Title: Defendere

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

Pairings: Harry/Draco, Ron/Hermione

Rating: R

Warnings: Flangst, some violence, sex, magical bonding, references to canonical child abuse, EWE.

Wordcount: 36,000

Summary: Harry stumbles into a magical ritual meant to enslave Draco, and manages to change the bond so that it leaves Draco with free will and the ability to make decisions even if he is bound to Harry. But that isn't much comfort when it also leaves him with the ability to irritate the hell out of Harry in the name of "guarding" him.

Author's Notes: This is being written as a gift for groolover, who kindly Brit-picked my hd_holidays story for me. She specified a happy ending, which I promise there is, and even some humor along the way. The title is Latin for "to defend."


"Aurors! Open in the name of the Ministry!"

There was silence, and then scrambling, on the other side of the door. Harry half-rolled his eyes at Ron and kicked the door in. He had already quietly removed the charms that held it shut, and the half-rotten wood that made it up—any strength in the door had come from the magic guarding it—splintered as it hit the wall.

In the room beyond, several dozen people in black robes got in each other's way as they tried to protect their "magical Work," or so the letters that Harry and Ron had intercepted had called it. Harry saw a blur of candles on the walls, heard chanting and screams, caught a glimpse of magical circles chalked on the stone from the corner of his eye, and ducked the first curse with a grim satisfaction taking possession of his mind. Yes, their information had been accurate.

The first warlock, a grizzled apparition with a beard that twisted across his face like moss, rushed at him and raised his wand. He hadn't got through half of his long, complicated chant when Harry's defensive spell sealed his mouth shut and he fell over from Ron's Tripping Jinx. Harry reached back with his hand, and felt Ron slap it in affirmation.

Some of the warlocks and witches involved tried to flee, but they tripped over each other, over their robes' hems, and over the magic circles, some of which objected to having people enter them. Harry and Ron rounded them up easily, and soon it just became a matter of making sure they had everyone's wands and that people were Stunned and bound, an endless round of Expelliarmus, Stupefy, Incarcerous, Expelliarmus, Stupefy, Incarcerous.

Harry snorted a little as he leaned against a wall, counting the bodies and running a hand over his forehead. His Auror trainers had been at pains to stress new spells when they taught him; spells he learned at Hogwarts were deemed childish and not appropriate for an Auror to use.

What they hadn't emphasized was that most of the people who chose to become criminals in the wizarding world weren't very competent. That was in the fine tradition of Voldemort, Harry considered, who had been powerful and cunning but insane. And with him gone, there weren't many who could give Aurors a need to call on those more complicated spells.

At least, not very often. Harry whipped around as a scream came from further in the complex of tunnels. It sounded like pain and not fear, which meant it probably wasn't one of the idiots they'd come here to capture.

He and Ron exchanged a glance, dividing the labor without discussion. Ron stayed with the prisoners and made sure none of them escaped or played bound while really unbound as Harry leaped in the direction of the cries.

They continued, shrill and piercing. Now he could hear chanting mingled with them, and swore, redoubling his speed. The information they'd collected said that the warlocks were trying to conduct magical rituals to enslave the wizarding world, rituals that wouldn't work. But there were plenty of smaller versions that would enslave individuals and could.

Harry saw an iron door ahead of him, gleaming with huge black hinges and padlocks and chains ran around it. He snapped a Finite and a Reducto without slowing down, and the magic on the door shattered into sparkling fragments a moment before the metal itself did. Harry bowled through and into the center of the cavern beyond.

This time, what he caught glimpses of was yawning mouths, a burning brazier, someone crouched over a figure lying on the floor in the center of a circle—in fact, an overlapping ring of circles, gold and red and green—and wands turning towards him.

They were trying to enslave someone. They might already have done so.

Since the end of the war and the realization that he was finally free to choose his own life, and some other things, Harry had been a little less than sane about that particular Dark wizardly trick.

He didn't remember half the spells he cast, but he knew that his Patronus charged the wizard crouching by the prisoner and scooped him up on its antlers, hurling him into the far wall. Harry whirled around to face the rest of the ritual-workers, and heard them chanting, saw them holding hands, trying to contain him.

Harry smiled at them all, and their chant faltered. Harry clasped his hands in front of him and lowered them as if he held a much longer wand than he really did, or a unicorn horn, and pointed straight at the center of their linked line.

The spell came bubbling out of the heart of him, out of the stillness that he'd carried with him ever since he looked into the eyes of the dead lying in the Great Hall and realized that this could have been prevented if people had just fought against Voldemort instead of cowering in fear or going along with him. This, too, was evil that could have been prevented if these people hadn't followed mindlessly along in the name of greater power.


The spell came out of him as a series of spreading blue rings, in contrast and cleanliness to what lay on the floor all around him. It hit the wizards standing opposite him and bore them backwards, to the sides, and up, smashing and holding them against the walls for a second. Harry's Patronus charged up to his side and stood there, pawing its hooves and tossing its head, as though asking for more permission to throw more fools.

Harry laid his hand on the sparkling silver neck, though of course he couldn't really feel anything, and shook his head. "You don't need to," he said. "The spell is getting rid of them."

And it was. They shook, robes billowing and bodies flickering. Then they began to rip apart, to scatter, particles flying apart from one another, wands and drifting scraps of cloth separating and whirling in different directions, into the corners of the caves and cracks in the stone.

Eventually, their bodies would reform wherever their wands were, and they would come back to life. It was the reason the Ministry permitted the use of the spell in the first place instead of condemning it as murder, the way they would if it kept anyone in a permanent Scattered State. But in the meantime, Harry and Ron could put the wands in holding cells in the Ministry, and the warlocks would come back to themselves already good and caged.

And with memories of what it was like to be completely helpless and held apart from their own bodies for months at a time, memories that might make them reconsider ever trying to do it to anyone else.

Harry closed his eyes and sighed as the last traces of the wizards blew apart, and then turned to the really important person in the equation, the man still lying motionless in the middle of the central circle. He took a step forwards.

"Harry, don't!"

Harry had never heard Ron sound like that, not even when they were talking about destroying Horcruxes. He froze with his foot in the air and craned his neck back around to stare at his partner.

Ron stood near the doorway, his face so white that all his freckles stood out. He shook his head. "Mate, do you know what you've done?" he whispered.

"Not yet," Harry said steadily. His leg was beginning to hurt with holding his foot up, but he kept it in the air. He would do whatever Ron told him, because Ron would never try to order him around like this for something unimportant. "What did I do?"

Ron nodded to the circles on the floor. Harry studied them, and realized there were four: a large red one near the door that he'd already crossed; a smaller gold one inside that, which was right under his lifted foot; a green one that the wizard he'd tossed into the wall had been kneeling inside; and a tight red one that barely encircled the lying body. The circles crackled and sparked with power as if someone had been funneling electricity through them.

"Those circles—they're meant to bind someone to someone else," Ron said, his voice as sick as Harry felt at the thought. "To make them their slave, their sex toy, whatever they want to do with them."

Harry nodded. "Well, we knew they were going to be doing this. But did I trigger the spell by crossing the circles?" His mind reared back from that, the enormity of that, and what he was going to do if he had triggered it.

"The spell had already started," Ron said, his voice soft and as kind as Harry thought it could be under the circumstances. "But it means that the victim has to be bound to someone, and you're the only person inside the circle right now. There's no way to stop it. The ritual has to go ahead, or it opens—it opens the victim's mind and drives them mad. Hermione wants to use a binding at our wedding, so she made me read up on all sorts of them," he added.

Harry's foot hurt badly by now. He lowered it carefully down next to the one that was still inside the larger red circle, hoping that would diminish the sparks. But they went on leaping, and a wall of them began to obscure the body in the central circle. Harry stared towards it, hoping desperately—

It was Malfoy.

Harry closed his eyes, and hissed. The realization ached in his chest like a blade thrust in. Malfoy had already been enslaved once, forced to do what Voldemort wanted, to torture people and live with it. Harry couldn't think of anyone he would have wanted to spare more from slavery except his friends.

"It's Malfoy," he whispered. "Ron, I can't bind him. He's suffered too much from things like that already. Is there anything else you know that can get him out of here and leave him free? I've only crossed one circle. Maybe—" He started to move backwards.

Ron roared a warning at the same time as Harry felt a powerful sting between his shoulder blades. It hurled him at the golden circle, and as much as he tried to resist, he passed over it.

The circles he'd already passed rose up into circular iron walls behind him. Harry spun around and launched a spell at them, but the metal absorbed the magic without flinching. Harry hammered on them, and Ron shouted at him, and it took the tone in Ron's voice to make Harry slow down and listen to him instead of simply hammering on.

"Harry, you have to do it now. You're the only one left in the circles, and now—now you're the only choice, even if I come in there. The ritual isn't made for people who want to back out. It'll destroy you and him both if you try. I'm sorry," Ron added, his voice breaking.

Harry shut his eyes and bowed his head. For a long moment, he flicked a whip of contempt through himself. If he'd paid more attention to where he was going, listened to Ron more, taken the wizards in the room by surprise instead of charging in, then Malfoy might have had a chance to retain his freedom and his sanity both.

But it was only a moment, even if a long one. He'd also learned, since the war, that sometimes the decisions you had to make were just bad ones, and nothing would change them. He lifted his head and filled his lungs with air. "All right, Ron. What kind of options do I have? I can't—I can't take Malfoy as my slave. I'd rather risk what the ritual would do to me."

"I know, Harry," Ron whispered. "Hermione told me there are other bindings, too. You can bind him as your lover, or to think that he's always been your friend—"

"Which kind would leave him the most freedom to act and to make up his own mind?" Harry cut in.

Ron was silent for long enough that Harry clenched his fists. Maybe there wasn't any other choice, and if that was the case, then Harry would choose the friendship bond. Anything else was impossible, and as much as he hated interfering with Malfoy's mind or memories, friendships at least could be broken if he wanted his freedom.

"The Defendere bond," Ron said at last. "It would still connect you to him, and let him know when you're in danger and what you need to survive, but it would mean that he could make the choice whether he wanted to rescue you or not."

Harry breathed out harshly. "Good. He should know better than to think he needs to rescue me. We'll do that one."

"It's permanent," Ron said, warning in his tone.

"And anything else wouldn't be?" Harry shook his head at Ron's continued silence. "I know. The whole situation is fucked-up. I should have watched where I was going, and they shouldn't have snatched him in the first place. But we'll do what we have to to survive. How do I handle this?"

"Um—mate, I only studied this once—"

"Tell me as much as you remember," Harry said, and glanced at the sparking, spitting circles. "I don't think I'll be allowed to get far off the program anyway. Something will nudge me along if you forget a word here or there."

"It's not so much the words, as the will," Ron said. "And the blood. You have to make sure he drinks your blood. Ugh, mate, I'm sorry—"

"Feel sorrier for him," Harry said crisply, and dragged off his Auror robes so he could more easily take out the knife in his boot. Then he stepped into the green circle. Another wall of iron appeared behind him, but as long as it didn't cut him off from Ron's voice, then he thought he could still do this. "At least I chose this much. Where is the blood supposed to come from?"

"Your wrist," Ron said. "You have to take quite a lot, mate—I don't think he stops drinking until he's satisfied—"

"So, like that vampire case we worked last year, then," Harry said lightly, dropping to one knee, half his attention on Malfoy and half on reassuring his best friend. He was calm, balanced between them. If he could do things, that was fine. He could save someone, and that was what mattered. "Fine. Do I have to get inside the central circle where he's lying, do you know?"

"I think you have to have part of your body inside it," Ron said. "Your knee, or something. Merlin, Hermione is going to kill me if I do something to hurt you—"

"It would be my fault, not yours," Harry said quietly, and felt Ron accept it, the authority in his voice, bracing himself against it, the way they'd always done for each other since they became Auror partners. "All right. Any words I have to say as I take the blood?" He laid the knife along his wrist, grimacing wryly at it. It was ordinary steel, not the silver or the obsidian that would probably make the ritual go best. Well, needs must.

"I don't think so," Ron said. "Except maybe Defendere. It's so hard to remember this, mate, sorry, and I wouldn't remember this much if Hermione didn't think it was a good idea to make me recite the different kinds of bindings in my sleep—"

"It's okay," Harry said, and then took a deep breath and gazed down at Malfoy's face. He was pale, and so completely still that Harry felt a stab, for a moment, at the thought of binding himself to a corpse. But Malfoy moaned and his head shifted, strands of blond hair spilling towards Harry.

"I'll try that, anyway," Harry said, and moved his knee into the central circle.

The magic flickered into being all around them, walls of black iron this time, or black stone, smooth and sheer, and dark as a starless night. Yet light seemed to shine in the middle of the circle, allowing Harry to see Malfoy's face all the more clearly. He nodded, to him or himself or Ron or the forces that had brought them here, and sliced the knife down and along his wrist.

"Defendere, defendere, defendere," he began to murmur, and twisted the knife deep, ignoring the sting, watching Malfoy. Malfoy was no longer moving his head or moaning; instead, he lay with his brow furrowed and his head leaning to the side as if listening. When Harry began to whisper, he opened his eyes and stared at him, though with no sign of recognition.

"Give," he said, and held out his hand. Harry shuddered to think of what the man who'd intended to enslave him might have placed in it, and then did his best to blank that out of his mind entirely, as the final moments of the ritual had blanked out Ron's voice. Malfoy was the one who needed him now.

"Yes," Harry said, and held out his arm so that Malfoy could get hold of it and direct his bloody wrist to Malfoy's mouth. "But you belong to yourself, okay? We're forming the Defendere bond, but that just means you'll feel when I'm in danger. You don't have to do anything about it. You can do what you want. I wouldn't enslave you even this much, but Ron says that you'll die without it. Sorry—"

Malfoy's mouth fastened on his wound and began to suck. Harry braced himself with his free hand in the circle, grimacing. He could feel the bond settling into place like an iron harness that seemed to wind up from his wrist and towards his shoulders. From the way Malfoy gave a light gasp before he resumed his sucking, Harry assumed he felt something similar.

Harry sighed. It was exactly the kind of thing he didn't want, that he'd decided after the war that he'd never wanted. He was happy for Ron and Hermione that they were getting married and wanted a strong bonding when they did so, because both of them had chosen it and they were so much in love that that practically glowed around them all the time, bond or not. But Harry didn't want to be tied to anyone that closely.

It had eventually caused the end of his relationship with Ginny. She'd wanted a traditional wedding, a ceremony like Bill and Fleur's, and Harry…didn't.

She's going to be pissed at me now, and she'll have the right to be, Harry thought, feeling the bond settle deeper and deeper, into his bones and his blood and his stomach, his organs and his lungs. The very air he exhaled seemed tainted with it. He shivered and hoped Malfoy would be done with the blood soon. Lightest of the possible bonds or not, this Defendere thing was obviously going to affect them.

Probably it'll grow a bit lighter when you've borne it for a while, Harry thought, and shivered again. The weakness was growing greater. Well, that was what happened when you lost a lot of blood.

Abruptly, Malfoy stopped sucking. Harry looked at him cautiously, and found him lying there with his eyes shut, his hands still locked around Harry's wrist but otherwise asleep. Harry began to pull his arm away. With any luck, Malfoy would stay asleep until they could get him to St. Mungo's and checked for any wounds or potions that the wizards who'd kidnapped him might have inflicted on him. Then Harry could send in someone neutral to explain the situation, and—

Malfoy's eyes snapped open, and he turned his head until he was looking unerringly at Harry. His breath came heavily, and his face had a grimace on it that seemed to lock his teeth in place, but he still spoke with the same sharp edge to his voice as ever.

"It would be you, Potter, my own personal savior. Of course." His hands moved restlessly up and down Harry's sleeve, as though he didn't like to let go quite yet. "Do you know what you've done?"

"The only thing I could, to save your life and give you some freedom in the bargain," Harry said, and looked around. The obsidian walls were melting. "I know the bond seems heavy now. I'm sorry. But I disrupted the ritual, and by the time I was in the middle of it, the only thing I could do was go ahead."

Malfoy laughed. The sound had less bitterness in it than Harry had expected, and his hands were still smoothing up and down Harry's arm. It was distracting in a way that the sucking hadn't been, and Harry pulled his arm away and used his wand to heal up the wound.

Malfoy was sitting up by then, giving him a faint smile that someone who didn't know them both might call fond. His hair seemed to stand up around his head, but other than that, he looked remarkably good for someone who'd been snatched from his home and nearly enslaved. Harry nodded to him. "Can you stand?"

"If you need me to." Malfoy's eyes darkened, and Harry winced. He would be considering the consequences of the bond now, how it was always going to tug at him. Well, at least it shouldn't be the kind of thing that prevented him from getting married or anything else.

"Yeah, sorry about that," he muttered. "Ron told me the bond would tell you when I needed you to protect me. I know you'll get lots of messages from me because I'm an Auror and I get in trouble all the time, but I hope that you'll learn to live with them."

Malfoy's eyes had a queer glitter. "That's what you think the Defendere bond entails?" he asked, his hand resting on Harry's shoulder. Harry told himself that it probably had to do with the kind of closeness the bond brought about in its first moments, and tried not to mind it. "All it entails? Did Weasley tell you that?"

"Malfoy," Ron said, appearing as the walls settled back into the circles and the circles themselves vanished from the floor. He folded his arms and shook his head at them both. "Arrogant as ever, when you ought to be on your knees thanking Harry for what he did for you."

"Ron," Harry hissed. He didn't like someone joking about Malfoy kneeling to him, and Malfoy laughed beside him, bowing his head so that it was his brow resting against Harry's shoulder, not just his hand. This time, he didn't seem to notice when Harry shifted as if to throw him off.

"He doesn't like that," Malfoy whispered. His voice slurred and drifted, but he didn't sound drunk, more in the throes of ecstasy. "Oh, not at all," he added, and leaned closer to Harry, until his breath was warm and distracting in the hollow of Harry's throat. "There's so many things that he doesn't like. He needs people to stop talking to him as though he's a hero, he needs no one to kneel to him, he needs me to forget about this bond." He lifted his head and gave Harry a smile that was all edges and no curve. "Sorry, but that last isn't going to happen."

Harry opened his mouth to shout, and then shut it and sighed. Really, he should be grateful for this sign of Malfoy's stubbornness, because it meant that he did have his free will intact. He could sense what Harry needed, but he didn't have to act on the realization, or feel tormented if he didn't. That was the best they could hope for out of a situation like this.

And who knows? When we'll have the time to work on it, now, maybe Hermione can even come up with a solution, or we can, at least as long as she's distracted by the wedding.

"Come on, Malfoy, let's get you to St. Mungo's," Harry said gently, and stood up, pulling Malfoy to his feet as he did so. Malfoy swayed and blinked, but seemed to maintain his balance well enough when Harry cautiously shifted back. He even lifted his head from Harry's shoulder and stared around the cavern as though he was surprised to find himself there.

"Do you remember how they captured you?" Harry asked quietly.

Malfoy focused on him at once, dilated pupils and all. Harry studied his face, but could see none of the grey undertones to his skin or shivering that would characterize the more extreme reactions to the most common potions used to drug someone.

"Of course I know," Malfoy snapped. "I'm recovering from a Dark ritual, not amnesiac or six years old."

"Apologies," Harry muttered, and turned to study the circles on the floor. They were gone completely, meaning they could move towards the door. He gave Malfoy his arm. Malfoy ignored it, took a step forwards, and ended up catapulting towards the floor with the slow grace of a chopped tree. Harry sighed, Levitated him back to his feet, and offered him his arm again.

This time, Malfoy took it, staring avidly into his face. Harry rolled his eyes. He had learned to put up with that kind of thing, if not like it, during the year right after the war, when the reporters had competed for the most obscure adjectives they could find about the color of his eyes.

"They came to the Manor and took me from there," Malfoy said. He sounded less drunk now, but with no less of a shivering need to press close. Harry grimaced and helped him up the slight step down into the cavern, which he'd leaped without even noticing it in his fury when he'd come this way before. "I don't know how they got through the wards, but I'd suggest hammering."

