AN: This chapter is a bit shorter than the last three, but I thought I'd go ahead and post it. Thanks so much for all the new reviews, and to everyone who is following along. I love reading your comments (even the negative ones!), and I appreciate the feedback. This is my first fic ever, so I really do feel like I'm figuring it all out as I go along. I have a bunch of RL deadlines coming up, so I can't promise I'll be posting with absolute regularity.
Harry was actually quite pleased with himself as he cast a transparency spell on his oven door to check the progress of the leg of lamb he'd been roasting for the past few hours. Harry definitely enjoyed cooking, and he was fairly good at it, but once and a while he'd find himself becoming over ambitious and the results could be disastrous. Doubly so if Ginny were involved. But, tonight's complicated meal of Moroccan style lamb with a variety of elaborate side dishes seemed to be coming together quite nicely. He glanced at the clock on the wall and mentally went over everything left to do in his mind. Draco would be here soon. He couldn't help but think, and he ran a hair through his hair absently, trying to push it into something more attractive than its typical rumpled mess.
Thinking of Draco made his stomach do a minor flip-flop. He was getting used to it. Since their musical session on Tuesday, Harry had spent more time than he'd like to admit day-dreaming about Draco's deep voice, his clever fingers, his lips… He'd become even more nervous than usual during their Thursday Transfiguration lesson and had somehow managed to break three vases that he'd been trying to turn into lamps and set the fourth on fire. Draco had eventually abandoned the lesson in favor of reading a very slow and remedial lecture that began "What is Transfiguration?" and included several childish anecdotes where basic magical concepts were debated in forced dialogue between famous wizards from throughout history. At another time in his life, this would have angered Harry as an insult to his intelligence, but now he just felt mortified and blushed copiously while Rowena Ravenclaw and Wendell the Weird catechistically recounted the Three Laws of Magical Energy. The more Harry tried to impress Draco, the more he stumbled, stuttered, flustered, and failed. That the meal seemed to be coming together of its own accord made Harry pathetically grateful—at least he still had some talents.
He was tasting the thick, burgundy colored sauce that was to accompany the lamb when the bell rang. He cast a hasty stasis over the sauce so it wouldn't congeal, lowered the heat on the other two occupied eyes, and loped down the hall towards the front door. He thought it would probably be Ginny, seeing as it was still a bit early—he knew that she and Eleanor were coming separately, and that meant Ginny would try to arrive first so she could unburden the week's worth of emotional processing at Harry before dinner began. However, when he threw wide the door, he found Draco standing there instead.
Harry opened his mouth to say hello, but felt the greeting catch in his throat—Draco looked, for lack of a better word, gorgeous. Since Draco had begun tutoring him, Harry had noted that Draco tended to wear Muggle clothing, more or less—prudent, Harry supposed, as Grimmauld was in a more Muggle-heavy area of town and Draco appeared to favor walking to Harry's home—but he usually retained some wizard items: gaudy jewelry, a holster for his wand, a short cloak thrown about his shoulders, dragon-hide boots, that sort of thing. But today, Draco was dressed, head to toe, in an immaculate, and completely Muggle, three-piece suit. It was very well-tailored, fitting close to his body. It wasn't quite the style of the day for men's suiting—it looked a bit old-fashioned—but it suited Draco's slim, tall frame exactly. The fabric was fine, in a rich shade of dark butterscotch, shot through with a subtle pin-stripe in a shade of nutty brown. Under the waistcoat, Draco wore a simple, cream colored shirt and a slim, silky tie in a burnt orange color that made Harry think of autumn harvest bonfires, spiced apple cider, and pumpkin pie all at once. In his right hand, Draco was carrying a bouquet of flowers and in his left a bottle of wine—or maybe champagne, to judge by the cork.
Harry became acutely aware that he was staring, and forced himself to drop the stupid expression of wonder he was sure had stolen over his features in favor of a lopsided grin.
"I'm so glad you're here, Draco. Come on in."
"Thank you," Draco said, and stepped into the house.
"You look… really nice," Harry mumbled, almost under his breath as they walked down the hall.
"Thank you," Draco said again, a hint of amusement in his voice.
