Rating: R

Summary: After going back to the Dursleys at the end of his fourth year and the Triwizard Tournament, Harry is abused by his uncle. He quickly falls into despondancy and despair. When he believes nothing can possibly get worse, three dark figures appear on the doorstep of 4 Privet Drive.

Disclaimer: This story is based on characters and situations created and owned by J. K. Rowling. No money is being made and no copyright or trademark infringement is intended. It's just fan fiction!

Author's Note: Very happy thank-yous to my beta-reader, Savidana, who runs the wonderful slash site Dead Muse Rising. She has been so supportive of this story and way too nice to me. Love to Beanie who also beta-ed, and hugs to Amanda and Aileen who make me smile every day.

Chapter Five: Who Wants to Be Ordinary?

Draco Malfoy stepped through the doorway, barring Harry Potter from the real world and permitting him into the magic world. A broad grin was splashed upon his pale face. He would never get over the fact he had Harry Potter under his thumb. He could probably put it under one of biggest achievements of his life - to date, anyway.

It would be wrong and premature to assume this undertaking would be his only accomplishment. It was also immature to use clich├ęs or childish threats when dealing with his charge. His father certainly wouldn't approve. His face soured into a scowl. Thinking that sort of thing - and especially voicing it - only gave his father more reason to scythe away, with pleasure, at Draco's maturity and intelligence, reducing him to heaps of dust and dried blood.

A shrouded figure approached him from the dark entrance of the hall and he walked to meet them. "Did he attempt to injure you?" asked a severe male voice coming from the dark hood in his robes.

"Only twice," Draco replied, waving the man off and brushing by him. There were more important things to do than talk to whoever this man was. "More than I thought he would; surprised me a bit." He stopped when a cold hand dropped heavily on his shoulder from behind and shook his head. "It's not as if he could possibly do anything to me."

The man's grip tightened painfully upon his shoulder. "Did he take his wand?"

Draco twisted away from the hand and whirled around. "No, of course not. Did you truly expect him to take it?" he hissed, glowering at the ashen figure. "Take that damned hood down."

"Why?" The man smiled maliciously at him. "Scared you can't see my eyes?"

Shifting from one foot to another, suddenly uncomfortable, Draco opened his mouth to speak but was interrupted - and saved, somewhat - by another voice. "Well, Draco, how well did your first session with the boy go?"

"He seems to be regarding his position rather flippantly," the first man said in a cold voice, staring at the boy in front of him. "Young master Malfoy displays his insolence, and perhaps his treachery, by not explaining exactly what happened in that room. I am not sure he understands the importance, or gravity, of his job."

"Neither do I," agreed the light-haired man, glaring down at Draco. Draco bowed his head, avoiding the gazes of both men. "Are you going to tell us what happened in there or will we have to force it out of you, young man?"

"Painfully, I might add," said the other man.

Draco raised his head and looked at the man addressing him, staring into his light eyes. "I am going home," he said pointedly. "I will have my report to you in the morning."

"That you had better," snarled the first man. "I don't expect this kind of behaviour again."

With a reproachful but sobered look at each man, Draco stalked down the hallway and disappeared. When they were certain he was out of earshot, the two men walked to the door to Harry Potter's room and peered in.

"It is good we took him when we did," said the light-haired man.

"Very true. However, what of the Weasley family? What have you written to explain why he will not be . . . visiting them this summer?"

"He's writing something with Draco's help," replied the light-haired man, tossing his head toward the rooms in the house beyond the antechamber. "They will send something out tomorrow evening after Draco speaks with Mr. Potter in the morning. Draco, I believe, will also have the boy compose his own apologies for not seeing them this summer."

"Potter will periodically have to write his friends and godfather letters, you know," the first man said, a faint smirk rising on his lips as he reflected upon the situation. "We can't have them wondering if anything is wrong; they might come looking. Previous conflicts have those two running after him like lovesick mongrels looking for a prized bone."

The light-haired man laughed shortly. "Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley," he mused more to himself than his ominous companion. "Sensible scholar and reckless collaborator. Followers in every excursion no matter the danger. Best friends a product like Harry Potter could ever dream for; it really is too bad they won't be able to help him through this. I'm sure they would want to . . . Oh, well."

"The owl will want to see him at one point," the first man continued, ignoring his lighter-coloured cohort, "and those damned creatures can see through any glamour or transfiguration. If it thinks something is wrong, it might alert those two or even Albus Dumbledore in some way. We could have the Ministry knocking on our very doorsteps if they were to get involved. The bird must not be able to warn them. What do you propose to do if that was to happen?"

"When we come to that river, we shall cross it. The same with any other problems."

"In the deadliest way, I presume. I do not want to be disappointed."

"Of course," said the third man, smiling at the sad little boy sitting before his eyes, experiencing the worst misery of his life. "How ever else?"

