by Calico and Julad

Not ours, not profiting. Thanks to Cesca for being cruel to be kind, and Resonant, spelling and grammar hawk extraordinaire, and Dale for the bunny-spark. Those readers wary of underage goings-on should probably steer clear, as should readers who themselves are underage.

He is, he tells himself, fine now. It was no lie when he insisted to that nosy cow McGonagall that he's fully recovered. He doesn't have nightmares, and can only actually remember the Harry-saves-the-day portion of the evening, complete with heavy breathing and careful hands as they fled, two-to-a-broom, from the pit of fire.

It doesn't even bother Draco that the only reason he wasn't protected from the Dark Lord's child-summoning spell is that Lucius didn't weave him a warding charm like the other Death Eater parents did. He knows Lucius has a lot on his mind right now, so he hasn't mentioned it. Probably his father made the mistake of delegating a simple charm-weaving task to an incompetent inferior. Probably the imbecile who neglected his safety has already been dealt with.

He's also just received owl-word to expect a seasonal delivery later today -- and seasonal can only mean Draco's sixteenth birthday, and all the rituals and obligations which will accompany his coming of age. A lot of things are going to happen to him this year, and he's fine with that, fine with assuming the power and responsibility as both his duty and his due. He's fine with leaving Hogwarts after his OWLs and assuming the position his father has arranged in the Ministry, and he's fine with the other events his father is planning.

It doesn't keep him up at night, at all. It just tends to put dreams of Harry's competent hands and midnight broomstick escapes into the realm of the utterly immaterial.

Draco stretches out his arm languorously, fingers spread wide, enjoying the way Crabbe and Goyle flinch and back away. They have no appreciation for the truly aesthetic. Draco closes his eyes briefly as the cool silky weight around his neck shifts, gliding down his arm and weaving round his fingers. This is beyond wonderful.

"Isn't she marvellous?" he murmurs, and hears Crabbe gulp. "My father sent her. Very rare, of course. And extremely expensive."

"Great," Goyle blurts, and Draco smiles to himself. It truly is. He becomes aware of other interested Slytherins casually turning up at his table to hover, and pretends not to notice them just yet. It's surprisingly easy to ignore them, as he lounges in an armchair with a corculus anguisa wound lovingly around his fingers.

He turns his hand over and admires the silvery shimmer as the snake winds itself over his palm to rest her little wedge head on the back of his hand. She's long enough to wrap five times around his wrist, or twice round his neck with a curl of tail trailing against his collarbone, and she's slender as his thumb for the most part, tapering down to a single scale's-width at one end and a tiny snub muzzle at the other.

Alongside her, in the Eagle UltraMail delivery casket, there was a short note from his father. It required his breath on the wax to unseal it, and detailed price and species and availability, all of which marked this gift out as a most exclusive one indeed.

Enfolded in the parchment was a ring: a small dark emerald balanced between the neck and the tail of a minute curling snake. The note finished: If you can deduce the enchantment on this ring, it will stand as my contribution to mark your passage into adulthood. You know what to do with it. Let me know when the time comes, and I shall begin making the arrangements.

Draco has decided he's going to sit down and study the ring later... once he's taken his fill of his peers' stricken envy. He's already worked out that the ring is of a size to collar his snake, but for now it sits snug at the base of his thumb, flashing grandly whenever it catches the light. He isn't sixteen for another couple of days, but his father wouldn't approve of a status symbol unworn.

"I think there are only two more outside Asia," Draco says casually, holding his hand up so that the scales flash almost metallic in the light.

Most people are out in the cold sunshine, watching Pucey put the new third-years through their final practice before the game - that sort of torture always makes boys play well - so he hasn't got a huge audience. It's enough, today.

Blaise slinks over, raises her hand, then looks at Draco hopefully. "Can I?"

"If she lets you," Draco says magnanimously, lowering her to his shoulder, and Blaise smiles, holds up her forefinger to be sniffed.

