Disclaimer: All characters and settings of Harry Potter are the property of J.K. Rowling and her publishers. No money is being made.
Content: Mentions of torture and miscarriage; minor character death, disability.

Part 1: Bound By Blood

Harry wanted to die.

He'd woken up some time ago, but hadn't been able to make himself get out of bed. His head was aching murderously, as if a mad dwarf with a hammer had taken up residency inside it, and when he opened his eyes, arrows of pain seemed to shoot through his eyeballs and optic nerves directly into his brain. With a groan, he closed them again, grabbed the second pillow lying beside him, and pressed it on his face. Sweet, sweet darkness.

For a while, he simply stayed like this, wallowing. His eyes were throbbing, his tongue was sticking to his gums, and he knew if he were to get up, he'd feel shaky on his legs and entirely too exhausted to get down the long flight of stairs to the kitchen.

It was his own fault, as Hermione would undoubtedly tell him, for drinking too much when he knew full well that he couldn't stomach it. Over the past years, there had been many a joke about Harry being unable to hold his liquor ever since two glasses of Firewhiskey had made him sing an offensive song about goblins and try to snuggle up to Head Auror Elmira Ruskin in a decidedly inappropriate fashion at the department's Christmas party. Ron had dragged him away before he'd made even more of an ass out of himself, and fortunately, Ruskin had been amused rather than angry.

But the Harpies had won the League Cup yesterday – Ginny had caught the Snitch – and at the victory party after the game she had invited him to, one of their Chasers, Valmai Morgan, had kept flirting with him, offering him one glass of champagne after the other. The further the evening had progressed, the deeper Harry had looked into her brilliant blue eyes – and the bottle. He wasn't certain how he'd got home, and he vaguely remembered Ginny teasing him about a hangover as early as 9pm. He'd not listened – the evening and Valmai had been too lovely to care.

Still, Hermione would say, a beautiful woman wasn't a reason to –


Harry pushed away the pillow and sat up abruptly, causing his head to spin and his stomach to lurch dangerously. He forced himself to take a few deep, slow breaths before he blindly reached for his alarm clock on the bedside table.

Hermione and Ron had wanted to stop by today for a late lunch after returning from a holiday in Egypt just last night, and he'd forgotten to tell Kreacher, meaning that Kreacher wouldn't have thought of waking him on time but let him sleep in, as he always did on a Sunday.

Harry could only hope it wasn't anywhere near 2pm already – he would hate to have to face them like this. He'd never hear the end of it. Bracing himself, he opened his eyes, tried to ignore the pain, and looked at the alarm clock. 8:23am. Great. With a sigh, Harry let himself fall back on the pillow. He must have slept for less than five hours, and knowing himself, he wouldn't manage to go back to sleep any time soon. He might as well get up.

Even after he'd made the decision, it took him about another ten minutes to motivate himself to move, and when he finally shuffled into the kitchen, the smell of bacon and eggs almost sent him staggering back out.

"Ah, Master Harry." Kreacher, who was standing at the old-fashioned cooker, paid no attention to the fact that Harry was clinging to the doorframe, trying to get his stomach under control. "Kreacher thought Master Harry would need a proper breakfast to help him. When Miss Ginny brought Master Harry home a few hours ago, she woke Kreacher and told him about the champagne, and Kreacher knew what to do immediately."

He waved his hand, the door of one of the cupboards opened, and a plate floated to his side. The amount of eggs, bacon, and beans he heaped on it filled Harry with trepidation.

"Kreacher would have kept it warm, but it's best when it's fresh out of the pan." The plate settled down in Harry's favourite place at the table, where a large glass of water was already waiting.

"Ugh," Harry managed to say. Kreacher nodded.

"Yes, Kreacher knows Master Harry's not feeling well. And Master Harry knows this is how it goes after too much to drink. Kreacher promised Miss Ginny to make sure that Master Harry eats a large breakfast. She agreed that it's what Master Harry needs, and even if Kreacher hadn't done this before, he would think that she must know best."

Resigned, Harry sat down and took the fork. The worst thing about it was that Ginny was right – after two years of living together as a couple at Grimmauld Place and another four as good friends, she was who knew him best, apart from Ron and Hermione. He was glad about it, glad that they'd split amicably and were still in each other's lives, but right now, he resented her conspiring with his house-elf against him. If Kreacher hadn't known, Harry could simply have skipped breakfast and contented himself with the headache potion he'd taken before coming downstairs. Not that it would have been enough to make him feel better. He still wasn't sure why, in a world of magic that even had invented something to re-grow your bones, nobody seemed to be able to come up with a decent hangover cure.

Harry sighed, listlessly spooned some beans onto the fork, and stuck it in his mouth.

Ten minutes later, he was halfway through the second helping, had asked Kreacher to fry some tomatoes, and was thinking of buying Ginny flowers to thank her for taking care of him.

He had just started on the tomatoes when the doorbell rung. Although he felt halfway human again, he didn't particularly care for visitors right now, and his mood didn't rise when he opened the door and found himself faced with Draco Malfoy.

They hadn't met since the battle of Hogwarts nine years ago – none of the children of Death Eaters had attended school to take their N.E.W.T.s. Harry had glimpsed him a few times at the Ministry or at Diagon Alley, but it had always been from afar, and they'd never talked or even acknowledged each other. There was no reason why Malfoy should turn up at Harry's door or why they would ever have anything to do with each other again.

"What do you want?" Harry didn't care much about being polite, and from the way Malfoy was glaring at him, the sentiment was mutual.

For a few moments, Malfoy said nothing, then he took a deep breath. "I've come to accept your proposal."

"What are you talking about? Which . . . proposal?" They hadn't spoken once since the Malfoys had awkwardly thanked him for speaking on their behalf at their trial after the war – not that it had helped them much.

Malfoy drew himself up to his full height. There was a strange pink tinge to his pale cheeks. "Your proposal of marriage, of course."

Harry stared at him, dumbfounded. Was this some kind of joke? A prank played on him by . . . but who of his friends would employ Malfoy for such a thing? And why would Malfoy play along?

Or had Malfoy simply gone mental?

Had Harry gone mental?

"I must be hallucinating," he finally got out.

"You're not, Potter. I've come to accept your proposal of marriage. I had hoped I wouldn't have to do it, but the circumstances leave me no choice." When Harry didn't reply, Malfoy rolled his eyes in exasperation. "Judging by the fact that you're wearing the same dazed expression your friend Longbottom used to in Potions class, you haven't got the faintest idea what I'm talking about, right?"

"Right," Harry echoed. He must be hallucinating. Surely, he hadn't been drunk enough last night to propose to anybody, let alone Malfoy. Had he? Not to mention that Malfoy hadn't been at the party. As far as Harry could remember, at least – which wasn't all that far.

"I'll explain it to you, but only after you let me in," Malfoy demanded. "I don't appreciate having to wait on your doorstep as if I were asking for alms. You were the one proposing to me, after all."

Harry had the overwhelming desire to simply slam the door in Malfoy's face and return to the kitchen. Kreacher could make him tea and he could watch some TV and just laze around for some hours until Ron and Hermione would arrive. He'd tell them about this outlandish episode and they'd all have a good laugh at the idea of Harry proposing to Malfoy. He definitely hadn't been that drunk. Definitely.

But for whatever reason, he felt that he couldn't do it. For all of Malfoy's snappy arrogance, there was something off about him, about the way his posture was just a bit too rigid, his fists clenched too tightly by his sides. After three years of Auror training and five years in the actual job, Harry, like many of his colleagues, had developed a sixth sense for such things, and now he had the distinct impression that in fact, Malfoy was feeling that he was 'asking for alms', as he'd put it.

"Fine," he said, stepping away from the door. "Come on in. Let's talk."

In the kitchen, Malfoy sat down stiffly on the chair Harry offered him, and Harry, who'd sat down as well, was just about to ask him what the hell this was all about when he noticed something else. Malfoy was shaking. Not much, but it was there, although he seemed to try to hide it by tightly folding his hands in front of him on the table. He was staring straight ahead at Harry with an expressionless face, but hadn't he looked at the leftover eggs and beans on the cooker a little too long when they'd come in?

It was only now when Harry paid closer attention that he realised that Malfoy was too thin, almost haggard. His face had become even more pinched, eyes lying deep in their sockets, and his fingers looked too long and spidery. Harry couldn't remember him ever looking quite like this, not even at the end of the war.

It wasn't a conscious decision when he asked, "I was just having breakfast. Do you want some?"

"I am not . . ." Malfoy began, and Harry already expected that he'd refuse. But then Malfoy fell silent, pressing his lips together in a thin line. Harry could see he was fighting with himself, not wanting to admit anything that could be regarded as weakness in front of Harry. Considering he'd been talking about marriage only a minute ago, it seemed all the more bizarre, but by now Harry felt sobered up almost completely and was certain that something must be seriously wrong and that he couldn't make any assumptions.

"Yes," Malfoy said now. "Breakfast doesn't sound that bad."

At first, he ate slowly, obviously trying to maintain his dignity, but after only a few forkfuls, he dug in as if he hadn't eaten properly in a week. Harry watched him with growing unease and ordered Kreacher to fry a few sausages and more eggs, and when Malfoy was done, Harry waved Kreacher to fill up the plate again. Malfoy seemed about to object, but then stayed silent and went on shovelling food into his mouth.

In the end, Malfoy put down the fork, but he didn't look up, staring at his empty plate instead. He must be terribly embarrassed, Harry thought, and while part of him was gloating, he didn't really like that part very much right now.

"Kreacher's a wonderful cook," he said. "I just had two helpings myself before you came. You should see Ron – he slips into a food coma most times he's here."

"You're being pathetically obvious," Malfoy said, but now he did look at Harry.

Kreacher had, without being ordered, made a pot of tea and left the kitchen to let them talk, and Harry now poured them both a cup.

"So," he said when he was done. "What's going on? What's with me proposing to you? I never did that, and you know it. I wasn't that drunk last night. This has got to be a joke."

