Harry didn’t know what Hermione had said to Malfoy during their lessons—she’d been adamant that Malfoy be allowed some degree of privacy, or she’d never get anywhere with him—but given that they had both exited the Sanctuary with life and limb intact, he supposed things had gone as well as could be expected.
He found himself regularly visiting the Sanctuary with Malfoy now. There’d been no agreement made about a schedule in so many words, as that would require discussing ‘this’, but most evenings—and even occasionally afternoons—when Malfoy made overtures that he was going to get some training in, Harry would quietly excuse himself to follow, with Hermione providing encouraging nods and Ron giving him tough luck, mate looks.
Harry contented the bits of himself that felt like he wasn’t pulling his weight with Horcrux research by spending his mornings muddling his way through one dusty tome or another. Hermione always gave him an appreciative smile and prepared him a cuppa when she caught him nodding off in the middle of a passage, and she made an effort to include him in conversations about leads that she and Ron had uncovered while he’d been in the Sanctuary, so that he didn’t feel left out.
Those leads were few and far between, though, and none had ever really panned out. October had settled upon them two weeks back, and they could smell November and its dipping temperatures on the air in the mornings when they moved camp. The leaves had turned to shades of gold and bronze, collecting on the ground in piles ankle-deep, and Malfoy merrily crushed them to bits with his frying-pan-sized feet when they slipped into the Sanctuary.
The lack of proper Atmospheric Charms in the Sanctuary was going to sting soon, though Harry was reluctant to ask Hermione to pull herself away from Horcrux research just to make sure he and Malfoy didn’t catch a chill while skiving off. What would happen, he wondered, when they finally made it through Hermione’s books? At the rate they were going, even with Harry distracted helping Malfoy, they would exhaust their research opportunities by year’s end.
“We’ll have to cross that bridge when we get to it,” Hermione had said when he’d brought the subject up. “Let’s not go borrowing trouble prematurely, shall we?”
And as Harry was quite content with the trouble they already had in stock, he tried to put it out of his mind and simply focused on the tasks before him now: scouring Hermione’s library for any mention of Horcruxes and their destruction or treasures belonging to Hogwarts founders, and filling out his mind’s gallery with more mental snapshots of Malfoy making a fool of himself learning how to fly.
The latter, he would admit freely (albeit with some degree of guilt), was far more entertaining than the former. Malfoy seemed to be growing more confident in his magic by the day, no longer needing prodding or encouragement to use the Sanctuary, and he hadn’t had a near-miss in weeks thanks to their almost daily sessions.
It was during one of their afternoon jaunts, rare if only because Malfoy liked to use the dragon’s metabolism to speed his digestion after dinner, as he hated going to bed on a full stomach he claimed, that Malfoy cleared his throat when Harry reflexively turned around to give him his privacy and said, “…You can watch now, if you like.”
Harry craned his neck over his shoulder, one brow raised and mouth slightly agape, and Malfoy quickly followed up with, “Granger’s not an altogether useless tutor. I think I can manage to turn without having to strip down now. It wasn’t an invitation, just—” He closed his mouth, forcing out an irritated grunt, and ran his hand through his hair.
“…Right.” Harry wondered if he’d ever tire of seeing Malfoy get flustered. He’d always come off as so poised at school, but then again, he’d been surrounded on all sides by adoring sycophants, and most anyone could affect an unruffled air under those circumstances. Take him out of his element, and even Neville might have been able to hold his own in a conversation.
Malfoy stalked away several paces, as always, to give himself a wide berth so he didn’t trample Harry underfoot. He was holding himself a bit more stiffly than usual, and there was a visible tension in his shoulders that Harry could see even under the oversized hand-me-down robes Malfoy wore.