* * *

Having told Harry to get out his books and start reading from the beginnings of his fourth year - and after giving his greatest adversary a very triumphant smirk - Draco had departed with the empty food tray. Left alone to wallow in self-pity and the like, Harry had dragged himself into a sitting position and crossed his legs on the couch, holding the damp washcloth in his hand listlessly. He didn't want to move, felt there was no point in doing such a thing.

What he could gather from sifting through the conversations with Malfoy was that they knew much more than they were letting on, at least directly. Indirectly, he was being laughed at and mocked, for they knew all - or expected greatly to know all they needed, before long. These were patient people; Harry's time spent with them in the past had let him become well aware of that fact. They could do whatever the hell they wanted and it didn't matter how long it took them, now that he was literally in their reach. He just didn't know when or how.

And the clothes he'd been given. . . . Just like the bed, he was dressed in black and white. Colours of life and death, of Light and Dark, of innocence and adulteration, of sin and virtue. The black velvet of the slacks shielded his legs from the dungeon-like atmosphere, kept him warm within the cold. The white silken chemise was loose, icy, and superficial, and bared him to the world, while the dressing gown sheltered him, kept him close to the dark and the warmth.

Harry felt a stab at his soul in this stroke of blatant hostility.

He tugged absently at the collar of the black silk robe enveloping him, trying to cover more of his chest, partly exposed because of the missing buttons he was certain had been taken off on purpose. There was definitely symbolism in the garments, or at least Harry could see an unconscious double meaning written into the smooth fabrics like the ancient runes of the doorframe, writhing through them like agitated serpents on their way to feast.

Certain things were for sure, though; it was a definite that he would be spending at least the summer here, locked in this chamber. That was a fact, at least to the extent of his knowledge. Then he would either be killed or moved to another undisclosed location. He was to live among them like a slave, or perhaps, in better terms, like a zoo animal, watched greedily and prodded with sticks, whilst being humiliated every moment of the day. He also was to get back in the habit of practicing magic.

Harry flung the rest of the chocolate bar on the table in front of him.

Why in the darkest of worlds would they want me doing that? he wondered angrily, ignoring the crack resonating around the room of the chocolate snapping in two. There was positively no reason for it, unless they wanted him to fight Lord Voldemort again. The man had seemed pretty adamant about dueling him only a month before; Harry had figured it out without being told that move was to show power over him. It had probably only been a set back that Harry had miraculously gotten away.

Perhaps they also wanted to mock him. They wanted to show him that he was under their control, that they were the ones that could bring him back to life - perhaps not to one he wanted, but a life all the same. They wanted to illustrate the point he was under their control and they could have him do as they pleased. And what they pleased was using him as much as possible and bringing him back to magic, of which he had felt himself wanting, needing to forget.

Harry had given up magic for just over a month, but to his psyche it felt like years - he might have even been inclined to say at one point that he felt like nothing magical had ever happened in his life. That had come up in the last few days, especially, as Vernon Dursley gave him his "early birthday presents," but that belief definitely wasn't a reality when he was sitting in the middle of a magical nightmare.

The enchantment of wizardry, of life, had run out the night he watched Cedric Diggory die at his feet. It had died with his heart and his innocence. Had been crippled, emaciated, slain with the utmost brutality when he had awoken in the hospital wing mornings after that fateful night . . . when he actually for once understood the true meaning of this departure inside him, ripping him away from the spiritual world and plowing him head first into the land of the dead and dying.

It was in here that at least he could have found some solace. In here, he might have found peace. To remember that other's lives weren't tangible and certainly neither was his, where he could have disappeared. But no. He was torn back into the current of the magical world by these abominations of creation, whose only will was to serve the Dark Lord and feed him his most desired prized. They cared nothing for him, but he didn't expect them to.

Harry didn't want to battle Voldemort again. He had not the strength nor the will to do such a thing, as told himself numerous times, trying unsuccessfully to forget another brutal image. Yet his thoughts and attempts did nothing to try to ebb the pictures floating before him, knowing what would come would truly come. He could not go on. He, the boy who had survived, could see himself surrendering, giving up life for death. All because of his misery, which they had willingly and laughingly dropped upon him like heavy, smothering stones, promising his slow, unsightly death. Conceding to a cause he loathed but accepted all the same.

They all probably knew this, craved the day it would come.

Harry closed his eyes and willed himself to breathe normally.

Maybe he just wouldn't learn, wouldn't practice - wouldn't fight. He could let himself waste away; what could they possibly do? Force food down his throat? Vomiting could easily be self-induced. He'd seen that enough with Aunt Petunia, whose fingertips all had little scars on them. Scars were petty next to torture and if he could get life over with quickly enough . . .

But things were not so simple, as they never were. What, truly, was better? To die fighting, even if forced against his will, or die a sickly coward amidst his own vomit and bile, and really his own self-pity? At this juncture in his life, there were two sides of the coin and neither was very pretty.

