Harry stepped from the floo into the living room of the Burrow, immediately aware that something was deeply wrong. The room was deserted and eerily silent, yet it had been decorated within an inch of its life with tinsel, fairy lights, and garlands of paper in the shape of dancing house elves spelled to really move. He pulled out his wand and eyed the moving decorations suspiciously—where were the Weasley's? It was his birthday dinner, and it wasn't like any of the Weasley clan to leave the house alone. In fact, Harry could not remember a single time he had ever visited the Burrow when there hadn't been at least three Weasley's about. His mind flashed horribly back to Bill and Fleur's wedding—Death Eaters attacking and wizards fleeing every which way—and his stomach gave an uncomfortable lurch. What if they were all gone? Abducted or killed by lingering Death Eater fanatics? What would he do?
"SURPRISE!" He turned, tears already starting in his eyes, to see the whole Weasley clan, plus Hermione, Luna, and Neville, shimmer into being as disillusionment charms rippled away.
"Happy Birthday, mate," Ron said, clapping him on the back.
"Always wanted to do a proper Muggle surprise party!" said Arthur Weasley, grinning broadly.
"I think it's usually the case that the person doesn't know about the party at all," said Luna, in her dreamy voice. Then, after a pause, she added, "I think we've rather scared Harry."
"Harry, are you crying?"
"S'alright, Hermione, I'm fine," Harry managed to choke out before he was peremptorily enveloped in an enthusiastic hug from Molly Weasley.
"Oh Harry! What a scare you've had! And on your birthday! Everyone into the kitchen for cake if they know what's good for them!" All of this was bellowed shrilly right next to Harry's ear, making him wince a bit, but he smiled broadly when she pulled away and looked at him with kind eyes. "Don't worry, Harry. We'll get you sorted."
As the group gathered in the Burrow's large but cozy kitchen, Harry's fear turned quickly to embarrassment. This was not the first time that this sort of thing had happened. In the year since the war, Harry's friends had all learned that being even five minutes late to meet Harry would send him into a mild panic. After the third time Harry had owled the Ministry about his absolute certainty that Hermione had been captured and possibly killed by Dark wizards, even Ron had become meticulously punctual. Harry always knew he was over-reacting, but he couldn't help it. He could never quite relax and convince himself that the war was really over and that his friends would be safe.
He was mildly surprised that Molly had let Arthur have the party as a surprise, although he supposed his over reaction was due in part to being told that there would be a party only to arrive to an empty house. Luna was right—that wasn't how surprise parties were supposed to go. But he sighed. Really, it was time for him to grow up, to accept some uncertainty in his life. He'd have to if he ever wanted to follow through with Auror training.
The evening was a smashing one. Molly had baked an enormous chocolate cake with a hollow center full of chocolate frogs. When she cut the first slice, frogs leapt out merrily and they all had a good laugh trying to round them up and eat them before the melted on the kitchen floor. Everyone seemed to have agreed on a common theme for gift-giving, and Harry received presents for his home, number 12 Grimmauld Place. He'd been renovating the Black's ancestral home for the past year, but he was finally almost done with repairs and had begun the less appealing task of decorating.
Hermione gave him a book called Classic Design for the Contemporary Wizard, a photograph-heavy book with pictures of famous wizarding homes and then smaller flats that had been decorated on the same model. Ron gave him a set of antique door knobs made of cut glass that Harry strongly suspected Hermione had picked out on his behalf. Neville gave him a fern-like plant with a complicated name that was said to repel, or maybe to prey on, mice and other rodents. Luna gave him a very beautiful, if odd, little window comprised of different colored bits of glass that looked suspiciously like they might have once been soda bottles.
"Er, thanks, Luna. It's beautiful, really."
"It's a Nargle catcher," she said, seriously. "You should hang it in your kitchen window. It'll scare away any Nargles that might be trying to get in to sort through your garbage. I made it myself."
"Oh, brilliant. I love it," Harry said, and he did. It seemed unlikely any Nargles be attacking his kitchen any time soon, but the little colored window was interesting and actually quite pretty. It looked homemade and a little bizarre and very unique. It looked like Luna. With a sudden pang Harry looked around at all his friends, feeling especially lucky to be alive.
"Harry, are you alright? You've gone a bit glassy eyed," Hermione said with a look of concern.
"Yeah, I'm better than alright." He paused. "Listen there's something I wanted to tell you all, something I've decided to do."
"Well, out with it," Ron interjected through a mouthful of cake.
"I've decided to hire a tutor. To get on with my NEWTS. I'm going to take them in May at Hogwarts so I can apply for Auror training next summer."
"Oh Harry!" Hermione's whole face lit up, and she looked as though she might begin to cry.
"Well, alright mate, if that's your idea of a big announcement. Can't believe you're all sentimental about studying."
"Ron, I think it's brilliant that Harry wants to start studying for his NEWTS. They are very important tests! Just because you wouldn't crack a book to save your life doesn't mean Harry has to be the same," Hermione said fiercely.
"I'm glad you say that, Hermione, because I was hoping I could convince you to tutor me as well."
"Me tutor you? Harry, I'll be in school." Hermione would be attending Bullbladtts Academy in the fall, a very prestigious school specializing in wizarding law. The program was notoriously rigorous, and Harry knew that Hermione had spent the summer pouring over every musty book she could get her hands on in anticipation.
"I know. That's why I've hired someone. I got a referral from McGonagal, someone she said works with a bunch of our year who never went back for 8th year. The tutor will come twice a week. On Tuesdays, we'll work on Potions, and Thursdays Transfiguration. Defense Against the Dark Arts and Muggle Studies I have covered, I think, to review on my own. That just leaves Charms. And there's no one better at teaching Charms than you."