He was nervous, Harry realised. Why, he couldn’t fathom, but now Harry wanted to watch, curious to see the fruits of Hermione’s labours. Every shift he’d witnessed so far had been a terrible thing, violent and wild and painful, and even though Malfoy seemed to have it under control now, the transformation itself was still shrouded in mystery. Harry had to see things for himself, he’d learned over the past few months, before he could truly accept them—and Malfoy being at peace with his dragon instead of it tearing through him to break free was no different.
So he looked, because Malfoy had said he could. If Malfoy hadn’t cared, or hadn’t wanted Harry to see, he wouldn’t have said anything, just quietly gone about his business while Harry turned his back for no real purpose. This meant some part of him must have wanted Harry to watch, and Harry tried not to think too hard about why that was.
He’d never really appreciated Animagecraft, Harry thought. He recognised its utility, and he commended those with the dedication to learn it, like McGonagall and Hermione—and even Malfoy. But he could already fly and pass undetected when he chose. So what was its use to him, really?
Still, it was breathtaking watching Malfoy lose himself in what was at last a concerted, controlled, consensual transformation. Perhaps more so because it was Malfoy—going from pale and pointy and cruel to…all of that, but twisted and magnified into something wild, more befitting.
He flowed like water, an iced-over stream cracking in the spring thaw: it was one step in too-big boots and another on razor-sharp taloned claws with great scalloped wings that unfurled from his shoulders to hang like banners over his long, sinewy body. His scales gleamed in the sunlight, much like they glowed in the moonlight, and from his jagged teeth to the line of arcing spines racing from stem to stern to the whipcrack flash of his tail and testing beats of his wings, he was every bit the fantastic beast.
And yet, Harry could still look at this creature and see Malfoy, plain as day. The dragon stood just a bit too stiff, its neck curled swan-like, and it was too expressive when it looked at Harry, too responsive to his every move. It was like Malfoy had been stuffed into a dragon costume, filling it out nicely but still distractingly human. Malfoy was still there, lurking under it all, like starburst shadows burned into the retina from staring into the sun.
Something shifted in Harry’s gut, and he told himself it was relief, as he felt the last vestiges of guilt and horror—fear that Malfoy might once again find himself subsumed by his own magic—melt away to be replaced by abject fascination.
The dragon made a sharp little snort that sounded like Done gawking? and tossed its head, trotting away into the long grass before picking up speed and flaring its wings to catch the breeze. Harry snapped out of his daze and chased after it, marvelling at the sight. Malfoy had made great strides over the past few weeks, and Harry had to finally admit that yes, Malfoy really was good at flying, just like he’d said he’d be. But then, it stood to reason; Malfoy had practically grown up on a broomstick, after all.
Malfoy took a few wide laps around the campsite, working out the stiffness in his muscles, before coming in for a less-than-graceful landing near the entrance. Harry coughed around a lungful of dust, batting the air in front of his face. “Kind of takes away from the awe of all this—” He gestured to Malfoy, “—when you choke on the landing.”
Malfoy’s nostrils flared in offence, and he huffed out a tiny fireball that singed Harry’s hair. He frantically patted his head to put it out, and Malfoy sneered at his handiwork as if to say Trust me, I’ve improved it.
Harry frowned, hoping he wouldn’t find a bald spot during his shower that evening; it would be humiliating to have to ask Hermione to help him regrow his hair, as she would certainly want to know how he’d lost it. Two could play at this game, he decided.
“So, reckon you’ve got this flying thing down, then?” Malfoy gave an inelegant snort. “Completely and totally confident in your mastery of the air?” A throaty huff, and the dragon pawed at the ground, raking deep furrows into the soil. “…Willing to place odds on it?” Malfoy cocked his head curiously, and Harry headed back towards the entrance, opening a wooden chest and rifling through it until he laid hands on the well-polished handle of a broomstick.
In an effort to stave off the spectre of cabin fever, Harry had occasionally used the Sanctuary to get in a bit of flying of his own using one of the old brooms they’d found in Perkins’s hall closet. It was certainly no Firebolt, but it was better than nothing—and Harry wasn’t trying to win any House Cups these days. He’d hoped it might clear his head and help him concentrate on the Horcrux hunt, and while it had helped with the former, he’d had no such luck with the latter.