For four years, almost five now, Harry had been forced to live with the fact the wizarding world looked up to him as their saviour. The Boy Who Lived, the one who had chased He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named from their lives when he was just a baby. When he could distinguish nothing save for pain and comfort (which was as it seemed again now). He'd existed with the anguish of knowing he was famous and that everyone knew - or thought they knew - exactly who he was. They loved him, doted on him, granted him favours and the like, and most turned their heads away if he did something for which a "normal" person would surely be punished. They also hated him.

All of his previous failures in their bloody eyes were trivial, if not forgotten, but he remembered their reactions with a lust for blood not his own, nor his worst enemies. He wanted to strangle, sink his nails into their fleshy throats and suck out the life force and the disgust they were able to carry within them shamelessly.

They hated him because he was so different from everyone else. People wanted to believe he was just like they were, but it had been obvious since that fateful Halloween he was unlike anyone else. It wasn't his fault, but no one cared. He'd saved them, but he was cursed. Cursed to forever be in front of their prying eyes and scrutinized for things he had no knowledge of until it was too late to cover it up.

He hated them for hating him, which was always the case if anything odd occurred around him. The realization of his talents with the language of snakes immediately made people regard him as a parasite upon society, letting their ridiculous prejudices drip like a punctured fruit from the infamous apple tree. Anything that went wrong could be blamed on him, because he was a Parselmouth. He loathed the word, spitting it out like a curse.

The Tri-Wizard Tournament turned them all against him and they didn't look back once. If they did remain friends with him, they never believed he didn't enter himself. It mattered not what the rest of the wizarding world thought; they were ecstatic to see the wonder boy - Up, up and away, Harry thought dully - involved in the biggest event since the last Tri-Wizard Tournament. But they, too, latched onto gossip the way a leech clasps onto flesh.

He had been lucky to have the support and belief of Hermione, Sirius, and some of the Hogwarts staff, or he probably wouldn't have gotten through it. Better than he did, anyway.

It had only been when Voldemort - there! that name, that man again! always him! - had taken him was that he was forgiven. Perhaps not even then. Perhaps it he was only forgiven, and by very few, for not many knew the truth, when he arrived back on the platform in the Quidditch Pitch. With Cedric Diggory's limp body in his arms, hands clutching a foolish wooden stick and a mass of ugly metal, both of their dead corpses bloody and soaked with dry tears.

He wondered absently if he would have returned to Hogwarts that coming term as the hero, rather than the murderer many had accused him quietly of being. He almost hoped it would have been the latter.

Fickle as society always is, though, they could forgive him for his sins over which he had no control, and the wizard community always did - mainly because they were shameful of their petty gossip and jeers, but would never outwardly admit it. It might always be so until he was no longer there to be glorified as the saviour of the people.

Harry bit his tongue and drew blood, relishing in the grounding pain.

They looked upon him like the Israelites looked upon Moses, at least in the early years. His death would be analogous to the forty years lost in the desert, allowing his followers to stray as he bided his time in the forgotten hills of time. If he died at the hands of Lord Voldemort, which was surely to be at this point, faith in the Light would be lost within the ensuing whirlpool of panic and chaos. That was for certain; but the trillion-pound, most daunting question of all was most certainly this: how far would faith be lost?

Harry's head pounded at this question and he kneaded his forehead with his fingers, staring at the floor without shedding tears. The wizarding world, and perhaps the whole world if it ever got to that point, had several ways of falling head first into madness and despair over the death of Harry Potter.

Death scenario number one was Harry fighting to the death. Could this be counted as chivalrous? Would this fill the ending part of the hackneyed motto ". . . or die trying"? It might send the message that although Harry didn't live this time, he still fought for the side of good, for the Light, and didn't stop. But the flipside of this, and maybe concurring with the former argument, could very well be the feeling of: "The Boy battled Him, and lost. So, then, if You-Know-Who can kill Harry Potter, who can't he kill?" This belief had the foresightedness mixed deeply within in it of people running to join Voldemort in truckloads so they wouldn't lose their lives - which was selfish and really not so in numerous ways.

But this is what the Dark Lord wanted more than anything. He'd tried already to get at Harry and break the heart of the wizarding community once before.

The other scenario of Harry killing himself was just tragic - perhaps, though, not so much for him in general as the rest of society. He would die in shame, wondering if his friends and family ever survived, but it would all the same be over with and he would never be forced to live another moment in the terrible sphere of his wretchedness. As for the world? Heh, well, the sorrow and agony that would run rampant through the wizarding world was far too conceivable for Harry.

There was nothing good that could come of his suicide. He would be hated, or perhaps regarded sadly. "He took his own way out, for he knew the Dark Lord would get him eventually. Better if we all did the same - take our lives to save our souls or join Him to save our lives."

It was all disgusting, revolting beyond words, but Harry couldn't bring himself to retch away his life's breath. Breathing may not have been exactly pleasant, but it was preferable to death momentarily, and he could not foresee suicide when he thought of the faces of those he loved. It was far past a fathomable destiny or goal and he closed his eyes.