"Well, that's very flattering, but I just don't know if I can. I'm already behind on my preparatory reading for Bullbladtts!" At this, Ron gave her a pointed look. "Ok, I'm not behind, per se, but I had hoped to have finished my second reads on all the first quarter books by now and I haven't had a chance to outline any of the reading for second quarter at all."
"Think of it this way, 'Mione. We may not get many chances to see one another after your term starts, and this way when you do see me you'll be practicing your basics at the same time. Everyone wins."
"You know, I'd never have made it through 8th year without you, 'Mione. You really are the best at explaining Charms," Ron put in, and Harry shot him a grateful look.
"Alright, Harry. Once a week, two hours. That's all you get," Hermione said reluctantly. "But if I fall behind…"
"I know, I know. You'll hex me until I can't see." Everyone laughed, though Ron's nervous laughter made Harry somewhat anxious, despite his victory.
"Well, if that's all quite out of the way," said Ginny, "there are still presents to be opened. Namely, mine."
"And mine," Arthur and George chimed in unison.
"I've already put your birthday jumper in a bag with some leftovers for you to take home, Harry," Molly put in, "but we also all pitched in on a present for your new place, from all the Weasleys."
"It was Ginny's idea," George said, "But we all helped. We'll have to go outside to show it to you."
Intrigued, Harry followed the group into the garden. Just next to an old bench was a large black box with a curtain hanging over one side.
"It's a photo booth!" Ginny burst out, almost immediately.
"It's a fascinating Muggle invention," Arthur began, clearly in awe of the contraption. "You step behind the curtain and a little camera takes four photographs very quickly, and they come out of this little slot here." He pointed at a well on the side of the box. "Only takes a minute. Nearly instant."
"This one's been fixed up a bit," George said slyly. "The pictures will move, like wizard pictures do."
"I've also set a semi-permanent refilling charm on it," said Molly, "should last at least ten years before you'll have to buy more film."
Harry walked around the box, grinning broadly. He'd seen a photo booth before, of course, on train platforms and at the zoo when he turned eleven. But to have one of his own was genius.
"We know how much you love looking at pictures of people you love," Ginny said, "now anyone who comes to Grimmauld Place can leave you a picture."
"I love it!" Harry said, beaming. "This has been, without a doubt, the best birthday I can remember."
"Harry," Arthur said, suddenly serious, "you are going to try it out, aren't you?" Everyone laughed and Harry stepped obligingly behind the curtain.
Over the next hour, the whole party took picture after picture in the booth, most of them fairly goofy. At the end of the night, thanks to some clever expandable charm work by Hermione, they managed to get everyone in the booth at once, all squashed together, for a big family portrait.
Later, after the party ended and Arthur, George, Ginny, and Ron had helped Harry transport the booth to Grimmauld place and then left for the night, Harry sat in his living room in the big, comfy reading chair he had purchased just last week staring at the strip. The first three pictures on the strip were blurry and chaotic—just limbs and harassed faces and unintentional jumbles of bodies—but the final one managed to capture everyone smiling happily at the camera. George and Ginny squeezed each other and grinned. Hermione and Ron smiled first at each other and then at the camera. Molly shot an exasperated look at Neville, who had inadvertently trod on Luna, and Arthur and Harry both looked stiff and then dissolved into goofy grins. It all came together in a final moment where everyone smiled at once, and then the action looped back to the beginning. They looked like a real family.
Despite his nonchalant declaration to Hermione about hiring a tutor, Harry was in fact quite nervous about beginning his studies again. In the year and some months since the battle of Hogwarts, Harry had not done very much at all that could be construed as studying. He hadn't been completely idle—he had his routines, his morning runs and his trips to St. Mungo's to volunteer and his trips to the local Muggle library, where he had been quickly and greedily reading through the trashiest books he could get his hands on—but he hadn't done anything to keep up with school. Just the lazy magic of the everyday. He strongly suspected that whoever appeared on his doorstep to tutor him would be expecting much more from the Chosen One, defeater of the Dark Lord, than the scrawny nineteen year old who still struggled to transfigure a walnut into a water glass.
And, too, he'd been fairly secluded for the last year. He wasn't shut off from the world, but he wasn't really a participant in it either. He wasn't sure if he would be able to talk to some random stranger for hours on end twice a week when now he only spent time alone with friends who had known him for years, through the darkest of times. He could handle small talk for a few minutes, but how would he keep it up all day long?
Of course, the tutor would be a professional, Harry reminded himself. And they'd be talking about Potions and Transfiguration. They would have loads of work to do, and that would help ease any tension caused by Harry's continued awkwardness with strangers. And he'd have Hermione once a week to sharpen him up a bit, and Ginny wouldn't be starting training for the Hollyhead Harpies until mid-October, so she'd still be around to keep him grounded. And Ron might be busy with Auror training, but he'd still pop by like old times. There was nothing to worry about.
Nevertheless, Harry's nervous energy prevented him from sleeping in past 5:30 the morning the tutor was set to arrive. Even though he normally struggled to rise before 7, that morning he awoke with a sudden jolt, and soon miserably realized he'd never be able to get back to sleep. He dragged himself out of bed and into his running clothes and was out the door in just a few minutes. It was going to be a long morning.
