The following week brought both some relief from the awful weather and the open day at Stonewall Comprehensive. Snape, his duty done by filling in the application forms with some judicious lies and informing Draco of the date of the open day, would have nothing more to do with it. He unbent only enough to put a Cooling Charm on Uncle Vernon’s car, so that they could drive to the school in relative comfort.
Relative being the operative word, thought Harry. Aunt Petunia, naturally, rode shotgun. Harry, by dint of being skinnier than Dudley and less capricious than Draco, was squashed between the two on the hump.
Draco found much to marvel at in such an inconvenient, uncomfortable and protracted method of travelling.
“Your knee bumped mine,” he remarked to Harry as Uncle Vernon took a corner. “I shall get a bruise.”
“If you don’t stop complaining,” said Harry through gritted teeth, “you can get out and walk.”
“I wasn’t complaining,” said Draco. “I was just stating a fact. Ow, there you go again.”
Harry crossed his arms, determined to remain silent. Both Draco and Dudley then accused him of jabbing them with his elbows.
Knots of sunburnt people decorated the carpark into which Uncle Vernon drove. Either the place had been ramshackle to begin with – thin gravel, an abundance of weeds, and no lots painted – or the sun had done its worst. The three boys oozed out, Harry and Draco both picking at their sunburn. Dudley disdained to go outside at all, so he was white as a lily. He’d refused to say that Draco’s tan was nicer than Harry’s – ‘I think tans are awfully common, actually’ – and consequently Draco was in a sulk with him.
Uncle Vernon lead the way to a tired-looking banner saying ‘Welcome,’ Aunt Petunia on his arm. Harry followed at a distance, trying to pretend he wasn’t associated with any of the other four, while Draco and Dudley did the same.
“There are tours every hour, arrows on the walls if you want to explore, which you are encouraged to do,” a gum-chewing girl was droning to a nervous family party. “The teachers are on hand to answer any questions you might have.” She caught sight of Draco and suddenly looked significantly less bored.
“She mustn’t think tans are common,” whispered Draco triumphantly, to Harry, who jerked away from him.
“Did you have to spit in my ear like that?” he growled.
The girl was definitely checking out Draco as she repeated her spiel to the Dursleys. Harry glared at Draco, wondering what it was she saw in him. His tan was the colour of light toffee and very even, because of his propensity to strip down no matter who was around to be bothered by it, and his hair sun-bleached to a sort of white-blonde. He was wearing a cream vest with the inevitable laces, shorts, flip-flops, and a leather necklace with a shark’s tooth that he’d conned out of Dudley after becoming deeply enamoured of Home and Away.
Harry saw nothing there worthy of the half-smile on the girl’s face, or her sultry glances. Of course, he wasn’t supposed to, because Draco was a boy and Harry was a boy, but he wished Draco looked more like the git he actually was.
The girl wasn’t that pretty anyway, Harry decided, as she gave him and Dudley a ‘bitch, please’ once-over.
“Piers!” cried Dudley once they were free of the reception booth. “Thought I recognised that rat-tail. How’s things, dude?”
“Not bad, dude.” The boy belonging to the nervous family high-fived Dudley. Harry had to stare hard at him to find any remnant of the boy who’d been the second-greatest bane of his childhood.
Piers was still short and with a tendency towards weediness, but he’d worked with nature instead of against it. His lank, ash-blonde hair was peeled back into a ponytail, and he was wearing a loud waistcoat over a white muscle t-shirt, white shorts and Birkenstocks. He looked like the star of a video warning kids about the dangers of drugs.
“Draco, this is my old friend Piers Polkiss,” said Dudley. “And of course you know Harry.”
“He’s grown a bit,” said Piers, looking up the ten inches that separated his eyeline from the rest of Harry. “Draco. That’s an interesting name.”
“So is Piers,” said Draco flatly. Harry was a little astonished that Draco didn’t have the same instant approbation for Piers as he’d had for Dudley. “Delighted to make your acquaintance. Potter, don’t we have to go see the science labs?”
“Er,” said Harry. He let Draco take his arm and drag him away, remembering too late to wrench it out of Draco’s grasp. Draco’s fingers were dry and warm, but his fingernails bit into Harry’s flesh.
“What are science labs, anyway?” asked Draco. “Is that where Muggles make potions?”
“Yeah, if you like.” Harry was aware of a few curious glances and herded Draco into the first room he saw. It was, indeed, a science lab, fitted up with long desks on which a number of experiments were quietly bubbling. Flasks were filled with chemicals of every available colour, Bunsen burners flared and the burettes sparkled in the sun streaming in through the slatted blinds. It looked, to Harry, like a torture chamber.
Little wonder, then, that Draco adored it. “This place is great!” he enthused. “What are these things?” He picked up a Bunsen burner.
“Something that is on fire.” Harry snatched it away, the flame uncomfortably hot until he remembered how to turn it off. Draco had already turned to the next toy: a flask full of potassium permanganate.
“Are we allowed to use this stuff in school?” he asked, eyes shining. Harry shrugged. Science had never interested him one way or another; he’d mainly liked geography, as it seemed to be a way to plan escape routes.
“We should find the others,” said Harry. The idea of being trapped in a small room with Draco and fire did not appeal. Draco idly twirled the flask of crystals, looking stubborn.
“Do you know that Piers person?” he asked.
“Yeah,” said Harry. “He used to hold my head over the toilet bowl while Dudley flushed it. Why?”