What, really, had the world come to where a lonely little boy had to decide how he was going to die just to think he might be able to salvage a small fragment of humanity in doing so?

Harry's body grew hot and red flashed before his eyelids, interlaced with little white and black flashing stars, flipping the room before him upside down. Life is never fair! It's never good! It's never normal! Especially never for me. The earth is never kind. Why the hell am I even here? Why am I even me? His abruptly revealed, fire-hot irises shot poisonous arrows at the door through which he knew he was being watched.

He could have sworn he saw a smile appear, faintly but there, in the upper reaches of the door like the ever perverse Cheshire cat. Something straight out of Alice and Wonderland and Harry blinked. The smile disappeared, fading as if the person had stepped away from the door, but he still felt eyes upon him.

Insane, Harry said bitterly to himself, pondering the psychology behind that move. He supposed it delighted them to have him in their midst and he dropped his head into his hands, covering his face with the wet flannel. He considered smothering himself, but lapsed back to his earlier contemplations and thought better of it.

"All right, Potter," Harry said, speaking into the hand cloth with brevity. "Get off your pathetic arse and do something constructive." It's not like you'll only be stuck in here a few hours. More like a few sodding years. He winced as he stood, but steadied himself and started to walk around the couch.

Draco had instructed him to start reading his books again - good Lord, Harry hoped it would all come flooding back. It would be more than embarrassing for him, even among these people - who, of course, would mock him at every turn anyway - to have forgotten everything about magic. It seemed impossible, yes, to have forgotten four years of intense study, but Harry could not recall (or perhaps he could just not concentrate on) a single spell. He didn't want to, he slowly recognized, nor did he feel an inclination towards anything other than finding a means of escape.

There was no spirit left inside of him to exercise his magical abilities willingly or otherwise. It had all been lost.

Wouldn't Hermione and Ron love it if they knew the boy they'd worked so hard helping learn hexes and charms for weeks could convey nothing past his lips even slightly relevant to a conversation or predicament? Wouldn't he fancy to see the look on Professor Dumbledore's face, in his eyes, if he knew his prodigy was a failure, a vanquished hope? Wouldn't his mother and father, who had so gallantly fought for him, twice, be so proud? Wouldn't . . .

Harry fastened his eyelashes to his cheeks and held clenched fists at his sides, trying to propel away the memories flashing before him.

Unlike most people, if it couldn't already be perceived, Harry's memories were rarely happy. They detonated in his mind like two magnificent birds thrashing against forces unknown to them, thrusting them forward into the two great edifices of the human sentiency with incredible speed. They easily concealed the smiles and encouragements of his friends, peers, mentors, and teachers. When he was able, blessed to see these things of such beauty and wonder, they were often unbearable because he could not help but feel guilty as his heart warmed, knowing there was a heart - several, in fact - whose beating had stilled because of him, because of who he was inside, where all his memories lay.

Cedric's shocked face, contorting his handsome features and revealing innocent gray eyes, was forever impressed upon Harry, truly damned in his memory, no matter if he found something to focus on more intently. That is to say, Cedric was a figure sitting in the shadows in front of his eyes, watching what Harry saw. Like a silhouette in a movie theatre, griping at the film before him. He would sit there beside Harry's parents, staring ahead; his parents, grim outlines in the dark, never looked back but Cedric often did.

At these times, Harry could find himself rousing hastily from unconsciousness after long intervals of misplaced time. Blacking out was oftentimes a way to procure a dreamless sleep, but he hated the means behind it: his imagination and fear united as one, the most twisted coupling he'd come upon yet.

Cedric's face was always in some form of decay when he let the image play before his eyes, right before he lost touch with the world. Sometimes his face was skeletal, the ghost of his good looks wafting like a heavy mist around his skull. Other times the sallow flesh was hanging from his orifices, sagging and ugly beneath his eyes. He also possessed the strange contrast to Voldemort of having slits in the middle of his face, but perhaps that was because that cartilage had caved in on Cedric's nose, and his lips were always an arctic, deadly blue. On occasions where his mind truly was led astray, Harry had to bear witness to blood leaking from the other champion's ears, nostrils, and pupils . . . as maggots and flies worked their way into him, adulterating the once-perfect skin and the once-perfect boy.

Oh, Christ, Cedric, Harry moaned within his mind, forcing his tearing eyes open to look down at his unlocked trunk. He teetered but was able to collect himself, physically and emotionally, for the time being at least. He was ready to collapse on the bed and sleep for a century or two. Maybe this would all be over by then.

He crouched in front of the chest and lifted the top, letting it fall onto the edge of the bed. It was true, then. All of his school robes and the extra hand-me-down clothes he hadn't been able to get out - even various pairs of underwear and socks - before Uncle Vernon locked his chest away were all gone.

