For Hogwarts: A Regency Gamble
Thursday, August 8, 2002
Was it coincidence that they left their rooms so nearly at the same time that they met at the head of stairs, or was it some sort of karmic providence? Hermione did not know, nor did she care for anything but the way her heart sped up when she saw him, his face hawkish and striking above his Regency cravat. They had murmured through the wall deep into the night watches, and she had confided in him things she had never spoken aloud to another soul. Even more endearing had been his quiet contributions, for though he had not said so, Hermione suspected that it had been decades—if ever—since he had had a confidante.
‘Good morning,’ she murmured, looking full into his eyes.
There was an odd fillip to the twist of his lips as he steadily returned her gaze. ‘Surprisingly so,’ he agreed, offering his arm.
Feeling as if her cup overflowed with contentment, Hermione tucked her hand in his arm and they descended through the levels of the castle in silence … and perfect amity.
The rain of the day before was a thing of the past, and by mid-morning, the damp had burnt off in favour of a rather humid heat. Dance class had been extended to two hours to help the guests prepare for that night’s country dance. Accordingly, they practiced the Sir Roger de Coverley and Mr Beveridge’s Maggot until even McGonagall praised them for doing it without once having someone go in the wrong direction.
Full of self-confidence and satisfaction, the dancers then separated to their various other projects. Some Floo’d to Malfoy Manor for a pleasant ride, and some others to available classes. However, the play performers were set for a rehearsal that would dominate most the day, for on the morrow, they would perform excerpts from A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the enjoyment of their fellow guests.
George Weasley spent a most unsatisfactory morning trying to persuade his players to work at their parts. The ones who had paired off, such as Ron and Romilda and Fin and Penny, seemed far more interested in whispering together than heeding his instructions, and even his own parents, who were playing the King and Queen of the Fairies, were not paying him much mind, gossiping as they were with Professor Mortelle.
His jaw set with frustration, George turned his back to the collected players and threw his script onto the table. Luna, ever sensitive to his moods, gently touched his arm.
‘Why don’t you take a turn outside?’ she suggested, her grey eyes wide and concerned. ‘It will clear the wrackspurts, you know, and you’ll come back in feeling much better.’
George couldn’t help the twisted grin her pronouncement brought. What the hell was a wrackspurt?
‘Don’t worry about rehearsal,’ she urged, ‘I’ll direct everyone until you come back.’
George patted the hand on his arm. ‘You’re a great assistant,’ he said sincerely and watched with some interest as the colour stained her cheeks bright pink.
‘I’ll look after things here,’ she repeated, stepping away from him.
George needed no further encouragement. Walking out of the antechamber for a few minutes was the best possible suggestion and would probably prevent bloodshed.
Arthur didn’t notice when his son departed the antechamber. He was listening to his Molly comparing notes with Leticia Mortelle on the best magical cleaning solution for draperies. Lucius Malfoy was listening to the witches as well. Arthur would never like the elder Malfoy; there was far too much water under that bridge for either of them to pretend friendship. Nevertheless, Malfoy’s re-education had apparently made a vast difference in his attitudes toward people who did not share his worldview. There had not been a single disparaging word from the man these last four years, and Arthur had to admire the appearance of change, whether it had actually occurred or not.
It was, strangely enough, Luna Lovegood who interrupted Molly and Leticia’s cosy exchange of home remedies. In a sweet, true soprano, she began to sing a nineteenth century love song. One by one, the players left off their personal conversations to turn their eyes onto the seemingly oblivious girl. She sang a full verse of the song, and when she was done, she looked into the now attentive group.