“I don’t – he didn’t seem very nice to me,” muttered Draco. Harry was about to make a remark wondering how Draco could tell, when he realised a delightful fact.
“You’re jealous!” he laughed.
“Am not!” Draco’s head snapped up.
“Are too!” Harry felt full of glee. “You’re jealous that Piers will steal away your precious Lee and you’ll have no one left to play with except Kreacher.”
“With enemies like you, who needs friends?” asked Draco, and threw the crystals in Harry’s face. Harry, expecting something of the kind, was already ducking. The crystals rained down on a basin of water containing a number of flasks and glass tubing. The water immediately began to fizz alarmingly. Harry and Draco scrambled backwards, ending up crushed against the same desk.
“If we are blown up,” gasped Harry, “I’m holding you fully responsible.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” Draco shielded his face with the empty flask. “You provoked me.”
“You’re dreadfully easy to provoke.” Harry’s face twisted up into an expression that was more malicious than a smile.
“Hey!” Draco took his hands down. “You stole my comeback!”
“Ha, ha,” said Harry meanly, while also being aware that it was hardly a comeback worth stealing.
The door the lab opened. Draco shoved the flask into Harry’s hands and stepped away, the picture of innocence. Harry looked from the door to the bubbling water and back, but it was too late.
A man in a shabby short-sleeved shirt, knife-pleated khaki shorts and socks with sandals shuffled into the room, holding a cup of ice water and an armful of folders.
“Oh, hello,” he said, his eyes creasing up. “Here for the open day, are you? How do you like the experiments?”
“He did it!” said Draco, pointing at the bubbling and now bright purple water.
“Potassium permanganate? I do like to see the spirit of scientific endeavour.” The man creased up his eyes at Harry. It seemed to be his way of smiling, for he didn’t move his mouth. “Good for you.”
“Actually, I did it.” Draco slid smoothly between Harry and the man. Harry had to shake his head at Draco’s blatant attention-seeking.
“Would you like to see some more experiments? I’m Mr Blake, by the way.”
“Would I!” exclaimed Draco. “I’m Draco, this is ... well, never mind him.”
“Harry,” interposed Harry.
“Draco, the dragon.” The eyes creased again. “Interesting. Harry short for Harold, slain by William the Conqueror? Or Henry after many of our great kings?”
“No, it’s just Harry.” Harry felt obscurely sorry that his name wasn’t short for something.
“Hmm, well, come along, come along.” Mr Blake ushered them to the top of the room. “Have you taken chemistry before?”
“Nope,” said Draco and Harry together. Draco sent Harry a scathing look, as if he’d done it on purpose.
“Hmm,” said Mr Blake. “You’re in for a surprise.”
Harry and Draco caught up with Dudley and Piers in the English Literature classroom. They had been corralled by a young woman in a shapeless, flowing garment the colour of fresh compost, with innumerable beads strung about her person. As he came closer, Harry discovered that she smelled about as good as she looked: fresh and old sweat intermingled with a scent of sour apples.
Her face couldn’t be older than thirty, and she seemed to be in love with William Wordsworth.
“There is such a freshness, such a vivacity, to all his descriptions of nature – frankly, boys, I’m quite overpowered. The Daffodils sends me into new raptures every time I read it. Oh! To ‘wander lonely as a cloud’ sounds like such a delicious fate, don’t you think? And ‘oft when in my pensive mood’ I sometimes go to the threeway crossing outside my house, where there’s a bit of dirt. In spring, I mean, when the daffs are out.” She took a deep breath, her sack-dress quivering. Harry wondered just how recently she’d been standing in dirt: her toenails had a distinctly earthy look to them. “And his Lucy poems – poor Lucy, so young, so lamented! He says she will be forgotten but of course we all remember her –”
“Was Snape here?” Draco glanced back at the door. “Did she just get hit with a Confundus or what?”
“She’s talking about poetry,” said Harry. “I think.”
Draco’s eyes glittered. “You don’t mean like ... ‘his eyes are as green as a fresh pickled toad’...”
“Shut it,” hissed Harry. But Draco was not to be repressed.
He fell to his knees before Harry. Harry shoved at his head, but was left with a handful of fine gold threads as Draco didn’t move an inch, simply clasped his hands and looked up at Harry with an expression distressingly akin to Kreacher’s.
“I’m warning you –”
“‘His hair is as dark as a blackboard’!” roared Draco, attracting the attention of the teacher. Dudley and Piers had been staring at them for ages, hoping that they represented a way out. “‘I wish he was mine, he’s really divine –”
“Oh my.” The teacher fussed with her bracelets and came towards them, taking fluttery little steps as if she were dancing a miniature waltz. “Did you compose that, how shall I say, little ditty, yourself, young man?”
In lieu of answering, Draco whispered, “The hero who defeated the Dark Lord,” a look of sinister aspect on his face. With a whimpery sigh he fell forward and wrapped his arms around Harry’s legs.
“But, how charming!” said the teacher. “You, you have been the recipient of a love sonnet! Or, not exactly a sonnet – I can’t say it was in iambic pentameter – but it is traditional to call such offerings sonnets. Indeed I do believe it could be called a sonnet, if we stretch the term far enough.”
Harry could feel Draco shaking against his legs. It took him a minute to realise Draco was laughing. Harry stared at the woman with dumbfounded shock.
“How do you feel?” the teacher addressed herself eagerly to Harry. “Perhaps, do you think you could, address something to the young man in turn? I am sure it would be nice, it would be very nice. Even a negative answer, kindly and, of course, poetically expressed, would be welcome. I daresay it would be welcome, don’t you think?”