By the time the doorbell rang at 9:00 in the morning, Harry had returned from his run, taken a shower, eaten breakfast, cleaned the kitchen and the living room, alphabetized all of the books on the shelves in his study, consumed three pots of tea, organized his sock drawer by color and style, and was contemplating tackling the overflowing recycling bin he could never quite remember to take out to the curb on Monday mornings. He crossed the front hallway towards the front door, silently cursing himself that he had not had time to change into more presentable clothes, so caught up in the morning's frenzied cleaning and sorting. He felt supremely awkward and unprepared, and he chided himself. He'd been restless for months now, he reminded himself. It was more than time. He was ready. Ready to think again, to work towards a goal. Ready to face the world outside number 12 Grimmauld Place. And yet the anxiety was there, nudging at him and sending him into an uncharacteristic cleaning and sorting spree.
His hand paused on the knob for just a moment before he pulled open the door, plastering on what he hoped was his most winning smile. "Hello, and welcome, I'm Ha…" he began, but trailed off almost immediately, smile fading to a confused and lopsided grimace.
"Yes, Potter, I know who you are."
Harry's heart unexpectedly fluttered faster and his palms began to sweat. It was Malfoy. Draco Malfoy was standing at his front door looking at him with an all too familiar mixture of pity and haughtiness. For a moment he didn't know what to do. Instinct told him he should slam the door in Draco's face. It felt like a cruel joke, or the universe's perverse way of showing him he wasn't ready to re-enter the world at all, not if it contained Draco Malfoy. But it only lasted a moment before he stepped aside, gesturing Malfoy through the door and saying, "Yes, of course you do. Please, come in."
After all, it wasn't as though he hated Malfoy any more. He couldn't. All the anger and frustration that had fueled him during the end of the war had drained away long ago. In fact, it was hard for him to feel strongly at all these days, let alone feel that consuming hatred that had characterized his school boy interactions in Malfoy at Hogwarts. Still, Malfoy reminded Harry of all the things about the war he tried hard not to think about—the people who had died, the people who had sacrificed themselves, or changed sides, or made decisions that enabled him to still be standing here today. Thinking about it filled him with remorse and unease, confronted simultaneously with the magnitude of what he had done to defeat Voldemort and the knowledge that had any number of moments along the way, however small, happened differently he would have failed, and failed spectacularly. These were not exactly the feelings he wanted to be having while studying for his NEWTS.
When they arrived in the living room, Harry became painfully conscious that he hadn't said anything in several minutes.
"Er… Sit anywhere you like. Would you like some tea? Or should we just get started? I haven't cracked a book in ages, so you'll have your work cut out for you. I also have coffee, if you prefer coffee. But no pumpkin juice, I'm out of that, and the grocery down the corner is a Muggle one and they don't carry it. I do have some ginger beer. It's a Muggle drink. It's not really beer, but it's brilliant. I hope you can go easy on me, though, with the Potions. Not like Snape… I mean, he was alright, in the end, but you know… I'm pants at Potions. You're not hungry are you?" It all came out in a horrifying rush, then ended just as abruptly. However, the upside was that Malfoy's expression had turned from a blank, impassive mask to one of sly amusement.
"Relax, Potter. I am neither thirsty nor hungry, and we really should get started. We have a lot to cover in the next few hours."
Harry sighed and felt his body unclench a bit. He collapsed unceremoniously into the squashy couch. "Ok, where do we begin?"
"First of all, I'd like to get a sense of where you are in your studies. To that end, I will be administering a diagnostic test. After that, we will set about to making a potion. I assume you were able to acquire the basic potion-making supplies on the list I owled last week?"
"Yes, I have. I set it all up in the kitchen. Seemed like the best place."
Malfoy nodded, looking down amongst the bags that Harry just realized he was carrying. He opened the smallest, a black leather briefcase with a silver handle and elegant silver clasps shaped like snakes. Inside there were neat rolls of parchment, each tied with a leather strip labeled in a neat, spare hand. Malfoy removed the scroll and untied its closure. He handed it to Harry and then dug out a quill from another bag.
"The quill is charmed, so you won't need any ink. Please begin."
Harry attempted a smile, but it faltered as he uncurled the scroll. It seemed to go on forever. He stared at the first question.
Amortentia can be made more or less potent by the addition of what herb during the cooling phase of brewing?
What the hell is soapwort? Harry wondered silently. After a moment of puzzling, he just chose blindly, hoping for the best. He glanced up at Malfoy, who was sitting with perfect posture and complete composure in the chair opposite. Malfoy raised his eyebrows very slightly, but said nothing. Harry sighed. Question two: Which potion is the fastest acting antidote to Basilisk venom? Why did Potions only remind him of his most morbid memories from Hogwarts? He gritted his teeth and pressed on.
It took Harry more than three hours to finish the test, during which time Malfoy simply sat, unmoving, across from him, watching with a cool disinterest. Harry thought the parchment must be spelled to continue infinitely, because as he continued to unroll it he could never seem to reach the bottom edge. When he finally came to the last question he had to stop himself from letting out a cry of triumph. What final ingredient is added to polyjuice potion in order to activate it? Hair from the person the drinker wishes to transform into, Harry wrote. He threw down the quill with relish and looked up at Draco.
"Already? Don't want to check any of your answers?" Draco drawled. Harry started a bit—it was the sort of thing Hermione might say to him, and it felt strange coming from Draco's mouth.
"Already! It's after noon, I've been at this for ages and I'm starving. Could do with some lunch. Besides, I thought this was supposed to be a diagnostic."
"Well, there you go," he said, shoving the parchment towards Malfoy, "diagnose me. Whatever abysmal score I make on this thing, at least you'll know what you're dealing with. Now, can we get some food? I don't think I can make it through the potion-making part of this test without a sandwich."
Malfoy's mouth twisted into an amused smirk. "Alright, let us adjourn for now. Will we be lunching here at Grimmauld Place?"
Harry grinned, in part at Malfoy's somewhat forced formality and in part at the subtle implication that he might not have food in his flat.