‘Thank you,’ she said, although no one had applauded her. It seemed, instead, to be gratitude for their attention. ‘I understand that this is a holiday lark for everyone. We want participation in the play to be a fun experience, too.’ She stood before them, looking at each person in turn, making full eye contact with one before moving on to the next face. ‘Practicing the same lines over and over can be boring—but if we don’t practice, we won’t do well at our performance, will we? And we want to do well, so that performing will be fun for us and fun for our audience—after all, they’re on holiday too, and they want to have fun watching us perform the play.’ She paused and drew breath before continuing, and her audience sat in respectful, attentive silence. ‘George didn’t have to take on this job, you know. He’s on holiday too, but he wanted to do it, for Hogwarts. There’s nothing George loves more than fun, and if we let him, he’ll make our practices fun, too.’ Her voice wavered a tiny bit as she said, ‘He’s the best person I know. I hope we can all pay more attention to what he asks us to do from now on, so we can all be proud of what we’ve done when the play is over.’
Molly turned her face to Arthur’s, her eyes bright and speculative. Molly was a fond parent; she loved nothing more than to hear praise of her children. But Arthur recognised the glint in those brown eyes as she rose to go to the front of the room and to gather Luna into a hug.
Oh dear. Now his Molly had a project.
Severus retired to his office after lunch, for Hermione had a meeting with her helpers about arrangements for that night’s country dance. She infested his every thought. He dined with her, danced with her, rode with her, and at night, whispered with her, in pillowless pillow-talk, through the wall, like a soppy schoolboy.
Clearly, he was suffering from an early onset of senile dementia if he imagined Hermione Granger to have an emotional attachment to him. He had once believed a female had an emotional attachment to him, and he had been proven spectacularly wrong. He had no intention of risking such folly again.
Restless, he crossed to his desk and seated himself. Surely there was paperwork that required the Headmaster’s attention this close to the start of term—but no, his desk was bare, save for the deck of ancient playing cards, aged to a creamy ivory colour, which he had not put away after the poker game. He took these up and shuffled them a time or two, then laid out a hand of solitaire.
‘You’ll never draw a winning hand playing solitaire with those cards.’
Severus felt a spasm of pure irritation, and he did not bother attempting to hide it as he swung about to glare at Dumbledore’s portrait.
‘What are you talking about?’ he snapped.
The portrait smirked. ‘Magical cards, of course.’
Severus felt as if a sizable block of ice had been dropped into his belly from a great height, and the cold began to steal upward and outward. ‘What have you done, old man?’ he bit out, fighting off the creeping dread which spread like poison in the wake of the cold.
The portrait’s jovial aspect did not falter. ‘Nothing but provide cards when you needed them, Severus.’
Severus narrowed his eyes, his arms crossing uncompromisingly over his chest. ‘You have never provided anything to anyone without an ulterior motive—not in all the years I’ve known you.’
The portrait nodded, the ridiculous poker hat slipping askew. ‘Quite right! How else was I to obtain my chocolate cauldrons? Not to mention this excellent hat!’ He straightened the hat in question on his long white hair.
Severus jerked to his feet, his fists clenched at his sides. ‘It is entirely impossible to take you seriously when you’re wearing that preposterous hat!’ he shouted. He took a menacing step forward and pushed his face within inches of the painting. ‘If you ever want to receive another sweetie in your pigmented, two-dimensional life, you will tell me now, old man! What are the magical properties of those cards?’
The maddening old goat had the gall to twinkle at him. ‘Certainly, Severus,’ he said agreeably, dropping the hat into his lap. ‘I’ve been dying for you to ask about the cards. You know, being a portrait provides a certain … lack of depth in a wizard’s existence.’
Severus drew back slightly, repulsed by the effusive, confiding tone. ‘Get on with it!’ he commanded.
Dumbledore nodded agreeably. ‘The cards are enchanted, you see, so that upon occasion, the deserving player may receive the … undisclosed desire of his heart.’
Severus ignored the clap of alarm at the back of his mind and sneered mightily. ‘And what, pray tell, is this mysterious desire?’
Dumbledore smiled angelically. ‘For you, dear boy, a soul mate. For Mr Weasley, the freedom to find his.’
Severus emitted a bark of rude laughter. ‘That’s the most preposterous pile of pixie shite I’ve ever encountered.’ He leant closer and hissed, ‘Tell the truth!’
Dumbledore’s smile faded, but for all that, his calm was unimpaired. ‘You find my truth improbable, I see. Why don’t you tell me yours?’
