Title: The Inner Lands
Disclaimer: J. K. Rowling and associates own these characters. I am writing this for fun and not profit.
Summary: Harry wants to know why Draco Malfoy is a Sidhe. And why he's heading the Sidhe delegation that's threatening the wizarding world. But most of all, he wants to know why him.
Warnings: Angst, violence, some rather weird magic.
Word Count: 31,300
Author's Notes: Written for tigersilver in the 2012 Draco Tops Harry fest; she suggested Draco as a faerie creature, among which Sidhe was an option, and asked for small Muggle traditions to turn the Fair Folk aside. Thanks to my beta, L., for going above and beyond the call of duty, as always. The title comes from Lord Dunsany's story "Poltarnees, Beholder of Ocean," quoted below.
The Inner Lands
Toldees, Mondath, Arizim, these are the Inner Lands, the lands whose sentinels upon their borders do not behold the sea. . .
Harry climbed slowly and stiffly out of the old fireplace and looked around the house. Spiders dangling from the rafters, dust snowdrift-thick on the floor, the smell of must and age thick enough to choke him-
He almost smiled. It was rather like being back in the cupboard at the Dursleys', wasn't it?
He spent a few moments composing himself, flicking his wand to banish the dust and soot from his clothing. He still wanted to wrinkle his nose at the rich clothes that Hermione had insisted he wear: tunic and trousers, of all things, of crushed velvet or something like that. He looked like one of the prancing Muggles he sometimes saw on the streets of London, the ones who believed they had been born in the wrong century.
And everything was green. Hermione had said that was important, it was symbolic. As far as Harry could tell, everything to do with the bloody Sidhe was symbolic. He just objected to it applying to his clothing.
Besides, as far as he was concerned, green was a symbol of the Killing Curse and Oh, Harry, You Have Your Mum's Eyes. But no one had asked him.
But the Sidhe had asked for him. Still shaking his head when he thought about that, Harry stepped out of the house's doorway and into the abandoned field beyond. This was the nearest Floo point to the place where the delegate had requested to meet him, once a wizarding home that the family who dwelt here had left after one too many deaths in the place.
He couldn't see a damn thing in the darkness beyond, only the faint far lights of stars. Well, it was appropriate to the mood of the house, anyway-
Then two bright lights lit up in front of him, and Harry lifted his wand and spun into a battle-crouch, his cloak flaring behind him and his stupid tight clothes jamming his elbows. He rarely had occasion to do regular battle any more, but work as a dueling instructor had kept his moves sharp.
The lights moved closer, and Harry made them out as the shiny, reflected eyeballs of a horse. He didn't relax. For one thing, the horse was so black it looked like a piece of darkness come to life; for another, he had never seen a horse walk in that weird way, with its neck bent down so that its head hovered barely above the ground and snaked along.
And for a third, he was on his way to meet a bunch of bloody power-hungry despots who had once ruled the entire wizarding world. He trusted nothing to be what it was supposed to be.
The black horse came to a stop and stood staring at him. Harry stared back, and made out silver swathes over its back and head, in a shape like a saddle and bridle. They were part of the skin, though, not harness.
He held the creature's eyes, and murmured, "And who bound you, that you have to wear the marks of your slavery even in this form?"
The creature's head tossed up, and it turned its back on him with a stamp of forehooves and hind hooves one right after the other. Harry smiled. He knew now it was a Pooka, and that meant it was probably the guide the Sidhe had promised.
"Well?" he asked. "I'm waiting, for an answer. Don't you lot never lie?"
The Pooka's eye rolled back at him, and then it turned and pounded into the darkness. Harry whispered a tracking spell, although he thought the sound of the hoofbeats would probably guide him, and then followed.
It was hard to do; the fog that rolled silently out of the night muffled the sounds, and the locator charm kept flickering and slipping in his mind, as though nothing except the marks already on the Pooka could bind it. Harry kept patiently repeating the syllables of the spell, and it towed him ahead at last, Harry trotting like the Pooka did, then running. He wondered if he would arrive with stains of sweat under the arms of this stupid, expensive tunic, and knew that he didn't much mind if he did.
He came out abruptly, through a wall of fog, into a round space of white sand, glowing so brilliantly that Harry blinked and cast a spell to reduce the glare. There was no sign of the Pooka for a moment, and then it melted into being ahead of him, kneeling down by one of the immense silver thrones that ringed the sand. A chain slid into being out of air and shadow, leading from the bridle imprinted on the Pooka's face and up to the hand of the creature in the chair.
Harry walked slowly forwards.
Because there were beings in those chairs, oh yes, and he could tell simply from looking at them that they must be the Sidhe.
They were vaguely human in the same way that apes were vaguely human. Their ears were pointed, and their features slim, delicate, still. Their skin was so white that Harry didn't think he could have seen them if they were just standing on the sand instead of sitting in the thrones. Their fingers were so long that they looked like insect legs, and their eyes were stretched oddly, almost like diamonds lying on their sides, under high arched brows.
Harry had heard they were full of inhuman beauty, but he didn't actually see that as he moved among them. They were so strange and different that he shuddered as he looked at them. He wondered if ancient wizards had had really bad taste or something.
Then one of the Sidhe made a gesture with one hand, raising it and spreading the fingers so that Harry could see they had more distance between them than a human's would-
And their faces shone out, heartbreakingly lovely now, and he could see colors like broken glass and green water and blue heather in their eyes, and his heart beat and rebounded and his knees trembled with the longing to let him sink to the ground.
But somewhere under the dazzling tide, Harry remembered the gesture the first Sidhe had made, and rebelled against it. This is glamour. This is illusion. That's why the ancient wizards all found them beautiful, and why I didn't at first.
He raised his chin and spent a moment feeling about in his mind for the link that he knew had to exist between him and the spell. It wasn't anything so visible as the Imperius Curse, where he could hear the little voice ordering him to do things. But he found it after a moment, a thin chain around his thoughts and reaching up to his eyes, the same as the bond that that one of the Sidhe had linked to the Pooka's bridle.
No, thanks! he thought, and reached up with hand and heart and magic to rip it off.
The glamour shattered like a star breaking, and suddenly he stood once more in the silent circle of thrones, with the nearest Sidhe on its feet and the one beyond that, the one who had cast the spell, holding his hand out in front of him and staring it. Harry looked at that one, but the expression on its face wasn't recognizable as pain. Perhaps it was just more startled that its spell had failed.
"What did I tell you?" The voice, at least, sounded like it could be beautiful, bell-like, though it was shrill enough to set Harry's teeth on edge. "He was nearly one of us-would have been, had he been allowed to grow without stunting. Such simple tricks cannot fool him."
Harry turned around. The Sidhe holding the chained bridle on the Pooka had risen to its feet and was watching him.
His feet, Harry decided a moment later. The longer he looked at the Sidhe, the more it looked like a man, and the shapeless grey clothes on it came to resemble a tunic and trousers like Harry's own, though with stony colors. But not just grey, colors of moss and lichen and babbling stream all mixed in-
Harry pulled his eyes away from the clothes, wary of being caught by another trap, and glared into the Sidhe lord's eyes.
And it was him. Draco Malfoy.
Harry didn't yell, but only because Hermione had hinted that he might meet someone he knew here, and Malfoy had vanished shortly after his twenty-second birthday. Harry bit down on his tongue, and nodded to him, his mind working furiously. This also explained why the Sidhe had chosen Harry, specifically, as a delegate. Malfoy wanted to miss with his head or wanted the mission to fail. Anyone who had been around Harry in the past few years knew he had no diplomatic skills.
"Potter," Malfoy said, as if reading the moment when Harry had recognized him out of Harry's head, and gave him a creepy smile. If it was a smile. Harry wasn't sure. His lips more trembled than actually moved, and he turned his silvery eyes away a moment later to study the other Sidhe gathered in the circle.
"Malfoy," Harry said, and then curiosity and stubbornness and several other things made him add, "Or isn't that your name anymore?"
"It is the name I bear in a region where humans need to name me," Malfoy said. "My name in the Sidhe tongue, as near as I can render it for someone lacking three senses, is-"
A confused bursts of sounds and smells and colors came at Harry. He could hear the shrill notes that bells made when you shook them hard enough, and there was dark green like moss in the Forbidden Forest and a smell like rotting roses.
And there was a feeling, too. Harry didn't know what else to call it. It had a sour melancholy to it, though, envy and hatred and sorrow and something else.
Yeah, that's what Malfoy experienced during the war, Harry thought, dead certain even if no one had told him that, and managed to shake his head and rid himself of some of the lingering smell. "All right," he said, looking up at Malfoy. "So did you bring me here to harass me, or what?"
Malfoy moved a step down, off his throne, looping the Pooka's chain casually around the arm of his throne as he moved. "You're still as arrogant as ever you were, Potter," he murmured. "I find it almost endearing."
Harry noted the almost, and reminded himself again of what Hermione had told him: that the Sidhe had once ruled the wizarding world, and that the cooperation of wizards and magical creatures had driven them back. Or else they had left on their own. No one really remembered the untarnished truth, because the records that talked about it were in the keeping of centaurs and fairies and other magical creatures that the Ministry didn't communicate with much now.
Harry shrugged. "Sorry," he said. "I'll work on that. But why ask for me? If you want to make sure that someone listens to the message, talk to the Minister. Or Hermione, for that matter."
A faint smile, sheer as a cliff's edge, touched Malfoy's lips. "You do not have the influence of the Boy-Who-Lived anymore?" His eyes lingered on the curse scar on Harry's forehead, although Harry had deliberately grown his hair long over it. "I find that hard to believe."
"Things can change," Harry muttered, and smiled in spite of himself as he thought of some of the ways that he had diminished his own influence. Being as open as possible about his lovers instead of trying to conceal his secrets, not settling down, not being involved in any political scandals, and giving blunt opinions in language that was hard to misinterpret had made the papers unsure of what to write about him. He wasn't dissipated, he wasn't a brilliant Auror, and he wasn't the fairy tale hero they had been so sure they would have when he was dating Ginny. Stay unknown, and your enemies would find it hard to cage or confront you.
And someone could say the same thing about the Sidhe, Harry realized, and tried to square his shoulders and keep his eyes on Malfoy and the others in the thrones around him. He thought there were eleven thrones, counting the one Malfoy had risen from. That was significant, probably.
"Come with me," Malfoy said, and paced away from the rest, into the thick, bright fog that encircled them. Harry gritted his teeth and followed. He could wait there, but he felt no safer with the rest of the Sidhe than with Malfoy.
They walked with no sound, the fog eating any noise they made. Harry looked ahead and behind them, and saw only the banks of glittering white. And silver, he thought. The fog was shifting colors. Nothing deeper than grey yet, but it might show up if he gave it time.
Sometimes he could feel no earth beneath his feet at all. Perhaps the Sidhe's magic made it cease to exist at certain points.
"Do you know what I am?"
Malfoy's voice startled Harry, but he kept his eyes focused on the glimmer of white sand ahead and didn't jump. "A Sidhe lord," he said calmly. "That much was obvious from where you were sitting and what you look like."
Malfoy's hand landed on his shoulder. Harry winced and turned. The grip was hard as steel, but it was also colder than that metal, and that was what made it so hard to bear. He had one hand in his pocket already, near his wand; he moved it instead to the small lump of cold iron that Hermione had insisted he carry with him. He stroked the lump with one finger and held Malfoy's eyes.
Malfoy watched him with his eyes shining like a ghost's-except, Harry thought, a ghost would probably have looked more human. Then he smiled suddenly, and it made his face even more angular and fox-like than before.
"I was born human," Malfoy said softly. "But with a gift, the gift we have ignored, the gift we drove away. I survived and did not become little more than a crushed flower, and so-I changed. Do you know how many seeds never come to growth? How many are scattered or trampled that should have been blossoms?"
Harry wanted to roll his eyes, but he also wanted to smile in relief. This was more like the incomprehensible Sidhe talk that Hermione had warned him he would have to listen to. "Yes, Malfoy, whatever you say," he murmured. "Does that have anything to do with why you wanted to talk to me, specifically?"
Malfoy nodded, examining Harry intently, his gaze once again rising to the scar. "You had the chance to become like me," he murmured. "But someone twisted you, warped you, and ensured that you will never come to your full growth."
Harry stared at Malfoy. He had the feeling that something important was going on here, but he really didn't know what. In the end, he shook his head and chose to talk about the first of the points Hermione had presented him with instead. "All right. I know that you've returned from your exile and you want something from the wizarding world. What?"
Malfoy turned his head away and stared into the distance. A slight breeze-that he had probably conjured, Harry thought cynically-brushed past his forehead and lifted his hair. It made him look melodramatic and prince-like. It made him look like a ponce.
As if he could hear the thought, Malfoy turned a sudden glance on him, and Harry winced. Those eyes could score like fire when Malfoy wanted them to, then. Harry wished he could have discovered that in some more comfortable way.
"You know nothing of the inner lands, do you?" Malfoy whispered. "Only the outer ones."
"Are you talking about Faerie and that kind of thing?" Hermione had called the place where the Sidhe went that, but then she had thrown up her hands and said it was no good giving it that name. Sometimes Hermione could be as confusing as a Sidhe lady herself, Harry thought. "The place you went?"
Malfoy nodded slowly, his eyes holding Harry's. Harry searched them for some sign of the mockery that Malfoy had always shown him in school, but couldn't find much. It seemed that Malfoy had changed his priorities along with his form.
"Yes," Malfoy breathed. "Those are the inner lands, the ones that wrap closest to the magic, and the ones that are closer to the Center of things."
The way he said the words, Harry couldn't miss the capital letter. He thought about asking what the Center was, but knowing Malfoy, it would only result in another weird answer that he couldn't understand anyway.
"The inner lands are wilder than these," Malfoy said, and for a moment he seemed to glance around the area of white sand and fog they stood in with contempt, although as far as Harry could see, there was nothing here that the Sidhe hadn't made themselves. "They are vaster. They are more beautiful. . ."
"Then why come back here?" Harry asked. "It seems that Faerie and the rest of them are the places that you would want to be."
Malfoy stared at him, and the faint passion vanished from his face. "I forget how stunted you are," he said.
Harry sneered at him, and said nothing. No, he wasn't good at diplomatic language, but answering back right now would only get him another nonsensical answer that would infuriate him more than it would help him. So he stood there and watched Malfoy, and Malfoy at last laughed, as though Harry had said something that pleased him after all.
"I forget how stunted you are," Malfoy repeated, "but I remember when I look at you. Therefore, I must be gracious and repeat the information that you have forgotten you heard me say. The inner lands are wilder than these. That means they destroy more of us than are born there, and though sometimes we are war and wish to fight our enemies there, we are not always in such a mood. So we have come back here."
Another interlude, during which Malfoy's conjured breeze brushed past Harry's face more than once. Harry finally gave in and shook his head. "You want a safer place to live in the wizarding world?"
"That is something you would assume," Malfoy said, and curled his lip. "No. We wish to have more of our children change here."
"So you do want a safer place," Harry hazarded. He was already picturing wizarding families caring for Sidhe children, and he didn't think that they'd like it much. One story that constantly repeated itself on the front page of the Daily Prophet was how few children were born to pure-blood parents and how many Muggleborns went back to the Muggle world when they'd finished their education. Yes, people wanted more children, but of their own blood, and their own wizarding magic.
"We wish," Malfoy said, and moved a step forwards that made the white sand crunch like snow, "to see that our children change."
"I don't know what that means," Harry said, and held Malfoy's eyes, and didn't flinch away. Yes, he was a bastard, and a right one. That didn't mean Harry had to back down in front of him. He couldn't be an effective diplomat if he had no idea what he was negotiating and so gave away all the wizarding world's bargaining counters immediately.
Once again, he wished passionately that they'd sent someone else. He was here because Malfoy had thought it would be amusing to request him and make jokes about him, evidently, and not because he could help the wizarding world.
Malfoy studied him, and then closed his eyes and ran his fingers along his own temples, touching above his eyes and around his cheeks and ears. "Your pardon," he murmured, in a deeper and more human voice than Harry had heard him use before. "But it is hard for me to think and speak as a human, after so long."
It's only been five years since you disappeared, Harry thought, but he nodded anyway. It wasn't as though Malfoy was paying much attention to him right now.
"There are certain numbers of wizards who have the potential to-change," Malfoy murmured, his eyes closed and his head bowed as though he was reasoning his way through the steps of the explanation in his head. "To alter. When they reach the age of twenty-two. If they are not stunted before then." He opened one eye and looked at Harry with a gaze that was, if anything, more penetrating than when he used both his eyes.
Harry blinked and looked him over. "You think that we can somehow change ourselves into Sidhe?"
"Not yourselves," Malfoy said, and made a flicking gesture with one hand that seemed to scoop up the fog and gather it closer to him. "But you do change, yes. Some of you. And they become Sidhe."
Harry waited, and Malfoy went on gazing into the fog, Apparently it was infinitely more fascinating than what they had actually come here to discuss. Harry sighed and began speaking again. "I don't see what you want us to do. If we can't actually change ourselves, then there's no way that we can influence who becomes Sidhe and who doesn't."
Malfoy turned his head and locked his eyes on Harry. "Why do you think I became that way?" he asked.
"Because you're pure-blood," Harry said. He didn't, actually, believe that at all, but there were enough pure-bloods in the wizarding world whining about their closeness to magical creatures and how important it was that he was willing to pretend he did. Anything for a quiet life, really.