"Come to the kitchen, I'll make us something."
"Will you indeed? So the famous Harry Potter cooks."
"Oh shut it, Malfoy, or I won't make anything for you. And I know you must be hungry too."
"Alright then, lead on."
The kitchen of Grimmauld Place was, in fact, Harry's favorite room in the house. Even when he was at the Dursley's as a child, Harry had always found comfort in cooking. Later, when he was renovating the dark and memory-filled flat, the kitchen had often been the only room not in a state of disarray, a place to get away from paint fumes and plaster dust and surprisingly resilient portraits that yelled at him for being a bloodtraitor.
He rummaged in the fridge and the pantry and assembled on the counter a large cucumber, a block of very fancy and expensive mozzarella, a couple of tomatoes, and fresh basil. He got out a large bowl, a knife, and a cutting board and began to assemble the salad, supremely aware that Malfoy was still there, sitting at the kitchen table, watching him with that same look of disinterested interest.
"So, er, Malfoy…."
"Please do call me Draco. We aren't in school anymore."
"Yeah, alright Draco. But then you have to call me Harry, not Potter."
Draco smirked, as though at a private joke. "Yes, Harry. What is it?"
"Can I ask you a question?"
"Why are you my tutor?"
"Because you asked me to be. You applied to McGonagall, and here I am."
"You know what I mean, Draco. Why are you a tutor at all? You've never exactly been one for teaching people."
Draco looked down at his hands resting on the table for a moment before he spoke. "I did very well on my NEWTS last year. Top of the class, except for Hermione."
"Congratulations?" Harry said, hesitantly. There was something in Draco's voice that made him feel uncomfortably like he was hearing a confession.
"Thank you. However, despite this, I had a very hard time finding a Potions Master who was willing to take me on as an apprentice."
"Oh," was all Harry could think of to say. He was surprised, but he supposed it made sense. The war was over, but the knowledge that the Malfoys had sheltered Voldemort in their home for months had seeped out into the general populace, and Harry couldn't imagine that everyone would be able to forget that so soon.
"In the long run, I suppose it won't matter, I have plenty of money. I could open my own apothecary tomorrow, but I wouldn't have the necessary credentials." He paused, continuing to look resolutely at his hands, resting on the table. "I decided I needed to prove myself outside of school. I need to show the world that I want to help people. That I want to make things right. I guess tutoring is one of the ways I am going about it."
"Yeah, but why tutoring?"
"Like you, not everyone came back to Hogwarts for the so-called eighth year, and many of those who did not return were very bitter about it. Or their parents were. Tutoring seemed like a good way to make it up to them. To provide them with the tools they needed to get back into the world, to get jobs, to move on from the war."
Harry sighed, adding the last of the cucumber to the bowl. He didn't feel bitter, but he knew that he was one of those people—too scared after the last battle was won to go back and face the hallways of the school he had loved so much.
"What else do you do?"
"What is this, an interrogation? I hardly think we should be spending the day discussing my life." Draco's voice was not harsh, merely weary, and Harry shrugged.
He set the bowl on the table and returned to the fridge, fishing out bread, mustard, a wedge of very sharp cheddar, and some sliced chicken. He paused for a moment, then said, "Alright. You can ask about my life too."
There was a long pause during which neither of them said anything. Finally, Draco sighed, "what makes you think I give a damn about your life?" His tone was nonchalant, but when Harry glanced at his face he saw a mixture of challenge and petulance in his eyes.
"Maybe you do, maybe you don't. Just thought I'd make it fair. To be honest, I don't see that many people. Just Hermione, Ron and his family, and sometimes Neville or Luna. I don't really know what's going on out there. Or what people are feeling—about their lives and about the war. I guess I'm curious." The words came out grudgingly, but as he said them, Harry knew they were true. As much as he avoided thinking about the war himself, he did want to know what other people felt. He wanted to know what Draco felt. He was, painfully, very curious.
Harry finished with the sandwiches and set down the two plates at the table, one in front of Draco and the other in front of himself. He scooped a bit of the cucumber salad onto his plate and began to eat. Draco studied him for a moment.
"Did you and Ginny break up?" Draco said, finally, picking up his sandwich and taking a small, hesitant bite. Harry nearly choked on his cucumber salad.
"That's your first question? Of all the things…"
"Yes. It is. And you haven't answered."
"Yeah, we broke up the summer after the war, when I first moved in here."
"Is that all you are going to tell me, or are you going to expand upon why the Golden Couple split up so quickly after declaring their love to the world?"
Harry rolled his eyes. Golden Couple. Hardly. "It wasn't like that. With me and Ginny, I mean. We loved each other, but after the war… things were hard. Ginny lost her brother in that war, and loads of friends as well. Things at the Burrow were pretty tense most of the time, you know, depressing and stifling. I was starting to renovate this place, and Ginny spent a lot of time over here and we found out we were better as mates than as… well, you know, anything more."
"Well, also she sort of kind of fell for my neighbor."
"Yeah. A Muggle. Named Eleanor."
This time it was Draco who nearly choked. "Ginny Weasley left you for a Muggle woman named Eleanor? Harry, you really know how to bury the lead, do you know that?"
"Yeah. I used to tell myself that Ginny just wanted someone who was the opposite of me—you know, someone who didn't know about the war, someone who wasn't associated with all those painful memories. Someone she could just be happy and seventeen with."
"Someone who was a woman," Draco muttered.
"But, it turns out they're really brilliant together. Eleanor is smart and cool, knows all sorts of bands and things around town. Always dragging Ginny around to these hip Muggle clubs and art shows. Ginny seems really happy."
