As winter settled in proper, digging its claws into the countryside and oozing into every crack and crevice it could find, the temperatures plummeted. They dared not remain in any one area too long, especially near civilisation, and soon they were forced to venture northwest and away from the more southerly areas of England, where the weather could be relied upon to remain relatively mild for a while longer. Armed with only Impervius and warming charms, they wandered around the country, braving an unforgiving mountain slope, where sleet pounded the tent, a stinking marsh, where they found themselves flooded with chill water after Ron’s hastily cast Impervius faltered in the middle of the night, and even a tiny island in the middle of a Scottish loch, where the snow half-buried the tent overnight.
It was too cold by half to remain in the Sanctuary for any lengthy amount of time these days—for Harry, at least. The everburning fire that roiled in the dragon’s belly evidently kept Malfoy toasty warm, and it was little surprise that he barely waited long enough to clear the entrance to the frigid Sanctuary before shrugging into his Animagus form. Harry still felt compelled to join him, to his own bafflement, so he would bundle up at regular intervals, in several layers and underneath a half-dozen Warming Charms, and traipse in after Malfoy. They would test the limits of Malfoy’s endurance or engage in games of pursuit or race for as long as Harry’s Charms lasted before retiring, exhausted, to their beds.
These efforts seemed to be wasted, though; as winter rolled in, Malfoy remained on-edge, for reasons Harry couldn’t quite grasp, but so far the tensions had yet to come to a head, and they continued to share most evenings around a conjured fire in the fireplace, poring over books in comfortable silence. If he closed his eyes, Harry could almost pretend he was back in the Common Room in Gryffindor tower.
It was a Tuesday night when Malfoy completely disrupted the status quo.
Harry had been in charge of dinner, and they’d supped that evening on a hearty vegetable soup that was filling to the point you didn’t really want to move much afterwards. After they’d finished clearing down the table and Scouring up the dishes, they moved to the sitting room, taking their usual positions. Malfoy generally sat on the sofa, at the opposite end from Harry, until he’d sufficiently digested his meal that he felt comfortable transforming, at which point they would retire to the Sanctuary.
This evening, though, he dithered, and Harry was reminded of that first evening Malfoy had worked himself up to joining them in the sitting room instead of heading into the Sanctuary straight away or holing himself up in their bedroom. After several long, overwrought moments, he seemed to gather himself and marched into the sitting room with a firm set to his jaw.
Except instead of sitting in his unofficial ‘spot’, he chose to sit beside Harry.
No, not beside Harry; practically on top of him.
Malfoy collapsed back onto the couch, sliding right up to Harry and pressing their sides together. He squirmed in place, getting situated, but made no moves to put any more space between them. It was uncomfortably warm with the fire going, and Harry coughed softly. “Er—”
“Not. A word,” Malfoy ground out under his breath, and then reached for the nearest book—Finding the Founders: Hogwarts’ Mothers and Fathers—and settled in.
At a loss, Harry threw a helpless look to Ron, who seemed equal parts horrified and confused. He turned to Hermione for an explanation, but she had her book hefted up so Harry couldn’t catch her eye, pointedly avoiding contact. He hadn’t a clue what was going on—was this a joke? But then, Malfoy was hardly the joking type, and Harry could feel how stiff and tense he was; no, he was no more happy with their position than Harry was.
With no help from his friends and Malfoy tight-lipped next to him, his heart thudding so hard it echoed into Harry, he accepted that there would be no explanation nor shifting of positions. It seemed that unless he wanted to actively broach the subject and call attention to the elephant—dragon?—in the room, he would have to bear Malfoy’s cuddling for at least the duration of the evening.
There was nothing to be done for it, so Harry sighed, picked up his own book—Treasures of the Sacred Twenty-Eight—and tried to ignore the heat of Malfoy’s body pressed up tight against his own.
It was nigh unbearable at first, the both of them tense and wound tight enough to pop, but at length, Malfoy relaxed, even—to Harry’s silent horror—leaned into him a bit more, almost unthinking. Once there were no longer bony elbows in his side or knobby shoulders laying into him, Harry found he could stop being so aware of Malfoy, and as the tension eased, the comfortable communion of their evenings around the fire slowly returned. Malfoy’s breathing was soft and deep, and he seemed to carry around with him the faint scent of woodsmoke these days, subtle enough not to overwhelm but unmistakable.