"Hammering?" Harry questioned, and glanced back at Ron, who was gathering up the warlocks' dropped wands and securing the main wizard, whom his Patronus had tossed against the wall. Ron lifted one shoulder in a shrug without looking around.

"A sophisticated name for an unsophisticated technique," Malfoy murmured, and tilted his head back, shuddering as though someone was pouring cold water down his back. "They simply applied pressure to the wards, all at once, and all using the same spell. The wards are meant to withstand measured attacks, because most wizards wouldn't use so much force simply to break in, and the defenders could resist them if they did." Harry wondered if it was his imagination that Malfoy's fingers tightened on his arm when he said the word defenders. "But they swept in, and I was the only one home. They took my wand before I could fight them."

With a start, Harry remembered that he still had the hawthorn wand that had belonged to Malfoy before the war. Well, even if they couldn't make their prisoners tell them where they'd put Malfoy's things, then at least they could ensure he wasn't helpless.

Malfoy's fingers clenched down on Harry's arm like links of chain. "Yes, Potter," he whispered, tilting his head back and looking at Harry through his lowered eyelashes. "It's very important that I not be helpless. You need me to protect you."

"That's what the bond says," Harry pointed out gently. "It doesn't mean that you need to do it if you don't want to."

Malfoy had the strangest, smallest smile on his face, and he shook his head. "You don't understand what you did when you chose the Defendere bond," he murmured. "You've linked us, and it's important that I fulfill your needs."

Harry winced. Well, he had known it wouldn't be perfect, but still, hearing Malfoy say those words made revulsion crystallize and curdle inside him.

"You need someone who can help you do that," Malfoy said, and lifted his head, his eyes gazing so straight at Harry that it was almost painful to see them. "You need—you need someone like me, who can teach you that some of your needs aren't wrong, aren't evil, are capable of being fulfilled like anyone else's."

Harry stared at him, then snorted. "You make me sound like some kind of deviant," he said, glad that Ron was too involved in deliberately ignoring Malfoy to pay much attention to what Harry said, either. "I've never felt anything that had to be fulfilled like that, never needed something that I couldn't get myself or get with help from my friends."

Malfoy smiled at him, and his hand on Harry's arm ran up and down, startling some of the small hairs on Harry's skin into shivering life. "You only think that because you've never had someone like me, committed to you," he said. "I assure you, Potter, when you get used to it, you'll want it all the time."

"Why am I standing here arguing with you, when you're still under the influence of potions that probably make day look like night?" Harry asked the air, and turned to firmly lead Malfoy towards the door again.

Malfoy leaned against him, and sighed.

Harry repressed a shudder. The sigh didn't have the sound of resignation or exasperation or sadness that he would have expected from someone put into this position, and especially not someone who had hated him for a long time.

It sounded like anticipation.

"Because that's the way bonds like that work, Harry," Hermione said, peering at him earnestly from her chair for a moment before she looked down at the dress in her lap. "They ensure that the person who's bound to the master—ow!" She sucked at her pricked finger and scowled at the needle lying by her feet.

Harry leaned back in his chair and stared at the ceiling to stifle a grin. "Still no luck with the sewing, then?" he asked.

"It ought to be simple," Hermione said sullenly, and bent down to pick up the needle. "Lots and lots of people who didn't know how to do anything do it all the time!"

Harry cleared his throat, thought of saying that those people who didn't know how to do "anything" had probably learned their skills from experience rather than trying to get them from books the way Hermione had tried, and then decided that he didn't really want to die of a needle through the throat. "Can you use some word other than 'master' when you're talking about this?" he asked.

"No," Hermione said, and then softened when he stared at her. "I'm sorry, Harry. But that really is the way it is. The one who holds the bond—who created the bond in the first place—is the master, and the better and faster you understand that, the less likely you are to mistreat Malfoy."

"But I don't want to mistreat him," Harry said, bringing down one fist on the arm of his chair. He heard a crack from the wood, and winced. When he got really angry, his magic burned under his skin, and sometimes it did things like that. "You know that, Hermione! I only did it to save his life, and now I want to give him his normal life back, as soon as he's out of hospital."

"His life isn't going to be the same," Hermione said, and sighed as she folded her hands on top of the dress, and then yelped as she once again pricked herself with the needle. Harry watched as she wrung the pain out before she continued. "A bond like that fills his mind with knowledge of your needs. It's like having a telly on all the time. You can ignore it some of the time, but if something catches your attention, then you're watching it, whether you want to or not. And the bond will push him to fulfill at least some of those needs, so that you have fewer and he can have peace in his own head."

Harry shuddered. "That almost sounds worse than what some of the other bonds would have done," he muttered.

"Oh, no, they all work like that," Hermione said, and patted at her hair. Harry knew that she had tried a combination of potions to smooth it down, maybe the same kind she'd used at the Yule Ball, but it didn't seem to have worked entirely; stray curls escaped here and there. "But the Defendere bond at least ensures that he's focusing on needs like, oh, guarding your life, instead of crawling into your bed."

Harry shuddered and worked his tongue back and forth in his mouth, controlling his very real need to spit. He sensed that Hermione wouldn't approve of that, even if Harry was only doing it on the floor of his office.

He looked back up to find Hermione leaning closer, her eyes bright and soft. "I didn't realize that it disgusted you that much," she whispered. "Oh, Harry, I'm sorry. You're the last person who should be put in this position."

"No, Malfoy is," Harry said, and shook his head as he swept the revulsion back into the depths of his soul. Malfoy could probably feel it, and the last thing Harry wanted him to think was that Harry was disgusted by him. "Anyway. Do you know—do you know a way to break a bond like this? I wondered why you weren't opposing it the way you oppose house-elf slavery."

"Because the bonds are different," Hermione said. "And at least the people involved in them are human and they have some legal rights. Did you know that house-elves don't even have the right to food? If the laws say—"

"All right," Harry said hastily. Hermione was supposedly taking a holiday from house-elf law and all the rest of it because she wanted to prepare her own dress and catering and everything else for the wedding, but Harry knew it wouldn't take much to make her go storming back to her books. "But what can I do to avoid harming him? If I have all these needs in my head and they're tugging on him, then I don't know what to do."

"First," Hermione said, "you have to accept that he'll want to do what he can for you, and that means he'll need to live with you."

Harry grimaced. "I'll probably move into Grimmauld Place for the duration, then," he muttered. He couldn't imagine Malfoy putting up with a house where he didn't have at least his own bedroom, and more likely his own wing. "What else?"

"You'll probably have to accept his escorting you when you go out to dinner or drinking and so on," Hermione said, and leaned still nearer. Then she grabbed her elbow and stared at the dress. "How did a pin get there?" she asked plaintively.

"I don't know," Harry said, and then his lips twitched in spite of himself, though it was probably all right because she wasn't looking. "Are you sure that you don't want Molly to help you?"

"Some things, I have to do myself," Hermione said firmly, and brushed her hair back from her forehead. "Anyway. He'll want to be with you, because someone could attack you when you're out eating, you know that. Look at what happened last year."

Harry scowled. "What happened last year did because the restaurant's security was bribable."

"That might happen again," Hermione said. "And you should really try to take fewer risks as an Auror, Harry. I'm sure that he'll be able to feel you when you're in danger, and that will drive him mad." She raised an eyebrow at him when he spluttered. Harry no longer felt bad about smiling over her mishaps with the pins and needles. "Consider it from his point of view, Harry. His whole world has been changed."

"I know," Harry said. "I'm trying to think of that. But I can't stop being in danger, even if I quit being an Auror tomorrow. Someone would always be coming after me to avenge Voldemort or because they think it would make them look cool to kill me or something. And the Ministry would never accept him tagging along with Ron and me. He's not a qualified Auror, he can't."

"They make provisions for bonds, the same way they do when one of the sexual ones happens to someone who's married." Hermione picked up her needle, fixed it with a look that clearly told it to behave itself, and started to sew again. Harry heard her counting stitches under her breath before she looked up at him. "The Ministry might allow him to come along with you, because it's a Defendere bond."

Harry threw up his hands. "And everyone keeps mentioning that, but except that it allows him a little more free will, I don't know what that means."

"Because you don't want to," Hermione said placidly. "I told you that bonds changed people, Harry. He has better defensive magic now than he's ever had, at least as long as he's specifically trying to protect you. He'll have better instincts for danger, heightened senses, the ability to see a short way into the future, maybe, in order to keep you safe from people who might strike suddenly. The Ministry might agree that that's a fine substitute for Auror training. And you know it would keep Head Auror Debalus from having a heart attack every time you want to go out and do something on your own."

Harry rolled his head on his neck, and didn't answer. Head Auror Debalus had apparently taken the thought that Harry might die on an Auror mission—which was, Harry thought murderously, what happened to Aurors sometimes—so much to heart that he'd had messages to the press printed up in advance. They said, "The Chosen One is resting," or "The Chosen One is recovering well," or "We are sorry to report that the Chosen One has died."

He didn't want to be known as the Head Auror who lost the Boy-Who-Lived. Harry understood that. So far, he had won the battle to be allowed to go into the field like any regular Auror and take the risks rather than stay behind the desk and safely away from them, but it was getting more than a bit ridiculous, how much they fussed over him.

Then Harry paused and turned his head. Someone was hammering on the door of the office, which shouldn't have happened, with Harry here late and Ron gone out drinking with Seamus to try and get some of the pre-wedding jitters out of the system. "Someone's here, Hermione."

"Take your wand," she snapped at him without even looking up from her sewing. "You remember what happened when you didn't?"

"That was one time," Harry muttered, and checked to make sure that his wand was in his left sleeve for a quick cross-body draw before he stood up and unlocked the office door.

Malfoy fell over the threshold into Harry's arms almost before Harry got it open, and snarled at him, "Stop your bloody brooding, won't you?" He panted into Harry's face and hauled him upright with his hands on his arms, swaying as though he'd run all the way from hospital. "I can feel it over in my room at St. Mungo's. Like a load of bloody pigeons sitting on my head and squatting on a dozen eggs each."

"Shit," Harry said, and ran a hand through his hair. He hadn't thought about the effect of his emotions on Malfoy, because he had assumed only fear and the anger he sometimes felt at criminals would matter. "You could feel me? We have to fix this, somehow." He turned instinctively towards the corner of the office, where Hermione seemed to have wrestled the needle into submission.

Malfoy slapped him on the shoulder, pulling his attention back. "This is the way that bonds work, Potter," he said. "What you need to get through your small and thick skull is that I'm here now. You don't have to worry about the solutions to your problems because I'm going to solve them. I just want you to stop the worrying and let me get some bloody sleep. At home, preferably."

"Right, we've got to get you back to the Manor," Harry muttered, and put his arms cautiously around Malfoy, wondering all the while what he was going to do with him. This was why he hadn't tried to get any more pets after Hedwig, even a regular post-owl. He sucked at taking care of anyone, people or animals. He could manage with his friends, but that was because Ron and Hermione had each other and took care of him, too, and it all sort of balanced out.

"Not the Manor," Malfoy said, giving Harry a lopsided look that suggested he was the one who'd stumbled and banged his head into a new world on the way. "I want to go home with you."

"Told you," Hermione said, without looking up from her sewing. She looked innocently busy, and very feminine, and very traditional, and utterly impervious when Harry cast her an appealing stare.

"This is the way that bonds work," Malfoy said, and even though Harry knew he was technically the master here, Malfoy's hand felt very much like a shackle on his arm. "When we're home, then we can discuss things, such as what I'm supposed to be defending you from and whether you'll need me to sleep in the same room."

Harry spluttered, Malfoy simply looked at him as though everything was settled, and Hermione's needle darted in and out of the cloth like a fish leaping in and out of the sea.

"Fine," Harry said at last. "Though I have no idea why you would have to sleep in the same bed."

Too late, he realized that he should just have ignored that part of Malfoy's chatter. He straightened up and thumped one hand on Harry's chest, driving the air out of his lungs and moving him back a step. Harry grunted. He wondered if added strength was a gift of the Defendere bond, as well. He considered himself pretty fit for an Auror, and he knew Malfoy wouldn't have been able to do that just a little while ago.

"You have no idea about yourself," Malfoy whispered harshly, bending in until Harry had to struggle to keep him in focus. "The nightmares I can feel in you, the fears, the longings, the unfulfilled desires." His smile ripped across his face. "I can't exactly thank you for the bond, Potter, but I can at least say that I won't ever be bored."

"It's good that you two boys are going to settle things," Hermione said, without looking up from the dress.

Harry knew it was childish, but he still couldn't help waving his wand on their way out the door and muttering a certain spell. Hermione shrieked, a tragic sound, as the needle leaped out of her fingers and pricked her again. Harry hid a snicker, and then straightened up and tried to make his face as stern as possible when he saw the way that Malfoy was looking at him.

"Anyway," he said. "We should be going home."

Malfoy nodded once, a slow, judicious motion that might have been either judgment or approval, and then held out his arm. Harry took it, intending to Side-Along Apparate him, but Malfoy was the one who whirled him away through the darkness without asking, weakness and all.

And him just out of hospital, too.

Malfoy won the argument Harry tried to have with him when they arrived on the doorstep of Number Twelve Grimmauld Place by simply ignoring Harry's snarls about how he had known where the place was and snatching the key to the front door from his pocket. And he shouldn't have known it was the key to the front door, either, Harry thought, following him into the entrance hall, even if it was a big iron key and the door had a big iron lock.

Malfoy just knew things. Apparition coordinates. The location of keys. When, or so he claimed, Harry needed someone to fight with and when he could disappear into the kitchen, humming tunelessly as he examined the food in the cabinets and proclaimed that Harry needed someone to teach him to have a sense of taste, in all meanings of the word.

Harry leaned against the wall and rubbed his eyes. At least he thought he knew what might have happened within his mind to summon Malfoy from St. Mungo's. He'd been worrying about how to solve the problem of danger during his Auror missions. No, he didn't want to hurt Malfoy, but there was no way that he would give his job up.

"You're doing it again."

Harry snapped his head up. Malfoy stood in front of him, his arms folded and his face so neutral that he might as well have been shouting. Harry sighed and straightened. "Worrying about you? Yeah. I'm afraid that's going to be constant."

"No, it's not," Malfoy said, and produced a truly dazzling smile, one that made Harry blink at him in a daze and miss the implications of his words for a moment, by which time Malfoy was continuing smoothly. "Because I won't let it be. Do you know what you have to do, Potter? You have to let the bond function as it's supposed to. Let me reassure you about what I can do to protect you."

"Well, if any of my enemies are the type to be frightened by sneers and smirks and jibes about their Houses, then you'll definitely win those fights," Harry snapped back.

Malfoy's smile softened into something less dazzling but more sincere. "Harry," he said, and then paused, as if savoring the sound of the word. "You really need to find a better name," he added conversationally. "That one doesn't sound like it means much. Not an important enough name for the most powerful wizard in the wizarding world, you know?"

"I'm not the most powerful wizard," Harry began with a faint sigh.

"You have no idea what you feel like," Malfoy said, and reached out and placed a hand over his heart. "Here. I can feel the magic beaming and pouring out of you. And that increases my own, you know. I have to be stronger than you are to defend you, and the bond will ensure that I have all the strength necessary."

Harry shook his head, as much as to cure his distraction over having Malfoy's hand on his chest as for any other reason. "You sound a bit mad, Malfoy," he said. "How are you going to keep me safe? And no, locking me up in the house all day is not an answer."

"Of course not," Malfoy said. "You would starve to death on weak tea and sandwiches. No, I am going to do something like this. Sanguis mortis!"

Harry felt the spell touch him in the middle of the chest, where it seemed to turn his blood cold. He wondered if that was Malfoy's evil plan, to freeze him from the inside out and then claim that he was protecting the frozen corpse. After all, it wasn't as though he could damage Harry any more after that.

Malfoy caught his eye and stared at him. Harry ducked his head, flushing. He didn't know what else to do. It had been only a suspicion—and one that seemed more and more justified, the colder that spot on his chest grew—but he felt bad for having it now.

"You have no idea," Malfoy began, and then lapsed into silence, shaking his head. "Here," he said, and cast another spell that warmed Harry like a cloak draped over his shoulders. "At least that should reassure you that I have no evil intentions towards you."

Harry said nothing, but only waited to see what the effect of the spell would be, while Malfoy stood in front of him, frowning, his fingers tapping against Harry's shoulders the way Harry thought he might tap a table when he was thinking. In one way, it was reassuring to have Malfoy classify him as furniture. At least that meant he wouldn't be thinking of Harry in any other way.

Any more intimate way.

"You have to let the bond function the way it's supposed to," Malfoy whispered, on a little exhale of a sigh. "You have to trust me."

Harry shook his head. "It's not that I don't trust you," he whispered, "although it would help if you could explain your scary spells before you cast them. It's more that I never wanted to put you in this position in the first place, and every time you have to do something because the bond compels you to, I'm reminded of what else it could cost you."

Malfoy's shoulders tensed for a moment. Then he said, "Why don't you see how the bond sits with me, Potter, instead of assuming that I'm in a hurry to throw it off? Not all of us have your specific priorities, or desires, or needs, or nightmares."

"And thank Merlin for that, right?" Harry muttered, letting his head fall back against the wall and closing his eyes as the coldness seemed to spread. He was shivering violently now, and his only satisfaction was that it seemed even Malfoy's Warming Charm wasn't effective against it. With an effort, he looked at Malfoy again. "Or who would have the nightmares about the Ministry falling apart and Muggleborns displacing pure-bloods?"

Malfoy snorted. "That wasn't your best effort at all, Potter," he said, and drew an idle cross in the air above Harry's chest, above the cold spot. "And now, I think that—ah, yes, there it is."

Harry glanced down. Yes, there was a spot on his chest that had started to glow and extend icy tendrils into the air, rather like ice armor. As he watched in disbelief, it spread out all over him, grey and white and shot through with blue shadows. He reached up, but felt nothing. It was like being encased in moonlight.

"You can't feel anything when you touch it," Malfoy said, in reply to his obvious incredulous glance. "That's the point of it—to give you something that can't weigh you down, that you'll move gracefully in no matter how much it weighs. But if someone strikes at you, then I guarantee you they'll feel it." He glanced around, grinned when he spotted the pile of moldy tapestries in a corner that Harry still hadn't thrown out, and picked one of them up. "Perfect," he murmured. A wave from his wand, and it had transformed into a huge, blood-colored spike.

Harry immediately snatched up his wand, but Malfoy shook his head, rolling his eyes. "What did I say about trusting me?"

It was true that Malfoy had yet to really harm him. Harry stepped back hesitantly and let his hand fall to his side, and for a moment, Malfoy bounced the spike up and down in his hand. Then he flung it.

The spike hit the armor and exploded in a silent, rushing wave that caught Malfoy and made him stagger. Harry turned his head and saw the edge of it hit the pile of tapestries. They wavered and went up with a burst of dust that made him cough. Malfoy's armor didn't do anything about protecting his lungs, it seemed.

Malfoy laughed. "You do have a lot of needs, Potter. I look forward to tending to some of them. Others, not so much." He leaned forwards. "Do you at least trust that I can protect you from your enemies how and as I need to?"

Harry nodded. "What was the spell?" he asked, as Malfoy murmured a Finite and banished the armor that clung to his chest, or rather to the air over his chest. "I've never heard of it."

Malfoy gave him a dim and secret smile, taking a step forwards. Harry caught his breath, feeling the air tighten between them in a way he didn't understand. He knew it had to be the bond, but he wasn't sure why it would react like this. Just to tie him and Malfoy together, perhaps, and keep them close when at least one of them had the sense to be reluctant about it in the first place.

"One I made up," Malfoy whispered. "One I imagined. And one that I never had the strength to make work before now." He reached out and drew a fingernail down the center of Harry's chest, rucking up his shirt. "Your bond is granting me all sorts of gifts, Potter, making me the powerful wizard I've always wanted to be. That's one reason not to resent it."