Malfoy was already prancing in place as Harry trudged back with the broom in hand, bearing an uncanny resemblance to a hound who’d just seen his master pick up a tennis ball. It was evident he approved of the challenge, and Harry consciously bit back a smile at the image. Malfoy would work himself into a snit if he thought Harry was making fun of him, and that would be an afternoon ruined.
He brought the broom around to mount it, then scanned the site for remarkable features. “Right—shall we say first to make it there wins?” He pointed to a thicket of saplings in the distance still clinging to most of their leaves. Malfoy evidently agreed, for he crouched like a cat about to pounce and spread his wings, doing that funny little arse wiggle that Harry still maintained was not something dragons did.
Harry adjusted his grip on the handle and placed one foot on its rest, readying the other to help push off. “On your mark…” he started, and Malfoy gave an excited little keening whine, practically vibrating with leashed energy. “Set…GO!”
They both tore off, Malfoy kicking up dirt and leaves as he used his powerful haunches to launch himself forward and Harry nearly pulling a muscle shoving off from the ground at speeds he hadn’t attempted since Fifth Year. He’d sat out the last Quidditch season, too focused on figuring out just what Malfoy had been up to to spare the time or energy for practise sessions, and he was beginning to feel it only thirty seconds in.
They both took their time building speed, but Perkins’s broom—while certainly not a racing rig—was built for quick, short bursts, and Harry took an early lead. It soon became clear, though, that the dragon had far more power and stamina than a speed-locked broom. Harry had been fast out of the gate, but Malfoy was faster once he got that big white arse of his going, and the whoosh of wings coming up from behind soon moved overhead, and then in front, casting Harry in shadow and making his flight path wobble in the wash.
Malfoy beat him to their goal with several body-lengths to spare, making another inelegant landing before Harry had even touched down and chuffing happily, lips curled into a rather frightening approximation of a grin.
“All right, well, obviously that didn’t count. Brooms have speed-limiting spells on them, after all, and this one’s got to be at least twenty years old.”
Malfoy merely blew out a stream of smoke that blackened Harry’s glasses, as if to say Sore loser. Harry pulled off his glasses and wiped the lenses with the hem of his shirt. “Don’t give me that—you know I’m right. It’s hardly fair, racing on a straightaway like that. Of course a dragon’s got more power and speed to it than a broom.” Malfoy just shrugged, which looked so odd on a dragon. Harry slipped the glasses back onto his nose and lifted his brows. “But I’d wager I can still outfly you; brooms are built for manoeuvrability, after all.”
Malfoy’s spines—ears? It was so hard to tell—flattened against his head, and he snorted in disbelief.
“Another race,” Harry challenged. “Back to the entrance. Except this time, the object will be for you to catch me before I reach it.”
The fact that Malfoy agreed far too eagerly should have been Harry’s first clue he probably shouldn’t have suggested a game of pursuit, but it was too late to back down now without looking cowardly, so he mounted up again, directing Malfoy to put a few body lengths between their starting positions in order to make it fair.
This time, when he pushed off, it was with a burst of adrenaline as excitement and terror coursed through his veins—because you had to be mad not to be at least a little scared of a dragon racing through the skies after you, each great beat of its wings bringing it closer to striking distance. It made little difference that he was (mostly) sure Malfoy wouldn’t actually hurt him; Harry still felt his heart thudding in his ears, and his palms were slick with sweat, just as they’d been when he’d had the Horntail bellowing in fury as it had pursued him over the Hogwarts grounds.