Hermione was the first to turn in, bidding them all good evening and reminding Ron it was his turn at breakfast. Ron stirred from the nap he’d slipped into, nodding dopily, before stretching and casting a Tempus to check the hour. He made overtures of heading on to bed himself, especially when he realised it was just him and Harry-and-Malfoy left in the sitting room. He ruffled his sleep-mussed hair with one hand and gave them a weak wave with the other. “Er—well, g’night, you two…”
A thrumming hmm rumbled through Malfoy, and Harry dismissed Ron with a, “Night,” of his own.
And then it was just the two of them. Another few moments passed in silence, as Malfoy seemed engrossed in whatever he was reading. Harry craned his neck to run his eyes over the text and felt a pleasant little knot twist in his stomach when he saw Malfoy was reading up on Ravenclaw. He was trying to help, earnestly. He had to understand he hadn’t been entirely looped in on the truth of their quest, but he’d still decided it was something worth making an effort with. Maybe there was hope for him yet.
But Ron’s Tempus had shown it was nearly midnight, and reluctant as Harry was now to disturb their position, since it would mean they’d finally have to address it, he was actually starting to get a cramp and needed to stretch. Casual as he could, he suggested softly so as not to startle, “You think…we should go, too?”
“Hm?” Malfoy said, distracted.
Malfoy twisted in place, blinking at him in confusion—then glanced around to see that they were all alone. “…Shit.” He rubbed his eyes, evidently having been so engrossed in his reading he hadn’t even noticed Hermione and Ron begging off.
Harry tried to defuse the tension before Malfoy froze up again. “That good a book?”
“What? No—dry as dead leaves.” Malfoy’s eye seemed drawn to the bits of themselves that were pressed together, and he did not appear to like what he saw. Without much choice, Harry had had to rest the arm between them along the back of the sofa, and as Malfoy roused, it had slid down to nearly settle across his shoulders. Harry had thought to pull it back, but doing so would only draw further attention to it.
Malfoy shifted, leaning away and sliding over on the cushion so that Harry could finally breathe again. “…Sorry.”
“It’s fine,” Harry lied. Maybe if he played it off like it was nothing, they wouldn’t have to discuss whatever this had been. He was sure he wouldn’t like it anyway, and he was perfectly happy to let this be a one-off that neither of them ever brought up again.
Malfoy shook his head, though. “It’s not—it’s not, just…” He pressed the heels of his palms into his eyes again. “I need some sleep.”
He rose and made for the bedroom, and after waiting a moment to give Malfoy a head start as well as to collect himself, Harry followed. He made his evening toilette as slowly as possible, hoping that if he took long enough, maybe Malfoy would be asleep by the time he climbed into bed. When he returned and found the bedroom dark and quiet, he cheered silently, and then crept on tip-toe over to his bed.
Before he could climb in, though, Malfoy spoke up, voice soft and far away in the darkness. “…I’ll probably need to do that again.”
Harry mouthed a nice hearty fuck to himself, then tried to affect as casual an air as possible. “The—uh, practically sitting in my lap bit?”
“Yes…” he grit out.
Harry closed his eyes and shook his head, drawing back the covers and sliding in with a sigh. “I didn’t see you use the Sanctuary today; is that why? Did it just…‘build up’ again, and you needed help defusing it?” Perhaps that was it; Malfoy had been able to work himself down from an uncontrolled shift with direct attention from Harry before, after all. “I know it’s been pretty waterlogged in there with the crappy weather outside, so I can talk to Hermione about finally setting the Atmospheric Charms. Maybe with some tweaking, she can make it so it’s always clear instead of mirroring outside like it does now?”
There came the creak of bedsprings, and then the lamps flared brighter around them as Malfoy sat up, massaging his temples and wiping a hand over his face. “I wish that was all it was…” Maybe it was the wan light, but Malfoy looked rather ill. Harry hoped he wasn’t coming down with something—or at least that it wasn’t contagious. Malfoy took a bracing breath. “I need…reassurance.”