Harry winced. "Power doesn't make up for the loss of freedom, Malfoy. You'll see that eventually."

Malfoy's eyes narrowed, and filled with ice thicker than the armor that had protected Harry. "You should listen to how condescending you sound sometime," he said, and spun away, stalking towards the kitchen. "And in the meantime, we're ordering food from the Leaky. Why is it so bare in here?"

Harry, left alone, shook his head ruefully. At least he had to admit that the bond couldn't be making Malfoy act in a way he didn't want to all the time, not and leave him with the ability to protest and complain like that.

"Potter! I asked you a question."

Sighing, Harry went into the kitchen to tend to his impatient—guest? Bondmate? Guardian? He had no idea what word was appropriate.

But no matter which one it was, he was fairly sure that one shouldn't wake up in the middle of the night with him in the bed.

Harry came awake with a gasp and pushed one hand down over his chest, shutting his eyes. He hated it when he woke up like this, with his heartbeat filling his ears and images of the war filling his mind.

His memory was half-convinced that he was still in the middle of the dream—a horrible one where he and Ron and Hermione had never got out of Malfoy Manor—and so when someone moved in the darkness, he ripped the air as he rolled around, rising to one knee, and aimed his wand in the movement's direction.

"Shhh," Malfoy murmured, and then slipped into bed next to him, cradling him close as his arms wrapped around Harry's ribs with a familiar air. "I knew that I'd have to soothe your nightmares. Your voice is loud in my head, and it started screaming five minutes ago. I'm here. I have you." His voice was low and clear, not sleepy, and he rubbed his hands up and down Harry's ribs as though he'd done this kind of comforting before.

Harry bared his teeth. For all he knew, Malfoy might have done it before. He hadn't kept up with what Malfoy was doing in the last few years. Malfoy might work at St. Mungo's or as a professional nightmare-soother.

Not that he would have the chance to do that now, because the bond and Harry had stolen him away from his old life.

Abruptly, Malfoy stiffened, and his hands paused in mid-stroke. Then he leaned back and considered Harry with his hands hanging down between his knees, shaking his head.

"What?" Harry snarled. He knew that look already and hated it. He had done something to disappoint Malfoy, something not in keeping with the nature of the bond.

"You can't keep thinking like that," Malfoy said. "Treating me like a thing. A tool. This kind of thinking does that far more than treating me like a slave does, do you know? Assuming I have no choice. Assuming that I don't want to be here."

Harry winced, remembering what Hermione had said about the ways the bond would change Malfoy. "You only want to be because the bond—I don't know, rewrote your thoughts or something. Changed them."

"That's the worst thing you've ever said to me," Malfoy said, and he seemed to be on the other side of the world at the moment, even though he hadn't moved. "Worse than anything about my father or the Dark Lord or Slytherin could ever have been."

Harry winced again, reached out with one hand, and then let it fall. But Malfoy caught it before it could touch the bed and held it between them, gazing down with an abstracted expression, as if he was trying to read Harry's future from his palm the way Trelawney would.

"What can I do?" Harry asked quietly, when some time had passed and Malfoy didn't seem inclined to either stop touching him or go away. "I'm not—good at this. I know I would be disgusted at what happened to you happening to me. I was disgusted at the thought of doing it to you. But I keep making it worse."

Malfoy looked up at him and took a deep breath, one that seemed to rush out of him and rustle around in the air between them. "Accept that for me, this is different," he said. "No, I don't have to soothe your every fucking desire, but the ones I can, I want to. And you need more protection than you think you do. Yes, you do," he added, as Harry frowned and opened his mouth in instinctive defiance. "Believe me, Potter. There's so much I can feel under the surface of your mind, and the nightmare is just some of it rising to the surface. That's by no means all."

Harry watched him for a moment, biting his lip. Malfoy gazed back at him, his hands clenching for a moment. He seemed more tired than Harry felt, even with how exhausted the nightmares usually left him.

"All right," Harry said, and forced himself to lean back against the pillows, shutting his eyes. "What would help you most right now?"

Malfoy gave a sigh with a chuckle clinging to the end of it. "Of course you can only let me help you under the guise of helping me," he said. "But it's so much better than what you might have given me that I'll take it." He leaned forwards and let his chin rest for a moment on Harry's shoulder, closing his eyes when Harry looked. "Budge up."

Harry turned obediently to the side, and Malfoy curled up behind him, letting his legs embrace Harry's and his arms curl around his waist. Harry blinked. He couldn't remember the last time he had let someone this close—oh, sure, he'd dated, but most of his lovers didn't end up staying the night—and the overwhelming warmth that beamed into his skin made him wonder how he'd ever fall asleep.

"You'll manage," Malfoy whispered to him, and one hand came loose from the tight link around his waist to stroke up and down Harry's chest, coming to rest on his hip. "Come on. Think good thoughts. Go to sleep."

Harry's eyelids fluttered, and he let his head lean back. It was surprisingly easy, when Malfoy put it like that, to think of the warmth as another blanket. He sighed and tugged the blankets up to his chest. The images from the nightmare were already fading.

"Yes, Harry," Malfoy whispered into his ear. "That's it. Relax. Let go."

"Easier said than done," Harry whispered, but he was more than halfway back to sleep, and there was—there was something comforting about having Malfoy there.

He did try to think that in the deepest, darkest part of his mind, though, so Malfoy wouldn't hear it through the bond.

A chuckle low in his ear made him suspect Malfoy had heard anyway.

"But I don't understand exactly what it's like for you. And I want to."

Malfoy spent a few minutes staring at him over the edge of his toast dripping with butter. Harry had promised himself that he would get up early in the morning and go and get some food, since Malfoy whinged so much about not having enough in the house, and make Malfoy a proper breakfast.

Instead, he slept late under the influence of the gentlest charm he remembered encountering in years, and then woke up to find that Malfoy had found the food and cooked breakfast—or, more to the point, bullied Kreacher into doing so—and all he had to do was sit down at the table and eat and enjoy.

It wasn't something he wanted to do. He had complained, loudly. But Malfoy had smiled at him, and murmured something about Harry needing his sleep and a holiday from chores of this variety, and put a hand on his shoulder in a heavy, comforting way that scared Harry out of his wits. To avoid a conversation about why Malfoy thought "chores" like this were the bane of his existence, he'd sat down and eaten the toast and blood oranges (only Malfoy) and thick, tiny, salted fish of a kind that he didn't recognize.

As he had eaten, though, he'd thought. Maybe there was a way of breaking the bond, if Malfoy could describe what it felt like. Harry had heard Hermione say before that it was relatively easy to end curses if one knew how the victim experienced them.

And Harry wasn't a curse-breaker by profession, but for this, he was willing to become one.

Malfoy smirked suddenly and laid the toast down in its own puddle of butter. That wasn't one thing Harry would have expected, that Malfoy wanted butter on everything. He'd even draped the fish with it. "You can stop thinking like that at any time you want to, Harry." He tilted his chair back by the simple expedient of hooking his feet under the table and pushing. "You're not going to get rid of me that easily."

"Have you considered," Harry said, pausing in the middle of the sentence to take a long bite so he wouldn't cast a hex over the table at the person he was trying to get to help him, "that you might serve me best by telling me? Because my greatest need is probably to get rid of this bloody bond."

Malfoy paused, and let the chair tilt forwards again. "No," he said, his voice practically lilting. "You think that should be your greatest need, because you hate the idea that you've enslaved me. But you need other things more." His voice sank. "Shall I tell you?"

"If it'll tell me something about how you experience it," Harry said, and paused to lick butter off his fingers. Perhaps he could drive Malfoy away with his appalling manners. Malfoy just watched him, though, and Harry at last sighed and stared at him. "Then yes."

Malfoy got up and walked around the table with a sort of noiseless grace that Harry sometimes used, too, and had thought was a product of Auror training, since he'd never moved like that when he was a child. Maybe that was another gift the bond had given Malfoy, though.

Malfoy stopped behind him. Harry stiffened in spite of himself, and thought about wands pressed to spines. Not Malfoy's wand, specifically; Harry hoped he was over that sort of nonsense. But he'd had a lot of enemies, in his time.

Malfoy leaned down near his ear, and breathed out. Harry shivered in spite of himself, and lifted a hand to swat the way he would with a fly.

Strong, slender fingers caught his wrist, and Malfoy murmured, "Your thoughts move through my mind like flashes of light. How do I know what you need? How do you know when a storm is nearby? You see the lightning flickering through the trees. You feel the pressure in the air. There's no intuition involved. I can sense them."

"But you can still choose which ones to fulfill," Harry said, or begged, a taste like vomit in his mouth.

Malfoy paused, and then said, "That matters to you. That matters so much. Have you considered that your need for a certain answer might prejudice you?" His fingers flexed open on Harry's shoulder.

Harry clenched his hands on the table and started to rise.

Malfoy pushed him back down, murmuring in his ear, "No, Potter, stay, it was only a joke, and if I had known before how much this mattered to you—absurdly—then I wouldn't have made it. Yes. I can see and sense the needs, and I can pick and choose among them. But so many of the things you want are so simple, and it won't take much work to fulfill them and make myself feel good at the same time. Why not do it?"

"That could be the bond talking, too, the bond changing your mind," Harry said, then paused. "Make yourself feel good."

Malfoy snorted into his hair, and sank down beside him, his hands splaying over Harry's back as if he was going to create the ice armor again, to protect him from some unknown threat. "The Defendere bond has no reason to endure if it's absolutely unpleasant to contemplate and experience. Of course, most people don't have your delicate sensibilities, but it was meant to do a number of things, and none of them are torture. When I can do something for you, it feels good, yes."

"I wanted to avoid that aspect," Harry murmured.

"You really are too quick to attribute everything to sex," Malfoy said, his fingers sliding up and down Harry's spine in a way that didn't do much to take sex out of Harry's head. "No. This is more like the pleasure you get from sitting in sunlight on a warm day. I promise, Potter. It's not actually something I would sacrifice everything for if I actively didn't want to do something."

"Like leave me alone?" Harry twisted around to glare at him.

"That's a need," Malfoy agreed, and then his grin became one that little fish must see heading their way fairly often. "But you need other things more. Someone to guard your back—you do get tired of doing it all yourself, and although you trust Weasley you work with him on a lot of different levels, and you have to do it for him, too—and relieve you of a few of the burdens that you carry around all the time. Someone to talk to, and cuddle with, and hold back the nightmares."

"What we did last night was not cuddling," Harry began.

"No, it was sleeping together," Malfoy said, and clucked his tongue, moving his hand to Harry's forehead. "Careful with the blushing, Potter. You look as though you're liable to take a fever at any moment, you know."

"You idiot," Harry snarled, and swatted his hand off. "You're talking as though I wanted someone to take care of me."

Malfoy said nothing for a few minutes, and Harry wondered if he had finally made him go away. Then those warm hands descended on his shoulders again, and turned him around. Harry went, and watched Malfoy staring at him. His eyes had a shade, a sheen, in the back of them that Harry didn't recognize.

"But you do," Malfoy said. "Of course you do. All people want someone to take care of them sometimes. It's a very human desire. But then, normal humans don't put it off all the time, either. I don't actually think yours would be as intense as it is if you indulged it once in a while."

Harry rolled his eyes. "You can pick up all these needs that I don't know I have? I promise, Malfoy, I wasn't sitting in my house pining for someone to cook and clean for me and pick up the pieces."

"No. And that's the problem, really."

Harry tried to stand up, because really, this whole situation had gone on for long enough, and while the Ministry had given Harry a brief holiday to deal with the bond, which he appreciated, he didn't intend to spend it sitting at breakfast and debating obscure philosophy with Malfoy.

"I'm not trying to be obscure," Malfoy said, and took a deep breath, one that ruffled the blond hair hanging down on either side of his face. "Not on purpose. It's just that so much of what you think about the bond and what I think is so totally different."

Harry halted and blinked at him. The sigh was the first thing that had made him think Malfoy might be as frustrated by this situation as he was. And the way Malfoy was staring at him, strong and steady but with his eyes blinking more than usual, said it, too.

"All right, Malfoy," Harry said, and sat down again. "Then can you tell me how you can hear my thoughts some of the time, and the rest of the time you're responding to things that I didn't really think?"

"Everything that the bond tells me comes out of the inside of your skull," Malfoy said. He watched Harry warily, head half-tilted to the side, as though he assumed Harry had something he would launch at him in a moment. Then, a moment later, he smirked and took the seat next to him, which at least meant Harry could look him in the eye without tilting backwards in the chair. "But some things are very close to the surface of your mind, like the need that you think you have for me to stop being obscure, and some things aren't. Like your need to be taken care of. I decided to leave hospital when I figured that one out."

"It might not really be there," Harry said. "Maybe you only think it is. Maybe you're making that need up to fuck with me."

Malfoy's eyes lit with suppressed laughter. "Consider why it would be an effective method of fucking with you, Potter, and how sad that makes you sound, in a way. Why?"

"Because I don't need to be taken care of," Harry said shortly. Yes, Malfoy had seemed human a minute ago, but now they were back on this weird track again. "I should think that'd be obvious. I'm one of the Ministry's most capable fighters, I don't have any injury or illness, and it's not like I'm starving for company or have no friends."

"And that's all that one needs, of course," Malfoy said, rolling his eyes. "To be physically healthy and have friends."

"Yeah, it is," Harry said, and found himself baring his teeth. He stopped and blinked. Was the bond doing something to him, too? He was never that angry normally about someone telling him that he needed to take more time off work or something. Hermione said it all the time. Harry would laugh and put her off, and she would let it go, because she understood how important his work was to him.

"What it's doing is revealing."

Harry glanced at Malfoy again. Malfoy had dropped the laughter and leaned forwards with his hands on his knees and his fingers poised as if he really would like to strangle Harry and was only barely being prevented from it.

"No one can be a hero all the time," Malfoy said. "But you act like you have to be, that asking for compassion or care from someone else is a weakness—"

"I would never think anything like that!" Harry snapped. "I've seen plenty of people in my job who need things like that, and I would never think they were weak, I think they're stronger than the Aurors who rescue them sometimes—"

"You personally," Malfoy said, stressing each word individually until Harry wanted to poke him. "You. Think. That asking for help undermines you, or your mask of the hero, or something. But you do want someone to make breakfast for you sometimes, and hold you when you have nightmares, and be concerned for you first some of the time." He paused, perhaps expecting Harry to retort, but Harry was a little too incredulous for that. Malfoy rolled his eyes. "And it doesn't make you weak."

"But what you're talking about," Harry said, "I could have that, too. Kreacher makes breakfast for me if I ask him nicely enough, and I know Ron and Hermoine are concerned about me all the time." They'd be more concerned right now if they knew how mental Malfoy is, he added to himself.

"You spend time taking care of them, too, and being concerned for them." Malfoy held up his thumb and forefinger an inch apart. "Sometimes—not always, just this much time—" His fingers pinched together and the small space vanished. "You want someone you don't have to care about in return. Someone who puts you first and doesn't ask for the same thing from you in return."

Harry shivered and scratched at his arms. He felt as if he were covered in a coating of slime.

"That disgusts you," Malfoy said, staring at him and shaking his head. "To the point that you never acknowledged the desires when they tried to surface in your mind. That surprises me, Potter, it really does. About some things, you must be more sensible by now. You know that you're not less a hero for accepting care from someone else. Unless you think that Weasley is less than a hero when he lays his head on his Granger's shoulder." Malfoy paused, and then added, "And I can't believe I just said that."

Harry took his hands away from his arms with an effort. "Yeah, it disgusts me," he said shortly. "Because the only people who do that without someone crushing part of their personalities are house-elves or under the Imperius Curse. Or fictional."

"Or the Defendere bond." Malfoy's teeth flashed. "I'm here to protect you, Potter. To fulfill your needs. And those include the ones that you've hidden from yourself, the ones that you would hesitate to admit no matter how much you have to. For most people, the ones who can admit that they're real, the bond would function to let them accomplish something they couldn't otherwise, by giving magic to their protectors. It's given me magic, sure, but what you really need is some honesty in your life. And I'm here to provide it."

"What I really need, right now," Harry said, rising and turning his back, "is to be alone."

Malfoy studied him in silence for some time, then nodded. Harry could hear the sound even though he didn't turn around, and hated it. He was already getting attuned to Malfoy's little movements and gestures, it seemed. It bothered him.

"I think you do," Malfoy said, sounding surprised. "Very well, Potter. But please remember, I'm here for you."

"Never have those words sounded so like a threat," Harry muttered, and Malfoy laughed and reached out to run a casual, possessive hand down the middle of his back. Harry jumped, and Malfoy laughed again, with a different timber in his voice this time.

"If you ever want to talk about this in detail, and without the coaxing," Malfoy murmured, "we can. But I think you need the coaxing right now, too. You need someone who's willing to put up with dragging it out of you." He paused, and his voice deepened. "To make up for all the times that people should have asked questions and didn't, perhaps?"

And that told Harry exactly why he hated this, and why he couldn't have Malfoy asking questions. He whirled around and brought his wand up. Malfoy had already retreated to the far corner of the kitchen, his hand on his wand and his eyes bright and attentive.

"So that's the way of it." Malfoy nodded, and then actually swept something like a little bow, which Harry would have screamed at him for if he wasn't already lost in a jarring, juddering sensation of shock. "All right. Harry. I'll let you have a few hours for yourself. I don't reckon you can do anything too horrible in that time."

He left the house, stroking the hawthorn wand Harry had given him back last night. Harry watched him go, then ducked his head and pulled at his hair.

He knew only one place to go when his muscles were trembling like this, his throat throbbing with unspoken words, and the holiday the Ministry had given him didn't matter.

The target in front of him, a large and amorphous sack that was only reshaped to look like a human figure on occasion, blew up with such a spectacular burst of blue light that Harry picked himself up from the floor with his ears ringing. He gestured with his wand as he stood, and the next sack jerked forwards on the enchanted chains. Harry took careful aim.

It wasn't that he brooded senselessly on thoughts of the Dursleys and Cedric and Sirius and all the other things that he sometimes woke in the middle of the night wishing people had asked him about, or that he'd had some help to recover from. For the most part, he acknowledged them as there, part of his memories, and he otherwise got on with his life, and it was mostly a happy one.

The sack exploded hard enough to make Harry feel as if he was flying. And then he realized he was, when he hit the wall. He groaned and picked himself up again.

It was just that Malfoy didn't have the right to bring it all back with a simple glance and a few simple words.

It was just that…

Harry sighed, and felt down his side for broken ribs. There were none. And apparently simply being hurt wasn't enough to make Malfoy dash through the door like an avenging angel, for which Harry was duly grateful. He took a step away from the wall, sagged back against it, and shook his head.

It was just that admitting that maybe, yeah, he wanted someone to take care of him sometimes, someone who would ask the questions that Dumbledore hadn't and treat him like a person instead of a pawn and listen to him sympathetically and wait on him hand and foot, hurt. He'd tried so hard to be a good person, especially once he woke up after the war was over and discovered that being a good person and being a hero were not the same thing.

But it wasn't good to want someone to wait on you hand and foot, was it? It was—weird. You might dream about something like that, but you couldn't try to make it real, because real people didn't work that way.

Harry grimaced and bent down to pick up a piece of the sack, conjuring another sack from it when another one didn't jerk forwards right away. He was afraid that his last spell might have disrupted the enchantment on the chains, though not actually afraid enough to do anything about it.

"Harry, mate. You all right?"

That was Ron's voice, behind him. Harry felt his shoulders drop from their odd position, and nodded. Being with Ron, talking to him, was all right, because they had done lots of things for each other instead of him just doing it all for Harry. And they had chosen to be friends, not been compelled into it by a bond.

"Yeah," he said, turning around and smiling at Ron. "But Malfoy said some things that got me angry, so I needed to work off the steam."