Malfoy shook his head, once, the white hair whispering around him and then settling back near his cheeks. It looked like it was made of clouds. Harry bit the inside of his own cheek and turned his head away so that he wasn't tempted to touch it. "Because certain circumstances took me over," Malfoy said. "Because I grew up in the wizarding world, and because I did not immediately begin to use my magic when I reached the supposed 'age of adulthood' like everyone else, because I lived under the rule of a Dark Lord who made me confine it." Malfoy sneered the words "age of adulthood" with the venom that Harry was used to hearing him reserve for Gryffindors. "And because there was the flower hidden inside me, the seed getting ready to blossom."
"Which we can do nothing about encouraging, to hear you tell it," Harry said. He carried on staring into the fog, and wondered when the hell Malfoy would get to the point. Maybe the wizards of long ago had driven the Sidhe away because they were annoying to talk to.
"To encourage? No," Malfoy said. "And again, yes."
Harry swung around again and glared at him. "Will you get to the bloody point, Malfoy?"
For a moment, the silver eyes gazing at him chilled and flowed and turned to stone in a way that reminded Harry that this was an incredibly powerful and non-human being he was talking to. Harry bit his lip and prevented himself from backing up only by a powerful exertion of his own will.
Malfoy was a Sidhe lord, but Harry was the man who had killed the most dangerous Dark Lord since Grindelwald and then fought his way free of becoming the wizarding world's icon and playtoy after that, when everyone had assumed he would have to succumb to the Ministry and the newspapers. He leaned forwards until his nose was an inch away from Malfoy's.
"Tell me," he said. "Enough riddles."
Malfoy smiled at him suddenly, and reached out as if he would touch Harry's hair. Harry gritted his teeth and permitted the touch, but kept his eyes warily on Malfoy all the while. Malfoy didn't seem to notice.
Or, more likely, Harry had to admit, he didn't care. Hermione had warned him again and again about how strong the Sidhe were, how little reason they had to pay attention to the wizarding morals and strictures.
"You might as well say," Malfoy murmured, "enough Faerie, or enough magic. It would be as easy for me to dispose of either."
"All right, I get that," Harry said. "But we're here because there are things that you want out of the wizarding world, and I'm the one you picked to deal with it. You might as well tell me. The longer you delay, the longer until you get what you want."
Malfoy gave him a smile that was unexpectedly charming, and made Harry wonder if they might have been better friends if he'd stayed human than they'd managed when they were boys. Then he stepped back and folded his hands in front of him, turning his head in a slow, almost mechanical sweep of a half-circle. Harry moved a step back in front of him, his hand falling to his wand.
"Hush," Malfoy whispered. "Hush. I will show you." His hands rose, and Harry noticed that the conjured breeze blowing past them had stilled and the flowing fog around the clearing no longer stirred.
The air seemed to twist, and then color and scent, music and jewels, flooded the world around Harry. He staggered back a step, disoriented, and felt Malfoy catch him, drawing Harry close, back against his chest. He kissed the skin behind Harry's ear and stroked his tunic, undoing one button.
Harry froze for a different reason now, but Malfoy went no further. He nodded at the explosion of sensations happening in front of Harry and breathed, "Look."
So Harry did, although reluctantly. The colors had resolved into the vision of an arched stone gateway, with the scents and the sounds flowing from beyond it. Harry moved a step forwards, or Malfoy guided him forwards, and he saw it.
The earth beyond the gateway fell away in a steep slope of green so rich that it shaded into blue and purple on the sides. The sky overhead was a similarly jewel-like shade, this one resembling the heart of a sapphire. Steep cliffs rose here and there, marked with white, streaked with red. On top of them stood pillars and circles of stones and lone thorn trees that taunted Harry with the feeling that they must have been used for something, and that he had learned that use once and would remember it in a moment.
The ground opened up into a valley beyond, and a blue creature stood there, resembling, in some ways, a huge lion with long, ropy legs and a collar of thorns and reaching tendrils around its neck instead of a mane. It bowed its head, and the thorns pierced the flesh of a white creature standing beside it, which Harry's brain could only make sense of by comparing to a huge sheep. The creature trembled as the thorns sank in, but didn't try to run. A moment later, the tendrils turned red as blood and flesh began to flow up them to the blue creature. It closed its eyes and lowered its head in what looked like bliss. The great jaws were parted, Harry thought, but the sharp teeth that dotted them might as well have been decorative; the thorns were how it fed.
"They can make their food stand still like that," Malfoy whispered in his ear. "Walk up to them and give their lives. They are more dangerous than a Nundu." His hands were caressing Harry's hair and shoulders and also the air around them, making Harry ripple and shake, as if the boundaries of his body were dissolving. "They are wonderful, and even we can barely fight them. We will unleash them here unless you give us what we want."
Harry shuddered and tried to ignore the tempting scents coming from beyond the gate, honeysuckle and fresh-baked biscuits and apple blossoms. They were probably part of the tools that the lion-creature used to lure its prey closer. "All right, threat delivered. And what is it you want?"
The vision dissolved, and Harry found himself floating in another one, a black void surrounded by stars. It had to be a vision, because there was no way in hell that Malfoy could really have transported them into the depths of space, and be keeping them alive with not much exertion of magic. Harry refused to believe that.
"So many worlds," Malfoy crooned and sighed into Harry's hair. His hands were still near his body, and at the moment, Harry was rather relieved at that. He didn't think he would want to float alone in a void like this, and he didn't trust his ability to fight through the glamour-it must be, but this time, his mere disbelief in it didn't shatter it the way it had when he disbelieved in the Sidhe's beauty-and get back home. "The little ones that you know about, the kind that you live in, with magic only a background hum. And around them, closer to the Center, the wrapped and shining worlds, the ones like tapestries curled around and around the fragile outer worlds."
Harry took a deep breath and made a stab for what he thought he understood. Hermione had said Sidhe were unpredictable around fear, sometimes glad they had caused it and sometimes taking it as a signal that they should attack, as if they were dogs. "You're saying that this is bigger on the inside than the outside?"
Malfoy laughed in delight, or at least a shrill emotion Harry could tell himself was that, and shifted closer to Harry, hands outlining his hips now. Harry had the dangerous fantasy that he only held his own shape because Malfoy was here with him in the void, and bit his lips over it, refusing to surrender to it. "Yes. And the inside, the Center, where everything comes from, is the largest of all."
"What is the Center?" Harry asked, thinking Hermione would probably want to know.
"Everything," Malfoy sighed, into his ear this time.
Well, so much for that. Harry made another try. "And what do you want us to do, Malfoy? How can we escape having the lion-creatures unleashed on us?"
The black void around him vanished. He found himself standing on a field of thick green grass, dotted with flowers in a literal rainbow of colors, from pale red at one corner of the field to thick purple, almost black, near his feet. Malfoy bent down and picked an indigo blossom, reeling with light, an open cup, dark with thorns near the tip.
"You must change the age of adulthood," Malfoy said, eyes on him as he held out the flower to Harry. Harry took it, trying carefully to avoid the thorns. "Seventeen forces wizards to exercise their magic too young, forces them to assume adult responsibilities that make them human and not Sidhe. For more Sidhe, there must be more, as there were with me, who are not encouraged to use their magic too often and too young."
Harry shook his head. "I don't see how we can predict that. Other people went through the same war as you did and didn't-change." He might as well use the Sidhe word for it, seeing as he didn't know another one.
"Some have the potential inborn, and some do not," Malfoy agreed, his voice as breathy as the wind in the flowers. Or maybe the wind was speaking through him; Harry didn't know anymore. "That is the part that you cannot encourage. The encouragement, the growth of the seed, comes with changing the age."
He paused, and leaned forwards until his head butted against Harry's. Harry shivered. Malfoy's brow felt both colder and harder than the equivalent bone would on a human.
"You would have been one of us," Malfoy whispered. "You had the potential inborn. But you were stunted long before the war." For a moment, his hand rested on the scar that still occupied the center of Harry's forehead.
Harry jerked his head away, his lip curling. He didn't much like being called stunted, particularly not by someone who had changed into something so different, so non-human, that it was hard to comprehend. Harry wondered whether even his memories were the same; maybe not, with the way that he was treating Harry.
"That would have been strange," he snapped. "Anyway, all right. You gave me the message. I'll carry it to the Ministry and see what they want to do." He personally thought it was unlikely that the Ministry would change the age of adulthood in the wizarding world overnight. It was an established law, and they didn't like change. And they knew they had beaten the Sidhe once before, so they might think they could again.
Hermione would probably say that it's my duty to convey how powerful their magic is, so that the Ministry doesn't try to resist them if they can't.
Harry rubbed his scar where Malfoy's hand had rested, and grimaced. The one bad part of winning a life for himself outside the Ministry was that he had less influence inside it, and they might discount what he was saying simply because it was him.
"That's why you picked me for a contact, wasn't it?" he asked, when he looked up and found that Malfoy still stood there, motionless and watching him. "Because you think that I would have been part-Sidhe."
"Not part, a whole, if you had gone unmarked by the Dark Lord and then survived to the age of twenty-two without using so much magic," Malfoy corrected him, his voice as soft as the wind blowing through the flowers. "There is no such thing as someone who is half-Sidhe. We do not reproduce in the normal ways you know. We come from others, we always have. When someone in another world knows-"
"Yes, yes," Harry said, waving his hand, much less interested in the mating habits of Sidhe than Malfoy assumed he was. Maybe that was one way in which the git had stayed the same, then, inhuman heritage or not: he still assumed that everything should revolve around him. "Fine. Then I'll go back and tell them, but I'll warn you, you could have chosen someone different, and you probably should have if you wanted them to actually listen. There are too many people who will assume that I'm lying, or exaggerating, or something."
"We want the age to change because of the young who will come from that," Malfoy said, and then stared dreamily over Harry's shoulder towards something that might be another part of the meadow or might be the void; Harry wasn't turning around to find out.
"And now you're talking like you're an animal," Harry muttered. "The young, right."
"We do not want the age to change because we wish to avoid a war," Malfoy said, and turned his head so that his eyes looked straight into Harry's and his body seemed to sway a little with the wind that might not exist, either. "We do not care about wars. We will fight them, and we will unleash the izindra and destroy the wizarding world if our demands are not answered."
Harry felt his mouth dry out, and he rubbed his face. "Then-why negotiate at all? Why pick someone instead of just appearing to everyone in the wizarding world and announcing your threat to them at once? And I know you could do that, don't lie," he added, before Malfoy could say anything.
"We do not need to lie," Malfoy said simply. The words were cold and indifferent, and they made Harry shiver far more than a threat would have. "We chose this way because we want the age to change, your world to endure, to grow us the young." He cocked his head, and leaned in close to Harry, who stared back but refused to move away. Apparently becoming Sidhe destroyed one's sense of personal boundaries, too.
"And we wished to see you," Malfoy whispered. "I did, that is. I wished to see how you might have changed, and the ways that you had not."
Harry blinked. Then he said, "Did you miss me, you git?"
"That is a word I have not heard in a long time," Malfoy said, cocking his head further. "I remember it as an insult, but you say it to me with such affection. . ."
Harry stared at him, then waved his hand up and down in front of his face. Malfoy followed Harry's hand with his eyes, but didn't back away.
"That's not affection," Harry said. "That's bloody irritation. I don't know what in the world to say to you, Malfoy, if that doesn't convince you that I still hold you in contempt."
Malfoy laughed at him, his mouth open and his breath puffing across Harry's face with little huffing sounds. Harry cuffed at the air and shook his head. Malfoy reached out, his hand on Harry's hair and his face a few inches from his still, and looked into his eyes so long that Harry had to give up and blink.
"Sometimes," Malfoy said, "I think of you, and think that your Sidhe nature must have sensed my Sidhe nature. We were both displaced in some ways, discontented with our lives despite having so much that others would value and envy."
Harry bit his lips, and said nothing. If Malfoy still knew nothing of Harry's childhood and the reasons that he might not have wanted attention for something he couldn't remember, then it wasn't Harry's place to tell him.
"And other times," Malfoy continued, his voice dropping to a hum that Harry could feel in his bones, "I know it was not that. Not even any Sidhe knows another Sidhe before he changes; the connection may exist, but can never be defined or sensed in time, making it rather useless to speculate upon, or rely upon for information. No, I think that we obsessed about each other because our personalities clashed." He tugged on a strand of Harry's hair, hard enough to bring tears from Harry's eyes. "And I wanted to see you again, to see what you were like now, if you were as I remembered. That is all."
He turned and walked away from Harry, the grass changing to white sand as he moved. And Harry was there for a moment again, in the circle of thrones, the chained and bridled Pooka flinching from Malfoy as he sat down in the throne next to it.
The next moment, before he could draw a breath, he was outside the circle again, next to the abandoned house he had Flooed to. And all around him was silence, not even a breath of wind to stir the grass. Harry reached out with his senses, and knew that the lingering Sidhe magic had gone.
He stood there feeling useless and stupid for some time, and then quietly went home.
"How sure are you of your conclusions, Mr. Potter?"
Harry ground his teeth, but didn't show that on his face, which maintained the calm, polite expression that he'd come in here with. He knew it would irritate the Wizengamot much more if he showed that he wasn't getting upset, and when they asked him questions like these in those high, piercing voices, there was nothing he wanted more than to irritate the Wizengamot.
They were in the so-called Magnificent Office, which as far as Harry was concerned should have been called the Trying-To-Intimidate-You-With-Grandeur Office. Gold covered the walls (Harry knew it was actually gold leaf because he'd checked with certain spells that sounded its depth), and portraits of past Wizengamot members stared down from the dome that the ceiling rose to. That particular tactic would have worked better if the portraits didn't have a tendency to go to sleep and snore, or gossip with one another, instead of watching the events happening below them. There were marble pillars-in reality, just stone with Glamour Charms-decorated with curly gold tops in that Grecian fashion that Hermione probably knew the name of, and a long, echoing aisle that led up to the mahogany table in the center, curved like a pair of outspread wings, where the Wizengamot members sat. Harry's chair was in front of the narrow part of the table.
He sat in it with his hands folded in his lap, and smiled at them as often as he could. So far, he was responsible for three scowls and one snapped quill, and it was only three minutes into the meeting. He thought he was doing well.
"Fairly sure, Madam Hornpipe," he said now, staring at the woman all in purple who had asked the question. Purple clashed with her hair. "I don't see a reason for the Sidhe to lie when they want something, as they said. I don't understand how changing the age of adulthood from seventeen to twenty-two would help with making more wizards into Sidhe, but they want it to happen."
"But you could be confused," said Hornpipe, nodding her head up and down so that the hat floating somewhere in the sea of her hair bobbed like a ship on the waves. "You said yourself that they spoke in riddles and didn't seem much interested in making their speech clearer. That suggests that you don't know what they really want. You're only guessing."
Harry didn't move his hands from his lap, no matter how satisfying it would have been to tear a few strips of wood from the arms of the chair. "Of course I am," he said, and his voice wasn't snappish, either. But it wasn't submissive, and the Wizengamot members would have done well to listen to that. "That hardly means that I don't have any idea. The Sidhe speak in riddles, but the one I spoke to used to be human, and he knew me. He knew he would have to descend to our level to speak to me and make his demands clear."
"It sounds as though you admire these Sidhe," said another of the Wizengamot, a tall man with eyes so narrow that Harry wasn't sure what color they were. "As though you would side with them against your own kind."
Harry held back his exasperation by tilting his head back and studying the ceiling-tiles under another Glamour Charm to make them look like deep blue geodes-until the Wizengamot members shifted in their chairs. They thought he was angry with them, but without words to latch onto and twist, it was much harder for them to declare that he was ungrateful because of the anger.
"I know very little about them," Harry said at last, looking down. "And the one who used to be human was someone I hated in school. Draco Malfoy was his name."
"Then how can we trust anything he says?" Hornpipe instantly demanded. "How do we know that he's even made the transition to Sidhe, the way you say he has? He could be telling us lies simply because he hates you."
"I thought of that," Harry admitted. "But at this point, it doesn't matter whether he's really a Sidhe or only the servant of someone more powerful. The magic he showed me was incredible. Voyages to other worlds, leaving and coming back from a place without Apparition, taming a Pooka with bridle and saddle."
"And all of that could have been glamours and illusions. Such as legend tells us that the Sidhe are famous for using." Hornpipe leaned back in her chair and beamed around at everyone, pleased with herself for having solved the riddle.
"They did try that on me once," Harry said, and made his voice gentle, the best way to terrify the lot of them. "And I broke it with an effort of my mind. I can resist the Imperius Curse, Madam Hornpipe. I'm one of the most powerful wizards in the world." He hated claiming that, and wasn't even sure it was true, but sometimes it was the only thing that would make stubborn people listen to him. "If they can do that to me, if they can bewilder my mind, then the difference between reality and glamour in their magic becomes less important."
Hornpipe frowned at that. The other members of the Wizengamot nodded or made nonsense noises that were meant to show they were seriously considering his information.
Harry knew they wouldn't. They never considered anything seriously except what they were already predisposed to think about because it applied to them. He shifted back in his chair and sighed. "Can I go now?"
"Yes, of course," Hornpipe said, taking on the duties of the Master of Ceremonies before anyone else could, and waved him majestically away. Harry rolled his eyes as he stood and moved back in the direction of the door.
So he had delivered his report, and the Wizengamot would probably debate things and then come to a resolution that they would write up in a long report and stick somewhere no one would ever find it. Well, they could do that. Harry had done his part, and he had already saved the world once. He had no desire to be any more involved in this second attempt than he had to.
"Harry? Are you there?"