“…Reassurance?” Harry repeated slowly. “About?”
Malfoy’s shoulders tensed, and he muttered something under his breath that Harry thought sounded like should’ve made Granger do this. He closed his eyes and buried his face in his knees, which he’d drawn up to his chest. “About you being my…my M word.”
Harry wanted to laugh; it sounded so childish when Malfoy put it like that. As if it were a curse word, and he might be reprimanded for speaking it aloud.
But then it sank in exactly what Malfoy was saying, and Harry didn’t feel like laughing at all. “Wait—what?”
Malfoy forced his head up, staring balefully at Harry, and ran his hands through his hair. “Has Granger seriously not given you The Talk? If not, I’m going to have words with her, because it’s not bloody fair I was forced to endure it and you weren’t.”
“I—I mean, she’s the one who told me I should spend time with you in the Sanctuary, but that wasn’t cuddling on the couch. It was just to ground you, or whatever!” This was far beyond what Hermione had mentioned; what did snuggling have to do with settling Malfoy so his dragon didn’t go off on a rampage and wreck the tent? Hermione had assured him this wasn’t about romantic love or anything, so why all of a sudden did Malfoy need this uncomfortable display of physical intimacy to keep himself in check?
Malfoy rubbed his face. “Fine. I’ll speak slowly and use small words so as not to overtax you.”
“How kind,” Harry muttered.
“Given my misfortune to be a dragon Animagus, it seems that the innate instincts and urges inherent to the creature have…imprinted…on my mind.”
Harry waved him off. “Yeah, but I’ve heard all this before. Dragon instincts, drives and whatnot, overwhelming the human bits.”
“Yes, well, what you probably nodded off and missed is that those urges can evidently…evolve. Should the creature become complacent, or jaded to the attentions it receives, it will seek stronger reassurance of its place in…in the natural order of things.”
Its place in the natural order of things? Harry shook his head. “I…I’m sorry, I’m really not following. I still don’t get what you mean about ‘reassurance’.”
Even in the low light, Harry could tell that Malfoy was flushing deeply; it wasn’t much better than the slightly nauseated look he’d been wearing earlier.
“The dragon. It wants…” Malfoy licked his lips, eyes flicking about the room as if physically searching for words. “It needs to be reminded that…that you won’t try and leave it, that you won’t abandon it, or reject it. That kind of reassurance.”
Harry had to fight not to physically recoil. “That I won’t—what?”
“I beg you don’t make me say it again, Potter.”
“That’s not what I meant, I just—what?” Harry sputtered, flailing rather spectacularly with his words. “How could I—when I’m not even—when we’re not even—this doesn’t make any sense?” He shook his head. “So, what, your dragon thinks we’re—?”
“It doesn’t think anything, it’s a bloody animal!” Malfoy snapped, and he was still bright red, but Harry suspected it was from anger as much as shame. “It’s not me—it’s these feelings inside me that aren’t my own and I don’t want to have to deal with them, but they’re there and I have to or it will drive me fucking mad, all right?” His shoulders slumped. “It just wants reassurance, Potter. That’s all.”
Harry didn’t see how Malfoy could just That’s all this situation, but the defeat in Malfoy’s voice was catching. “Well…I just…what am I meant to do, then?” He knew he sounded lost; he was.
Malfoy closed his eyes. “Granger thought, for a while, that proximity alone might do it. Suppose that’s why she shoved us into the Sanctuary. But evidently now it’s getting greedy, and it’s going to take more to satisfy it.”
“Satisfy it…” Harry repeated queasily.
“It just wants to feel—special. It wants attentions from you that you won’t share with anyone else, so for Salazar’s sake, if you can just stomach cramped quarters for an hour or so a night, a few times a week, then maybe we can deal with this with minimal mortification. We don’t ever have to discuss this again—in fact, let’s not. We’ll just get it over with, and go about our business.” By the end of his spiel, Malfoy seemed like he was mostly trying to talk himself into this nightly cuddlefest, and Harry’s head was spinning.