"Does this Muggle know that she's dating a witch?"
"No, Ginny hasn't told. I think she's gearing up to, though, now that she's done with Hogwarts and all that. Eleanor is starting to notice that whenever she asks Ginny what she does for work Ginny changes the subject. Can't let her know she's a Seeker for the Harpies."
"No, I suppose not."
"Have I answered sufficiently yet? Is it my turn?"
"I suppose so," Draco says, spearing a chunk of tomato on the end of his fork.
"Why did you go back to Hogwarts last year? Why didn't you just hire tutors, like I'm doing? Surely it would have been easier."
Draco studied the tomato on his fork for a while before answering, his tone measured and slow, as though he were explaining it to himself as much as to Harry.
"Even though Hogwarts held a lot of painful memories, being at the Manor was much worse. I couldn't wait to go back. I think I thought, perhaps naively, that I might be able to recapture something of my best days at school—when I was popular in Slytherin, when I got worked up about stupid things like the House Cup and Quidditch games, that sort of thing."
"What was it like, being back there?"
"Didn't Granger and Weasley tell you?"
"I never asked. Hermione just went on about her grades and homework and whether or not she would pass her NEWTS. Ron said the same thing every time we talked: 'wish you were here, mate. Quidditch isn't the same without you and Hermione makes me spend all my time studying.'"
Draco laughed at his impression of Ron, the first laughter Harry had seen from him since he arrived. "Yes, I suppose that's about right. Anyway, it was awful, being back. Every room seemed like a reminder of all the stupid things I did before the war. The Potions classroom reminded me of Snape and how he tried, and failed, to save me. The Astronomy Tower, the Room of Requirement, the Quidditch Pitch—"
"The Sixth Floor bathroom," Harry whispered. There was a tension-filled pause and he looked up at Draco, immediately regretting having brought up the bathroom incident. Draco's candor had disappeared, and the cool, disinterested mask was back over his features. Their eyes met and locked for what seemed to be minutes, and Harry felt desperate to say something to indicate how sorry he was for that day, for that year, for all the years he had known Draco. I've made mistakes too, he wanted to scream. But instead he just stared.
Draco broke away first, pushed his plate with the sandwich still half-eaten across the table and stood.
"I think that's enough reminiscing for one day. I would like to finish your assessment now, if you don't mind."
"Yeah, yeah, alright. Let's make a potion."
Friday rolled around with Harry feeling exhausted. After the disaster at lunch on Tuesday, Harry's potion making attempt had bordered on dangerous. He'd broken three flasks, set his hair on fire, and succeeded in making a potion so tar-like and thick that he could barely sieve it into the flask to hand over to Draco for grading.
Thursday's Transfiguration lesson had not been much better. It had started the same way—Draco had produced a seemingly endless scroll with questions that seemed specifically designed to reduce Harry to a blubbering mess. It took him nearly twice as long to finish as the Potions exam and he'd broken three quills in agitation along the way. Lunch had been solemn and silent and brief, followed by an afternoon of trying to turn thimbles into wristwatches. By the time Draco had departed at five o'clock, all Harry had to show for the day were twelve amorphous lumps of metal that would neither protect his fingers from errant needles nor tell him the time of day.
He was profoundly dispirited. Not only was he convinced that the events of the week proved once and for all that he would never pass his NEWTS, but he found himself equally angry that his apparent reconciliation with Draco had ended so abruptly and with such finality. It seemed to represent all of his failures since the war. Sure, he could defeat the Dark Lord, but he couldn't carry on one decent conversation with Draco Malfoy without saying the wrong thing.
All of which combined to make him particularly happy to have Ron in his living room, drinking a butterbeer and complaining loudly of the Cannon's dismal performance against the Kestrals, Auror training, and Hermione's propensity to read law books during their dates.
"Seriously, mate, I don't know if I can carry on. Sometimes I think I must be mental. I mean, if you were the smartest witch in our year, maybe in our generation, would you be on with me?"
"Ron, if you are asking me if I'd consider dating you, I'm afraid the answer is always going to be no."
"Oi, not you too. After Charlie and Ginny, I don't think mum can handle another gay child."
"Well, it's a good thing I'm not her child, then, isn't it?" Harry said, smiling broadly. Ron gave him a skeptical look.
"Harry, first of all, you know you're family. Mum likes you better than me on her best days." Harry grunted a sound of dissent, but Ron spoke louder over his protest, "second of all, you do know that you have all but just admitted that you're bent."
Harry colored. He had kind of walked into that.
"You're not are you?"
"Bent? No. Definitely not," Harry said, still blushing. To change the subject, he decided to tell Ron about his disasters in being tutored.
"You'll never guess who my new tutor is."
"Oh yeah, how's that going?" Ron said, brightly. "It's not Romilda Vane, is it? The one who tried to slip you love potion?"
"No, it's not a girl."
"Huh… must be someone we know. Uh, Dean Thomas? No? Ernie McMillan? No? Cormac McClaggan, that git! No? Uh… how about Theo Nott?"
"It's Malfoy. Draco Malfoy."
Ron sputtered his butterbeer across the room.
"You're joking. That must have been murder."
"It wasn't. At first at least. We actually got on ok and we talked about some stuff."
"Yeah, well, I kind of brought up that time I cursed Malfoy in sixth year."
"That'd be the one."
"Well, that was daft," Ron said, matter of factly.
"Oi! I didn't do it on purpose, it just slipped out."
"Well, you want my advice, you have to just be a professional. Don't let things get personal. This is a business interaction—you're paying him to teach you. You just have to let him know that it's all business and he'll ease up."
"Is this advice from Auror training?"