"Dinner's almost ready—do you mind if I finish up in the kitchen? I can pour you a glass of wine if you like," Harry gestured towards the bottle in Draco's hand. Draco looked down at it, then up into Harry's eyes and handed him the bottle.
"It's not wine—it's sparkling cider. A Muggle drink. And non-alcoholic." Draco made a distasteful face, reminding Harry of Narcissa Malfoy's pinched expressions. "I don't drink. I mean, I don't drink alcoholic beverages."
"Oh," was all Harry could think to say to that. He wondered briefly if there was a story to that, but felt it was safer not to ask. They reached the kitchen and Harry set the bottle on the counter, then rummaged in the cabinets until he found two glasses and a vase.
"I see at least some of your housewares have escaped the terrors of your spellcasting," Draco said sardonically. Harry blushed furiously. He tried to think of a retort, but gave up. It was too early in the evening to put his foot in his mouth.
"The flowers are beautiful," he said lamely, and handed the vase to Draco. Draco's mouth twitched as he set the flowers in the vase, then moved to the sink to fill it with water.
"My mother picked them out from her garden. I envy her gardening skills. Alas, I've only ever been mediocre at Herbology—neither a green thumb nor a black one."
"You make it sound like you'd rather be worse at it than just ok."
Draco wrinkled his nose and set the vase on the kitchen table.
"I hate being in the middle. Being average, I mean. It's something I'm trying to work on, actually," Draco looked thoughtfully at the blossoms, then smiled at Harry. "Not something you have to worry about, though. You seem to either succeed handily or fail spectacularly at everything you try. You are a study in extremes."
Harry snorted. "I guess you could say that." He cast a few haphazard Charms towards the stove—mostly checking up—and then turned back to Draco, summoning up his courage. "You really do look nice. I, er… like that tie."
Draco's hand flew up to his necktie and he stroked the silky fabric, making Harry's mouth go dry.
"I hope I've gotten the look right. I know you said Eleanor is still under the impression that Ginny Weasley is a mere mortal and Hogwarts a pretentious preparatory school, so I thought a bit of extra care in dress was in order so as not to arouse any suspicions about my upbringing. I had a bit of a time finding something suitable, though, I had to…" he broke off, swallowed, and then resumed again. "The suit was my father's. He hated Muggles, but he was meticulous about observing their customs when the situation dictated it."
"You look really nice," Harry said again, "really nice." He blushed, and turned back to the stove to hide it. He really needed to find a new phrase.
"So when does the rest of the party arrive?" Draco asked.
"I expect Ginny will be here any moment—I thought you would be her when you rang, actually. Eleanor might be a bit late. She has to come across town from band practice."
"What about Ron and Hermione?"
"Oh, er…" Harry stammered, "they can't make it. Hermione has some big essay due on Monday and is encamped in the library at her school, perhaps permanently, and Ron is on assignment as part of his Auror training—he didn't give me details, I think because he isn't permitted to."
Draco's brow furrowed slightly, but then straightened out into a musing expression.
"I suppose I should have anticipated the day that Hermione Granger would merge bodily with a library and become completely incorporate with the books inside."
Harry chuckled, though he'd only half-comprehended the joke. He was saved from further comment by the sound of the bell. He handed off a glass of the sparkling cider Draco had brought and walked to the front door. Draco trailed behind a few steps, peering past Harry's shoulder with interest.
Ginny and Eleanor stood on the doorstep, holding hands and looking pink-cheeked from the chilly early evening air.
"Ran into each other about a block away," Ginny said, grinning, and they both stepped inside.
"Eleanor, this is Draco Malfoy, my tutor and… an old friend. From school," Harry said.
Eleanor reached out her hand for Draco's and shook enthusiastically. For his part, Draco was looking at her with astonishment and a bit of skepticism. Harry could see why—Eleanor had a bit of a mad streak when it came to style. Today, she was wearing a leather biker jacket over an oversized white tee-shirt that had been hacked off at the bottom so that it fell to her waist. It had the words "Punk Rock Will Never Diet!" written across it in what appeared to be black marker. She had on a short, plaid skirt over black stockings and worn, intimidating combat boots on her feet. Her hair, which was curly and black, had been arranged on top of her head in an elaborate and messy bun, and pieces of it were streaked a pinkish-purple color.