It was ten kinds of thrilling, being chased for a change rather than doing the chasing as he usually did on a broom. He could hear the whoomp, whoomp, whoomp as Malfoy’s wings buffeted the air, and the gravelly huffing of the dragon’s breathing grew louder and louder with each pass. Harry imagined he could feel the heat of Malfoy’s breath on his neck, that at any moment Malfoy would nip him by the collar and claim victory—so he pushed the rickety old broom as fast as it would go. He knew there were speed-limiting spells on it, just like with any regulation broom, but he still felt like if he just pressed a bit harder, put in a little more effort, he could outfly Malfoy.
The truth, though, was that he couldn’t. He couldn’t outfly Malfoy now any more than he’d been able to five minutes ago—not on a straightaway. But luckily, he didn’t have to, and when he realised he was no longer imagining Malfoy breathing down his neck but was actually feeling it, hot and sticky, Harry rolled to the side in a Sloth Grip and yanked his broom down into a dive.
Malfoy zoomed over him, continuing on another fifty feet before he realised what had happened, and by that time, Harry had dropped close to the ground and doubled back, making for the entrance in a roundabout approach that was sure to confuse his pursuer. Malfoy had managed the basics of flying, that much was true, but he didn’t seem to have the hang of hairpin turns just yet, nor the skills necessary to funnel his momentum as he pleased.
Harry hopped off his broom a few paces from the doorway while Malfoy was still huffing and puffing at a distance so great Harry almost needed Omnioculars to sight him. He didn’t seem to be making much of an effort to slow down for his landing, and Harry wondered if he ought to take out his wand, in case he needed to cast a shield to avoid getting plowed under.
But as soon as the dragon hit the ground, throwing up sod and leaves, it flowed seamlessly back into Malfoy. His hair was mussed, with sweaty locks stuck to his forehead, and he was breathing hard, shaking a finger in Harry’s direction. “That wasn’t fair. I was right there and I had you—”
“You had me?” Harry glanced down at himself, patting his sides and frowning. “Hm. That’s funny… I don’t seem to have been caught…”
“Oh fuck you, Potter—if you hadn’t bolted, you know you would have lost!”
Harry leaned on the broom, beatific. “But that’s the point. What, I was supposed to play nice and keep plodding along while you ran me down? I don’t think so.” He was feeling rather pleased with himself; it felt like it’d been some time since he’d seen Malfoy properly pissed off, and it was a pleasant change to not be pissed off himself right back. This way, he got to appreciate the way Malfoy’s usually pristine features scrunched up with rage, and the way he sent spittle flying when he spoke. He was delightfully ruffled, and like seeing Malfoy nervous, it did strange things to Harry that he couldn’t quite describe. He liked seeing Malfoy so human—which was kind of funny, as it took him turning into a dragon to bring it out.
Malfoy crossed his arms, brows furrowed in a sulk. “So is that it, then?”
“Hm? Oh.” Harry brought the broom up and settled it against his shoulder. “I suppose? If you’re done.”
Malfoy shrugged, unconcerned. “I’m done if you’re done.”
And that was an odd way to put it; why were they out here, if not for Malfoy? Of course Harry was done; he’d been done before they’d even set foot in the Sanctuary.
Which was, he supposed, a clue that that wasn’t really what Malfoy was saying. It meant he wanted to stay longer but didn’t want to seem overeager. They were back to square one all over again, and Harry felt a headache coming on. Why did Malfoy have to be so damned circumspect about everything? Why couldn’t he just come out and say what he wanted, instead of making mind games out of everything?
Harry sighed. “Well, if you’ve got another suggestion…?”
Malfoy straightened, then cleared his throat softly, nodding to Harry’s broom. “…Haven’t got another of those lying about, have you?”
“Another broom?” Harry lifted a brow. “…You want to fly on a broom? When you can already turn into a dragon?” A part of him wondered if there wasn’t a catch to this, or if Malfoy was perhaps considering making a getaway on broomstick. It didn’t really make sense, and Harry couldn’t see the point of it—but nor did he really understand why Malfoy would want a broom otherwise.