"Oh," she says happily, when the snake's little red tongue flutters against her fingertip, and Draco feels another swell of delight. "She's beautiful."

"I particularly like the gradation," Pansy agrees, and there's quite a crowd here now, fawning exactly as Draco wants them to.

Pansy's gaze is hungrier than most, and Draco remembers hearing that she found a baby black viper egg in the mangrove patch, and raised the hatchling as her own until Snape recognised it as venomous and ordered its removal.

Apparently, Pansy still keeps a picture of it, slithering endlessly above her bed and waving its tiny dark head from side to side. If Lucius, as Draco suspects, really is orchestrating an alliance between them, at least they'll have one interesting topic of discussion to ease the vast wasteland of their union.

Gradation, then. Draco cocks his head, trying to regard the snake critically and finding his heart just melts at the sight of her curling around his hand. "She's a remarkable specimen," he agrees, tempted to flip the snake over and show Pansy how the gleaming silver of her back coalesces so perfectly into the smoked-glass whiteness of her belly that you can't find the point it starts to change.

"You can't even see where it starts fading," Pansy enthuses, and Draco remembers what gradation actually means.

"I prefer to say shading, not fading," he corrects silkily, and Pansy seems to realise she's potentially offended the new darling of the Slytherin common room, and nods quickly.

"She's so gorgeous, no word would adequately describe her," she says quickly, a Slytherin apology if ever Draco heard one, and when she smiles winsomely at him, Draco is feeling generous enough to smile back at her.

Dear Father, Draco writes. She's beautiful.

No. No, no, no. He erases the words with the eye of his vulture quill, and starts again.

Father, thank you for the gift.

Is it a tactical error to admit ignorance by not displaying his (as yet non-existent) understanding of what exactly the ring is for? He erases again.

Father. A very interesting gift. Be assured I will use it in the spirit in which it was given.

Self-assured, loyal but vaguely threatening, a little disdainful-- it's perfect. Although, Draco thinks uneasily, there's always the danger that if he understood the ring, he would have something more specific to report.

He screws up the parchment and hexes it into a ball of green flame. He'll write to his father tomorrow.

There's a silence in the common room, and Draco wonders for a moment if he's made a mistake, announcing his snake's name with a flourish like that. It's possible he should've tested it out on a couple of other people, first.

"Uh, you know that's a muggle fruit, don't you?" ventures Blaise eventually, and Draco nods, carefully disguising that he had not. "They put in salads. Or eat it with a pin."

"Of course they do," Draco says, concealing the flinch as he imagines his beloved snake speared. "Muggles are stupendously ignorant." He smiles as knowingly as he can manage right now. "But you will find it is also a primary ingredient for some of the most effective potions in history. The most dangerous ones, concerning will and achievement."

A couple of his audience brighten, and he relaxes. A Slytherin always knows his fellows' weaknesses.

Pansy nods excitedly. "They also feature in an ancient myth about the underworld," she says, and Draco thinks that's probably a bit too muggle as well - religion, indeed - but at least it's dark.

"Anyway, I have to go study," he says, curling the snake round his wrist and loving the way she clings. "If anyone else wants to see Pomegranate, tell them to come back later."

It's a good name, he tells himself, then tests a few others against his tongue and hates them all. Never mind. If he'd known about the muggle connection before he chose... if he hadn't fallen in love with the lilt of tripping syllables... if he'd known about the pin thing... No.

He feels a connection with his snake, and the connection calls itself Pomegranate. That's that.

Pucey pokes his head round the door to Draco's room. "Practise in ten-- oh, my," he breathes, interrupting himself, and Draco looks up from Circlets Of Power: Ring References Since 1835, and smiles.

"Can I help you?"

"It's really yours?" Pucey says, padding into the room and sinking to his knees by Draco's chair, and Draco tilts his head delicately to let Pucey see Pomegranate where she's nestled herself around Draco's throat. Pucey, in Draco's opinion, is far too careless with his emotions. It makes him invaluable as Quidditch captain, of course -- nothing like true homicidal rage to inspire mediocrity in opposing teams -- but off the field he's too much jackal and not enough dignity.