Severus inhaled a great draught of air, his nostrils flaring. ‘I have no soul mate!’ he spat. ‘It has been made abundantly clear that I am meant to live a solitary life!’
Dumbledore shook his head. ‘No, Severus. That is the decision you have made, not some immutable truth of nature.’
The old man spread his hands and leant forward, his voice taking on a persuasive tone Severus had heard many times before.
‘The war is over. You have sacrificed the life other men of your generation have enjoyed these last twenty years by devoting yourself to the service of others—to the greater good, as it were. Now, it is time to claim the prize you have earned and so richly deserve!’
The clap of alarm at the back of Severus’ mind began to peal like a warning bell. ‘But … HERMIONE GRANGER?’ he squawked, hearing the note of panic in his voice and unable to disguise it. ‘What have I done to deserve that misery?’
Dumbledore laughed aloud, and all the cunning seemed to fall away from him. ‘I didn’t choose Miss Granger, and you can scarcely blame the cards. She is your choice! ’ He grinned unabashedly. ‘Ah, Severus, you are a joy to me.’
Severus began to pace, but the old man continued to natter on, giving him no peace.
‘You’ve been a spy, a teacher, a headmaster, a hero—now just be a man, dear boy. Do it for yourself. That’s the way the cards were dealt, after all!’
The icy coldness seemed to have replaced the blood in Severus’ veins, and now the dread flowed freely, permeating every vessel of his body. Enraged, he whirled and strode to the door, talking as he went.
‘Put the damn hat back on, Albus—you made more sense with it.’
The office door slammed so hard the portrait frames rattled on their hooks. Dumbledore settled the poker hat upon his head and peeled the wrapper from a chocolate cauldron, popping it into his mouth with true enjoyment. ‘I think that went rather well, don’t you?’ he said to no one in particular.
And from the other portraits lining the walls, there was a unanimous murmur of agreement.
Hermione dressed carefully for dinner, humming her now customary happy tune. She’d not seen Severus since lunch, which seemed like an eternity. She wanted to look her best for their first public dance together. She propped the photograph she’d found in the library against her dressing table mirror as she arranged her hair. It was a photograph of a Regency lady’s portrait; she had her hair arranged like a piece of Greek statuary, and Hermione copied the style. When she was pleased with the effect, she fastened pearls about her throat, scarcely noticing anymore the very low, squared neckline of her evening gown.
She wore periwinkle blue crępe over a white satin slip. The deep border at the bottom of the skirt was white tulle, embroidered with tiny lavender and blue garlands. Short, full sleeves were trimmed in delicate net lace, with corresponding trim repeated in rows about the edge of the neckline. She pulled on white kid gloves which reached above the elbow, and upon her feet she wore blue satin slippers. The dress was not so fine as the one she would wear to the formal ball on the last night of Regency Week, but it was very beautiful, and she felt like a princess in it.
She went to the head of the stairs, hoping to find Severus there as she had done that morning, but she did not see him. She was still undismayed; he would have dressed more quickly than she, and would be in the drawing room, waiting to fetch a glass of sherry for her. She descended, her mind happily occupied with warm memories of riding at his side through the summer green fields, no longer confined to the lunge line as a student, but riding with him as an equal. The feeling was like nothing she had experienced before, but it was something she wished very much to explore further.
To do so, she would have to see him alone.
But he was nowhere to be seen in the drawing room, and she began to wonder if he had been detained by some emergency. Ought she to send a house-elf to enquire after him? But guests were coming forward, smiling, talking, and she was soon engulfed.
He would surely appear at dinner.
Harry fidgeted through dinner, wishing he were somewhere else. Everyone around him was behaving strangely, and after dinner was the country dance. He had skived off nearly every dancing lesson, so he had no idea how to perform the steps. He had no intention of showing up to dance with girls he had no interest in.