“No,” said Harry. He kicked Draco before he could mutter something about Harry never thinking. “Malfoy was only having a laugh.”
The teacher’s eyes widened. They were an indeterminate shade, somewhere between blue and grey, and gave her the appearance of a sombre rabbit. “I see, I do see! It was comic poetry, an attempt at comedy.”
“That’s it exactly.” Draco hopped to his feet. “For no one could seriously write love poems for Potter.” He stretched out his hand and, when she held out hers, he turned it and kissed it. “Draco Malfoy, at your service.”
“Oh, my,” said the teacher faintly. “That is, I think it is rather inappropriate. Mr Malfoy, it was inappropriate.”
“But very dashing, don’t you think?” Draco winked at Harry, very much as if to say ‘look at the two birds I’ve bagged!’
Harry felt the strong urge to sit somewhere quiet and then, maybe, bang his head against a few walls.
Dudley and Piers tried to slip out while the teacher was explaining to Draco that her name was ‘Helena Thompson, which is to say, Helena with an a, and Thompson with a h – you cannot conceive how many people get that wrong’ and that his behaviour ‘might have been dashing, yes, I can agree that it was dashing, but it was still inappropriate.’ Alas for them, Miss Thompson (with a h) spotted them.
“Oh, Piers, oh, Dudley,” she cried, “we haven’t yet finished our discussion. I’m sure we haven’t finished our discussion, for we haven’t spoken of Tintern Abbey at all. You must stay and tell me what you think of Tintern.”
“That’s a great idea, Miss Thompson,” said Draco, exactly as he used to all those years ago with Snape. He didn’t do it so much with Snape any longer, Harry had reason to recall. Probably Snape had seen through him. Harry hated to think well of Snape in any way, but he wasn’t fooled by flattery, however he might turn it to his own ends.
Then he realised that Draco was saving him.
“- and I have an appointment with Mr Blake,” Draco was saying. “I know he’d spare us if he could, but...” Draco turned his palms to heaven and put his head on one side. Despise the boy as he would, Harry couldn’t help but think it a winning performance.
“Of course, Mr Blake has a higher demand on you,” said Miss Thompson, “I understand it perfectly, Mr Malfoy. Only do come later and we can discuss love sonnets. You and I and your friend can discuss love sonnets.”
Draco smiled – a sort of genuine smile, Harry noticed, but he was still hung up on ‘your friend’. As Draco hurried him out of the room, Harry said, “Did she ever get that wrong.”
“Poor woman,” sighed Draco, clearly on an entirely different train of thought. “She’ll never catch a husband looking like that. If only Pansy were here – I notice Mr Blake wasn’t wearing a ring, and he’s not very old –”
And try as he might, Harry could not get Draco to notice Miss Thompson’s appalling oversight.
It wasn’t until much later that Harry realised it might not have been an oversight – that Draco’s rescuing of Harry as well as himself, might, in other lives and circumstances, earn him the right to be called a friend.
Harry lay on the floor of Dudley’s bedroom, reading a motorcycle magazine that was four years out of date. From downstairs, the sounds of a dozen ladies lamenting the awful heat outside drifted upwards. Aunt Petunia, thanks to Snape’s spell, was now the toast of the Little Whinging set. People came to visit her for the luxury of air-conditioning that actually lowered the temperature, and stayed for the novelty of eating hot food.
Harry had been outside for most of the day. The troops of admirers weren’t the sort of people he liked to share breathing space with, and he was bound to run into either them, Draco, Snape, Kreacher or one of Dudley’s gang if he limited his movements too much. That he was now in Dudley’s bedroom, where Dudley and Piers were sprawled on the bed and Draco had commandeered the easy chair, was a hypocrisy on which Harry chose not to dwell. There had been offers of ice-cream and an alleviation of his dreadful boredom: nations had fallen for less.
Draco was sitting backwards in the chair, which, because it was a bespoke item designed to accommodate Dudley’s unique load, left his feet dangling several inches from the floor. “I’ve signed up for Chemistry, English Literature, Art and History,” he announced, for the topic of discussion was Stonewall Comprehensive.
Tomorrow was the first day of term for Dudley, Piers, their friend Cherub and, of course, Harry and Draco. The only person who felt an abiding interest in the fact was Draco, but Piers and Dudley seemed happy enough to oblige him in it. Harry was tuning them all out by carefully inspecting every page of his magazine, hoping to find a machine that resembled Sirius’.
“I’m taking the same subjects as I did at Smeltings,” said Piers. “Hopefully they sent over our files – I was getting straight As before we were expelled.”
“They probably burnt them,” snorted Dudley. “Besides, this is a progressive school, remember? They don’t believe in grades.”
“In which case, poor marks like yours won’t matter,” said Draco. Harry, try as he might to ignore the conversation, had to snicker at this. “What’s your problem?”
“A is the highest grade you can get in M – in Piers’ school,” said Harry.
“Like an O, you mean?” Draco smiled lazily. “I got five Os in my OWLs.”
“Not to worry,” said Piers, probably feeling the same level of academic sympathy for Draco as Draco did for him. “This school is meant to be a clean slate for all of us.”
“All of us?” echoed Draco.