Malfoy nodded. "I should have known that you would be woefully uneducated concerning these matters, even though it's about your own family history. Saviour of the Wizarding world and all, but no clue about anything, let alone who you are."

"Look, Malfoy! I don't know what you're going on about and frankly, I don't care much." Which was a lie. It was all bogus, of course, and he was still seriously wondering if Malfoy was quite right in the head. But this was . . . interesting. "What I do know is that I'm not going to let you insult me in my own house, so either you spit it out or you can leave again."

Malfoy's grip around his cup tightened visibly, but he nodded. "All right. You do know that your father came from a long pure-blood line, don't you?"

"Yes, I know. But what does that have to do with you and me?"

"Everything. Just 150 years ago, the Potters were one of the most respected pure-blood families, right up there with the Malfoys and Blacks."

"How the times have changed," Harry couldn't keep himself from saying.

Malfoy grimaced, but didn't respond to the bait. "They weren't just one of the richest and most respected families," he went on, "they also were deeply entrenched in Dark Magic."

"That's ridiculous!"

"Is it? Why? Just because your parents were fighting the Dark Lord, do you think their forefathers had to be like them? Think about your godfather. He came from one of the darkest Wizarding families in this country's history, and he turned from them when he was still a kid."

"I don't believe you," Harry insisted. "Somebody would have told me. Sirius or the Weasleys, or maybe Dumbledore."

"Why would they? Black and your Weasel friends probably wanted to spare your feelings, and as for Dumbledore, wasn't it more convenient for him that you didn't know?"

Damn Malfoy, but he did have a point.

"Still, even if it were true, which I don't believe, what does it have to do with anything?"

Malfoy sighed. "There are traditions. Traditions that aren't upheld by anybody but pure-blood families anymore, and specifically those who are regarded as 'dark'. One of them is the Blood Proposal."

"Blood Proposal." Slowly but surely, Harry began to doubt that he had, in fact, sobered up. Maybe he was still asleep and all of this was just a particularly strange dream brought on by too much alcohol.

"You remember, I suppose, casting a certain spell on me in our sixth school year," Malfoy said. "One that slashed my chest open and nearly had me bleed to death."

"You're not telling me . . ."

"Yes, Potter. I know it wasn't your intention, but after the old ways, that was you proposing to me. A wizard proposes to a witch by casting a dark spell that will spill her blood. Usually it's a lot less blood, as I may add." Malfoy absently rubbed his chest. "There are also some traditional words going with it, but they're not essential, the spell is. By spilling her blood, the wizard vows to protect her and her family in exchange for a blood heir to continue their lines. If she wants to accept, she has to cast the same spell on him. That seals the engagement."

Clearly, Malfoy must have lost his mind. But at least it answered the question about last night.

"There's that Longbottom-look again," Malfoy said.

"Excuse me, but it's just a tad hard to believe that there's a way to get accidentally engaged by attackingsomeone. And anyway, why – if you're actually serious, which I find hard to believe – why would you want to accept it? Why marry me?"

"I will tell you once you stop looking at me as if I were some creature from that ridiculous Quibbler magazine. For now, why don't you call for your house-elf if you don't believe me? Ask him about Blood Proposals. He is old enough to have seen generations of Blacks go through the ritual."

Harry felt a small amount of dread sneaking into him, but told himself not to be stupid. Even if these Blood Proposals were how it had worked in the past – always provided Malfoy didn't actually belong in St Mungo's – his parents hadn't been dark wizards, and he wasn't one, either. This particular tradition didn't affect him, and on the whole, to think that accidentally spilling somebody's blood with a hex immediately meant a marriage proposal was absurd.

"Fine, I'll ask him." Harry called Kreacher, and the old house-elf appeared with a 'pop' next to Harry's chair.

"Kreacher," Harry said, "can you tell me anything about Blood Proposals?"

Kreacher's watery eyes went wide, but he nodded, answering immediately. "Kreacher knows all about Blood Proposals," he said. "He has seen many of them, since he was a small elf helping out in the kitchen. Kreacher wishes he could have seen Master Regulus perform the ritual, but the last one he witnessed in this house was when Master Orion proposed to Mistress Walburga." He smiled, quite obviously remembering the day fondly. Harry shuddered, thinking of the screeching portrait of Mrs Black which had been hanging in the entrance hall and had now been banished to the attic.

"Malfoy said it's a tradition upheld in families that practise Dark Magic. I'm not from one, so even if it exists, this whole thing doesn't apply to me, right, Kreacher?"

To Harry's dismay, Kreacher began wringing his hands, looking decidedly uncomfortable.


"Kreacher knows about Master Harry's unnatural dislike of Dark Magic, so he's not happy to tell him that his family has always been practising Dark Magic, over many generations, until very recently. Kreacher has seen many Potters in this house over the years, since they were good friends with the Blacks." Now Kreacher looked up at Harry, whose heart sank more the longer he listened.

"Kreacher knows that Master Harry saw the family tree tapestry and the name Charlus Potter on it. He was Master Harry's second cousin, but he died in a fire with his wife and son before Master Harry was born. Kreacher watched as Master Charlus performed the ritual of the Blood Proposal with Mistress Walburga's aunt, Mistress Dorea."

Harry's head was swirling as he tried to make sense of the complicated family relations. He'd never known much about the Potters, only what Sirius had told him: that they came from a long line of pure-blood wizards, and that his grandparents had been old when they'd had Harry's father, even for Wizarding standards. They'd passed away from a Wizarding disease only months before Harry had been born. It did fit with what Kreacher was saying, though. He vaguely remembered the birth date next to Charlus on the tapestry being something like 1914 or 1915, and if he was indeed Harry's second cousin, it meant that he'd been an adult for almost thirty years before Harry's father, his uncle, had even been born.

"Master Charlus followed the old ways, after his parents," Kreacher went on, "but his great-uncle, Martinus Potter, Master Harry's grandfather . . . he had turned from the family. He did marry a pure-blood wife, but Kreacher heard that there was no Blood Proposal, and they never came to visit or even spoke to the rest of the family anymore. Kreacher heard it said that Master Martinus was obliterated from the Potter family tree. All hopes were resting on Master Charlus, and when he died with his family, his parents were devastated. They believed that the Potter family had come to a ruinous end, and . . . Kreacher is sorry to say, but they drowned themselves the very same year. That way, Master Harry's grandparents and father were the last Potters. And Master Harry, of course."

The headache was returning, and Harry pinched the bridge of his nose, closing his eyes for a few moments. This was why he hated the whole focus on blood-lines – it was too damn confusing, and it all ended in tragedy far too often.

"So," he said, taking a deep breath, "is it at all possible to . . . get engaged by accident? Say, a wizard attacks someone with a slashing hex, a dark one, but he didn't actually mean to propose."

"Oh, Kreacher has seen something like it," came the reply, and Harry slumped in his chair, burying his face in his hands. "It's how old Master Sirius, Master Regulus's great-grandfather, got to be married to Hesper Gamp. They were actually fighting, trying to kill each other. Their families had been bitter enemies for generations. Mistress Hesper provoked Master Sirius so much that . . ." Kreacher hesitated, but then went on, "Master Sirius took leave of his senses and used a dark slashing hex. He met his target, but once Mistress Hesper realised what had happened, she disarmed and bound him and delivered him to his family. The next few weeks, she visited every day and took great pleasure in taunting him with the fact that he had bound himself to her for life if she so chose, and that she would see him miserable much rather than simply see him dead. Master Sirius was bereft, but in the end, he had to marry her."

"All right, thank you, Kreacher," Harry said. "You can go now."

There was another 'pop', and when Harry opened his eyes, there was only Malfoy, watching him attentively.

"Look, Malfoy . . ." Harry wasn't quite sure what to say, but he wanted to get rid of him as quickly as possible. Right now, he wasn't particularly interested anymore in finding out what, precisely, Malfoy was planning or why. He'd learnt too much in too short a time, and nothing of it was pleasant. It wasn't that he was horribly shocked or sad about his family's past, and he still wasn't seriously considering that anything Malfoy could have told him in regard to the two of them was valid – although a nagging voice of doubt had settled somewhere in the back of his mind. Mostly, he was confused and tired, and he wanted some time to think things through without having to deal with Malfoy, of all people. "I don't think I —"

"I know you're rattled," Malfoy interrupted him. "But I can't wait anymore. I have waited as long as I could – I didn'twant to come. But I didn't have a choice. We've got to talk this through; I'll explain what happened, and why. You can't send me away now."

"I can." Harry got up and started towards Malfoy. "I could have when you were standing on my doorstep. I've got no obligation. I didn't propose to you – I'm not a dark wizard, so whatever it might have meant even if it was accidental, it doesn't mean anything when it comes to me." He'd arrived next to Malfoy, who'd got up as well, glaring at Harry from eyes shining with . . . anger? Despair? Harry wasn't certain. "I can see you're not doing well, and I'm actually rather sorry for you. But it's not my problem."

It wasn't, and it shouldn't be. He'd done more than enough for Malfoy's family. Still, Harry found that he couldn't simply throw Malfoy out like this. He no longer thought it an option that the man had somehow snapped. As he'd suspected earlier, something was indeed very wrong, and Malfoy must be desperate to have come to him; Harry was certain that he was the absolute last option. Malfoy himself had said that he hadn't wanted to do it. Andmarriage– just what kind of problems did he have that he'd consider something this ludicrous rather than face them?

"If you need help, just . . . come back tomorrow evening, tell me what your problem is, and I'll see what I can do, all right?" And hopefully, with that, the whole affair would be brought to an end.

They kept staring at each other for a few more moments, then Malfoy slumped ever so slightly, and when he ran a hand though his hair, Harry could see that it was trembling again.

"I will come back tomorrow," Malfoy said. "But there is no other solution. It's clear you wouldn't believe me if I explained any more, so ask your elf, or if you don't believe him either, ask your know-it-all friend, Granger. I'm sure she can tell you all about why you do have an obligation and what happens if you don't honour it."