Dragging himself to his feet, Harry angrily grabbed a random stack of school tomes and threw them on the bed. Several graded assignments and old notes folded between the pages fluttered about in a ruckus of battered paper. He felt his eyes burn and clenched his teeth, make only a minor effort to calm his torrential breathing. He finally glanced once more at the open trunk, resisting the urge to kick it halfway across the chamber of hell.

All that made reference to his clothing was his Sneakoscope, which he'd left in a sock until sometime around last Christmas. Even the bottle-green dress robe Molly Weasley had picked up for him the summer before was reveling somewhere in forgotten decadence. He bowed his head, defeated once more, and submitted his soul to the silence of the room.


The lights embedded in the frame above his head seemed to be on a timer, or someone stood outside his chamber door and controlled them from out there. Whatever the situation was, Harry only could comprehend at such an hour that they were extremely bright. He momentarily forgot where he was and pulled the coverlet over his body - he had probably not slept more than five hours - turning over into the pillows as he did. He felt something dig into his side and he squirmed away, grunting impatiently.

"Give me a few more minutes, Aunt Petunia, s'all I need . . ."

"Aunt Petunia? I was unaware, Potter, that I so perfectly resemble your mother's sister, even with your glasses off."

Harry started, hearing the drawling voice of Draco Malfoy in his ear, and his eyes flew open. Draco was standing above him, arms loaded with brown parcels. He looked readily amused and the previous day came washing back. Why did he have to wake from sleep to greet the world so violently? Even the worst of nightmares could sometimes make him get away from and forget true life; why couldn't it just be prolonged?

"Good morning, sunshine," Draco greeted in a not unfriendly tone.

"Malfoy," Harry moaned, rolling on his back and rubbing at his face.

"Draco," said the boy, narrowing his cold eyes. He opened his arms and the parcels tumbled onto the bed in front of Harry. "Happy Birthday, by the way. I trust you were fed last night and I trust you're hungry now." He paused, looking Harry over and settling on the bags underneath his eyes. "Stayed up too late, did we? Well, that's all right, but I wasn't aware an essay on the wizards of the Nordic regions' depository tactics for Professor Binns' class was so intriguing."

"How -"

Draco pointed to the right side of the bed. Harry didn't need to turn around to see, suddenly remembering. Unaccustomed to such a large bed, Harry had been residing on the left for the past two or so days and had shoved all of his schoolwork to the right side very early that morning when he'd finally decided to sleep. He had done mindless hours of work he knew he'd never turn in, getting up only once in a while to flex his muscles and stretch so he wouldn't doze off as he laboured against the world.

"I'm sure it helped you escape," said Draco, obscurely.

My sentiments exactly.

"It's also best that you started with that. I don't want you fooling with any real magic unless I or someone else is in the room." He shot his trademark, impish smile towards Harry, obviously finding himself very clever for such an early hour. "There will be no foolish wand waving while I'm about."

Harry silently watched as Draco reached into the depths of his druid robes - did he ever take them off? - and extended his arm dramatically, rolling his wrist. He was holding out a large orange to the weary orphan. "This will tide you over for a while. I have matter upon which we must speak and I cannot delay."

Not taking the fruit, Harry looked from the packages, many tied tightly with twine to keep them from bursting open mid-owl flight, then back to the young Malfoy, who was still offering him the orange in an outstretched hand. "What are those?" he asked, glancing at the packages and envelopes piled before him as if they were gold and thus untouchable.

"Presents," said Draco, dropping the orange unceremoniously onto the bed, "courtesy of all your friends and admirers." He grinned so devilishly at Harry that the dark-haired boy almost believed a crown of horns would burst through the blond's skull at any moment, showering them both in magma-hot blood. "And, of course," he said, pulling out a small object - a clock - "my gift." Malfoy set the little thing on a nightstand that had materialized overnight and tapped it with his wand.

"Well?" he asked, turning from the currently ticking timepiece to look back at Harry and crossing his arms over his chest. "Aren't you going to open them? See what Weasley bought you - I really could use a good laugh right now."

Harry's anger could not be controlled. He squeezed his eyes shut and the lights of the bed flashed and rattled ominously. The blond boy's eyes flickered upwards to them, but seemed otherwise unconcerned. The same dispassion remained on his face when Harry was able to somewhat recover and look at him directly. Malfoy smiled odiously at his classmate.

A single tear broke from its splintering cradle and trickled down Harry's cheek. Malfoy's smile faltered, his countenance dropping into something very near sobriety; for a fleeting moment he looked almost frightened.

"How dare you," Harry whispered, body shaking with rage, not noticing the change through the blood waltzing before his eyes in tune with the pounding of the wretched muscle within his chest. His hand had unconsciously wrapped around a package addressed to him in Hermione's handwriting and he clenched it in his fist. "You might as well kill me, since you -"

"You have no idea what you're talking about, Potter," Malfoy hissed, expression once again hard and menacing. "You think you know everything, but you truly have no clue, and neither do your beloved little friends."