"You can touch her," Draco says, then adds, "she doesn't bite." He wishes for a moment that she did, but his father wouldn't send him a present that could get confiscated. Draco imagines Dumbledore swooping down and confiscating Pomegranate, and almost shudders with relief that it can't happen.

"She's amazing," Pucey murmurs, and Draco feels his fingertips skate across his throat, Pucey's touch light and rasping when contrasted with Pomegranate's press of heavy satin. "Is she magic?"

"No," Draco says, proudly. "Genuine organic specimen." Magic things can be replicated.

"Wow," Pucey repeats. "So how does she do that flicker thing?"

"Flicker thing?" So beautiful, she even looks magical. If possible, Draco decides he loves his snake even more.

"Where she-- there, again, she just did it. You'll have to look."

Draco shakes his head. "I'm not unwinding her until she's rested properly," he says. "Just tell me."

Pucey strokes Pomegranate's back again, and again manages to touch Draco's neck. Draco wonders if there's something behind that. "She... flickered," he says, sitting back on his heels. "Sort of. Like a lumos spell flashed right under her scales."

Draco imagines that, and tries not to smile happily enough to ruin his reputation. "She's just an extremely valuable snake," he says.

Pucey clears his throat, rises to his feet. "Yes, she is," he says. "Er, sorry, I came in to tell you--"

"Practise in ten minutes," Draco nods. "I'll be there."

Three hours later, Draco strolls through the halls still feeling the wind on his face, still defying gravity with every step. Practice went magnificently; he caught the snitch six times while Pucey and his chasers passed the quaffle like it was charmed to their fingers, and the beaters knocked first years from their brooms with devastating accuracy. Come the match, Gryffindor would be toast.

He stops by the library on the way back, hoping to find a more helpful ring reference than the useless books he already has. Draco stares down at his hand, the blood-warm silver snake wrapped round the base of his thumb, its dark gem gleaming against his flushed skin. It must be a very rare ring indeed, to have eluded him thus far, which is, of course, marvelous - but he has to admit he's beginning to despair of finding a Hogwarts book which mentions it.

He walks a little further down the aisle of books, irritated by the flurries of conversation drifting over from those bloody Weasley twins ferreting around after some relative of the confundus charm. Honestly, he'll be relieved to get out of Hogwarts, away from these purile teenagers. Especially away from the Gryffindor nonsense, he thinks, as the pair drift off, muttering furtively about homebrew, whatever that means.

"Malfoy," comes a curt voice, and Draco looks up from The Power of Snakes to see Potter trying to get past him. More Gryffindor nonsense, no doubt. He looks-- Draco doesn't care how Potter looks, of course, but he looks pale and tired.

"Practise went exceedingly well, thank you," Draco announces, smiling broadly. "If the match goes as well as I think it will," he adds, watching for the flash of anger in Potter's eyes, "Gryffindor won't even make the final this year."

Annoyingly, Potter doesn't even react. "Give it up, Malfoy," he sighs, pushing past. With the best Slytherin instincts, Draco sticks out his ankle; Potter steps calmly over it and heads off down towards the Restricted Section without a backwards glance.

"Potter!" Draco hisses, irritation flaring, and then has to think fast when Potter turns back and eyes him expectantly. There's enough aisle between them that he has to lift his voice. "You're not looking well," he calls, cooly. "Best get a good night's sleep tonight, I'll be awfully bored if you can't provide me with some opposition."

"Don't worry yourself," Potter says. "I'm better on my worst days than you are on your best." He smirks, finally, and Draco is free to smirk back at him.

"Feel free to play your best, though," he says carelessly, gathering up his books. "It's no fun beating you if you're not even trying."

Potter raises a cool eyebrow at him, and Draco sails out of the library still feeling those green eyes measuring him.