"Is that supposed to be a threat?"

Malfoy didn't answer, but turned away and left the kitchen. Some moments later, Harry could hear the front door falling shut behind him.

He took the teapot and his cup and went to the living room, where he slumped down on the green velvet couch in front of the telly with a groan after he'd put them on the coffee table. Why did he have to get up? But if he'd been unavailable and Kreacher had sent Malfoy away, he'd only have come back later. At least now, Harry thought as he reached for the remote, he could ask Hermione right away if she knew anything about Blood Proposals.

Half an hour later, while The Simpsons was running, Harry had fallen asleep again.

Harry was sitting in the kitchen with Ron and Hermione, drinking butterbeer and eating delicious sandwiches and cheese canapés Kreacher had prepared while he had been sleeping. The two had told Harry about Egypt, and he'd let them talk, letting their stories about exotic creatures and old tombs distract him for a while. In the end, though, he'd brought up his bizarre morning visit.

Both Ron and Hermione had put their sandwiches down and stared at him in confusion when Harry had mentioned the words 'proposal' and 'marriage', but when he came to the part about his family having been entrenched in Dark Magic and mentioned the 'Blood Proposal', Ron started choking and spitting pieces of toast and tuna everywhere.

"You're kidding!" he finally gasped, after Hermione had slapped him hard on the back several times. "Blood Proposals are serious stuff. They're Unbreakable Blood Contracts – it doesn't get any more serious than that. Mum told me about Uncle Ignatius Prewett proposing that way to Lucretia Black. She was Sirius's aunt, I think."

"You've got an uncle who's practising Dark Magic?" Harry asked.

"Uh, we don't like to talk about him so much anymore. Before he married, he was okay; Mum and Dad even named Percy after him. But once he married her, he got all weird. Well, he moved away to the Orkney Islands after she died over fifteen years ago. Said he'd live in a hut alone on a small island hiding from his Muggle neighbours rather than watch his family and Wizarding Britain fall further into decay. Nobody's seen him since, and if you ask me, it's good riddance."

"Well," Harry said, "that uncle used Dark Magic on purpose when he proposed, no? I didn't. I'm not a dark wizard, even if my ancestors and my cousin were. It's got nothing to do with me. I mean, I can't just somehow have performed some Dark Ritual without even knowing. Malfoy was making that up."

Hermione and Ron shared a worried glance that Harry didn't like one bit.

"Tell me!" he demanded.

"It's not that easy," Ron finally muttered after some awkward seconds of silence.

"Ron is right," Hermione cut in. "If a family has been practising the Dark Arts for a long time, it's hard to renounce them completely. Even if you never perform any dark spells again, and even if generations pass and nobody touches Dark Magic . . ." She shook her head. "As much as I hate to say it – you know I hate this circus around blood-lines – but it stays in a family's blood. You could call it a special talent for Dark Magic. It's like magical evolution, if you want."

Ron nodded. "Mum said the Prewetts haven't been dark in over six hundred years, but before that . . . apparently, they were the equivalent of what's been the Blacks in recent times. And there have always been black sheep since then, like Uncle Ignatius. The way she explained it, even distant relations using Dark Magic strengthens the tendency in your children's blood. If my parents had wanted it, they could have easily got blood-bonded too, what with the Prewetts on Mum's side and the Blacks on Dad's. And his grandmother was a Yaxley."

"But I still don't—"

"It's in your blood, Harry," Hermione said. "It's, well, you could say it's an inherited genetic trait, like green eyes. The way I understand Blood Proposals . . ." She took a long swig of her butterbeer. "I'll have to look at it again, it's in Blood Magic: The Pulse of Wizardry, but I think I remember it correctly. I was researching Blood Magic for my own book – by the way, did I tell you I found some fascinating scrolls about the origins of some curses in a bookshop in Cairo? I have to include them – there's something about the Imperius Curse I'd never have found out otherwise."

"That's great, but I've got other problems right now. Bigger problems. Can we go back to the Blood Proposals?" If Hermione started on her book, it could take forever, and Harry didn't fancy another lecture about The History of the Dark Arts: A Comprehensive Guide to the Origins and Usage of Dark Magic from Roman Times to the Present.

"Sure," Hermione said, blushing slightly. "Sorry. So, if somebody like you, who is only two generations away from those who last practised Dark Magic habitually, performs a Dark Ritual, the ritual will work. It doesn't matter whether or not it's on purpose. The magic will . . . recognise you, I suppose that's the best way to put it. It recognises you as a member of your blood-line, and if there's a propensity to the Dark Arts, then it will automatically work, no matter your intent."

"So, why aren't people getting accidentally engaged like that all the time? It makes no sense!" Harry insisted. "Kreacher told me he'd seen it once, but with all the fighting and wars going on, shouldn't it happen much more often?"

"Well, there's certain criteria that need to be met," Hermione explained. "But if they are . . ." She looked at Harry unhappily. "As far as I know, it has happened accidentally a few times in the past, and also under the influence of the Imperius Curse. But usually, because of Blood Proposals, nobody in their right minds who can still be blood-bonded would ever use a dark slashing hex in battle."

Harry shook his head incredulously. "What about Snape, then?" he wanted to know. "He created Sectumsempra'for enemies'. Why? I mean, he must have known, he was intrigued by the Dark Arts. So much so that he made up his own dark spells. Wouldn't he have known that he'd just have offered marriage to everyone he used it on?"

Hermione shrugged helplessly. "I'm not entirely sure," she said, "but I suppose his Wizarding family never was all that dark. In such cases, intent does matter, and if the hex isn't answered with the same hex, there's no Blood Contract. Plus, let's face it: that curse was made to kill with. If someone is dead, it doesn't really matter anyway."

"They should teach us that stuff at Hogwarts. I mean, it's important!" They were taught total flim-flam like Divination, but not this? It was absurd. Maybe there was a point in learning more about the Dark Arts than only how to defend yourself against them. "So what are the criteria?"

"Firstly, a Blood Proposal has to be executed by Dark Magic. Defensive spells won't do, and there are more than enough attack spells which could cause bleeding without them being dark. The Sectumsempra you used is an extremely dark curse, which probably helped the whole thing along, too. Next, Blood Proposals only work between witches and wizards from dark families these days, or at least families that used to be dark. You've got to be a pretty powerful wizard with some serious determination to make it work even without a tingle of Dark Magic running through your veins."

Harry wondered how many families like that actually existed. Among the purebloods, certainly no more than a handful, what with all the intermarrying.

"Most people other than pure-blood families stuck in mediaeval times – like the Blacks or Malfoys – don't care anyway," Hermione went on. "Blood Bonds were mainly invented to ensure blood purity. The wizard who proposes vows to protect the witch and her family, and if she accepts, she vows to bear him an heir if he demands it. As Ron said, a Blood Proposal is an Unbreakable Blood Contract. Once the engagement is sealed, sex with anybody else will cause something . . . well, it's like a horrible hangover, only worse and it lasts longer. Incredibly painful. Most won't subject themselves to it. It's the perfect way to ensure marital fidelity and a pure blood-line. That's why Blood Proposals only work between virgins."

"Hah!" Harry thrust his index finger in her direction and jumped up from his chair in excitement. "Blood purity! Heirs! Damn, I knew I'd forgotten something. I'm such an idiot!"

"What do you mean?"

"Isn't it obvious?" How couldn't they have thought of it? And why hadn't he sooner? "All this talk you just did, about how a wizard proposes to a witch like this – Malfoy said the same thing. A wizard and a witch! And it's all for continuing the blood-line. Well, we're two men, we can't do that! We can't have kids together!" He was grinning widely, feeling as if he'd jumped out of the way of a terrible hex just in time. "Malfoy was trying to diddle me! I can't believe I didn't notice. And how come you fell for it, with all that you know about this stuff?"

There they went again, exchanging looks Harry didn't like at all.

"What now?"

"Bad news, mate," Ron said dejectedly.

"You're not serious."

"I fear yes, Harry," Hermione said. "Two wizards can have children together, as can two witches. There are spells to make it possible, even though it's complicated. Gay couples aren't particularly well-liked in pure-blood circles, but it's not unheard of. And it's tolerated by most as long as there are children."

"Anything so the blood-line continues," Harry said flatly, sinking back down on his chair. More and more, all of this seemed to be a huge effort of the universe to gang up on him.

"Yes. Although there are families who won't have it, children or no. When I researched the Black family tree for my book, Kreacher told me something interesting."

"Let me guess: one of those erased was actually gay?" It wasn't particularly surprising, Harry thought, that the Blacks of all families would have a problem with this.

"Marius, Sirius's great-uncle – the brother of Dorea who married your cousin. They later said he was a Squib, but that is nonsense. He was homeschooled, like all of his siblings, so he never went to Hogwarts, but there are enough people who remember him being a fine young wizard – the Blacks didn't manage to Obliviate everyone outside the family. He formed a Blood Bond with Clarence Rookwood when he was nineteen, and after his family threw him out, they decided to leave. They went abroad and were never heard of again, but they stayed just long enough to let everyone see that Clarence was pregnant."

Harry said nothing for a while. The idea was all too bizarre. Before his inner eye, the picture of a pregnant Malfoy began to form, and he shuddered. It was simply too ridiculous. Not to mention creepy. And based on the premise of him and Malfoy having sex.

No. He wouldn't go there. He wasn't even attracted to men, never mind Malfoy! He'd always only found women attractive, hadn't even experimented with a man and – wait!

"I'm not a virgin! And I bet neither is Malfoy. I was back then, but now . . . If this is all for the blood line – if the Proposal exists but hasn't been accepted, couldn't they go around and have sex? Have kids with somebody else? How can it still be binding then?"

Hermione shook her head. "Once a Blood Proposal has been made but is not yet sealed or rejected, well . . . you can have sex with somebody else. But it won't result in children, ever. Your magic prevents it. It's frowned upon because it essentially counts as marital infidelity, and there have been proposals that were rejected because of it. But it's doesn't automatically nullify the contract."

