written for the H/D Canon Fest, October 2011, on Livejournal.

Summary: This story begins directly after the end of Deathly Hallows but is not compliant with the epilogue. Immediately after defeating Voldemort, Harry begins to have strange dreams, dreams that pull him once more into the realm of the newly dead. At first, the dreams are only a curious mystery, and Harry sets about putting his life back in order after the war. But when Harry dreams of Narcissa Malfoy, his life suddenly goes in a much different direction than the one he'd always imagined.

Prompt: "You are the true master of death, because the true master does not seek to run away from Death. He accepts that he must die, and understands that there are far, far worse things in the living world than dying."

Warnings: the story contains conversations with dead people in dreams, most of these are older original characters, but there is one OC child. No actual deaths are portrayed and no canon characters die except for those who have already died in canon.

This story ties up the loose ends about the Elder Wand and the Deathly Hallows. I understand that death may not the easiest thing to read about for some, but I want assure readers that I have tried to handle the concept of death in this story in the most uplifting way possible. This is not a story about loss and angst, but about finding hope and love, making choices, and trusting in the beauty and synchronicity of the universe, even if one crosses the boundaries between life and death. It also has, like everything I do, a generous share of silliness.

Thank you so much to Darry for the beta and Brit-pick, and to Huey for the feedback and encouragement. *hugs you both*

There are also four hidden jokes/plays on words in the fic. ;-)

Choices of the Heart

"The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing . . ."

~Pascal, Pensées, translated by A.J. Krailsheimer

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Chapter 1

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The place Harry had once described as 'like King's Cross station' was filled with a shining white mist, as if light itself had acquiesced to have form. This time, the high arched windows glowed with colour like stained glass, and as Harry stood again in this place of waiting, he was transfixed by its serene beauty. This time, nothing marred the silence of the high, hallowed space. And Harry, after gazing up in awe for several moments, looked down at his white-robed, barefooted self, and wondered why he was here.

As if his questioning thought stirred the air, the mist swirled and formed and parted before him. Figures walked towards him out of the mist, seeming almost to form from the mist as they came. Harry held his ground, waiting. He felt no threat here, no sense but a dreamy, still peacefulness. The figures came closer, nearly fifty or so of them, and suddenly Harry knew them. His heart soared and he stepped forward to meet them gladly.

Here were Fred, and Lupin and Tonks, and Colin, and all of those who had died fighting Voldemort and his followers at the Battle of Hogwarts. They crowded around him, and whispers of "Harry," "It's Harry," "Harry Potter," "No, it can't be!" "No!" began to echo through the vaulted room. The faces of all these fallen comrades were sad, angry, heartbroken.

It was Lupin who finally spoke. "Harry?" he said, his eyes filled with regret and disbelief. "I had so hoped we wouldn't see you here."

Tonks stepped up and took Lupin's arm. "Wotcher, Harry," she said, in a cheerless, subdued parody of her living self. "We all hoped… you wouldn't..."

Fred came forward next. "I was so sure you would win," he said, and Harry knew he'd never in life seen Fred look so disappointed or defeated.

And Harry suddenly understood. They thought he was dead, that Voldemort had killed him. That Voldemort had won the war they'd given their lives to help him win. He wasn't sure how it was that he was here, but he did know that he had beaten Voldemort. That he wasn't dead.

"But I did win!" he told Fred, and he grinned. "We won! Do you hear me?" he called out to the crowd that gathered around him. "We WON! Voldemort is dead!"

"But you're here…" said Lupin, "with us…"

"I dunno," said Harry. "I think I'm… sleeping… or dreaming… or something. But I know I'm not dead. I beat Voldemort and the war is over." He looked out at all the puzzled, grieving faces that surrounded him. "I think maybe I've come to say goodbye… and to tell you what happened… so that you know your deaths meant something before you go on." He had to stop a moment then, to take a deep breath. "I could never have done it without all of you…" he added quietly, proudly. "All of you meant so much…."

"Tell us what happened, Harry," said Tonks, and Harry saw the first glimmers of triumph sparkle in her eyes. "Tell us how you snuffed the bloody bastard! We've been going crazy to know what happened."

So Harry told them how it had come to be that he had defeated the greatest Dark Wizard of the age with a simple Expelliarmus spell. "He basically killed himself," said Harry at the end. "It wasn't really me at all." And when he looked out at all the friends and comrades who had died to help him win, he felt a great lump in his throat, and had to stop speaking, but all the faces that looked back at him now were smiling and joyous. That joy, he realised, just in that moment, was what he'd been brought here to give back to them.

"I think we can go on, now," said Lupin, and he was smiling, holding hands with Tonks. "I'm so proud of you, Harry. Your mum and dad would be so proud of you."

"You'll take good care of our little Teddy, won't you?" asked Tonks, and at Harry's nod, she stepped forward and brushed a misty kiss against his cheek. "We always knew we could count on you, Harry," she whispered.

Then she and Lupin turned away, and beyond them now, Harry could see a sleek, silver, light-filled train. There were no tracks and no wheels; it seemed to hover in mid-air, awaiting those who would travel on from this place. He heard their final words as they vanished into the light within the train's open car. "Goodbye! Goodbye, Harry!" He had to blink away the tears then, knowing he would never see them again.

Colin came forward next. "I wanted to fight," he said with solemn pride. "I knew I was too young, but I don't regret that I died, if you won." He smiled at Harry, and Harry wiped away his tears and smiled back. "Tell them that, when you go back. Tell my family. I don't want them to be sorry for what I did."

"You were great, Colin," he said, softly. "I'll tell them what you said." Colin beamed at him, just as he'd done so many times in life. Then he, too, stepped aboard the silver train and disappeared into the light.

Others came and shook Harry's hand, or simply passed near to smile and thank him. Some of them he knew by name, others he had never seen before in his life. But they all knew Harry. Harry thanked them from his heart, and gave up trying to keep the tears from rolling down his face, though he was smiling.

At last came Fred, and Harry knew that this might be the hardest goodbye of all.

"I can't pretend that it's not hard to be here without George," he said sincerely. "But you tell that one-eared bugger that I'm okay, yeah? And that I'm gonna come back and haunt him if he wastes one second of his life grieving over this." He looked so serious and stern, and so unlike himself, that Harry could only nod in answer. "Tell Percy he can't blame himself, either."

"I'll tell them," said Harry.

"Give my love to Mum and Dad, and Ginny and Ron and Bill and Charlie and …" The corner of his mouth came up in a crooked grin. "… and tell Georgie he can have my ear."

"What…?" said Harry, startled.

"You know… like one of those tranz-plants the Muggles do. Dad was telling us about it. George should take my ear. Obviously, I don't need it now and I want ole Holey-Head Georgie to have it." Fred was grinning cheekily at him now, just like his usual self again.

"Tranz-plants," repeated Harry, shaking his head, and grinning back. "Right. I'll tell him."

Fred held out his hand and Harry took it. "We owe you, Harry, me and George. You didn't ever let us down. And just know that I would have been glad to have you in the family," he added with a wink.

Harry blushed. "Thanks," he said. "I'll remember that." Then Fred was gone, stepping into the light inside the silver train, the last to board.

As Harry watched, the shining train moved forward, carrying all the dead of the Battle of Hogwarts on in a silent blaze of light, and then Harry was alone. For a moment, he stood smiling, drying the tears from his face with the cuff of his robe.

Then everything faded away, dissolving back into the shining white mist…

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Harry woke slowly, stretching, and relaxing with a sense of comfort and safety that he hadn't felt in months. The late afternoon sunlight that slanted low and honey-gold through the west windows of the Gryffindor dormitory fell in warm stripes across the foot of his old bed. The first thing he remembered was that Voldemort was finally dead, and he sat up in a rush, elated, a joyous grin spreading across his face.

A moment later, the memory of Fred and Lupin and Tonks and Colin and so many others lying stilled forever on the floor of the Great Hall hit him, dealing a sharp, breath-catching blow to his heart.

Oh, God. So many.

Thinking of them, his dream came drifting back to him, first in small light-filled fragments, then in a rush of shining faces, smiles, and too-short moments; moments that made him smile again, that he knew he would always remember with bittersweet pleasure. The place in his dream had been very similar to the place he'd found himself in after Voldemort had cast the Killing Curse on him in the Forbidden Forest, the place where he'd seen and spoken to Dumbledore again.

But hadn't that all been in his head?

"Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real," said Dumbledore's clear voice again in Harry's memory.

Could it be real? Could this shining peaceful place really be… death? Harry let his thoughts sift through his questions until he found that same sensation of wonder and deep calm he'd experienced in the Place of Waiting welling up in his heart to silence them all. He closed his eyes, overwhelmed with the sense of joy he felt. In that moment, something shifted inside his mind.

Thinking back, he remembered other words that Dumbledore had spoken in that place:

"You are the true master of death, because the true master does not seek to run away from Death. He accepts that he must die, and understands that there are far, far worse things in the living world than dying."

Harry recalled the terrible fear he had felt when he'd walked into the Forbidden Forest knowing that he was going to die, but the feeling was distant now, almost as if it had happened to someone else. He had conquered that fear and accepted his death, and now, he realised, the way he saw life and death was changed forever. Dumbledore was right. There were far worse things in life than death, and then he smiled again. Even if he would never be afraid of death ever again, he was, in this moment, very grateful to be alive.

There was so much now to look forward to!

His thoughts went immediately to Ginny, and he ran one hand through his too-long, messy hair, remembering Fred's teasing, and feeling his face heat up. The last time he'd seen her was in the Great Hall, her head on her mother's shoulder. It was startling to realise that that had only been a few hours earlier….

The war had ended just that morning, but it seemed like ages ago, a different lifetime ago. He'd fallen into his old bed fully dressed; dirty from the months of camping, from the battle, from tramping through the Forbidden Forest in the dead of night, from lying dead or not-dead in the mouldering leaves and the dirt at Voldemort's camp. Too exhausted to do anything except pull off his trainers, he'd fallen asleep before his head had even touched the pillow.

Fully awake now, Harry reached for his glasses and found that the plate of sandwiches Kreacher had brought to him in the common room before he'd come upstairs, now sat refilled on the bedside table. He grabbed several, mentally thanking the old house-elf as he stood, stuck his feet back into his worn trainers, and headed for the showers. He needed to find Ginny. Really, it was past time that he should be finding her, he thought, but he was not going to go down until he was cleaned up.

The hot water of the shower went a long way towards making him feel like life could be normal again. He cast a couple of hurried cleaning spells on his clothes, spells Hermione had taught him during the long days in the tent, and put them back on. There would be time to find proper clean clothes later.

Finally, feeling cleaner and better fed than he'd been in months, Harry clattered down the Tower stairs to the deserted common room, amazed by the day. The long terrible year was done. The war with Voldemort was over at last.

That sense of euphoria bubbled up again, though he felt a little guilty for sleeping so long. He should have been downstairs before now; he should have been with the Weasleys, with Ron and Ginny, to share their grief. For a fleeting moment, he wondered why they hadn't come looking for him, why they weren't here now waiting in the common room, and he felt a growing urgency to get down to the Great Hall and find them.

The last thing Harry expected as he stepped out of the portrait hole was to stumble over Draco Malfoy.

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Draco stood slowly. His pale hair was singed in places, and he smelt of burnt wool and smoke. There were streaks of black soot on his face, and a smear of blood at the corner of his mouth. He looked as if he'd sat there, outside the entrance to the Gryffindor Tower, for hours.

Harry stopped short and eyed him mildly for a moment, as if nothing more consequential than a slightly scorched slug had chanced across his path. Then he brushed by with a nod and a murmured, "Malfoy," and headed for the stairs.

"Oh, bloody hell, wait!" The distress was obvious in Draco's voice, though he barely spoke above a hissed whisper. "Potter, wait!"

Harry turned, curious, belatedly realising that if Malfoy were up here, he must have been waiting for him, but Harry was still not at all inclined to stop. The Great Hall and his friends, and especially Ginny, were drawing him urgently downstairs. "What? Why?" said Harry, walking backwards for a moment, thinking that of course it would have to be Malfoy bothering him now, of all times. "I'm in a hurry."

Draco hadn't moved from his spot by the portrait hole, and his hands were balled into fists at his sides. He looked angry, but he also looked desperate, as if his only hope in the world was walking away from him fast and that brought Harry to a reluctant stop.

"What?" said Harry, again. He hoped he didn't sound too exasperated, but on second thought he didn't much care how he sounded. The thought of Ginny running into his arms from across the crowded Great Hall, lifting her grief-stricken face to be kissed, was not making him particularly want to stand here talking to Draco sodding Malfoy.

"There's no one down there, Potter," said Draco in a low voice, as if he didn't wish to be overheard. "They've closed the castle and got everyone out. The… bodies have been moved to St Mungo's. I was already on my way up to find you when that new Minister Shacklebolt gave the order for no one to come up here and disturb you. There are a couple of Aurors waiting down there for you when you do come down."