"But . . ." Harry regarded the boy disbelievingly. "You - you don't have them?"

"No, Mr. Potter, we don't have Miss Granger or Mr. Weasley, or anyone else, for that matter," Malfoy sneered, looking disgusted that Harry insinuated he might have touched a red-headed gob like Weasley. He rolled his eyes. "Why would we want them?"

". . . when you have me." Harry's heart gave a spasm mixed with relief and sorrow.

The blond simply beamed at him. "Catching on quickly, Potter. Twenty points to Gryffindor for an unexpected display of intelligence." He removed one hand from its position against his chest and motioned to the parcels, eyes never parting from Harry's own. "Might as well open them, Harry. You have nothing better to do."

Draco sighed when Harry didn't move, seeming to concede something. "I suppose the pressing matters will have to wait. Any particulars for breakfast? The house elves make a scrumptious sausage and egg quiche, or would you like some kippers?" He was answered with a stony silence. "I suppose, then, you'll have to live with what I get you." He strolled evenly from the room, smiling all the way. Even as he, in a true Malfoy faux pas, picked up the slightly crumpled shirt and slacks laid carefully over the back of the couch and folded them in his hands as he left, the smile remained on his face.

Taking a deep breath, Harry sat up and crossed his legs in front of the mind-torturing presents set before him on the bed. With a forced calm, he lifted the hand that had wrapped around one of Hermione's - several? - packages during the bizarre discourse of late and put it heavily in his lap. It plagued and broke his heart. The fist was a squashy cylinder shape and had crumpled where he'd gripped it, his nails accidentally ripping through the light packaging to reveal a deep crimson fabric. Biting his lip, Harry tentatively pushed back the rest of the brown paper.

"Socks?" Harry murmured to no one in particular, with some surprise. He pulled apart the socks from their bundle and raised them to the light to inspect them. One was a blood red colour, almost black, the other was a very dark magenta, and they looked to be the style of socks his house-elf friend Dobby made. Harry placed them back between his crossed legs, not wanting Malfoy to see them for fear not so much of mockery but of confiscation.

Hermione's other two packages were large, one heavy and rectangular and the other smaller and fastened with twine to its brother. He smiled wistfully as he withdrew a large book from the biggest parcel, entitled The Werewolf and His Enterprises: A Comprehensive Guide to the Economic Wherewithal of Werewolves in Twentieth Century Warehouses. Remus Lupin would have been pleased.

The other gift was a heavy weight on his fingers and he could feel the ornate edges of a picture frame through the coarse paper. He didn't want to know and put it aside, trying not to be too obvious in case someone was, in the most likely event, observing his movements from outside the door. Certain things could definitely go without being seen by any eyes, prying or sorrowful. Harry did not want to cry nor did he want Malfoy to laugh at his pain.

Numbly, he noticed a thin envelope had fluttered onto the sheets from one of the opened packages - probably the book - and picked it up. It was addressed "Happy Birthday, Harry" in dark blue ink, scrawled a little hastily in Hermione's usually neat handwriting. He vaguely wondered what she was doing to make her write so fast - not even an Arithmancy final made her write that sloppily. The letter, on the other hand, was much easier to read.

Dear Harry,

Dobby - ah ha, Harry thought with little triumph - asked me to forward these to you. Well, he originally gave you a dark red one and a golden one, but I think the second one may be a different colour now; Crookshanks spilled some of my Potions homework on it. I'm very sorry about that. It was still changing colours when I wrapped it, but I'm fairly sure it isn't poisonous. Tell me if anything happens.

I hope you're enjoying your birthday. The weather is supposed to be grand. Ron wants you to come out to the Burrow soon, but what would you think of coming to my house? You've never been here before and I think you'd like it. My mother said it would be all right for a week or so (my father has no comment at this time, but I'm sure he will enlighten me fairly soon once his blood pressure goes back to normal), and then we can go to the Weasleys' for the rest of holidays. Whatever you want to do, I'm sure it will be an agreeable change to living with your relatives. I hope they weren't too horrible this year.

By the way, Harry, I found it very odd that Dobby needed me to send the socks for him. He told me when he stopped by - my parents nearly had a fit - that he couldn't contact you. Perhaps one messenger owl could get lost, but two? And they both came back. I decided, however, that Dobby had probably used typically bad messenger owls or had given them the wrong address, and I agreed, of course, to help him. He smelled quite plainly of Butterbeer; it seems he's been a bit depressed lately over the other house-elves' attitudes (I'll tell you everything he said later) and Hedwig always knows where to find you, anyway.

As it stands now, it's almost midnight and your owl is glaring at me because she is very anxious to leave. She always gets to you pretty early, doesn't she? I think she's going to peck me if I don't close. Do have a good birthday and write back as quickly as you can.