"So what, it makes you temporarily infertile too?" This was insane! "There's got to be a way to take it back." Harry couldn't believe that although nothing about this damned thing was going according to how it was supposed to traditionally be, he still couldn't find a loophole to get out of it.

"There isn't." Hermione was looking even unhappier now. "Once a Blood Proposal has been made, if all criteria are met, the final decision lies entirely with the party it was made to. It's the single most binding magical contract ever formed. Harry . . ." She was shaking her head, biting her lower lip uncomfortably. "If Draco really wants it, you'll have to marry him, and with Blood Bonding, divorce isn't an option."

"That's bollocks!" Harry snapped, jumping up yet again. "I'm notmarrying that twat! You can't seriously tell me that I'm screwed because my ancestors were idiots?!"

Hermione didn't answer, and neither did Ron.

"Well, I won't do it. It's as simple as that. I'm not marrying Malfoy, and that's the end of it."

"Then you'll die." Ron's voice was flat and dead serious, and it completely took the wind out of Harry's sails. He sat down hard, almost missing his chair so that he sent it swaying and had to hold on to the edge of the table for support.

"It's true," Hermione said, and there was the same sense of dread in her voice. "If you don't honour a Blood Contract, you'll die. You can't prevent Draco from accepting, and if the Blood Bond isn't finalised in the amount of time he names when accepting, your own magic will kill you. You've got no choice."

Harry let Malfoy enter without a word.

It was 8pm on Monday evening and he'd come home from the Ministry an hour ago, where he hadn't worked but tried to find out everything he could find about Blood Proposals and his own wretched family.

The results had been devastating. It was precisely as Ron and Hermione – and Malfoy – had said: Harry had entered into a binding magical contract with Malfoy, and if he broke it, the fact that it was a Blood Contract would turn his magic against him and make him die a gruesome death. He'd read a report in the Ministry archive about a wizard dying four hundred years ago due to stepping back from a sealed Blood Engagement, and the description had almost sent him throwing up his lunch.

When he'd consulted with somebody from the Legal Advice Office and asked how it could be possible that accidents like this had such dire consequences, the only answer he'd been met with had been that ignorance was no excuse in law. He'd wanted to hex the old hag; preferably in a way that would cause her to spend some time at St Mungo's and ponder the joys of being able to use the loo.

Shortly after he'd arrived home, Hermione and Ron had turned up, revealing that they hadn't had any luck trying to find a way out either. Harry was trapped. His only hope was to talk Malfoy out of this ludicrous plan.

Now Harry led him to the kitchen again, where Ron and Hermione were waiting already. Malfoy stopped dead when he saw them.

"What are they doing here?"

"They're my best friends," Harry said. "We've got no secrets, and since you're trying to coerce me into marrying you, I feel like I've got the right to have some support. We can either talk with them present or you can leave."

Malfoy seemed to consider for some moments, but in the end, he sat down at the opposite side of the table, ignoring the two.

"So," he asked, "is it clear to you by now that you've got no choice but to stand by your offer?"

"I did my research, yes." Harry sat down next to Ron and Hermione. "Seems that if you insist, I'll have to be married to you. Blood-bound, even. But I've got no clue why you'd want that. Obviously, you can't stand me, and I assure you the feeling is mutual."

"Oh, the surprise." Malfoy's lips curled into a sneer. "Unfortunately, as I told you before, I have no choice, either. Oh, don't think it's not fun for me to see you writhe like a worm on the hook, but I would much rather have avoided the whole business."

"Right," Ron cut in. "Why don't I believe you?"

"Because you've got the cerebral capacity of a flobberworm, Weasel. I wonder what your wife sees in you – an amusing pet, maybe?"

Hermione put her hand on Ron's arm as he tried to draw his wand. "Don't."

"Shut it, Malfoy!" Harry snapped. "This isn't helping."

Like the day before, Malfoy seemed to fight with himself, but then he nodded. "You're right." He ran his hand through his hair, which was hanging limply down to his jaw. Harry couldn't help but notice that again, he seemed to be shaking. Hadn't he eaten since yesterday morning? And why did Harry even care?

"It's not as if you wouldn't tell them anyway," Malfoy said. He folded his hands in front of him on the table, looking down on them in obvious resignation. "The truth is: I don't know what to do anymore. I always told myself it wouldn't come to this, but I knew that maybe at some point . . . It's why I never rejected the proposal when I realised what had happened, and I only truly thought about it when the war was over."

"Is it because of the Reparation Laws?" Hermione asked softly and with entirely too much sympathy for somebody whose husband Malfoy had insulted only moments earlier.

"Of course it is. We made it somehow, I always managed to scrape enough money together, but recently it's been close to impossible, and now that Mother is too sick to leave her bed . . ."

"Wait," Harry interrupted. "What are those laws? What do they say?" He knew that the fortunes and estates of all Death Eaters had been seized and redistributed by the Ministry as war reparations to the families, Wizarding and Muggle, who had lost loved ones or their own homes, but he'd never bothered with details and had believed that that was all. Surely, the Malfoys could survive on a normal salary like everyone, even without the family fortune in the background.

When he said so, there was an exasperated sigh from Hermione, and Malfoy looked up at him with an expression of utter disbelief. "You want to be an Auror and don't even . . . Merlin! How do you survive?"

"Better than you, apparently," Harry returned, but it was a cheap shot, and he knew it.

"You don't say. It's not as if you are restricted by a set of laws which in essence aim at killing your family. No, don't even start," Malfoy said as Harry wanted to interrupt him, "it's true, and Weasley's wife knows it." He grimaced in a way that might be interpreted as a wry smile. "She protested against it at the Ministry, of course completely unsuccessfully. If Minister Shacklebolt hadn't died he might have stopped this, but Hollingberry seems to take great pleasure in tormenting us."

To Harry's astonishment, Hermione nodded her confirmation, and Malfoy went on. "You probably know that my father died four years ago in Azkaban, so he is out of the picture. The Prophet made a spectacle out of it.Dedicated Death Eater finally meets his rightful end, and so on and so forth. Our manor and all money were taken by the Ministry right after the war. And yes, Mother and I could have survived without that, like other people. Being rich doesn't mean you're incapable of working. If they would let us work, that is."

Harry was feeling decidedly uncomfortable by now. There were so many things going on which he apparently didn't know anything about, but could have if he had paid more attention. And the idea that the Ministry was specifically targeting the families of Death Eaters . . . as an Auror, how could he not have noticed?

"Have you ever looked around with your eyes open since the war, Potter?" Malfoy asked. "How many former Death Eaters or their children have you seen working anywhere in our world? No Wizarding employer will take us, and I'm fairly certain it's not only because we weren't allowed to take our .T.s and the Ministry restricted our magic to using the Floo and household spells. I applied for almost a hundred positions during the months after the war, but I had no chance. The same goes for all the others. And we're forbidden to build up any business of our own."

"Well, what about Muggle jobs?" Harry wanted to know. "Are those beneath you?"

Malfoy snorted. "I've spent the last nine years in and out of Muggle jobs, the ones you don't need any Muggle education for. I've waited tables, stacked boxes, sold everything from McDonald's hamburgers to sex toys, and – I'm sure this will delight you and Weasley particularly – I spent five months cleaning Muggle toilets. Without magic, of course. But it kept us fed and I could buy Mother's medicine, so I couldn't complain."

"Then what's the problem?"

"The problem is that it has been illegal for almost the last three years, ever since Hollingberry became Minister!" Now Malfoy's pale face was flushed, his eyes burning. "We're not allowed to work for Muggles anymore, or to live on Muggle dole. It's illegal for us to 'profit from them', as the Ministry puts it. Of course, everyone is doing it anyway, but these last years, I had to quit every single job at some point because those Ministry snoopers were after me. I couldn't risk being caught by them a third time. It would have meant half a year in Azkaban, and who would have taken care of Mother, then? They had caught me twice already, made me quit and confiscated my pay. Mother almost died without her medicine! If her sister hadn't given us money . . ." Again, he raked a trembling hand through his hair. "They are trying to kill us. They hope that we'll just starve somewhere out of sight and no longer bother them."

Harry didn't know what to think or to say. How could he have been so entirely clueless? This was more than cruel, and he couldn't believe that the public would just accept it.

"Hermione, why didn't you tell me?" he finally managed to ask. If she had protested against these laws . . .

"You weren't here when the laws were put in place," she said softly. "You were so busy in New York, and then there was . . . Lizbeth. It was only two months after I'd handed in the protest, and then I couldn't . . ." She trailed off, and Ron put his arm around her and kissed her temple.

"I understand," Harry said. He'd been overjoyed to hear that Hermione was having a baby, and even though he had indeed been extremely busy at the Auror exchange programme with New York, he had come back to England for a weekend when they had shared the news and asked him to be the godfather. After that, he'd Firecalled regularly and promised to be there when the baby would arrive.

But one day, when she had been six months along and they had long picked a name, there had been a distraught Firecall from Ron: Hermione had lost the baby and survived by only a hair's breath. After that, it had taken her months to get out of St Mungo's, and over a year to get back to a relatively normal life. Harry had visited her several times at the hospital and offered to come home permanently, but she hadn't wanted to hear a word about it.

"Why don't you leave the country?" Harry asked Malfoy. "It seems like the best option. Start fresh somewhere else."

"You still don't get it, do you? They want us to die; they are doing everything they can other than having us all be Kissed by Dementors. We're not allowed to leave the country, and if we're caught trying, it means five years of Azkaban without even a trial. Pansy and Theodore tried to leave for his relatives in Germany a year ago; now they're locked up for another four. I can't risk that, not with Mother being so sick."

"This is . . . it's a travesty!" Harry still couldn't understand how it could have happened. The former Death Eaters deserved punishment, yes, but not a slow death sentence. "I'll go to the Minister, hand in a protest myself. This can't go on, something has to be done!"