“Yeah,” said Piers. “Me and Lee –” Piers had quickly picked up the new nickname, which smoothed his rocky path to becoming friends with Draco “– and Cherub were expelled from Smeltings, Harry was expelled from St Brutus’ –”
“Wait, what?” Draco sat up straight. “St Brutus’? What’s that?”
“St Brutus’ School for Criminally Insane Boys,” said Harry, before Piers had a chance to gloat. When he’d first discovered Aunt Petunia’s cover-story for his prolonged habituation of her house, he’d been doubly annoyed: not only that everyone thought him criminally insane, but that he was supposedly too criminally insane for even a hard-line detention centre to handle.
“O-oh,” sighed Draco, a long and heartfelt sound. He twirled his chair around, making his hair fly out in a buttery halo. “That is so completely the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard, I don’t even know what to say.”
“And you’re here under Witness Protection,” continued Piers. “With your dad.”
“My dad?” Draco stopped spinning abruptly, a look of abject disgust pulling at his mouth. “You don’t mean - Snape? Oh, now you’ve made me think of Snape reproducing – Snape having sex –”
“Don’t!” Harry kicked Draco’s chair, but not before some very unholy images started appearing in his brain.
“He’s not your dad, then?” Piers frowned. “But you look so alike.”
Harry held his stomach and laughed and laughed at the look on Draco’s face.
“If you’re quite finished,” said Draco, “I was going to ask –”
Harry thought about Draco having the same nose as Snape and wheezed a bit more.
“- what you’re all wearing tomorrow. I don’t quite understand this ‘no uniform’ rule.”
“It’s not a rule,” said Dudley. “Making us wear uniforms is a rule. Stonewall is pretty much against rules in general.”
“That’s no fun,” complained Draco. “How do you know when you’re breaking them in that case?”
“Why do you care?” asked Harry. “You always preferred dobbing in other people to breaking the rules yourself.”
“Shows how much you know,” sniffed Draco, “in other words, nothing.”
“Oh, so when Ron and I got detention for getting Norbert off the Astronomy Tower, that was someone else’s fault? And don’t even get me started on the Inquisitorial Squad –”
“Think of it as payback for all the times you single-handedly stole the House Cup from the Slytherins –”
“Don’t even try to make this about the bloody House Cup. You’re not that stupid, you had to know what Umbridge was!”
“Yeah – she actually punished you for a change, so she was fair!”
“She made me cut myself for telling the truth. How is that fair?”
“What are you blathering on about?”
“Here.” Harry struck his hand in Draco’s face. The livid lines had faded, but it was still possible to read the words formed from the pale scars.
Draco shook himself. “I mean fair in a general sense, not in a ... specific sense,” he said. He didn’t sound quite so confident now.
“Why am I not surprised? You’d go around chopping off people’s hands for stealing, I bet.”
“Like you’re any different,” sneered Draco. “You’d cut me to ribbons if you had the chance, just because I’m not very nice to you.”
“Sure, I’d beat you up in a fair fight any day,” said Harry. “I wouldn’t attack you from behind. That’s what being a Gryffindor means.”
“Utter stupidity is what being a Gryffindor means,” retorted Draco. “I mean, honestly, what else do you call trying to offload a dragon in the middle of the...”
“Maybe – talking about magic in front of Muggles?” Harry whispered furiously. Dudley looked intrigued, and Piers was leaning forward, hands on knees.
“Hang on,” he said, “do you two know each other? Like, from before?”
“We go to school – I mean no, of course not,” said Draco.
“You seem pretty angry for people who don’t know each other,” Piers pointed out.
“What can I say?” said Harry. “Malfoy just inspires that sort of blind hatred in people.”
“Malfoy? Who’s Malfoy?”
“He’s Malfoy.” Harry jerked a thumb in Draco’s direction.
“No, he’s Draco,” said Piers.
“Yeah. Draco Malfoy.” Harry was tired of this conversation.
“Anyway,” said Draco, sending Harry a fiery glare, “I was thinking of wearing a blue t-shirt and these shorts. I had Kreacher – I mean, I washed them yesterday, so they should be okay, right?”
Piers didn’t seem to have caught Draco’s sentence about the dragon, or else he thought it was obscure slang. Harry breathed easier and returned to his magazine, until Draco’s drawl ripped his concentration away from it yet again.
“Please don’t tell me you’re wearing those to school tomorrow,” he said. He waved his fingers at Harry’s over-sized grey t-shirt, baggy black shorts and serviceable flip-flops.
“Okay, fine,” said Harry. “I won’t tell you.”
“You have to own something more respectable than that.”
Harry flipped a page over. “Ask Dudley.”
“For the love of pete,” said Draco. “You wear his hand-me-downs? You’re as rich as Croesus. You could – now here’s a startling thought – buy your own clothes.”
“I’d have to change the money,” said Harry, making it sound like a huge effort. “Besides, at school I wore r– my uniform, and who’s here to see me now?”
“I suppose we don’t count.”
“How do I put this? No.”
“What about you, Lee?” Draco turned his back on Harry. “You’ve invested at least a little thought into this, I hope. First impressions are vitally important.”
Harry thought of his own first impression of Draco – that he was incredibly similar to Dudley. The impression hadn’t been wrong, but Harry hadn’t foreseen how saving Dudley from Dementors would soften his attitude towards Harry. Not that Harry cared, one way or another, what any of the Dursleys thought about him – but it had certainly made for a less unpleasant summer than the last.
“Cherub brought me back a wicked Guns ‘n’ Roses t-shirt from America,” said Dudley. “Think I’ll wear that.”