Malfoy gave a pebble on the ground a kick with the toe of his trainer, sending it off into the tall grass. “We both sat out last year’s Quidditch season, so we haven’t flown against each other since Fifth Year.” He sniffed defensively. “I believe I owe you a sound strapping. Especially seeing as we’re never going to have a fair fight like this.”
He was right; Malfoy’s dragon had the advantage with speed and power, and Harry had the advantage with manoeuvrability, so they’d pretty much just be flying circles around each other until Harry tired or Malfoy gave up. They were poorly matched as they were, and broomsticks for the both of them would ensure a more level playing field. Malfoy was not, after all, a terrible flyer, though Harry would never admit it aloud.
He mulled it over. “So—what, more racing?”
“That…” Malfoy shrugged. “Or if you happen to have a Snitch on you, we could always have a Seeker’s game.”
Indeed, Harry did have one, and he unconsciously brought his hand up to stroke the smooth hide of the Mokeskin pouch that never left his neck. He wondered what Dumbledore would think, to know Harry was considering using his gift this way. Harry thought he’d probably approve, if only because Dumbledore had been strange like that. “Yes, my boy—run along and have fun with my murderer, do!”
Harry nodded. “Wait here,” he said, then tossed Malfoy the broom and dashed back into the tent. He made a beeline for the hall closet and grabbed the other Clean Sweep tucked into the corner, then rushed back into the Sanctuary before Hermione or Ron could ask him what on earth he was doing and why he had a disturbingly manic grin on his face.
It was only unexpected, was all. Malfoy kept doing things that threw Harry for a loop, except instead of feeling wrong-footed, he just felt…well, it felt wrong to say excited, but that was the only word coming to mind. One of these days Malfoy would actually say something nice, and then the whole world would tilt on its axis.
He was huffing, rosy-cheeked, by the time he made it back into the Sanctuary, his broom in one hand and Dumbledore’s Snitch in the other. “Will this do?”
Malfoy took the Snitch and inspected it closely. “Why is it all scuffed up?”
Harry shrugged. “It’s a game Snitch,” was all he said. If Malfoy knew it was the one he’d nearly swallowed, he’d probably have a fit and start moaning about ‘disgusting Potter germs’.
“Well, so long as it’s still in working order.”
Harry wasn’t entirely sure on that point, to be honest—it had opened its wings before, and then there’d been the strange writing on it, but he’d just assumed it was still viable for game play. They’d find out, he supposed.
Malfoy let the Snitch dance over his knuckles in a hypnotic rhythm. “So—first to catch the Snitch wins?”
Harry frowned. “Wins—what?” Had he just walked into a trap? He hoped Malfoy wasn’t about to ask for something impossible, like to be freed, or to be given a wand. They were actually getting along, as well as the two of them could be expected to, and Harry wasn’t looking forward to the big blow-up that would surely follow if Malfoy tried to weasel his way to freedom.
But Malfoy only tapped his lips in thoughtful repose. “A favour.”
“…Yes, but what sort of favour?”
“If I knew, I would have said what sort I meant, wouldn’t I? I haven’t decided yet, so we’ll just say that when I win, you’ll owe me a favour, to be delivered at a time of my choosing.”
Malfoy really wasn’t very good at disguising his traps, Harry thought—but then, he didn’t need to disguise them. Harry could either take the offer, or leave it, and that would be the end of their afternoon. He didn’t have much choice, really, if he wanted to avoid causing offence. He sighed. “And if I win, you’ll owe me?” If Malfoy asked for something ridiculous, Harry could simply refuse. This wasn’t an Unbreakable Vow, after all.
Malfoy tossed the Snitch into the air, fingers curling around the casing when it landed in his palm. “Let’s be realistic here, Potter: you’re not going to win.”
Harry was already missing the dragon and its inability to speak. He grabbed the Snitch out of the air when Malfoy tossed it again, and wound the self-release timer. They then stepped ten paces in opposite directions, away from the Snitch, and mounted their brooms.