He stared glumly at his roast beef. Ron was sitting beside him, but he and Romilda were attached at the hip now; Harry hadn’t seen them apart in two days or more, and he was pretty sure Romilda was even sleeping in the room next to his, now. Severus, on the other hand, was behaving as if someone had shoved a frozen poker up his bum. He showed up just in time for dinner, and he was responding to every attempt at conversation with bored indifference. Had he quarrelled with Hermione or something? Even Draco had seemed preoccupied all day. He’d spent most of the afternoon cooped up in Violet’s antechamber for play practice, and Harry had been condemned to an afternoon of playing at lawn sports with lesser competitors.
The dinner plates were cleared, and the ladies rose, to leave the gentlemen to their port. Harry considered his options. There was the clubroom, where he could find someone to play cards, or the billiards room, though he wasn’t very good at the game. If he couldn’t get away from people any other way, he could hide in his room. No one would be likely to bother him there.
Draco stood and moved down the table towards where his father and the Headmaster were in conversation. Harry’s eyes followed the other wizard almost against his will. When had he started thinking of him as Draco instead of Malfoy or the Ferret? He shifted uncomfortably, his mind skittering away from the question.
An elf crept into the Great Hall, and Harry realised it was one of the grooms from the Manor. What in the world would a stable-elf be doing at Hogwarts? Draco saw the elf as well, and he walked to meet the tiny groom. After a moment of conversation, he glanced at Harry, and Harry immediately averted his eyes. Blimey, when Draco looked at him like that, it felt as if Harry’s skin had been touched by fire.
‘I see you’ve got your dancing shoes on,’ Draco drawled from behind him.
Harry looked down and saw that they wore identical shoes. ‘So do you,’ he returned.
Draco bent over, resting his forearms on the table, and gave Harry a measuring look. ‘So, do you want to stay here and dance with the ladies, or would you rather come with me to see Perse’s foal being born?’
Harry was on his feet in an instant. ‘What do you think, Ferret?’
Severus sat in thin-lipped silence as the gentlemen passed the decanters of port and brandy and smoked their cigars. The conversation ranged all around him, but he was in a dark mood, and Lucius parried every conversational gambit that came at Severus, smoothly diverting attention from the Headmaster’s inattention.
Dumbledore’s portrait was, without doubt, as barmy as the old man had ever been. Even so, the purported magical properties of the cards made a disturbing sort of sense, and Severus was inclined to believe what the old man had said about them. Dumbledore had, in life, told selective truths to his pawns, of which Severus had been one, but Dumbledore had never directly lied to Severus.
The babble about soul mates was still so much horseshit, but Dumbledore’s words about doing something for himself—about accepting a good thing in his life—so closely echoed Potter’s words to Longbottom on the same subject that Severus found it very disturbing. It seemed to him that, against his better judgement—against his will, even!—his unruly mind (heart, the adolescent within him insisted) was considering the possibility of a … dalliance with Hermione Granger.
The very notion was laughable.
Yet when he had stepped into the Great Hall, just before the house-elves began to serve the food, her warm brown eyes had found his face instantly, and the smile she directed at him had only quickened his pace to her side. Dinner had been a quagmire of pushing her away with the appearance of disinterest, only to be drawn to her again, when his guard was down, by some small word or gesture. Could he live the next three days, until she was gone from his domain, constantly on his guard?
Did he want to?
He finally took up the goblet of port Lucius had placed at his hand and ingested a long swallow. He could do this thing—do whatever was required of him—for Hogwarts.
Harry knelt beside Draco in the fresh straw, watching the mare, Persephone. They had hung their fancy Regency coats in the tack room before moving into the large box stall. Perse had lain down, slightly to one side, and as Harry watched in amazement, a bulging greyish sac emerged from beneath her tail, amidst a gush of fluid. Harry felt a bit squeamish about it, but Draco seemed fine, so Harry did his best to mirror the other man’s attitude.
The stable-elf groom, Groats, remained near the mare’s head, one hand upon her halter, the other stroking her neck as he murmured to her. Draco gave Harry a low-voiced running commentary.
‘That’s the foal’s leg, still inside the birth sac,’ he said.
Harry looked nervously over his shoulder. ‘Is the animal Healer coming?’ he asked.