Harry's imagined vision of Ginny waiting downstairs for him popped like a soap bubble. It took him a moment to wrap his brain around the idea of the castle being empty. It was something of a disappointment. "So what are you still doing here?" he asked, walking slowly back to where Draco stood. "Obviously, not disturbing me didn't apply to you…"

"I had to talk to you," said Draco hesitantly, ignoring Harry's sarcastic dig. "I hid for a bit to avoid the Aurors and waited up here so I didn't get turned out like everyone else." He paused and swallowed. "I want…." He hesitated again, studying Harry intently. "I need my wand back."

It suddenly occurred to Harry why he hadn't seen Lucius or Narcissa Malfoy fighting in the last battle and why he'd seen all three Malfoys simply sitting at a table in the Great Hall afterwards. None of the Malfoys had wands. Harry remembered that Lucius's wand had been snapped when Voldemort tried to use it against Harry on the night he'd left the Dursley's. Harry himself had taken Draco's wand. And Draco had lost his mother's wand in the Room of Requirement just before the Fiendfyre had swept through, nearly claiming all their lives.

The Great Hall had been swarming with Aurors looking for any remaining Death Eaters when Harry had left. He wondered if the senior Malfoys had been arrested, and if the Aurors were looking for Draco. And that thought recalled something he'd been curious about for a long time.

Harry pulled out his own newly repaired holly wand and pointed it at Draco. "Show me your arm," he said.

Draco took a step back, and bumped up against the wall behind him. Harry advanced on Draco until his wand was only an inch away, pointed at Draco's throat. "Let's see it, then," he said, quietly. "Roll up your sleeve."

Draco's chin came up, and Harry could see that he was trembling, but he did as Harry demanded. "I wanted you to win, you know," he said sullenly, as he pulled up the left sleeve of his jumper.

"Oh, right," snorted Harry. "You're hilarious."

Draco glared at him. "Wanting you to win doesn't mean I thought you could actually do it. No one believed you could actually do it!" he retorted, unbuttoning his shirt cuff and rolling the sleeve back. "And in case it escaped your notice, most of us are not immune to the Killing Curse. Just because you don't die, doesn't mean any of the rest of us dared to flaunt any difference of opinion in front of the Dark Lord, or my lunatic aunt. Or my stupid deluded father, for that matter." His voice had lost its anger and now just sounded sad. "I wasn't even safe with my idiot best friends any more. Openly siding with you would have been an instant death sentence."

"Okay, okay," grumbled Harry, thinking suddenly of Cedric Diggory and feeling the same acute sting of guilt he always felt about that horrible senseless death. "I get it. Lumos." Harry held the lit tip of his wand over Draco's bared forearm. It was skinny and pale and unmarked.

Harry looked back up in surprise and met Draco's eyes. He'd been so sure that Malfoy had taken the Dark Mark. Draco looked every bit as surprised as Harry, if not more so. "Was it there?" asked Harry. "The Dark Mark?"

Draco nodded. His eyes were wide. "Oh, sweet Merlin," he whispered. "You did this…" Then, as if his knees had buckled under him, he slid slowly down the wall to sit on the floor.

Harry crouched down in front of him. "What do you mean, I did this? How?"

Staring intently at his own arm, Draco didn't seem to be able to take his eyes off that pale unblemished patch of skin. "He's dead, you idiot," he said softly. "You killed him and his all his spells are gone." Then he closed his eyes and smiling, let his head thump back against the wall. "I thought I'd never be free of that ghastly thing."

Harry remembered how, in the moment Dumbledore had died, he'd been released from the spell that had held him immobile on the Astronomy Tower and nodded. "I see," he said. "Right. Now there's no proof that you were one of them."

"Don't be thick, Potter," said Draco, opening his eyes to glare at Harry again. "I have my memories, they have Veritaserum. That's all the proof they need." He paused then, and a slow smirk appeared on his face. "But just so you know, before you get all set on turning me in, we've been let off. My father talked to Minister Shacklebolt already, and he's letting us go home."

Harry snorted. "Oh, that's just bloody brilliant. Your father was most definitely not on my side…"

"My father is a complete and utter arse," said Draco, breaking in and shocking Harry speechless, "who has a great vault of money he has pledged to help with restoring this school, or whatever else the Ministry wants. So save your breath, Potter. I know what my father was." He stared defiantly at Harry for a moment. "But my mother said she'd helped you," he said, continuing in an earnest voice. "She thought maybe… you would help me… and give me back my wand."

It was a long few seconds before Harry spoke. Malfoy was looking at him with hope in his eyes, one eyebrow up in question and traces of his earlier smirk still lingering at the corner of his mouth. Harry sighed. "She did help me," he said finally. "I doubt that I would be here now if it weren't for her, and I'll make sure the Ministry knows that. But she helped me because I told her you were alive and safe at the castle, and that was because I'd already fished your sorry arse out of the Fiendfyre. So I figure we're even, as favours go."

"Oh," said Draco, and his face fell. He looked down, away from Harry. "About that…"

Harry waited while Draco seemed to struggle with what he was about to say.

"… for that …and for this," he continued slowly, indicating his now unmarked arm, and meaning also all that was implied by its disappearance, "…I wanted to say…" His voice trailed off, and he had to clear his throat before he could go on, but finally he said it, though it was somewhat mumbled at the end. "I wanted to say… thank you."

In spite of his sudden inarticulate speech, Draco sounded completely sincere. Harry hadn't even known the git could be sincere. It was disconcerting.

"And I suppose you think that makes everything all right? That I'll believe you now, and forget everything else that happened?" said Harry, a bit incredulous, thinking of Katie Bell screaming and screaming as she hung suspended in mid-air, of Ron drinking poisoned mead, and Greyback invading the corridors at Hogwarts.

Draco looked back up at him at that, his expression desperate again. "I don't expect you to care what happens to me," he said, his voice low and tense with emotion, "but I did try to help you… at the Manor… even though I was walking a very thin line then. I think, maybe, you owe me a little for that. I just want my wand back, Potter… that's all I'm asking for."

A series of other memories flashed through Harry's mind: the vision of a pale and haggard Malfoy forced to cast Crucio on Rowle, Malfoy refusing to identify Harry at the Manor, and stopping Crabbe and Goyle from trying to kill him in the Room of Requirement, which Malfoy had done even if it wasn't with Harry's best interest in mind. He felt a little ashamed that he'd momentarily forgotten those things. Then he remembered Dumbledore's willingness to try to save Malfoy that night on the Astronomy Tower in spite of the cursed necklace and the poisoned mead and letting the Death Eaters into the school. It was the last thing the headmaster had done in life, and it weighed heavily with Harry. Still…

"I don't think I owe you anything, Malfoy," said Harry quietly. "Granted, I would have tried to save almost anyone from that horrible Fiendfyre, but the reason I came back for you was mostly because of what you did at the Manor." He paused, considering the options. "If I did give you the wand back," he asked finally, "what were your plans, after that? To just walk out of here and what… go back to Daddy and pretend none of this happened?"

"No… I don't know. I just want to go home." Draco groaned, and one hand came up to cover his face. "I just want this fucking nightmare to be over. I want my life back the way it was before that bloody snake-faced monster came back and stole everything from us."

Harry frowned. "You know that's not going to happen."

"Oh, no shit, Potter." Draco was glaring at him again, anger taking dominance over the desperation of a moment ago. "Just give me my wand back. You don't need it now." He eyed Harry's holly and phoenix feather wand that Harry was still pointing casually at him. "Or are you starting a collection? What do you have now? Three?"

"Look," said Harry, irritated, and rushing to derail that train of thought. "I'm sorry your life is fucked up. I'm sorry for a lot of things that happened that are not my fault. But the truth is I'm not sure I can give you your wand back. For one thing, it probably won't work right for you. I had a long talk with Ollivander after we rescued him from your father, and he told me that wands change allegiance if they're taken by force. It's really not your wand anymore."

And I can't let him try to win it back from me so that it would work, thought Harry, coming to the most important bit, because that would make him Master of the Elder Wand again. But Harry didn't want to say that out loud. He didn't want to remind Malfoy of that.

"For another thing," he went on, thinking fast and hoping Malfoy would buy it, "I'm guessing the Ministry will want it. It's the wand that defeated Voldemort. They'll probably want to put it in a er… museum… or the Department of Mysteries… or something. Not that I want them to…" His voice trailed off. He knew it sounded incredibly lame even as he said it, but it was the best excuse he could think of to avoid giving the hawthorn wand back.

But it was too late and Draco's train of thought had not been derailed. Draco had a sly calculating look in his eye and his hand darted out to hover over Harry's holly wand. "I heard what you said in the Great Hall this morning - that I was Master of the Elder Wand all that time. Maybe I don't need that old hawthorn wand back. If I grabbed this wand away from you right now, wouldn't I be Master of the Elder Wand again?"

Harry had always had good reflexes, most likely from a childhood of dodging Dudley's blows, but a year on the run had made those reflexes lightening quick. He was on his feet with his wand pointed at Draco's nose before the git had even finished his sentence. "Don't even think about it," he said flatly.

Draco looked up at Harry for a few intense seconds before his hand fell to the floor at his side. Then he closed his eyes and let his head drop back against the wall, defeat written clearly all over his face.

In those few seconds, though, Harry had seen the small spark of hope, that spark that had lit Draco's eyes earlier, fade and die. And he found he didn't like that. Not at all.

Harry remembered vividly how bereft he'd felt when his holly wand was broken. It had felt as if a part of his own body was missing. He could certainly understand why Malfoy wanted the hawthorn wand back. And worse, ever since he'd mentioned the Fiendfyre a few minutes ago, he couldn't stop the realisation that Malfoy was only here, alive and speaking and… well… still here at all, because Harry had made an effort and saved him from being horribly burned to death. And maybe, supplied a little niggling voice in Harry's mind, just maybe, he should follow that up by at least making an effort to be civil.

"C'mon, get up," said Harry, his voice softer, tempered now by guilt. God, why was it that Malfoy could get under his skin like this, every single time. He felt like he'd just kicked a wounded puppy.

Draco scrambled up, and Harry could see that, though he tried to stand and face Harry with his earlier confidence, the bravado was obviously false: he was trembling and had to keep one hand against the wall to brace himself. He didn't meet Harry's eyes, instead he turned his face away, and as close as Harry was now, he could see the faint tracks of earlier tears running through the soot and blood on Draco's face.

It was probably those bloody tear tracks that did Harry in, that made his heart turn over, just the smallest bit.

Harry understood in a flash of insight that all Malfoy had ever known of power was the kind that took and showed no mercy, that forced its will on those who were weaker and sought to destroy any opposition. There was nothing in Malfoy's experience that had taught him the power of benevolence, or cooperation, of sharing, or compassion. He'd been taught to ridicule those qualities as weaknesses. And Harry understood that all Malfoy expected from Harry, now that Harry was in a position of power, was the same cruel brutality he'd known before. But Harry was not going to go along with it. Damn it all to hell, he was not going to act like Voldemort all over again, not even with Malfoy.

And suddenly that compassion Harry'd thought of a moment ago as only an abstract idea became a living breathing and solid presence in his gut. Malfoy had come to him here, asking for help, and Harry had treated him with nothing but distrust. It didn't matter if part of him believed Malfoy deserved that distrust. Malfoy had been the victim of his father's deluded ambitions, and of Voldemort's vindictive egomania, as much as anyone. Harry just hadn't seen it quite that way before.

And now that he had seen it, it couldn't be unseen. Harry's heart made a choice then and there, and he wondered in that split second, if he would come sooner or later to regret it. But that didn't change his decision at all.

"Malfoy," he said, trying to make his voice both stern and gentle, "can you promise me that you will never, ever, fight me again? Can you swear, by whatever you hold dear, that you will never, for the rest of your life, try to best me in a duel?"

"What difference does it make, Potter," whispered Draco, "if I don't have a wand. But if you must know, I hope I don't ever have to fight anyone in a duel, ever again, for as long as I live. I've had enough of it. Will that do?"

Draco was extraordinarily pale and looked ready to sink back to the floor. Harry abruptly thought of another reason, besides his own very scary and intimidating presence, why that might be. "When was the last time you ate something?" he asked, concern suddenly overriding everything else.

"No idea… maybe yesterday morning…"

Harry sent a mental apology to Ginny, wherever she was. The thought came back to him, that he and Ginny would have time, lots of time, later. Right now, it seemed he was stuck dealing with a nearly fainting Draco Malfoy.

Harry turned to the Fat Lady and said, "Let me back in. You know I don't know the password. I need to get him inside."

The Fat Lady in the portrait was nodding and beaming at him, all set to open up, but at the word "him," gave a little shriek. "Oh, no!" she cried, her hands fluttering nervously around her face. "Harry, love, you can't bring him in here!"

Harry's eyes rolled up to the ceiling. This was too much. He was Harry Potter, he'd just killed Voldemort, and he needed the sandwiches and the hawthorn wand from his room. He was not going to be thwarted by a bloody over-protective painting. He stuck a finger right up to her painted face. "The war is over," he said, heatedly. "Now OPEN UP!"

It was not the password, but he was Harry Potter, and he'd just killed Voldemort, and she obeyed him with only one small squeak of protest.

So much for not using power to push people around, he thought ruefully, as he let Draco climb in through the portrait hole. But if he had anything to say about it, then all the fighting was going to stop. He was going to stop it right here and now with Malfoy, for starters.