"Yes, you try that. I'm sure they will listen." Malfoy looked less than convinced. "You're their hero, sure, but don't flatter yourself. When it's your approval versus the punishment of us 'monsters', even Weasley could figure out the odds."

Harry had to admit that Malfoy had a point. He was popular with the general Wizarding public and mostly well-liked at the Ministry, but it didn't mean he had any true political influence. Minister Shacklebolt had been an experienced, capable man who was in no need of advice from a young man barely out of his teens, and now that there was a new Minister Harry didn't even know, there was no good reason why his opinion should count. Still, he'd try it. He had to.

"But how can they just accept this? Why didn't people protest? This is just as bad as what Voldemort wanted to do! It's not right."

"Don't be naïve, Potter." Malfoy didn't even sound angry anymore, only resigned. "They lived through two wars in which Death Eaters destroyed their homes and murdered their friends and family members. They hate us. If they could, a lot of them would gladly finish us off with their own hands. They'll never speak on our behalf or agree with anybody who does, and you're an idiot if you believe you could change it."

Harry didn't reply – what could he have said? Malfoy went back to staring down at his hands.

In the end, it was Ron who got up and started fumbling with the kettle to make tea. Harry hadn't had supper yet, and although he didn't feel hungry anymore in the slightest, he got up as well and started putting cups, plates, and cutlery on the table. Kreacher had made roast beef sandwiches before he had come home, and now Harry put them on the table together with some cheese and grapes.

They didn't speak during eating. Ron and Hermione had eaten already and only sipped their tea, and Harry forced down a sandwich without tasting anything. Malfoy, on the other hand, ate with ravenous appetite again, not looking any of them in the eye.

Harry tried his best not to stare at him, but found that he couldn't help it – he'd dished up supper only because he was now convinced that Malfoy hadn't had anything since the breakfast Harry had invited him to, and Harry wondered what it must feel like to be so hungry. Not that he hadn't gone without far too often at the Dursleys', but he'd never truly had to worry about where his next meal would come from, he'd never feared that he might starve.

Malfoy didn't deserve this. Now that he knew the reason why he was trying to force him into this marriage business, Harry found that he pitied him and wanted to help him somehow.

Was there really no other way for him to survive other than marrying Harry? Malfoy himself didn't seem to think so, and he'd had years to try out every alternative, had somehow eked out a living and taken care of his sick mother, always hiding from the Ministry, while Harry had lived without a care in the world most of the time.

It wasn't right – the thought had gone through Harry's head during the Malfoys' trial already – it wasn't right that Malfoy should be punished like this essentially because he'd been born to the wrong parents. If Harry had been born into an old pure-blood family with Death Eaters as parents, would he have acted any differently? He'd like to think yes, but he knew he couldn't be certain. More than that, he knew that it was rather unlikely.

Watching Malfoy take bite after bite, chew, and swallow, his eyes fixed on the food in front of him almost as if it might vanish if he looked elsewhere, Harry realised that his anger was more and more diminishing. Malfoy wanted to use him, yes, but if Harry was in the same situation and saw no other choice, wouldn't he do the same?

But didn't Malfoy have anybody who – wait, hadn't he said something about Andromeda giving him money? If they had reconciled enough for her to help her sister and nephew out in the past, why wouldn't Malfoy ask her for help?

When the last sandwich and the last piece of cheese were gone, Malfoy wrapped his hands around his teacup and instead stared into the tea. He didn't seem to want to continue the conversation, and truth be told, neither did Harry. But they had to come to some kind of conclusion, and so Harry drank the last sips from his own cup before he asked: "What about Andromeda? You said she gave you money before. Couldn't she help you?"

"It's illegal," Ron said. He'd been surprisingly quiet, not reacting to the last insult Malfoy had thrown at him, and Harry had been grateful for it. "It's illegal for, well . . . anybody to give him anything, even relatives."

"Yes. That didn't stop her from doing it several times, but . . ." Malfoy shook his head tiredly. "They caught us. Threatened her with taking away the boy, Teddy. Somebody who would aid Death Eaters couldn't possibly be fit to raise a child, that's what they said. After that, she couldn't risk it anymore."

Harry was stunned. Why hadn't Andromeda told him about it? They'd developed a friendship since Teddy had come to live with her, and he'd visited regularly about twice a month before he had left for New York. Even then, he'd stopped by every time he had returned for a visit. He hadn't seen them since he'd come back to England for good two months ago, but he'd been thinking of Firecalling this week.

"They finally allowed her to take Mother in a few weeks ago," Malfoy went on, "but only after months of appeals to the Ministry, and after they had made absolutely certain that even if she had access to proper food and medication, Mother couldn't possibly recover." He was clutching his cup so tightly Harry though it might crack at any moment. "All those medical consultants from the Ministry circling her like vultures, subjecting her to useless tests although the Healers had made it clear years ago that she only had a few years left, no matter what. But they 'had to make certain everything was going according to the law'."

"I'm sorry, Draco. That's horrible."

Malfoy looked at Hermione with an indefinable expression that Harry interpreted as a mixture between disgust and gratitude.

"At least she's well taken care of now," Malfoy said. "But I can't put Andromeda and Teddy in danger, and I can't risk going to Azkaban and missing Mother's . . . I have to be here when it is time." He pressed his lips together for a moment and swallowed hard, his Adam's apple bobbing visibly on the thin neck. "And even after that, I don't think I can go on like this."

He'd forced out the words, and Harry knew it must have cost him every ounce of willpower to admit these things in front of him, Ron, and Hermione of all people.

"I want to help you, I really do," he said. "All of this is terribly wrong."

"Then form the Blood Bond with me. It's the only way."

By now, Harry had realised that there truly seemed to be no other option than for Malfoy to marry somebody who'd support him, but there was one thing that he still didn't understand.

"Why does it have to be a Blood Bond?" he asked. "Why not simple marriage? I marry you, we keep it up for a year or two, then we divorce. While we're married, I buy you a nice house that you can keep, and we'll set up a marriage contact in which I agree to pay you alimony for as long as you live in case that we separate. That way, you won't have to worry about anything and we can both go on with our lives."

Part of him still couldn't believe that he was even making the offer – this was Malfoy, after all. But Harry pushed those thoughts aside; they were childish and inappropriate in a situation like this. He could do this. He could be married to Malfoy for two years, and he could definitely spare the money. It wouldn't be that big of a sacrifice, and it would save Malfoy and his mother. Not to mention himself.

Slowly, Malfoy raised his head. He seemed to look even worse now than before eating: drawn, humiliated, and plain tired. He didn't even have to say the words for Harry to understand.

"It's too easy," Harry said, and now all that he felt was dread. "That's it, right? Find somebody willing to keep up a sham marriage for some time, then separate and arrange it so the former Death Eater is taken care of financially. It's forbidden for you to simply marry."

Malfoy nodded. "They only allow us to marry somebody who wasn't a Death Eater when it's a Blood Bond, so that we can't trick them. So that the other person only marries us if they really mean it. Once you are blood-bound, you can't divorce – it would kill you. As would living apart for too long, eventually, like it did with Father. The only way to break the bond is through death."

"Malfoy . . . Draco." Harry knew it was useless, but he had to say it nonetheless. "I don't want this. I can't. Not for life."

"I know," Malfoy muttered, eyes returning to his tea. He sounded almost ashamed, but there was a steely edge underneath. "I don't want it either. But I will force you if you won't do it voluntarily. I have to. Just this once, I have the law on my side, and I've got to save myself."

"The Healer is here." Ron entered the living room of #12 Grimmauld Place, followed by a tall grey-haired woman in green robes.

It was ten o'clock in the morning on Friday, September 3rd, 2007, five days after Malfoy had come back into Harry's life with the demand that he marry him. And today would be their wedding day.

Ron and Hermione had arrived an hour ago, finding Harry and Ginny in the kitchen, picking at their breakfast. Harry had asked Ginny to spend the night – just as a friend, nothing more, and they had mindlessly watched TV on the couch until after midnight. At some point, Harry had cried, and Ginny had held him until he'd been able to calm down again. She had kissed him, then, a long, gentle kiss, and he had asked her to sleep in his bed. They had lain in the dark, Harry's head between her breasts, and talked about Hogwarts and Quidditch. After a while, Harry had fallen asleep with Ginny petting his hair.

In the morning, he had awoken at six with a sense of complete surrealism, and it had only intensified when Malfoy had turned up at nine-thirty, looking pallid and bleary-eyed. Harry had wondered what he might have been up to the previous night. Go out and pick somebody up to have sex with a partner of his own choosing for the last time without being punished? Harry had thought of doing it, but had realised he wasn't in the mood.

Or maybe – it had been the first time the idea occurred to him – Malfoy had a relationship he had to break off for this? Maybe he'd spent this last night with his partner? Suddenly, Harry had been very glad that he wasn't in any kind of relationship himself. He couldn't imagine having to give up the person he loved forever for a union of necessity, and he didn't even want to begin thinking about the fact that he very well might fall in love again at some point in his life. For now, all he wanted was to get through the day.

"Harry?" He blinked and found that it was Ginny, who was touching his arm. "The Healer is here. Are you all right?"

He almost would have laughed in her face, but pulled himself together just in time. He still couldn't believe it was actually happening – that he was getting engaged and then married to Malfoy. And not simply married like normal people, but blood-bound for life to somebody he couldn't stand, and who couldn't stand him. The first thing he'd done on Tuesday morning had been to hand in a formal protest against the Reparation Laws, but Percy Weasley, who was the person dealing with such matters, had crushed his hopes.

"They won't even look at it, "he'd said unhappily. "Never mind your name being on it. Anything concerning Death Eaters that's not about worsening their lives is going straight into the bin. I can't do anything about it. I'm sorry, Harry."

"Yes, don't worry," Harry said to Ginny now.