That was George's voice, of all people's. It brought Harry stumbling out of the shower faster than Ron or Hermione's would have, because he knew the tones in their voices better, and whether something really was urgent. "What is it, George?" he asked, yawning and tugging the towel tighter around his waist.
"I have someone here who wants to talk to you." George's face was paler than Harry had seen it since Fred's death, and that made Harry turn his head slightly, locating his wand on the mantle above the fireplace.
"Of course, George," Harry said, keeping his voice calm so whoever had bullied George into firecalling him wouldn't realize that anything was wrong. "If you want me to, then I will."
He waited for some signal or clue that would indicate how he was supposed to respond to this; George was certainly more than clever enough to give him one. But George stepped aside without doing so, and a face far paler than his appeared in the flames.
Harry blinked. It was Malfoy, and seeing him outside the circle of thrones and white fog only emphasized the strangeness of his white skin, his sharp cheekbones, his silver-white hair that lay along his cheeks like dandelion fluff.
"You are the first person in your world who looks solid to me," Malfoy said, staring as if the sight of Harry soothed him.
"It used to be your world, too," Harry said, rolling his eyes and sitting down on a stool not far from the fireplace. He thought he could be a little more casual around one of the Sidhe in a setting like this, and it wasn't as though Malfoy would respond in the normal human way to seeing the Chosen One mostly naked. "Git."
"Used to be, is not anymore," Malfoy said, but he smiled. "You retain your charming verbal habits. I find it refreshing, like a breeze from the Mountains of Mahnlahrin."
"Wherever those are," Harry muttered, and Malfoy gave a soft, breathless sound that could have been a laugh, or might have been the Sidhe version of gagging. "Anyway. Why did you come to George? I reported your message to the Wizengamot yesterday, and they said they would consider it."
"I came to him because he is one of the children of chaos, and closer to us because of it." Malfoy's eyes had that shine to them that said he wouldn't explain anything else-or, at least, Harry thought it said that. He had to stop and remind himself, again, that he really didn't know anything about the Sidhe, and if they were all as inhuman as they were said to be, then he couldn't trust his own perceptions. "And I know that you gave them the message."
There was silence for a few moments, save the crackling of the flames, until Harry gave in. Malfoy might not even realize that their staring contest was a mind-game to Harry, and one that he was disinclined to participate in. Maybe staring wordlessly at someone was a compliment in Sidhe society.
"Then why are you here?" Harry reached up and found that his wet hair was already partially dry. He sighed and cast a spell that would renew some of the moisture. It was the only way he could make it do anything he wanted to, if he started combing it when it was fresh from the shower.
"I wanted to see you again," Malfoy said. His eyes were on the scar on Harry's forehead.
"I don't think you can unstunt me," Harry said.
Malfoy smiled like a dog, a wrinkling and change of light in his eyes and the lines of his face more than anything else. "I have never heard that word," he said. "Never thought of it. It is something new, in an immortal life that will stretch through all the worlds, to hear a word like that."
"Come off it, Malfoy, you're only a little older than me."
"Changing does things to one's sense of time," Malfoy said simply. "Being one of the Sidhe would be hard if I thought of the years as a human does."
"Careful," Harry warned him. "That was dangerously near making sense, you know."
Another smile, and Malfoy went on examining him carefully. Then he said, "You have no iron near you."
"No," Harry agreed. "But if you try to enchant me and make me walk headfirst into the fire without Floo powder or something, you should know that Hermione told me some of the other remedies to your glamours."
Malfoy said nothing, and the silence deepened and seemed to spread out of the fire and around the room, until Harry had the sense of standing in a deep snowfield with stars above him. He reached down and gripped the wood of the stool firmly.
The glamour broke like a bubble, with as soft a sound. Malfoy stared at him again, and Harry said simply, "Rowan wood."
Malfoy looked at him, and said nothing for so long a moment that Harry thought he would break away or back out of the conversation. Then again, that probably made too much sense for someone as self-centered as Malfoy.
"You know most of the remedies, then," Malfoy said, though how he knew that when Harry had only expressed his knowledge of iron and rowan wood, Harry had no idea. On the other hand, he had no reason to deprive Malfoy of his delusion, either, so he smiled and held his silence. "But there is one against which you have no remedy."
More relaxation flowed through Harry's muscles. Malfoy hadn't come to ask about the message from the Ministry in some disguised form, then, or issue more threats against the wizarding world. Malfoy was just fucking with him, and that was something intimately familiar to Harry after their years at Hogwarts. "What's that?" he asked. "Do you think that you can bridle me with silver the way you did your Pooka, and force me to bear you on my back?"
"Riding a Pooka is undignified."
Harry rolled his eyes. "And there's another dip back into confusion," he muttered.
"When I ride you," Malfoy continued, his voice even and cool and his face almost quiet, reflective, "then you'll be a special mount."
Harry stared at him, and then shook his head. "That almost sounded like you were promising to have sex with me or something," he said. "But I know the remedies to your glamours, remember?"
"One against which you have no remedy," Malfoy whispered, and the fire clouded over and froze for a glittering moment into diamond flames sparking far down near the base. Then the fire broke, and the shards cascaded onto the floor and lay there sparkling wickedly.
Harry spent a few moments catching his breath against the cold that had invaded the room, and a few more making sure that his Floo still worked after Malfoy's impressive little magic. George's face appeared right away when Harry contacted him, but he looked so shocked and drained that Harry just told him everything was all right and shut the Floo down again.
Harry rose to his feet with a cold anger that wound through him like the veins of a glacier and made him wish that he had been able to bear it against the Wizengamot, instead of the weary contempt that inspired him when he thought of them. He might get something done with rage like that.
But he had changed since the war, and now, he only felt fury like this when someone had dared to harm one of his friends. And Malfoy had come to George for no reason, hurt his mind, dazzled him with magic, done something that made him look like that. George was more vulnerable to magic and manipulation of all kinds since Fred's death, as if his twin had been his means to laugh things off. Harry wouldn't see him hurt just because Malfoy wanted to renew their old rivalry.
Threaten my friends, Malfoy. Just try it.
"Good, Julius," Harry said, keeping his head lowered and his eyes on his hand as he traced out the sketch of the next spell he wanted his newest student to learn on a piece of parchment. "You'll have mastered that particular charm in no time. Now, the next one we're studying is a little more complicated, and that means. . ."
What he had been expecting to happen for the past fortnight finally happened, as Harry had thought it would with a little bit of pretended inattention. Julius Farthingale, who had admired Harry when he first began training with him and then rapidly lost the awe when he learned that Harry didn't stalk around on an arrogance high, charged him with a ringing scream.
Harry turned neatly to the side, getting his parchment out of the way so that Julius wouldn't spoil it, and flicked his wand once. Levicorpus, and the boy flew up and dangled by his heel near the ceiling. Expelliarmus, and Harry was in possession of his wand. Silencio, and Julius's indignant cries dropped into quiet.
Harry finished his sketch of the next spell in peace, and then turned around and looked up with a faint smile. Julius's robes dangled down in front of his eyes, but another quick charm held them up near his eyes and let him see Harry. He stared at him and seethed with open fury, somewhat diminished in dignity by his red cheeks and the helpless way his mouth moved.
"Now," Harry said quietly, "you ought to have known that you can't take me by surprise like that. Don't I move too quickly and too quietly, and you never know where I am when you have your back to me? You expected me to treat you badly, to hand down the secrets of my wisdom from on high like a disdainful Dark Lord. Well, just because I'm not like that doesn't mean I'm a weakling, or that I'm willing to let you harm me. You have two choices left to you. Either I let you down, we go back to training, and you only try attacking me when you have some reason to be confident in your skills, or I drop you on the floor and you walk away to find a dueling instructor who suits your sense of yourself."
Julius's face turned even redder, but Harry thought it wasn't with anger. And a moment later, Julius nodded and mouthed, The first one.
"Good," Harry said heartily, letting Julius slide down an invisible ramp of air to the floor and tossing his wand back to him. "See how the world spins along nicely when we decide to recognize our limitations?"
Julius gave him a single, sullen glance, but nodded. Then he aimed his wand at his mouth and raised his eyebrows.
Harry smiled. "Every wizard should know how to remove a Silencing Charm that someone else cast on him, just in case he gets the chance to retrieve his wand and escape," he said. "I'd like to see you try."
Julius flushed again, but only held Harry's eyes for a second before looking away and nodding again. Harry nodded back to him and then faced his parchment again, correcting his sketch of the proper wand movement with a slight flick of his hand.
He always had some students like Julius, he thought idly, as well as those who were happy to learn from him and those who could learn nothing because of their timidity of him and who eventually left for another instructor. They thought they could take him. They started to reason that Harry didn't do anything very powerful in front of them and had killed Voldemort when he was only seventeen, so who was to say that they couldn't beat Harry? They probably had more raw power anyway.
Harry shook his head solemnly. Sometimes he wanted to go into Hogwarts and correct all the delusions that the Defense Against the Dark Arts teachers over the years gave their students about "raw power." Wizards past the age of eleven should stop believing that sheer strength mattered more than what you did with it.
But then again, it did form so useful a shield for him against people who would otherwise have tried to make him do what they wanted. And Harry had discovered that he'd give a lot for a quiet life.
Julius abruptly cried out. Harry raised his head and his eyebrows at the same time, meaning to congratulate Julius for removing the Silencing Charm much more quickly than Harry had assumed he would.
But Julius was staring at something in the middle of the room, and while he had removed the Silencing Charm by himself and that would be important to acknowledge, something had to be done about this whirlwind of form and color first. Harry moved forwards to confront it, his hand on his wand and his thoughts calm and ordered. So this thing had managed to break through the wards around his dueling studio; that meant it was powerful. He saw no need, however, to encourage the person or people responsible for it by flailing.
The whirlwind had assumed a definite pattern by the time that Harry halted in front of it: an alternating blossom of light and dark, looking like the patterns that Harry could see if he shut his eyes and pressed down hard on his eyelids. He snorted to himself and laid his free hand on the lump of iron in his pocket. He had a good idea who would be sending him flowers, even flowers as bizarre as this one.
The flower flowed and formed into a shape like a unicorn, only it had too many small, spiky horns on top of its head and its hooves tapered, front and back, into glittering barbed spurs. It tossed up its head and stared at him, and Harry moved forwards, hand outstretched to scratch it between the horns.
As if sulky that he wasn't afraid, the beast danced backwards instead, and then focused on Harry and spoke in Malfoy's voice. "The Sidhe lord formerly known as Draco Malfoy wishes to summon Harry Potter to a meeting with him, at the former location. Floo." The unicorn bowed its head and held the longest horn, in the center and twisted into a savage spiral, towards Harry's heart. "Come alone."
"Of course I will," Harry said, "since he asks so politely."
The unicorn turned and blew up in a shower of diamond sparks that earthed themselves on Harry's floor and walls and tried to start fires. Harry shook his head as he flicked his wand and poured cool water over them. First ice, then flame. What would Malfoy think of trying next?
"What was that?" Julius whispered, his voice shaking as though he assumed that someone would shout at him if he spoke more loudly. Harry considered shouting at him for speaking in a whisper and sounding so hushed and reverent, but decided in the end that it would do more harm than good. "And why was it so beautiful?"
Harry blinked-he would describe the unicorn in several ways, but "beautiful" was not among them-and then snorted lightly as he remembered that he had had his hand on cold iron and Julius hadn't. "Someday, I'll tell you about the Sidhe," he said. "Or they'll take over the world and then you'll know all about them anyway."
Julius turned a pale, limp look on him. "Huh?" he asked.
That look reminded Harry enough of the way that George had looked to piss him off, and stop him from laughing. He sighed and snagged Julius with one hand, pulling him close to his side. "It's all right," he said quietly. "Everything is going to be all right, and for now, you are going to practice the charms that I assigned to you. Including the one that you were doing right before you attacked me. All right?"
"I attacked you?" Julius blinked, his face still pale and his eyes moving with an odd slowness. "But that can't be right! Why would I do that? I admire you so much!"
Yes, they've changed his memory. Harry felt his smile twist, and Julius stepped back from him, unsteadily, staring with wide eyes. Gently, Harry patted his hand and stepped back himself. "That's all right," he said. "Don't worry about it. But I want you to show me that you can do that charm respectably before you go."
"Yes, sir!" Julius said, and applied himself to the magic-making a reflection in a mirror step out so that it appeared as a human being on its own-enthusiastically.
Harry stood and looked at where the unicorn had been, his insides chilled and his mind saying quietly, So that's what you do. Change people into more compliant automatons. Stifle their desires that might make them break free of you. Dazzle them with this supposed beauty of yours and alter their memories so that they don't even remember what they're struggling against.
I hate it.
Harry appeared in the abandoned house again, and looked around for the Pooka, sure that Malfoy would take the chance to taunt him by sending his slave again.
Instead, he found the house gone, swept up, transformed. The walls were a soft blue color now, and so faint that Harry thought they might have been sketches from the center of the sky against a harsher black background he could barely see. The floor beneath his feet was no longer bare and half-rotted planks, but shining wood. Harry bent down and placed one hand on it and one hand on the iron, but no matter how long he stayed there and felt, it stayed shining.
"This isn't glamour."
Malfoy's voice, the lower-pitched one that sounded more like the human Harry remembered. He straightened up but didn't turn around. "I don't see why it shouldn't be," he said. "In fact, the more you tell me that it isn't, the more license I have to assume it is. You'd want me to believe that you were capable of creating all these wonders and horrors, but you're not, really. I know the legends of Sidhe and fairies a lot better than I used to."
Malfoy chuckled, and moved around in front of Harry. Harry blinked. For the first time, he wore something like human clothes, and he had toned down his beauty so that they didn't look unnatural on him. White robes, high-collared, and a silver comb or clip in his pale hair that held it back and out of his eyes. When the robes stirred and swirled, Harry caught a glimpse of high white boots, with silver toes.
"Do you like it?" Malfoy asked softly, cocking his head to the side and showing a pointed ear through the raised hair. "If you don't, tell me what you would prefer to see me in, and this shall never be spoken of again."
Harry took a deep breath and kept his eyes on the smug git's smug face. That much hasn't changed. You know that he still likes fucking around with you, and that he'll go through other people to do so. How many times did he say something horrid about Ron, not because he had to, but because it was the best way of making you both react? "Technically, you haven't spoken of it at all," he pointed out. "Just showed up and shoved it in my face."
Malfoy changed. His hair blurred and then fell, hanging down loosely around his features; his white robes shortened and flowed, and became a white tunic clinging to his chest and stomach; his boots became simple sandals. He looked like a Greek statue now. Only his eyes were the same, purest silver, metal set in metal. "What about now?" he asked, his voice a gentle breath. "Could you love me now, Harry?"
Harry curled his lip. He barely needed the iron, he thought, as long as Malfoy kept breaking his cheap glamours on his own. "Of course not," he said. "I don't love someone who harasses my friends and thinks that I need protection from a dueling student who couldn't defeat me even if he had two wands."
Malfoy took a single, gliding step closer, and bowed his head so that he was peering into Harry's eyes. "You don't like it?" he asked, and then answered himself, voice winding low and cold and tugging at Harry like the winds of winter sometimes did. "You don't like it."
"Of course I don't," Harry said. "I just told you the reason why. Do all Sidhe get deaf after a while?"
But Malfoy remained in frowning abstraction, and he shook his head and went on murmuring without appearing to have heard Harry. "Why should I care what you don't like? What matters is what I like." He blinked, and then began to smile. "You have introduced something else new to me."
Harry didn't ask. It was only too obvious that he wouldn't know the answer to whatever riddle Malfoy would choose to present him with this time, either. "Fine," he said. "Can we get on to whatever business you summoned me here for? Is the Wizengamot's lack of a decision going to make you storm us tonight?"
Malfoy touched Harry's shoulder with a single cold finger that seemed to collect frost in the tip, and held it there until Harry, grudgingly, shivered. Then Malfoy traced the finger down Harry's arm, picking up more of his warmth as it traveled, until by the time he touched the web between Harry's thumb and the next finger, his hand felt almost human. His fingers lingered there, playing.
Harry sighed loudly enough to catch his attention, and Malfoy smiled, a sharp, dazzling, dangerous look. "This has nothing to do with the Wizengamot. I wanted to see you."
Harry snorted and turned towards the fireplace that had brought him here.
"If you leave, then the inner lands will march across the wizarding world tonight."
Malfoy's voice wasn't loud, but Harry heard the threat, all right. He turned back, rolling his eyes. "You would really make a threat like that-a threat of, of war, of something worse than war-just because I'm refusing to stay with you?"
Malfoy blinked as though considering that idea in a new light, too, and then nodded and said, "Yes."
Harry sighed and glanced around the cavernous room, really taking in, for the first time, the huge golden wood table in the middle and the chairs clustered at one end of it, and the side-table that looked as if it was made of slung vines. "Fine. I assume we're going to have dinner?"
"Yes, we are." Malfoy stepped towards him with his hand held out flat again. Looking at it, Harry made out claws appearing and disappearing at the ends of his fingers, and flashes of what looked like silvery fur, there and not there. He didn't know how much of that was glamour, how much reality. "Come and sit down. The first course is particularly fine."
Harry stared into Malfoy's face for a moment, and then snorted. Well. He was here, and retreating would have consequences, even if he didn't really believe that they would be the consequences Malfoy claimed they were. "All right," he said, and took Malfoy's hand. Smooth-rough-smooth skin beneath his touch, and long-short-long fingernails pricking at the skin on the side of his wrist, but always cold. "What is it?"