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With a flick of his wand, Harry lit a fire for light in the dark Gryffindor common room. "I'll be right back," he told Draco, then sprinted up the stairs. He got to the first floor landing, stopped and called down, "Hey, the loo is up here on the first landing. If you want to get cleaned up, or anything." He didn't wait for a response, but ran up the rest of the way to his dorm room.

Now that everyone was out of the castle, he knew he wasn't going to be coming back here. He gathered all his things from his old room, the moleskin bag, the two wands that were his but not his, and the Invisibility Cloak, then straightened the bedclothes on his bed. This room had been home to him for six years. It felt odd, knowing he might never see it again. He stood for several moments, just looking around, memorising and remembering, then with a deep breath, walked away from this old life toward the new one opening up before him – the one he hadn't been sure would ever happen. On the way out, he picked up the plate of sandwiches.

Draco was in the common room when Harry came back down, sitting in the armchair next to the fire. His face was cleaner and his hair was wet; it looked like he'd put his entire head under the tap. He practically leapt onto the plate of sandwiches when Harry held it out to him, scoffing down the first sandwich in three bites. Two more followed in quick succession, and Harry was vastly amused by the fact that he was feeding Draco Malfoy sandwiches in the Gryffindor common room. It went against all the natural laws of the universe.

"How is it you have sandwiches in here?" Draco complained, between bites. "There's not a soul in the castle, and yet you have sandwiches. I probably shouldn't be so surprised."

Harry snorted back a laugh at the thought of calling Kreacher and giving Malfoy a real surprise. He laid the hawthorn wand on the table next to Draco instead. "Maybe this will surprise you, as well," he said. "I can't promise it will still work for you, but I'm giving it back."

If Harry had expected Draco to grab the wand immediately, it was his turn to be surprised. Draco just sat very still and stared at it. Then he lifted his chin and stared at Harry. And Harry couldn't fight the grin that took over his mouth because that spark of hope was back in Malfoy's eyes.

"Just like that?" asked Draco in an unsteady voice. "No catch?"

"Just like that," affirmed Harry. "Although, if you remember, you did promise not to duel with me ever again."

Draco rolled his eyes. "Like I was going to do that, anyway, Potter, after you killed the fucking Dark Lord with an Expelliarmus. I'm not stupid."

"I never thought you were stupid, Malfoy. I think some of the choices you made were stupid…"

"Oh, right, choices," retorted Draco, waving a sandwich. Eating seemed to have effected an instant revival of his attitude. "My father was in Azkaban, and my aunt let the Dark Lord live in my house. My mother's life was threatened. Exactly what kind of choices do you think I had?"

"No, okay, maybe you didn't have much choice, really," said Harry, sitting down in the chair across from Draco. "But I always thought you were proud of it, of being with him and taking the Dark Mark. On the train to school, at the start of Sixth Year, you certainly seemed to be."

"Yeah, well things didn't turn out the way I thought they would, did they?" He finished the sandwich he was holding, then went on in a low voice, his eyes fixed firmly on the fire. "At first, I was still outraged that they'd dared put my father in prison. I was blinded by that and didn't know what I was getting myself into. My father had always talked about how brilliant the Dark Lord was. How we were going to be his most powerful partners. I wanted to do anything to hold on to that for us while my father was gone." Draco took a deep breath, then looked back at Harry. "But it turned out that the Dark Lord was a monster, and then it was more about just staying alive from one day to the next," he said. "He was deranged and inhuman and cruel, even to his followers."

Harry nodded. "That's why he had to be stopped."

They stared at each other for several long seconds until Draco said quietly, "In the end, I wanted him stopped as much as you did." He looked back at the hawthorn wand. "But," he said, pausing, and slowly reaching out to pick it up, "what really is insane is that you did it with this. With this old wand that I've been carrying around since I was eleven. It's like…" He sat for a moment, silently running his fingers up and down the wand before he continued. "…like it knew how much I wanted to kill the Dark Lord, but wouldn't ever dare, and it found a way to do it… with you."

Harry sat up straighter. This was the very thing that fascinated him too, after talking to Ollivander, after his experiences with the different wands. Harry had been so frustrated with Hermione's refusal to acknowledge that the wands had some kind of innate magic. Suddenly Harry had all kinds of questions. He realised he'd wanted to talk to Malfoy for ages, to know what had happened, what he'd been thinking. He thought of Ginny and again reminded himself that they had lots of time to be together in the future. Malfoy was here now, and in a talking mood evidently, and Harry wanted to take advantage of that. The world was just going to have to think he was still taking an extremely long nap…

Harry really wanted to discuss the theories of wandlore with Malfoy, but the first question that popped out of his mouth was something entirely different. It was something he'd been wondering about for a while. "So why didn't you identify me at the Manor when you obviously knew it was me."

Draco shrugged. "I hated the Dark Lord being in the house. I didn't want him to come back for any reason." He looked up at Harry, his eyebrows drawn down in seriousness. "And of course he was furious with us that you escaped. Exactly what I was afraid would happen." He shuddered, and Harry saw a shifting expression of pain and revulsion flit across his face at the memory.

"So nothing to do with me, personally, then?" said Harry with a half-grin, realising with surprise that he was teasing Malfoy, and there was no animosity behind it. "You weren't really trying to help me at all, like you claimed earlier?"

Draco looked caught out and Harry was mildly amused to see his cheeks go slightly pink.

Then Draco's head tipped back against the chair and he let his breath out in a huff. "Potter," he said in a strained voice, "I helped you because if anyone had a chance of defeating the Dark Lord, it was you. I would have done anything…" He raised his head and looked pointedly at Harry. "…anything, that is, that didn't involve me fighting him myself, to get rid of him."

"Hmm," said Harry. "But if you thought I was the only chance of defeating him, then why were you helping Crabbe and Goyle try to capture me to hand over to him?"

Draco took a deep breath and shook his head. "Look, there's no way I'm going to be able to give you reasons that you will like for everything I did. Mostly, I was doing whatever I could to survive, and for us, since my father had involved us so deeply, survival with the Dark Lord meant pleasing him and giving him what he wanted, not just staying out of his way."

"It just seems like you and your family want to be on whatever side you think is winning, or that has the most power, regardless of what is involved. I saw you sucking up to both sides during the battle – just in case."

"You say that like it's a bad thing."

"I find that morally reprehensible."

"Big words, Potter. I'm impressed." Draco paused and looked away and stared for a moment into the fire. "The truth is, I didn't know what side I was on, really. My own side, maybe? So, yeah, I did whatever I had to, whatever would keep me or my parents safe for that moment." He paused again. "You have no idea what it was like…" he added so softly that Harry barely heard him.

"Yeah, actually I do," said Harry quietly. "And I guess I can understand that. I did some things out of desperation this year that I'm not proud of."

Draco turned back and studied Harry intently, and Harry met his eyes steadily.

"And I wished more than anything that I didn't have to fight him myself, too," said Harry quietly. "I wasn't so sure of my chances."

A feeling of understanding seemed to pass between them, then, and Draco nodded once. "So no glory or quest for power and fame for you?" he asked.

"Hardly," said Harry, and was gratified when Draco nodded again.

"Ah. Then, as I always suspected, it was your immense, overbearing, albeit selfless and heroic need to fight evil and save the world," said Draco, looking altogether pleased with himself at turning the tables and smugly daring Harry to deny it.

Harry had to admit that he'd set himself up for that one. "You wanker," he said, making sure his voice was teasing, giving Malfoy a crooked grin to let him know he got the joke on himself.

Draco's eyebrows shot up, then his eyes narrowed, and the corner of his mouth curled up into his old smirk. He gave a short snort. "Am not," he said. Then he did grin. "Well, not bloody lately."

Harry couldn't help it. He laughed out loud. Malfoy was grinning back at him openly now. They weren't fighting and it felt fantastic.

In fact, Harry was surprised to find that he was honestly enjoying this conversation. They had been through so much, had had so many parallel and shared experiences, and yet had never talked to each other. The prospect of being able to talk about them now was riveting. Harry knew he needed to go soon, but he found he didn't want to. There were things he wanted to know, things he was discovering that he wanted to talk to Malfoy about, like the wands. And speaking of wands…

"You should try that," said Harry, indicating the hawthorn wand that Draco held in his lap. "See if it still works for you."

Draco looked down at the wand in his hand, his expression serious again. He held it up and studied it intently for a second, then said, "Lumos." The tip of the wand glowed blue and it cast a small circle of light. "It does feel a bit different," he said, "but it works. I'll just have to get used to it, won't I? Or it will have to get used to me." He ended the spell, and tucked the wand up into his sleeve with a satisfied nod, then raised one eyebrow at Harry. "It's not like I can get another one… unlike some people I know." Then he sat forward, avid interest in his eyes. "Will you let me see it? The Elder Wand, I mean."

"I don't know," said Harry hesitantly, suddenly uncomfortable. The less said about the Elder Wand, in his opinion, the better. He stared back at Draco who was still looking at him expectantly. "I'd rather not," he said finally.

Draco sat back, looking disappointed, but not surprised. "Fine," he said, softly, sounding more let down than angry.

But before Harry could reply, the door to the common room opened and Professor McGonagall walked in, followed by two Aurors in uniform. "I will check on him," she was saying fiercely, "but I will not wake him if he's still sleeping. He deserves all the time he needs…" Then she stopped so suddenly that the Aurors nearly walked into her when she saw Harry and Draco sitting by the fire.

Harry stood up, and Draco stood up behind him.

"Potter?" said McGonagall, and her eyes flicked over his shoulder to Draco and then back. "Is everything all right?"

"Yes," said Harry. "We were just about to come down."

"Isn't that the Malfoy boy?" asked one of the Aurors. "He's supposed to be with his parents. Minister Shacklebolt placed them under house arrest until further notice."

Harry turned around. "Forgot to mention that little detail, didn't you," he said in a low voice, feeling much better now about Shacklebolt's decision to let the Malfoys "go home."

Draco just shrugged and smirked at him. "It's just temporary," he whispered back. Then he stepped past Harry and faced the Aurors and Professor McGonagall. "I've been up here with Potter the whole time," he announced. "It was my wand, you know, that he used to kill the Dark Lord."

Harry supposed he didn't mind the truth-stretching. He thought he could see through Malfoy's posturing now, to the fact that he often responded to fear and insecurity with this kind of pumped-up bravado.

McGonagall was frowning at Draco, but one of the Aurors stepped forward and motioned to Draco to come through. "Well, you're coming with me now," he said sternly. "I'll be seeing you get back home straight away."

Harry supposed that he, himself, was now going to be someone Malfoy would try to ally with, to be important. Obviously, Malfoy still thought being important, or at least knowing the "right" people, was important. He was a little disappointed to think that that's all that had happened between them here this afternoon – that Malfoy was still siding with anyone who could further his position in life. Really, he chided himself, he should have known…

And then Draco turned around to face him, with his back to the Aurors, and that genuinely sincere expression was back on his face, the one that Harry had never seen before today, the one that somehow reached straight into Harry's heart and snagged him against all sense. "Potter," he said softly, meeting Harry's eyes with open honesty. "Thank you." He patted his arm where the wand was now safely hidden inside his sleeve, and nodded once. Then without waiting for a reply, he turned and walked away with most of his old swagger intact, going out through the portrait hole with the Auror.

Harry wondered if he would ever see him again.

"If you're ready, Potter," said Professor McGonagall, "Auror…" She turned to face the man in question, waiting for him to answer her implied question.

"Oh," he said, straightening up. "It's Thompson, Ma'am."

"… Auror Thompson will escort you to the Burrow. They are expecting you."

"Okay," said Harry, as he gathered up his few belongings, "but there's something I need to do first." He hesitated, then deciding he needed her help, asked, "Professor McGonagall, may I speak with you a moment… privately."

"Of course, Potter," she said, smiling at him. "Just give us a moment, would you please, Auror Thompson," she said graciously, while ushering the Auror to the portrait hole. "I assure you, Potter will be quite safe with me." After the portrait had closed, she hurried back to Harry. She looked worried. "Potter, is something wrong?" she asked. "And what was Draco Malfoy doing in here?"

"Doesn't matter," he said. "We were only talking. What matters is this." He drew the Elder Wand from where it was bundled up in his Invisibility Cloak.

"That is Dumbledore's wand," she said, puzzled. "How…?" Then comprehension hit and she sank into the chair that Harry had been sitting in earlier. "That is the Elder Wand, isn't it? The wand you won from Voldemort…"

"Who took it from Dumbledore's tomb, yes," affirmed Harry. "I want to put it back there where it will be safe. I don't want to keep it."

"Oh, but Potter, you can't do that," she said. "It won't be safe there at all. The tomb is completely broken apart. We had to move the headmaster's body. It was left exposed… We all wondered what had happened."

"Bloody hell," said Harry before he could stop himself. Of course, it was broken. He'd known that, had seen it happen, but had completely forgotten the vision he'd experienced through his connection with Voldemort's mind. "I'm sorry, Professor," he added, for his language.

She waved his apology away. "My thoughts exactly," she said wryly. "The thought of Voldemort here on the school grounds…"

Harry nodded absently; he was thinking hard. There had to be somewhere else to put the wand; some safe place in the castle; he did not want to carry it around with him. The Room of Hidden Things had been destroyed in the Fiendfyre so that was no longer a possibility. Then a memory and an inspiration came to him. "Dumbledore's portrait," he said out loud.