Draco shook his head. ‘We can Floo the Healer if there’s any trouble, but this isn’t Perse’s first foaling. The Healer usually comes to see the foal afterwards to give it a good looking-over.’
The muscles in the mare’s flanks seemed to ripple, and the protrusion increased in size, accompanied by another wash of fluid. Harry wiped sweaty palms on his knee breeches. ‘Should we … help her, somehow?’ he asked.
The mare nickered, and fluid came from inside her. Draco stood and approached the sac. He pushed the membrane aside and Harry clearly saw a black, spindly horse’s leg. His mouth dropped open—what had been a rather scary, disgusting protrusion from the insides of an animal suddenly became a recognisable body part. It was amazing.
‘All right, Perse,’ Draco said, grasping the slender leg. ‘Let’s get this little stranger on the outside.’ And to Harry’s mixed horror and admiration, Draco commenced to pull upon the appendage. Harry felt a flash of fear—what if Draco pulled the leg off the baby horse? Or somehow hurt the mother?—but with another gush of fluid, a mass of black fur was expelled from with the chestnut mare’s womb, and Harry saw a tiny black horse on the straw.
‘Damn, Draco,’ he whispered, and the face the other wizard turned to Harry was so beautiful in the joy of the moment that Harry felt the shock of attraction like a Bludger blow to the mid-section.
‘I know, right?’ Draco said, falling back from his crouch to sit on the straw.
Harry crawled closer, drawn by the sudden need to be beside Draco. ‘What will you name him?’ Harry asked, torn between wanting to watch Groats check the foal over and wanting to wrestle Draco to a supine position.
‘It’s a filly, Master Draco,’ Groats supplied.
Draco rested his somewhat soiled arms on top of his upraised knees and looked over to Harry. ‘This little girl belongs to Severus,’ Draco told him. ‘He loaned Apollyon at stud for three of our broodmares, and in return, he gets his pick of the foals. He said he wanted Perse’s, so he’ll get to name her baby.’
Harry dragged his eyes away from Draco’s face—had Draco noticed him staring?—and conjured a bucket of water.
‘Wash your arms,’ he said, conjuring a towel as well and resisting the urge to plunge his head in the bucket to bring himself back to his senses.
He wasn’t sure he wanted his senses back. The way he felt was too good to let go of.
The ladies and gentlemen were a charming vision that night beneath the magically conjured chandeliers, dancing the complicated dances of the English country folk of the nineteenth century. The gentlemen were courtly, the ladies colourful and elegant, and the music entirely authentic for the time period. It was a sight to gladden the heart of any Regency romance lover, and Hermione was entranced.
Severus had behaved oddly at dinner, almost as if he wanted to distance himself from her, but after the gentlemen rejoined the ladies in the drawing room, their former understanding seemed to be restored. He danced with her, performing his part admirably, and when her hand was sought by another gentleman, he very correctly asked another lady to stand up with him.
Hermione, though, was looking very much forward to the final dance of the evening, which would be the waltz. She had not been in Severus’ embrace in two full days, and she was eager to experience it again. She hoped he would not ask some other lady for the last dance.
Leticia Mortelle was stunning that night. The cunningly draped evening gown of iridescent silvery fabric was unlike that of any other lady present—in short, she looked like a Greek goddess, and Lucius could scarcely tear his eyes away from her. She had taunted him wickedly with … promising banter with the riding crop—had granted him maddening kisses at seemingly random intervals in places both deliciously private and daringly public—and tonight, she was granting her favours to many other men for the country dance. But Leticia had promised the waltz to him, and he meant to have it.
When the time came, he led her onto the floor, and she quizzed him with brilliant sapphire blue eyes, teasing and flirtatious, yet with ever-present reserve. In spite of his resolve to keep calm, her tormenting drove him to impetuous speech.
‘Leticia, I have made my heart an open book to you. Tell me now if I have reason to hope!’
Her gaze became focused at some point over his shoulder, and for a moment he thought she would not reply. But after a time, she said, ‘I am looking very much forward to the hunt tomorrow.’