"It's lovely to meet you," Draco said, finally.
"Heard a lot about you," Eleanor countered, grinning.
"Really? I'd be curious to know what sorts of things," Draco said with a curious smile.
"Oh all sorts," Eleanor leaned over towards Draco, pulling him in by his hand, which she still clasped, and spoke in a stage whisper. "These two say the oddest things some times. Can't tell if Ginny thinks you're a prat or thinks the most brilliant bloke she's ever met. And Harry… well, from what I hear—" Ginny cleared her throat loudly and gave Eleanor a pointed look. Harry might have been amused, if he wasn't too busy blushing furiously, and Draco looked absolutely bewildered. Harry was used to Eleanor by this time, and found her tendency to mischievous frankness and her almost instant intimacy with everyone she met to be endearing, but he'd been taken aback when they had first met. Eleanor could be very funny, and very sweet, but she could also be very loud and… alarming.
Eleanor released Draco's hand, but smiled conspiratorially.
"Don't worry, Draco, we've got all night to become friends." She punctuated the promise with a light elbow to Draco's ribs.
"I think we should all move into the living room," Ginny said, but for a moment no one moved. Draco was staring at Eleanor like she might bite him, Eleanor was beaming at Draco like he was a long lost brother, and Harry was shifting awkwardly and suddenly remembering how Muggle-phobic Draco had been their entire time at Hogwarts.
"Living room!" Ginny said, again, rather sharply. Draco, Harry, and Eleanor all snapped to attention at the sound. Her eyes widened and she threw up her hands. "Sorry, that came out a bit mouthier than I meant. But it was a long walk and I would like to sit down."
Eleanor grabbed Ginny's wrist and pulled her off towards the kitchen: "Drinks, first, darling," she looked back over her shoulder from halfway down the hall and yelled to Harry, "we'll meet you in there. Libations await! I assume everything's where it was last time I was here?"
Harry opened his mouth to explain about the recent reorganization, but decided against it. She was too far off, and she'd end up ransacking the cabinets no matter what he said.
"So, er, care to join me in the living room?"
Draco shrugged, still looking a little shell shocked, but followed Harry into the next room nevertheless. When they were seated, he spoke.
"Eleanor is… interesting."
"She's a character."
"Is she always so…"
"I was going to say frightening, but let's go with forward instead."
"She scared the pants off me when she first moved in next door. Used to just pop in without knocking—I was always afraid she'd catch me in a spell or something."
"Are all Muggles like that?" Draco looked around nervously, as though he expected Harry's neighborhood of Muggles would come crashing through the front door any moment.
"No, just Eleanor. I thought she was a bit mental at first, but after a while I figured out she was just popping in because she hoped she'd run into Ginny." Harry smiled, "It's funny—she can be really sensitive if the tables are turned—they got in a bit of a tiff last week when Ginny showed up unannounced."
"Sometimes the hardest things to accept about other people are the things we fear are true about ourselves," Draco said softly, looking down at his drink.
"Fine words," said Ginny, from the doorway. Her voice was light and she looked a bit flushed and Harry felt a surge of jealousy that was strange and unexpected. He wasn't jealous that Eleanor had probably snogged Ginny into this flushed state in his kitchen, but rather that the two of them seemed so happy. So couple-y.
Ginny flopped onto one of the armchairs with little ceremony. She had a tall glass about half full of murky liquid—it fizzed darkly and looked not at all appetizing. She saw Harry eyeing her drink and rolled her eyes at it.
"El's playing bartender. It looks like horror incarnate but knowing her it'll probably taste fantastic."
"It takes a fantastic person to mix a fantastic drink," Eleanor said, entering with her own murky fizz. "Cheers!"
"Cheers," they all chanted, and everyone took a sip.
"Harry, you know you've got about a dozen pots on the stove—aren't you afraid of the whole thing going up?" Eleanor asked.
"It'll be fine—it's, uh, got some time left to cook," Harry said, knowing his stasis charms would keep the food from getting overcooked.
"Also, your cabinets are all mixed up. And weird. Didn't recognize half the stuff in there and I'm pretty sure some of your herbs have gone off—one of them looked like a rotting foot. Took me ages to find the cinnamon."