Ron looked guiltily at Harry. "Yeah, a bit. It doesn't bother you, does it? Me being in training?"
Harry sighed. He'd never admit it, but he kind of enjoyed that Ron was getting a leg up on Auror training. It seemed to make up for all the years where Harry was ahead of Ron—it gave Ron the advantage, for once, of not having to compete.
"No, it doesn't bother me. I'll get there. I'm just not ready yet."
"Yeah, you'll get there, mate."
Harry spent his weekend at the Muggle library. He thought at first that he should be studying, trying to get some kind of edge for his next confrontation with Draco, but he couldn't bring himself to do it. Instead, he was plowing through a tattered mystery novel with a lurid cover. The dialogue was stilted, but the plot clipped along with plenty of death and destruction. Sort of like my relationship with Draco, he thought.
He spent Monday thoroughly neglecting his studies, much to the exasperation of Hermione, who tried valiantly to get him through what he recognized as a rather remedial Charms lesson any fifth year should have aced. After she left, he spent the next few hours preparing a long speech for Draco. He'd tell him how their arrangement was purely academic, that he didn't care about what had happened before the war or after. All he cared about was a fresh start, for both of them. In his mind it all sounded rather grand, but he knew he'd fail to deliver it with quite as much magnanimity.
It turned out that he didn't get to deliver it at all. When he opened the door for Draco Tuesday morning, his attempts at grandiosity were immediately stifled by Draco's drawling voice.
"I'm happy to announce, Mr. Potter, that your D in Potions work is only surpassed by the T you have earned in Transfiguration."
Harry smiled weakly. "T?"
"Yes, a T. For Troll. And there is no reason at all to look smug about it. Now, are you planning to let me in or would you rather I stand outside on the front stoop for the remainder of today's lesson?"
Harry stepped aside and ushered Malfoy in. When they were both settled in the living room, he was surprised that Malfoy was the first to speak, and with a gentleness to his tone that sent an odd thrill through Harry's spine.
"Harry, I want to apologize for last week. I should have been better prepared for the turn in our conversation but…" he paused, than continued, "but I wasn't. I've tried to remind myself that this is a strictly business interaction, but… well, it's not."
Harry's eyebrows shot up. This had not at all been his expectation.
"You and I have a history together." Harry felt his eyes widen, and a flush creep up his neck. "There's no need to look so shocked, you know it as well as I do. And, if you would like to move past this I have a proposition."
Harry gulped, causing Draco to roll his eyes.
"Not that kind of proposition, you prat. I mean a plan. I think we should talk, every day, at lunch. We each get one question, and the other has to answer truthfully and to the satisfaction of the other party. Neither can refuse to answer the other's question, and neither of us is allowed to get angry at what the other says."
"How is this going to help my schoolwork," Harry put in, finally.
"Harry, you are not, despite appearances, an idiot. But when you are distracted or distressed it shows in your work. Unless you relax around me, you'll never learn anything. And, frankly, I think we both need answers." Draco's expression was calm, but in his eyes Harry could see a hint of apprehension.
"Ok. At lunch, then. One question each." Draco's mouth quirked into a hint of a smile, and Harry felt his body start to relax, muscles he hadn't realized he was tensing beginning to release.
The morning's Potion's lesson turned out to be not too horrid, as well. Draco began by outlining what they would be covering for the next few weeks. He showed Harry his exam from the previous week and patiently went over what he thought were Harry's biggest problem areas.
"Your biggest hindrance is that you tackle every question as though it's an isolated question, as though there is only a right or a wrong answer, and then you move on."
"Sorry, Draco, but isn't there only one right answer? I mean, it's multiple choice. You either get it or you don't."
Draco smiled, "Yes, but it's all part of a big system. When you get a question right here it's because you happen to remember the answer, or because you've guessed. But if you understood the underlying theory, the properties of ingredients that make them act one way or another, then you wouldn't need to guess or hope you happen to remember. You'd be able to work it out, like a puzzle. There would be a clear answer every time, because the other options wouldn't fit."
"I've never thought of it like that. I always just took it one Potion at a time. Either the ingredients came together, or they didn't."
Draco smiled ruefully, "Harry, that's actually encouraging. If you have been doing as well as you have working off of blind luck you must have some natural talent."
"So I'm not hopeless, then?"
"No, not quite hopeless."
Lunch was leftovers, of a sort—some chicken salad Harry had made to use up the last of a roast chicken, with cress on a crusty baguette.
"This is very good, Harry. Is it from the Leaky Cauldron?"
"Is that your question for the day?"
Draco rolled his eyes, "No, just making conversation."
"I made it, if you must know."
Draco inclined his head slightly. "Well, then, my compliments to the chef." Harry chortled. There was a brief silence before he began his next sally.
"So… can I ask my question, then?"
"Been thinking about it all afternoon?"
Harry blushed. He had been thinking about a lot of things that afternoon—how different Draco's face looked when he smiled, wondering where Draco bought his cologne, studying Draco's dark trousers and wondering if he bought them at a wizarding shop or a Muggle one—but he hadn't needed to think of a question. He had plenty already.
"Hmmm, I guess so. Anyway I was wondering… I was wondering what happened to your parents?"
Draco looked startled, as though he'd been slapped.
"Sorry, I mean, we could start with something easier… I didn't mean to… that is… I, er… if it's a sore subject you don't need to…"
"It's fine, Harry," Draco said, quietly. "I made the rules, I can follow them." He picked up his water glass and took a deep drink. Harry watched his adam's apple bob. He had a very aristocratic throat—pale and white, but still somehow strong. He set down the glass and his grey eyes met Harry's, causing Harry to gasp a little at the intensity.