Piers looked up from rifling though Dudley’s porn collection. “You’ve heard from Cherub?” he said, all eagerness. “How is he?”
“I dunno.” Dudley shrugged. “I only saw him for five minutes. His dad was waiting in the car while he dropped it off. He doesn’t look so much like a skeleton, so that’s good. I guess.”
“It is,” said Piers fervently.
“I’m surprised he didn’t stay to meet your house-guests.” Draco fluffed his hair. He’d taken to doing that since it changed colour, with the end result that it stood out in all directions like a dandelion clock.
“Cherub had a rough time last year,” said Dudley, after exchanging a significant glance with Piers.
“Sounds intriguing,” said Draco. “Tell on.”
“I don’t know if we should –” said Dudley. Piers protested.
“Don’t be silly. Draco’s our friend. We can trust him.”
“I’ll leave the room if you want,” said Harry dryly.
“Harry has to be trustworthy, it says so in his user manual,” said Draco. “Besides, if he tattles, I’ll have him lynched.” Harry rolled his eyes.
“Cherub is ... kind of the reason we got expelled,” said Dudley.
“A troublemaker, eh?” Draco had swung back around in his chair, enough that his toe could easily nudge Harry in the elbow. Harry twitched away.
“No. Well, yes, sort of. He loved playing pranks on people, but he never took them that far,” said Dudley.
“That was our job,” explained Piers.
“Smeltings is ... okay, they give you sticks to hit each other with,” said Dudley. “That should have been the first clue.”
“So far, so Hogwarts,” breathed Draco.
“The school is this huge old mansion house with no central heating. There were cold showers and five mile runs every morning –”
“Which you managed to get out of.” Piers sounded like he was airing an old grievance. “Bloody notes from home.”
“My mother’s a caring woman,” said Dudley. “The windows were always open, even when it snowed. The older years beat up the younger years every day. If you didn’t get a beating at least once a week you were doing something wrong. Also, the sixth form got to use first formers as their personal servants. I got off pretty lightly. I just had to make toast and warm toilet seats.”
“They used to make me scribble over their homework and blame me for it in class,” said Piers. “Clean a hundred pairs of football boots right before matches, which was the essence of futility. And as for Cherub...”
“Cherub got the worst of it,” said Dudley.
“But –” Harry tossed aside his magazine “- I remember your report cards accused you of bullying loads of times.”
“That’s what happened if you complained,” said Dudley. “I pushed around a few people all right, but it was mainly in self-defence. Squash or get squashed, eat or get eaten. But if you told the teachers what they did to you – like we did with Cherub – you got a black mark on your report, and an extra beating or ten.”
“But that was just the game we played,” said Piers. “We knew if we survived we’d get to lord it over the littlies in our turn. Plus, Smeltings is practically an open door to Oxbridge.”
“What they did to Cherub, though,” said Dudley, a hard look settling around his eyes, “that was wrong.”
“But what did they do to Cherub?” Draco burst out.
"They raped him," said Dudley. "First it was just one of the older boys, because he was little and delicate and basically looked like a girl. That wasn't so bad, I think. Cherub didn't really want to, he didn't like it – who could blame him? But Joe was on the rugby team and popular and I suppose he just thought ... anyway. Then it was Mr Fleming."
"Cherub ain't his real name," said Piers. "It's Charles or something. But he had these –" He twirled his hand around his head "- big girly curls. He looked like one of the angel statues in chapel. The name just stuck, even after he shaved his head."
"Which didn't work," said Dudley. "He wasn't half so pretty with the bald head. But then Mr Fleming got the Vice-Principal's job and took over the swim-team. And, I dunno, I guess Cherub was maybe ashamed. When we found out –"
“We knew no one’d believe us,” said Piers. “None of the parentals did neither – no adult’ll believe anything bad about a teacher in a posh school like Smeltings. So we took matters into our own hands.”
Piers and Dudley smiled at each other, a smile of fierce solidarity.
Harry felt like the bottom had dropped out of his world.
He knew bad things happened that had nothing to do with magic or evil wizards. Sirius had even told him that the world ‘wasn’t divided into good people and Death Eaters.’ But he’d never truly understood what that meant until now.
Draco had gone very white. He didn’t seem able to speak, but the two ex-Smeltings alumni didn’t expect it.
“It’s getting late,” said Piers. “I’d better head off home. See you lot tomorrow.”
“See ya,” said Dudley, and Draco echoed, “Bye, Piers.”
“Guess I’ll head too,” said Harry. He fumbled over the next words: “G’night, Dudley.”
“Sleep well,” said Dudley.
Harry made it as far as the corridor before Draco caught up with him. “Just where do you think you’re going?” he asked, sounding subdued.
“To a wild shindig down at the Irving homestead,” said Harry. “Where do you think?”
“You’re going nowhere till we do something about your clothes,” said Draco. “Kreacher!”
Harry opened his mouth to say something cutting and saw Draco’s face, half-turned away in the dim light. It was broken open, all the superciliousness washed away to let the underlying dread show through.
“Fine,” said Harry, letting himself be herded downstairs by Draco and Kreacher.
“I’m sorry, did you think that was a question?” called Draco.
Harry just smiled.
Harry hadn’t paid any attention to the classes he’d signed up for, mainly because Snape had filled in the forms and Harry didn’t want to incur his wrath by asking to see them or anything equally presumptuous. As it turned out, he needn’t have worried, for the first thing that happened on entering the school was that they were all shepherded into a hall, handed a timetable, and asked to wait for the opening ceremony.