The first course turned out to be gold. At least, that was the only way Harry knew how to describe it. He assumed when the dishes-marble one moment and wood the next-came out that they were covered with sliced peaches, themselves smothered in some sort of gleaming sauce, but then he took a bite and heard the hiss as the sauce scorched his lips, and realized he had no idea what it was.
Malfoy smiled when Harry asked him, and shook his head. For the longest part of the meal, he leaned against the side-table and watched him eat it. Then he moved to his chair and sipped a glittering crystalline drink from the air; he opened his mouth and tilted his head back, and the drink poured of the slit that opened in thin air in front of him and down his throat. Harry grew distracted enough watching that he let his fork, heavy as though the sauce really was molten gold, drop to his plate.
Malfoy caught his eye and made a soft sound like a tiger coughing in the jungle. "Remember what happens if you don't eat," he said.
"You make it sound as though I agreed to finish everything on my plate," Harry complained, and picked up the fork again. It was light this time, and it flew up so fast when he tugged on it that droplets of bright gold flew over his shoulder and splattered the walls behind him. Harry didn't turn to see whether they disappeared. Once again, he didn't think he could trust the evidence of his senses, and so there was no point in exposing them to the finicky behavior of Sidhe food. "You just said that I had to have dinner."
"Have means finish," Malfoy said, and the food leaped off his plate and down his throat. He didn't chew, because it thinned to a small, glittering stream like soup. He closed his lips when it was gone and smiled.
"In what dictionary?" Harry muttered, and examined the spiraling glass standing beside his plate. It reminded him of the longest horn that the unicorn made of light had threatened him with, it was so turned back on itself and corkscrewed around. Harry had thought the liquid inside was a cloudy white, like milk, but when he turned the glass to the side, he saw that it had thinned and changed to a pale blue.
"In the dictionary that they use in the inner lands," Malfoy said, and his voice was as thick as the sauce Harry had swallowed. Harry glanced at him as he finally figured out where the glass ended and lifted the mouth of it, like a half-trumpet, to his lips.
Malfoy's face looked as human as it had when Harry met him in the circle of thrones, but the glint in his eyes was not. They were pure lion. Harry froze with the glass touching his lips, and for the first time, a conviction about what the Sidhe wanted lanced through him, all the way from his mouth to the bottom of his stomach.
No games. No riddles. No guesses about what they meant.
Malfoy wanted him.
Harry tipped the glass a little more, his mind already working over this new information. Sincere. Not a Sidhe game. That meant it was up to him how he chose to react to it, and how he would use it.
If I can. Harry was sure that the Sidhe had a lot more experience at intrigues than he did, and if Malfoy was right about the way his sense of time had changed since he'd transformed, it could be dangerous for Harry to try and compete with him in this arena.
Then Harry grinned. Since when had something being dangerous ever stopped him?
Then the liquid in the glass touched his throat.
It was cold and sharp, like swallowing a burst of pure winter air, but sweet all along the edges, and fiery enough to bite in the middle. Harry coughed in surprise, and found that he was spilling drops down the sides of his face. He lowered the glass to the table and felt around for a napkin, flushing in humiliation.
But Malfoy reached towards him and gestured with a little twisting curve of his hand in air, and Harry's face was utterly dry. Harry wondered if he could take the food out of Harry's stomach in the same way.
Or the blood from my veins.
Harry raised his eyebrows, said, "Thanks," and then sipped again, more slowly this time. "What do you call it?" he added, staring at the liquid, which had changed until it was transparent enough to reflect the golden shine of the food on the plates.
Malfoy said nothing. When Harry glanced at him, he had his head cocked to the side, his hair sliding away from his pointed ears this time.
"I believe," Malfoy said, dragging the words out as though the fate of worlds depended on him pronouncing them correctly, "that we call it a cup."
Harry scowled and decided not to say that he had deserved that, because he hadn't. But if he could remember that Malfoy was still Malfoy, somewhere under all the marble-like features and polished, gleaming words, then he would do better with this. "I meant the drink inside it," he said, and nudged the glass against his lips again.
This time, nothing came out of it, and Malfoy said seriously, "What drink?" Harry turned the glass upside-down on the tablecloth, although he felt a prickle of anticipatory fear up his neck when he thought of how stupid he might feel if it turned out that it was full after all and he caused a mess. But nothing happened, and a moment later, cup and plates, forks and knives, table and tablecloth, vanished into thin air. Harry stood up just in time to keep from falling on the floor as the bench melted beneath him.
Malfoy stepped towards him, studying him, this time, like Harry was an essay assignment from a class he wasn't certain he understood. Harry lifted his chin and bore up under the stare. It was no worse than the way some of the reporters looked at him, even now, when they'd had ten years to get used to the fact that he wasn't a performing Dark Lord killer.
"What do you want?" Malfoy whispered.
Harry paused. "Is this the part where I say 'to go back home' and you laugh evilly?" he asked.
Malfoy shook his head, and not the faintest trace of a smile touched his lips. "I want to know what you want," he repeated. "Something you desire that wizarding magic can't give you. Something wild, something beautiful. Sidhe magic can do anything, can take you anywhere in the inner lands."
Harry wondered if he should ask for a way to tame those lion-creatures that Malfoy had threatened to unleash on the wizarding world before, but dismissed the thought. He was already learning that the Sidhe could change their minds in the whirl of an instant, and if he learned how to defeat one of their weapons, they would just use another one.
And if Malfoy was really asking Harry to choose what he wanted, instead of what the savior of the wizarding world wanted. . .
"I want to ride something," he announced. "Something that's going to carry me and fight me at the same time."
Malfoy paused in his slow glide forwards, and then gave his most human smile. "Was this inspired by an experience with a winged horse a few years back?" he asked.
Harry grinned at him with all his teeth. "Partially, but also with brooms," he said. "Do you remember how exhilarating it is to be on a broom in a high wind, with the broom fighting you all the way?"
"I remember something of the sort," Malfoy murmured. "Of course, I have other ways to fly now."
"Then show me one of them," Harry said, and snapped his teeth. "Something that's extraordinary, something no one else could show me, something I'll never forget."
Malfoy abruptly snatched him, his hands curving under Harry's elbows, and bent down and kissed him. Harry kissed him back, because he was entirely in the sort of fey mood in which he would, and Malfoy tore his head back with a gasp, his hair flowing and falling around him and his eyes narrowing.
"I think you've practiced this," Malfoy said.
"Kissing? Well, yeah," Harry said, and pushed at Malfoy's shoulders, impatient for the ride that he'd mentioned. "I've had lovers, you know. And partners, and girlfriends, and boyfriends, and people that I picked up for one night and then never saw again. Not any of those for a while, but that was because I decided I liked my bloody privacy rather than someone who was around to peer into my corners all the time and count all the dust that accumulated there and bitch about it."
"You've done this before," Malfoy repeated, and now he looked like a statue someone had carved out of birch wood.
"Yes," Harry said, and kicked Malfoy in the shin. "What's the matter? Do the Sidhe prize virginity? All those people you've lured away to dream themselves to death at your dances and your tables had be pure as the driven fucking snow?"
Malfoy stared at him, and then gave a bark of laughter, his mouth opening wide, and snatched Harry around the arms again. Harry arched to the side so that he knew he had a little freedom of movement and could feel his wand against his ribs, and then relaxed again. His heart was beating like a bee's wings in flight and he could feel the smile that stretched his face without his willing it to.
This was. . .
This was excitement. The kind of thing that he had started his dueling instruction business to feel, when he watched a pupil perform an offensive charm or hex correctly for the first time, and the kind of thing he had escaped from the Ministry to feel.
"Harry, Harry, Harry," Malfoy whispered against his mouth, and shook his head each time he said the name, as if he didn't understand what prompted him to speak like that any more than Harry did. "You don't know what you do to me. You simply don't know what you do to me."
"Careful," Harry said. "You sounded human there."
"Sometimes I have human memories," Malfoy said, and held him closer, so that Harry could feel his heart as warm as the molten gold of the food under his cold chest. "Like riding on a broom."
And then they twisted, and something huge and bright and hot was beneath Harry, and he yelped, his fingers flying down to dig into soft fur. The beast turned its head and snarled at him, lazily, and then turned it back to resume its flight forwards.
The beast was a white tiger, but instead of dim grey stripes beneath Harry's fingers, there were stripes of a blinding, blazing blue, and wings the color of peacock tails beat up and down on either side of him, and beyond that were the burning gulfs of air.
Malfoy laughed from his left, and Harry turned his head in that direction to see Malfoy riding on his own tiger. This one had stripes and wings that were closer to the green side of the peacock spectrum, but Harry didn't know what that meant, if anything. Malfoy leaned forwards, lightly poised on his heels and fingers in the tiger's fur and connected to it by nothing more than that, his eyes bright as he watched Harry.
"You wanted to ride something that would fight you," Malfoy said. "This one's going to."
Harry opened his mouth to ask what he meant, and then the tiger beneath him spread its wings, and roared, and began to spiral towards the ground, if there was any ground beyond those piling clouds.
Harry gritted his teeth and dug his fingers into the thick half-ruff around the tiger's neck, feeling his balance rock with the pounding of the wings and the lashing of the tiger's tail behind him. He looked around frantically for a sign of reins or bridle or something else that could control the tiger, but found nothing.
The cat turned its head back to watch him, snarled again, and then spun upside-down. Harry opened his mouth as he wrapped his legs-as much as he could-around the tiger's barrel and wondered if he would scream or choke.
In fact, what emerged was a sound much closer to a laugh. Harry shook his head to get his fringe out of his eyes and watched the ground below as it came into sight for a moment, the clouds tearing to reveal a long sweep of blue-green. Land or ocean, Harry wasn't sure, and he knew full well that it might be something stranger than either, given where he was and who he was with.
The tiger twisted as though it hated him for admiring the scenery and wanted to throw him. Harry dug his fingers even further in, and then yanked, so that a few tufts of white came away and stuck under his nails. This time, the tiger tried to scrape him off its back with one wing.
Harry shook his head and said, "You won't be able to do that," casting a spell that blunted the edge of the hooked pinion when it scraped at him again. The tiger roared and dived, but the roar did Harry more damage than the dive, really, since it left his ears ringing. He blinked and shook his head and clung on again, and then found that they were flying just above the ground, under a thick canopy of trees with dazzlingly green fronds. The trees floated in water, Harry thought, rather than standing on solid ground, or at least he thought that was what they seemed to be doing, given the little that he could see through the thick trunks.
The tiger soared towards one of the trunks, obviously intending to use that to peel him off its back.
Harry turned sideways, the way he would on a broom that had been enchanted to buck, and molded himself to the tiger's back, uncomfortable muscles and hunched shoulders and all. The tiger nearly bent its wing against the trunk, and lifted up again, straight up and fast, causing branches and fronds to bounce off Harry this time. Harry snorted with laughter, and made sure that his face was buried, so that the tiger would find it hard to hear the sound.
"You haven't impressed me yet," he shouted, although he knew the wind would lose his words.
The tiger either heard and understood them, or knew enough of the sentiment behind them to want to hurt Harry. A roar, and a lift, and a convulsive bang of the wings down, and Harry felt himself start to float away from the tiger's back. Again he dug his fingers deep, and again he tilted his body to the side to somewhat balance the way that the tiger veered into the wind.
And again he laughed.
This was the kind of challenge he had missed, when he had worked himself free of the Ministry and had to justify his choices only to those who would never be satisfied anyway, and went on asking him questions that he had answered years ago. His life had become far smoother, and of course in one sense he had wanted that. He had fought for the right to make his own decisions, to turn his back on other people's idiocy if he wanted to.
But sometimes it was too smooth. That was when he wanted something like this, a challenge that would fight him and not care who he was and what he had done. A bucking broom would throw him off as readily as someone who hadn't saved the world. Ordinary people who might want his money would try to steal it no matter what, and for that purpose, Harry had sometimes staggered through Diagon Alley, pretending to be drunk, a full purse of Galleons on his belt and the sweat of excitement on his skin under the clothes.
Sometimes he wanted this. Not all the time. Most of the time, he would be content if he could just stay in the human world and have people stop asking him for ridiculous things.
But sometimes, sometimes, sometimes. . .
And then the tiger straightened out beneath him and began to fly smoothly, and Harry realized they were out of the forest and back in the middle of the calm cloudy sky again. He sat up, frowning, and arranged his hair into place, glancing around for Malfoy. The git had probably realized that he was enjoying it too much, and had decided that of course Harry's source of fun had to be taken away from him.
Malfoy loomed up beside him on the back of his own tiger. It didn't look as though he had moved since Harry's began to twist, and Harry thought that was probably true. It would trouble a Sidhe too much to move.
"You have enjoyed yourself?" Malfoy asked in a calm, considering voice, on the far side of cool.
Harry caught his breath and nodded. "I think you knew I would," he added, and frowned. His voice was breathless, and Harry was sure that he hadn't told it to be that way.
"I want to know what will make you enjoy yourself," Malfoy said, with a seriousness that would have come across as ridiculous, except Harry understood the ignorance of humans-or at least forgetfulness about them-that was making Malfoy talk that way. "And I want to do it. I want to give you gifts until you give in to me."
Harry blinked at the air ahead of him as he resettled himself on the tiger's back, in the dip between its shoulder blades. That was-weirdly direct, compared to the kind of round-about proposals that he usually got.
And weirdly refreshing, too. Harry didn't have to pretend to politeness, or think about his audience. There was no audience here as they rode high above the world, whatever bloody weird world it was.
"Why do you want me to give in?" he asked, looking back at Malfoy. "You already know that I don't want you to take over the wizarding world, and if you crushed the people I love with the inner lands, then that wouldn't make me any more likely to give you what you want."
Malfoy shook his head, a faint, secret smile on his face. "I did not mean about that," he answered, and then went on staring at Harry, his hands only lightly touching the tiger's ruff, braced on the outermost extreme of the tips.
"You mean about having sex with you?" Harry asked at last, because it was the only other thing Malfoy had mentioned that it might make sense to bring up now.
"Yes," Malfoy said, and leaned across the gap between them.
The tigers dissolved into melting snow. Harry found that he was standing in a field of it, in fact, and that the clouds had turned into icebergs drifting in the distance on a mirror-bright sea. There were crooked trees nearby that might be apple trees, but he didn't know. He couldn't see anything at the moment but the snow clustering on their branches. He shivered, wrapping his arms around himself, and glanced from side to side.
"This is the place that I intended to bring you," Malfoy said, standing in front of him, and touched a white flower to Harry's lips. When he opened his mouth to protest, his breath blew across the flower and melted it like a snowflake. "So much that I intend to give you, Harry, that I intend to gift to you. . ."
He leaned forwards for the kiss. His own breath was cold.
Harry reached out his hand to cover Malfoy's mouth, and the Sidhe kissed his palm, all the while staring at him. Harry found the sensation distracting. He gritted his teeth and said, "Does the threat still hold? Are you going to make sure that you conquer the wizarding world tonight if I don't give in to you?"
Malfoy's life leached from him, and once again left him a statue made of white wood. "No," he said at last. "You have made it clear that you would not thank me for such a thing. And I wish to give you gifts."
Harry nodded, not entirely certain he understood, but willing to grasp that much reassurance for the moment. "All right. Then take me home."
Malfoy put his hands on his shoulders and turned him irresistibly about. Harry went with the motion, and found himself staring up at what he thought was another iceberg at first, though a square one. Then his perspective seemed to twist to the side, and he realized it was an enormous manor house of white marble, with lighted windows all along its length.
"This is home," Malfoy said, and rested his head near Harry's face. "The home you will have if you consent to me."
Harry raised his eyebrows and shook his head. "And I already know that you know that I said I wouldn't do any such thing."
"You implied it," Malfoy said, moving up beside him and gazing at the manor house as though it was something he had conjured out of thin air for Harry's benefit. Hell, for all Harry knew, it was. He turned and watched Harry, his eyes glittering so that it was difficult to tell where they ended and the light reflecting off the snow began. "Humans say things with lots of implications that you don't think about."
For a moment, panic gripped Harry and shook him in the way that the flight on the tiger's back hadn't managed to. What if he had given permission to Malfoy to hold him and fuck him, in some odd way? If he had said a careless word, and he could hear Hermione's warning in his head like a tolling bell, then he might very well have committed himself to something that he hadn't meant to. And if-
With an effort, he seized that line of thought and cut it off at the root. He knew Sidhe couldn't lie, and at the moment, Malfoy seemed to be in a pretty direct mood. Harry would ask him.
"Did I actually say something that makes you think you have the right to command me to stay here?" he asked.
Malfoy reared his head back and frowned. His hands tightened on Harry's arms, where he had put them without Harry really noticing. Harry vowed to try and notice in the future. That lack of observation might kill him here.
"You do not have to say it," Malfoy said, and his voice had lowered to the point that Harry thought he could hear the creaking of the icebergs more easily than he could hear it. "I can smell the desire all over you."
Harry smiled and stepped towards Malfoy, watching his eyes brighten with a light that seemed to rise from the back of them like a morning sun. Interesting that some Sidhe signs of arousal were different from the human ones, then. But they seemed to have it in common to hold the object of their desire tightly and breathe like a running camel.
"I can't smell it," Harry said. "That means that, for me, it doesn't exist. And that means that I don't have to yield to you." He reached down and into his pocket, past the small lump of iron that Hermione had given to him and to a weapon that he had manufactured for himself after Malfoy's summons today, before he went to the dinner.