"Potter, you can't put the wand into a painting," said McGonagall.

"No," said Harry, "but there's a secret vault behind the painting. We can put it in there."

"I'm not going to ask you how you know that, Potter," said McGonagall. "Dumbledore seems to have told you a great deal that he didn't share with the rest of us."

"Actually, it was Professor Snape that told me about it… in a way. But that's a long story. Do you agree that I can leave it there? I don't want to take it with me. It's too dangerous."

"Yes, all right." She stood up. "That seems a fitting place for it, until the tomb can be properly restored."

Harry had to fight down the urge to hug her. He gave her a wide smile instead. "Thank you, Professor."

She looked at him fondly for a moment, smiling back. "If I may make a suggestion…" At Harry's nod, she continued. "I'm assuming that the fewer people who know the whereabouts of this wand the better?"

"Yes," said Harry.

"Then, if you will entrust the wand to me, it will save time and we will not need to make needless explanations to Auror Thompson out there. You can go on ahead to the Weasleys' and I'll make sure the wand is safely hidden in the vault. That is, I'm assuming Dumbledore's portrait can help me locate and open it…"

"He definitely can," said Harry, beaming at her. "Thank you! There's no one I would trust it with more than you, Professor."

McGonagall pulled a large handkerchief from her pocket and Harry placed the Elder Wand into her hands. She wrapped it carefully and hid it in her robes. "There now," she said. "I'll contact you by owl when the repairs are made to the tomb. I know you'll want to see it replaced properly then."

Feeling immensely lighter now that the responsibility of the Elder Wand was lifted from him, Harry gave in to his earlier urge and swept McGonagall into a hug. "Thank you so much, Professor," he said. "You have no idea how much better I feel knowing I don't have to carry that thing around with me."

"Oh, go on, now, out with you," she exclaimed, shooing him toward the portrait hole. "I'll take care of this straight away, and you're not to worry about it."

Though she sounded like her usual stern self, Harry saw that her expression was pleased and he knew that she had been touched by his unexpected hug. He grinned back at her as he stepped through the portrait hole.

Auror Thompson was waiting for him in the corridor. "Mr Potter," he said formally. "Minister Shacklebolt asked me to report to you and to accompany you to the Burrow. You are to have round-the-clock protection until the three most dangerous remaining Death Eaters have been found and arrested."

"Oh?" said Harry, as they started down the stairs together. Behind him he caught a glimpse of Professor McGonagall leaving the common room and heading for the stairs up to the headmaster's office. He turned his attention back to Auror Thompson. "Who escaped?"

"Yaxley, Macnair, and Rookwood," replied Thompson. "Until we're sure there's no threat of reprisal from them, Minister Shacklebolt wants you kept under guard."

"I saw all three of them fall in the Great Hall during the last battle," said Harry, keeping pace with the Auror as they continued down the stairs to the Entrance Hall. "They were all unconscious or knocked down when I started the duel with Voldemort. What happened to them?"

"It's difficult to know," said Thompson, "but at least one of them must have regained consciousness while everyone was focussed on you and the Dark Lord. It's our hypothesis that this one cast a Disillusionment Charm on himself and the others and they slipped out and escaped during the confusion and celebration that followed your victory. We believe it must have been an unusually powerful Disillusionment Charm, since they were not detected. In any case, their bodies were not found in the Great Hall. We have to assume they are alive and at large until we can ascertain otherwise."

"I see," said Harry, with a sigh. He'd been so sure those men had been defeated and caught.

They had reached the entrance doors and Thompson looked at him with sympathy as he held the door open for Harry. "We'll get them, Mr Potter, don't you worry. You've done your bit." Then he grinned. "And a great bit that was, too. One for the history books, that was."

"Er… right," said Harry, but he smiled back, and stepped out into the cool spring evening. He took a deep breath; the air was crisp and clean and refreshing. The thought of Ginny came to his mind and he smiled wider. He would be seeing her, finally, in a few minutes…

They walked in silence the rest of the way to the gates, then Harry took hold of Thompson's wrist and let him Apparate them both to the Burrow.

x:x x:x x:x

x:x x:x x:x

Lying in bed much later that night, Harry studied the canopy over his head without really seeing it. The events of the afternoon and evening kept replaying in his mind, and he was puzzling over why nothing had quite turned out the way he'd expected. He was back now at Grimmauld Place, trying to sleep for the first time in the master bedroom on the third floor, which Kreacher had cleaned and fixed up for him. Now that he was back for good, he'd felt disinclined to stay in Sirius's old room, with all of Sirius's old posters and memories.

Two Aurors stood on guard in the street outside the house, and would remain there on Shacklebolt's orders until further notice.

Hermione and Ron were in their old rooms on the floor below, having agreed to come back with him so that he was not alone in the place tonight. But after Fred's funeral tomorrow, they were planning to leave for Australia to find Hermione's parents.

Harry suspected they might actually be sharing a room down there, but he didn't care and didn't want to think about that too closely. Especially not after what had happened with Ginny tonight. For in spite of his friends' company downstairs, Harry thought he had never felt so alone.

The first unexpected occurrence of the afternoon, of course, had been Malfoy. And although their meeting had been a bit surreal, Harry was actually very glad that it had happened. He wasn't sure if he'd ever cross paths with Malfoy again, so it was good that they had at least come to some kind of peace with their past. Harry still might not be able to agree with all of Malfoy's actions, but he now had a mostly acceptable understanding of why he'd done what he'd done, at least according to Malfoy's admittedly convoluted logic.

Learning of the escape of three of the most dangerous Death Eaters had also been unexpected. Harry could only hope that that situation would be resolved very soon, especially since Yaxley had been the reason they'd had to abandon the house at Grimmauld Place after the incident at the Ministry. Harry'd had a long conversation with Shacklebolt at the Burrow and had been informed of the steps being taken to locate the escaped men. Shacklebolt had already sent a team to search the house and had Aurors stationed outside Grimmauld Place, anticipating that Harry would want to return there. There was no question that the original Fidelius Charm was so diluted as to be useless, and had in fact most likely faded out of existence. Shacklebolt assured Harry, however, that his home would be put under the tightest security possible, until Harry could decide if he should create a new Fidelius Charm and Secret Keeper.

Harry had also taken that opportunity to fulfil his promise to Malfoy to tell Shacklebolt the details of how Narcissa Malfoy had helped him in the Forbidden Forest. To be fair, he'd also mentioned Draco's more self-interested attempts to help him as well, and Shacklebolt had assured Harry that he would personally see that those actions were taken into account when the Malfoys' case was investigated. "Lucius Malfoy has offered the Ministry an extensive sum of money for whatever repairs are required," Shacklebolt had told him. "And as much as it pains me to say it, I believe that offer will be accepted, and he'll buy his way out of another prison term in Azkaban and simply serve an extended sentence under house arrest."

But, the real puzzle had been Ginny. Harry had expected her to be sad and to be grieving for Fred. He had not expected her to avoid him and refuse his attempts to comfort her.

He'd arrived at the Burrow to find the house filled with people. Friends and family were all there waiting for him. Hermione must have been keeping a watchful eye on the door, because she was the first to see him and she'd launched herself at him with a squeal of relief. Ron had thumped him so hard on the back that Harry had nearly fallen over. Then he'd been hugged within an inch of his life by nearly everyone else. Everyone, that is, except the one he'd been anticipating holding in his arms all afternoon. She had watched him from a distance, but seemed to melt away whenever Harry tried to make his way to her.

An enormous amount of food was spread like a feast on the table in the kitchen, and everyone helped themselves, taking heaping plates into the other rooms or into the lantern-lit back garden as they stood and talked in small quiet groups. The mood was both celebratory and solemn in respect for missing loved ones, especially Fred.

Hermione showed Harry the Daily Prophet from that morning. Blazoned across the front page was the enormous headline: HARRY POTTER DEFEATS DARK LORD! Under it was a huge picture of Harry. Harry gave a soft snort and shook his head. It was the same photograph they'd used when he'd been wanted for questioning about Dumbledore's death. Harry was grateful that no one had been hounding him yet for a new one. He probably had Kingsley to thank for that.

With Ron's help, Harry had gathered all the Weasleys together and privately told them his dream. He limited his story to his conversation with Fred, omitting any description of the place where he'd been before when he'd died, and how he had seen all the dead from the last battle there. Ginny had listened with her eyes down and her face turned partly away, and it was with a lump in his throat that Harry had told them about the tranz-plant offer Fred had made of his ear. Molly had gone all teary-eyed, saying, "That sounds just like what he would have said," and Arthur had looked amazed and said, "I did tell him about those Muggle tranz-plants. Imagine that he remembered that!" George gave in after a moment and grinned for a second or two. Some of the sparkle seemed to come back into his eyes after that. Ron had thumped Harry again, with a quietly sniffled, "Thanks, mate."

When Ginny slipped away from the family group, Harry followed her to a bench at the foot of the garden. She sat down, and he sat beside her, uncertain if he should touch her or not, so he didn't. "Gin," he said gently, the lump still in his throat. "Please talk to me. I've waited all year to be back with you, and now…" He paused and took a deep breath. "I don't understand what's wrong."

"You were dead," she whispered. "We all saw it. I can't get it out of my mind."

"But I wasn't dead," said Harry. "I pretended to be so that Voldemort didn't fight me before his snake was killed…" He trailed off, because she was looking at him now and there was hurt and anger in her eyes.

"You pretended? You deliberately let us all be shocked like that?"

The last few words came out on a stifled sob, and Harry reached out and took her hand. "It wasn't something I planned and I certainly didn't want to shock you," he said softly. "I hated knowing that you all believed I was dead, but you have to understand. There wasn't anything else I could do."

"I am trying to understand, Harry." She swiped at her eyes with her free hand. "I had just found out that Fred was gone… and then we thought you were dead, too. I can't seem to forget seeing you there in Hagrid's arms and how… how horrible it felt. It was like everything died."

Harry put his arm around her and gently pulled her close. "Hey," he said, "I'm here now. Alive and well." She sighed and nodded and laid her head on his shoulder. Harry rested his chin against her sweet-smelling hair and tried to believe that they could go back to those wonderful days at the end of Sixth Year, before he'd broken up with her.

But that fantasy didn't last long. After a moment, she pulled away and sat up. "I think I'm a bit angry with you, too," she said in a low voice. "For taking sides with Mum in that argument…"

"I'm sorry?" said Harry, completely lost. "What argument?"

"In the Room of Requirement, before the final battle started," she reminded him. "She wanted me to go home, and I looked at you for help and you sided with her. You, more than anyone, knew how competent I was in the DA, how I fought with you at the Department of Mysteries. I wanted to fight! That's what we had been practicing for!"

"Of course I sided with her," protested Harry. "I wanted you to be safe too!"

She looked up at him. "But that's just it, Harry. I don't want to be kept safe. I wanted to be involved. I wanted to help. All I ever got to do was be second to my brother and Hermione. They got to have all the fun, while I was stuck here or at school doing nothing!"

"Trust me, Ginny," said Harry, remembering flashes of their harrowing adventures. "None of it was fun."

"Well, then I wanted to be not having fun with you, too."

Harry sighed. "You know that sounds just a bit ridiculous, don't you?"

"Does it?" she said, softly. She stood up. "Maybe I just wanted you to believe in me," she said, not meeting his eyes. "I've had to live all this year knowing you might be killed at any moment. It's not fair for you to ask me to accept your being in danger, but then want to lock me up like something fragile so you don't have to be worried yourself. Besides, I'm not like that."

"I know you're not…" started Harry, but he didn't know what else to say. She was right, put that way, it wasn't fair, but that was the only way it could have been for him.

"Look, it's been a long day," said Ginny. Her hand slipped away from Harry's grasp. "I'll see you at Fred's funeral tomorrow, okay?"

"Yes," said Harry. "I'll be there, of course, but…" She was gone, her red hair flashing brilliant for a second in the light of the lantern over the back door, and Harry had not even kissed her.

"Just give her time," Hermione had said, when he'd come in.

Lying in bed now, he sighed again. Of course, he would give her time. What else was he going to do? He could understand her frustration with not being allowed to fight. He'd felt the same way – angry and frustrated – most of Fifth Year. But why couldn't Ginny understand that the last thing he'd wanted was for her to be there, risking her life with him. He'd barely been able to stand that Hermione and Ron had been there. Why couldn't she understand how much he had needed her to be safe, to be that one sure, bright, wonderful thing he could cling to for hope in all the madness?

That kiss, the one she had given him in her bedroom as a birthday present, had been in the back of his mind all year. It had kept him going, kept alive a spark of hope during all the dark, grim days, of something good and pure waiting for him when it was over. Some days, it was all he could imagine of the future – seeing Ginny, kissing her again. Was it so much to ask, after everything he'd been through, that she would be waiting to run into his arms and kiss him the way he'd imagined so many times?

He stared unseeing at the canopy above him and wondered when he would ever stop having to wait for the things he wanted.