"You put cinnamon in that?" Draco asked, pointing at Ginny's drink.
"Better to ask what she didn't put in it," Ginny said suggestively, and Draco shuddered.
"I suppose it's your stomach," he said.
"And Harry, I have got to know, and I know that Ginny is going to ream me for being off-color and all that, but I have to know," Eleanor whipped her arm from behind her back, and Harry jumped half out of his seat, recognizing his wand in her hand. "What on earth kind of sex toy is this and why do you keep it in the kitchen?"
Harry could feel his face changing colors—white, red, green, pink, purple—and his mouth worked open and closed again without sound coming out. Ginny looked alternately worried and amused. Finally, Draco spoke.
"Eleanor, that that item belongs to me," he said calmly, and his lips curved into a devious smile. "It's my magic wand."
"Your what?" Eleanor said at the same time that Harry shot out a warning "Draco…"
"It's alright Harry. I know you don't approve of my hobbies, but not everyone is quite so judgmental."
"You see, Eleanor, I'm something of an amateur magician. Magic tricks, you know. Rabbits out of hats, water into wine, sawing ladies in half, that sort of thing." Draco's voice was even and smooth, and Harry and Ginny's eyes met in wonder. Harry was incredulous at Draco's completely seamless lie, but also a bit surprised that he knew anything about Muggle magic tricks.
"Harry here has always teased me about it," Draco continued, affecting a hurt tone, "especially in school. He taunted me mercilessly. I brought that wand along tonight because I was hoping to show off some new tricks I've been practicing. But I can tell by Harry's face that it'll be the incident with the dove in the boy's locker room all over again."
"The incident with the what?" Ginny interjected.
"I teased you!" Harry spluttered.
Eleanor laughed merrily.
"Oh, I can see it now. I always knew you must have been one of those popular kids in school—a bully. I bet you were quite the tormentor for poor Draco."
"You have his character so exactly," Draco said with perfect sincerity. Harry felt himself growing warm.
"I was not a bully!" he exclaimed.
"It's all right, Harry. We all go through our phases. And Ginny already told me you and Draco never got on at school. Now I know why."
"Yes, he's quite intolerant of magic," Draco moaned, "he never once let me pull a quarter out of his ear."
Ginny laughed at this, and her laughter proved contagious. Eleanor soon joined in, followed by Draco, whose rich voice made Harry feel at once mollified and indignant.
"Yeah, yeah, have a good laugh at Harry Potter," he grumbled. "I'm off to the kitchen—dinner in ten?"
Ginny nodded to acknowledge, still giggling.
Dinner itself was rather more sedated—which Harry hoped meant that the food was passable. It all looked good, but Harry barely tasted any of it. He was too busy blushing and trying not to stare at Draco and keep up with the conversation which, thanks to Eleanor, was moving at a lightening speed. He felt genuinely relieved when he brought out the dessert course: a simple dish of fresh figs topped with lavender honey and crème fraiche.
"Harry this is delicious," Ginny enthused, "I expected you to bake a pie again, but this is almost better."
"Nothing is better than pie," Harry said, seriously, and everyone laughed.
"I didn't know you could bake," Draco said.
"There are a lot of things you don't know about me," Harry replied. Their eyes met across the table and Draco raised an eyebrow. Harry couldn't tell if his expression was meant as a challenge or a question.
"Well, I only know of two sure-fire methods to fix that problem," Eleanor piped in brightly.
"What do you suggest?" Ginny asked, leaning conspiratorially over towards her girlfriend.
"We could play Truth or Dare."
Draco snorted. "Veto. We aren't eleven year olds at a sleepaway camp."
"Or we could go out for karaoke." She smiled broadly, but was greeted by blank looks from both Ginny and Draco.
"I don't know what a karaoke is," Draco said, "but I'm much too stuffed at the moment to eat anything else. Perhaps we should save it for another time."
"You've never heard of karaoke? None of you?" Draco and Ginny shook their heads, mystified.
"I know what it is," Harry said, "but I've never done it."
"It's something you do?" Draco said, suspiciously.
"Yeah, it's a Mug—I mean, it's a thing people do at bars and pubs. There's a machine that plays songs and a little screen where all the lyrics scroll by and you pick a song and sing it."
