Today's double Potions class was especially terrible because the potion they were making, or in his case ruining, gave off a wicked, mildew-like smell and the color was such a bright white it was hurting his eyes. That seemed like the only thing he and Neville had gotten right so far. Theirs was the same blinding white color as everyone else's but it was extremely thick and unforgiving so stirring it was becoming a sweaty, strained affair. Harry and Neville, even taking turns trying to make the consistency smoother, were both noticeably more exhausted than their classmates.
"Harry, I'm pretty sure we left an ingredient out", Neville panted.
"Either that or we put too much of something in", Harry frowned into the offending cauldron, hoping an answer would bubble to the surface.
"Could it have been the dried figs? I think they might have been old…or they might have been dried pig livers. I was never very good at telling the two apart."
Harry tried not to think about the consequences of an error that immense as he prodded the potion once again. It was nearly the consistency of taffy and had to be worked furiously to prevent it from drying.
Malfoy, who was partnered with Pansy Parkinson at the station next to theirs, looked over and grimaced noticeably. Harry prepared for the worst but was pleasantly surprised when his response lacked much accusation.
"They're figs, alright, but you forgot to add in the frozen Alpine algae during the second step. You can still add it in but it'll be extremely weak."
Harry turned to look at him, totally astonished by his courtesy. He would have thought he was playing a trick but the honesty in his grey eyes said he was actually trying to help. Malfoy looked back at him and furrowed his arched brows.
"I'm just telling you this because it'll also rid your potion of that horrid smell. It's so disgusting it's making me feel lightheaded." He reddened slightly at the look Harry was pinning him with and huffily turned his back on them once again. His excuse sounded more like the Malfoy he knew but Harry wasn't convinced he'd been saying that for his own benefit, Slytherin or not.
When most of the 7th years had come back to repeat their classes and take their NEWTs without the distraction of Voldemort enslaving the entire wizarding world and, likely, the muggle world, they had all been changed. Everyone seemed more mature and focused yet relieved and calm at the same time. The only people who didn't return were either known Death Eaters or had moved out of the country to make up their tests elsewhere. Malfoy was one of the few returning Slytherins from his year. Although it wasn't considered big enough news at the time to be on the front page of the Prophet, Malfoy had bravely left his ancestral home while it was still Death Eater headquarters and helped in the Hogwarts infirmary to heal those wounded in the final battle after the war, cementing his loyalties with the Light. Albeit last minute, this was still a huge move for him and convinced his mother to leave Lucius' side before it was too late for her, too. Lucius, rightfully, had been given a permanent cell in Azkaban for his crimes.
Harry suspected that Malfoy felt vulnerable after so publicly revealing his misjudgment of his father's intentions. He seemed to be trying his best not to stand out or appear to have changed too much so he didn't come off as weak. That involved maintaining some level of animosity with Harry, regardless of how silly and pointless that seemed. Even Harry was surprised the first time Malfoy had made a jab at him during the first week of their "8th" year, but he was also strangely relieved. He would have missed their adversarial relationship. He'd never admit it aloud, but animosity between them was better than nothing. He would have sort of missed the brat.
Harry snapped out of his reverie just as Neville stirred in the last bits of algae, making their potion smell a bit more piney. Like a piney swamp. With burning hair in it.
Harry could just imagine the look on Malfoy's face as he got a whiff of it. He turned in that direction to see the exact face he'd imagined. He looked like he'd seen Filch being intimate with Mrs. Norris.
"MERLIN, what have you two done? Clearly there's something else wrong with your hideous concoction or that would have put it right. Well, more than it was, anyway".
At that, he actually walked over and looked into the potion with a look of deepest concentration. If Harry wasn't so certain that Malfoy planned to be a Healer, he'd call that the look of a seasoned Potions Master. He ran his fingers through his hair and sighed.
"Did you stir it counterclockwise sixteen times before adding the stigma pods?"
"Yes….no, wait," Neville paused, "you said counterclockwise?"
"Yes, fool, counterclockwise. Those were the instructions."
Neville looked guiltily at Harry. "I think I stirred it clockwise", he admitted.
Harry couldn't be arsed to remember what happened. He had been chopping some extremely slippery roots at the time and had been focused on keeping them on the table and out of his lap.
Neville seemed to be mentally running back through the other steps to see if he'd screwed those up, too. Malfoy sighed.
"The only thing I can think to do at this point is to bring the consistency back to normal. Put more of the blood grass in there and mix it in counterclockwise. Do you know what direction that is?"
"Yes, Malfoy, we know what direction that is. Lay off. It was an honest mistake."
"You're right, I forgot – Gryffindors are honest about everything. You lot can make as many mistakes as you want as long as they're honest."