No, nothing had turned out quite the way he'd expected. Unbidden, the memory of Malfoy's face came to his mind, that last unguarded sincere expression he'd seen before Malfoy left the Gryffindor common room. Without realising it, Harry smiled, and finally closed his eyes and slept.

x:x x:x x:x

x:x x:x x:x

This time, the Waiting Place looked more like the vaulted nave of a cathedral than King's Cross station. Harry stood barefoot and white-robed in the swirling, shining mist and looked around in disbelief at the high arched ceilings and stained glass windows. Why on earth was he here again?

He took a few steps forwards and as the mist cleared away somewhat, thought he could make out a single figure sitting on a bench at the far end of the nave. It was with a feeling of dread that he made his way toward that lone figure, extremely reluctant to find out who it was that had died now.

But when Harry came up beside her, it was no one he knew. It was a little old witch with a sweet, round, wrinkled face, her head bowed in prayer, her hair pinned up in a bun that was coming undone around her face in white wisps. "Er…" said Harry, just above a whisper. "Hello?"

She looked up at him and the bright blue eyes went huge in the little wrinkled face. "Mr Potter?" she gasped. "Oh, my goodness! It's really you, isn't it? Harry Potter?"

"Yes," said Harry, quite startled. "I'm me, I mean yes, I'm Harry Potter…"

She stood and placed one hand on his arm. "I'm Agatha Bell, dear. My granddaughter, Katie, knew you at Hogwarts. She always spoke so well of you, you know." Then she leaned close and whispered, "I know I'm dead, so you don't have to worry if that's why you're here. To tell me that, I mean."

Harry smiled. "I really don't know why I'm here," he whispered back. "But I'm pleased to meet you."

She beamed at him. "Oh, if I'd known I was going to meet Harry Potter when I died, I wouldn't have worried about it so much."

Harry barely stifled a groan. He remembered what Dumbledore had said when they'd met here, that it was his party. That would mean this must be Agatha's party this time. "So what do you think happens now?" he asked, relieved that he didn't need to be in charge.

"Oh," she said, tipping her head thoughtfully to one side, "I think I'm meant to climb those stairs over there. It's funny. I didn't see them until just now…"

Turning, Harry could now see a column of light that contained a winding stair at the centre of the immense space. He was sure it hadn't been there a moment ago. Nodding, he stepped aside so she could walk past him. "That must be it," he said. "I'll just wait here to be sure you get along okay, yeah?"

"Yes, thank you, dear," she said in a hushed voice. "Isn't it beautiful?" She took a few steps towards the stairs, then turned back to face Harry. "There's something else I need to tell you," she said slowly, "and I've just remembered. Maybe that is why you're here…"

"Oh?" said Harry.

"It's about that boy. The one who gave my Katie that horrible necklace. I don't think I can go up those stairs until I tell you that I've forgiven him. Somehow, I know now that it was an accident. I know he was in trouble and didn't mean for it to hurt her." She paused and looked at Harry with pleading blue eyes. "Will you tell him that for me, if you see him?"

Harry felt rooted to the spot in shock. "Yes," he finally managed to say. "Yes, if I see him again, I'll tell him."

She smiled at him then, as if all the burdens of the world had been spirited away. With a soft, "Thank you, dear," she went forward into the light and stepped up on the stairs, and they moved, spiralling up like the ones in Dumbledore's office, lifting her out of sight.

Harry took a few steps back and sank down onto the bench, astonished. After a few seconds, the mist swirled down and everything dissolved into white and disappeared.

x:x x:x x:x

x:x x:x x:x

When Harry came down to the kitchen the next morning, Ron and Hermione were already there, and Kreacher was fixing a breakfast that might have easily served ten. Well, four or five, if one took Ron's appetite into account. Harry felt ravenous enough this morning to give him some competition.

"Good morning, Master Harry!" said Kreacher, in his deep croaking voice. "Breakfast is already on the table, please help yourself to whatever you like."

"Thank you, Kreacher," said Harry. The kitchen looked just as he'd left it that morning, so many months ago, when they'd set out to get the locket from Dolores Umbridge at the Ministry and had been prevented from coming back. The fire crackled cheerily in the hearth, the pots gleamed brightly on their racks overhead, and the table was laden with shining plates and delicious food. It was wonderful to be back. "And Kreacher," said Harry, hurriedly piling his plate with toast before Ron could eat it all. "I didn't have the chance to say this yesterday, but I saw what you did at Hogwarts during the last battle. You were amazing!"

Kreacher came around the table and bowed low before Harry. "Thank you, Master Harry. And may I say the same to you." There was a definite smile on the old elf's wrinkled face. "Kreacher is very proud now to have Harry Potter as his master."

"Oh," said Harry, unexpectedly touched. "I am very proud of you, too, Kreacher," he said, only a little surprised to find that it was perfectly true. He glanced over at Hermione and saw that she was smiling at him. He smiled back, thankful to have finally earned her approval on the proper treatment of house-elves.

"Master Harry would perhaps like to celebrate his victory with a special steak and kidney pie?" asked Kreacher. He seemed quite hopeful.

It wasn't what Harry would normally like for breakfast, but he was all set to accept when he caught sight of Hermione and Ron both mouthing silently but emphatically NO. And suddenly he had a terrible suspicion. "Er…that wouldn't be the same steak and kidney pie you made the night we didn't come back for dinner, would it, Kreacher?"

"Ha," croaked Kreacher. "Master Harry is being funny." But no more mention of the questionable pie was made after that.

The rest of breakfast was simply a quiet, luxurious feast. After months of camping and barely knowing when or where they would eat, it was heaven to sit and eat to their hearts content in peace. The splendid quality of the morning was only spoiled for Harry by having to pretend not to notice how Ron and Hermione were looking at each other. He knew they were trying hard not to be obvious, but Hermione had a glowing, besotted smile on her face, and kept glancing at Ron. Ron looked over the moon, and Harry guessed that wasn't far off. He had a hard time not resenting the fact that he should have been with someone too.

His discontent must have shown on his face, because eventually Hermione leaned across the table and put her hand on his arm. "She'll come around, Harry," she said. "I'm sure it'll just be a matter of time."

Ron, whose mouth was stuffed with eggs at that moment, nodded in agreement. "Mad'r o' dime," he said knowingly.

Harry looked down at his plate and shrugged. He was still hopeful, but unconvinced. He pushed a piece of bacon around on his plate, thinking about Ginny. For several minutes, he was quite lost in the memory of the last kiss they'd shared so many months ago, and then was drifting off into the fantasy of that imagined kiss, the one that had never happened….

"You haven't had any more dreams of dead people, have you Harry?" asked Hermione, nosey as ever.

Startled from his reverie, Harry looked up to find both Hermione and Ron watching him. "Er, no," he lied. They were leaving later this morning to find Hermione's parents in Australia and Harry was absolutely not going to worry them about this strange dream-thing he was experiencing. If it were still happening by the time they got back, he reasoned, he could worry them about it then. He picked up the slice of bacon and popped it in his mouth. "No," he said again, when he saw they were still watching. "I'm fine. No dead people."

But when they went upstairs to get dressed for the funeral, Harry gave Kreacher 10 Knuts and sent him to get a copy of the Daily Prophet. And really, he thought, once he'd read the neat little obituary for Agatha Elisabeth Bell, age 97, died peacefully in her sleep, he shouldn't have been so shocked to find it.

x:x x:x x:x

x:x x:x x:x

Fred's funeral was not a dull and dismal affair. George had gone all out to celebrate his twin's life. The small cemetery at Ottery St Catchpole was decorated with bright banners that proclaimed FRED IS DEAD BUT HIS SPIRIT LIVES ON, and streaming multi-coloured fireworks launched sprays of glittering sparks overhead. Each of the family gave a short eulogy, many of which consisted of funny memories of Fred's childhood escapades. There were both laughter and tears in abundance.

"I'm making sure he doesn't come back to haunt me, Harry," said George when he stood up to speak. "I'll just have to get in enough trouble for both of us. But I draw the line at that tranz-plant business. I'm not having some Muggle stitch his mouldy ear on me, thank you very much. I intend to keep my head holey."

Ginny stood by Harry's side through it all, and even let him hold her hand. She smiled at him a couple of times through her tears, too, but Harry knew from the distance in her eyes, that things were not right, not yet.

When it was over, Harry stood with Molly and Arthur in the garden at the Burrow to see Hermione and Ron off. Hermione was carrying a small tote bag which Harry had no doubt contained all their luggage and half a library. They were Apparating to London, where they would board a plane to Australia. Arthur was almost beside himself with gleeful delight at the prospect of Ron's adventure on the Muggle flying machine. Hermione promised to tell him everything about it when they got back.

After they had gone, Molly invited Harry to stay for lunch, which he reluctantly declined. He had only a short time before he needed to leave to attend Colin Creevey's funeral and all he wanted to do was find Ginny and talk. But Ginny, when he did find her, was busy in the kitchen, and wouldn't leave to go walk with him, though Molly insisted she was fine and didn't need Ginny's help. Frustrated and embarrassed, and not inclined to ask more than twice, Harry grabbed a sandwich from the plate on the table and left on his own.

Later, Harry would always think of this day as the Day of Funerals. Fred's was only the first of many that day, and Harry quietly and dutifully relayed the messages he'd been given that first night in the Waiting Place. He found in every case, the family of the deceased seemed to embrace his words as if they were unquestionable truth. They could not hear enough about how their loved one looked, or what he or she said and did; drinking in Harry's words like barren, parched earth soaking up precious, life-giving drops of rain. He felt their grief lessen, and their acceptance of the death grow stronger as he described the peaceful place he'd seen, the joy he'd felt all around, and told them the last words he'd been sent to deliver.

Hardest of all was the memorial for Tonks and Remus Lupin. He held his infant godson and couldn't help smiling sadly at the bright pink hair on Teddy's tiny head, so like his mum's, but there were no words he could give Andromeda for the loss of almost her entire family. The most he could do was promise her that he would watch over this little child, her grandson, with her for as long as he lived.

At the end of the very long day, Harry was done in. More than anything, he would have loved to have had quiet understanding company, just to sit with and not be alone. He missed Ron and Hermione's easy camaraderie. Even more, he felt keenly the absence of the relationship he'd expected to be sharing with Ginny now. So he was not in the mood to go back to the Weasleys where it was noisy and where he might very well be rebuffed again. Instead, he went home to Grimmauld Place alone, ate the stew that Kreacher served him and went straight to bed, only wondering, just before he fell asleep, if there hadn't been bits of steak and kidney pie in that stew.

x:x x:x x:x

x:x x:x x:x

This night, the Waiting Place was very different. As the white mist rolled away before him, Harry saw a bleak shoreline where restless whitecaps surged and crashed against dark rocks. A solitary figure in black knelt in obvious despair upon the shore, and Harry saw too, the small, fragile boat that tossed dangerously on the water nearby. If that was how this soul was meant to go on, Harry thought, it would be a perilous and terrifying journey.

A deep feeling of concern welled up in him at the thought and he hurried forward to find out if he could help. It was not until he reached the side of the sobbing woman and she looked up at him, startled and afraid, that he recognised Narcissa Malfoy.

She gasped and clutched at Harry, and he took a step back with an involuntary reflex, but she had caught hold of the edge of his robe. "Help him, oh please, help him," she cried.

"Calm down, Mrs Malfoy," said Harry. "I want to help you…"

"No, NO! Not me," she insisted, frantic, tugging at him. "You're alive! You have to go back! You have to help him! Yaxley will kill him…"

"Who?" said Harry, raising his voice to make her hear him. "Kill who?"

"My son! Draco. At the Manor. Hurry! Oh, please hurry!"

And as she spoke those last words, she faded away into nothing like the mist. But her voice still echoed from the rocks. Hurry!

Harry had no idea what to do. He didn't know how to wilfully come to this place or leave. But he had to try. He closed his eyes and took a leap in his mind…

…and sat up in bed, badly shaken. Yaxley! But why was he attacking the Malfoys? It made no sense… And then in the next instant a cold shiver of horror trickled through Harry, and he knew. Yaxley had been there in the clearing in the Forbidden Forest. Yaxley had seen what Narcissa Malfoy had done, had seen her tell that most treacherous lie to the Dark Lord.

He sat frozen for a split second, his heart pounding, then was throwing off the blankets and reaching for his glasses on the bedside table. He yanked on his jeans over the boxers he'd worn to bed and stuffed his bare feet into his trainers. After a frenzied search on the floor, he came up with the dirty shirt he'd worn yesterday and pulled it on.

Then he raised his wand and paused for a heartbeat… Oh, Merlin, if this wasn't real, he was going to look like the greatest idiot ever… and he didn't care. Closing his eyes, he pictured that moment when the cheer had gone up in the Great Hall, when Voldemort had fallen…

"Expecto Patronum!" The stag leapt from the end of his wand, huge and glowing white in the dark bedroom. "Find Kingsley," he told it urgently. "Yaxley's attacking Malfoy Manor, Narcissa Malfoy's hurt, maybe murdered. Send help immediately!" The stag took off, galloping straight through the window and away.

Harry didn't trust himself to Apparate to Malfoy Manor, and there was only one other way he could think of to get there fast enough. "Kreacher!" he yelled.

The panic in his voice must have carried, because a moment later the old elf popped into his bedroom with a sharp crack, brandishing a huge carving knife.