The Healer's name was Mercer, and she didn't seem to be particularly taken with the whole affair. When Harry had made the appointment with her two days ago, she had stared at him quite incredulously when he'd informed her for what he would need her, and that hadn't changed when he had told her who it was he would be blood-bonded to. But her business sense had won out, she had gathered herself and even managed a smile as she had educated him on the dangers of the ritual as it would take place and the procedure she would perform on him to heal the wound.

"Mr Potter," she now greeted him, and then nodded into Malfoy's direction. "Mr Malfoy."

Malfoy didn't react. He was sitting in one of the red armchairs next to the bookshelves at the other end of the room, looking ahead with a slightly vacant expression. Harry wondered what he might be thinking.

"Are you certain you want to go through with this?" Healer Mercer asked.

"I am. You brought everything?"

She nodded. "I'm well prepared, you need not worry."

"All right. Then I suppose we should start."

Hermione, who had listened, went over to Malfoy, talking to him softly. He blinked a few times in confusion, but then nodded and slowly got up.

Harry began taking off his shirt. It was more than unfortunate that the engagement had to be sealed with the same hex Harry had used on Malfoy – there were enough dark hexes less severe than this. But Healer Mercer had a good reputation, and Harry trusted her – and, if need be, Hermione – to take care of him properly.

"Good luck," Ginny said. Her face was very serious and her eyes very dark, and when Harry wrapped his arms around her waist and kissed her, like she had done the night before, she didn't resist. Her body was warm and solid against him, and for a moment, he felt as if his legs might give in. But the moment passed, they pulled apart, and Harry walked away from her to stand before the red couch that belonged to the reading corner.

Malfoy had taken his position in front of the opposite wall, and now Ron and Hermione came over to Harry, standing on both sides of him to support him once he would fall. Healer Mercer was standing only a few steps to the side, her bag next to her, wand at the ready.

Ginny had taken a parchment from the coffee table, which contained the traditional words for the acceptance of a Blood Proposal.

"Are you ready?" she asked Harry.

He nodded.

She turned to Malfoy. "And you?"

Another nod.

"All right." She raised the parchment. Her voice was shaking, and she stumbled a little over the old-fashioned words as she read.

"Dost thou, Draco Malfoy, accept Harry Potter's Blood Proposal? Dost thou accept his vow to provide for thee, honour and protect thee and thy family from this day forward until death do ye part? And dost thou vow to provide him with a blood heir if he so desireth, and to honour him and his family from this day forward till death do ye part?"

"I do, and death shall take him if we are not bound within the week."

Malfoy's face was set into an expression of grim determination, and Harry gritted his teeth and braced himself against the pain.

"Be strong, Harry," Hermione whispered. He felt her and Ron's hold on him tighten, their fingers digging into his naked shoulders. "Remember, we've got the Healer here. It will hurt, but nothing serious can happen."

Harry nodded, then he saw Malfoy take a deep breath before he raised his wand.


When Harry came to, he felt dizzy and disoriented. His sight was blurred, there was a dull pain in his chest, and when he instinctively tried to sit up, a feeling of weakness rushed through him, making him slump down again. A hand touched his shoulder, squeezing gently.

"Harry, don't." Ginny's voice. "You need to lie down for a while."

He blinked, and the world slowly came into focus. There was Ginny, sitting next to him on the edge of what he now realised was the red couch in the living room. Healer Mercer was standing behind her, as well as Ron and Hermione, looking down on him with a frown on her face. When he turned his head, he could see that Malfoy was back in the armchair, bent forwards, his face hidden in his hands.

"How do you feel?" Mercer asked.

"I'm . . . okay, I think. Weak and exhausted. A bit dizzy. And my chest hurts."

She nodded. "I can give you a painkilling potion if you want. It should last for another few hours, and I'll leave you some here for the weekend. Mr Malfoy did well – there was only one slash, right across the chest, and the essence of Dittany worked perfectly. There won't be any scarring if you keep the bandages on long enough. And you didn't lose too much blood. I'd say you will be fine come Monday, but I'd prefer if you stayed in bed for the rest of the day."

"No." They had planned everything before, and both Harry and Malfoy had agreed to seal the engagement and then go to the Ministry to sign the papers and finalise the Blood Bond on the same day. They both wanted it to be over with before either of them could do something stupid. "I'll go to the Ministry this afternoon, as planned. We've got an appointment at five."

Mercer sighed. "As you wish. If you eat a proper meal or two and don't strain yourself before you leave, it shouldn't be dangerous. But don't be surprised if you feel dizzy or faint."

"We'll be going with them," Ron said. "We'll take care in case something happens."

"All right, then," Mercer said. "If you need anything, you can always Firecall me over the weekend. And make sure to keep the bandages on until tomorrow evening. If the healing process is disturbed, there will be scarring despite the Dittany treatment."

"Thank you, I won't forget it. And I'd appreciate it if you left some painkillers here."

Mercer rummaged in her bag and put several small flasks on the coffee table. "I'll be back on Monday, then."

When she was gone, Ginny handed Harry one of the flasks for the pain in his chest, and Ron vanished to the kitchen to make tea and get some of the leftover breakfast for Harry. "You heard the Healer," he said when Harry protested that he wasn't hungry.

Harry just wanted to ask Hermione if she would mind giving him his shirt when he noticed that she was with Malfoy now, kneeling in front of his armchair and talking to him in a low voice. Malfoy hadn't moved, his face was still buried in his hands, but after a while there was a muffled answer.

Hermione nodded, got up and quickly left the room. What could they have talked about?

"Harry?" Ginny had cupped his cheek and was looking down on him with tears in her eyes. She'd been much calmer than he had expected when he had told her about it all on Wednesday, and she had comforted

m when he'd needed it yesterday. But now she suddenly seemed shaken.

"I didn't . . . When we were together I never doubted we'd have children one day. I never told you, but even when it was over, even though I wanted it to be over, somehow, I still thought that maybe, one day . . ." She shook her head with a sad smile. "It didn't quite feel real last night, but now . . ."

"Now it is," Harry murmured. A thick strand of copper hair had fallen into her face, and he reached up and tucked it behind her ear. He felt awfully tired. "You'll find someone and have wonderful children. And nothing will change between us, I promise. We'll always be family."

He didn't want to think about it, about how they'd lain in bed after sex, talking about starting a family one day, about how many kids they wanted, about names for girls and boys. Somehow, although he hadn't wanted to be with her anymore these last years, now it seemed to hurt almost more than when they'd split up. It made no sense, and Harry hated it, and also Malfoy for causing all of this. Now he would never have children – not that he and Ginny could ever have had them without Malfoy rejecting the Blood Proposal.

"You'll be their favourite uncle," Ginny said, taking her hand away from his face to wipe at her eyes.

"M-hm . . ." Harry didn't want to talk any longer, or think; he only wanted to sleep. Breakfast could wait. He closed his eyes and thankfully, Ginny stayed silent and it didn't take long before he dozed off.

The Ministry clerk, a small man with shifty eyes in a rodent-like face, was looking down at the forms on his desk with a frown. He'd spent the better part of ten minutes rummaging through cupboards and drawers before finally, he'd found what he had been looking for, all the while muttering about outdated rituals and backwards attitudes.

His frown only intensified when he finally looked up and his eyes met Harry's.

"Are you certain you want to do this, Mr Potter?" The man cleared his throat, his eyes wandering over to Malfoy, mouth twisting into a grimace as though he were looking at a disgusting insect he wanted to squash. "Are you certain you want to marry one of them?"

"Actually, yes," Harry said. "I'm very certain." Certain that he didn't want this at all, but that wasn't any of this bigoted little rat's business. He still wished for nothing more than to wake up and realise this was all a bad dream, but the disdain oozing from the clerk's every pore infuriated him. It was precisely that attitude which had brought him here.

"And if you don't mind," Malfoy said acidly, "I'm right here. I can hear you. So I'd suggest you refrain from any inappropriate remarks and simply do your job. If your curdled little brain permits it, that is."

The clerk didn't bat an eye, but looked down on the forms again. "Very well. There's nothing legally wrong with the marriage contract."

He managed to make it sound as if it went without saying that any document which granted somebody like Malfoy a reasonable monthly allowance, a third of his spouse's fortune in case of death, and full spousal rights in all other matters – except for medical decisions – was one of the most morally reprehensible things ever to be conceived of.

"All I need are your respective signatures to make it official. And also signatures here on the marriage registration form, and here, to confirm the Blood Bond." He shoved the papers to the edge of his desk, and Harry leant forward on his chair and took the waiting quill.

'This is it,' he thought when the quill scratched over the paper. Now it was official. When he handed the quill to Malfoy, his head was spinning, and he had to close his eyes. He wasn't quite sure if it was residual weakness due to the Sectumsempra earlier in the day or because of the madness of it all.

"Now there's the final sealing of the Blood Bond," the clerk said when he'd put the Ministry's official stamp on all three documents. Harry had briefly glimpsed the signature Draco Malfoy-Potter and his stomach had clenched into a tight lump. "If you would please rise."

Harry did, and watched as the man pulled out his wand and performed a cleaning spell on the small ceremonial dagger and the golden goblet he'd previously found in one of the cupboards in the far corner of the room. They were both coated in dust and obviously hadn't been used in quite a while.

Hermione, who had kept to the background with Ron and Ginny until now, stepped forward and put a bottle of red wine and the box with the rings on the desk. Harry had asked her to get the rings for them during the week – he'd not felt capable of doing it himself.

Once the clerk had poured wine into the goblet, he got up as well and held out the dagger to Harry, while holding the parchment from which he read in the other hand.

"Wilt thou, Harry Potter," he intoned, "mix thy blood with Draco Malfoy's blood? Wilt thou grant him thy name and protection? Wilt thou bind thyself to him irrevocably, in full knowledge of all that a Blood Bound entails, to be thy lawful wedded husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do ye part?"

"I will." Harry's hand was shaking when he received the dagger, and for a second, he feared he'd cut off his index finger, but then he managed to only prick the tip of it. Ten droplets of blood fell into the goblet which Hermione was holding for them, then the clerk closed the wound with a simple spell.