"For you, it must exist," Malfoy said, and he bent his eyes on Harry, and sparks of magic flew around and away from him, a dancing mist of white that Harry could easily imagine becoming as dazzling as the fog that had surrounded the circle of thrones. "I command that it exist for you. I say-"
Harry didn't find out what he would have said, because he spun the small cold iron chain out of his pocket and coiled it smoothly around Malfoy's wrist.
Malfoy's scream was anguished and immediate, and as piercing as the cry of a bat. Harry stepped back, casting a hasty charm to protect his ears, and then a charm that made his clothes leap into the air, flip themselves inside out, and settle back on his body. That gave him an unpleasant and chatter-toothed moment of cold when he was standing there naked in the icy air, but when Malfoy had managed to pick up the chain in a pair of obsidian tweezers and threw it away, it also gave him a moment of satisfaction to see Malfoy look wide-eyed around.
And straight past him.
What do you know? Harry thought, moving a shuffling step back in the snow, careful not to disturb it too much. He didn't know how a simple trick like this would affect motion or sound. It worked.
"Harry," Malfoy said, and his voice was a sweet, lulling thing, a chime rung by a harsh wind, as he paced forwards and looked around him. He shot one hand out, but in the wrong direction, and Harry cast a quiet little charm that lifted him above the snow and let him hover there so he wouldn't leave tracks. "This is ridiculous. This is unlike you. I offer you excitement and danger, a change and good food, and you would vanish like this?"
Harry bit the inside of his cheek to stifle a chuckle. It showed Malfoy's priorities, when he thought good food would be enough to make Harry abandon the wizarding world and forget about the threats the Sidhe had issued against it.
Then again, it was really good.
And sometimes Harry thought the wizarding world as a whole, minus his friends and a few other people, deserved the kind of danger that the Sidhe threatened them with, if only to shake them out of their complacency and their belief that someone else would always, always save them.
He gripped that desire and shook it a little to make it quiet down. He wasn't here to think about that. He was here to watch Malfoy, and learn some more about him, and then get away.
"I will find you," Malfoy breathed. "Not all of your friends have such protection against me as you do."
Harry raised his eyebrows. There it was, a threat of the kind that was personal and he couldn't ignore or turn aside.
Well. Let him try. Hermione and Ron already their house warded against the Sidhe thanks to her research, and Harry knew she had given similar charms to Molly and Arthur at the Burrow, and Ginny and George at their flats, and Percy in his house, and Bill and Fleur at Shell Cottage, and even Charlie in Romania. Harry didn't know if they had used them yet, but he would make sure of that when he went back home.
"Harry," Malfoy said, and Harry blinked when he realized that Malfoy had changed the tone of his voice yet again, from threatening to searching. Lost. He was stumbling forwards in the snow, all his Sidhe grace gone, his hands groping out in front of him as if he thought he might find Harry on his road to the winter manor house. Harry used his wand to swirl aside again, and although Malfoy cocked his head and listened hard, in the next moment his shoulders slumped and he drew a hand over his face. "Harry," he whispered. "I never wanted to lose you this way. I wanted to find you."
Harry saw no reason why he should say anything, and remained still, the wind parting to go past him. Malfoy wanted many things, it seemed, and he changed his mind from moment to moment. He would probably want something else tomorrow, or whatever division of time that the Sidhe chose to think of as "tomorrow."
Malfoy sat down in the snow, folding his legs beneath him. The falling flakes soaked his robes the way that they would have on a human. Harry cocked his head, wondering why Malfoy didn't simply conjure a throne like the one that had supported him the first night they met.
"I wanted to find you," Malfoy told the air. "I didn't think much about it before I changed-and those memories are sometimes dim and dusty to me anyway, but then sometimes like dust floating in a beam of sunlight. But when I became a Sidhe lord, I became a creature of pure desire, desire and its fulfillment. And one of my first desires was you."
Harry watched him, blinking. Malfoy had said that Sidhe couldn't lie, and this certainly didn't sound like a lie-
But on the other hand, why confess it? Harry shook his head in irritation and touched the lump of iron in his pocket again, expecting the snowy world to flicker around him like a glamour. Malfoy had moved them here too fast, and this supposedly large house all for Harry was a lie.
Nothing happened. Harry kept himself from cursing just in time. His clothes, turned inside out, made Malfoy oblivious to him, but he might not be to a stream of breath emerging from empty air.
This must be one of the inner lands. Not a glamour.
"It's true," Malfoy said, as if he could feel the pressure of Harry's doubt. "I dreamed about making you pay attention and respect me, now that I was a Sidhe lord." He snorted and shook his head. "I should have known that was an impossible dream. But it changed, too, and I dreamed about other things. Threatening you, so you would at least have to pay attention. Stealing you away from your friends and showing how much richer and more exciting and changeable a life I could offer you."
Harry sighed soundlessly, breathlessly. Malfoy's life, and what Harry had seen of it so far, was netted in illusions and glamours, lies and shadows. Why in the world would Harry want to abandon solid reality, drinks and dinners and conversations and laughter with his friends, for something like that?
"But all of those are smaller than I imagined them," Malfoy whispered, and sat up straight suddenly, his teeth showing past his lips. Harry looked at them carefully, but couldn't see any jagged edges or points that would make them unlike human teeth. They were sure whiter, though. "That means that I'll have to find new desires. I refuse to have small dreams, ones that crumble when I reach out and try to touch them. That is an insult to the pride of the Sidhe."
Harry pressed a hand over his heart in mock relief, because some gestures were important, even if Malfoy couldn't see them. Of course. They couldn't have someone else mocking the pride of the Sidhe. That was the reason Malfoy might think about changing his mind, not Harry.
"I think I want you to come to me willingly," Malfoy said, and stood, and held out his hand. The manor house, with all its lights, faltered and turned dark, and blew down into his palm. Malfoy considered it for a moment, and then closed his fingers down and crushed it. "I want to find out what you want, and see if I can give it to you. It's rare for any of the Sidhe to subject themselves to a human's desires. But I want to."
Harry rolled his eyes, and remained hovering in the air until the world changed around him and he was alone, once more, in the abandoned house that still had a connection to the Floo network. Then he stepped hastily into the fireplace, glad that he was finally being whirled back to his home.
As he stepped out of his hearth, he looked up to make sure that the bottles filled with salt and iron and slivers of rowan wood were still in place over his doors and windows. Then he glanced behind him, and noticed the fallen soot on the floor forming letters.
Do you really want to risk your life for them time after time, Harry?
Harry used his foot to crush and then smudge the letters beyond recognition. Then he went and firmly fetched the broom that Hermione used more often than he did, propping it up against the mantle and using a Sticking Charm to make it cross over the entire grate. That was supposed to be a charm to ensure that no creature of Faerie could venture down the chimney. It ought to work for a Floo connection, too.
Malfoy could talk all he liked, but Harry knew what lay behind his words: pride and his belief in his own superiority. As bloody always.
"I'm afraid that there is no other option."
Harry didn't move or stand up or scream, because that would be the beginning of the end as far as his power to convince the Wizengamot was concerned. But he wanted to, and he thought some of that might be visible in the way that he closed his eyes and massaged his forehead. When he looked again, they were watching him while perched on the literal edges of their seats, their bodies canted away from him as though they could avoid his magic explosion that way.
"I've seen the Sidhe lords since the night I told you about," he said quietly. "There is no way that they could have accomplished some of what they did except by pure magic, and not glamour. Not even the touch of iron saved me or freed my senses from it. If they bring creatures from the inner lands to our world and unleash them, then we can't stop them."
The Wizengamot members turned to look instinctively at the one who seemed to be behind this decision, Marcus Allona. Allona sniffed and rearranged the papers in front of him.
"I have done a great deal of research on the Sidhe, Mr. Potter," he said, his voice lingering over the name as though to remind Harry of why he wasn't entitled to any different form of address. "All the records agree that we drove them away before because they could not stand iron, or the rowan, or salt, or any of a number of other simple remedies that we can easily employ. More easily than we can change the age of adulthood in our world, at any rate."
"Really?" Harry asked, with a smile that, stupidly, made Allona relax for a moment. "Because the same records, which I studied, made it clear that we were losing the war to the Sidhe until they abruptly withdrew."
Allona sat up and glared at him. On the other side of the room, Hermione was shaking her head in warning. Harry ignored her for the moment, though, focused on Allona, who had his glare sharpening rapidly into a sneer as he watched Harry.
"I don't think," Allona said, into the silence that seemed sudden, although Harry had seen his wand move beneath the table and suspected he had spelled a few people into shutting up, "that you know as much about the history as I do, Mr. Potter. Your education was-disrupted, and since the war, you have chosen to work outside the Ministry." He paused, to let those words fall into the ears of the people listening and lie on their minds, and then continued, more delicately than Harry would have thought he was capable of. "In fact, perhaps we should consider who you would be more likely to sympathize with here. There are many instances on record of you fighting for the rights of magical creatures while ignoring the rights of the wizards who owned them or had to coexist with them."
Harry felt like applauding the grand idiot, despite everything. That was a genius way to characterize the way that Harry had joined Hermione's fight for house-elf rights and intervened when the Ministry wanted to remove the centaur herd from the Forbidden Forest "for the good of the children" and opposed the mandatory registration of new werewolves within twenty-four hours of the bite. Too many people wouldn't think about things like, oh, the new werewolf being in such shock and so hurt that it was only humane to give them more than a day before requiring them to register. They would think about times they had been afraid, or tales they had heard about magical creatures, and apply them, applicable or not, to the situation with the Sidhe.
Which meant, perhaps, that nothing would be done.
Hermione gathered up and rustled her papers. Harry let her do it, never breaking out of his staring contest with Allona. He wanted to see the face of the man who might just have doomed them all.
"I'm sure that Mr. Potter doesn't mean to put the interest of the Ministry last," Hermione struck in, and her voice was calm and neutral. That was what made her a good reformer, Harry thought, and that was good, since she was the one committed to working on the system from the inside. "I'm sure, in fact, that he only brings up another perspective. Mr. Potter, how powerful would you say the Sidhe are?"
Harry moved his eyes from Allona to Hermione. "I have no idea," he said briefly.
Hermione practically hissed at him, but before she could do anything more than open her mouth, Harry continued, "Their power-to move from world to world with no visible transition, to conjure flying beasts where there were none before, to conjure food that actually nourishes someone-is so great that I don't think any of our conventional methods of measuring it would work."
Hermione visibly swallowed and made a small mark on the parchment in front of her. "Thank you for that estimation, Mr. Potter," she said stolidly. "Then you would estimate that we're in danger from them?"
Harry smiled at her. This was one reason he loved her, the way she tried to balance between doing her job and giving him-and Ron, when he was involved in a case where he had to bring evidence before the Wizengamot-a chance to speak his mind. She was trying. It wasn't her fault that her colleagues were a bunch of idiots.
"Yes," he said. "In fact, I think the only reason we haven't been blown off the map yet is that they're more interested in the children we can produce for them than destroying us. But they could change their minds at any time, if they don't see imminent cooperation."
In fact, after being so close to Malfoy and his unique brand of "courting," Harry thought they might change their minds at any time whether or not they saw the cooperation. But he was doing a balancing act of his own, between telling the truth and inducing the Wizengamot to move their arses along. There was a limit to what he was willing to say.
"And we don't believe you," Allona said, deciding that delicacy was out of fashion, apparently, and that he might as well hit Harry across the face with the full force of his disbelief. "We agree that you were the emissary chosen by the Sidhe, but it is all too obvious, now, to us, that they would have done better choosing anyone else."
Harry folded his hands in his lap and smiled sweetly. "Because you don't like what I have to say?"
Allona stood up and leaned across the table. He had an aquiline nose, the way that Snape had had, and he all but poked it at Harry as if it was going to stab his eyes out. "They would not say this with a different emissary," he hissed. "We cannot permit magical creatures who fled from us such a part in the running of the wizarding world. It will not happen."
Harry watched him fixedly for a moment, and then turned and looked at Hermione. She flushed, but gave him a small shake of her head to tell him that she thought this battle was lost, and they would do better attacking later, when they might be able to win something.
"They've issued their threat," Harry said quietly. "You know how powerful they are if you've been reading the historical records-"
"Ha! Defeated by a bit of iron!"
"So are we, if you want to get technical," Harry pointed out, so exasperated that his voice grew sharp despite Hermione's second warning shake. "Push iron through our hearts or our throats, and we don't live any longer than they do."
Allona narrowed his eyes at Harry and said nothing for long moments. Then he strode out from behind the table and came around in front of him. Harry didn't rise to his feet, just continued sitting in his chair and giving him a look of quiet, hateful competence that he knew would rattle the man.
"I want to see your memories," Allona said loudly, holding out his wand. "I want to know what the Sidhe really said, because your words are contradictory and cannot be real."
"I'll put the memories in a Pensieve if you want me to," Harry said. He thought about excepting the memories of last night when Malfoy had tried to seduce him, and then decided to edit them instead. That might convince the Wizengamot that the Sidhe were clever and powerful and also capricious, instead of the tame little magical creatures they seemed to think they were dealing with. "But it isn't going to tell you anything that isn't already there. They made the threat to turn us into one of their territories if we don't change the age of adulthood. That's all there is to it."
"Excuse me," Allona said, his sneer distorting his mouth in a way that Harry thought he really ought to get looked at, "but I think that the finest legal minds in the wizarding world ought to find the complications in the case."
"So you can avoid them," Harry said, and touched his wand to his temple, closing his eyes as he extracted the memories. He didn't pay attention to Allona's irate screech, but turned towards Hermione, who was already presenting him with the Pensieve that the Wizengamot always kept in the corner of the Grand Chamber for those memories that witnesses might be too distressed to talk about. Harry deposited the silvery liquid there and stood up, sighing at Allona. "The saddest people are the ones who refuse to see the truth when it's sunning itself right in front of them."
Allona tightened all over, and for one moment Harry was sure that the bastard would strike out at him, but he controlled himself with nothing more than a small shake of his head and a glare of contempt. Harry laughed under his breath as he placed more memories in the Pensieve and nodded to Hermione. He wished her luck in trying to find some other solution to the problem through the Sidhe's intransigence and the Wizengamot's idiocy. He was done here.
Harry was rolling out of bed before he thought about it, his hand on his wand and his mind flying towards identifying the voice. Ron, he decided at last, and rushed towards the fireplace. The broom was still attached over it, somewhat obscuring Harry's view, but he was sure it was Ron. No Faerie creature would be able to get past the charm of the broom.
"What is it, Ron?" Harry knelt down next to the fireplace, his mind filling with images of a Sidhe attack on someone in the Weasley family, even though he had warned them all about the charms they needed to protect themselves. They could have got busy and forgot, especially Bill and Fleur, who had three little children now.
Ron stared desperately at him from beyond the broom, and said, "Harry, mate, the Sidhe are sending their armies in."
Harry froze for a second, and then nodded and Summoned the robes he'd worn that day. They were fine and easy to move in, and this way, he wouldn't have to worry about pulling out clean ones. "All right. Where?"
"We saw them on those winged tigers Hermione told me about, riding over London," Ron whispered, as if now that he had imparted the worst news to Harry, he could only talk about the rest in a lowered voice. "And-one of them laughed, and called down in this voice that filled the whole sky that they were going to start the invasion by morning if they didn't receive a different answer from the Wizengamot."
Harry smiled grimly and wriggled his toes into his socks, ignoring it when his nails scraped against the cloth. "They told the Sidhe that they wouldn't change the age of adulthood, didn't they? Just sent an emissary with an announcement, like a bunch of idiots?"
"Yeah." Ron swallowed noisily. "And after they made that announcement, the Ministry started receiving reports of creatures near the Channel. The witnesses didn't make much sense, they were too frightened, but it sounded like those lion-creatures that you warned us about, and Sidhe on white horses."
Harry nodded. "All right. First of all, I need you to get out of the fireplace, Ron. I'll join you as soon as I can." He turned and Summoned a piece of bread from the kitchen, crumbling it up and dropping it into one of his robe pockets.
Ron stared at him as if he had gone mad. "What? Harry, we need to stay in communication! Hermione was planning on having you come through right now-"
Harry shook his head, and met Ron's eyes, and smiled. "No. I might know a way to halt this invasion in its tracks, but I need to contact one of the Sidhe, and I think that the fireplace is the best way to do it."
Ron carried on staring at him for a few moments, and then gave an abrupt nod. "In the end, you always know what you're doing, mate. All right." He hesitated, then added, "Just tell me that you're not going to sleep with Malfoy to save the world or something."
Harry smiled again, and the expression felt savage and glinting on his face, as if he had grown extra teeth, unknown to himself. "No. I think I have something to offer him that he'll like better."
Ron nodded, stuck out a hand as though he and Harry could clasp hands through the flames, smiled in an embarrassed fashion, and disappeared. Harry promptly tore the broom from the fireplace and took some satisfaction in sending it spinning into the wall so hard that the shaft broke into splinters and the bristles scattered in all directions.
Then he bent down in front of the hearth, at the same time as he began to tear the charms from his doorway and windows, and roared, "Malfoy, come forth!"
There was a longer pause than Harry would have thought, given what he was offering and who was speaking. He found himself waiting in tense silence, his hands clasped in front of him and his pulse thudding so hard in his ears that it was painful. Then a swirl of color stirred to life in the fireplace, dancing among the ashes there as though born from them. Harry stood straight and nodded when Malfoy's face formed.
"I wanted to talk to you," he said. "You wanted me to come to you willingly, I think. That was what you said, wasn't it?"