"Now there's a surprise," Ron said, and rolled his eyes as he dropped onto a bench along the wall, beginning to stretch and do all the other exercises that Aurors were supposed to do before training and which Harry never bothered with. "If anyone could find a way to get around a bond that forces you to defend the master of the bond, it's him."

"How permanent is this bond?" Harry asked. He couldn't ask Hermione to do the research, not while the wedding was preoccupying her, but Ron was glad of an excuse to think of anything not relating to the wedding.

Ron stopped in the middle of a stretch and looked up at him. "I told you it was permanent when you decided to do the ritual to save Malfoy's life, Harry," he said, and there was all sorts of pity in his eyes that Harry couldn't face, so he turned away and blasted a hole in solid rock. While the echoes and the flying drops of molten stone were still dying away, Harry heard Ron swallow and say, "Are you finding it that hard, when it hasn't even been a day yet?"

Harry shut his eyes and rubbed his hand across them, but that just made yellow starbursts dance on the back of his eyelids, without making anything clearer. "I—don't know," he said. "Maybe it's the kind of thing that only gets easier from this point on. Maybe I can live with it. But, Ron, he talks about how he has to tend to me, and that's—that's not something he would ever want to do before the bond."

"Oh, I see," Ron said, and his voice was different, somehow. Harry heard him stand up from the bench and walk towards him, but he didn't look up. It seemed the best course to keep his head bowed for right now. "Harry. Look at me."

Harry dropped his hand and did, and now Ron's eyes were gently terrible, the way that Hermione's could be when she was scolding you. Ron reached out and slapped Harry's right cheek, with the same terrible gentleness.

"Look," Ron said quietly. "You're thinking of the person he was before the bond as the real him, right? And the person he is now as some sort of false copy?"

"How can I not?" Harry snapped, and shoved himself back so that he was pacing in a circle. Destroying the targets didn't seem to have diminished the anxious lightning skipping under his skin. "You know that he wouldn't have chosen to be friends with me, or serve me, or whatever the Defendere bond is really about. He chose to be my enemy, he chose to regret what his father had done, he chose to save his parents, but not this!"

"Yeah, right," Ron said. "And I'm going to be a different person after my marriage to Hermione, of course, and the one that's here right now is the real me that's going to die."

Harry spun around. That hit harder than the slap. "Of course not!" he snapped. "Don't be ridiculous! That's not the same thing at all."

Ron rolled his eyes. "Really? But I knew about the Defendere bond in the first place because of all the bindings and bonds that Hermione made me look up, so we could choose which one we liked best. It's a stronger one than the vows Hermione and I are going to make, sure, but that doesn't mean it's completely different. People are the same after bonds and vows and that kind of thing, Harry, I promise. The wizarding world has a space for things like this. I know it's different for you because you don't think of it the same way." He kindly left the "raised by those bloody Muggles" out of the sentence. "But it's not the end of the world. It doesn't mean that Malfoy's a slave. It doesn't mean that he's anything but who and what he wants to be, right now."

Harry shook his head, mute and not knowing why. Then he found his tongue, thinking about Ron's words. "But you and Hermione both chose that. Malfoy didn't."

"That's right," Ron said, with such gravity that Harry was fooled for a moment. "You held him down and poured that blood down his throat. You didn't give him every chance to refuse. You spoke words that absolutely defined his service as slavery. Every time I see you go by, I think, 'That's the ruthless Harry Potter who never gave anyone a choice, that is'."

Harry shut his eyes, and rubbed them again. This time, the starbursts looked pink, but it still didn't help.

"He had as much choice as you did," Ron said quietly. "Yeah, you were the one who decided on the nature of the bond, but you had to bind him. You didn't walk in there expecting that to happen, any more than Malfoy expected to wake up in a magical circle he couldn't escape. For fuck's sake, Harry. Go home. Think about it. But stop mucking around with magic when you're in this mood. Let someone take care of you for once."

"But not for always," Harry said, muffled, although his hand was over his eyes and not his mouth. "That's—I can push back and take care of him sometimes, right?"

"He lives!" Ron cried out, and when Harry dropped his hand to look, Ron had his arms and his face upraised to the ceiling in ecstasy. "He thinks! He learns! Someday soon he might learn that his experience is not the whole of the universe! We can but live in hope!"

Harry punched him, hard, for what that deserved, and when he walked out of the training room, he was smiling for the first time that day.

"What the hell did you do to yourself?"

Harry started awake. For some reason, he had thought Malfoy would be in Grimmauld Place the minute he reached it, but he hadn't been, and Harry had fallen asleep on the couch in the drawing room.

And he hadn't cast anti-pain charms or stretched or showered or whatever it was you were supposed to do before that, either. His ribs screamed at him, and his breath came out of him in a hiss when he tried to sit up. His shoulder hurt, too, probably from when the blast of his own magic had thrown him against the wall. He tried to pry his shirt collar back from his neck, and had to stop, because it hurt too much.

Malfoy murmured something, and Harry's shirt vanished. Malfoy took a step towards the couch, and stopped.

"Who the fuck was it?"

Harry jerked his head around, and then hissed as he remembered why that wasn't a good idea, either. Malfoy took another long, slow step towards him, hands extended and eyes narrowed. He seemed to assume that his primary task right now was not to frighten Harry.

And maybe my mind really did tell him that. Harry wasn't sure that he could trust his unconscious right now, not if it had revealed to Malfoy that he wanted someone to take care of him. He let his head fall forwards, and sighed. "No one beat me up or cursed me. I was training, and this is the result of hitting the wall."

He turned his head more slowly, responsive to the pain in his neck that felt right now as if it could come from a slightly fractured bone or sleeping strangely on it, and stared. There was a huge, blossoming bruise on his shoulder, looking like a great purple handprint with black edging it. No wonder Malfoy thought it came from someone touching him.

Malfoy stepped up to the couch and stared at him for a moment. Then he said, his voice still low and rough enough to scare any number of hardened criminals, "I thought you were on holiday."

"I was," Harry said, and then remembered that he'd never visited Shacklebolt and got himself put back on duty. He grimaced. "I mean, I am. But I needed to get rid of some of the emotions that—got stirred up this morning. And anyone can come in and train. It doesn't matter if they're on holiday or not."

Malfoy shook his head. His face was expressionless now. "Lie down," he said. "I've brought some oil that has pain-dulling properties with me, I wanted to clear out my lab, but I want to make sure that you're not going to do something else to fuck up your back in the time I'm gone." He flicked his wand again.

Harry wondered why until he realized that he was sinking into the couch the way he would into a swamp. He yelped and flung his hands out, but they only touched softness. Malfoy had Transfigured the couch into a huge bed.

"That was my couch," Harry pointed out, while Malfoy dipped into a bag at his feet and came up with a small jar of oil that Harry could smell from here. It smelled like oranges and lemons, which was counterproductive, because it just made his mouth water instead of relaxing him.

"It was puce," Malfoy said, and dipped his fingers in the oil. "Lie down. No, on your stomach, you idiot. Do you think I can reach your back and shoulders if you're lying on them?"

Harry sighed and flopped down on his back, then rolled onto his stomach, to prove he could. Not such an intelligent idea, he had to admit, when his ribs flared fireworks through his body. Malfoy hurried to his side with what sounded like a pattering of footsteps, but when Harry glanced up at him, his face was stern, still.

"Do you need a pain potion for your ribs?" Malfoy asked.

Harry sighed. "Shouldn't the bond tell you that?" In truth, he hurt far more than he had anticipated. Maybe his magic had tossed him into the wall harder than he thought, or maybe he did ordinarily do things, like stretch, that would have relieved it. At the moment, his head was so hazy with pain that he couldn't remember.

"I was trying to give you a choice," Malfoy murmured. "But yes, now that you mention it, you need it." He turned away and went to fetch the potion.

Harry closed his eyes and grimaced. His skin felt thin and fragile, stretched over his bones. His fingers curled in the softness of the bed beneath him, and he shook his head. What he wanted was a firmer mattress. This would make his back hurt worse.

"Stop groping, it's not going back to being puce no matter how you poke at it," Malfoy murmured, and then he was close behind Harry. There was the sound of a cork coming out, and then the smooth lip of a vial at Harry's mouth. "Swallow."

Harry swallowed the thick potion, which tasted of mint—the first one he'd ever had that did so and didn't turn out to be something else nasty and surprising a few moments later—and said, "A firmer bed? That would be good for my back."

"In a little while, when you actually sleep," Malfoy murmured. There was a low note in his voice. Harry listened a second, and identified it as pleasure. Malfoy climbed onto the bed, and knelt behind him. "If you did this to yourself, Potter, I can't imagine what your enemies do to you," he added, in more his normal tone, and the first drop of sweet oil went onto Harry's back.

Harry sighed as the potion doused the fire of his ribs in coolness and shook his head. "I didn't think," he mumbled. "I was angry. Thinking about what I'd done to you and what you might do to me."

"That's a new one," Malfoy said, and his fingers dug deep, so that Harry opened his mouth to say he was bruised, not tense. But the pain began to slide away from his shoulders and back, too, a pain so subtle that Harry hadn't noticed it, or had decided that he had no choice but to live with it. He groaned this time, and Malfoy's voice shaded dark again. "The small, pitiful Malfoy, scaring the great Harry Potter."

"You might get me used to this," Harry mumbled into the bed, wondering if the potion had been laced with Veritaserum, or if the oil was. "Then what would happen? What if I got decadent and started expecting it from everyone I met?"

There was silence, for everything except the faint sound of Malfoy's fingers stroking his skin, and Harry groaning in spite of himself. Then Malfoy said, "You're believing too much of your own press."

"I don't believe it enough, that's the trouble," Harry murmured. "They're always saying that I'm vulnerable and human really, and I need to remember that. Then maybe I wouldn't end up with wounds like this."

"They're always saying that you're human enough to be corrupted by the special treatment that they think the Ministry gives you," Malfoy corrected sharply. Harry tried to raise his head at the tone, but Malfoy's fingers were too clever and skilled, and Harry found that he just wanted to lower his chin to the mattress and close his eyes again. "That's the part that you shouldn't believe. You're the least likely person to become decadent that I know. Merlin knows that you're stupid and reckless and can cause damage without thinking about it, but loving pleasure too much? No, I don't think that's likely."

"But I want to help you sometimes, too," Harry said, and he sounded terribly earnest and terribly full of mattress fluff in his mouth at the same time, so he wasn't sure how much of it Malfoy heard. "Not just have you take care of me."

Malfoy paused, and then he said, "Yes, I can feel that. The desire burning in you, underneath everything else."

"Then why're you taking care of me?" Harry asked the bed. The pain was leaving. The pain was gone. It felt so much better than when he would just swallow a pain potion or a headache potion and leave it at that. "Why not lean back and let me help you, too? What's the difference?"

"You need that, but you need this more," Malfoy said quietly, and poured more oil onto the middle of Harry's back, making him smell as if he stood in the middle of an orchard. Harry laughed at the thought, and Malfoy bent down, his head near Harry's ear as he whispered. "You do have your friends and family to take care of. But I'm the only one you can trust this way, to hold you down and touch you like this, because the bond convinces you that I can't harm you."

"Can you? Maybe that was poison." Harry shut his eyes. His hands sprawled out to the sides, and his fingers barely moved when he tried them. "Maybe you're planning to kill me and steal my house-elf and my puce couch."

"Even if they take me to Azkaban for it," Malfoy said solemnly, "that couch is never going to be puce again."

"I like that," Harry said sleepily. "I like that you can joke about it. You're strong."

Malfoy paused, and then pulled Harry's hair back from his ear and bent even closer. "What do you wish you could joke about?" he whispered. "What makes you think that you're not strong? What do you wish they would have asked about?"

Harry sighed. The way he felt like now, he didn't think he'd mind talking to Malfoy about it. He'd probably hate himself in the morning, but then again, he'd hated himself for lots of worse reasons, too.

"I wish they would have asked about the bars on the windows," he whispered. "There were a lot of other things that happened that were inside the house, but not the bars, you know? Mrs. Figg should have seen them, at least. And Ron saw them, too, but that's different, he did try to ask and I kept ignoring him. And he was only twelve, anyway. You can't expect a twelve-year-old to ask those kinds of questions for long, it's not what they care about. But the adults should have asked."

There was a long pause that was worse than the others, because Malfoy wasn't making any sound to let Harry know he was still there. But then he drizzled on more oil, and Harry rubbed his face into the pillow and made pleased drowsy noises.

"Go on," Malfoy said. "What else should they have asked about?"

Harry yawned, and then giggled. "I don't think the word 'ask' will sound like a word by the end of the evening," he muttered.

"Go on," Malfoy said, but he didn't specify again. He was just there, his hands working the oil into Harry's shoulders and his thighs resting on either side of his back. Harry spared a moment to be grateful that Malfoy was still wearing clothes, but that realization whirled away like so many others.

"They should have asked if I was all right the summer after I saw Cedric die," Harry whispered. "I was alone in the Muggle world and had no idea what was going on, if there was a war on or if Sirius was all right or anything. Oh, they came and got me finally, but no one really asked those questions."

"They should have," Malfoy whispered back, but nothing more, and his voice was so much like an echo of Harry's own that Harry could pretend it was, and continue.

"They should have asked me about the basilisk. I killed this monster snake on my own, and I almost saw Ginny die, and I thought I was going to die, the fang stabbed me through the arm, and I was only twelve years old! That's not the kind of thing that you survive without being scarred." Harry yawned again. "But no, I just spent some time in the hospital wing and then they sent me home for the summer. Again. I wonder what I did in a past life to deserve being stuck with the Dursleys."

"I don't know anything about fate, Potter." Malfoy's voice had gone all stiff again, and Harry knew that if he let himself, he would think about what an utter idiot he was being and how he would regret this in the morning.

He didn't let himself think about it. He just reached back, groping, and caught Malfoy's hand, squeezing hard.

"I didn't mean that seriously," he whispered. "They were just so awful. I wonder what crime was enough to deserve being stuck with them."

"Tell me." Malfoy's hands were at work again, though this time Harry didn't think there could be any part of his back still bruised with all the oil being put on, and Harry let Malfoy's wrist go, not without a sigh of regret. The pulse and the skin felt warm beneath his fingers. Everything felt so warm.

"They hated magic," he murmured into the pillow. "So they hated me. It was all these chores and all these sideways stares that I didn't understand because they didn't tell me about magic and not enough food and a bedroom in a cupboard. I mean, I don't know, I s'pose it's not as awful as some things, I knew a few kids who had things a lot worse, but it was bad enough, you know?"

Malfoy had gone still. From the light tickle of hair on his back, Harry thought he probably had his head bowed, and his body was being racked with light shivers.

"Fuck, I'm sorry," Harry murmured, aware that he was rapidly approaching that maudlin state of general apology for the world that he got into when he was drunk enough. "Did I remind you of something?"

"No," Malfoy said. "I just didn't know." He rolled off Harry, and Harry, with a puzzled frown, rolled over to see him.

Malfoy lay by his side, his own legs stretched out along the bed, his face set in its own frown. He touched Harry's face, eyes and jaw and chin and eyebrows. Harry turned his head obligingly to the side so that Malfoy could reach his ears better, and sighed as the git's fingers brushed over them. Harry hated to admit it, but he did have talented hands.

"You need a lot more," Malfoy whispered. "Or I thought you did. There were all those ideas in your mind, burning so bright and clear, and the minute you started talking, all the life drained from them."

Harry was enough himself to snort. "That's probably because I only need to talk about them once. I've pent them up for a long time, but the things that I did talk to Ron and Hermione about felt better right away, and I haven't thought of them much since."

"Why didn't you talk to them about these things?" Malfoy combed his fingers into Harry's hair, and kept them still.

"Because they knew," Harry said, and yawned. "Just like Ron knew about the bars. But there was always something else going on, and I would be fine, so they didn't think they needed to ask about things like the basilisk or Cedric."

Malfoy was quiet, and said nothing more. Harry reached out for his wand, charmed the mattress to be a little firmer, and arranged some of the pillows in front of him. He thought they had been the sofa cushions, but he wasn't sure. All he knew was that the bed was more comfortable now, which meant he could sleep.

And Malfoy had eased his bruises, which probably would have prevented him sleeping, too.

"Thanks," Harry murmured, opening one eye so he could watch him. Malfoy hadn't moved; he was watching Harry with a grim set to his jaw and the fire glittering in his eyes. Harry wished he wouldn't. He reached out and pushed some of Malfoy's hair back from his forehead. Malfoy shivered at his touch, and then caught his hand and turned it back and forth. He might have been looking for a Dark Mark in Harry's palm.

"What?" Harry asked. "You can go back to your own room, by the way. There's no law saying that we need to spend two nights together." And then his mind caught up with his tongue, and for the first time that evening, his face flamed.

His blush seemed to bring the smile back to Malfoy. He slid down beside Harry and cast a spell that removed his own shirt. "Nothing except your need and our bond," he said, slinging one arm around Harry's waist and pushing his chest to Harry's back. Harry caught his breath. "And my desire."

"That you wouldn't even have if not for the bond," Harry said, but his words simply didn't hold the same resentment that he knew they would have a few hours ago, and he expected the slap that Malfoy gave him to the back of the head.

"It's what I want right now," Malfoy said. "More philosophy than that, I refuse to get into at this ridiculous hour." He paused, as if waiting for something, but Harry had already closed his eyes and turned his face away. "Good night, Harry."

"Good night, Malfoy," Harry said, and Malfoy sighed and splay-stroked his fingers through Harry's hair.

"If you want to do something for me, you could call me by my first name," he said, and his voice was low and slow. "I would enjoy that."

Harry paused, blinking. He had assumed that Malfoy would want to put more distance between them if afforded the opportunity, and of course he wouldn't want Harry striking towards a false intimacy when he knew how Harry felt about him and how the bond had altered his mind.

But maybe Malfoy was like Ron—raised in the wizarding world, he made a place for the bond in his mind. Although Harry was still determined to destroy it if he could.

"Good night, Draco," he said, and his mouth was more full of cotton than it had been when he was simply mumbling into pillows. He thought Malfoy's hands tightened on his hip and back for a moment. "And put a bloody shirt on," Harry added, firmly closing his eyes and deciding that nothing else was going to get him to open them tonight.

"You don't really want me to," Malfoy said, and luckily, he must have fallen asleep himself, or else the bed was really comfortable, because Harry didn't remember much after that.

"What have I taken you from? I know that you went and got your things yesterday so that you could move into Grimmauld Place, but were you brewing potions, or did you have a political career, or something else?"

Malfoy looked up from his breakfast—it was chocolate biscuits and ice cream today, because that was Harry's Wednesday morning tradition—and stared at him. Harry stared back. "Did you tell me and I forgot?" he added, when Malfoy's stare went on. "Sorry. I'm not the best at taking in new information when my life is falling apart."

"It didn't fall apart," Malfoy snapped, lowering his dripping ice cream cone so that it would drip on the napkins that covered the table for that purpose instead of on his morning robe. "Any more than mine did. And frankly, I was taking a few years off. Learning how to brew more complex potions, learning more languages, learning how to Apparate longer distances. I want to travel, but I don't want to do it without precautions."

"Like what?" Harry asked. He didn't think he'd ever heard Malfoy speak so many words to him without insults, and he was sorry to probably put an end to that, but Malfoy's last words really did sound nonsensical. "Are you afraid that you'll get recognized by someone abroad and turned over to their Ministries?"

Malfoy laughed. His laugh was rather attractive when he wasn't sneering or smirking or laughing to mock someone, Harry thought, and his forearms were much the same way, even the left one where Harry could see the edge of the Dark Mark.

Not that he could act on that. Harry didn't know what would happen if someone under the Defendere bond had sex with his supposed "master," but he doubted that it would be something desirable.

"No, like strange diseases, or animal bites," Malfoy said. "The first time Blaise ventured outside the protected wizard areas in Australia, he got bitten by a snake that I've never heard of before or since. He nearly died." He glanced away. "I don't fancy summoning Pansy or Blaise to hospital at three in the morning for a similar case."