Harry just rolled his eyes and ignored his attempt at sounding snotty. It was a weak one at best. Neville got up to go fetch the ingredient Malfoy recommended, leaving the other two next to each other, unsure of what to say. If this had been 5th year, it would have been obvious what to do: fight. Now, though, the answer was a lot less forthcoming for both men. Seeming to realize this, Malfoy coughed a bit and turned back to Pansy, who was so confident in their potion that she'd opened a magazine and was flicking thorough it backwards, an obvious sign that she'd read it once before. Normally, that would have infuriated Harry, but she and Malfoy were obviously superior in this arena and she didn't appear to be doing it to make anyone feel stupid; she was just bored. Harry felt stupid, anyway, but it was mostly because they'd made a beginner's mistake that could have been easily prevented if they were paying attention.
Neville plopped down on his stool, tossed the grass in, and lifted the paddle. Embarrassment was practically leaking out of his pores.
"Neville, it's okay. If you hadn't made a mistake, I would have. We were pretty much doomed from the start. You know as well as I do that this isn't our subject."
"I never thought I'd say this but I'm glad Malfoy is at least trying to help. Who knows? Maybe this'll fix it."
However, as he mixed the grass in, their potion took on an even stranger and extremely condemning quality: it had turned a bright red-orange. It stood out so strongly against the examples surrounding them that most of the students nearby turned to look on curiously.
Malfoy hurried over, looking alarmed.
"What did you do?!"
Neville looked frantic so Harry answered. "We did what you told us to do. What was that stuff?"
The blond looked down on the worktop and lifted a small piece of red grass to his eyes, which got much wider. He looked terrified.
"This?! This is what you added?!"
Neville spoke up. "Yes, it's blood grass. That's what you said, right?"
"No, you madman! This is FIRE grass! Take cov-"
But it was too late. The potion exploded, its contents launching like in every direction like the cauldron was an active volcano. Translucent orange droplets landed on a few nearby students and into some of their cauldrons. Pansy fell out of her seat in surprise when several droplets landed on her clothes, burning small holes in the fabric where they made contact. The spray that made it into her potion caused it to dry up immediately and left their cauldron smoking slightly.
Harry and Neville, who were sitting next to the cauldron when it happened, had their faces and necks sprayed with the substance. Surprisingly, it didn't burn their skin but, when they looked at one another, they both gasped. Their robes, shirts and ties, from the shoulders up, had been completely vaporized.
Oh, Merlin! Malfoy!
Harry turned to the clearing smoke where Malfoy used to be. There was quite a lot of coughing and a mop of silvery blonde hair shaking madly. Good – that meant he wasn't dead, at least. The smoke continued to clear and…
Oh. Oh, Gods.
Suddenly breathing was very hard.
Don't think about anything being hard.
Fuck, don't say "fuck".
Malfoy survived, alright. He seemed…fine. Just…fine.
He had gotten the full brunt of the explosion. His body had been spattered in large, random sections with the solution: most of his chest, most of his legs, and sporadically across his abdomen, arms and groin. As Harry looked on, the fiery potion slowly burned his clothes away, revealing an expanse of beautiful, toned flesh. The trousers he'd been wearing would barely pass for a short skirt now, tatters undulating pathetically across his long, muscular legs. Most of the structural aspects of his school robes had burnt away so it simply fell to the floor. It had protected the sleeves of his shirt, but not completely. There were still a few holes here and there between his shoulders and cuffs. The front of his shirt, however, was purposeless. It covered absolutely nothing. From collar to hip, he was revealed save for a few mutilated pieces hanging here and there. His skin was a bit red from the reaction but it seemed that the potion didn't want skin, it just ate clothes.
It was like a convoluted striptease.
His hair was mussed and dirty and his chest was heaving. He stood there in utter shock, probably waiting to someone to indicate that he had, indeed, lived through the explosion. He was extremely lucky, in some ways. He was living a nightmare, in others. He was almost naked in front of his whole class. He was also almost naked and standing less than a meter from Harry Potter.
The tension was so thick the boys couldn't seem to move.
"M-Malfoy, I'm s-so sorry! I thought it was blood grass! Harry, I-I didn't…"
Exasperated and fully aware that he lacked the patience to hear Neville's pleading, Harry put up a hand. "It was an accident. We just need to get out of here and clean ourselves up."
He looked back at Malfoy, who hadn't moved an inch. He looked like he'd pass out with the slightest stimulation. He stared off into space and swayed slightly. Harry leapt up in alarm to catch him but the blonde jumped and seemed to come back to himself. He looked down at himself, up at Harry, over to Neville, and twisted at the waist to look vaguely at his classmates. Then he ran.
Making a split second decision, Harry took off after him.