It sounded reassuringly like Hogwarts, although nothing about the appearance of the hall suggested Hogwartian grandeur. The paint was peeling; here and there pieces of old artwork swung by a wad of blu-tack; and the floor clearly hadn’t seen the business end of a sweeping brush for some time. Harry had lived in a cupboard for eleven years; he was inured to squalor. Draco was having a harder time of it.
“See, see,” he was whispering furiously, “this is why people are so against Muggles! Look at the state of this floor. Pigs would turn their noses up at it!”
“Their snouts, you mean,” said Harry. “Besides, people aren’t against Muggles, only pureblood crackpots like your dad.”
“If he saw this place, he’d think he was entirely justified,” sniffed Draco.
“Justified in what? Ethnic cleansing or realising that there’s not much funding for crap schools like this one?”
“Look at you, being all sensible,” said Draco, and walked off in disgust.
Harry peeled a strip of sunburn on his forearm and tried not to think about what a good time he should be having, in the Great Hall with Hermione and Ron and the table groaning with every good thing imaginable. His only consolation was that Hermione and Ron weren’t having a much better time than he was: being home-schooled by Mrs Weasley was no barrel of laughs. Besides which, the Burrow had never been so full for so long, and nerves were starting to fray. Even at that, Harry wasn’t much mollified: he’d prefer to think that someone was enjoying this penance.
Oddly enough, that person seemed to be Draco. On leaving Harry he’d immediately been accosted by the girl he’d enchanted on the opening day. Trust Draco to fall in with a bunch of girls in string tops and short skirts, thought Harry, unable to exactly pinpoint his annoyance. Yet again the girls all looked terribly approving of Draco, whose indigo vest made his skin glow. Irritably, Harry scratched at his sunburn and reflected that, tan or no tan, Draco was still pointy and unhandsome enough for Piers to compare him with Snape.
Piers and Dudley had been swallowed up into the crowd. Harry was loath to admit to feeling lonely, but he did wish there was someone here he knew, besides his cousin and his public enemy number three...
“That’s Harry Potter,” Draco was saying, loudly enough to be heard in three counties. Harry winced. “He’s deaf, can’t hear a word I’m saying, apparently.”
“What are you on about now?” groaned Harry. A few steps took him over to Draco and his fanclub before he quite knew what he was doing.
“It speaks!” Draco clasped his hands to his chest and staggered about. The three girls tittered, at least one – the speaker from the booth – seeming genuinely amused. “Potter, this is Tilda, Karen and Lucy. Girls, meet the thing from the black lagoon.”
“Lay off, Malfoy,” said Harry. Before he had to beat Draco into silence, silence was called for. The teachers were assembled on a podium at the far end of the hall, and one of them was ineffectually tapping on a microphone.
“Later, boys,” said the one Draco had identified as Tilda. She was taller than the other two – and Draco – and there was a brazenness to her manner that suggested she was the alpha female of the posse. Lucy and Karen twinkled their fingers. Draco bowed.
“They clearly liked me best,” sighed Draco. “And who could blame them? Obviously creatures of refinement and taste –”
“What, those tarts?” said Harry in astonishment.
Draco rounded on him. “Don’t talk about girls that way, you ignorant buffoon. Or do you never want to have sex?”
“Shut up, it’s starting.”
The teacher – who turned out to be the Headmistress, Terri Webber (‘Call me Terri’) – had wrestled the microphone into submission. She began a long speech, which drifted in and out of great bursts of static. Harry caught something about ‘solidarity’ and ‘community,’ but was bored long before he could string any of it together in a way that made sense. After a while, he became aware that Draco was staring at him.
“What?” he snapped.
“Oh – nothing.” Draco looked a little pink. “Kreacher did a good job, that’s all.”
Harry stared at him. “Yeah? Well, anytime you want to take some lessons in needlework, I’m sure he’ll be happy to oblige.”
He shifted slightly so that Draco was out of his line of vision, but not before Draco had huffed out a not-so-inaudible rant on the ingratitude of certain people.
Kreacher had done a good job, complaining all the while. Harry was wearing a modified red tank-top made from his old t-shirt, and his black shorts now fit him properly. Most students were wearing flip-flops or sandals, with stuck-on jewels and flowers for the girls, so Harry fit in admirably.
Harry might have spent a good ten minutes admiring how the shirt set off the slight definition of musculature he’d gained from hauling the lawnmower around all summer, but he wouldn’t have told Draco that for a million Galleons.
When the interminable speech came to an end, Harry pulled out his timetable and discovered that he was due in chemistry, same as Draco. He lingered behind, far enough so that he didn’t have to walk near Draco, but close enough so that he could follow him to the appointed destination. Unlike Draco, Harry hadn’t made an effort to learn the school’s layout during the open day.
Draco had already taken a seat beside Tilda when Harry finally entered. The two of them were yabbering away like the oldest of friends. Harry frowned and swallowed against a sudden knot in his throat. He saw an open stool in front of the desk Dudley was sharing with Piers. There was another boy already sitting on the other side of the desk, but by now Harry didn’t have a whole lot of options left.
“Hey,” he said, awkwardly, “d’you mind if I sit here?”
His voice trailed off as the boy, who’d been sitting with his head on the desk, slowly straightened. In spite of the heat – which was only slightly diffused by the uninsulated, thick concrete walls – he was wearing a long-sleeved, baggy shirt, combat trousers and Doc Martens.