When the timer popped with a bright ding! the Snitch was off—and so were they. It disappeared for a moment, flying into the sun and blinding Harry—then nearly smacked him in the head when it came careening back towards him, and he had to do a quick roll to avoid getting clipped.
Malfoy took advantage of Harry’s disorientation, arrowing off after the Snitch as it charted a zig-zagging course around the campsite. He was nearly as quick on Perkins’s broom as he’d been under his own power, but the Snitch was challenging his no-doubt rusty broom skills. Harry had the advantage of having warmed up over the past hour and so was steadier on his broom.
Malfoy took a swipe at the Snitch when it made a sharp turn, then overcorrected when he missed it and stalled out, having to work to regain his speed while the Snitch disappeared into the treetops below. When Harry zoomed past him, he was grumbling some very naughty words and complaining about third-rate broomstick makers and their shoddy craftsmanship.
The Snitch popped up from the canopy right in front of Harry and then took off for the horizon, and he locked his knees and elbows, crouching to make himself as streamlined as possible. He drew every bit of speed he could from the broomstick, counting down in his head the seconds it would take before he was within striking distance. Malfoy was creeping up behind him, and that tingle of fear-anticipation-excitement from earlier shivered down his spine once more. It still felt, somehow, like there was a dangerous creature nipping at his heels, ready to pounce on Harry as if he were a Snitch himself.
He’d just gotten down to two in his count, when the Snitch took a sharp nosedive. Harry cried out in shock, whipping his hand out to make a desperate grab—but he overshot his mark. Malfoy, still lagging a few lengths behind Harry, had a split-second advantage, and Harry despaired, seeing his loss staring him in his face.
But instead of turning into a dive and letting gravity help him gain the speed he would need to catch the Snitch, Malfoy rolled to the side and—fell.
Harry’s heart stuttered and his stomach bottomed out, a lead weight dropping right down his gullet. They were no small ways up, and a fall from this height would be deadly. Dittany wasn’t any good for mending broken bones, Hermione had informed him, and Harry didn’t know of any spells that could fit splattered brains back into cracked skulls.
He shoved the handle of his broom down, forcing it into a dive he was sure it couldn’t handle—but it was the only thing he could think to do. If he didn’t die saving Malfoy, then Hermione or Ron or both would probably kill him for being so reckless.
But Malfoy had barely cleared the broom before his form blurred and loomed large, flowing smoothly into the great white dragon, and with a few concerted beats of his huge wings, he was nearly upon the Snitch. He opened his mouth, flashing rows of wicked teeth, and scooped it up before spiralling down and gently, primly, alighting on the ground in his cleanest landing yet.
Harry gaped, just gawked for a good thirty seconds, before mutely grabbing Malfoy’s abandoned broom and drifting back to earth. He was still trying to process what had just happened when he touched down, and as his mind whirred in overdrive, Malfoy shifted back to his human form and delicately removed the Snitch from his mouth, waving it in Harry’s face with all the smug self-satisfaction in the world.
Harry felt his temper reassert itself first. “That—that was—well that was cheating is what that was.”
“How so?” Malfoy asked, all innocence.
“We were supposed to use our brooms! The whole point of being on brooms was that it wasn’t fair when one of us was on a broom and the other was a bloody dragon!”
“Yes, we did agree to use brooms. But there was never any rule set that we had to stay on them.” Malfoy tossed him the Snitch; it was hot and slick with saliva.
“Eew,” Harry groaned, wrapping it in the fold of his shirt and rubbing to wipe it off. He supposed he ought to be pleased that Malfoy was comfortable enough with his magic now he could shift in mid-air without batting a lash, but the loss still stung. “Why’d you have to nearly eat it?”
Malfoy snorted softly, shouldering roughly past Harry as he made to head back into the tent. “Just doing my best Harry Potter impression.”