Malfoy stared at him and said nothing for long moments, his mouth slack. Then he reached out as if he was going to take Harry's hand and bring him into the fire. "Harry," he whispered. "You invited me."
"Yeah, I did." Harry could feel the crumbs of bread shifting about in his pocket, and Malfoy squinted at him as though he had walked into a brilliantly sunlit room. That would be the bread, Harry knew, which could act like the protection of turning clothes inside out when dealing with one of the Sidhe. "Does that matter to you? After all, I could disinvite you if it would make you feel better."
"You invited me," Malfoy repeated, and shook his head, and closed his eyes. That was how Harry discovered the expression of delight on a Sidhe face didn't look all that different from one on a human face. Or maybe it mattered that Malfoy had been born human, and had turned Sidhe only a few years ago. Harry wondered what the others would be like, if this little gift he was offering would convince one of them.
Then he shook the idea loose and ignored it. It didn't matter. He didn't necessarily have to convince those Sidhe or make them think that he was going to yield. Only Malfoy.
"Yeah," Harry said. "Are you going to come through the fire or not?"
There was a blurring motion, and then Malfoy was climbing out of the hearth and into Harry's room. He made it look odd, as though he had grown bigger by the mere fact of enclosing himself in walls. But he made it look more ordinary, too, in contrast, and his storky gangliness was easier to deal with against them.
"I can hardly see you," Malfoy said, his eyes narrowed and his voice strained. "Are you-you have bread in your pocket."
He could hardly have sounded more horrified if Harry had been carrying a nuclear missile. Harry smiled at him, and made sure that all his teeth showed. "That's right. I don't want to take it out until I know that you'll agree to my terms."
"That's not willing," Malfoy said, and pouted unselfconsciously. Well, the Sidhe seemed to have different standards for dignity than humans did.
"I am still offering," Harry pointed out. "And you can choose whether to accept my offer or not. I can hardly compel you to do it."
Malfoy paused, and then said, "You're brave. You make grand gestures. You speak with a color about you that does not mingle with the other colors of the world." He stared over Harry's head towards the far door, as though seeing someone else about to walk through it. "What a Sidhe lord you would have made. What an opportunity was lost when Voldemort marked you."
Harry shrugged. "I can't change that, but I can change this. I'll come with you, for one night. You can show me whatever you want to show me. You can try to persuade me to have sex with you, even, if you want to."
Malfoy nodded, rapt, his eyes on Harry's face.
"But you call off the invasion." Harry folded his arms and pressed down against the bread crumbs with his elbow, and Malfoy craned his neck to the side. "You don't let the other Sidhe hurt my friends. You understand?"
Malfoy twisted his head further to the side and looked at Harry like an owl. Harry wondered for a moment what that had done to the bones in his neck, and then gave up on the thought. He knew that Sidhe bodies didn't function like human ones, and for the moment, that would have to be the extent of his answer.
"You think I have that kind of power?" Malfoy whispered, low and breathy. "You think that they'd listen to me, the youngest of them?"
"I think that Sidhe power structures don't function like human ones," Harry said shortly. "So far, the others haven't objected to you contacting and courting me, or using me as a toy, or whatever it is you're doing. You can stop them if you want to, and I'd think that the bargain I'm providing is worth your while."
The very tip of an icy pink tongue appeared between Malfoy's lips, and then he stepped back and looked at Harry with his silver eyes. "I know that your friend Granger must have told you never to bargain with the fey," he murmured.
"Yes, she did," Harry said. "And isn't it remarkable that you can change and apparently grow in power and wisdom, but nothing will persuade you to pronounce Hermione's name with anything other than contempt?"
Malfoy didn't appear to notice that contribution. He continued to watch Harry with his eyelids drooping, and then he said, "We have a Queen. That much, human legend has correct."
"Does it? I'm shocked." Harry folded his arms and leaned back against the wall, using his elbow to jostle the bread in his pocket.
"You should not mock," Malfoy said, and his voice had gone hard and distant, his eyes filling with visions of stone towers. "It is hard to win her attention, harder to win her approval."
"But you have to go to her to get permission about stopping the war?" Harry asked.
Malfoy stared at him. "Of course," he said. "Why else would I mention it?"
"I don't know," Harry said. "You do everything so differently from humans, bringing up random conversational topics doesn't seem beyond you."
He reckoned he ought to feel a little more afraid than he was, bargaining with one of the distant and powerful creatures who had the strength to destroy the wizarding world. But he didn't. This was a Sidhe lord, yes, and it was a war and an invasion, but it was also Malfoy. Harry knew how to deal with bloody Malfoy.
Perhaps his smile or the expression on his face, or just a similar trend of their thoughts, told Malfoy that, because he smiled, a grave movement of his lips that nevertheless brought out the boyish angles of his face.
"I would not bring this up randomly," he said. "Even speaking her name without cause is dangerous."
"You haven't spoken her name," Harry felt compelled to point out.
"She is called the Queen," Malfoy said, and yes, now that he was concentrating on it, Harry thought he could hear the tolling of a bell when Malfoy mentioned it. "She has no other name, no other position, no other title. And she always knows when she is mentioned by one of her subjects."
Harry waited to see if there would be more than that, but Malfoy was staring over his head as if towards Harry's buried, nonexistent Sidhe self again, and didn't respond when Harry gave a little deprecating cough. So Harry sighed and said, "How do we find her?"
Malfoy whipped his head around. "You would seek the Queen?" he asked, his voice like the gasp of a harp.
"That's what you're implying we need to do to stop the invasion," Harry snapped, and resisted the temptation to hit Malfoy over the head with something very heavy. It probably wouldn't help, and he might not see it coming with the bread in Harry's pocket, anyway. Then Harry would have to answer to the rest of the Sidhe for a murder, and he'd rather not. "So, yes, I want to seek her."
Malfoy gazed at him with the same expression of wonder that he'd worn before. Then he reached out and took Harry's hands in his, running his long, slender fingers over Harry's and gazing down at Harry's knuckles as though there was a divine revelation in the offing there or something.
"You could have been so great," he whispered.
"Well, I'm pretty bloody contented with the way I am now, thanks," Harry snapped, and took a step backwards. Malfoy's hands remained immovably fastened on his, and Harry rolled his eyes and stopped moving. "Anyway. Are you going to take me to see the Queen, or not?"
Malfoy raised Harry's right hand and brushed the back of it with his lips, while watching Harry intently. "You realize that we will have to travel fast and far?" he asked. "And that we will go into the inner lands?"
"So what?" Harry asked, thinking of the snowy world and the manor house that Malfoy had shown him last night. "I've been there before, and you've showed me others."
"Those were the shallowest parts," Malfoy breathed, still watching Harry so intensely that Harry thought he would probably find holes burned in the wall behind his head when he came back to his house. "These are the deepest parts, the ones closer to the Center. You will swim among colors there, and legions, and names. I do not know if you will survive."
"You'll be along to protect me?" Harry raised his eyebrows as he thought of the enemies Malfoy had described living in the inner lands, enemies that even the Sidhe found hard to battle.
"I will be there," Malfoy said, and then went silent, still gazing at him in that uncomfortable way.
Harry half-nodded, and smiled as he thought of the way he had ridden the winged tiger the other night. "I could use a bit of risk," he said. "I'm willing to take this route."
Malfoy stepped back, releasing Harry's hands, and bowed formally, then made a series of passes in front of him with his hands. Harry thought they were probably the magic gestures that opened the inner lands, but nothing seemed different when Malfoy had dropped them; the air didn't even change colors.
"Where is the magic?" Harry asked finally.
"Oh, I was paying homage to you," Malfoy said, his face going still for a moment, as though he couldn't imagine anyone not knowing the meaning of his gestures. "As someone who has chosen to die the most horrible death anyone can imagine."
"Will the Queen see us if we do get there?" Harry asked, feeling his heartbeat speed up and saliva flood his mouth.
"It's her caprice," Malfoy said, the way someone else might say "It is destiny," and then reached out and gripped the air, ripping it up and down like a sheet of paper.
There was a gasp and a sigh, and Harry found himself standing on a shore of such blazing gold sand that he expected it to ring like coins as he moved his feet through it. Around and in front of what looked to be a small island stretched a boundless ocean, shifting mixtures of purple and blue and green and gold and black and rose. Harry reached out a hand towards the water, because something wasn't right-
And the nearest wave rolled up and broke, and left a sensation like silk along his fingers. The sea was a billowing tapestry, made of cloth. Harry laughed in wonder.
"You cannot remain here," Malfoy said, looking around the beach with his eyes narrowed. Harry didn't know why, since the sunshine here was the gentle, perfect light that he generally only saw on a summer's day, but perhaps it was against those dangers that he had talked about. "There are already predators coming."
Harry drew his wand. Malfoy glanced down at it, and then looked back up at Harry's face. Harry flushed. His contempt for Harry's ability to defend himself couldn't be more openly stated if he had spoken.
"All right," he said. "So how do we get to the point where we can go to the next inner land?" He thought there must be some kind of restriction, or Malfoy would have already opened the door into the next one.
Malfoy started to answer, but then suddenly jerked his head up and stared into the distance. His nostrils twitched. He sighed, and reached out to draw Harry into his arms. Harry let himself be pulled in slowly. He didn't know whether this was a sign of real danger or just another attempt from Malfoy to get him into bed.
"They are coming," Malfoy said, and turned his head to track the flight of an invisible bird. Harry kept his wand drawn anyway, because if it was useless, at least he felt it better with it in his hand. "They are here."
The sound of hooves crunching on sand came from behind them, and Harry turned around.
Trotting towards them were a pair of shaggy white ponies. Harry looked automatically for the riders on their backs, and saw nothing. Then he focused on their heads, where a flickering light seemed to strobe and play.
And made out the single sharp silver horn that glistened there.
"We're afraid of a pair of unicorns?" he whispered to Malfoy.
"Watch," Malfoy said, without changing expression. He pulled out or conjured a fresh green leaf and threw it towards the unicorns. A breeze that Harry reckoned was under his control made the leaf spin instead of fall, and then land on the beach in front of the unicorns.
The nearest one stamped his hoof once, and then moved. Harry blinked. He knew the creature was running, but it was strangely difficult to focus on. It was easier to understand the movements after he had seen them, through images that seemed to linger on the air.
The leaf fluttered in front of the unicorn, but something, perhaps Malfoy's will, kept it in the same place, and it didn't whirl away as the unicorn's hooves trampled it.
The leaf withered. It turned as white as paper, as the shaggy coats on the unicorns, and then tore apart and blew away. Harry stared. He had never seen something lose color faster.
"They are purity," Malfoy whispered. "Sterility. And they make everything else as pure as they are, once they touch it."
The unicorns turned to face them and began to trot. Their horns appeared, vanished, appeared, vanished. The edges of their hooves began to do the same thing, and through the light of their bodies, Harry thought he glimpsed an icy plain of the kind that Malfoy had escorted him to the other night. But this one had no drifting icebergs, no falling flakes. It was nothing but flatness and whiteness forever.
"What do we need to do to escape them?" he whispered, and shook himself out of his fascination. The unicorns were already much closer than he had thought they were. He felt his eyes trying to stay open in that dreamy stare again, and he turned back towards Malfoy, looking at his inhuman face to ground him.
Malfoy reached out without answering and put his hand on Harry's, his fingers gripping the holly wand. Harry could have tried to resist, but he felt the strength in Malfoy's arm, and he knew it was useless. So he waited to see what would happen, and tried not to lock his muscles in automatic rejection.
"Come with me," Malfoy whispered. "Say that you will. Mean it as you look into my eyes."
Harry grimaced and met Malfoy's eyes. "I'll come with you if it'll save me from them."
Malfoy's smile shone like a reflection in his eyes, while his face and his mouth never moved. "I thought you wanted to journey to the inner lands and seek the Queen of Faerie," he murmured. "And I'm afraid that an admission that grudging simply won't do. You must come with me of your own free will."
He curved an arm around Harry's waist and bent his head down as if smelling his hair. "Come, now, do," he whispered. "Tell me that you want to be with me of your own free will. Tell me that you'll come."
Harry scowled as he thought of the other meaning that word could have, but, well. The hooves of the unicorns blurred nearer and nearer, and he thought he could already feel one of their horns poking him in the back. And if he let himself lean forwards, he could feel the strength of Malfoy's arm around his waist and the breath blowing through his hair, and part of him felt a slight smugness that he had managed to make a lord of the Sidhe breathe like that.
He thought of the inner lands, and the tigers, and the meal Malfoy had served him, and he managed to lean near to his ear and whisper, "Take me."
Malfoy groaned into his ear, and the sound of the unicorns' hooves was close and real, and Malfoy's arms were so solid around him that he gasped, and the air that touched his throat was cold, and he could hear the crashing of real seas.
When he looked, he thought they were back in the mortal world for a moment. The beach beneath their feet was a shingle one, and the waves that curled up it didn't involve any unusual colors or bear unusual beasts. Harry relaxed, and then heard Malfoy chuckle. Assuming it was because Malfoy had convinced him to come along with him after all, Harry ignored him, and started to take a step forwards. A small, clear stream ran into the sea not far from his feet, and he wanted to drink from it.
"Not so," Malfoy whispered into his ear again, and tightened his arms. "Do you think that drinking from water in the inner lands is safe?"
Harry sighed and looked back at him. "What's going to happen now? Will this make my cock wither and drop off?"
"I'd hate to think so," Malfoy murmured, and ran a hand up and down his spine. "I have a use for it."
The humor was human, and that startled Harry into laughing. Malfoy grinned at him with teeth as bright as any vampire's.
"No," Malfoy continued. "But the stream is part of the inner lands, and therefore you must know it before you can consider it safe, by definition. Watch." He bent down, fumbled in the sand at Harry's feet for a moment-something that made Harry feel unaccountably pleased, because it meant that Malfoy couldn't be inhumanly perfect all the time-and then launched the stone he'd found in a low arc at the stream.
The stone skipped and beat against the sand for a moment, and then dropped into the water. Harry waited to see if anything rose to greet it. When nothing did, he opened his mouth to tease Malfoy for being such a poor shot that he couldn't even launch his stone all the way without it touching the ground.
The stream turned upside-down. Suddenly Harry was staring at an irregular bed of sand and pebbles and dripping mud, while the water flowed quietly along beneath it. It still flowed into the sea and kept to the course it had had before, but now there was an audible trickling and splashing as it did so.
Harry shook his head and stared up at Malfoy. For once, his eyes must have asked the question for him sufficiently, because Malfoy inclined his head and said, "Yes. If you had drunk from the water, it would have turned your body upside-down in the same way."
Harry grimaced and said, "Is there any water in the inner lands that's safe to drink?"
"Oh, there's this," Malfoy said, and conjured a silver goblet out of thin air, holding it out to Harry. Its middle was etched with a band of what looked like blazing blue metal, and its rim edged with diamonds. Harry winced as he thought about drinking from it and having those stones cut into his lips, but he could hear the water singing against the sides of the cup, and took it with his throat burning.
Then he looked up, and found Malfoy smiling.
Harry lowered the goblet and frowned at him. "I know that Faerie food and drink can sometimes keep you in Faerie," he said. "I ate your meal last night and didn't have to stay here, but technically, that happened-even if it was mostly glamour-in the house that's still in my world. What happens if I drink water from your hand in the inner lands?"
Malfoy blinked at him, and then said quickly, "That would only be true if we were in Faerie. But not all the inner lands are Faerie, as I have told you before. That is our home, the place where our kind were lifted to light and life. In the other inner lands, different laws and traditions hold sway."
Harry snorted, and turned the goblet over, pouring the water on the sand. He couldn't help noticing that the shingle smoked where it landed. "Of course," he drawled. "And that would be why you couldn't see me last night when I turned my clothes inside out, even though I don't think we were in Faerie."
Malfoy held his eyes, and was still, except for the hand that reached out to the side and made that gesture of flipping open a door.
They stood in another place then, one that made Harry stare around in wonder despite his dislike of showing that emotion in front of Malfoy. They were on the midst of what looked like a giant silver staircase, curving slowly, lazily up the face of a shallow sapphire-colored hill. On every side of Harry, shining silver arches stretched away, overlaid with what looked like sapphire fabrics and painting on air that deepened to black in the corners. Dark rosettes blossomed here and there on the places where the fabrics and the arches overlapped.
"What is this place?" Harry whispered.
"One of the more inner of the inner lands." Malfoy looked at him, and there was gentleness in the look. Harry wondered if his face was more likely to change emotions as they moved between worlds. It wouldn't have surprised him. "Closer to the Queen. Closer to home. Closer to everything we are, and to the Center, which is-"
"Everything," Harry couldn't help finishing in a dry voice. "Yes, I recall you mentioning something about that once before."
"Do you?" Malfoy asked, and raised his eyebrows, and smiled, and said no more. He began to lead Harry up the staircase, while the treads fell away shining beneath them, and Harry stumbled from the firm grip that Malfoy had on his wrist, and he gaped all around him at the beauty, trying to see what sort of world it was.
But he couldn't. He couldn't see any air beneath them, or land, or sea, or leaping fire for that matter. There was only the drop, and the arches, and the "air" that probably was in fact made of panels of fabric.
Harry walked up the staircase in an awe that deepened when he saw the silver mist that wreathed the steps ahead. It didn't act like normal fog; it drifted in a circular pattern, and when Malfoy lifted his hand, it rose and parted like a door.
"This is the place where you can no longer turn back," Malfoy said, facing Harry with his eyes glittering queerly. "This is the place where you walk and there's no time to tell me that you don't want to be here, there is no road back from Faerie, there is nothing here but what we grant you."