"It's brilliant," Eleanor said, "and you can tell a lot about someone by what song they choose."
"For example?" Ginny asked.
"A bloke who picks 'Pour Some Sugar On Me' is to be avoided at all costs—even if he offers to pay for your drink. A girl who sings anything by Alanis Morisette will definitely end the night plastered and in a fight with her boyfriend. Love songs are usually sung by people who are pulling, not people in love. Nostalgic throwbacks are for the ones who have come with a big group. Power ballads indicate a low alcohol tolerance."
"I don't think I understood a word of that," Draco said and Harry chuckled.
"What do you usually sing?" Ginny asked.
"I have a few favorites on rotation. 'Mamas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys' is my current favorite, but I've been known to belt 'Islands in the Stream' upon occasion if I have a good dueting partner."
"You know," Harry said, perking up, "Draco is a fantastic singer. You two should sing a song together."
"Are you seriously suggesting that we leave the privacy of your flat and journey to an unknown pub some godforsaken part of town in order to expose ourselves in front of a bunch of drunk… persons?" Draco asked.
"Oh, Draco, I'm sure Harry can think of some other ways for you to expose yourself if you're shy about doing it in public," Ginny said with a leer.
"Sorry, Harry. But he did kind of walk into that one."
"I don't think any of us should be exposing ourselves to anything or anyone at anytime," Harry said.
"Good luck with that," laughed Eleanor, "personally, I think exposing oneself is warranted time and again." She reached over and squeezed Ginny's hand on the table, and Harry flushed.
"Well, far be it from me to spoil any plans for singing or soul-baring this evening, but I am afraid I'll have to be going shortly. I have an early morning," Draco said, rising.
"No magic tricks tonight, then?" Eleanor said. Draco smiled and leaned over and, to Harry's surprise, pulled a quarter from her ear.
"I try never to disappoint. It was lovely to meet you, Eleanor, and good to see you again too, Ginny." And with that Draco began to leave the room. Harry watched him go feeling a bit at a loss—dinner had been going so well, and yet Draco was leaving so early. Perhaps Draco was more sensitive to the teasing than he had let on.
"Harry," Ginny said quietly, "aren't you going to see him out?"
"Oh!" Harry jumped up. Of course that was the polite thing to do. He rushed out of the room and down the hall, finding Draco in the front foyer putting on an amber-colored scarf that Harry was quite sure he hadn't had when he'd arrived.
"It's turned a bit cold," Draco said, "I conjured this, but very discretely, I assure you."
"It's alright. I don't think Eleanor noticed anything." Harry shuffled in the hall, unsure what to say next. "She seems rather taken with you."
"Yeah. Er, thanks for coming. Sorry about all the ribbing at dinner. I hope you didn't feel ganged up on."
"Not at all," Draco said. His expression was completely neutral, but his eyes were bright. Harry wanted so badly to move closer to him, reduce the distance between their bodies. He wanted to touch the soft scarf and feel the smooth fabric of Draco's suit. Unconsciously, he leaned forward, his whole body at attention.
"Well, Harry, it's been a pleasant evening and I—"
"When will I see you again?" Harry asked, in a rush. His voice came out unexpectedly low and rough. Draco's eyes widened, but then he looked away.
"You'll see me on Tuesday, Harry. For our lesson." Draco's voice was quiet, but emphatic. I can't let him leave, Harry thought, and he reached out his hand to grab Draco's wrist, but Draco shied away.
"I'd like to see you before then."
"I don't think that's a good idea, Harry."
"We could visit Teddy and Andromeda, this weekend. If you like." Harry could hear the note of desperation in his voice, and he willed himself to stop talking—nothing in Draco's demeanor indicated that he was at all receptive to Harry's advances, but Harry felt like Tuesday was ages away. And when it arrived—would they just go back to lessons and awkward moments?
"I'd like that very much, Harry, I really would. But I don't think it's a good idea for us to see too much of each other."
Harry moved back a step, stung. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"I don't mean anything by it," Draco said, with a look of concern, and he put his hand on Harry's shoulder as if to reassure him, "I value your friendship."