"Master Harry?" he croaked, wild-eyed, the knife raised menacingly. He looked ready to kill.

"I'm fine, I'm fine!" said Harry quickly. "It's Narcissa… er… Miss Cissy. She saved my life in the last battle and now she's in danger. I need to get to Malfoy Manor as fast as possible. Can you take me to her?"

"Miss Cissy? In danger?" The old elf drew himself up, his wrinkled face fierce and outraged. He held out his hand to Harry. "Kreacher can do it, yes, Master Harry! You hold on…"

Harry came around the side of the bed, crouched down, and took Kreacher's outstretched hand. In his other hand, he held his wand poised and ready. "Bring the knife," he said. Kreacher grinned at him with his sharp grey teeth, and then with a crack they vanished.

x:x x:x x:x

x:x x:x x:x

Kreacher Apparated Harry right into the midst of a raging wand fight. Harry dropped immediately into a defensive crouch behind a hedge, as jets of red and green light from flying curses streaked through the air overhead and lit up the vast dark lawn of Malfoy Manor.

From somewhere nearby, Harry could hear Draco's voice screaming, "Get out! Get out! Leave them alone! They didn't even have wands, you bastards! Leave them alone!"

Cautiously, Harry looked over the top of the hedge to get his bearings. He and Kreacher were in a side garden, crouched behind the yew hedge that bordered the long drive to the mansion. It didn't appear that anyone had seen them yet, they were all too focussed on each other, and the bang and crack of spells being cast had covered the sound of their Apparition. The front door of the Manor stood open wide and light streamed out across the drive. With a sharp intake of breath, Harry caught sight of the two bodies that lay only yards away on the lawn, at the edge of that stark spill of light. Lucius and Narcissa, Draco's parents.

Too many spells were being cast from the cover of bushes and trees out on the grounds for it to be only Yaxley attacking. Harry recalled that the Aurors were looking for three escaped Death Eaters, and was certain they were all here.

Another volley of spells shot past Harry towards the mansion, and he finally located Draco. Dressed only in pyjama trousers, Draco was kneeling behind one of the columns at the front of the house, alternately casting Shield Charms over his parents and Stunning Spells at the invaders. He was skilfully protecting all of them, but even at this distance, Harry could see the strain, the fury, and the fear in his face.

In that moment, Harry was very grateful to whatever impulse had led him to return Draco's wand. If not for that, all three of them would have been completely at the mercy of the Death Eaters. Though in the few seconds that Harry watched, it was clear that Draco was having trouble with the wand, and that he was tiring. It was only a matter of time before he would be defeated.

The Death Eaters knew it too, for as Draco screamed at them again, begging them to leave, a derisive laugh echoed out over the lawn. Macnair, Harry thought, with a shudder.

Harry quickly cast a silent Shield Charm over the fallen Malfoys, then turned to Kreacher. "Do only what you have to, to incapacitate the Death Eaters," he whispered to the elf. "Don't kill anyone. And stay safe!"

The old elf gave him a feral grin and nodded. "Yes, Master Harry." He crept away, quickly disappearing into the darkness of the grounds.

Harry cast a second Shield Charm between Draco and the Death Eaters, timing it to match Draco's next spell and hoping the Death Eaters would not realise there was a second source. But Draco did. Harry saw him react in surprise, his eyes darting in Harry's direction, but in the next second a terrible howl went up from the bushes where the Death Eaters were hidden, followed almost immediately by a second scream of pain.

Harry burst from his place behind the hedge and dashed across the drive in the direction of the screaming voices, running low, wand at the ready. From the corner of his eye, he saw Draco was running too, coming down the stairs into the drive, headed for his mother. Harry turned his full attention, then, to the Death Eaters ahead, trusting Draco to take care of his parents.

Leaping over another hedge, Harry found two men down on the ground, unrecognisable in the dark, while a third was grappling with something smaller, something Harry recognised instantly as Kreacher. "Petrificus Totalus!" yelled Harry, and the man fighting with Kreacher went rigid and toppled over like an upended plank. "Stupefy!" he shouted, as one of the men on the ground tried to stand and run. The man collapsed and fell to the ground, unconscious. "Incarcerous!" Streamers of bluish-green rope shot from Harry's wand to wrap around the third man who was writhing on the ground, holding his shin.

"That bloody elf stabbed me leg!" yelled the man who was now trussed up on the ground. "I'm bleeding!"

"Oh, shut up!" said Harry. "Kreacher?" he called out. "Where are you? Are you okay?"

The elf appeared from the shadows, limping slightly, but otherwise unharmed. "We got them all, Master Harry!" he croaked with vicious delight, and Harry wondered for a fleeting second if the old elf hadn't enjoyed himself just a little too much.

"Guard them," said Harry, "but no more stabbing!" He walked back toward the house where Draco was kneeling next to his still unconscious mother. Draco had gathered her up in his arms, cradling her head against his shoulder. Lucius was sitting up now, but making no move to help Draco. As Harry got closer, he could tell that Lucius was dressed in an elegant dark dressing-gown over a white nightshirt, but he was sitting awkwardly and making odd humming noises to himself. A moment later, Harry recognised with dismay the eerie vacant, unfocussed look on Lucius's face.

Draco looked up as Harry reached him, his face a pale mask of shock. "Potter," he said in a hoarse whisper. "How…?"

"Never mind that," said Harry, dropping down to kneel next to Draco. "How is she?"

"Alive," said Draco, "but barely. She needs to get help. And there's no way I can take her anywhere…"

"What about your father. Is he…?"

"Obliviated," confirmed Draco with a grimace.

Just then the grounds were filled with a multitude of sharp cracks as Aurors Apparated in from all directions. "Harry!" roared Kingsley's deep voice, and Harry spotted him a second later striding up the drive.

"Here!" shouted Harry. Then he pointed out over the dark lawn. "The attackers are over there with my house-elf. But we need medical help here, now!"

Kingsley motioned several of the Aurors in the direction of the captured Death Eaters. "Take them straight to a holding cell; we'll sort them out later!" he called out. "Quincy! Blake! To me!"

Two men wearing lime-green armbands with medical emblems on them appeared an instant later at Shacklebolt's side. One of them ran ahead to crouch down by Draco and Narcissa. He began casting diagnostic charms and healing spells. "I can barely detect a pulse," he said. "Did you see what happened to her?" he asked Draco.

"They were using the Cruciatus Curse on her," said Draco. "She was screaming and screaming. It was horrible." His face was very pale and slick with sweat; it looked like he might be sick at any moment. "Will she be all right?" His voice was barely audible.

"I can't say yet," said the mediwizard. "I'm going to Apparate her directly to the Emergency Ward at St Mungo's." He stood up and faced Kingsley, who had reached them. "With your permission, sir…"

Kingsley nodded. "Go," he said. "I'll meet you there later."

The mediwizard conjured a stretcher and helped Draco move Narcissa gently onto it. He levitated it and a second later Disapparated with her.

"Sir," said the second mediwizard, who had been examining Lucius. "Mr Malfoy is unhurt, but he has been Obliviated. We should get him into care as well."

"Very well," said Kingsley. "Take him in."

Harry watched while the second mediwizard coaxed Lucius Malfoy to stand, and then Apparated him away. Draco was standing apart from them, his arms crossed over his chest. He seemed to be at a loss now that his parents were gone.

Turning back to the lawn, Harry tried to see what was happening with the three Death Eaters they had captured, but it was too dark to see clearly. "Kreacher?" he called quietly. A second later the house-elf appeared beside him, still clutching the large, now bloody, knife. "Did the Aurors take them all away?" asked Harry. "Did they recognise any of them?"

"They took them all, Master Harry. Kreacher heard the Aurors say two names, Rookwood and Macnair."

"Okay," said Harry. "Thank you, Kreacher, you were a great help tonight. You can go home now and I'll be along after I've talked to Minister Shacklebolt." He eyed the grisly knife again. "And let's, er, not be using that knife in the kitchen after this, okay?"

"Oh no, Master Harry," said Kreacher, looking affronted. "This is not a kitchen knife. This is Kreacher's victory sword from Hogwarts." He slashed it through the air twice, then jabbed an invisible foe. "Kreacher is keeping it for your protection now."

"Right," said Harry, slowly, not knowing if he should be proud or horrified, but too tired to think about it now. "I'll see you at home, in the morning…"

Kreacher bowed and vanished, and Harry turned back to find Kingsley talking to Draco. Draco seemed to be explaining what had happened and Kingsley was nodding and asking questions. Harry put his hands in his pockets and waited, not wanting to intrude. After a few minutes, Draco went into the house, and Kingsley came down the stairs and walked over to Harry.

"How did you know about this?" said Kingsley, without preamble. "Lucius's son told me he had no idea how you knew to come help him."

"I…" Harry paused, knowing it was going to sound crazy. But if anyone would believe him, it would be Kingsley. "I saw Mrs Malfoy in a dream, sir," he said, choosing to leave out the details of the Waiting Place. "She begged me for help. As soon as I woke up, I sent my Patronus to you and came here with Kreacher. I… er… know it sounds a bit mad, sir, but I was sure I was doing the right thing…"

"So it would seem," said Kingsley, frowning at him. "But there were Aurors standing right outside your front door, Harry," he said, his voice low and stern. "Why didn't you alert them?"

"Oh," said Harry. He ran one hand through his hair and shrugged, giving Kingsley a sheepish, apologetic half-grin. "I completely forgot about them."

"So you what? Popped over here and took out three Death Eaters! By yourself?"

"Well, not exactly," said Harry. "I had help."

"Oh, right! Your house-elf," said Kingsley, rolling his eyes.

"Yes," said Harry, thinking that one should never underestimate the effectiveness of a furious house-elf with a carving knife. He was afraid for a moment that Kingsley was going to be seriously angry with him, but then Kingsley laughed. His large hand came down on Harry's shoulder.

"Harry, I definitely need someone like you in the Auror Corps. I hope you're still considering that as a career."

"Yes, sir, I am!" said Harry, brightening.

"Good!" Kingsley gave Harry's shoulder an affectionate shake. "Come to my office when you're ready and we'll talk." He looked back toward the Manor. "Young Malfoy should be down in a moment and is going to need to get to St Mungo's. He tells me that he can't Apparate there himself, but I need to get back to headquarters to deal with our Death Eaters. Would you do me a favour, Harry, and take him there yourself?"

"Er…" said Harry. Bloody hell. "Yes, sir, I can do that." Merlin, Harry thought, even as he agreed. It was going to be a long night.

Kingsley drew his wand. "I'm going to give you Auror clearance, Harry. It's a classified ward recognition spell that will allow you to Apparate directly into the reception room at St Mungo's instead of having to go out on the street and in through the glass of the Muggle store front."

Harry grinned. "Okay." Maybe this wouldn't be so bad, after all.

x:x x:x x:x

x:x x:x x:x

Harry sat on the steps of Malfoy Manor, staring out at the dark lawn, waiting for Draco to come out. Minister Shacklebolt had been gone less than ten minutes, but it was cold outside and Harry had come away from home with no jacket. He was just about to try the door to the mansion when Draco came rushing out, slamming the door behind him.

Draco had pulled woollen trousers on over his pyjama trousers and stuck his feet into shoes, but wore no socks. He had put on a shirt and was carrying a jumper in one hand. In the other hand, he had a small suitcase, which explained what had taken him so long. Harry thought he must have packed for his parents, because it was obvious he hadn't taken the time for himself; he looked a right mess. Somehow, that made Harry like him just a little bit better.

But then Draco looked up and saw Harry there waiting, and came to an abrupt halt. "Potter?" he said, taking a step back. "What…? Why are you still here?"

"I'm to take you to St Mungo's," said Harry. "Kingsley asked me to. He gave me clearance to Apparate straight in."

"So what are you now, some kind of junior Auror?"

"Apparently so," said Harry, feeling just a little bit smug.

Draco stared at him hard for a second, then sneered that very familiar sneer. "Oh, well good for you," he said, and the undertone of resentment in his voice wasn't lost on Harry.

"Are you angry with me, Malfoy?" asked Harry, a bit incredulous. "I would have thought you'd be glad I came."

"I hate that you came," said Draco, "because every time I think I'm quit of you, somehow here you are again, and now we'll owe you even more than we did…" He drew a shaky breath. "I can't even Apparate by myself because my wand still thinks it belongs to you…"

"Which is exactly what I told you before I gave it back!"

Draco glared. "Yeah, and you've always been right about everything, haven't you?"

Harry glared back… and felt ridiculous.… What he wanted more than anything was to be home and back in bed, maybe with a cup of hot cocoa, not standing here arguing with Malfoy in the middle of the night. "Let's just go," he said, still annoyed, but trying hard to rein it in. "You can shout at me about being right some other time. When your parents are not in hospital."

"Fine," said Draco, and Harry heard an odd quiver in his voice. Draco took a few steps closer to Harry, and the emotion Harry saw in his eyes was no longer anger, but panic. Then, without warning, Draco seemed to crumble, the terror and shock of the night's events finally catching up to him.

Reflex-quick, without thinking, Harry stepped forward and caught Draco before he went down. His arms went around Draco, pulling him hard against himself, supporting his weight. Draco leaned into him, his jumper and the case still clutched in his hands at his sides, and Harry felt him shivering. "All right, Malfoy?" he asked, honestly concerned.