Harry winced. "I'm sorry."

"Yet another apology." Malfoy resignedly swallowed his vanilla ice cream. "What is this one for?"

"It can't be easy to watch another friend almost die, after what happened to—Crabbe," Harry said. He had debated calling him Vincent, but Malfoy would probably point out that Harry didn't have any right to his first name.

Malfoy splayed his hand on the table. "I was terrible to you," he said clearly. "And you've lost friends yourself. You told me that last night." Harry flushed. Yeah, he had been right, he did hate himself in the morning. "Why are you—why are you this concerned about me?"

"Because I can be," Harry said. "Because this bond has disrupted my life, sure, and I know it's disrupted yours—and I'm not about to start moaning again that it controls your mind or whatever," he added hastily, since Malfoy had opened his mouth and Harry knew that would be the first thing he'd say. "Because I'm allowed to be, and I can choose, and I think living with someone means I should know him better."

Malfoy leaned back in the chair and looped one leg over the other. "Have you lived with anyone before this?" he asked quietly.

"My relatives," Harry said, trying to be playful, but Malfoy grimaced and shook his head, and Harry remembered what he'd said about them last night that might make Malfoy reluctant to be classified with them. Harry flushed, but didn't look away. "And Ginny, for a while. But that didn't work out."

"Why not?" Malfoy had his head tilted, but the bond must not have thought that Harry needed him to know the answers to those questions.

"I didn't want bindings," Harry said. "And she wanted strict wedding vows, the kind that Ron and Hermione are planning to take when they get married. I didn't want that kind of restriction or tie."

"I understand a little better, now," Malfoy said, and didn't have to say what he understood. He continued to lean forwards, his chest nearly flat against the table. Harry remembered when it had been naked and pressed against his back, and this time, he did have to look away. "Potter—Harry. Why did you take up the bond?"

"Because I hated the thought of you dying or going insane more than I hated the thought of you being bound," Harry said. He'd known that at the time, of course, or he wouldn't have asked Ron for ways to become Malfoy's "master," but the words seemed to smash into Malfoy.

He surged to his feet. "I don't know whether to thank you or strangle you," he muttered.

"Yeah, I know," Harry said, and found a real smile as he looked up at Malfoy. "And thanks for what you've been doing, by the way."

Malfoy watched him through hooded eyes a moment longer. Then he said, "What are you planning on doing today?"

"Going back to work," Harry said firmly. "I can't waste more time prowling around here and trying not to injure myself. I only go this mad when I have to sit still and think and do nothing else. At least, on cases, I can apply that energy to doing something."

"What happens if you get injured?" Malfoy's fingers tapped slowly and meaningfully against his ice cream cone. Then he glared at it as if annoyed that it wasn't a skull or something else more portentous and suitable to tap on. Harry stifled another grin.

"The bond will tell you," he answered, standing and reaching for his cloak on the back of the chair. Malfoy had probably already reckoned that he was going back to work today, given that Harry had worn his Auror robes to breakfast. "And you can come into battle and give me that ice armor, if you want."

"It would be simpler if I was there from the beginning," Malfoy said, and held Harry's eyes.

"Do you think Ron will accept you?" Harry asked. "Do you think that the reporters will leave you alone, when they must be dying to ask you questions about the Defendere bond? I know you've avoided them so far, or you would have mentioned it—" and complained until my ears bled "—but you can't if you come with me."

Malfoy's mouth tightened. "The bond wants me at your side."

"The bond, or you?" Harry took a step towards him. "I appreciate what you've done for me, Malfoy, but I also know that my desire is probably that you stay here in the house, safe and protected, until you're needed."

Malfoy moved in again, as he liked to do, and this time they wound up chest-to-chest. Harry started. He hadn't realized until that moment how close they were to the same height, probably because so many of the times he'd spoken to Malfoy since the bond involved them sitting down, or lying down, or Malfoy lying on the floor in those awful chalked circles for the slave ritual.

"The bond would prefer that we stay closer together," Malfoy said, and placed a hand on Harry's shoulder where he liked to rest it. "And all of us would prefer it if you had a less risky job."

"Not me," Harry said, wondering if his vote counted when Malfoy and the Defendere bond were both against him. "I would prefer it if everything was back to normal. Or at least," he added hastily, as Malfoy's face clouded over, "if you were comfortable with the fact that I like my job."

"Is this what you want to do for the rest of your life?" Malfoy asked softly, staring into his eyes. "Chase down Dark wizards, and avoid commitments?"

"Chasing down Dark wizards is a commitment."

Malfoy gave him a strange smile. "I wouldn't demand restrictive marriage vows," he said, taking his hand away. "And I wouldn't insist that you give up your job, except what you talked about was needing something to do. Not that you specifically wanted to go in for the joys of paperwork and chasing Dark wizards."

Harry rolled his eyes. "You know I'm an Auror. I didn't think I needed to specify for you to know what I'm talking about."

"I think it means something." Malfoy watched him, complacent as a cat. "Whether you like what you do, or just like to do. Whether you want to stay the way you are for the rest of your life, or not. You've just proven that you can, absolutely, take a change that you hate and live with it. Think about other changes you can make." He turned his back, adding over his shoulder, "If I don't see you in the course of today, then I'll be in either the lab or the library when you come home. I've got everything I need from the Manor for the moment."

Harry stared after him, shaking his head. Then he turned and determinedly left the house, because he wouldn't see Malfoy before the end of the day, and he intended to prove it to him.

You'd think I would have learned about making rash oaths by now.

Harry coiled into himself as the curses arched overhead, striking the Shield Charm that protected him and the unconscious Ron from the attack. He grimaced. He reckoned it was all to the good that Dark wizards were usually idiots, perhaps because they'd had years of exposure to the Dark Arts in the first place. They hadn't realized yet that they could hit the bricks of the alley wall behind them and bring it down on Harry and Ron's heads.

It had started out so well, and routine for that matter, an ordinary case, just something for Harry and Ron to do. Harry had to admit that he'd missed those cases the past few weeks, with Ron so involved in helping Hermione prepare for the wedding and then the excitement of the bonding with Malfoy.

They'd been following a witch they assumed was a low-ranking member of an illegal magical circle, one that was intent on inventing a potion that would allow them to reach new heights of physical pleasure—and which they kept testing on people who hadn't agreed to have it tested on them. The witch ducked into an alley, and Harry and Ron had rounded the corner under Disillusionment Charms, anxious to watch her meeting with someone they thought would be higher-ranking.

Instead, it was an ambush. And the first curse had driven Ron into the wall and knocked him out cold.

Maybe they aren't idiots after all, Harry thought, as the curses finally began to hit the wall. He grimaced and wrapped an arm around Ron, tugging him close to his side. He should have Apparated out the moment Ron fell, but he'd been stunned and defending himself against three of them, and the wizards had used that moment to raise anti-Apparition wards around the alley.

I'm sorry, Ron. If we get out of this, then I promise you can have holidays until a month after the wedding. Sitting at my desk and doing paperwork is better than this.

Abruptly, the curses shooting towards them fell silent. Harry gripped his wand. He had anchored the Shield Charms to a hastily-assembled wall of stone and rubble he'd put together, and barely looked over it since then, the barrage was so constant. Besides, he couldn't shoot back through the Shield Charms anyway.

Now he had to look, though. He cast a Disillusionment Charm on his head he hoped would help, and cautiously raised it.

There were five other wizards in the alley, which made Harry grin in spite of himself. In that first frenzied moment after they flung Ron into the wall, he'd brought down more of their ten attackers than Harry had thought.

Now, though, those wizards and their anonymous grey robes were all facing the mouth of the alley. They aimed their wands in that direction, raised them, then lowered them. Harry heard them murmuring among themselves, though not well enough, thanks to the muffling effects of his charms, to pick out their words.

Harry looked, and saw a figure clad in grey armor standing there, like one of Hogwarts's suits of armor come to life. It had its arms folded on its chest and enormous, stony wings, resembling a gargoyle's, unfolding slowly from its back.

Malfoy! Harry knew it had to be him. He started to rise to his feet, sure that he couldn't stay here. The Defendere bond might arm Malfoy with powerful magic, sure, but it had never been meant to stand up to the assaults of five wizards.

Then the circle seemed to decide that they couldn't be intimidated by an empty suit of armor, and began to cast.

The curses thudded into the armor and simply faded. Harry saw no effects, even with the ones that he knew should have snared Malfoy with climbing plants or made the ground open up beneath him. His armor ate it, and ate it, and the spreading ripples of uneasiness looked as though they were consuming most of the circle.

Harry raised his wand, ready to demolish the bulwark in front of him. Malfoy knew some tricks, sure, but he was going to get hurt if he kept trying to face these enemies down himself.

Then the woman he and Ron had followed into the alley broke and shouted the incantation that ended the anti-Apparition wards, vanishing at once. The others followed her in a series of pops—and left their fallen comrades on the ground. Harry smiled, even as he heard Ron groan with a heartfelt sigh. Good. They had at least some witnesses, who might be willing to testify to the circle's activities when they realized the people they trusted had abandoned them.

The armor on Malfoy turned to smoke and drifted away from him. He looked normal, without it, normal and a bit ethereal. He took a step forwards as Harry and Ron emerged from behind the Shield Charms, Ron still leaning on Harry and limping. Harry could feel the thrum of intensity in the bond between them, for the first time since he'd actually cast it.

"You're well," Malfoy said, and his eyes skimmed over Harry as though looking for wounds that Harry would try to hide from him. He relaxed a moment later, tossing his hair over his shoulder and folding his arms.

"Yes, I am," Harry said, and tried for a normal smile. He had the feeling that it didn't come out looking quite that way, but then, it wouldn't, would it, when he'd just been saved by someone who had looked like a giant wearing armor and when he had his squirming, slowly waking best friend by his side. "Um. Thank you for your help."

"You don't need to thank me if you don't want to," Malfoy said, and took a delicate step forwards, his eyes so intense that Harry sucked in a harsh breath. "I'm only fulfilling my duties as someone in the Defendere bond, after all."

"Just stop," Harry snapped. The bond had to be making him this restless, he thought, since it felt like exploding sparks were raining down on his skin. "I—you know that you're more than that to me."

Malfoy paused, and then gave a carefully brilliant smile, the kind that Harry thought he would keep to use in front of an audience. "Ah. Of course. I'm the one that you had to rescue and give free will. I'm someone you can save, and someone you wanted to save, but still no different from anyone else."

"Just stop it," Harry hissed. "I said thank you." He glanced down, and saw that Ron's eyes were open, but still unseeing. "And now, you might want to get out of here before Ron wakes up so that we can arrest these people."

"Weasley already knows about our bond." Malfoy moved closer to him. "You feel it, don't you? The bond tugging at us?"

Harry reached up and loosened his robe collar before he thought about it, and then wondered if he should have, when he saw the way Malfoy's stare caught on the hollow of his throat. "Yes," he said, managing not to spit his words out from between his teeth. "And I don't know why. I thanked you. You defended me. What else does it want right now?"

"You still need something." Malfoy studied him, a faint frown on his face as though he thought Harry was hiding a weapon under his clothes, and then moved abruptly forwards. Harry found himself turning instinctively, trying to shield Ron from him.

"I'm not going to hurt you." Malfoy's voice was neutral, the hands that he settled on Harry's shoulders more so.

"I—know that." Harry blew his breath out and let his head settle forwards, his shoulders falling into place. "Sorry. I think I was still too keyed-up to see a sudden movement as harmless, no matter who it was from. I've done the same kind of thing to Ron in the past, and hated it. Sorry," he added again, in case Malfoy didn't understand that he was, in fact, apologizing.

"Mmm," Malfoy said, which was a neutral comment if Harry ever heard one, and then he pushed Harry's robes aside and knelt down so that he could see his back. Harry's face flushed red, because the only thing he could think of was that Malfoy was at the perfect height to kiss his arse. Obviously, he wasn't going to—Harry couldn't think of anything Malfoy was less likely to do, even if required to by the bond—but that was the image in Harry's head, and it lingered, and for some reason, he couldn't drive it away.

"There it is," Malfoy said, and pressed down with his fingers into the small of Harry's back.

Flaring pain nearly made Harry drop Ron. Ron jerked away from him as he bent double and said, "H-Harry? Are you okay?" He knelt on the ground, next to Malfoy, and rubbed at his eyes. "That must have been one powerful curse that knocked me out. I don't remember it even hitting me."

"You're hurt," Malfoy said, his voice low and clipped, and this time his hands rested on Harry's hips as he stood up. He spun Harry around to face him and urged him back a few steps. "When were you going to tell me?"

"I didn't know that was there," Harry said, teeth gritted. "I didn't feel the curse hit, and I have a high pain tolerance." Malfoy was still glaring at him, and he added, "I don't—it doesn't hurt as much as the bruises the other day, you know! Or I would have felt it. I wasn't trying to hide it from you."

"Well, that at least convinces me that your body can communicate with me even when your brain doesn't know what it needs," Malfoy said, and his eyes added all the elaborations on the subject of Harry's brain that they would ever need to add. "That was why it took me a moment to understand you were wounded, because I hadn't read a bodily impulse without any conscious control at first. So." He raised his wand, and cast a Numbing Charm on the wound that hit Harry like a blast of liquid ice. "Now. To St. Mungo's with you."

Harry gestured at the wizards lying around him in the alley and raised his eyebrows. Ron staggered up, blinking, and rested a hand against the wall. "What are we supposed to do with them? Ron isn't competent to handle them on his own yet."

Ron's eyes focused then. "Oi!"

Malfoy spun his wand counterclockwise, and ropes erupted out of the air and wrapped the wrists and the legs and the necks and the waists and the wands of every downed wizard in sight. Harry thought he saw the ropes start towards him and Ron for a moment, as though Malfoy was thinking of dragging them somewhere trussed, but Malfoy glanced at the ropes and they fell back.

"Oh," Harry said, because he didn't think that he could trust his voice for more than that. Malfoy's silent, demanding stare made it clear that more was needed, and he coughed and added lamely, "Something else the bond gave you the strength to do, I suppose?"

"Yes," Malfoy said, and curved his arm around Harry's shoulders, as though he was having trouble walking. "I'll see you to St. Mungo's and come back for this crew."

"If they get away in the meantime, or their comrades come back for them—"

"I promise to be away from this place for a very short time, and then with you for a very long time." Malfoy bent towards him with his teeth gleaming. "That's encouraging, isn't it?"

"Look, it's not like I got this wound on purpose," Harry hissed at him, while Malfoy walked him out of the alley with encouraging hands of steel. He'd conjured a stretcher for Ron and already floated him onto it, so Harry couldn't even object about that. "I didn't hide it from you on purpose, and I didn't take more risks than normal."

"I know," Malfoy said. "I'm just doing something that anyone concerned about you would, don't you think? Taking you to hospital, and then coming back to stay with you until the Healers can see you and pronounce whether you're fit to go home or not, and then staying with you in case you'll be taking any potions that impair your functioning. I'm sure that you would do just as much for Weasley." His teeth really did flash when he looked at Harry.

"I don't—Malfoy, honestly, I didn't—" Harry stopped and shook his head. "I just didn't think about it that way," he muttered, because yeah, he would have stayed with Ron if something similar had happened to him. But Ron and Hermione didn't tend to do the exact same thing with him. They would visit him, and then they would go home, and if Harry still was on potions that made him mental when the Healers decided to release him, they could come over, get him, help him settle in, and then leave.

It wasn't something they had decided on. It was just the way that they liked to do things.

"I don't think I need this," he said.

"Your back looks like someone held you down on a burning scaffold," Malfoy said harshly, and his arm curved so strongly around Harry's shoulders that Harry suspected he would wrench something if he tried to get free.

Harry blinked. "Wow, really?" He tried to stop and crane his head to look over his shoulder, but Malfoy shook his head at him and kept hauling him along.

"Come on, hero. I suspect that you'll have plenty of chances to look at your new scar later."

Harry opened his mouth to argue that he didn't really collect scars, and then caught Malfoy's eye—

And shut his mouth, and accepted that, for once, someone was caring for him, just for him.

It might not be so awful. Definitely not so awful, if he was listening to the little glow of warmth in the pit of his stomach.

He just didn't know if he should be.

"I can't believe that."

Harry kept his back turned as he drank the last potion the Healers had left for him. It tasted like the gritty water that Harry imagined would be at the bottom of a pond. He grimaced and held his lips shut with one hand so he wouldn't spit it out, the way he was really tempted to do.

"It fused your skin and your muscle together," Malfoy continued, in a low voice, as though he had some compulsion to quote the Healers who had just come in and talked to Harry. "And you sit there looking as though that's a normal thing to happen. And you didn't even feel it until I pressed on it. Amazing."

Harry hissed and dropped the potions vial on the table nearby, not caring greatly if it cracked or landed safely. He spun around on the bed, and Malfoy fell silent and looked at him. There was a weird, feral gleam in his eyes that Harry didn't understand. It wasn't like Harry had fought when Malfoy insisted on marching him to hospital, or fought the Healers, or objected to taking the bloody potions. Malfoy didn't have anything to look smug about, and the Defendere bond hadn't really affected things between them one way or the other.

"What do you want me to say?" Harry snapped. "Thanks for noticing it, for bringing me here? I already did."

"You can tell me how many wounds you've had like that." Malfoy tossed his wand up and caught it. His hands tightened on it for a moment, fingers digging into the smooth wood, before he tucked it away inside his sleeve. "You can spare me the trouble of breaking into your records either here or at the Ministry to check. And only you can tell me how many you've ignored until they got too bad to do that with, probably."

Harry stared at him, his mouth falling open. Then he shook his head helplessly. "I don't ignore them. There are just some that I don't feel right away because I have a very high pain tolerance, you idiot. Which I just said."

Malfoy might not have heard him, staring thoughtfully at the far wall instead. "In fact, now that the bond is between us, I might not need to ask for your permission to look at the records. There are people working in both places who would understand that the bond makes us closer than spouses, in some ways."

Harry stood up and stalked across the room towards him, shaking. Malfoy met his eyes and smiled meanly, rising to his feet with a smoothness that nearly caused Harry to hate him. Harry braced his fists on either side of Malfoy's head and leaned in close to his face.

"Don't you do that," he hissed. "Don't you dare. The bond ties you to me, now, and you have to take care of me. Fine. But that doesn't mean that you have to care about what happened to me before the bond began."

"Oh, yes, I do." Malfoy spoke without much passion or emphasis in his voice, tilting his head back and eyeing Harry intently from beneath the curl of white-blond hair that fell across his forehead. "You don't understand, Harry. Past behavior predicts future behavior, quite a bit of the time. How long have you waited before your wounds get bad enough that you had to come to St. Mungo's? How long do you put off going anywhere or telling anyone about them, because you want to work? How many times do you just forget to do anything for yourself, like with those bruises the other day?" Malfoy's voice was by now a whisper against Harry's throat, and he moved uncomfortably despite himself. Malfoy didn't smile, which was a better indication than Harry had seen so far of how seriously he took this. "How long have you waited to tell someone about your Muggles in any more detail, because you were afraid of what they would say?"

"That's not the reason," Harry snarled, but he pulled away and watched Malfoy carefully. Malfoy stood up and whisked a bit of dust from his sleeve. His eyes remained on Harry's as though he was never going to look away.

"Really?" he whispered, gentle as a lover. "Really. Of course it is. Or else you just disregard your own needs because you think they don't matter. But I knew that already."

Harry closed his eyes and gritted his teeth. "Look, Malfoy," he said, when he thought he could speak without shouting. The last thing they needed was more curious Healers filling the room. "I—I don't want to talk about my family because I hate scraping up the past when I've mostly got over it. And I don't think that much about my wounds because I really don't feel them."