But it wasn’t that so much as his face that brought Harry up short. The boy’s stubbly head and rather prominent ears highlighted, rather than detracted from, a set of truly beautiful features.
And his expression Harry had seen twice before – very briefly, before they died – on the faces of Cedric Diggory and Sirius Black.
Harry couldn’t ever remember being so tired after a day of school. From the first class (when Mr Blake asked what the students felt like doing today, and Draco said, “Blowing something up”) to the last (where Draco had quickly imbibed the theory of performance art and decided throwing paint at Harry counted), Harry had been expected to participate to an extent he’d never thought possible, and which he could hardly believe to be durable. Draco was still buzzing, but Dudley looked fit for nothing but a long nap. It was perhaps fortunate that the progressive ethos of Stonewall eschewed homework, but Harry doubted the trade-off was as fair as it looked on paper.
Harry could hardly contain his dismay when Kreacher came to fetch him down to the basement. He found he was expected to do a second day’s work before dinner, as Snape had set him and Draco a potion to brew. Snape himself was not in evidence, which was a small mercy, but he’d set up two separate work stations. His reasons for this were clear and outlined in a note that read: ‘Potter, if you try to cheat from Draco, I will know.’
Harry crumpled up the note and flung it at the L-space portal, which helpfully sucked it in. Years of being friends with Hermione and the git still thought he’d cheat? It was beyond the pale. Harry was perfectly willing to hand up a sub-standard potion – had done it, in fact, nine times out of ten, his whole Potions career.
Draco drooped over his cauldron, slowly crushing St Anne’s lace in a pestle. Harry noted jealously that Kreacher was chopping a marrow at a great pace. Draco would be done a hundred times quicker with that sort of help – which could be construed as cheating. If only Snape could see his pet pupil now!
Harry smoothed out the potion Snape had handwritten. His eyes widened as he noted the difference between it and the potions printed in his textbook/ Snape’s writing was small and cramped, and he used half a dozen short-cuts and abbreviations that were gobbledegook to Harry. Harry made the noise of discontent that was usually only elicited by Snape’s dungeons and resigned himself to handing up a cauldron full of muck.
Aside from a few undertoned commands to Kreacher, Draco was quiet. Harry found himself waiting for Draco to say something, and made irritable from the waiting. He diced his ingredients far too roughly, tossed them in the cauldron and put it atop the small fire Snape had prepared. A postscript to his note informed them that they could use magic in the basement from midnight on the first of September, so Harry reeled off the spell and stuck his wand back in his shorts, where it had been hidden all summer.
“You’re finished?” said Draco, as Harry put a foot on the stairs. “This potion takes an hour to prepare properly –”
“Well, it took me ten minutes to prepare badly,” said Harry. “Great time saver, don’t you think?”
Without waiting for an answer, he mounted the stairs, although not without seeing the confused, almost – hurt? – look on Draco’s face.
His getaway would have been perfect if Dumbledore hadn’t chosen that moment to Apparate into the basement, Snape in tow.
Harry sat sullenly mashing flies’ wings as Draco, his preparations nearly complete, began sifting ingredients into his caldron. A sweet, pungent smell soon arose from Draco’s potion, but Harry was in no mood to appreciate it.
Dumbledore and Snape were having a private conference on the other side of the basement. If they’d come only to talk in whispers, Harry thought, why couldn’t they have done it elsewhere and saved Harry the trouble of starting his potion over?
“Here.” Draco was standing over him, chopping board in hand. “I’ve got some marrow and fennel-root left over.”
Harry barely spared a glance for the piles of fine powder Draco was offering. “Thanks, but no thanks,” he said. “I wouldn’t like anyone to think I was cheating, or getting extra help, or – wait! They’re the same thing.”
“Suit yourself.” Draco Vanished the ingredients with his wand and stalked back over to his own work station. Harry bent over his own preparations once more, bothered by a disagreeable tugging sensation in his belly. It was probably hunger.
“Well, boys, how do you get on?” asked Dumbledore. “Mr Malfoy, your potion smells promising.”
“It’s burning!” cried Draco. He started firing spells at the cauldron, but it was too late: even Harry could tell the potion was ruined. He wondered how Draco had been so careless as to let that happen.
“Good lord.” Snape tilted the cauldron towards him with languid fingers. “I thought I clearly stated that this had to be watched like a hawk between five and seven minutes. You’ve let it boil fifteen seconds too long.”
“I know.” Draco sounded distressed.
“You’ll have to start over as well.” Snape let the cauldron fall back with a clang. “Two disappointments in one evening. Potter’s imbecility must be catching.”
“In other matters,” said Dumbledore swiftly, “Professor Snape and I have been discussing a certain plan we wish to set in motion. You two could be of great help to us.”
“Yes, particularly if it involves making a complete mess of everything.” Snape smiled thinly. “That is Potter’s speciality, is it not?”
“You do like your little jokes,” said Dumbledore. “The wards are up?”
“The Dark Lord himself could not hear us, even if he had his ear to the door,” said Snape. “And if he still had ears.”
“Now, boys – Harry, leave that potion be for a moment. This will require a little explanation. Earlier this summer, I convinced Horace Slughorn, the Potions teacher before Professor Snape, to come out of retirement and look after some of my students. I believe he has vital information regarding Lord Voldemort’s ... reincarnation. I wish you two to retrieve it for me. He has proved remarkably reticent on the subject every time I have tried to extract it.”