Lucius was nearly struck dumb with frustration. Had she not understood him? But then her eyes met his again, and he knew better.
‘So you will answer me then?’ he asked, gathering her closer, his voice deepening with emotion.
The hand upon his shoulder slid up beneath his hair, and when her fingers touched the back of his neck, he almost groaned aloud.
‘It is all but impossible for me to consider a subject outside the frame of our hunt,’ she explained, somehow making it all sound much more provocative than it ought to have done.
‘What is the hunt in comparison to a lifetime together?’ he asked huskily.
The hand beneath his hair gently squeezed the back of his neck. ‘But my dear, how could I possibly refuse the man who catches the Hunt Snitch?’
Lucius swallowed. The Hunt Snitch was not the object of the hunt; it laid the scent for the hounds to follow, then found its way back to the box from which it had been released. Catching it was not an impossible feat, by any means. The purpose of the Hunt Snitch was to disperse a substance upon the ground, so it did not soar to the heights that a Quidditch Snitch would do. Nevertheless, it was tiny, fast, and notoriously difficult to snag upon horseback.
The dance ended, and as it did, certainty flowed through him, fuelled by determination to possess the prize he now held in his arms. He stared deeply into her eyes, which were almost questioning—did she doubt him?—and a gentle probe of Legilimency was met by solid Occlumency. Flush with an emotion that could only be love, he lifted the hand he held to his lips.
‘But of course, my darling,’ he purred and was delighted to see how her eyes widened. ‘I would expect no less a challenge from my goddess. Consider it done.’
Hermione need not have worried, for Severus did not leave her side in the moments leading up to the waltz, and she even fancied he had warned off another man with a glare. He led her onto the floor, one hand at her waist, the other clasping her own, and she looked up guilelessly into his face. Did his eyes seem guarded? Or was she misreading him? It was so very difficult for her to be sure.
The music began and they moved together, just as they had practiced under the tutelage of Minerva McGonagall. Hermione imagined there were many different ways—wiles she had never bothered to learn—to let a man know you wanted to be alone with him, but she knew only one way to communicate it.
‘Severus,’ she said, and he inclined his head slightly, as if to indicate that he was listening to her. She couldn’t help smiling, for he had also quirked an inquisitive eyebrow. A nerve jumped near the corner of his mouth, as if he had almost smiled but caught himself just in time. ‘Would you care to come into my room tonight?’
His expression changed, indefinably but definitely. ‘No, Hermione, I would not.’
She felt slightly embarrassed. ‘I just thought it would be simpler to talk in the same room, rather than through the wall,’ she said studying his cravat now rather than his face.
‘We should say all we wish to say before we say goodnight,’ he replied neutrally.
She peeked at his face again, for he seemed slightly less distant than he had a moment before.
‘We have the second hunt in the morning, as you’ll recall,’ he continued, ‘and you’ll want to be rested for that ride.’
Hermione bit her lip, and it seemed to her that he was particularly interested in the movement of her mouth. ‘Will you ride with me for this hunt?’ she inquired.
His dark eyes—I can’t tell the iris from the black of the pupils she thought hazily—travelled lazily from her mouth to her eyes. ‘Perhaps I shall,’ he said.
…If you’re a good girl, she heard, though he certainly did not speak the words. No, but his hand tightened at her waist, and if possible, it seemed that his gaze became more intense. No coherent thought occurred to her by way of a reply, but she was quite sure he held her more closely for the remainder of their waltz, and they certainly never looked away from one another until the music ended.
Draco took another swig from the Firewhisky bottle he’d nicked from Horologium Black’s office and passed it to Harry. They leant against the wall of the box stall, sitting in the straw, watching the tiny black filly on her wobbly, impossibly spindly legs nurse at her mother’s teat. The little groom had made the horses comfortable and gone to bed.
‘Groats is clever with the horses,’ Draco told Harry. ‘He’s been raised in the stables, like the house-elves are raised in the house.’ After a moment, he said, ‘The stable-elves have it better, really.’