"My father is dead. Shortly after the last battle, he killed himself. We had all returned to the Manor. It looked like… well, it looked like a war had taken place there. He did it the first night, while we were asleep."
"How…" Harry began, but didn't quite finish.
"A potion. He didn't want to come back as a ghost, I think, so he chose something rather gentle. I think he really wanted peace, after all. He'd seen everything he believed in held up to a mirror, and seen how ugly it all was. I think he couldn't imagine the world would stay at peace with him in it. I like to think he thought he was sacrificing himself to that, although maybe he just wanted a coward's way out." Draco's voice was very matter-of-fact, and Harry got the sense he had come to these conclusions after many discussions with someone. Harry wondered who he had trusted enough to talk to.
"My mother is still alive. She's living in France, currently. She found his body—my father, I mean—and she cleaned up the mess, like she always does. But after that, I think she needed a clean break. I was going back to Hogwarts for year eight, and she decided to reconnect with some distant relatives in Aix. She writes. Not very long letters, but she always sends tokens—pressed flowers, or little pictures, or ribbons, or shells, mementos of her days."
"Do you miss her?"
"Every day." Draco paused, as though he was about to say something, but then held back.
"What? What is it?"
"Come on, Malfoy, out with it."
"Well, I guess it's just that… I'm sorry, for all those things I said about your parents being dead, before, when we were in school. I was an idiot. I didn't… understand."
Harry sighed. Strangely, his thoughts turned to the Mirror of Erised.
"Sometimes I think I might be lucky."
"Lucky? That your parents are dead," Draco said, incredulously.
"No, I don't mean it like that. It's just—well, I never knew my parents. So I got to think of them always as this ideal. I never knew the bad parts. They were always perfect to me. I think if they had lived…" he struggled to come up with the right words. "Look, I just mean that nobody is perfect. Not even my parents. And if I had known them better I'd have had to figure that out. And it would have been painful."
"Do you have a question for me?" Harry asked, hoping to change the subject. He was rewarded by a smirk from Draco.
"You just cannot wait to talk about yourself, can you?"
Harry blushed, but didn't say anything.
"Why do you live in my family's ancestral home?"
Harry laughed—a full, throaty laugh. The question was both very unexpected and very Draco.
"I inherited it from Sirius Black," Harry said, eyes twinkling.
"No, I'm sorry, that is not an acceptable answer. First of all, Sirius Black was the guy who got your parents killed. And second of all… well, there is no second of all because the first of all negates all other possibilities."
"Wow, you really were a minor foot soldier in Voldemort's army, weren't you?" Draco blanched slightly at the word "Voldemort," but drew himself up a little haughtier just the same.
"You say that like it is a bad thing. But yes, they never told me anything if they could help it, and I didn't tend to ask because most of the time I figured it was better not to know."
"Well, Sirius was never on Voldemort's side, and he never betrayed my parents. His whole so-called mass-murder was orchestrated by Peter Pettigrew."
"Wormtail? You've got to be joking."
Harry grimaced, "no, I'm not. Believe me, it's not something I would joke about."
"This still doesn't explain why he left you his family home."
Harry shrugged. "He was my godfather. He left me everything. House, money, flying motorbike."
"You know I used to come here, as a child. This place always gave me nightmares."
"I can imagine. All those decapitated house elves."
"Yes, I must say the décor has rather improved since then," Draco drawled. He looked pointedly at the little stained glass window Luna had given Harry for his birthday. "With a few notable exceptions."
"Hey! I'll have you know that since I put that in the window I haven't seen a single Nargle!"
Draco snorted. "Harry, I can't even dignify that non-sense with a reply."
They cleared the plates and moved back to the living room. Over the next hour, Draco explained the properties of herbs to Harry, classing them into groups and talking about their essences. Harry scribbled diligent notes, feeling decidedly less nervous. After a while, Draco pulled out a little kit containing lots of different herbs—dried and fresh—and a little vial of oil. He had Harry suspend each of the herbs in turn in the oil and they studied their properties using a probing spell.
"This basil… I expected it to be more… I dunno, harsh. But it's actually quite sweet."
"Yes, and as you can see it has properties that can cause it to act as a blood thinner."
Harry screwed his face in concentration. A puzzle, Draco had said. And it would fit in somewhere that other pieces wouldn't. "Ok, well, people, I mean Muggles, take blood thinning medicine to help their hearts beat, you know, to stop heart attacks."
"So, if it helps blood flow then it would be helpful in Amortentia because it would distribute the potion quickly through the blood stream."
"Yes, and it would counteract the affects of mugweed, a common ingredient in Amortentia that is also a coagulant." Draco finished.
"So, that answers the first question on the test."
"Not quite," Draco drawled. "You know why Basil would make a good answer to this question, but you don't yet know why the other three won't work."
"Is this the part where I get to find out what Soapwort even is?"
After Draco left, Harry realized he was actually sad to see him go. And, for the first time in a long time, he was actually looking forward to more Potions practice next week. He felt like an intellectual giant, and decided to celebrate by getting started on his Transfiguration reading for Thursday.
He gave up after a few minutes of reading, though, and instead firecalled Ron at the Burrow.
"So, how was it? Did you take my advice?"
"I was going to, but Draco kind of beat me to it."
"So what happened then? All business?"
"Actually, we talked about a lot of personal stuff—our parents, Sirius, Vol—"
"You don't need to say it," Ron cut in, jittery. Since Voldemort had died Ron had reverted back to an intense dislike of saying his name.
"It was kind of brilliant. He didn't hold anything back."
"And this was his idea?"
"Yeah, it was."
"Are you two becoming friends?" Ron's face looked particularly skeptical at the possibility of befriending Malfoy.