"Do you know," Malfoy murmured, his voice without emotion now, "I've wondered for a long time why you didn't react that much when the Bludger smashed your arm during second year? Did you have a high pain tolerance even then? Did you care so much about your reputation as the Boy-Who-Lived that you had to hold it up even in front of people like Lockhart? Or did your family teach you that no one would pay attention to your pain anyway, so you might as well not show it?"

Harry's eyes flew open and whirled around again. "They didn't beat me," he snapped. "They didn't whip me. They didn't rape me. My cousin beat me up sometimes, sure, but never that badly. Stop—whatever you're thinking."

"There are other kinds of pain that can teach you to disregard your own emotions like that," Malfoy said. "Other kinds of pain than physical abuse, I mean. Because it's quite clear that you were abused. I'm just trying to determine what kind it was."

"Let me guess," Harry said, and held his voice steady with so much effort that he knew it would probably crack in the middle soon. "The bond is telling you that you need to find this out for my own good."

Malfoy smiled at last, though his eyes remained intense. "No, actually. I want to know the specifics so that I can figure out how to serve you better—"

"Don't say that."

Malfoy paused, then said, "All right. You need me not to say that. You need to pretend that this bond doesn't really tie us together, and that there are ways to escape it. Fine. That's fine. But, Harry."

Harry, who had taken a step towards the door of the room in sheer eagerness to escape, paused with his hand on the knob. "What?"

Malfoy looked him up and down, and when his eyes returned to Harry's face, there was that fucking intensity in them again, cutting into him the way Harry imagined Muggle lasers would. Not that he had ever seen real lasers, but he had seen them at a distance on the telly, peering around the corner while the Dursleys watched it.

And that reminder just brought up his fucking childhood again, and all the things that he'd been foolish enough to confess to Malfoy last night. He gritted his teeth and held Malfoy's eyes now because there didn't seem to be anything else that he could do, waiting.

"Remember that I am here," Malfoy said. "And there's no place else I would rather be. I don't care if the bond created that sensation in me, actually. This is where I want to be. What I do—brewing potions, teaching myself, slowly shedding the sense of slavery that I had during the war—I can still do. You're part of my life now, but you didn't destroy it. You don't keep me from being myself. You've—amplified me, if anything. Made me bigger."

"You can't believe that," Harry said feebly. "Not when you're living in a smaller house than you're used to, and you have to follow me around."

Malfoy rolled his eyes. "Sometimes you take things too literally." Then he paused and snorted. "What am I saying? You're a Gryffindor. You take everything too literally." Then he aimed one finger at Harry, who found himself staring at it as if it was a wand.

Or a gun. That might be more appropriate, the way he kept comparing Malfoy to Muggle objects in his mind.

"I want this," Malfoy said. "I told you, the bond gives me pleasure, and it's more than that. This is a sense of purpose, a thing I can do that no one else really can. Bringing myself back to life is important, but it's not a task that anyone else is going to notice if I get right, only if I fail. This way, people can notice, and I'm more involved in life again. I want you."

"To further your purpose in the world? To further the glory of the Malfoy name?" Harry could feel his emotions shifting back into calm again. This was still a weird conversation, but at least it didn't concern all those things that he would rather Malfoy just didn't bring up.

"Oh, for that," Malfoy said. "And to accept the bond, and—lots of other things." His eyes traveled over Harry again, slowly burning, and then he walked past him and put his own hand on the doorknob. "Shall we?"

"You confuse the fuck out of me," Harry whispered, as he followed him.

Malfoy turned back towards him, and for an instant, there was an expression on his face that could be described as remorse if Harry was feeling generous—about five bottles of Firewhisky inside him generous, really. "I'm being as clear as I can," he murmured. "And through the bond, I can feel that you do want these things, or some of them. We'll always disagree on how much you need to talk about your past with the Muggles, maybe." He held up his hand when Harry opened his mouth to object. "And that's all right, the way that friends or couples always disagree about things that are important to them in different ways. But for the rest, you might get your stubborn conscience out of the way if you can."

He opened the door, and stepped out towards the front of St. Mungo's. Harry trailed him, still feeling stunned.

I don't understand him half the time, and the half that I do, he's making such a big fuss about something as little as being filled with the adrenaline of battle and not noticing a wound because of that.

Then Harry winced and went silent. At least, in the privacy of his own head where there was no one to hear him, he could stop being stupid. He knew what Malfoy was offering, why they disagreed about it, what he would have to do to accept it.

He just didn't know, even now, if he should.

"Stop staring at me like you're about to tear my throat out."

Harry blinked, and looked down at the book in his lap, the ostensible reason he had come into the library in the first place. Of course, when he had come into the library he hadn't known that Malfoy would be brewing here, standing near the window and stopping every few steps in the creation of what looked like an extremely complicated potion to check the results in the vial against the illustrations in the tome beside him.

And he hadn't known how much he would stare at the sunlight in Malfoy's hair, and the faint smile that seemed to occupy his face when things were going right with the potion.

"Is that something you have a lot of experience with?" Harry asked, once he was sure that his voice would come out with the proper amount of dryness. "You can tell me, you know. Since we're bonded and all."

Malfoy's smile vanished, and he spun on his heel as smoothly as an automaton to stare at Harry. "Stop acting as though that's something to make fun of," he whispered. "I don't like it."

Harry shrank back into the chair before he could stop himself, and then blew out his breath in irritation. Of course he knew that Malfoy wouldn't hurt him. Not really, not—not in any appreciable way, at least. "I'm sorry," he said. "I was only trying to put you more at ease, and I thought watching you brew might. I don't know. Give you an audience or something. Sorry," he added, and fastened his eyes determinedly to the page in front of him.

There was a little silence, and then a clink. Harry thought Malfoy had gone back to his brewing, and was startled when a pale hand appeared on top of his book, tugging it down gently. Harry let it. Beginning Potions theory, which he had only started in the first place because he thought it might bring him closer to Malfoy, wasn't so interesting that he resented an interruption.

"Talk to me," Malfoy said, and it sounded like an order, which made Harry frown. Wasn't he the "master" in the bond and supposed to be giving the orders here? But maybe the bond had also told Malfoy how much he hated that, how much he wanted to avoid it. "You sometimes act as though you want to make my life more comfortable here, but you also don't do the simple things that I've told you would make me most comfortable. Why?"

Harry sighed and moved to the side on the couch. Malfoy took up the offered space, though Harry had really intended to stand up and pace a bit. And when Harry shifted, Malfoy gave him a small, half-mean smile and let his hand fall into place on Harry's knee, shifting in turn and then gripping tight.

"I," Harry said, staring down at the hand. It was easier to look at one part of Malfoy than his whole body, Harry supposed. "I don't know how to explain this to you, but—it's a little like—I don't like talking about the things you want to talk about."

"But you need to," Malfoy said, his voice as simple and unshakable as it had sounded in those first moments after he explained the Defendere bond to Harry. "Otherwise, I wouldn't feel those desires at all."

Harry nodded and swallowed, his eyes rising to Malfoy's face. It was near, intent, and Harry felt a flush rise to his own cheeks.

Malfoy paused, and then said, in a tone so neutral you could have painted Malfoy Manor with it, "And you want me."

"I, yeah, that tends to happen to me," Harry said, gripping his hair and tugging hard on it. Malfoy didn't stop him from doing that, to his relief, which probably meant that Harry didn't have a need for it one way or the other. "Talking to you like that means that I feel close, and it's—people that I share intense experiences with that I want."

Malfoy curled his lip. "Please tell me that that doesn't apply to Weasley and Granger."

Harry leaned nearer and lowered his voice. "Well, there was the night that we made mad, passionate love in the tent with Hermione in this furry tie that she likes to wear—"

Malfoy stared at him in such horror, with such a waxy grey tone to his skin, that Harry whooped and slumped back on the couch, laughing his heart out. Malfoy whipped his wand free and held it to his throat.

Harry grinned at him and shook his head. "Knowing that you have to do what I want takes a lot of the threat out of it, you know."

"Not what you want, just what you need," Malfoy said, and he scowled at him. "For putting those images in my head, you need a lot more than I'm going to give you, you realize."

Harry let his eyes flutter at him, and Malfoy snorted and reached out, laying his hands on his shoulders. Harry stared at them, and then looked up to meet Malfoy's eyes, an intense and shiny grey, as if he assumed that he could get away with anything now just because Harry had admitted to wanting him.

"I know some things about you, now," Malfoy said, and his hands bore down, though not squeezing, just making Harry feel that he was surrounded by half a warm embrace—which was the case, really. "But I still don't quite understand why you have the need to hide your needs. Why can't you talk about the Muggles with someone? Why aren't your friends privileged to understand you as well as I do?"

"You think it's a privilege?" Harry muttered, but his return barb was weak, especially against the way Malfoy was staring at him.

"Harry," Malfoy murmured, and leaned towards him, cupping Harry's face and letting his fingers play in a gentle rhythm along his cheek. "Do you think that I would ask if I didn't want to know?"

"If the bond didn't make you ask," Harry said, and closed his eyes, feeling as slimy in that moment as he had when Ron assured him the Defendere bond was permanent.

"We've been over that," Malfoy said, in a voice like polished iron. "Now. I want you to tell me. If you want to talk about desires instead of needs, that's my desire for tonight. I want to know why you feel this overwhelming compulsion to hide."

Harry licked his lips. He hated the thought of speaking about this, as much as he would have hated the thought of speaking about the Dursleys and everything else he'd gone through as a kid if it hadn't been for Malfoy's relaxing massage the other night. It would sound stupid. That was the main reason he had kept it as secret as he could from everyone else, because he didn't know how to explain it.

"Malfoy," he said, his voice faltering.

"Call me Draco." Malfoy's voice was gentle, and Harry thought he heard a hint of pleading in it. That bolstered him, oddly enough. This was something Draco wanted, and that meant it was something Harry could give him.

"All right," he said, and moved closer, putting his arm hesitantly around Draco's waist. Draco hissed something wordless and nuzzled his hair. Then he sat there without objecting while Harry gathered his thoughts, which proved that he was—well, more patient than Harry had thought he would be, at least.

"I don't know if I deserve someone to listen to me," Harry said at last. He kept his head bowed and talked fast, because he didn't think he wanted to watch Draco's changing expression. "It's not like I'm the only one who suffered during the war. Other people did as much as I did, and moved on. Snape did the most of all, and he's still barely acknowledged by all the people who just want to talk about me. I don't want that. I want—I want them to stop heaping riches and fortunes and honors and attention on me. I know that I don't deserve as much adulation as they're giving me, because no one could.

"And that makes me start thinking that I don't deserve anything else, either, because I've already got enough attention. I could talk if I really wanted to. But it would sound like complaining, or it could, and it could put a burden on people like Ron and Hermione, who lived through most of it with me. I just don't want to do that. I don't want to make anyone feel like they have to listen to me. I don't want to hurt anyone unless they've already shown that they're going to hurt other people first. I don't want to bind them into this hurt and helplessness I've got sometimes."

He fell silent. For a moment, Draco breathed beside him and said nothing else. Harry wondered if he had explained it right, and if Draco really cared or was just stunned speechless at how stupid he was being. Of course, yeah, he was staying here, but that could be the pull of the bond—

"I am going to kill those Muggles," Draco remarked, out of nowhere. "The only thing giving me difficulty is deciding how they're going to die."

Harry jerked back and stared at him. "You are not going to do anything to the Dursleys," he said.

"Aren't I?" Draco's eyes glittered. "I think I am. They made your life very difficult, and they're doing the same thing to me right now, since they're the ones who convinced you that you don't deserve any time or attention."

"That's ridiculous," Harry said, after he'd spent some time gaping at Draco like a baby. "I just told you that it's all me. I know that Ron and Hermione would probably be glad to talk to me. Of course I know that. I could just never convince myself of it enough to actually talk. The Dursleys didn't fuck me up. I'm fine."

"No one who goes around shrinking from the notion of being a burden on other people for asking someone to listen to him is fine," Draco said coldly. "And I am going to kill them."

"I don't want you to."

Draco's eyes shone all the more. "No? But I think you need me to."

"Damn, not that bloody distinction again." Harry shoved the heel of his hand into his eyes. "You can't get out of this by talking continually about them, Draco."

Draco spent a few moments watching him in such a way that Harry almost wished he had, in fact, just carried on talking about the Dursleys. Then he nodded, a tiny movement of his head that nevertheless seemed to discharge half the tension floating around them. "I think you're right. I'm sorry, Harry. I shouldn't have assumed that you would want such a thing when I can feel that—yes, the bond tells me that you would be happiest if you never had to hear about or see your relatives again." He paused. "I think you need to hear enough about them to know why you're so reluctant to speak of your past, however."

"And now you just told me," Harry said. He hated the pleading tone in his voice, but after a moment, he decided that it could stay. He was more likely to get what he wanted from Draco that way. "Do we have to discuss it again?"

Draco smiled at him in turn, as though he had figured out a way to get what he wanted from Harry. He touched his head and ran his fingers back and forth through Harry's hair, chuckling when Harry sighed and turned his head towards the touch. "That depends, I suppose," he said quietly. "Are you going to be as stubborn again? Do you still think I'm a slave? Are you going to resist the bond with everything that's in you, the way you did before?"

Harry swallowed, and found more words to say. "Another part of it is that I don't want to be helpless. When you showed up and saved Ron and me in the alley, I felt that way."

"Should I have felt helpless when you pulled me out of the Fiendfyre? Or when you started the Defendere bond to make sure that I had some future left after what those bastards did to me?"

Harry hesitated. Then he said, "Of course not."

"So why should repaying one of my life-debts—you could look at it that way, if you wanted, instead of the bond—be a matter of shame for me?" Draco leaned back and cocked his head, waiting. He had even removed his hand from Harry's head, and the distance between them felt enormous.

Harry said, "It's different when I do it, that's all."

He mumbled the words, and wasn't surprised when Draco rolled his eyes and leaned in close. "Of course you would feel that way," he whispered. "But I frankly don't care, Harry. I know how much of you is real, now, and how much is the front that you feel compelled to put on for people, so they won't worry about you too much. How much of you is someone who wants more attention and wistfully dreams about it, and how much is someone who's decided that he can't afford people getting close to him."

Harry shifted, his face burning. Trust Draco to phrase it in the worst way possible. "You make me sound like a scared little boy."

"Oh, that would be an insult to scared little boys," Draco said smoothly. "Most of them have no trouble asking the people around them for what they want and need. Or demanding it, in fact."

Harry said, "I'm not a child." If he said it strongly enough, he thought he could, perhaps, defeat the cool skepticism in Draco's face.

"Of course not." Draco shrugged and leaned back in the embrace of the couch. "Chronologically. But you're worse than a child in the way you hold onto secrets that don't need to be secrets, and refuse the offers of those who want to help you. I told you. Children can admit their desires. You can't." He paused, and Harry felt the way he had when, sprawled on the floor in front of one of the first Dark wizards he'd ever hunted, he'd seen her raise a whip. "Or you're afraid to."

Harry snarled at him. "You wish," he said. "Just like when we were kids. You still wish that I'd be more frightened than I am. Because let me tell you something, Malfoy, you're not that frightening."

He stood up, but Draco seized his hand and held him there. "If you aren't afraid," he said, face shining like bone, intent under the glare Harry gave him, "then prove it to me. Do what you most want right now. You know I can't sense that the same way through the bond as I can something you need."

Harry glared at him. Draco sat there, unmoved, unsmiling but also not looking inclined to release his hold on Harry's wrist, either.

Harry finally bent down and opened his mouth slightly. Draco leaned up towards him as if assuming that Harry would whisper, and he had to be close to hear properly.

Harry kissed him.

It was a hasty kiss, open-mouthed and as wet as his kiss with Cho had ever been, though for what Harry thought were better reasons. But his hands clenched in Draco's shirt as he hauled him up, and Draco gasped into it, and his hands and legs both flailed about for a moment as though he didn't know what to do with them. That satisfied Harry, on a level that made his groin throb almost more than the kiss did. Let's see how he likes being the uncomfortable one in this bloody partnership.

Not that it wasn't a splendid kiss, of course.

Finally, Harry set Draco back on his feet and licked his lips to get rid of some of the wetness. "That was what I wanted to do," he told Draco, while Draco panted him at with bright eyes and dazed motions of his tongue, running over his lips as if seeking some sign that Harry's mouth was still there. "Because I get close to people who care about me. And whatever category you fall into, I don't think it's friendship."

He stalked off, and went back to his bedroom, and, because he still wanted to prove that sometimes he didn't do things he wanted to do, didn't wank.

"I must apologize."

Harry looked up as Draco walked into the kitchen for breakfast the next morning, his head lowered and his steps as cautious as though he was testing the floor for tripwires. Harry drew his wand and cast a few elementary charms, murmuring the incantations but letting Draco hear them when he cocked his head. Draco frowned, and his hand drifted towards his own wand.

"What were those?" Draco asked, when Harry had finished.

"I was looking for glamours." Harry picked up his cup of tea and gave Draco a thin smile over the top of it. "Since I don't think what you just said is a sentence the real Draco Malfoy speaks often. But nope, no glamours, so you must have fallen on the stairs and hit your head last night. I'll ask Kreacher to check for loose boards."

Draco sighed and sat down in the chair across from him. "Anyone else on the planet would have accepted the Defendere bond more gracefully than you," he announced. "That includes Weasley."

"Ron is pure-blood, and he accepts things like that more easily than I do," Harry said, snatching a biscuit from the plate that Kreacher brought ever morning but always sneaked away as soon as he could. "Look at his wedding vows."

"Is it simply the forms of commitment that bother you, then?" Draco scanned him from top to toe.

"You're the expert on my inner mind, you tell me," Harry said, and popped a second biscuit into his mouth. The chocolate melted on his tongue, and he sighed. Kreacher, lurking near the doorway, gave him a distressed look. Ever since one of Ron's teasing remarks months ago, he had been convinced that too many biscuits meant Harry would be too fat to run away from evil wizards.

Draco clasped his hands in front of him and closed his eyes as though meditating. Harry rolled his eyes at nothing and waited.

He had to admit that Draco's face could be pretty pleasant to look at like this, as long as he wasn't chattering about bonds and needs. He had the angles, sure, but they had changed to make him look like an adult and not a child. His eyes were a brilliant grey—not that Harry could see that at the moment—and when he gave his focus to something, it was intense.

You distracted him from his brewing yesterday.

Harry shrugged and picked up a third biscuit. All that meant was that the bond had changed Draco into a different person—someone that Harry felt sorry for, because he could never be what he would have been without that.

"No," Draco said, and opened his eyes with a gasp that made him sound like he was surfacing from deep water. "That's not it. You think—you don't want to be a burden on others, you don't want to impose on them, and that includes thinking that you deform their lives or impose on them by asking for things. You want them to go their merry way, without any impact from you one way or the other. There are exceptions. Your friends, the people you capture." He leaned forwards until he was a few breaths' distance from Harry, close enough for his voice to melt the chocolate as Harry sat frozen. "But for most of us, you think that we'd somehow be better off without you. You don't want commitments because you don't want anyone bound to you the way they were bound to you as the Savior of the World. The most important person in the world for a lot of us, whether we wanted you to be or not."

Then he stole Harry's biscuit, and, leaning back in the chair, ate it. "Did I pass the exam?" he added.

Harry opened his mouth, but he had no words, just as he had no food. And sure enough, when he glanced around, Kreacher had triumphantly whisked the plate back to the kitchen.

Harry stood up and staggered towards the door.

"Harry?" Draco asked behind him.

Harry held up one hand, shook his head, and escaped the house with the sound of truth ringing in his ears.

"Which means," Ron said, prodding at the bandage on his head and only taking his hand away when Hermione gave him a glare over the edge of the veil she was sewing, "that the Defendere bond is doing exactly what it's supposed to do."