Their eyes met and Harry couldn't stop himself. He stepped forward and in one swift motion set his lips to Draco's and kissed him. For three thrilling seconds, it seemed as though Draco would let himself be kissed, but Harry felt himself being pushed away, firmly but gently.
"I have to go," Draco said, simply. And then he was gone. Harry slumped morosely against the wall, mentally kicking himself. What was it Draco had said about spectacular failure?
This letter has been very difficult to write. Please forgive me for my somewhat abrupt exit from your flat on Friday night. I had intended to leave early—I really did have an early morning—but I should have stayed a moment or two longer to explain myself, my feelings, in the hall instead of bolting. The truth is, your kiss caught me quite off guard.
I have been aware, almost from the moment that you reentered my life a few weeks ago, that my feelings for you are more than that of a friend. However, circumstances beyond my control prevent me from ever wanting to act on those feelings. Harry, I am not well. The war, my father's death, my current outcast status—all of these things weigh heavily on me. I think you know me well enough by now to know that I am no longer interested in pity. I am working very hard to make reparations, to myself and to the world, but the cost of this work is heavy. It consumes my life. I have no room for you at present.
One of the things I have been trying very hard to achieve in my life these days is balance. It is clear to me that you and I would never be able to have a balanced relationship. We will never be equals and therefore we can never be lovers. You will always be, in the eyes of the world, superior. And you will always be, to me, the man that saved my life, who showed me mercy at a time when mercy was what I needed most. Even now, I have no way of knowing if the feelings I have towards you are genuine, or if they are simply the grateful yearnings of a man desperate to repay a kind act.
Of course, I do not want to read too much into your kiss. It may have been the impulse of a moment, or it may be that you are simply attracted to me, but no deeper feelings lurk underneath. In either case, I think you will see why I still need your assurance that any discussions or actions designed to transform our friendship into something more must be at an end.
I will see you on Tuesday, as promised, for Potions. Please know that I am at pains writing this.
I'm sorry. I just needed to know what it would be like. I can't stop thinking about you. It won't happen again. I think I might be in love with you, but I've never been in love before and I think I might need you. I
Harry ripped up the bit of parchment and threw it into the fire in disgust. Nothing he wrote made sense, and this was his fourth attempt to write a reply to Draco's letter, which had arrived that morning tied to the leg of a particularly imposing owl. Lines from the letter kept floating through his mind, making it impossible to write anything coherent. Each of his letters alternated between promises that he wouldn't push Draco or try to kiss him again and desperate pleading for Draco to give him a chance.
He picked up a new bit of parchment and dipped his quill, but this time did not attempt a reply to Draco. Instead, he found himself writing:
Hermione—I need you. Please come over. –Harry.
He debated putting in details, but couldn't bring himself to do so. His owl, Pierpoint, hooted softly as Harry attached the letter to his leg. He gave the owl a treat and sent him off through the kitchen window, then sat at the kitchen table.
He didn't know how long he sat there before he heard the Floo roar to life, and Hermione's voice, shrill with worry, calling down the hall.
"Harry, Harry are you in here…" she walked into the kitchen and stopped, taking in Harry's slumped posture with narrowed eyes. "Not life threatening then?"
Harry said nothing, but tried to look as miserable as possible. Hermione rolled her eyes and set about making tea. She bustled about in the cabinets, complaining loudly.
"Seeing as how I don't see any blood or bruises or missing limbs or any other indication that you've suffered bodily harm, and seeing as I've actually spoken to Ginny since Friday night, unlike you, I assume you've come over to discuss whatever is happening with you and Draco. Honestly, Harry, I do think you've been a bit of a drama queen about all of this. Draco seems so steady and quiet these days—he's not the trouble-maker he was. Aren't you just stirring up trouble? And I know you need a friend but I have to remind you that I have a very important essay that I haven't even finished researching on the classification of jinxes and curses and the criminalization of non-wizard magical beings. You know I've never liked Fudge, but now that I've been looking into some of his policies on spell classification I've got to say that he shows a clear bias—the Jelly-legs Jinx, for example, is a pardonable misdemeanor, provided no physical injury is sustained due to the casting, but the Knee-knobble Curse, which is practically the same spell but usually favored by House Elves as a self-defense tactic is punishable by thirty days of confinement. It's shocking—though really not all that surprising…"
Harry let her ramble on, and even caught himself smiling. It was hard not to listen to Hermione rant without feeling a warm glow for his friend. She talked clear through preparing two cups of tea, yelling loudly over the whistle of the kettle something about how the colloquial use of 'hex' had emerged historically as a response to increased governmental regulation. Finally, she sat opposite Harry, pushed a cup towards him and said, "Alright. Talk. I've talked plenty. Now it's your turn."