"What if… what if she's dead," whispered Draco, his mouth by Harry's ear. "I don't want to go.… I don't want to find out she's… dead.…"

Harry took a deep breath. That might have been the most honest thing Draco Malfoy had ever said to him and his hands slid up to hold Draco more gently. "I'm coming with you…" he said, all of his former irritation forgotten. And then knowing he was probably giving up any chance of hot cocoa and bed tonight, he added, "…and I'll stay if you like. So you won't be alone."

He felt Draco nod and gulp in a breath. Draco's arms came up around Harry, the suitcase bumping against the back of Harry's legs; his other hand, still clutching the jumper, pressed into the middle of Harry's back.

It was a second or two before Draco spoke. "Okay," he said, finally. "Go."

Concentrating hard on his two-year old memory of the hospital's reception area, Harry turned on the spot and Disapparated them both to St Mungo's.

x:x x:x x:x

x:x x:x x:x

The waiting area for Spell Damage on the fourth floor was mostly deserted. Only one old wizard, head tipped back and mouth open, his pointed wizard's hat pulled down over his eyes, snored quietly in a chair in the corner. Harry sat with Draco on a tattered sofa on the other side of the room, half-asleep himself. They'd been waiting for the better part of an hour for some news from the Healer who was assigned to Narcissa Malfoy's case. At least they had found out that she was still alive, and though the wait was nerve-wracking, Draco was visibly calmer than he had been.

Lucius Malfoy, they had learned, was undergoing emergency treatment for the reversal of memory loss, and it was not yet decided if he would be have to be admitted to the Janus Thickey Ward for permanent spell damage. Harry had wondered if his ex-Defence Against the Dark Arts professor, Gilderoy Lockhart was still there, and how well they'd get on, if Mr Malfoy did have to live there. A tiny trickle of amusement had run through Harry's mind as he imagined them competing with each other for attention. Then he had remembered Neville's parents, and the chance that Mrs Malfoy might suffer the same fate, had sobered him instantly.

About fifteen minutes earlier, Harry, unable to sit still another minute, had ventured up the rickety stairs to the tearoom on the fifth floor to see what he could find. The place had been empty, but he'd been very pleased to discover a tray of tea things, with pots of coffee, tea and cocoa charmed to stay hot, as well as a plate of assorted biscuits. He had helped himself to several, and had poured two steaming cups of cocoa to bring back downstairs.

Draco had accepted the snack without interest, but had slowly eaten one biscuit and had drunk a few sips of his cocoa. Harry had long since wolfed down the other biscuits and drained his cup, and was considering going up for more when Draco spoke to him for the first time since they'd arrived.

"I shouldn't have been angry with you earlier," said Draco. His voice was hushed and rough with emotion. "Especially not after what you did tonight," he added, staring into his cup of cocoa. "It just struck me as so unfair, that my life is such a fucking mess, and yours is so… so bloody perfect." He gave a short sniff of a laugh, and slanted a glance at Harry. "It was always meant to be the other way round, you know." He looked down again and seemed to be struggling with what he wanted to say. "The truth is…" he said finally, his voice growing softer now, "…I don't know how you knew, but I… well, besides the time you pulled me out of the Fiendfyre, I don't think I've ever been so glad to see anyone in my life as I was to see you tonight." He turned his head to look at Harry then, and his eyes were troubled. "How did you know?"

Harry met Draco's eyes for a few seconds, and then it was his turn to look down and stare into his now empty cup. He was uncomfortable talking about this, but he knew Draco needed an explanation. Harry took a deep breath, and reluctantly told him the truth. "I've been having these dreams… or maybe they're not dreams…" he said, "but every night since I defeated Voldemort, I find myself dreaming of meeting someone who has died." He looked up and faced Draco. "Tonight, I saw your mother. She begged me to come help you. So after I sent a message to Kingsley, I did."

"A dream?" said Draco. His eyebrows had disappeared somewhere up under his long, dishevelled fringe. Then one corner of his mouth twitched up. "So you weren't just being a nosey, interfering git? My mother asked you to come?"

"Yes," said Harry, barely suppressing the urge to roll his eyes. "She did."

Then Draco was serious again. "But you said it was people who died. My mother isn't dead."

"Yeah, I know," said Harry. "But she was there, and then she faded away. I never saw anyone else disappear like that. They all go… on… somehow."

"On? Where?"

"Dunno," said Harry. "I only see them before. They talk to me, and then they go on. I… er… actually… have a message for you, from one of them." Harry wondered if this was really the best time to tell Malfoy this, but he might not see him again and he wanted to keep his promise to Mrs Bell.

Draco stared at him in obvious disbelief. "A message. For me. From a dead person? Potter, if this is a joke, it is not even remotely funny."

"It's not a joke, Malfoy, I promise." Harry stared obstinately back. "Do you want to hear it or not?"

Draco slumped back against the sofa and sighed. "Go on then," he said.

"The person I saw in my dream was named Agatha Bell," said Harry. "She was Katie Bell's grandmother. Katie Bell was the girl that…" Harry's voice trailed off as Draco looked back at him, horrified, and Harry saw he didn't need to explain who Katie was. "Agatha Bell asked me to tell you that she forgave you for what happened with the necklace. She said she knows now that you were in trouble and that it was a mistake." Harry paused. "That was it," he said.

"She forgave me…" said Draco, very quietly. "She said that?" His eyes were studying Harry intently, but the hostility that had been in his expression a moment ago had vanished, replaced by relief and an open vulnerability that Harry had never seen before.

"Yeah," said Harry. His heart filled with a sudden warmth, glad that he'd had this message to deliver. "She said she couldn't go on until she'd given me that message for you."

Draco nodded, clearly moved by what Harry had told him. "Thanks for telling me," he said in a hushed voice.

They lapsed into silence, and Harry finally voiced the question he'd been wanting to ask all night. "What happened tonight?" he said. "Before I got there?"

Draco ran one hand through his pale hair and strands of it stuck up, no doubt in a poor imitation of Harry's own messy hair. Harry thought the pair of them must look a sight.

"A peacock out in the garden was screaming," said Draco, after a long moment. "They make a hideous noise." He shivered. "Father thought there was probably a fox in the garden and went out to chase it off. It's obvious now that those men were torturing the peacock, to make one of us come outside." He paused to drink down the last of his cocoa, then set the empty cup aside. "Mother and I were waiting in the upstairs hall," he continued in a tense voice, "and Father had only been gone a few minutes when the peacock stopped shrieking. We thought everything was fine, so we went back to bed."

Draco paused again and took a shaky breath. "I don't know how long I was asleep, not long maybe, but when I woke up, I could hear the screaming again. It took me a minute to realise that it wasn't the bird that was screaming – it was my mother. When my father didn't come back in, she must have gone down alone… I grabbed my wand… but I couldn't Apparate… so I ran. I had to run down three flights of stairs."

He stopped talking again, and then turned to Harry with haunted eyes. "When I got down there… they had her on the ground.… There were three of them… and they were all using Crucio on her at once…." He dropped his head into his hands. "She was screaming and screaming and screaming. And Father was just lying there. I thought he was dead…"

"Merlin, Malfoy," breathed Harry, horrified.

Draco's hands were fisted into his hair. "I don't know what I did next," he said. "I was so furious, I wanted to kill them. I used every defensive spell I could think of, and they backed off into the lawn. In between, I tried to cast Rennervate on my parents and shield them at the same time. But the wand wasn't working right…" His voice trailed off into a groan.

"Your mother must have been very close to death," whispered Harry. "But that must be why she faded in my dream. Because you got there in time to save her life."

Draco lifted his head. "Do you really think so?" he murmured. "I felt so… useless."

"I'm sure of it," said Harry. And then Harry understood something fundamental about why Draco had been so angry with him. "It was you that saved her, not me," he said firmly.

Draco looked up at him then, and there was doubt in the light grey eyes. Harry remembered how, in his dream, Narcissa had insisted that Harry go to the Manor to save Draco, not herself. And Harry had to admit that, as evil as he'd always believed the Malfoys to be, he was now unexpectedly moved by how selflessly devoted they were to each other.

"It was definitely you," Harry repeated with conviction.

Draco met Harry's eyes, searching for more than Harry's words to convince him of that truth. Harry stared back steadily, wanting Malfoy to believe him. And something, a kind of unspoken understanding, passed between them in that moment of eye contact. It seemed to Harry that all the barriers from their past crumbled and disappeared. Draco nodded, accepting Harry's conviction, and there was such relief and gratitude in his eyes now, that his whole face was alight with it. It was a transformation that took Harry by surprise, and his heart did a funny little flip inside his chest. He smiled back at Draco and the something in his gut that was always tight and wary when he was around Draco unwound and relaxed. Somehow, he felt now, they had left the past behind, and the freedom to be different with each other opened up before them like some vast unexplored and foreign territory.

And then the moment was gone; Draco looked away, his face sober again, and Harry wondered if he'd imagined that connection he'd felt, and if Draco had felt it at all.

They sat in silence for the next few minutes. Harry was thinking again of going upstairs for more biscuits and cocoa when the door from the corridor opened and Kingsley Shacklebolt walked in. He looked weary and put out. His eyebrows rose for a second when he spotted Harry, but he continued across the room to them.

"Malfoy," said Kingsley. He glanced over at the old wizard sleeping in the corner and lowered his voice. "And Harry," he said, "it's probably good that you're here, too. We've identified the three men that were apprehended earlier at the Manor. All of them were known Death Eaters. None of them were Yaxley. Harry, I thought you specifically mentioned his name when you sent the Patronus."

"That's what Mrs Malfoy told me…" said Harry with a shrug. "I dunno how accurate these dreams are… but she was very specific. She said 'Yaxley will kill him' and she meant Malfoy here, not her husband."

"Yes, well, considering how accurate it was otherwise," said Kingsley, "I don't think we can ignore it. We are still interrogating those men, so we'll make it a priority to find out if Yaxley had any connection to what happened tonight." He turned to Draco. "And until we know otherwise, Yaxley is at large, and we have to assume your life is threatened. That means you don't go home without an Auror escort, is that clear?"

"Yes, sir," murmured Draco.

"And that goes for you, too, Harry," said Kingsley, looking from Draco to Harry. "When you leave here, Apparate straight from this room to your front door. There are Aurors on guard there to meet you. And I'll assign someone to accompany you if you need to go out." He put his hand on Harry's shoulder. "I'll let you know as soon as we find out anything," he added. "In the meantime, both of you should get some sleep." He waited until they had both agreed, then walked out. They listened to his footsteps fading away down the corridor for a moment.

Draco slumped back against the sofa cushion, closed his eyes and let out a long breath. He was silent for so long that Harry thought he might have actually taken Kingsley at his word and fallen asleep. But then the door to the ward opened. One of the Healers in a lime-green robe stepped into the room and Draco was on his feet in an instant.

"Mr Malfoy?" said the Healer, and Draco nodded. "I'm Healer Pye. I can take you in to see your mother now, if you like. Her physical condition has been stabilised for now, but she is still unconscious. We can't determine the state of her mind until she regains consciousness, so for now, all we can do is wait. It's usually best not to force these things."

"And my father?" asked Draco, picking up his suitcase and the jumper he had never put on.

"Your father is perfectly well physically," said the Healer. "But he doesn't remember who he is yet. We are using some newly-developed spell and potion combinations that help reverse the spell damage and restore the Obliviated memory pathways in the brain. There is no guarantee that he will remember everything, but we've had success with this method in the past."

The Healer was leading Draco toward the door as he spoke. Harry stood up, suddenly realising he was about to be left behind. "Er, Malfoy, wait," he called out. Draco stopped and turned. "I'm going home," said Harry. "You'll be okay, now, yeah?"

"Go home, Potter," said Draco. "I'll try to manage without you… somehow." And then he followed Healer Pye through the door and was gone.

Harry had seen, though, that despite the joking words and the fleeting ghost of a smile on Draco's pale face, the look in Draco's eyes was sad and hopeless again.

x:x x:x x:x

x:x x:x x:x

Finally, at home and back in bed, Harry found himself reliving the events of the last couple of hours instead of sleeping. He wanted to believe that he'd done everything he could, that his involvement with the Malfoys was finished.

But what came back to Harry over and over was the moment on the steps of Malfoy Manor when he and Malfoy had held each other. And the times, later in the waiting room at St Mungo's when he had looked, really looked, into Malfoy's eyes and seen through all the walls they'd built between them, and found instead something new and compelling.

Those eyes haunted him. He told himself that he was absolutely not interested in what Malfoy had been through or what was going to happen to him now. No, he was not.

But he was. The stark desolation in Draco's eyes had pierced him and embedded itself deeply into some tender inner place like a sliver of glass buried under his skin. He could not forget it. And he could not sleep.

He tried to bring to mind his once-treasured fantasy of holding Ginny, of kissing her; tried to remember how once that vision had meant everything bright and hopeful for the future… but it wouldn't come to him now. Instead, the body he felt in his arms was tall and lean and trembling, the voice whispering in his ear was low and achingly vulnerable. I don't want to go… What if she's dead…

And Harry could not stop worrying if Mrs Malfoy was all right. Or if Malfoy was okay there alone.