Harry could taste his heartbeat as he lifted his head and met Malfoy's eyes, and he didn't care. He thought about the invasion, and his world, and his friends, and the notions rotted like cloth and fell away. He knew that he was here of his own free will, and yes, there was no turning back. The difference between him and Malfoy was that Malfoy thought the knowledge should scare him, but-
Harry knew the knowledge freed him.
He turned and tugged away from Malfoy, darting into the mist, calling over his shoulder, "Race you there!"
He never knew if Malfoy swore in the human-like fashion that Harry had heard before, or if he cried out or gasped or even applauded. The mist clasped and swung him, and Harry knew he was moving through a motionless grey country, the fog dancing at his side like waves, and he wondered for a moment whether all the inner lands closer to the Faerie Queen had water as an important part of them-
And why not? Even the Sidhe would need water, wouldn't they? Though come to think of it, he hadn't really seen Malfoy eat much.
The grey waves faded, and Harry was suspended in the blue land of black rosettes and silver arches overlaid with blue again, or what looked like the same place, but this time, there was a slender silver bridge at his feet, overlaid with a pearly shimmer of what could have been tiles or scales, the chains on either side of it stretching up into-nothingness. Harry felt something solid beneath him, but didn't look down. He knew without asking that it wouldn't be visible, and also that it would crumble the moment he stepped onto the bridge.
He reached out, put his hands on the chains on either side of the bridge, and accepted its silent challenge, stepping forwards.
The bridge bulged and rippled underneath him. Harry laughed aloud and let himself go with it, being tossed up and then landing, the instability of the material beneath him part of the challenge, part of the game. He had never walked on something like this before, but he thought it was probably similar to a Muggle trampoline.
Malfoy appeared on the bridge in front of him, although he walked with his hands clenched on the chains as if they and not his own will held him upright. Harry grinned at him and bounced again. Malfoy promptly seized one of his arms and dragged him close, shaking his head in such fury that Harry thought he could see individual strands of his hair glittering.
"What are you doing?" he whispered.
"I'm bouncing," Harry said, and since Malfoy was holding him firmly enough now that he couldn't bounce, he tapped his foot instead. That set up a lot of ripples still, although not satisfactorily enough compared to what he'd been creating at first.
Malfoy closed his eyes, opened them, and then said, "And it never occurred to you that you could anger the Queen enough that she might decide to crush your world beneath the inner lands now?"
"I don't know what she would do," Harry said simply. "If I had tried to reckon it, you would probably have told me that Sidhe don't feel human emotions and I was being presumptuous. Wouldn't you have?" he added, because Malfoy had opened his mouth as though to deny it.
Malfoy gave a small, sharp laugh, as sharp as the teeth that he bared a moment later at Harry. "Perhaps I would have," he said. "But-you act as if you aren't afraid. You act as if you weren't approaching one of the most powerful creatures in all the inner lands."
Harry took a step closer to Malfoy. His blood was thrumming, and it seemed to bear words along with it, words that spilled out of his mouth when he wasn't looking, because he knew that he definitely hadn't planned this speech.
"I don't know what that means. I don't have a standard for judging the inner lands the way you do, because I've never lived in them. I don't know how strong the Queen is, and if I did try to judge, I'd probably get it wrong.
"But what is being afraid going to gain me? You'd find it charming, or exasperating, or enough of a reason to destroy the wizarding world immediately. I never know, and I refuse to worry about it. You'll do what you do in response to me, and I can't predict or control that. The only thing I can control is my reaction. So I might as well be fearless."
Malfoy stared at him, and then he reached out and stroked a hand down Harry's cheek, along to the back of his neck, and through his hair. It felt a little different-at least-from the similar gestures he had made before, and Harry raised his eyebrows and waited, his head tilted to the side.
"I didn't realize how much I had missed that," Malfoy whispered, and took a step back, looking along the bridge, which had now begun to move like a fall of water, spilling towards the destination-wherever that was, Harry didn't know. "Come. The Queen awaits."
And this time, he made no objection when Harry bounced behind him and made the whole bridge shake and tremble as they proceeded along it towards the Queen's throne-if she was enough like a human monarch to need one in the first place.
Later, of course, Harry tried to remember his visit to the Queen of Faerie, and he couldn't. Or at least, he could imagine, and he could relive some of the details, and he knew what had happened in a broad outline, because the memory of his own words remained unclouded in his mind, and that meant-
It meant he might know what she had said in response to it. No more than that.
It wasn't like a dream, not exactly. There were burning images, shining ones, ones that clustered around his thoughts and danced when he thought about it. But they didn't connect to one another. The bridges were missing, the transitions.
He became aware of a woman sitting impaled on spikes and bones as he settled before her, a woman with knives sticking out of her ribs and antlers out of her skull and blades thrusting through her eyes-
And he saw a woman who shone like dawn, with sun-golden skin and black hair and green eyes that broke the heart-
And he saw a warrior woman in blood-stained mail, and a chariot with spokes of iron on the wheels (he knew, seeing them, that they were there to show off the Queen's great strength, that she could be near iron and make it serve as a weapon of war), and a horse snorting and tossing in the traces that was all slick and gleaming flesh and muscle without skin-
And he saw a being of fog and mist, ice and snow, and she blew through him like a cold wind and away, and left him shivering and stunned, shocked, blowing on his hands to warm them-
And all of these she was, and none of them, and Harry spoke to her, and said, "Please don't invade my world."
The Queen looked at him, and there was a slow amusement radiating out of her. Harry shivered and blew on his hands, and then looked up and said, "Because there might be wizards there to change into you, to be your children, but they won't be there if you succeed in turning my world into one of the inner lands. I don't think we could stand the creatures that you could unleash if you wanted to."
The Queen reached out and touched him with long fingers like frozen twigs. Harry closed his eyes and leaned back against Malfoy's arm and said, "There is no reason that you should grant me what I ask. Only my courage in coming to you, and the fact that I ask, and-and the fact that I might have been one of you, if Malfoy is right, except for this." He pushed back his fringe to show his scar to the Queen, who bent forwards to look at it, her neck creaking.
And she was a queen in portraits, gold-framed portraits of roses and ladies with golden hair, and Harry shook his head and said, "Malfoy? I knew him when he was human. I don't love him. I don't-know him. I knew him as a boy, but I didn't become familiar with him again before he changed and left."
Malfoy shivered against him, and bowed his head, a crown of ice tickling the back of Harry's neck. Harry reached back to adjust it and said, "There's no reason."
Then he said, "A bargain? I don't know what I could offer you that would make you agree. I offered Malfoy the chance to persuade me, and he accepted it. But I can't think that you want anything from me in particular."
There was light singing around him in a waterfall, and there was warmth lapping around his legs, and Harry closed his eyes and bowed his head and said, "If you wish."
Then the sun flashed through him, and the world dissolved into tears and diamond dewdrops. Harry shivered violently and went on shivering, and then Malfoy was with him and there were warm lips against his ear and a voice murmuring, "You were the bravest thing I have ever seen. Many people have done far worse in confrontations with the Queen. Many of our own kind, even. Fantastic. Marvelous."
Harry turned and fastened his lips on Malfoy's with a violence that surprised him. Perhaps he simply wanted the comfort of something he had experienced before after that unsettling encounter with the Queen.
Malfoy made a muffled sound and wound his hands in Harry's hair, holding him still as he licked and lapped. The cold touch of his tongue made Harry jump and gasp, but he kept up with it, until he pulled away from Malfoy and took a single step back along the trembling bridge that had appeared behind them.
"Are you going to give me the chance to persuade you to sleep with me?" Malfoy's voice was low and husky, his eyes fastened on Harry as if he assumed that he might disappear at any moment. Harry felt like that, really, as though the kiss had sucked some of the life and vitality out of his body. He licked his lips and watched Malfoy's eyes follow his tongue.
Malfoy moaned and stretched out one hand in front of him, touching the air as though he would tear the way open to another world. Harry shook his head, and then smiled again, because Malfoy had lowered his other hand and was touching his cock.
"You are the bravest thing I have ever seen," Malfoy whispered. "What was your bargain with the Queen?"
"That's for me to know and you to try desperately to find out," Harry said. "As for whether I'll sleep with you, you ought to think about it. What have you given me so far that's worth me doing that?"
"The question should be," Malfoy said, and his eyes lidded themselves and his face was lovely and warm and the least human Harry had ever seen it, "what kind of wild pleasure will you have with me?"
Harry laughed and leaned back against the chain behind him. Malfoy caught his breath as if he expected Harry to tumble into the abyss from the bridge, but Harry knew the chain would support him. Hadn't he just finished talking to the Queen about that?
(Well, had he? Harry couldn't remember, not now, but he knew the burning memories would probably come clear enough, if he simply waited).
"I don't know that you can give me that kind of pleasure," Harry retorted. "So far, you've taken me to cold worlds and tried to seduce me in the middle of snow. And you've talked more about the dangers of the inner lands than the pleasures that you can find there. What do you think? Should I believe you when you talk about what you can give me, when there hasn't been a sign of it so far?"
Malfoy looked at him for a moment. Then his face changed again, beautiful and spring-like, with the wind of his expressions rippling and altering. "You would prefer a warm world?" he whispered. "You want me to seduce you in the middle of summer?"
Harry snorted. "I won't limit you to that, both because you won't necessarily seduce me and because I don't know if all the inner lands have something you could call summer. But I do expect you to show me what else you can do that you haven't shown me so far."
Malfoy nodded and moved forwards with his hands extended. This time, after due thought, Harry allowed Malfoy to catch hold of his hands. Malfoy held them to his lips, once, and lowered them so that both of them were pointing at the center of the silken, trembling bridge that led towards the Queen's sanctum. Or might lead there, now, Harry thought. He was not enough of a fool to think that directions and roads in the inner lands would always stay the same.
"You want excitement," Malfoy murmured. "I know you were impressed by our flying beasts-"
"Winged tigers?" Harry asked. "Yeah, I was."
Malfoy tilted his head to the side like a bird this time. "Is that how they appear to you? How curious."
Harry could have asked about that, but it would have given Malfoy too much satisfaction. In the end, he preferred to lift his eyebrows and wait.
"Let me show you something like that," Malfoy said. "Let me show you the most beautiful of the inner lands, where no one ever comes, where the Sidhe walk among unfallen leaves and unfading flowers."
"If it's such a beautiful, immortal country, why don't you stay there all the time?" Harry whispered. He felt more than slightly breathless as Malfoy moved a step closer, stared into his face, and then moved a step closer again.
"Because we want other things in our lives," Malfoy said, watching him. "Wars and challenges. Fights and battles. Struggles against those who would see us dead if they could." His eyelids flickered once, and he smiled, as if he was picturing Harry fighting in their battles. "New creatures to meet and befriend. New lovers. New pleasures."
"And I'm the new pleasure," Harry murmured, feeling his heartbeat slow a little as he contemplated that. "What happens when I'm the old one?"
Malfoy touched him tentatively, fingers smoothing into his hair, and up, and back. Harry resisted the temptation to close his eyes and purr. You are not a cat, he reminded himself.
"I can never imagine you being old," Malfoy whispered into his ear. "And now, let me show you our land."
The air burned around them, and turned red and gold. Harry was about to tease Malfoy for using Gryffindor colors to transport them, but then he stepped back and turned around, and realized that this was something else altogether.
This was a world of trees in red and gold leaf, not withering and dying, but bearing those colors all the year round. This was a world beneath a drowsy colored sky, a permanent aurora, wavering lights, of soft rose and deepest aqua and indelible green. Flowing away down the hill in front of them was a stream of what could have been grass and what could have been water; when Harry reached down to touch the surface, it bobbed beneath his fingers, and then small questing flowers lifted their heads from it and opened their petals.
"Are they trying to bite me?" Harry whispered, feeling Malfoy lean against his shoulder and kiss the skin beneath his ear.
He felt it, too, when Malfoy shook his head and his hair rustled gently along Harry's spine. "No. They're curious, that's all. These are the flowers that never die, that simply stay rooted and do not decay. Over time, they develop a feeling for the world about them, and an interest in other creatures."
Harry looked around at the trees, and what he had assumed was solid earth or grass at their feet. Now he could see the soft bobbing motions that infected it, up and down like the stream, and see the roots of flowers that had turned upside-down to thrust their heads beneath the earth and investigate what they found there.
"A world where everything is alive," he whispered. "I can't even imagine how busy it is here. How rich."
Malfoy drew him back up and turned him around. Harry let himself be kissed, and then took control of the kiss, so that Malfoy sighed into his mouth and let his tongue lap out. Harry lapped it in return, and thought about being wanted by someone who had become a Sidhe more than five years ago, who had all the wealth and wonders of the inner lands at his disposal, and a legitimate reason to distrust wizards.
About being the greatest desire of someone like that.
But it still wasn't enough, so he stepped away from Malfoy, looked around at the trees, and said, "I'd like to see more of this place."
Malfoy took his arm and led him without a word over the half-stream and into what had looked like a forest from a distance. Now Harry saw that there was something else beneath the trees, a great coiling shape that he saw the jeweled eyes and horns and shining neck of a moment later. The dragon stirred, stared at them with jaws slowly opening to show the fire at the very back of the throat, and then turned away and laid its head back down, rooting into the earth like the flowers did.
Harry looked at the trees. "Are those separate things, then, or are they just spines on the dragon's back?" he asked.
Malfoy said nothing. Harry glanced at him for the answer and found him smiling.
"Yes," he said.
Harry snorted and pushed at him, and they walked over the dragon's back and out of the "forest," to the shore of a waterfall. The water shone gold from the reflection of a gold part of the aurora immediately overhead, and tiny elves sported and danced above it, growing wings and losing them as they dived, creating boats of leaves and then blending with them so that the leaves had legs and arms along the sides and flat faces on the bottom, rising as a mingling of serpent and fish and yawning at the sun before they dived again and became swirls in the current.
"I've never seen anything like them," Harry whispered.
"You can shout as loud as you like," Malfoy murmured in his normal voice, or at least the one it seemed had become normal for him to use around Harry. "They won't care. And no, they're a species of Faerie creature that never made it to our world, unlike the house-elves or the fairies that we sometimes capture for the Christmas lights."
Harry felt a sharp thrill snap through him, up and down his spine. It took him a moment to realize why. Malfoy had said our world, as though he still considered himself a wizard instead of a Sidhe.
"How much do I matter to you?" he asked, as Malfoy lifted him over a stone that lay, flat and saucer-like and brooding with jeweled flies, in the middle of the stream.
Malfoy looked at him as they waded through the blue-tinged grass of an apparently endless pampas, and Harry thought he had his answer. He paused with his hand against Malfoy's chest on a hill in the middle of the pampas, watching as golden gazelles and obsidian panthers flashed in and out among the grasses, appearing and vanishing like images in a dream.
"What is it?" Malfoy whispered, and pushed Harry's fringe back and out of his eyes.
Harry shivered. He wanted to say that he hadn't seen anything dangerous enough yet, and perhaps that was true. He also wanted to say that this was the most beautiful place he had ever seen, but Malfoy knew that already.
His tongue was thick and heavy in his mouth. His body felt so limp and odd that he wondered for a moment if there was some kind of drug in the air that he was breathing in, but it seemed that he was simply-relaxed.
That was it. This world was so far away from the mundane thoughts that plagued him. Sidhe didn't have to deal with the Wizengamot, or worry about whether the political power of their names was going to be great enough to save the world this time, or nightmares of Voldemort. Malfoy had been marked by Voldemort, but even he had shed that, gone on, gone on past, and up, and in.
"Come away," Harry murmured.
Malfoy stirred beneath his hand like the grass stirring in the passages of the animals. "Anywhere you like," he whispered back.
Harry laughed and looked up at him. "No," he said. "That's a line from a poem about the Sidhe that I was thinking of. A Muggle wrote it-at least, I think it was a Muggle. But I can see now why you've tempted so many people over the centuries. This is-beyond. Beyond everything, beyond all the mundane problems that we have."
Watching Malfoy smile then was like watching a statue smile, as though pure joy had been enough to move carven stone. "Thank you," Malfoy said simply. "And now?" He let his hand rest on Harry's waist and arched his eyebrows.
Harry burst out laughing. "Is sex all your ever think about? I thought an immortal creature who lived in a world like this would have more on his mind."
"I can have whatever I want to on my mind," Malfoy said, and lowered his head, his nose poking against Harry's neck like an eagle's beak, and waited.
Harry caught his breath and turned his head towards Malfoy in turn, nose brushing Malfoy's cheek. Pale, and strong under his touch, like marble, but the bones felt brittle, ready to cut through the skin. The Sidhe were creatures of knives and wind, weren't they? Among the many books Hermione had had him read before she judged him ready to lead the delegation to the Sidhe, Harry thought he remembered reading an explanation of the Sidhe as being wind, or part of the wind, or something like that.
Or maybe only that it was a wind of change that blew when they went by, swept into the lives of all around them and scattered their ordinary duties and thoughts like pins.
Harry raised a hand and laid it along Malfoy's neck, feeling the cords there, but not the muscles he expected. Then they manifested, and Harry snorted, a little breath that never got to the point of making noise. Well, if the Sidhe could shift about from inner land to inner land and change their minds and their whims and their voices and their nature when they were born as human, then he reckoned he couldn't be surprised about an ability to change their own bodies, too.
Malfoy didn't press him. He stood there, quiet, and let Harry have a moment of his own to be quiet in, too. Harry felt down Malfoy's back, the shoulder blades that curved like wings, and the center of the back that shifted under his touch and quivered and trembled and then went still, and thought.