Harry nodded but didn’t speak. He had some insider knowledge of the life of a Malfoy house-elf.
Draco accepted the bottle as Harry passed it back again. ‘Father is almost never in a bad temper when he’s in the stables,’ Draco said with a faint touch of bitterness. ‘Wouldn’t want to disturb the horses now, would we?’
Harry didn’t know what to say. He had always pictured Draco’s life as one of comfort and ease. Draco’s parents both loved him; Harry knew it for a fact—he’d seen their actions at the Battle of Hogwarts with his own eyes. But it had never occurred to him that Draco might not share his father’s attitudes toward their servants.
Draco turned his head, and Harry felt the focus of Draco’s eyes like warmth on his skin. He knew it was cowardly not to turn and face Draco, but he was afraid of what might happen if he looked in Draco’s eyes. His heart was beating too fast already.
‘The house-elves practically raised me,’ Draco said quietly. ‘Mother and Father were very busy socially, so when I was little, the elves were my companions and my playmates.’ Draco chuckled, an earthy, sexy sound, and Harry felt the hair on the back of his neck rise. ‘Dobby was the bravest of them, though—he was special. If ever I broke something or spoiled my clothes and Mother or Father found out before one of the house-elves could make it right, Dobby would take the blame.’
The last few words ended on a bit of a shaky tone, and Harry was moved to turn his face towards his companion—but Draco’s attention was on his hands. Harry thought Draco’s eyes looked a bit overly bright now.
‘Dobby was great,’ Harry said, rushing into speech, wanting to fill the silence. ‘Of course, every time he tried to save me, he nearly killed me.’
Draco uttered another chuckle, this one rather thin and watery sounding. ‘He thought you were great,’ Draco said, his voice sounding scratchy. ‘I saw him sometimes at Hogwarts—he talked about you more than anything else.’
Harry felt the confusion roiling in him: the pain of the boy who lost his most-loved caretaker, the grief of the man’s remembrances, and Harry’s sudden, overmastering desire to enfold the beautiful, tormenting Draco Malfoy in his arms and somehow comfort him. He bolted to his feet, and Draco looked up at him in some surprise.
‘Come on,’ Harry said, offering a hand to pull Draco up.
Draco allowed Harry to pull him to his feet. His lashes were damp from the tears he had not shed, and his eyes—those damnably seductive eyes—were the colour of billowing smoke. Even though he was taller than Harry, in that moment, Harry felt stronger—more powerful. Without an explanation, he wrapped his arms about Draco’s torso and Disapparated.
Harry braced himself on arrival, prepared to steady Draco, who had not been expecting Side-Along Apparition. The air was tangy with salt, and beneath the moon—one night past the full—it was possible to see the spray of the ocean as it pounded unrelentingly against the rocky shore. Draco, gaining his balance, pushed away from Harry.
‘What are you doing, Potter?’ he demanded, and though Draco sounded angry, Harry heard the fear beneath the bluster—the uncertainty.
He reached out and took Draco’s hand in his. ‘Come with me,’ he said.
And surprisingly, Draco did not pull away or argue with him; instead, he allowed Harry to lead him along the cliff edge, toward the silhouette of a cottage. Harry saw light in the upper storey, though the ground floor was dark. A man walked past the window, then turned walked past again from the other direction, a lump much like a sack of potatoes held against his shoulder.
‘Who’s that?’ Draco asked.
‘Bill Weasley,’ Harry answered. ‘He’s walking the baby, Dominique.’
‘Where are we?’
‘Shell Cottage,’ Harry told him, and they stopped at the end of the garden, between bushes. Harry released Draco’s hand and crouched to pull the wild grass that grew about the large white rock there. ‘Lumos,’ he murmured, and the writing on the rock became visible.
HERE LIES DOBBY, A FREE ELF
Draco uttered one choked sob, and Harry pulled the other man into his arms. Draco did not resist, but buried his face against Harry’s neck, and Harry rocked Draco gently in his arms, much as Bill did with his daughter behind the cottage walls. Harry began to speak into Draco’s ear, smoothing the white-blond hair away from Draco’s face.