A dozen questions stampeded through his mind—like what else might the dragon demand of him, once it became inured to even this much attention? Was this a permanent thing? Were they going to be retiring together literally joined at the hip (provided either of them lived to see their golden years)?
Curiously, though, a part of him was…well, relieved.
“…Why are you smiling?” Malfoy spat, though his harsh tone could not disguise the clear note of worry. He probably thought Harry had finally gone off the deep end, pushed over by their situation.
“No—just, I thought all of this—” He waved at Malfoy. “You being pissy and prickly again, after actually being all right for a while there, I thought it might be because you were getting frustrated with us. I mean, we haven’t made much progress in our research in weeks, so I figured maybe…” He’d jumped to conclusions, and while the reality of Malfoy’s condition was arguably worse than Harry’s paranoid delusions, he couldn’t help himself. He’d liked that Malfoy felt included, and it had been disappointing to think that they hadn’t measured up. A few months back, and he would have gagged at the idea that he might ever care what Malfoy thought of him or Hermione or Ron. Now, though…he did. A little bit. It was terribly inconvenient.
Malfoy gave a sniff, lip curling. “What? Why would I give a fuck about that? You’re the Chosen One, here. It’s certainly none of my concern whether you save the world or not.”
Harry gave him a funny look. “You realise that doesn’t make any sense, don’t you? If I don’t save the world, then that consequently means the world’s doomed—with you in it.”
Malfoy shrugged. “I’m a fatalist.”
“You?” And this time Harry did laugh, though without much mirth. “That’s a crock. Have you ever met you? You bitch and whinge with the best of them.”
Malfoy showed him two fingers, which looked downright scandalous coming from such a posh wanker. “No, I bitch and whinge the best; get that straight.” Harry rolled his eyes. “…There are enough people dumping their expectations on you as it is. Why should I join the unwashed masses?”
“…So you’re fine with helping us, but you draw the line at hope?”
Malfoy gave an elegant one-shouldered shrug. “Rely on others and you’re only—”
“Only setting yourself up for disappointment, right, yeah, I remember.” Harry shook his head. This vain attempt at self-sufficiency clashed rather harshly with Harry’s memories of Malfoy at school constantly claiming he’d sic his father on those who’d wronged him.
It must have galled him fiercely, then, to have to come crawling to Harry with these needs, begging for help he didn’t want but literally couldn’t survive without. The very reason he’d studied Animagecraft in the first place had been so that he could save his parents, all by himself, without having to seek help from anyone else. And even that hadn’t gone how he’d wanted it to, leaving him shackled to someone he didn’t like and who didn’t like him either.
No wonder he was such an insufferable prick.
Harry sighed. “It’s not weakness, you know. Asking for help.”
Malfoy gave him a guarded look. “…Self-reliance has served me perfectly well thus far.” He grimaced. “And it wouldn’t be quite so terrible if it wasn’t you. You’re the last person in the world I’d want to be in this sort of…” He trailed off, considering his words, and Harry prayed he wasn’t about to say relationship. “…Predicament with.”
Harry bristled. “It’s hardly a picnic for me either, you know.”
“Don’t make me laugh,” Malfoy scoffed. “What great sacrifices have you had to make?”
“My hair, for one—I’m pulling it out at the roots having to deal with you daily.”
“Is that why it looks like that? My goodness, I never realised!” Malfoy laid a hand against his cheek, feigning shock. “I suppose I’ll have to do something to fix this disaster, then; it’s only fair.”
Harry patted down his hair protectively. “What, gonna spit another fireball at me? Thanks, I’ll pass. And I’ve seen your hair, you know. You’re not doing a terribly good job of selling yourself.”
“How can you sell something that’s priceless?”
Harry laughed, brows lifting. “God, you’re so full of shit, you know that, right?”
“Please,” Malfoy drawled. “Your reputation can only improve being associated with me.”
“Really? You think it’d do me good, being seen consorting with a Death Eater?”
Dead silence was all that greeted him in return, and Harry knew he’d stepped into it. He’d meant it as a joke, just more of the barbed teasing he’d come to expect with Malfoy.