"I don't know what to say."
"Well, then, I'll be off," Hermione said breezily, making a move as if to go. Harry caught her hand.
"No, don't go. Please stay."
"What's going on, Harry?"
"I kissed him."
"He just left. Just like that. And then on Saturday I got this." Harry reached into his pocket and retrieved Draco's letter, which had been folded and refolded so much already that it looked worn and tattered.
Hermione took the letter and read through it, her face impassive.
"Well, that's a lot to take in," she said when she finished, handing the parchment back to Harry.
"Is that all you have to say?"
"What do you have to say, Harry? The last time I saw you, you weren't even sure how you felt about him. It seems like things are moving pretty fast for you."
"I think I might be in love with him."
Hermione's eyes widened.
"Very, very fast."
"I know, I know."
"Harry, are you sure?"
"Of course I'm not sure. When am I ever sure? Why do you think I kissed him—I needed to find out how I felt."
"So the kiss was an experiment?"
"That sounds awful when you put it like that, but honestly, how else am I supposed to sort out my feelings unless I act on them?"
"Spoken like a true Gryffindor."
Harry rolled his eyes. "You sound like Malfoy saying that."
Hermione shrugged and sipped her tea. "Maybe I'm trying to see things from his perspective."
"Are you saying I'm not?"
"Harry, do you believe what Draco wrote in that letter?"
"You mean that we can never be equals? Of course not! I don't think of Draco as inferior to anyone. I like the slimy git! He's smart and he makes me laugh and he's surprisingly kind and he's so very… blond." Harry blushed. He was definitely going to have to work harder on articulating his attraction to Draco.
"That's all very well and good—but I meant do you think that Draco sincerely believes what he wrote—that this letter represents what Draco sees as the truth."
"Yeah, I do."
"Then I think you have to take seriously what he says."
"Hermione, you don't understand."
"Explain it to me." Hermione's expression was kind, but Harry felt frustrated nevertheless.
"I can't. I just… I have these feelings. I don't know what to do with them, but I feel like I have to find out. Draco is how I find out. I think if I don't pursue this with him, there will be a part of myself that I will never be able to understand."
"Harry, if this is just about figuring out if you really are attracted to men—"
"It's not that. At least, I don't think it is. I think it's Draco. I think if I can't be with him then… I don't know what."
Hermione's eyebrows raised in alarm and Harry realized he'd gotten rather louder than he meant to. He modulated his voice and spoke softer.
"Hermione, I know it sounds crazy, and I know you think I'm making more out of this than there is, but… this just feels so important to me right now. I don't know how to just put that away and not act on it."
"You might have to do just that. Maybe if you give him some space, some time, become friends in the eyes of the world and let him heal a bit—he might come around."
"It could be years before he comes around, Hermione, if he comes around. Could you wait years pretending to be just friends with the love of your life?" Harry winced a little at the last bit—he was being a bit hyperbolic, but he had to get Hermione to see how urgent the situation really was. To his complete surprise, Hermione burst into a loud, barking laughter.
"Harry, you are unbelievable. Where were you during my entire adolescence when I was doing exactly that? Ron and I didn't exactly just wake up one morning and mutually agree to start dating."
"I can't believe you're laughing at me right now."
"I can't believe you're so thick you think you're the only person in the world who has ever had an unrequited crush."
"It's not technically unrequited!"
"Well then I guess you're not technically being rejected and you should cheer up," Hermione's voice was light and teasing. She curled her fingers around her mug and took another sip of tea, then cleared her throat. "Harry, I'm really not trying to be unsympathetic. But if you let yourself fall into self-pity, or worse, push Draco too far too soon, you might ruin your chances of even keeping him in your life."
"Do you think he's worth it?" Harry asked, quietly.
"What do you mean?"