‘He brought us here straight from your drawing room, me and Griphook, the goblin. I didn’t realise at first there was anything wrong. But I asked him if we were at the right place, and he didn’t answer me—that wasn’t like him. Then I looked at him, and I saw the hilt of your aunt’s knife sticking out of his chest.’ Draco clutched at Harry, his grief shuddering through him. ‘There was blood, and he was holding his arms out to me, like I could save him.’ Harry felt his throat close at the remembered horror, but he forced himself to talk past the lump there. ‘I laid him out on the ground and begged him not to die. He said my name, and then he died.’
Holding one another there on the edge of the world beside the sea, the two young wizards shared their sorrow, unashamed of their tears and their love for a creature whose heart had been ever so much larger than the frail body which housed it.
Harry drew two deep, gasping breaths, and Draco straightened a bit. ‘I dug the grave with a spade,’ Harry said. ‘It seemed important, somehow, to do that for him. Ron came after a while and helped me. We wrapped him in my jacket, and Ron took off his shoes and socks and put them on Dobby. Luna closed his eyes, and we all said something about him—thanking him, you know?’
Draco nodded his understanding, and pulling his handkerchief from his pocket, he began to dry Harry’s cheeks. ‘I never knew all that,’ he said. ‘Just that he died. I … I’ll have to be decent to Weasley now, damn him.’
Harry managed a weak smile, and taking the handkerchief from Draco’s hand, he returned the favour, drying the cheeks above the pointed chin—the face that had, in just a few days, become impossibly dear to him.
Draco wrapped a fist around Harry’s wrist, halting the drying activities, and he stepped closer to Harry, pulling Harry’s captured arm about his waist. ‘Brace yourself,’ Draco said grimly, ‘because I’m going to kiss you, whether you like it or not.’
Harry wasn’t about to let Draco take the upper hand. With the finesse of the true competitor, he wrapped his free hand in sleek blond hair and pulled Draco into a terribly inept kiss.
They grappled as if a game of blindfolded badminton were at risk, and before long, they sorted out the mechanics.
Severus held off taking Hermione to her room until the staircase was all but empty of other guests. They stood at the door of the Great Hall and bid each guest adieu before starting the climb up to the eighth floor. He did not know what he wanted—what he thought—how he meant to end the evening. Cold reason had dictated his answer to her invitation into her room, but after holding her in his arms, having her wide, ingenuous eyes—the very colour of warm honey—looking up artlessly into his face, he wanted, at the very least, to pin her again to her chamber door and taste the sweetness of her mouth.
She was not talkative as they climbed, but when he glanced at her face, she met his gaze fearlessly, and the tension between them intensified.
Good God. He wanted to follow her through her bedchamber door, but he knew if he did, the likelihood of emerging again before morning was … not good.
Before he was ready to make a decision, they stood once again before her door, and his resolve was leaking from him like water from a sprung valve. She tilted her chin, her provocative lips parting, her warm-honey eyes inviting any and everything that crossed his undisciplined mind.
Severus took a hasty step away from her even before he turned to see who was hailing her.
She hastened down the corridor towards Potter, who was coatless, his clothes a rumpled, stained mess, his face reddened and blotched, as if he’d been crying. Severus was half a pace behind Hermione as she hurried to her friend.
‘Are you all right?’ she cried when she reached him.
Potter looked first at Severus, then at Hermione and nodded. ‘Yeah, but …’ He looked at Severus again. ‘I really need to talk to Hermione …’
Severus nodded. ‘Of course. I’ll bid you good night, Miss Granger.’
She turned to him, and he thought she looked at him beseechingly. ‘Good night, sir,’ she said, as if quite conscious of Potter’s eyes upon them. ‘I hope you’ll rest well, tonight.’
Severus bowed to her, then walked away from them, feeling sanity returning a bit more with every step he took away from Hermione Granger.
A/N: The author has arbitrarily chosen a birthdate for Dominique Weasley.