"What, by warping my life out of control?" Harry asked, leaning back in his chair until just the tops of his feet were caught under the kitchen table. Hermione scowled at him in turn, and he let his chair drop back down. He frankly didn't care if the chair legs scratched up the floor, which he could see Hermione getting ready to say. "And telling me lies? Some of the things, he might be right about, but not that bit. I don't think that people would be better off without me. Otherwise, I would have stayed at that King's Cross place where I saw Dumbledore."

"Look, mate," Ron began.

Harry held up his hand. "Nothing good ever begins with that phrase."

"Then I'll say it this way." Hermione appeared to have got her needle to go the way she wanted it to for once, and she stared at him with an expression so serious that Harry nodded despite himself. "Harry. You've refused all sorts of favors because you were afraid that it would make your name a political commodity, and I thought that was commendable. And then there are the things that you've refused because you thought you didn't deserve them, and I thought that was silly. Why did you refuse to marry Ginny?"

"Because she wanted the strict wedding vows you lot are going to have," Harry said, staring out the window. "And I didn't."

"Why not?"

Harry swung around. "Well, it's not because of what he said," he snapped at Hermione. "It's not because I thought that she was too good to be bound to me or something. Besides, if you're taking everything Malfoy says as truth, then Ginny is one of my friends, and he said that I made exceptions for you."

"Have you stayed friends?" Hermione asked gently. "I know that you talk to each other when she's at the Burrow, but the last time we talked, she told me you never owl her anymore, and you never accept her lunch invitations."

"I thought it was best if we made a clean break," Harry muttered, scratching the back of his neck and closing his eyes.

"And I know that Parvati talked about you once," Hermione continued quietly. "I think she was a little bit in love with you that last year we were at Hogwarts. And then there was Neville. Not that he wanted romance, but he would have liked it if you came by Hogwarts every once in a while and had a drink with him at the Three Broomsticks. You don't. You don't even visit Hogwarts, when I know how much you love it. Why?"

"How many people go back there once they're out of school?" Harry was tempted to raise and drop the chair again, but instead he made himself meet Hermione's eyes. If this was all a load of bollocks, then he should have the courage to do that. "I'm not unusual in avoiding it."

"Avoiding it?" Ron said. "You don't have to avoid it if it's something everybody does."

"Exactly." Hermione nodded, looking wise, and still sewing. Any minute now, Harry thought sourly, she would cut a thread and look like one of the Three Fates. "You could visit if you wanted. McGonagall would be delighted to see you there, and Neville. But you stay away like it's a penance. You wouldn't even let Parvati firecall you. And I know Ron's told me that you avoid getting close to any of the other Aurors. Why, Harry? What is it that makes you stay away from people? Whatever crimes you think you committed when you were a boy, surely you've redeemed yourself for them."

Harry stood up and walked over to the window. It looked on the rumpled earth of what he reckoned would be a vegetable garden next year. He lowered his head onto his hands and shut his eyes.

Someone banged on the door.

Harry jerked his head up, whirling around with his wand in hand. Ron stood up, his brow wrinkling. "No one ought to be able to get through the wards around this place," he muttered. "Except you, Harry, and anyone with Weasley blood. And Dad and George are busy, Charlie and Ginny are out of the country…"

The door opened before he could finish his catalogue. Draco strode in and walked straight to Harry. Of course, he might have seen him through the window and known where he was that way, but Harry knew what it meant that he didn't even have to look around. The bloody bond functioning again.

Draco touched the side of his neck as though he thought Harry might have a problem there affecting his voice, and Harry shook his head. "I'm not wounded," he said. "Did the bond tell you that I was?" He sort of hoped so. That would mean the bond had been wrong about something, and that meant they could have some hope it was loosening, and would fade away soon.

"No," Draco said. "But once again, your distress pulled me here." He turned to Hermione. "What did you say to him?"

"Just what you did this morning," Hermione said. She hadn't stopped sewing. Harry reckoned she was afraid that, if she stopped, her hands would forget the steady rhythm she'd had going. "Harry told us about it, and I think you're right, that he's afraid to get close to anyone because it'll distort their lives."

"That's not bloody it!" Harry shouted, and saw Hermione finally flinch and drop the needle. "If people would listen to me about it, then they might be able to hear the truth."

"What is it, then?" Draco turned to face him, moving slightly so Harry couldn't see his friends' faces anymore, just his. He spoke quietly.

"I'm afraid of someone getting close to me under false pretenses," Harry snapped. "How could I tell that Parvati wanted to date me because she liked me? It could have been my fame."

"And do you think that about Neville, too?" Hermione asked, rising to her feet so that she appeared behind Draco's shoulder. Her face was red. "Neville is—one of the sweetest, kindest people we know, Harry! Do you think that he was going to invite you to dinner just to show off his famous friend?"

"Of course not," Harry said, glancing off to the side.

"And McGonagall?" Ron asked, although he didn't move nearer. Maybe he could read Draco's body language better than Hermione. "She wouldn't do that to you, mate. You know she wouldn't."

Harry closed his eyes. There was a roaring in his ears, a deep thunder like being under the sea. "Sorry. No. I know she wouldn't."

"Then what is it?" Hermione pressed. "I know that you didn't want wedding vows as restrictive as the ones Ginny did, but that doesn't explain why you haven't found someone else, or why you won't be with your friends unless they're us, and I don't know how to explain it to Neville when he asks why you didn't meet him—"


Only one word, from Draco, who Hermione didn't have any reason to listen to, but it made the world seem to shake, and Harry blinked open his eyes to find that Draco had turned to face his friends. Once again, he had shifted so that Harry could see just the back of his shoulders. Harry swallowed, his throat hurting, and reached out to touch the middle of his back.

"That can wait a moment, Harry," Draco said, though Harry wasn't really sure what he meant. "Just let me take you home."

"I don't understand," Hermione said, a little timidly now. "Why can't he talk to us about it?"

"Because I misstepped," Draco said. He reached back and ran a soothing hand along Harry's arm. "I pressed too far this morning, and I was more eager to show off my knowledge of the bond than to consider whether he was ready to hear it. I knew it almost the minute he left, but I thought I would leave him alone and let him have some space to consider it." He faced Harry, and sighed. "Sorry," he said.

Harry studied him. Then he said, "It's not that I distrust all these other people. It's not that I don't want to be close to them."

Draco nodded, his face shut. "I know. You don't have to talk about it right now. Let me take you home," he repeated, and his hands tightened on Harry's arms.

"I think that's a good idea," Hermione said, sounding worried. "Harry can talk to us later. I don't—he doesn't look good."

Harry shook his head. He didn't feel like he was going to be sick, exactly, but he did know that he didn't feel like talking. He felt as though he'd been living in a normal house all along, or a house he thought was normal, and then someone showed him doors and floors that he'd never noticed. He felt like he had when he realized that most people didn't have their bedrooms in cupboards.

"Yes, I pushed him too far," Draco said, and even through his numbness Harry felt a faint flash of astonishment that Draco was blaming himself instead of Hermione and Ron. "It's not something he's thought about a lot, or he thought about it and assigned other reasons. You didn't talk about it much, I think." He put his arm around Harry's shoulders and steered him towards the door.

Harry went, but he looked back at his friends and smiled. Hermione, who didn't look as if she cared at all about the veil in her lap now, smiled back at him. Ron nodded to Malfoy and mouthed something that looked an awful lot like, I told you so.

Then they were outside the house, and then they were Apparating, and Harry sighed in relief when Draco took him straight to the kitchen, deposited him in a chair, and shoved food at him, starting with biscuits. Anything that didn't require him to talk right now was a good thing.

Harry opened his eyes in his bed, and blinked. He seemed to be doing an awful lot of sleeping lately, but he could almost never remember getting to the bed.

He became aware of warmth layered along his back, and realized Draco was there. He turned his head, and got a mouthful of blond hair that he had to spit out.


Draco's eyes were blurred with sleep, and so was his voice. He dipped his head to lick along the back of Harry's neck, and all of Harry's senses stood up and screamed at once. It became much less important that he couldn't remember how Draco had carried him to bed, or floated him, or whether he'd called Kreacher to help.

Harry rolled over and kissed Draco the way he'd kissed him in the library, all sudden assault and attack before Draco could get used to it. Draco responded this time, stroking his tongue along Harry's, his hands coming to rest on Harry's back. Harry realized that they were both mostly naked, just wearing their pants, and he shuddered from the feel of Draco's soft clothed cock, reaching down.

Then he remembered the bond, and snatched his hand away, cursing.

"Potter, you have got to be kidding me," Draco said, his voice a growl that some people might have mistaken for teasing, but Harry could hear the difference. There was real danger there. "Come on. We both want this. What are you waiting for?" He took Harry's hand and tried to move it back to his groin.

"I'm waiting for myself to feel comfortable about this," Harry hissed. He didn't get out of the bed, because he had the vague feeling that that would be too much, but he forced himself to look Draco in the eye and say the thing that was true, not the thing he wanted to say. "And trying to remember that the bond is the only reason you're here."

Draco rolled away from him and flung his arm over his eyes. Harry paused to watch him in some suspicion. He didn't know what Draco's deep groans meant, since he wasn't physically hurting him.

Then Draco took the arm off his eyes, rolled back, and said, "The bond can't be broken. It's permanent. And that means that you'll probably never be one hundred percent comfortable with this. So we have to think of something else. I know that you tried to leave me room to act even though you were also setting up the Defendere bond. Right?"

Harry nodded, wondering if Draco wanted him to apologize for that. Harry would apologize for the bond if Draco wanted, for being the one to discover him like that, but not for trying to leave him free will.

"That means that I don't have to do anything," Draco said, speaking rapidly, a flush creeping up his face. "I do it because it feels good, or because it annoys me until I do something, the way your silent wailing pulled me out of St. Mungo's the first day and to your friends' house today."

"I wasn't wailing—"

"You have no idea of half the shit you have shoved in the back of your head," Draco snapped. "Unfulfilled desires and loneliness and nightmares about dying alone. That's the other side of your determination not to have anyone close to you because you might bind them to someone you think did one remarkable thing and that's it. You're dying for companionship, for friendship, for fucking sex. You'd give your right hand for something other than your right hand down there."

"Fuck you," Harry snarled.

"You've made it abundantly clear that you won't." Draco squirmed closer to him on elbows and knees. "Because—why? Because you think that it has to be my completely free and clear choice, or it's not worth anything."

"I'm not going to apologize for having that as an ideal," Harry said flatly. "I'm not into rape."

Draco's eyes rolled so hard that Harry was sure he must have hurt himself. "Thing is," he said, "you don't trust anyone to have a free and clear choice. Me, because of the bond. Other people, because of your fame. Or because you think that your friend Longbottom is only inviting you to visit because he feels sorry for you, or because you think that McGonagall would only invite you back because she knows you miss Hogwarts. You say that you don't want to force people to do things, they have to want them. But you don't trust them to want them. You always think you're influencing them somehow. So you've withdrawn into your own little fucking castle in the sky where you think you can't possibly influence anybody. You would have pushed Weasley and Granger away, too, but they got in before the walls went up. Even then, you spend half your time wondering if you influenced them, too, if they would be your friends if they hadn't shared adventures with you and if you hadn't saved each other's lives."

Harry tore a hand through his hair. "Well, yeah, I wonder that, because who wouldn't? It's not bloody normal, you know, three eleven-year-olds fighting a sentient chess game and solving a potions logic puzzle to save the world—"

"But by that standard," Draco said, speaking in a way that lowered his voice and put emphasis on the wrong words, "no one has a free choice. No decision anyone ever makes counts, because you could have influenced them by the way you acted. The way you smiled at them, the way you were friendly instead of rude, because they liked the way your eyes looked. That scar on your forehead, yes. You don't give other people credit, Harry. You somehow think that you take away everyone's free will just because they're around you. And I've never heard of anything more arrogant." He paused, then added, "Most self-pitying illusions are driven by conceit, in the end. I've often noticed that. After all, I had to come to terms with my own after the war ended."

Harry shook his head and looked away. He could feel his skin tightening and warming, throbbing with shame. But at the same time—

"I don't want to date someone who's only after me because of my fame," he muttered. "I don't want to sleep with someone who's only compelled to do so because of the bond."

"I understand that," Draco said. "And I would even accept that, but, if the bond faded tomorrow, then you would think I wanted to sleep with you because of the memories of the bond. You won't take any decision I make as being driven by desire, instead of force." He paused, then added softly, "And that is insulting. That is insulting enough to make me want to hit you, but I think I can wound you more deeply by telling you about all the rubbish that you've collected in the back of your brain instead."

Harry turned his back and paced across the room with his arms wrapped around himself. He would have liked to deny this, but that would have meant denying the existence of the bond, and he knew that had to be real, because Draco wouldn't ever have been in his house otherwise.

He was horribly afraid that it was true, besides. He had never been able to explain to Ron, or Hermione, or even Ginny, whose eyes had filled with tears when Harry had refused to marry her, why he was so strongly against bonds and vows and oaths of all kinds. He had sometimes talked about Snape's Unbreakable Vows, he had sometimes talked about wanting a life free from compulsions like that after Dumbledore had bound him, but he had been uncomfortable even with other people choosing them of their own free will, the way Ron and Hermione were choosing to get married.

"All right," Harry said at last, when he thought he could accept some of what Draco was saying, turning around and meeting his eyes. "Then what—what can I do to change things? What can I do to make this up to you?"

A smile flowed across Draco's face, and then he rolled off the bed and flowed to his feet, too. "I like that," he murmured, walking across the room to face Harry. "I like that, a lot, that you think of me first, before anyone else." He trailed a hand down Harry's chest.

Harry shifted. "You're here. Neville's not."

Draco shook his head, but didn't make a remark about being put in the same words as Neville, as Harry had expected. Instead, he put his hands on Harry's shoulders, stared into his eyes, and murmured, "Accept that I want you. If you don't want me, fine, but I think you do, and the first thing you need to do is trust me enough to know my own needs and desires—trust that there's part of me that's not mindless obedience driven by the bond."

"Why do you want me if I'm such an idiot?" Harry asked.

"Fishing for compliments?" Draco murmured, but he was smiling, and leaned forwards to kiss him.

Harry kissed him back, his hands rising so that he could grip and knead Draco's shoulders, feel the strength there, feel the shudder in him that could be the bond but could also simply be that he wanted Harry. Draco bit him beneath the chin and then started to urge him back, towards the bed. Harry wasn't quite sure when they'd spun around, but he was breathless with wonder that they had.

He pulled his head back, though, and shook it when Draco sought his mouth again. "Draco," he murmured. "Please. If everything you say is true, and you can see all the useless clutter in the back of my mind thanks to the bond, why do you want to be with me? I'm no prize, not if half the things you say are true."

"They're true," Draco said, biting beneath his chin and then pushing with a gentle hand in the middle of Harry's chest, so that he sank into the bed more than he toppled into it, led along helplessly by that touch. "But so is the rest of you."

"Huh?" Harry was sure that Draco would roll his eyes in a minute, but he really didn't understand.

Draco dropped to one knee beside him and looked down steadily at him. Harry looked back up, blinking, and Draco reached out a moment later, sighing, and stroked the back of his hand across Harry's cheek.

"You have a conscious mind, too, and conscious motives," he said quietly. "I know that you did a lot of what you did out of some fear that you would hurt people. It's not rational, that fear, but you didn't do it because you were greedy for power or wanted to live forever or—other motives that are very familiar to me." For a moment, his gaze flickered to the Mark on his arm. "And when it comes down to it, you do what's right. You didn't let me die; you took up the bond instead of demanding that you keep your principles stainless. And not even Weasley would have blamed you if you had let me die." He shivered a little, and looked Harry in the eye. "So you did that, even if you are annoyingly whiny about the results."

Harry nodded, mind full of what Draco was saying in the same way he wanted his body to be full of him. "And you're more than I ever thought you," he murmured. "Patient, truthful, and if you have to protect me because of the bond, at least you do it in your own inimitable way."

Draco smiled into his mouth then, and began reaching for the last of their clothes. "Can you imagine what it's going to be like, fucking someone who can feel all your needs?" he whispered. "Especially the ones that you've let go too long, for fear of forcing someone else into your bed."

Harry shuddered and felt the physical sensations starting to swallow up the rest as Draco touched him, swallowing up thought. He shook his head and started to force them back almost before he realized what he was doing.

Then he realized Draco had stopped moving. "Why?" Harry croaked, blinking eyes that felt sandy with desire up at him.

"Because you're being an idiot," Draco hissed in his ear, voice low and fierce. "You don't need to worry about losing control or hurting someone. I know that your magic sometimes reacts in ways that frighten you. But the bond strengthens me, remember? I can do anything you need me to do." Already he was moving again, rocking his hips gently into Harry's. "Including resisting your power, if it strikes at me. Which I don't think it will. There's a level on which it recognizes and permits the Defendere bond, you know, or I couldn't do so much."

Harry stared at him, silent, shivering.

Then he tilted his head back and heard himself make a guttural noise as he gave it up, all of it, to the way that Draco wanted to touch him, take him, use him, need him.

Draco was silent and intent for a few minutes, moving faster than Harry had known he could, or seen him move except when he was defending him and Ron from the Dark wizards in the alley. He had Harry naked, and bowed his head to lap at his cock. Harry surged up with a shout, but Draco was already gone, coiling back around him, seizing his shoulders and pulling him with some urgency. Harry found himself on his knees and elbows before he knew what would happen.

And when he did, it was just what he wanted: the give of the mattress beneath his elbows, the way Draco moved above him, the way that Draco cursed shakily as he summoned the lube from a table next to him. Harry couldn't remember the lube being put there, but he knew where it had come from. Draco, anticipating his needs, like always.

And it was all right. It was okay. Harry could take what he needed, this once, and that didn't make him a monster or someone who would never return the favor. And the magic of the bond would keep Draco safe from any extraordinary reactions that Harry's magic might have.

It was okay.

Harry felt muscles he seemed to have been carrying around coiled and tense for years relax when he realized that. He rolled his head down into the pillow and laughed aloud, and laughed again when Draco's hand rebounded off the middle of his back in what almost felt like a slap. There were times that Draco was strangely easy to read, as well.

"No," he whispered, turning his head so that the cloth wouldn't swallow his words. "I'm not laughing at you. I'm just—this feels so good, why didn't I try it before?"

"Because no one could get close enough to your stubborn arse to try this," Draco said, and this time his curse was like a prayer. He had lost something, Harry thought, closing his eyes, most likely the cap of the lube bottle.

For the first time since he had knelt beside Draco within those concentric rings that could have meant his death and spoken the words, he tried to reach out, to feel the bond that connected them. Draco could feel it all the time, but Harry had never felt anything but the most fleeting sensations. Why was that?

Because you didn't want to.

It was there when he looked, blazingly obvious, like a comet that trailed back from Harry and touched Draco on his throat and chest. Harry stroked it, curious, and Draco cursed again and thrust against his arse.

And if he touched it just right, it would tell him what Draco wanted, needed, too. At the moment, to fuck Harry. Just that.

And Harry let the awareness flit away from him at the sound of Draco's hoarse voice murmuring his name, and spread his legs in the utter languor of knowing that Draco was right, that he could trust him, that it wasn't only the bond that was making him want this. Because no bond could convey that much urgency, and no sympathetic, reflected lust could be so strong.

"Draco," he whispered.

"Shit, you're going to make me come before I get in there," Draco hissed, and his hand rebounded off the middle of Harry's back in a slap again. Harry laughed, dizzy and giddy, and raised his head, because enough blood was rushing to it as it was.

"I wouldn't mind," he said, and moved his arse to see if he could hit Draco's cock and do just that.

"You might not, but I would," Draco snarled, forcing him almost flat to the bed as he hunted for a pillow, and Harry laughed again, because it was good to hear Draco say things like that, to know that some of the reason his hands were rough on Harry's hips as he groped and grabbed and lifted him was because he was following his own need as much as Harry's.

"Then you can do most of the work," Harry muttered, and let his hips settle into the pillow, which seemed to muffle the urgency spiraling up from his cock. His legs fell open, and he settled his head back into place on the other pillow with a groan. "It's not like I mind."