"It's just… what Neville said the other night. I know that you and Draco patched things up last year a bit and all that, and I know he's changed. I know how much I like him, now. But do you think that, underneath it all, he's really a different person than what he was, before?"
"I don't think he's a different person at all. I think he's the same Draco he's always been. Don't look so startled, I don't mean that I think he's worthless or something. I mean I think he never was the evil person we thought he was when we were children. He's learned a great deal, and it's changed how he acts and what he values, but underneath it all he's the person he was when he first met you."
Harry closed his eyes and tried to imagine the boy Draco when they first met—in Madame Malkin's shop in Diagon Alley, and then, not long after, holding out his hand for friendship. At the time, Harry had seen only disdain for Ron in Draco's eyes, but now he could see other things as well—fear, and uncertainty.
"Harry, I don't want you to think I'm dismissing Neville's concerns—for Neville, those things are really true and valid. But you aren't Neville, and you have to act on your own feelings, not on his."
"I think Neville is like Snape," Harry said. Hermione laughed shortly.
"Don't ever let Neville hear you saying that, he'd be apoplectic."
"No, I just mean… the way Neville feels about Draco is a lot like how Snape felt towards my dad. He could never get past his humiliation."
They lapsed into silence for a moment.
"You should really talk to Ginny, you know. She thinks she did something wrong."
"I know. I was an idiot. After I kissed Draco and he ran off I just lost it. I practically ordered Ginny and Eleanor out of the flat. No explanation."
"She seemed to think you might have been jealous of Eleanor. Said you kept giving them both weird looks all night every time they touched each other."
"I might have done. I'm not jealous of Eleanor. Or, I guess I am, but not because of Ginny. I'm happy for them. I'm just jealous of anyone who's got someone, you know?"
"You're lonely," Hermione said sympathetically, "but Harry—you need to make sure that all this intensity about Draco isn't just because you're lonely and he's been hanging around lately."
Harry sighed morosely.
"I'm sorry I don't have more answers."
"Me too," Harry said, ruefully. "You always have answers. Usually to questions I haven't even figured out I need to ask."
Hermione smiled, looking tired. "If it helps, I do think there's more going on in the letter than just what he's written on the surface."
"More? Like what?"
"Oh, I don't know. But it seems pretty clear that something or someone hurt him very badly in the past. Maybe it was Cedric Diggory, maybe it was another lover. Maybe it wasn't a lover at all. But I think there's a story there."
"Shouldn't we be in research mode?"
"There's not going to be a book to tell us what's happening with Draco. I think when the time comes he'll tell you himself. Trying to find out before then wouldn't be research, it would be prying."
Harry must have looked particularly dejected, because she shot her hand out and took his in a gesture of comfort.
"Harry, don't look like that. This is all going to be ok. Nothing terrible has happened. It's all going to be fine."
"Then why do I feel like this," Harry groaned, "like I'm locked in a room full of dementors without a wand and I'll never escape and-"
"And Draco is just the giant chocolate bar you need to start feeling better again?" Harry laughed, in spite of himself. "Harry, be careful. Draco isn't a solution to your problems, he's a person with his own feelings and desires to cope with. If he doesn't want to be with you, you have to take him at his word."
"You think I have problems?"
Hermione rolled her eyes. "No, it's perfectly normal to feel as though all happiness has been drained from the world and you'll never experience joy again."
"I didn't say it quite like that," Harry said, coloring slightly.
"I'd roll my eyes again, but I think doing so at this point might permanently damage them." Hermione's grip on Harry's arm became firm. "Harry, buck up. It's not the end of the world. You've faced worse, and you'll get through it. You've been chased by Death Eaters, forced to take part in harrowing Dark Magic rituals, and unknowingly used as a vessel for the soul of a sociopathic lunatic who murdered your parents. You died once, for heaven's sake. You need to get some perspective."
Harry looked down at his tea. It was starting to get cold, and he debated casting a warming charm. Hermione was right. He needed some perspective. He looked up at Hermione and she gave him an encouraging smile. Everything's going to be fine, he told himself. But there was a pit in his stomach, nevertheless. A nagging feeling that, no matter what Hermione said, he should do something. He was, after all, a Gryffindor.