“Okay,” agreed Harry. Anything to get out of this house and away from these people, he thought.
“I don’t know,” said Draco slowly. Harry managed to turn a snort into a cough under Snape’s eagle eye. “What kind of information are you talking about? We can’t go in there and blindly question him – it’d take years.”
Snape twisted his hands together. Dumbledore sent him a reassuring look. “It is to do with Lord Voldemort’s early interest in the subject of Horcruxes. I have reason to believe that Professor Slughorn was the first person to discuss them with him.”
“What are Horcruxes?” said Harry, at the same time Draco frowned and said, “Oh.” Dumbledore immediately zoned in on this.
“Have you come across the word before, Mr Malfoy?” he asked. This time it was his hands that fidgeted, stroking the clasp of a small iron box he held in his lap.
“Once, I...” Draco flushed, an ugly colour that spread across his cheeks like a rash. “It was after I was told ... after I met the Dark Lord. It was a large gathering. I got separated from Father and I went to find him. I heard him and the Dark Lord talking about a Horcrux.”
“What exactly did he say?” asked Dumbledore urgently.
“Oh, um.” Draco rubbed his forehead. “The Dark Lord said, ‘You have re-proven your loyalty to me tonight. I shall reward you greatly,’ then my father thanked him, and asked when. The Dark Lord told him, ‘When the sacrifice is made.’ Then they saw me and started talking about the Dark Lord’s snake.”
Snape made a strangled noise. Harry looked up. Snape was dead white, and clutching his throat like it pained him.
“I still don’t know what a Horcrux is,” added Draco. “Some powerful magic object?”
“In a way,” said Dumbledore. “It is a very evil thing. One of the wickedest acts Lord Voldemort committed was to make several Horcruxes. They ensured his immortality by guarding pieces of his soul – but at a terrible price.”
“Pieces of his soul?” said Harry. “How can you cut up your soul? Isn’t it, like, some big invisible thing?”
“Not quite,” said Dumbledore, as Snape muttered ‘big invisible thing’ and looked more like himself. “When I say soul, I refer to the magical spirit that resides in all witches and wizards. You put forth a little of that spirit every time you cast a spell; so, eventually, it is used up. Most people have enough reserve to last them a century or more. For Lord Voldemort, of course, this was not enough. Creating a Horcrux, I understand, puts a piece of this magic out of reach of the drain from everyday spell-casting. As long as it remains intact, the person who created it enjoys longer life – but at the expense of another’s.”
“So you have to kill someone else to make it,” said Draco flatly. “Looks like Horcruxes are out for me.”
“And for most of us,” said Dumbledore. “Few people find the lure of endless life attractive in the first place, let alone at the price of brutal murder it entails in this case. However, my hypothesis is just that – a hypothesis. I think, I strongly believe, that Lord Voldemort created not just one, but many Horcruxes. However, I cannot be certain. Professor Slughorn is the key. But he is too ashamed of his past associations with, and positive opinion of, Lord Voldemort, to own to having any memory of Horcruxes.”
“What, so the guy’s a Death Eater?” demanded Harry.
“Not in the least,” said Dumbledore.
“The Dark Lord has myriad faults,” said Snape, “but at least he wouldn’t put up with that bumbling fool.”
Dumbledore hesitated, then whispered behind his hand, “You were never invited to the Slug Club, were you, Severus?”
“To answer your question more fully –” Dumbledore turned back to Harry “– in his early days, before his ideologies became too unpalatable for most, Lord Voldemort – or, should I say, Tom Riddle – had many followers. He was charming, good-looking and persuasive. All three attributes are very attractive to Professor Slughorn – as indeed they are for many others.”
“But getting back to the Horcruxes,” said Draco. “Even if we do find out that the Dark Lord made some, what good does that do?”
“They are the key to his downfall,” said Dumbledore. “Destroy the Horcruxes, and we weaken Lord Voldemort enough to destroy him as well.”
Harry felt a shiver go down his spine at the thought. There was something ... wrong, about the way Dumbledore said ‘destroy’ in his kindly old voice.
“And how do we destroy them?” asked Harry.
“Alas, I do not know,” said Dumbledore. “I presume it would take almost as much effort as their creation.”
“Someone else would have to die to get rid of them?” said Draco. “I’m rather hoping he didn’t make any. This sounds far too much like effort.”
Harry clenched his fists, but didn’t dare hit Draco in front of the teachers. For once, however, Draco didn’t seem to be provoking him: his eyes were fixed on Dumbledore. Draco’s opinion of his Headmaster had never been high, but there was a grudging respect on Draco’s face that Harry had never seen there before. For the first time, Harry wondered if there was something more to Draco’s being placed with Harry, away from his fellow Slytherins – more than random mischance, that was.
“Exactly my point.” Snape was glaring at Dumbledore now.
“Death is not too great a price to pay,” said Dumbledore.
“Yes it is,” said Harry. “Death is – too many people have –” He couldn’t finish the sentence. Dumbledore looked truly astonished.
“He’s right,” said Snape. “Ye gods, that felt unclean.”
“If someone discovered a way to make Horcruxes, there must be a way to un-make them,” said Draco. “Besides throwing them at people and hoping they die from the blow to the head, I mean. There’s always a loophole if you look for one.”
Dumbledore looked down at the little box in his lap; then, resolutely, he tucked it away into his pocket. “Loopholes,” he repeated, looking between Harry and Draco with a new twinkle in his eye. “When you look for them, they’re where you’d least expect.”