"And wilt thou, Draco Malfoy mix thy blood with Harry Potter's blood? Wilt thou accept his name and protection? Wilt thou bind thyself to him irrevocably, in full knowledge of all that a Blood Bound entails, to be thy lawful wedded husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do ye part?"

"I will."

Harry gave the dagger to Malfoy, who repeated his actions.

"Then drink now from this cup to seal the bond between you." The clerk pointed his wand at the goblet. "Sanguis coniunge!"

A bright red light engulfed the goblet, and to Harry's amazement, two figures formed in this light which he recognised as himself and Malfoy. They were facing each other, their hands entwined, and they leant in and kissed before dissolving into light again. Moments after, the light dimmed down to a faint glow.

It was a cruel farce – he and Malfoy would never be like this, nor would he have it with anybody else. At this moment, Harry felt as if he'd never hated anybody more than Malfoy, not even Voldemort.

Hermione handed the goblet to him, and instead of throwing it on the floor like he wanted to, he raised it to his lips and drank, although he felt as if he'd have to gag if he swallowed even one drop. But he managed to force down a mouthful before giving the goblet to Malfoy, whose face had adopted a greenish tinge. When their fingers brushed, Harry noticed that his skin was icy cold.

Malfoy, in contrast to Harry, did gag and choked on the wine, and tears were running down his cheeks by the time he could stop coughing and drank. His eyes were burning as he looked at Harry over the goblet, and Harry was reminded of the fact that he wasn't the only one who hated all of this.

The same red light as before now began pulsing around Harry and Malfoy. It seemed to be seeping from their skin, their auras of light growing wider and wider until they touched and then melted into each other. For the fraction of a second, Harry felt an incredible heat rush through his veins, then the feeling vanished, and with it the light, which got dimmer and more translucent before it extinguished completely.

"Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy-Potter, your bond has been sealed and you are bound by blood forever."

It sounded like a prison sentence.

"May this union be a happy one," the clerk droned on, clearly unconvinced, as Harry and Malfoy took the golden rings, "may the sun and the moon rise over it for many years. May it be blessed with pure children to continue the line of both families, and may the joint line never end. So mote it be."

Harry drew a shaky breath before he and Malfoy put the rings on each other's ring fingers and repeated in unison, "So mote it be."

Harry was sitting on the couch in the living room, staring at the TV without truly taking in the programme. After the ceremony, he'd sent Ron, Ginny, and Hermione home; he'd no longer been able to stand their worried faces and – albeit unspoken – pity. Later, Malfoy and he had stared at the supper Kreacher had prepared until it had gone cold, and then they'd agreed on watching TV. Harry had felt no desire to talk to his 'husband', and Malfoy seemed to share the feeling. They'd simply sat in silence, watching the pictures flicker over the screen.

For a while, Harry had been absorbed with going over the ritual in his mind. It had been completely absurd: the drinking of each other's blood – he'd been relieved it was no more than a few drops, but it had still been disgusting – the ancient English, the phrases full of ridiculous pathos. So mote it be, seriously.

Now it was around eleven in the evening, he was tired and should go to bed, but he didn't quite feel up to it.

The problem was Malfoy.

He was sitting next to Harry on the couch, and once Harry went to bed, he'd have to come with him.

Both Healer Mercer and the Ministry clerk had stressed the fact that Harry and Malfoy would have to spend the next 24 hours close to each other for their magic to settle down properly after forming the bond. They'd gone through an unpleasant experience after the others had gone home, when they'd collected Malfoy's few things from his old flat – a tiny dump in a shabby Muggle neighbourhood – where he'd lived with his mother. Malfoy had gone to the loo, and immediately after the door had closed behind him, Harry's head had begun hurting madly and he'd felt chilled to the marrow. A short while later, Malfoy had stumbled out of the bathroom pressing both hands to his temples – he'd looked close to vomiting to Harry. From then on, they had been careful to never be more than two feet apart.

Walking side by side, sitting next to each other at the kitchen table and on the couch – it was strange, but he could deal with it. Sleeping in the same bed, though . . . Harry rubbed at his eyes and tried to focus on the telly. The action film had given way to an animal documentary in which an alligator had just caught some kind of gazelle, dragging it underwater.

There was an abrupt movement beside him, and he saw that Malfoy had grabbed the remote from the coffee table. They telly was switched off.

"I'm tired," Malfoy sad. "We'll go to bed now."

"No," Harry heard himself say. "I want to watch that. Give me the remote." He held his hand out, all the while asking himself what he was doing. He wasn't interested in the documentary, and he was tired enough to fall asleep on the spot. But he'd be damned if he let Malfoy order him about like this. If he let it happen on the first day of their marriage, he'd only set a precedence.

The rational part of his brain told him that he was being ridiculous. There was no use fighting simply out of spite, and tomorrow evening, the whole matter of being stuck together would be over with. He'd never have to even look at Malfoy again if he didn't want it.

Only it would never be over, not really. He'd be stuck with Malfoy for the rest of his life, quite possibly over a hundred years. He would never be free again.

"Just come to bed," Malfoy insisted.

Harry shook his head and crossed his arms in front of his chest. "Stop dishing out orders, you arrogant prick! I'm not your house-elf!"

"I haven't owned a house-elf in nine years, in case you've forgotten! Now come! I'm sick of us sitting here and brooding, and you are too. You're tired, I can see that, and it's no use fighting now. Whatis it with you?"

"You! It's you, you git!" Harry snapped. He couldn't contain his anger any longer – the entire week, he'd pulled himself together, had told himself that Malfoy didn't like this any better than him, that he didn't have a choice, that Harry might do the same if he had to. But now all he felt was rage, and it had to get out. He'd jumped up from the couch, glaring down at Malfoy, stabbing his index finger into his direction. "You're in my house onmycouch telling me what to do, after you forced me to bind myself to you forever! I can't marry, I can't have a girlfriend, I can't even kiss without my magic whacking me over the head! And I've got to live with a snooty bugger who worked cleaning toilets and still thinks his shit smells better than others'!"

Harry knew that he was being unfair, but right now all that he wanted was to hit Malfoy's sore spot, punish him for ruining everything. "You ruined my life because your family was too dumb to make the right choices! Your parents threw their lives and yours away because they thought they were better than everyone else – well, look where it got them! And look where it got you. This is ridiculous! We're married, and we hate each other! And it will go on for the rest of our lives; we'll be resenting the hell out of each other for existing! I know I do! I wish I'd left you to sizzle along with Crabbe!"

It was only when he fell silent that Harry realised he'd been yelling – and what exactly he'd said in the end. Malfoy didn't respond, but was looking back at him with a stony expression. Slowly, he rose from the couch, eyes still glued to Harry's, only to then turn and walk away without a word.

Immediately, the headache set in, and Harry groaned in pain.

"No wait!" He stumbled after Malfoy and reached out, grabbing him by the wrist.

The punch was hard and sudden, hitting him right on the eye and sending his glasses flying. Harry staggered, but caught himself and reflexively swung and punched back. There was a yelp and a disgusting crunching noise as his fist met with Malfoy's face, and then Malfoy went down.

The room was spinning before Harry's eyes, and he, too, slumped down on the thick carpet. Luckily, the dizzy spell was over within a few moments, and the headache was abating as well. He touched his eyebrow and winced; he'd definitely get a black eye if he didn't apply a magical salve quickly. But when he reached for his wand to summon it from the upstairs bathroom, his eyes fell on Malfoy, who was bent forwards, his face between his legs, hands fisted around bushels of his hair. His breathing was shallow, and blood was gushing from his nose.

Damn. This wasn't good at all. The majority of his anger at Malfoy evaporated as suddenly as it had flared up. He hadn't wanted to seriously hurt him – or well, he had, but not like this. Harry quickly took his wand out of his pocket and summoned his glasses, which, as he found, were broken. He repaired them, put them back on, and then turned his attention to Malfoy.

"Are you okay?" He got no answer.

Carefully, he scooted closer, but when he touched his arm, Malfoy flinched and curled up tighter.

"Don't touch me!" he hissed.

"Don't be daft. Your nose is bleeding, maybe it's broken. I got some training with healing charms in the Auror programme. Let me have a look."

Malfoy stubbornly shook his head, and Harry sighed in frustration. He wouldn't be able to do anything but sit here with him until Malfoy would decide to get up again. This fight was a decidedly bad start to this marriage business, and it certainly couldn't go on like this.

"Look," he tried, "I didn't mean . . . I'm sorry. For what I said about your parents. It was completely inappropriate. And what I said about you . . . I didn't really mean that either. Well, I did, but was mad and I snapped, you've got to understand that."

Malfoy didn't say anything, but at least he was listening. And Harry did mean what he said.

"I can't really imagine what it must have been like to realise you'd have to come to me to save yourself. And you've got to admit that's it's just as bad for me. We'll never be friends, but we both know that we've got to learn to get along somehow. Maybe we can just . . . try not to fight? Try to respect each other?"

While part of him was telling him how absurd it was to talk about respect with Malfoy of all people, Malfoy finally looked up and nodded slowly.

"Not one word about my parents," he said. "I don't care what you say about me, but I'll break more than just your nose if you ever insult them again."

It wasn't exactly what Harry had meant by 'getting along', but it was probably all he would get.

"Fine," he said. "Now let me have a look at your nose."

The nose was indeed broken, as Harry learnt when he cast a simple diagnostic spell, but he did have a bottle of Skele-gro in his medicine cabinet in the bathroom, and he managed to stop the bleeding with another spell.

The fake domesticity they were forced into by the bond when they got ready for bed was unnerving: brushing their teeth together, taking the remedies for their injuries as well as painkilling potions, changing into their nightclothes while carefully turning their backs to each other. They got a second duvet from the room Malfoy had chosen as his and put his things into – at the other end of the corridor – and then it was time.

Luckily, the bed was big enough to give them both ample space, and when the lights were switched off and Harry had closed his eyes, he could almost imagine that he was alone.