When had Malfoy’s loyalties—or lack thereof—become a topic of jest, he wondered. Had he ever really considered Malfoy a Death Eater? Ron did, certainly, but Ron was Ron, and regardless of what Malfoy had done—and he’d done some terrible things—Harry couldn’t seem to see past the cowardly, snivelling little bully trying to puff himself up to seem bigger than he really was. His friends might call him naïve for it, but that was the truth.
He tried to walk his thoughtless words back. “I—I’m sorry, I didn’t meant for it to—”
“Good night, Potter,” Malfoy muttered, turning over to place his back to Harry. The lamps dimmed again, until they were nothing more than coolly burning embers. The room felt colder for the loss of light.
“Malfoy?” he tried again. “Malfoy, I’m sorry. It just came out.”
There was a long beat of silence, and Harry worried they’d just backslid another ten paces—but then: “…The truth tends to do that.”
Harry squirmed, uncomfortable. “I still didn’t mean to say it.”
“Why?” Malfoy asked, all innocence. “You’re right.” The lamp nearest to him flickered and grew just bright enough to cast a pale glow over Malfoy’s bed. He rolled onto his back and held his left arm up, flashing the Dark Mark so that Harry couldn’t miss it. Harry fought not to flinch, knowing it would just make matters worse. Malfoy traced the curves and coils of the snake as it slithered from the skull’s mouth. He flexed his arm, muscles rippling beneath flesh, and the snake seemed almost alive. “…I thought, maybe once I changed back, it’d be gone too. Like the scars on my chest.” He let his arm fall back, staring blankly up at the canvas ceiling. “But I’m stuck with it, I suppose. As I should be.”
They never talked about this sort of thing—it was taboo, by mutual silent agreement. But that didn’t mean Harry didn’t wonder things. “…Why’d you take it?”
Not once, in their months together now, had Malfoy for a moment seemed like he actually believed in Voldemort and his cause, leaving Harry curious as to just how deep Malfoy’s loyalties actually ran. Had he joined up with the Death Eaters, wide-eyed and innocent like Regulus Black, and only turned away once the bloom had fallen from the rose?
“He offered it,” Malfoy said simply. “You don’t turn him down.”
“Of course you would. And then you’d be dead. I’m fond of living.”
And that, Harry supposed, was why Malfoy had been sorted Slytherin and Harry Gryffindor. “I dunno; he’s tried to kill me a few times, and it hasn’t taken yet.”
Malfoy cocked his head to the side, staring at Harry with something unreadable in his eyes. “…Your luck won’t last forever.”
It wasn’t a threat, only a statement, delivered in a flat, dull monotone, as if it was an inevitability Malfoy had no choice but to accept.
“No,” Harry sighed, punching his pillow a few times to fluff it up before settling down onto his back. “I expect it won’t. But I don’t need it to. I just need it to last as long as it takes to bring him down.”
“And then I can really start living dangerously.”
Malfoy snorted softly. “Because you haven’t already been?”
“Of course not. I’ve been playing it safe all these years, or haven’t you noticed?”
“You’re rather hard not to notice.”
They both heard how it came out, and an awkward, stiff silence settled between them. It seemed impossible for the two of them to go five minutes in conversation without either pissing each other off or shoving their feet in their mouths.
Harry cleared his throat, then rolled over. “…Well, g’night.”
“Ron’s on breakfast duty; wake hungry.”
Malfoy groaned. “I’d rather gnaw off my own arm; why do you even make us cook? You’ve seen we’re dreadful at it.”
Harry smiled into his pillow, glad Malfoy could not see him. “Because the sight of you struggling is worth choking down your failed attempts at food.”
He didn’t need to be looking at Malfoy to know he was making a terrible face, nose all scrunched up and mouth twisted. “I thought you were supposed to embody goodness and light and all that rubbish.”
“Mm. A common misconception; I wasn’t almost sorted Slytherin for nothing.”
The loud creak of bedsprings rent the air, and all the lamps in the room flared to life as Malfoy shoved himself upright. “You what?”