"Not now," Draco said, and his finger probed at Harry's hole.

Harry's eyes shot open, and he hissed. But it was only the shock of it, that he hadn't had something like this happen in a long time, and he kicked his legs back out and nudged at Draco with one ankle before he could say something. "Get on with it."

Draco pushed two fingers into him this time, making Harry arch his back and mutter, and Draco hesitate for a moment. Harry opened one eye and glared up through his fringe in the general direction of where he knew Draco was, although, thanks to the fringe, he couldn't really see anything. "Well? Do you pause this way with all your lovers, or do you hold back and ask them unnecessary questions all the time?"

"I haven't asked you one unnecessary question so far," Draco snapped, but thank Merlin, he was twisting his fingers in Harry again, going deep, going for the position that made Harry's back arch and his hips snap down despite himself.

"Sometimes I wonder," Harry said, which was inane but so what, Draco was saying inane things too, and he doubted that he could get his legs further apart, although in some ways he would have liked to, without special machinery.

Draco filled him with his fingers, driving so deep that Harry gasped and groaned and said, "That's good," on every stroke, and then he pulled away. Harry heard some more fussing, a groan, and the sound of a slick hand stroking, and intelligently reckoned that Draco was getting himself ready with the lube.

And then…

Fingers gripping his hips, biting deep. Harry imagined the red bruises he would have after this, the soreness he would carry, the slow, heavy shifting of his body, and smiled, lifting his hips and shoving back.

He buried Draco before Draco was ready, and the groan trembled in his ear. His hands settled down, then tore flakes of skin off. Harry cried out at the sharp pain, the slight sting, but really, it was so much less than the sensation of Draco's cock sliding slowly into him.

It was…

It was deepness, and depth, and silence. It was full of Harry's shocked grunting and Draco's wavering motions behind him, as though he couldn't get settled the way he wanted. It was full of sweat, working its way down Harry's face and getting in his eyes to make him blink, and Draco's slow, involuntary thrusts that made Harry hum and clench down, and the curses that, of course, started up again.

"Don't you ever say anything pleasant in bed?" Harry murmured, and made his arse sway as he rose to his elbows again and glanced backwards.

"I need the curses to keep up with you," Draco murmured, and lifted his head. His eyes burned as proud as a lion's, even though he was in that weird half-crouch, half-straddle over Harry's arse that had never made anyone, anywhere, look dignified. Harry tipped his head down and laughed deeply again, a motion that made ripples travel up his body and must have tightened something in his arse for Draco to gasp like that.

"Fuck me," Harry murmured, bracing himself against the weight of gravity and reaching back for his cock. It was a live, warm thing in his grip, and he stroked, relishing the sheer pull of pleasure up his hand. "Do it now."

That broke whatever barrier had been holding Draco back, maybe fear or maybe just worry. He grunted as he slammed into Harry, and Harry wavered and put both hands back on the bed.

"You make it so I can't hold my cock when you do this," he complained, his voice slurred and his mind exploding in dense white stars. He shoved himself back again, and again, and threw off Draco's pace. At least that was something.

"You don't need to," Draco snapped, his voice full of heavy breathing. "I'm going to make you come on my cock, without a touch."

It was an image. Harry still strove to keep himself up, but that was because he wanted to, and pictures of how Draco was doing it burned behind his eyes, at the same time as he could feel and hear better this way.

Draco timed his exhalations. Every fourth thrust he would seem to catch his breath, and then he would exhale it in a little sigh. Every tenth thrust he would adjust himself, and he seemed to be aiming for Harry's prostate.

He must have found it sometimes, but it was honestly hard to tell. Harry felt so good by this point that the pleasure of being pounded like this rose and mingled with the rest of what he was feeling, and passed through him, and was him.

The air heated around them, and there came the smell of sizzling cloth and iron. Harry opened his eyes—

And yes, there was his magic, never completely normal again after his death and the exposure to the Deathly Hallows, although it was sometimes tamer than others, spiraling around him and making them both the focus of a galaxy of light and heat.

"Don't tense up like that," Draco murmured, and bit his neck hard enough to draw more blood. "I've got you."

He does, Harry remembered abruptly. Yes, of course Draco did. Because the bond would let him do anything Harry needed, and if that included protection from the strange excesses of his power, well, Draco was more powerful.

Draco was in him, pulling and pounding, and the bond appeared like a flicker at the corner of Harry's consciousness, stretching again, wet with saliva, wet like his arse was, and if he reached out and flicked it with one finger, like he was flicking a wineglass to make it fall over and shatter—

Draco cried out above him, and steadied for a moment. Harry once again found the balance to turn and look back at him, head cocked about why he had stopped.

Draco stared at him, mouth so wet that it looked obscene and Harry had the urge to lick it off his face. Then he said, "I have to fuck you," and pushed Harry flat onto the bed. Harry gasped as the air was forced out of his body, and had only just got it back when Draco rose up, tugged Harry's legs back and around him, and began to fuck him again.

It didn't let up, the wild energy coursing through Draco and down into him, and then back up the other way as Harry kept touching the bond. Draco bent over him and growled, and Harry felt the sharp flutter in his stomach, like a knife of joy, the way that it touched him and pierced him and pulled him along.

It was okay. There was the bond, but it was okay. It could bind them equally if he let it, not with magic but with the fact that he wanted to give Draco what he needed, and it was all right—

That was the way to get around a bond, Harry thought, his brain slow to form the thought as it was shaken in his skull from the force of Draco's thrusts. To join the other person in the bond, in the bed, and show them what it meant to you, and be with them, and let them have you, hold you, as you had them and held them—

Draco twisted and bent down by his ear, or close enough that Harry could feel his breath there, anyway, and hissed, "Come."

The command flashed through him, through the bond, and Harry leaped high and came down as if falling over a waterfall's brink.

It hurt, the orgasm Draco wrung out of him, and he was crying out and whimpering when Draco followed him, and he winced when Draco crashed down on top of him afterwards. The pleasure was still there, present anew every time Draco's cock shifted inside him, and he was dazed and hurting and so vulnerable that that hurt, too.

Draco reached out and stroked his wounds, the bite and the fingermarks he had given Harry. Harry turned his head into his touch.

"I didn't realize how rough I was being," Draco said, but there was no apology in his tone, just quiet satisfaction. "You liked that. You really liked that."

Harry nodded and then shuddered as he felt the first roll of abused muscles in his neck and back and spine. "Oh, yeah," he said. "I needed that."

"And I told you that it felt good for me when I did what you needed," Draco said, his voice so smug now that Harry tried to roll over and hit him. But that didn't work when he was as tired as he was, and when Draco was still on top of and inside him. Draco just pulled back from the blow and continued in a thoughtful voice. "But that was something else again. How did you know to touch the bond that way?"

"I didn't," Harry said, sighed, confessed. The bed felt so smooth and soft beneath him, and he knew that Draco wouldn't despise him for what he was about to say. That was good. "I wanted to see if I could locate it, or I thought I felt it and wanted to see if I could feel it more, and it was there. And I wanted to make you feel good."

Draco snorted. "Selfish is the last thing you are," he said, and pulled out of Harry with a smooth motion. When Harry shuddered this time, it was in appreciation. Draco crouched behind him and ran his hands slowly up and down Harry's spine, probably locating and learning all the sensitive places that he had failed to when he was busy taking Harry.

"You don't sound as though that's a compliment," Harry said, around a yawn.

"When any other person would have taken advantage of the bond as soon as he understood what it meant?" Draco shook his head, or so Harry assumed from the way small ends of hair brushed against his skin. He stifled a snicker, knowing he would have to tell Draco later that he had felt split ends, just to see what he did. "Of course it's not. You're far too full of yourself and smugness for your own good, Harry Potter."

"It's not smugness not to take advantage of you," Harry murmured, his eyelids already lowering. He should pick up his wand and cast a variety of cleaning charms, he supposed, but he didn't want to. "Unless you're the kind of person who likes other people doing it."

"You know I don't," Draco said, voice close to his ear now as his warm body arched over Harry's back. "This is different."

"Because of the bond." Harry felt the return of the worry he had experienced about that earlier like a tide beginning to flow in, although at the moment, he was too tired to worry as much as he would have otherwise.

"Because it's you." Draco nipped his ear and then pulled back.

Harry yawned again, and said, "I'm too tired to argue with you."

"Good to know that it only took a good fucking to achieve that result," Draco said, and curled up around him. He might have cast cleaning charms, but Harry really wasn't sure. He drifted off when Draco was still fussing around with his wand.

"Hi, Neville."

"Harry!" Neville looked startled, and then wary, and then nothing but pleased. He swatted something off his hands which looked like rich soil and shook his head. "I'd given up on ever hearing from you."

Harry winced. "Sorry, Nev. I was being stupid, and I know that now. I didn't want to impose on you—"

"It's not an imposition," Neville interrupted, and he was looking at Harry sort of the way he had looked at Nagini before he cut her head off. Harry winced again, hoping that Neville didn't have the Sword of Gryffindor anywhere handy.

"I know that, now," he repeated. "A—good friend finally got me to see that you wouldn't have invited me to visit if you didn't want my company. Are you able to do anything this week? Or next week? I'd like to see you."

Neville thought, tapping a finger against his teeth. His fingernails weren't in the least dirty, Harry noted clinically, and then wondered what Draco would make of Harry noticing that detail, and resolved to tell him as soon as possible. "Hmm. Well, possibly," he murmured. "This weekend I have an appointment at St. Mungo's to advise them about a Petrification case, but next weekend—yeah, Saturday is free, and I shouldn't have a lot of marking. See you at the Three Broomsticks about two?"

Harry smiled back, feeling his heart rise inside him. Maybe he didn't deserve so much good fortune, or for his friends to forgive him; that might be the kind of thing he would have thought before Draco had explained to him how little he trusted people. But for now, if his friends wanted to forgive him and have him over to lunch, Harry would go. "Yeah. Thanks. See you then."

"Who are you writing to?" Draco's breath was low by his ear, warm, the way it had been when they first slept together. Harry twisted his head to the side and tried to steal a kiss, but Draco had already moved back and was watching him with half-darkened eyes.

"Did the bond tell you that you needed to interfere?" Harry asked, signing the letter and then looking around for the envelope he knew he'd left out for it. Draco silently bent down, picked it up from the floor, and held it out. Harry took it with a grunt of thanks and folded the letter carefully into it.

"No, this is all me," Draco said, enunciating each word carefully. "You're writing to Weasley, aren't you?"

"Ginny, rather than Ron, but yes," Harry told him, and stood up with the letter firmly in hand. He would have to go find a public post-owl—not ideal, but still better than having another owl after Hedwig.

Although, come to think of it, if he could manage a Malfoy, he might be better at taking care of other animals than he had always assumed.

"Why?" Draco stepped in front of him and stared at him.

Harry looked at him, and he didn't need the bond to read the tightness in Draco's shoulders, the tic that jumped briefly in his cheek, or the way his hands clenched in front of him. "I'm just apologizing for some things I said when she wanted to get married," he said quietly. "Not going back to her."

"If you're over your fear of bonds," Draco began.

"I'm not, entirely," Harry said. "Which you would know if you could read my every thought perfectly," he felt he had to add. But Draco's expression only darkened, and Harry sighed. "I'm forcing myself not to let that fear control my actions anymore. But Draco, you're the only one I'm with and the only one I want to be with. I promise, I'm not going to desert you because—"

"Because there's the bond," Draco said, and tucked his head down like he was getting ready to smash something with his forehead. Harry wondered if it was their barriers, or at least his. Draco had done much the same thing so far. "Yes, I see. But has it occurred to you that she might apologize and invite you for dinner, the way that your friend Longbottom did—"

"It was lunch."

Draco ground his teeth, gave Harry a look that said how little the finer distinctions like that mattered in his world, and went on, all strained patience. "And you might go, and find that you want to marry her after all?"

"No," Harry said, and reached out to loop his hands behind Draco's neck and draw him closer. Draco went, but eyed the letter as if he would like to burn it all the while. "I don't have that much courage."

"Someday, you might," Draco said softly, and looked at the letter again.

Harry rolled his eyes. "No. I don't have the courage to construct a permanent bond that doesn't have to be made—at least, not yet—and I don't have the courage to desert you. Because you would find something that I 'needed' right in the middle of Ginny's kitchen during the dinner, I'm sure."

Draco blinked at him, and then said, "Yes. I would." His hands came to rest on Harry's waist, and he stared at him meanwhile with an odd, guarded, shining expression.

"And I would want you to," Harry said softly, mouth a few inches away from Draco's lips, "if I was mad enough to ever think that I could pull the past into the present."

When Draco kissed him, it was hard enough to bump them both into the table and make the letter flutter to the ground, but Harry didn't care about that. He kept careful track of it, and sent it later, after Draco lay drowsing and open in their bed, and Harry was sure that he had no doubt, from the way Harry had sucked him off, exactly how enthusiastic Harry was about participating in their bond.

And a few days later came the answer, gentle and straightforward, the way that Harry had tried to make his own words to Ginny:

I heard about the bond from Ron, and I'm glad that he's done that much for you. You're forgiven. Ginny.

"Remind me of what I get from you for going along with this again," Draco hissed, out of the corner of his mouth.

"It's a surprise, and I'll tell you later," Harry murmured back, not taking his eyes off Hermione, who was walking—in the wedding dress that she really had sewn most of herself, and which, because Hermione was scrupulously honest, had glints of blue and silver sewn in with the white—across the Burrow's garden to the bonder and Ron, who both waited for her. Ron wore golden robes and looked as if he might float off the ground from the sheer proud inflation of his chest. And Hermione really did look beautiful, Harry thought; she had given up on the veil after all, and just walked along with her face to the world, the way she had when they fought evil and did homework and shared all their other waking hours together. Her parents stood with the Weasleys, Harry and Draco, Neville, Luna, Hannah Abbot, and the inevitable cluster of reporters in a circle all around them, and Harry could see that both Hermione's parents were already dabbing at their eyes. "Look at them. This is their day."

Draco grunted sourly at his side, but settled down, and Harry watched as Hermione took Ron's hands and smiled up into his face. Then they both turned to face the bonder, who asked them, ritually, if they were sure that they wanted the stern wedding vows they'd requested. Both Ron and Hermione answered that they did, with a quiet dignity that made Harry shake his head.

Draco had been good for him, in so many ways. But he still knew that the only link he wanted that was this strong and permanent was the Defendere bond, formed under circumstances of danger and because he had to.

Then he darted a look at Draco, who was watching Ron and Hermione with a little less resentment than he pretended, and made a private change to that wording inside his head.

Well. It was the only bond like that that he wanted right now.

"Speak your vows," the bonder finally said, after casting several spells that made the air around Ron and Hermione spark like the inside of a diamond.

Hermione and Ron had practiced—and Harry had to stifle a grin as he thought of how much they must have practiced—the vows so they could speak them together. Harry could see Hermione's mum nodding in approval beside Mrs. Weasley, who had her hands clasped in front of her mouth and eyes so bright that she couldn't talk. It was probably more feminist for Hermione not to speak after Ron, which she had told Harry traditionally happened at these weddings.

"For this life, I will be true only to you. For this life, I will consider myself bound to you, in honor, in faith, in honesty, in love. For this life, I will put you first, before all, and forsake all, to be at your side. For this life, I will ask you what you want—" Harry rather thought that part was Hermione's addition "—and try to listen to you with patience and understanding. For this life, I will not retreat from anger, or from fights, or from the work of marriage. For this life, I marry you, and I will not be parted from you."

There was an echo to their words, now that Harry listened, as though another couple were speaking their vows at the same time. And there were shadows swirling around both Ron and Hermione, settling on their shoulders and then flying away from them, trailing from their hair like banners or wings.

Ron smiled, and bent down when the bonder nodded and the last echoes of their words had faded to kiss Hermione. The looks on their faces told Harry they were utterly sure this was what they wanted.

It isn't what I want. Not yet, at least.

The Weasleys surged forwards to congratulate Ron and Hermione, somewhat sweeping the other guests away in the rush. Draco clung close to Harry and lowered his head so that he could hiss into his ear, "This reward that you've promised me better be fucking worth it."

Harry smiled, keeping his gaze straight ahead. "I want you to move in with me."

A pause, and he could practically feel Draco turning the words over in his head, looking for traps. "I thought I already had," he said at last, and there was such sharp suspicion in his words that Harry snickered a little in spite of himself and leaned back to touch Draco's hand.

"No. I meant that I want you to move in with me, into my house," Harry said. "Not Grimmauld Place. The house where I spent time before the bond." He turned around and met Draco's eyes.

Draco blinked, rapidly. Then he said, "I never understood why you prevented me from moving in there in the first place," but his voice was soft and fast, and he looked away.

"Because I thought you would want your own room and potions lab and all the rest of it," Harry said patiently. "But there's a cellar I don't use much, and we can transport in some of the books in the Black library. I have the shelves in the library, but not enough books to fill them. And as for you needing your own bedroom…" He rolled his eyes. "How much time have you ever spent in the room I gave you in Grimmauld Place?"

"I use it to hang my clothes," Draco said, and then fell silent, one hand on Harry's shoulder to steer him around the nearest mob of Weasley cousins, obviously thinking. "Does it have large cupboards, this house of yours?"

"I reckon they could be made larger," Harry said calmly, "through the use of wizardspace."

"And there might be time to ourselves?" Draco asked, bending his head so that he could breathe along Harry's ear, and then his neck. There were times that Harry wished he had never showed Draco any of his sensitive spots, although it was highly probable that Draco would have discovered them anyway. He'd made more than one determined investigation over the last few days, one time not letting Harry up for half the morning as he learned his body and what made Harry twitch and cry.

Harry could feel himself hardening now, and he swallowed, determined not to show it to the great-aunt in front of him who frowned vaguely over his head. "With our own private Floo connection that we can shut, even," he said. Shutting the Floo connection in Grimmauld Place didn't always work, the fireplaces were so ancient.

Draco laughed softly, still into his ear, and said, "Then yes."

The great-aunt's frown changed into a smile. "What, is there another marriage in the offing?" she said, and nudged Harry with an elbow. "A little too blond for my tastes, but you could do worse."

Harry felt his face flame red, and Draco murmured a compliment that he hoped would put the woman off. He would have turned his head and said something himself, but then—

Of course it was then, just when he was getting up close to Ron and Hermione and opening his mouth to congratulate them—

A curse soared overhead, and smashed into one of the pillars holding up a garland of decorative flowers. Draco snarled and promptly bore Harry to the ground. Harry could feel a protective mold of ice armor hardening over him, or maybe over Draco and him together, as the Defendere bond went into action.

Harry rolled over and cast a spell that lifted a few people to safety and opened up a line of sight for him at the same time.

He stared when he saw who it was, then snorted. The same group of rowdy teenage wizards that he and Ron had arrested in Hogsmeade not that long ago, and who seemed to have Apparated, drunk, to the first place they could find with a relatively large number of wizards. One of them had Splinched his left arm with a door, and the other could only be dangerous by accident.

He pushed at Draco's arms, and Draco let him up and out of the ice armor. But he still got in front of Harry even when Harry said, "It's all right. They're only young idiots."

Draco turned his head sideways and hissed. "I don't care. I'm not going to take a chance. Not with you."

Harry felt his eyes widen and something melt inside him. Maybe one of the barriers that Draco had talked about in the past, maybe not; he didn't know.

But at that moment, he understood the bond, and how it could affect Draco, and how he could be happy with it, anyway.

More than even the sex had made him understand it.

He put a hand in the middle of Draco's back and held him still as he turned his head around for a kiss, then shoved him forwards. "Then go defend me. Hero. Just don't hurt them too badly."

Draco was smiling as he turned around, and a gout of what looked like phoenix fire was already rising from him, followed by whips of crackling black energy that Harry didn't actually recognize.

Harry followed him, deciding that being sheltered once in a while wasn't that bad.

The End.