"What?" Harry sure hoped Malfoy wasn't the type to get all talkative in bed – not that he'd have to endure it more than once.

"What about children? Do you want any?"

"Absolutely not!"

"Good." Malfoy sounded clearly relieved, as much as Harry felt. At least they agreed on something about this marriage.

Pulling his covers up to his nose, Harry refused to think about how he'd planned children with Ginny, as well as the idea that surely, Malfoy had planned to continue his line. This was how it would be. They'd have to deal with it.

Malfoy had shut up now and thanks to the painkilling potion, the eye didn't hurt and the dull ache in his chest, which had returned while they had watched TV, had vanished again. Much to his relief, he was tired enough to fall quickly asleep.

"Hi, Uncle Harry."

At nine years old, Teddy felt a little too grown-up for hugs from anybody but his granny, Harry had learnt that when he'd come home to England for a short visit on Teddy's birthday. Now though, not having seen Harry for almost four months, he seemed to have forgotten it and flung his arms around him.

"Hello Teddy, what did you do with your ears?"

Teddy grinned widely, freeing himself from Harry's embrace and stepping away from the door to let him in. "It's great, isn't it? I finally did it, when you were still in America! I can do more animals too, do you want to see me as an elephant?" He gave Harry no time to answer, but screwed his eyes shut tightly, nose scrunched up in concentration. Slowly, the white rabbit ears sticking out from under green hair turned grey and then bigger and bigger, until they hung down over his shoulders.

"That's quite the sight," Malfoy said behind Harry.

Teddy opened his eyes again. "Uncle Draco? Do you want to visit your mum?"

Malfoy nodded, closing the door behind him. "We both do. Where is your grandmother?"

"Upstairs, with Aunt Cissa." Teddy looked a bit uncomfortable, and his ears shrunk to their normal size. "She just had a bath."

"Tell you what, why don't you and . . . Harry go and catch up? I'm sure he's got a lot to tell you about his last months in New York. And I will go upstairs."

"Good idea," Harry agreed. "And I want to hear all about those new ears and if you can change anything else I don't know of." He herded Teddy in the direction of the kitchen while Malfoy climbed the stairs to his mother's room.

It was Sunday, two days after the wedding, and Harry had agreed to visit Malfoy's mother. She knew that they had married, Malfoy had told him – in fact, Hermione had sent her an owl from Grimmauld Place right after the engagement had been sealed – though he'd said that she didn't know how much Harry resented the fact.

"She somehow got it into her head that you're doing it out of the goodness of your heart," he'd said when he had brought up the subject during supper the previous day. "That you did it to help me. I'm not quite sure why, it doesn't make any sense. But the Healers said she might, well, not be quite rational anymore at some point."

He had fixated Harry with a hard glance. "I would appreciate it if you didn't say anything to the contrary. She doesn't need to know, she would only get upset."

It hadn't been an unreasonable request, and – partly out of guilt over what he'd said on Friday evening – Harry had agreed to go along with it, as had Andromeda, according to Malfoy.

For about half an hour, Harry sat in the sunlit kitchen, drinking pumpkin juice, telling Teddy about hunting Wizarding criminals down in the New York sewer system – never mentioning how eerie it had been and how frightened he had actually felt – and appropriately admiring all the different animal ears he was shown.

"And I want to have the elephant trunk to the ears," Teddy was just saying. "I can only turn my nose grey so far, but if I practise every day I can get there in a month. Granny said that's how long it took Mum."

"Well, I'd like to see that grey nose of yours now already."

Hearing Malfoy's voice, Harry turned towards the door to find that he and Andromeda had joined them, and he got up and hugged her. "How are you?"

"All right," she said softly enough so that Teddy couldn't hear her. "I'm glad they allowed me to have her here, but it's hard to see her like this."

"I'm sorry," Harry said, holding her a bit tighter for a few moments before letting go.

She nodded. "We'll manage. Teddy likes having somebody else to show his metamorphic skills to, and Cissa can feel like a grandmother for a while." She managed a small smile. "Thank you, Harry. Draco told me you won't tell her the truth. That's . . . it will mean a lot to her. And to Draco and me."

Harry shrugged awkwardly. "It would be cruel. There's no need."

"Do you want to go and see her now? She's expecting you."

"Yes. Is there anything I should watch out for?"

"She shouldn't get upset, that's all. If you need me, just call. It's the old guest room right next to the bathroom."

"All right." Before he made for the door, Harry looked over to Malfoy, who was just explaining to Teddy, that yes, he and Harry were really married now, and that no, they hadn't been thinking about how to have children yet.

"When I asked Aunt Cissa, she said there are spells."

Harry left it to Malfoy and Andromeda to find some excuse for Teddy and left the kitchen. Upstairs, he hesitated for a few moments before he knocked and then carefully opened the door to Mrs Malfoy's room. He didn't look forward to lying to her, and to having to accept her gratitude for something he didn't do.

The room was as sunlit as the kitchen, the drapes pulled back from the high window. It looked very tidy and clean, a vase of bright yellow tulips was standing on the old-fashioned dresser on the opposite wall of the bed, and the white sheets and covers on the bed were crisp and spotless. The window was open and fresh summer air filled the room, but still, there was an underlying hint of the unmistakable smell of illness, and the bedside table stood full of potion flasks and other utensils.

And there was no mistaking that Mrs Malfoy must be very sick. Her skin barely stood out against the sheets, she was too thin, and Harry couldn't shake the feeling that he was looking at a much older woman. Her hair had lost its shine, hanging over her shoulder in a thin, fraying plait, and when Harry came closer, he saw deep lines around her mouth and eyes. She was leaning against several pillows propped up high behind her back, and while she smiled when she saw him, he didn't miss that she looked strained, as if sitting like this were too taxing.

There was a beige chintz armchair standing next to the bed, and he sat down, not quite knowing what to say.

"Mrs Malfoy . . ."

"Please, call me Narcissa." Her voice had aged as well, sounding brittle and tired.

"Narcissa, then."

"Did Teddy show you his elephant ears?" she asked.

"Of course, he entertained me with all the ears he can do."

"Me too – I'm certain I have seen at least two dozen. He's a sweet boy; it's good that I finally got to know him. I should have reached out much sooner. By now it seems very foolish that I turned from my sister in the first place."

There was an uncomfortable silence; Harry had not been expecting any such private confessions.

"Harry, I know this must be very awkward for you. I haven't forgotten what my family . . . after everything that happened . . ." She trailed off, apparently trying to compose herself. "I don't know how to thank you," she said quietly after a while.

"You shouldn't." There was nothing he should be thanked for; wanting to save his own life wasn't heroic at all. "I didn't do anything."

"You saved Draco," she insisted. "These last years . . . He tried so hard to provide for us, he worked all these Muggle jobs, and he would have managed if there weren't these new laws. And maybe if I hadn't got sick . . ."

"It's not right," Harry said softly, careful not to show just how angry he got even thinking of these laws which had trapped him in this. "He doesn't deserve that, none of you do."

"I knew you would think so. When Draco first mentioned that he would go and call on your proposal, I knew you would understand."

Harry had no idea what to reply; could she honestly believe that he had simply agreed to be bonded to Malfoy, to give up his own dreams of a relationship and family for somebody who hated him? But he was spared the answer: while he was still searching for words, she went rigid and began coughing, a harsh, hollow cough deep in her chest that was painful to listen to. It didn't seem to stop; she went even paler, and droplets of sweat began to form on her forehead.

Harry wasn't sure what he should do – should he call Andromeda or Malfoy? But just when he was about to get up, the coughing finally stopped. Narcissa took a few deep, wheezing breaths and reached out for him, thin hand trembling slightly.

Her skin was cold to the touch and he would have expected her grasp to be weak, but her fingers closed around his with surprising strength. "I know it was a hard decision, Harry. You wouldn't have chosen him if things were different. I'm not stupid. Lucius and I did not choose each other either. In my sixth and seventh year at Hogwarts, I was quite madly in love with a young wizard from another house. He loved me as well, but he was bound by a Blood Proposal already. And Lucius had been promised my sister Andromeda. He was fond of her, but she cared nothing for him. When she ran away, I was the second prize, so to speak. We were both miserable on our wedding day."

She closed her eyes, and her grip loosened. The shadows under her eyes seemed darker now, the lines around her mouth more pronounced. "It is hard when there is nothing between you in the beginning, but if you try . . . we managed. We had a child, and we belonged together, and after some years . . . He wasn't perfect, but he tried to be a good husband and father, and I tried as well, and we did come to love each other, eventually. And you cared enough to do this for Draco."

At least she hadn't been forced into the marriage under a death threat, Harry thought. He couldn't imagine ever developing any kind of tender feelings for Malfoy. They might come to tolerate each other, live separate lives in the same house without fighting, as they had agreed upon when they had talked the arrangement over and drafted the marriage contract, but anything else seemed too far-fetched.

"I'll try my best," he said. "I'm sure Draco will too."

Narcissa nodded; her hand had gone limp in his and she was lying back heavily against the pillows. It seemed as if his short visit had used up her strength. "Would you please send him to me now? I would like to sleep."

"All right." Harry carefully put her hand back on the sheets. "I'll . . . if you want, when I come to see Teddy and Andromeda, I could . . ."

"Thank you. That would be lovely." She smiled weakly without opening her eyes.

"I'll see you next time, then."

Damn! Why had he offered to visit her? Harry shook his head to himself when he had left the room and descended the stairs. It would only be horribly awkward. But when he entered the kitchen and Malfoy turned to look at him with an expression of anxious anticipation, nervously running his hand through his hair, he realised that it was the right thing to do. He could visit with Narcissa for a few minutes every two weeks.

"It went well," he said. "And she wants you now. She's tired."

Malfoy put his glass away and got up. When he passed Harry, he stopped for a moment.

"You didn't tell her?"

Harry shook his head. "She doesn't suspect anything. She deserves to believe we'll be fine."

Malfoy hesitated. "Thank you," he finally said.