He had fought to be free of the wizarding world and its expectations for so long. Not being an Auror, not being the Ministry's lackey, refusing interviews, setting up his business so that he could teach dueling instead of Defense Against the Dark Arts, turning away those who wanted to know what he was going to do next with a smile and a shake of his head, or a smirk and an insult, until they stopped asking.
But. . .
But lately, he had found himself drawn back into politics anyway. And the Wizengamot didn't listen to him, and his friends were his friends and he loved them, but it was a small circle to have as the only people who cared about him.
He could step beyond. He would have to step beyond, given what he had promised the Queen. He could find something more exciting, and no one would blame him, except the people he held in contempt and who would never know, anyway, unless he told them.
Harry took a deep breath, and Malfoy quivered in response, in time, to that breath.
I want to do this. I want to try this. And if it doesn't work out, there's no reason to think that he and I are bound forever. I'm mortal, he's not. I could die, and he'd go on.
That was the most comforting thing of all. Here was someone for whom Harry was not responsible, either to save or to damn. A wild creature, like him, a being, like him, and in one of the inner lands they were met, for what they chose to do.
And he let go.
Malfoy sensed it without Harry saying anything, and gave a single, low cry that built into a piercing whistle like an Augurey's. His mouth descended on Harry's, his hands gripping his shoulders, his legs pressing into his. Urgent, demanding, with the coldness of his lips and tongue and the sudden spreading heat in the middle of his back, as if he were going to grow phoenix wings, unlike a human lover's. Harry tilted his head back, opened his mouth, and bared his throat.
Malfoy bit him. Not like a vampire-his teeth didn't sink in-but in a way that Harry knew would leave a mark, and which sent satisfaction through him until he wanted to shout. He clawed and kicked at Malfoy, battered him with his shins, slammed chin into lips, and Malfoy pushed him backwards.
For a moment, falling, Harry thought he would fall into the abyss that lay on either side of the trampoline bridge leading to the Queen's land. And then he landed on sinking softness, softness that billowed up on either side of him, like wings.
They were, Harry realized, when he sat up and looked around. He was in the middle of white feathers, on a sailing swan's back, its gigantic wings cupped up and around him like the sides of a boat. For a second, the great head turned to regard him, black bird's eyes with an incurious stare and a dark beak that could have broken his bones, and then the swan faced forwards again and went on swimming. They were in one of the flower-streams in the Sidhe's world, but longer, broader, and full of bobbing blue-green blossoms that tangled around the swan's feet and swayed dreamily next to its wings.
"Do you like it?"
Malfoy, kneeling next to him with head bowed and hair swaying around his face in time, Harry realized, to the rhythm of the flowers. One might have said "rhythm of the water" and understood it the same way, in another world. Harry nodded and reached up with hands and mouth that had not lost their urgency.
Malfoy covered him, all burning heat now, because the swansdown beneath Harry's back was cool softness. Malfoy breathed a word, and then another one, and Harry was naked and so hard that he snorted again. He let Malfoy hear him this time.
"So lacking confidence in your power to arouse me," he murmured, because the Sidhe had pride worse than any human, and Malfoy would have to take that as a challenge.
Malfoy bent down, and did.
His fingers danced above Harry's skin, gentle, caressing, making Harry catch his breath and arch his hips in helpless desire. Then Malfoy was naked, and turning so that one of his shoulder blades, the same ones that Harry had touched and thought felt like wings, brushed Harry's side. Harry turned his head to the side and tried to kiss it, but it was already gone.
"Keep your eyes closed," Malfoy murmured, when Harry would have opened them. "I prefer to touch you this way."
Harry would have disputed with him yesterday-or whatever time had been like before he ventured into the inner lands, whatever relation it had to time as it was lived here-but now, why? The only good of a challenge was to make Malfoy touch him, and he was doing that already. So he let his head tip back and his arms fall open and his legs sprawl, and Malfoy caught his breath and cursed him in a shaky voice.
"Still so human," Harry said, and smiled, not having to open his eyes to see the expression on Malfoy's face because he could picture what it would be all too easily.
Malfoy's retort was a swift sweep of a hand down his side, and Harry gasped and then cried out as his skin pebbled beneath the touch. He turned, mouth open, blindly seeking, and Malfoy slid a finger between his lips.
Harry sucked on it, and felt the finger lengthen, and thicken, and then become slender again, altering, changing, flowing in the space of a breath. He knew without thinking about it that it was Malfoy's own challenge, asking if Harry could handle being with someone who could change himself like this and ready to reject him in an instant if the answer was no.
Or would he reject him? The Sidhe were so capricious that Harry reckoned he might never know for sure unless he manages to make both answers at once.
In any case, he would only make one. He let his tongue swirl around Malfoy's finger in response, and heard the cry, high and shrill as an eagle's, and smelled the scent of flowers sharper and stranger than the ones that bobbed in the stream around the swan.
The swan itself ruffled up its feathers, and they prickled against the underside of Harry's (naked) back and made his waist, as Malfoy arched above him, feel embraced from below. Harry thought for a moment of the swan watching them, but he chose not to open his eyes, and he chose to believe that it was keeping its head turned forwards.
Malfoy licked him, a long, straight, thoughtful stripe from his collarbone to the base of his cock, and Harry arched and murmured as he had before. This time, Malfoy went on licking as though he would not be put off. Harry didn't mind that, and just let his legs sprawl open even wider than before.
"The insults that my schoolboy self would have given you, if he'd ever caught you looking like that," Malfoy said from above him. Harry was smugly pleased to note that he was breathless.
"The low chances that my schoolboy self would ever have slept with him," Harry said, and arched his hips again, as a clue to get on with it.
Malfoy slid wet fingers into him, without a pause, without a hint, punishingly. Harry bit his lip and wriggled down on them, and they eased and softened and bent. Sidhe body control tricks again, Harry was sure, and wished he could open his eyes and look.
But he had promised, and anyway, in some ways it was more thrilling not to know what Malfoy was doing, to trust everything to blindness and chance. He waited a moment until he thought Malfoy was being delicate, and then jerked himself down and tried to take in the fingers at least until the second knuckle, if Malfoy had them anymore.
Malfoy was the one who cried out again, and then he bent down near Harry's ear and whispered, "You're beautiful, and you'll never experience anyone else fucking you like this again."
"Ah," Harry said, not letting his muscles tense because he wouldn't. "So this is the ultimate sign that this is a one-time only event for you, that you really don't want to sleep with me more than once. That would be boring."
"The next time," Malfoy said, and his voice drifted and rang like chimes around Harry as he sat back and positioned himself, "will be different. So that you don't get bored."
Harry wondered for a moment whether Malfoy had used more lube than it felt like, and then wanted to grin, and did. They were fucking on the back of a giant swan sailing down a river of flowers in Faerie. Malfoy wanted to please him, not hurt him. Why bother with such petty questions?
Malfoy thrust forwards-
And Harry felt magic around him, pressing in and on and through him, and shouted as the feeling slammed back and forth through him, swinging like a pendulum, and redoubling with each swing, until his eyes ached and his ears rang and tears poured down his face. It wasn't a climax, but it was the most similar to it he'd ever felt without one.
"That is the kind of thing I can do to you," Malfoy whispered, smug and breathless, "and which no human lover can. You can open your eyes now."
Harry did, blinking away a thin film of tears, and found Malfoy gazing down at him with eyes that shone almost blue-silver with the fulfillment of desire. Harry met his gaze and arched his hips suggestively, and Malfoy laughed and thrust.
And although Harry could still feel swansdown beneath his back, he could see spirals of blue and silver along the sides of the lifted wings, and reckoned that they were tumbling through an ancient region of space, inhabited by old galaxies. Malfoy would probably do that if he thought he could get away with it, just to impress Harry away from any other potential lovers.
He's doing-a pretty good job-at that-with everything else, Harry thought, his mind moving as sluggishly as his mouth would have been if he'd tried to speak words.
Because Malfoy's thrusts snapped Harry's hips up, and came so fast that it made it almost impossible to thrust his arse back-although Harry tried anyway, of course-and his magic whispered and shone in Harry's arms and skin and bones and flesh, and Harry was writhing beneath him with the pleasure and half-shouting with it, and Malfoy filled him and pushed back in so quickly that it felt as if there were no withdrawing.
"I knew you would like this," Malfoy whispered, his gloating tone a little ruined by his wild-eyed expression. He pushed one more time, and held himself there-
And his magic thrust one more time, pushing itself in and out of Harry's mouth for a moment, swirling down to add still more fullness to his arse, brushing between the webs of his fingers and into the pores of his skin, until he was lying there, aching and open and stunned breathless with the pleasure of it.
To feel good, at that moment, seemed the highest aim in the world, and Harry could see why the Sidhe would have sacrificed so many of their lesser desires, and even whole worlds, for it.
He fell back into his body with such slowness that it echoed the arching tumble of silver spirals and blue sparks across the sky. He turned his head and opened his mouth as slowly, and Malfoy, knowing what he wanted, glided his fingers in. Harry sucked on them, and tasted himself, and sighed.
"I knew I could do it well enough that you would never want another lover again," Malfoy whispered, and then paused. Harry found himself turning his head and opening his eyes to find out why he had done that.
Malfoy stared down at him, eyes as luminous as moons. He whispered, "Will you go back to someone else, when you return to your world?"
Harry blinked, and even those movements were slow, luxurious. He thought of the Wizengamot and felt only a distant wonder that they wouldn't converse with the Sidhe enough to know they could cause pleasure like this, that they considered them inferior magical creatures. Malfoy had taken even that source of aggravation and upset away from him. Hermione would probably say that it was Sidhe magic, but Harry was still grateful for it.
"I don't have a lover right now," Harry said, when he could separate lip from tongue and speak. "You know that."
"But you might have one," Malfoy whispered, his knees driving into the down beneath them. Harry became vaguely aware that the swan had stopped and seemed to be drifting in one place on the stream, like a boat at anchor, but he couldn't look away from Malfoy's face, so he wasn't sure. "And I don't want you to."
Harry arched an eyebrow. "What, now that you've fucked my arse you don't find yourself desiring something else? The way that your kind wanted a new world when they were done with this one?"
Malfoy's hand stroked Harry's head and cheek and hand the way he might caress a jewel. Harry considered that and wasn't displeased. It wasn't the way he would want to matter to another human, but. . .for Malfoy, it might be all right.
"I want to have you again and again and again," Malfoy whispered. "I want to show you more of the inner lands. I want to find a way to reverse the stunting that happened with your scar and make you into what you should have been, a lord of Faerie, glorious and free."
Harry reached up with a grin and rested his palm against Malfoy's face. Now it felt human, or at least there was a normal temperature to the skin and the bones didn't feel as if they would pop out and cut through it. From the way that Malfoy looked at him, shyness and pride and so much else in his eyes, he might feel much the same way, too.
"I'll think about it," Harry said. "It'll give me something nice to think about in the middle of the Wizengamot sessions about what exactly happened when you invaded our world."
This time, when Malfoy kissed him and settled on top of him again, Harry felt the crumbs of bread sift out of his pocket and fall to the swan's back, no longer necessary.
"We are grateful to you, Mr. Potter."
It was Allona who said that, and the other Wizengamot members behind him nodded furiously. The ones who had spoken the most against Harry, or resented him the most, were the ones who looked most constipated now. Harry smiled serenely at them and turned around to bow his head so that the Minister could drape the Order of Merlin around his neck.
The crowd of wizards gathered around the stage in the middle of the Ministry Atrium-temporarily displacing the Fountain of Magical Brethren-let out a cheer, and someone began to play music. Harry didn't know whether that was a result of a spell or a band had been hired for the occasion. He frankly didn't care. He was only here to receive his Order of Merlin in person because Ron and Hermione had both ignored his arguments about how they could perfectly well accept it for him.
He had to step off the stage and shake hands with everyone, of course, and then go back onto the stage and shake hands with the Wizengamot, while the cameras flashed. Allona and everyone else put on their most pious faces for the reporters, and everyone had something to say in praise of Harry when asked.
Harry saw the sidelong glares they cast him, and only smiled in response. It was the politically aware thing to do, and he knew it.
And it was real. No one else understood how the invasion had ceased so suddenly, except Harry's friends, whom he had chosen to trust with that information. The Wizengamot only knew that one minute they had been arranging to battle winged tigers over London, and the next, they had been conversing with several noble, gently-spoken Sidhe who had made them see that it would be far more worthwhile to declare wizards of age at twenty-two and convinced the Wizengamot so well that they didn't start thinking about it until after the Sidhe had gone away.
Harry didn't know exactly what had happened in the sense that he didn't know whether the Sidhe had altered people's memories or done something else at the command of their Queen. But it didn't matter. It was done.
And he knew the promise he had made.
As they filed off the stage, Harry bent down and pretended to examine the laces of his boot to see if they had come untied. In actuality, he was casting a small pebble made of packed white seeds, wrapped in the head of an immortal flower, down next to the stage. He glanced away in response to a question from Rita Skeeter, and when he looked back again, the seed was gone. Harry nodded in satisfaction. It would have dug down already, and next year, the Ministry would be surprised by a growth of an unusual kind.
Not a literal growth. Not a flower transplanted from that inner land that the Sidhe considered their own. But a different kind. A return of magic and wonder to a world that had come to seem sterile and overly demanding to Harry since the war.
If some people chose to speak to Sidhe with iron in their pockets, or saw them riding their winged beasts on a moonlit night, or chose to understand the change that could be in them and embrace it after this, then who was to say that that was a bad thing? That was part of the price Harry had agreed to pay the Queen. The Sidhe would have their outposts here, and the wizarding world would become more like the inner lands in beauty, in its capacity to stun its population and cast them into admiration.
Harry thought that a worthy goal.
"Mr. Potter," Skeeter said, her voice rising in more than mere annoyance that she had lost his attention. She had learned to read Harry better than most of the other reporters, having more experience with him, and she always knew when he had really found something more interesting than her and when he was shamming. "I said, don't you think that this will inaugurate a new era of cooperation and understanding between yourself and the Ministry?"
Harry sighed and shook his head. "I've told you before, Madam Skeeter, I don't enjoy it when you talk about me as if I were a foreign government."
Skeeter flushed, but, being herself, persisted. "But would you say that you've grown up and learned political responsibility, now?"
Harry paused as if thinking hard about it, then gave her a perfect smile, a hero's smile with all his white teeth showing. Skeeter leaned eagerly forwards.
"No," Harry said.
Skeeter turned and stomped off. Harry chuckled and made his way down the dais, clearing his way through the crowd with no more than a few sharp glances. Those rumors about his supposedly incredible power and short temper worked well to serve him here, too.
And the truth was. . .
The truth was that he didn't feel as cynical and hopeless about the general state of the wizarding world as he did before. But that was partially because he knew that he had a door open to leave it, now.
"You don't want to come over to dinner with us tonight?" Ron stared at Harry out of the fire, his eyes so wide that Harry thought he could see most of the optic nerve inside, and then burst out laughing and winked at Harry. "I've got it! A hot date!"
"Yes," Harry said, and nodded through the rest of Ron's congratulatory speech about how he finally had a life and his friends had wanted him to have one for a long time. Then Harry shut his Floo and went on dressing for said date, humming a little under his breath as he buttoned up the rich green robes. They had appeared in his wardrobe the day after the ceremony with the Order of Merlin, and they were the color of the grass in Faerie.
When he was ready, he stepped out of his house and looked around, one hand resting on the lump of iron in his pocket. The touch of the cold iron dispelled the shimmering glamour that rested next to the house, and Harry walked to meet it, smiling when he saw Malfoy draped in ordinary human clothes. They disguised him, without the glamour, as effectively as sheets on a phoenix would.
"Hullo," Harry said, and let Malfoy feel his cheeks and his eyes and even his teeth, as if he needed to make sure that none of them had fallen out in the intervening week, before he kissed him. Malfoy stood then, holding him by neck and shoulders and watching him with that glimmering, almost human look in his eyes.
"You are ready to go?" Malfoy asked softly.
"Yes," Harry said, and pressed close to Malfoy's side, watching, as he tore a hole in the air.
In front of them opened a rippling red land, ruby mountains in the distance with a purple sunset dying on their flanks, and, rising to meet them, crimson and scarlet and heart-of-fire foothills. Harry made sure that the spells to protect his clothes from heat were intact, and then stepped through the gateway into the inner lands.
Malfoy already had a ripe fruit from one of the shadowy trees that bent and swayed like grass-it was those, and not real grass, that covered the hills-for him to eat. He pushed it to Harry's lips, and Harry bit in, wincing and shivering in anticipation at the same time as the taste roasted his tongue and the juice burned his chin.
This was the other part of the bargain the Queen had required him to make: that he promise to return to the inner lands from time to time, because she wanted them sometimes to receive the presence of a mortal with such courage and such grace under pressure, and whatever other qualities she had seen in him and the Sidhe admired. Harry suspected she was probably hoping to convert him, or unstunt him, the way that Malfoy had talked about.
It didn't matter. He wanted to come here, and while he had the prospect, the life he had been leading was refreshed by the constant presence of waiting beauty.
Malfoy pressed close to him, and followed the fruit with his tongue, chasing the taste back into Harry's mouth, licking his chin for the juice. His hair changed color and length, and his silver eyes shone, and the trees made a noise like harp-music when they walked on their roots.
And this, Harry thought, as he lifted his mouth for another kiss from a lover he found exhilarating and fascinating by turns, but never, never boring, is worth journeying for.