Love from,

How ironic a simple letter could be, Harry contemplated morosely, refolding the letter and shoving it angrily back in its envelope. He glanced at the "gift" from Draco, twinkling cheerily at him in bright red numbers on the newly conjured nightstand and saw that it was a quarter after nine in the morning. He'd been at this charade for ten minutes already and Malfoy's absence was definitely to be short-lived.

For fear of this, he quickly opened Hagrid's letter - saying something about the beautiful scenery - which was holding a strange amethyst pendant, embedded on a gold plate, hanging from a thin and equally gold chain that fell quietly into his open palm. The chain felt light but incredibly strong. Without thinking, Harry slipped it over his head and felt its cold metal bounce uneasily against his bare chest, finally settling into a curve of muscle and bone just below his throat. The note said nothing of what it was for and Harry knew he should be nervous, especially as it came from Hagrid, but did not take it off.

Before he reached for Ron's present - big and lumpy looking - he grabbed the robe Draco had left and pulled it over his shoulders to cover the naked skin and warm his legs, knotting the long strap of matching silk around his waist. The birthday gift turned out to be an extremely soft, green (with the other colours of the rainbow running through) Weasley sweater. It was wrapped around a new pack of fire-proof Exploding Snap cards, several Chocolate Frogs and a box of Bertie Botts Every Flavour Beans, "safe" Fred and George Weasley merchandise, and some small items from Quality Quidditch Supply to update his Broomstick Servicing Kit. Ron's letter said his mother had insisted upon the sweater, since she was sure the air was getting cooler and that Harry was a "growing boy" who needs to be regularly stocked with new clothes. Ron had been clearly amused by this.

Harry was eternally grateful for all of it.

As he was sweeping the pile of very nice and somewhat more mature than previous birthday gifts to the side so he could get out of bed to relieve himself, Draco materialized in the doorway and stepped into the chamber. The candles in the sconces above the door intensified in brightness, giving light to the sitting area of the room and swathe. He was wielding a tray deftly in his hands, not even looking at Harry as he set it down on the coffee table and said, "Care to sit with me?"

Harry mutely got out of the bed, stretched as much as he dared, then pointed to the bathroom. Draco, having already seated himself in one of the chairs, nodded absently at Harry, sipping tea from a cup, and raised a copy of the Daily Prophet in front of him after he put a simple warming charm on the food. He was still reading when Harry emerged from the toilet and continued until Harry settled himself onto the couch.

"It's a good thing you washed last night or I would have made you stay in there all morning," said Draco caustically, lowering the paper. His eyes were glittering and Harry reached for the plate of flat cakes and sausage, ignoring the other boy trying to get a rise out of him.

Oh, no, Harry mused to himself as he draped the cakes in syrup. Not this early and not today. Even if made at the hands of an enemy, this would be the best birthday breakfast he'd ever had - he could already tell, savouring the flavours surging upon his tongue. It would surpass even that of the previous year's candies and treats - and definitely all other years - and he intended to enjoy what little of it he could.

Draco, whether he sensed this feeling or not, let him dine in silence, returning to his newspaper and drinking his tea. A comfortable - as comfortable as one can get in such a situation, Harry understood completely - silence fell over them, broken only by the turn of a page or the gulping of blessed orange juice down an appreciative throat. He sighed when he finished the stack and several links, returning the plate to its tray.

The blond boy folded his newspaper and set it in his lap, extending his legs and wiggling his toes in the carpet under the table. He took a long swallow of his tea, draining the cup, then cradled it in his hands a moment or two, almost lovingly, before setting it on the coffee table. Harry considered him composedly, not ready to make the first move.

But Draco expected this, he knew, and didn't care how long it took him until he spoke. He could sit there all day, each was well aware, and not say a word. The blond would also not be perturbed in the least by this, save for a likely crick in his neck and maybe a bit of lightheadedness when he finally relieved himself from Harry's presence, but none of this really mattered. Sitting around in silence, that is to say, and doing absolutely nothing. It was not as if time was a problem anymore.

"Do you see this, Harry?" Draco asked finally, waving the folded Daily Prophet at him so he could see nothing but a blur of black, white, and gray. "Do you know what's on the front page?"

"No," said Harry, but he could guess.

Draco's eyes positively sparkled with delight. He opened his hands and thrust his arms forward so Harry could clearly read the minute bylines at the bottom of the newspaper, if he was looking there, besides the middle of the front page.

"Nothing. "

There was silence and Draco drew back, relaxing into his chair with an air of smugness wafting pungently from his small, pale body. "Absolutely nothing, Potter." He looked very pleased with himself. "The wizarding world has no idea of your current situation and by the way they're talking" - he glanced at the paper - "they won't care. They seem much more interested in Ludo Bagman's little excursion back into Quidditch to celebrate the 'wonder' and 'sensational aspects' of the sport." A sneer tugged at his lips. "Nothing left in his Gringotts account. Money squandering fool - always has been, Father says. Seems he got right back in the rut of things again."

"Seems so," Harry answered as calmly and as casually as he possibly could.