"He's changed. I've changed."
"That's not quite an answer."
"I don't know. I guess anything seems possible after everything, you know."
Ron nodded slowly, and Harry noticed there was something in his eyes, like a question hovering unasked. Then the moment passed and he spoke again.
"Yeah, mate. Anything is possible."
For Thursday's lunch Harry made paninis with goat cheese, prosciutto, roasted tomatoes, and homemade pesto. They were delicious, and Harry had to admit to himself that maybe, just maybe, he was showing off a little bit making lunch. But it was totally worth it to watch Draco's satisfied eating—he wasn't demonstrative, but Harry could tell he was enjoying himself.
"You should go first today, since I went first last time."
"My my, you are very eager to talk about yourself today."
"You know if you don't have a question ready I could just ask you two."
"I have a question," Draco replied calmly. "How did you know what happened when Dumbledore died?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, the summer after the war, during the tribunals, you gave testimony that cleared me, and cleared Severus Snape, and you knew all these details you couldn't possibly have known about what happened that night. I saw it in the papers, but they didn't say how you knew."
"I was there."
"No, I was there and you were not. I would have seen you."
"I was under an Invisibility Cloak." Draco's eyes went wide. Harry suppressed a grimace. Under normal circumstances, he would rather have enjoyed needling Draco about all the times he'd used that cloak at Hogwarts to get into trouble, but that particular night was wholly unpleasant to recall.
"Dumbledore and I were working on a plan to defeat Voldemort. It was dangerous and it involved a lot of secrecy. That night we had just come back from a rather excruciating trip, during which I had been forced to feed Dumbledore poison. In the end, the whole thing was useless—the thing we were trying to retrieve wasn't even there, we'd been duped, and Dumbledore died because I had weakened him to the point…" Harry's voice broke and he let himself just trail off. There was a long and awkward pause while Harry regained his composure, then he began again.
"If Hermione were here she'd yell at me for blaming myself. And she's right. The real truth is that Dumbledore was already dying, even before the poison, and that he asked Severus to kill him, so that you wouldn't have to. He wanted his death to at least be able to save you."
"I don't know if I was worth saving back then," Draco said quietly.
"Are you worth it now?" Harry asked.
"Is that your question for the day?" Draco replied, with a small smile. Harry shook his head.
"No. No, don't answer that. Of course you are worth it." Draco looked a bit surprised. "I mean, all life is worth saving. I really believe that."
"How Hufflepuff of you."
"Yeah, well, maybe I got sorted wrong."
"Alright then, if that's not your real question, what is? What do you want to know?"
"Do you fancy blokes?" Harry choked out, feeling himself flush bright red, although he couldn't exactly say why he found this so embarrassing to ask.
"Why do you ask," Draco said, warily.
"Ron. He told me that he thought you and Blaise might have had something going on during eighth year—that you spent all your time together, always so close."
Draco laughed, a bright merry laugh that made Harry feel at once very foolish and very delighted.
"Blaise and I did not ever have 'something going on'—we spent all our time together because we were afraid of getting out arses hexed off by every student who still held a grudge from the war."
"But yes, I do fancy blokes, as you so elegantly put it." Draco primly set his hands on the table in front of himself, neatly folded. Harry smiled, feeling very pleased with himself, but not quite knowing why this knowledge pleased him so much. So Draco was gay? He didn't have a problem with that. Why should he?
"Ok, so how do you know, though. Have you ever…"
Draco sighed, "I've always known, I guess. Never fancied a girl. And yes, I have had experiences with boys."
"Who? Who did you have experiences with? It must be someone I know!"
"Someone you know well, in fact. My first boyfriend, if you can call it that, was Cedric Diggory."
"He was with Cho Chang."
"I know. I was just a fling for him. It was a secret. I thought about coming out with it a few times, during the Tri-wizard tournament, but I didn't have the heart. He had so much going on. Then he just… then he was just gone."
Harry blinked. For some reason he thought about Dudley Dursley, who had laughed at him for saying Cedric's name in his sleep and asked if Cedric were his boyfriend.
"I saw him die."
"I know that now."
"Harry, at the time, I didn't know what to know. I knew that Voldemort had returned, but no one in my family would talk about it. I knew that this boy who had kissed me, had told me he loved me, had promised that when the tournament ended he would tell the world about us, had died. And I knew that you were there when it happened. And I hated you, so much, for being there for that. For knowing what I would never know. I blamed you, for a long time, for his death."
"I had no idea." Harry was extremely thrown. He suddenly understood, with blinding clarity, why Draco had changed so drastically between fourth year and fifth. In the early years at Hogwarts, they had been rivals, and had pranked one another and thrown jabs about each other's parents. But during year five, something had changed—Draco was darker, more violent, more vindictive. His grim pleasure in the inquisitorial squad and his determined solitude during their sixth year suddenly slammed into Harry's view for the first time as signs that something very traumatic had happened for him.
"Was there anyone else?"
"Ernie McMillan. In sixth year. We had a few… encounters, but they didn't mean anything. I don't think I felt much that year—I was so numb."
Harry studied Draco for several minutes. He looked very different now from how he had been at sixteen—his hair was shorter, and somewhat wavy, and his face seemed less drawn and thin. He was dressed neatly and simply—his button down shirt and dark gray trousers looked expensive, but were not ostentatious. He had his shirt-sleeves rolled up past his elbows, and Harry could see the Dark Mark, still sharp and black as though it had been received only yesterday. He looked older than his nineteen years. When Draco looked up and caught Harry staring, he finally looked away. Something inside him was shifting—he could feel it. He didn't know what would happen next, but everything felt like it was changing.