And where the bloody hell was Yaxley? In his dream, Narcissa Malfoy had said that name and no other…

x:x x:x x:x

x:x x:x x:x

Standing outside Nappies & Prams Ltd in Diagon Alley late the next morning, his arms laden with packages, Harry was seriously wishing he'd brought his Invisibility Cloak. Not even the stern, bull-faced Auror who had accompanied him on this awkward shopping trip deterred the gawkers and well-wishers from stopping him every few seconds to shake his hand or in some cases, hug and kiss him. It was disconcerting, really. He'd had very little sleep, and was not in the best mood, but he'd decided to put the Malfoys out of his mind by going shopping. He'd got a much needed haircut, and some new clothes and toiletries for himself, and had just now purchased several items for Teddy. He intended to visit Andromeda later that afternoon armed with gifts, to let her know he was serious about being involved in his godson's life. Harry was determined that Teddy would have all the things he himself had never had.

The niggling voice in the back of his mind reminded him that he should also visit the Weasleys. Molly and Arthur deserved his love and support, even if the thought of seeing Ginny again made him feel like he'd lost the war instead of winning it. A flower shop just across the way caught his eye. The sign in the window promised same day delivery. Inspired, he crossed the street and went into the brightly decorated shop.

A cheery chime announced his entry. The shop girl looked up from behind the counter; her eyes went huge and she gasped in surprise. The glass jar she was holding dropped to the floor and smashed. She looked up at Harry horrified. "Oh, Mr Potter," she said, "I'm so sorry! But I'm just that surprised to see you of all people in our little shop."

It had been like that all morning.

"Don't move," said Harry, thinking of the glass around her feet. He managed to pull out his wand without dropping any of his parcels, and cast a quick Reparo. The young woman set the restored jar back on the counter as if it were a priceless Ming vase and beamed at Harry. Harry had a suspicion it was about to become someone's instant family heirloom. He ordered a bouquet of roses and carnations for Molly, and wrote out a short note to be delivered with the flowers: Thinking of you, will visit soon… Love, Harry.

For a moment, he wondered if he should address it to Ginny instead, but Ginny, he thought, would just have to let him know when she was ready to talk. He was not going to chance being rebuffed all over again.

The Auror, Jenkins he thought the man had said, was waiting for him outside the shop door when he finished the flower order. "I'm ready to go home," said Harry, juggling packages and hoping Kreacher would have something for lunch.

"Got a message from headquarters, Mr Potter," said Jenkins, and Harry noticed the small screech owl perched on his shoulder. "Minister Shacklebolt would like to see you as soon as possible."

"Do you think I have time to take these packages home and get a bite to eat?" asked Harry.

"Can't rightly say, sir," said Jenkins, "but I'd think that would be fine. He didn't say it was that urgent."

"Take me home, then, please," said Harry. He disentangled one hand to hold onto Jenkins's arm, and nearly dropped everything when they Apparated into the small, shabby square in front of number twelve Grimmauld Place. He made it into the house, past the Tongue-Tying Curse and Dumbledore's dust-jinx and Mrs Black's portrait and into the dining room, and then almost spilled several items again when he tried to set everything down on the table. He scooped up the small plush teddy bear that had dropped under the table and set it next to the toy broom, then clattered downstairs to the kitchen to find Kreacher.

Five minutes later, Harry was back outside his house carrying a bag of sandwiches. Auror Jenkins gratefully accepted half a ham sandwich when Harry offered to share, then Apparated them both to the Ministry.

Kingsley didn't waste any words when Harry was ushered into his office. "We've found out Yaxley was there at Malfoy Manor," he said, as he motioned Harry to sit in the large hard-backed chair in front of the cluttered desk. "In fact, it's very possible he was inside the Manor the entire time we were there. Jugson, Rookwood, and Macnair were the three you caught. They all have confessed, and say that Yaxley went inside the Manor while they cast Crucio on Narcissa Malfoy. They say he went to find the son, Draco. He must have Apparated away during the fight. Draco is fortunate that somehow Yaxley missed finding him."

"Then my dream was right," breathed Harry. "Mrs Malfoy said that Yaxley was going to kill him."

Kingsley looked grim. "From what they've told us, they did not intend to kill Narcissa. They knew that the worst thing they could possibly do to her was to kill her son and leave her alive. They planned for her to witness the murder and intended for Draco to die a very horrible, painful death. Yaxley Obliviated Lucius so he couldn't identify them or testify against them later."

"Bloody hell," whispered Harry, thinking with horror that Malfoy had been in the Manor alone for so long while he'd waited outside. If Yaxley had still been inside, hiding…

"I've sent a team of Aurors to search the Manor. But even if they don't find any evidence that Yaxley was there, I don't think it's safe to allow Draco to return there alone, even with Auror protection. The place is too big," said Kingsley. "And you may be in danger, too. The three we caught were angry and bent on revenge, Harry. They saw Narcissa Malfoy lie to Voldemort. They saw that lie bring about his defeat by protecting you. Until Yaxley is caught, I'm keeping all of you under constant guard. I'll just have to find a secure place for young Malfoy to stay temporarily…"

"He can stay with me," Harry heard himself saying. Then he nearly clapped his hand over his mouth. What was he thinking?

Kingsley looked surprised for a moment, then thoughtful. "That's very generous of you, Harry. And actually that might be the perfect solution, since Grimmauld Place is already protected." Kingsley stood and extended his hand to Harry over the desk. "Thank you, Harry," he said with a smile. "You've just made my day a lot easier."

And with that, Harry knew it was too late to take back the offer. He stood and took Kingsley's hand, and forced himself to smile back. Obviously, his day was not going to be getting any easier…

x:x x:x x:x

x:x x:x x:x

Harry found Draco asleep on the sofa in the fourth floor Spell Damage waiting room where they had been sitting the night before. He was dressed in the same clothes, but had put on the jumper and kicked off his shoes; he was lying on his side, bare feet pulled up onto the sofa, one arm bent under his head for a pillow. His face was still very pale, and his hair was dingy and untidy. His shirt where it stuck out from under his jumper was rumpled. The bottoms of his pyjama trousers were sticking out from below the hem of his proper trousers. It was a stupid thing to notice, but Harry felt that small warm flip again in his heart.

It really was hard to dislike someone when they were so shattered and vulnerable, Harry reasoned. The fact that he might no longer dislike Malfoy felt odd, but not unwelcome. He was thoroughly tired of being at war with anyone.

"Malfoy," he said in a soft voice. "Hey, Malfoy, wake up." Harry touched Draco's bare foot and found it was icy cold. When Draco still didn't stir, concern spiked through him and he stepped closer and gently shook Draco's shoulder. "Malfoy, hey c'mon, are you okay?"

Draco came awake suddenly with a gasp and flailing arms. Harry had to grab Draco's wrist to keep from being struck in the face, and then Draco was sitting up, staring at Harry with wide, frightened eyes. A split second later, recognition registered, and the light grey eyes went hard with anger. He jerked his arm out of Harry's grasp.

"Merlin, Potter," snarled Draco. "Scare a person to death, why don't you!" He pulled his feet up and wrapped his arms around his knees. He dropped his head down onto his arms so that his face was hidden. "What do you want now?" he asked, talking into the space under his arms. "I thought you were gone." He raised his head just a little so that he could look at Harry out from under the fringe that hung in his eyes. "Why aren't you gone?"

"I… er…. Sorry," said Harry. He suddenly had no idea where to begin. Guess what, Malfoy, you're to come stay with me for a while. Harry cringed inside. "How's your mum?" he said instead.

Draco's head came up a little more so that he could see Harry better. "What do you care, Potter?" he asked, but there was less anger in his voice now. It almost sounded like he was honestly curious. "Seriously. Why are you here?"

Harry sat down on the end of the sofa opposite Draco and thought about that. His first impulse had been to retort that he didn't care, but he bit back that response. He did care. Somehow, over the last couple of days, he had begun to care what happened to the Malfoys. It was like a major gravitational shift in the universe, and he had to sit for a gobsmacked moment and get used to the idea. "Kingsley sent me," he said finally. "And I wanted to know how your mum was doing."

Draco's face disappeared again into his arms, and Harry heard him let out a long breath. Then he sat up. His expression was still guarded, but no longer angry. "She's still unconscious," he said. "So they don't know anything more than last night." He paused and frowned. "What does Shacklebolt want?"

"He's found out more about the attack," said Harry, relieved to be back on safer ground. "They haven't caught Yaxley yet, but he was there at the Manor. The others say he went inside to find you. That he was going to kill you." Harry paused because Draco was staring at him now, his face ashen, his eyes wide with horror.

"He would have gone up the main stairs," whispered Draco, "but I came down the back way, by the private stairs. They're faster."

"So that's why he didn't find you," said Harry. "Kingsley wondered about that. They're going to send a team out to search the Manor," he went on, in a low voice, "but Kingsley says you can't go back home, not even with a guard. They wanted revenge for what your mother did to help me, so until they catch Yaxley, it's too dangerous."

And Harry suddenly heard what he'd said and guilt rose up like a hot tide in his throat. "I'm sorry, Malfoy," he whispered. "If your mum hadn't helped me…."

Draco turned away and looked out across the room. Then he shook his head and turned back to meet Harry's eyes again. "Don't be stupid, Potter," he said bitterly. "She told me herself that she did it to get back to the castle to find me. You could as well say it's all my fault." He gave a soft derisive sniff. "Or better yet, my father's for involving us with that madman in the first place. The truth is maybe if she hadn't helped you, we wouldn't be here alive at all. Either of us."

They stared at each other for a minute, silent. Then Harry nodded. "Right," he said. "You're right."

Draco's mouth twitched up at the corners. "Merlin's balls, that might be a first," he said. "You thinking I'm right about anything."

"Yeah," said Harry. "It might be at that."

Draco nodded, and then looked around the room with distaste. "So," he said. "Guess I'll be calling this place home for a while."

"Er," said Harry. "About that. That was the other reason I came… I sort of told Kingsley that you could stay with me…"

Draco's eyebrows had disappeared up under his untidy fringe again. "Potter, you're starting to scare me," he said, and the eyebrows came down in a frown. "You said we were even. You gave me the wand back and said we didn't owe each other anything. Why the sudden interest? What do you want from me?"

Harry held up his hand. "Hold on!" he said. "I don't want anything, Malfoy. This isn't about owing. Your mother asked me to help you and –"

"And what? Suddenly now you're making me your latest little do-gooder project? No thanks, Potter." Draco stuck his foot out and poked Harry in the leg with his toe. "So get your arse off my bed."

"Oh, fine!" said Harry, jumping up. "You'd rather stay here than have a proper bed and bathroom? When was the last time you had a shower, Malfoy? Or a hot meal?"

Draco just glared up at him, his arms crossed over his chest. "I'm not staying with a bunch of Muggles, Potter. I don't care how many showers they have."

Harry glared back. "What?" he said, totally exasperated. This not disliking Malfoy thing he'd thought was happening, was disappearing fast. "Who said anything about staying with Muggles?"

"You did," said Draco, firmly, then the certainty in his expression wavered. "Don't you live with Muggles?"

Harry tilted his head back and stared at the ceiling as if something up there could give him strength or patience, or both. "No," he said. "No! I do not live with Muggles. I have a house to myself. A proper Wizarding house with four floors and lots of rooms." He let out a sigh and looked back down at Draco. "It's not fancy like you're used to, but…" He trailed off because Draco's confused expression had turned into a suspicious frown.

"I've just remembered," said Draco. "Aunt Bella was raving about some house you inherited. Some house she thought should have been hers. I never paid much attention when she was raving like that."

"Look" said Harry, still exasperated. "I don't care what Bellatrix thought. It's my house. And if you don't want to stay with me, then you can bloody well stay here."

Draco looked around the room again and wrinkled his nose. "I didn't say I didn't want to stay with you," he protested. "Anything is better than this. Except Muggles," he added under his breath. Then he narrowed his eyes. "And as long as this isn't some harebrained philanthropic scheme Granger's cooked up… Rehabilitation of Underage Death Eaters or some such –"

"She's in Australia," said Harry, flatly. "And it's far more likely she'll want to kill me when she finds out I've taken you in, than make you into a charity project."

"Well, then," said Draco, that familiar smirk showing up for a fleeting moment. He stuck his feet into his shoes and stood up. "As long as it's you she's after, that's okay."

Harry snorted. "The Auror downstairs will stay on guard for your parents' protection," he said. "Do you need to see your mum before we go, or check in with the hospital staff to tell them where you are in case of an emergency?"

Draco held up his left arm. There was a thin green band around his wrist. "MediAlert bracelet," he said. "It's charmed to flash and beep if there's an emergency." He let his arm drop, then he looked toward the door to the ward. "And my mother doesn't know I'm here, even when they do let me sit with her. I was in there about an hour ago." He looked back at Harry, and his face was solemn and worried. "You'll bring me back, if the bracelet goes off?"

"Course, I will," said Harry. Their eyes met and Harry felt his heart do that funny little flip again in his chest. "C'mon," he said, holding out his arm. "You'll have time to get cleaned up before dinner."

Draco paused for a moment, then stepped closer and took hold of Harry's wrist. "I'm ready," he said. "Go."