Draco's grin appeared for a moment then disappeared as he stared at Harry. He looked as if he was a predator stalking his prey in the middle of his own cave, where the poor wretch could not escape; just cowered, quavering in a corner or flitting around the enclosure awaiting eminent death. . . . Like a snake watching the mouse run frenziedly around the cage, scratching futilely at the glass for minutes, hours, days on end until the serpent struck with such abruptness that the heart of even the most enlightened and fearless soul might skip a beat.

Harry sighed and scratched at his neck nervously, feeling the tension rise in the room like an oven, and settled back a little bit. He wanted to cower under Malfoy's ravenous gaze, but couldn't bring himself to do it. He pondered the implications of such an action. Mockery, spite, mirth, contempt, but perhaps no torture because he was so pathetic - and that might be all right, if it were not for the repercussion of thoughts on his suicide still lengthening its spidery legs through his brain and seeping into his veins, releasing an unstoppable epidemic of emptiness into his body.

"So, what did Granger and Weasley have to say?" Draco smiled innocently.

"Not much," replied Harry, very vaguely.

"Oh, come now, Potter, we know that's not completely true. I know they're right duffers sometimes, but they have some substance, don't they?" He leaned forward and picked up his teacup again, which was now steaming; it had magically refilled. Harry noticed his plate was full of food again and his stomach lurched slightly. "What did Granger and the Weasley say in their letters?"

"Hermione wants me to come see her before we . . . s - she goes to the Burrow."

"Ah, I see," said Draco, quirking an amused eyebrow at Harry's sudden distress. He finally realized what his captivity meant. "Hermione's taken a liking for Quidditch players, hasn't she? Perhaps she'll go after me next, once she's run her way through you."

Suddenly Malfoy was on his feet in a blur of silver-gold and black and pointing at Harry's chest before Harry could answer him loudly, and scathingly.

"What is that?" he hissed through gritted teeth

Shocked and fuming, Harry stared at him for a moment, then looked down. Hagrid's pendant had caught the light and was happily twinkling against his chest. "It's - it's - Hagrid -"

"What the hell is it?" Malfoy's face was no longer amused.

"I don't know!" Harry cried shrilly, alarmed and shrinking back from the fierce glare set upon him. He clutched the pendant against his chest, his only relief in this altercation being that Malfoy was on the other side of the coffee table.

"Give it to me." Draco held out an upturned palm, gesturing that he wanted it handed over now. When Harry didn't move to take it off, truly too startled to do it, Draco beckoned with his finger, as if asking Harry to get up, and muttered a few words so quietly that the black-haired boy wasn't sure if even Malfoy could hear them.

With a start, he felt the metal of the tiny chain links break apart and the pendant moved forward, sliding away from his throat and pulling itself from his protective hand. The broken chain followed suit, then came back together perfectly in front of his eyes. The necklace floated in the air to Malfoy who didn't touch it, but brought it very close to his face to inspect it.

"You said Hagrid gave this to you?" Draco was still narrowing his eyes at the pendant.

"Yes," Harry said in a hoarse voice, rubbing the spot where the necklace had lain. What sort of magic was that? he wondered to himself, knowing the answer was dark.

"Anything else I should know about like this?"

"I . . . I don't think so, but -"

"You don't think so?" Draco asked sharply, but seemed to believe him, scrutinizing the necklace from a good distance away. "I am confiscating this, Potter." He sounded remarkably like one of the professors at Hogwarts, perhaps Minerva McGonagall or more likely Severus Snape.

The pendant floated to Draco's hip and dropped into a pocket which stretched open and closed by its own accord to accommodate. Draco patted his robes smartly, but Harry's discomfort - while not voiced - still lingered. For this, Harry would never understand Draco Malfoy. The boy could never once look his way and yet his heart would still grow cold just looking at him, knowing and not knowing what the ice prince carried inside.

"I will return later," said Malfoy, turning his attention back to Harry. "You will write two letters to the Grangers and the Weasleys explaining that you cannot see them this summer. Do not say anything that would incriminate us; short and sweet, Harry, as they say. Say Dumbledore expects you under the Dursleys protection. That's true, isn't it? Don't want to lie, do we?"

"Er -" Harry had no idea what to say.

"Write the letters to the Mudblood and the Weasel, Harry, as soon as possible. Which means now, understand? I, or, if I find I'm too bored with you too return, someone else will collect them shortly. You know the rules at which we are playing and it will do best for you if you adhere to them." Malfoy glared sourly at Harry, whose anger and confusion were etched clearly across his face.

"The Weasleys, Hermione - they'll never . . . the pendant . . . where is Hedwig?" Harry rambled, wringing his hands nervously and also trying to keep them from wrapping around Draco's long pale throat. "Where am I? Am I -"

"Happy Birthday, Harry," said Draco coldly, his eyes dark. That said, he stormed from the room and Harry fell heavily onto the couch with a moan.