When he finally reaches his room, there's another note from his father, but he ignores it and reaches for Pomegranate. He'll reply first thing in the morning.

He wears the snake to breakfast round his neck, and luxuriates in the sensation she causes. He stayed up half the night trying to figure out the ring, and only really succeeded in noticing that by candlelight the stone is the same polished colour as Pomegranate's eyes.

Blaise sits by him for breakfast, and Draco has to stop her feeding Pomegranate little tidbits from her own plate.

"Shrews once a week," he chides, and she offers to help. When she flicks her robes out behind her on the bench, Draco gets a glimpse of the pleasing contours beneath, and wonders if he'd have to wear the snake to bed to make her follow him.

Her thigh comes to rest against his, somewhere during the second course, and he wonders if he'd have to wear the snake at all. He leans experimentally closer, feels a moment's pressure back, and then Pansy is shoving Blaise down the bench to claim her place beside Draco.

"Pardon me," she says coolly to Blaise, then shuts her out by turning to Draco. Her gaze warms considerably. "May I?"

Draco inclines his head, allowing her. Pansy's manner is deliciously demure, and Draco finds his sudden goodwill toward her has not yet dissipated. Their inevitable marriage seems, in the reflected light of Pomegranate's scales, less a duty and more a birthright. She reaches up to stroke Pomegranate's head, and trails a light finger down his robes as she withdraws. Draco approves: possessive, submissive, subtle. An excellent demeanor for a Malfoy Lady. Perhaps she's finally realised the folly of spreading her charm amongst the many, when the value lies exclusively in the few.

He notices Snape watching him from the head table, but doesn't receive a summons, so he imagines he won't hear anything until Potions this afternoon. He is absolutely confident that Snape will demand a closer inspection. Snape has impeccable taste, after all.

"Amazing how my father managed to find one with perfect Slytherin colours," he says, as they leave the hall, Pansy breezing along next to him, "don't you think?"

"He probably had it genetically modified," a girl says archly, and Draco turns slowly to find Granger leaning against Weasley and giving his prestigious gift a less than complimentary appraisal.

He favours her with his iciest stare. "Only a muggle would think anything so crass," he says, even as he reassures himself that it would be impossible, given the numbers. This wasn't some common siamese cat with a fussy pedigree and a thousand inadequate siblings; this was a corculus anguisa, and no one would risk tampering with a creature so pure.

"Only you would think a living thing should be worn like jewellery," Granger retorts. "It's not good for it. The heat from your skin will make it sluggish."

"Just like with you and Weasley, huh?" Draco says, then gives Weasley a cursory once-over. "Oh, wait, my mistake. He was sluggish a long time before you started pressing up against him."

Pansy smirks, and Granger gives him a disgusted look. "Don't blame me if you kill your precious pet, that's all," she says, which is pretty weak, even for her.

"The only thing I'll blame you for is bringing a muggle stench into the room every time you open that mouth of yours," he drawls, and sweeps out the door, gratified when Pansy follows him. Let Weasley see what a real woman wants.

"She's just jealous," Pansy says dismissively, and Draco's got an hour before he needs to start work because Flitwick's given them a Reading Morning, and he feels edgy now, with Granger's warning floating in his ears.

"I know," he says, looking for an empty room. He wants to examine Pomegranate properly, out of sight, and check for any unusual lethargy. He's not sure why a snake would curl so promptly around a man's neck if it might result in damage, but Granger has a notorious, irritating habit of being right about such things.

He finds a promising staircase he remembers and hurries onto it just as it moves away from the landing. Pansy follows, steadying herself with his arm against the tremors of the shifting stone. He almost brushes her off, but for all he's worried about Pomegranate, that would be a stupid move. She's acting appropriately toward him, and this is behaviour he should be mindful to encourage.

The room used to be a lower-school book centre, back when the younger students were banned from the main library for fear of causing Hair Raising Bustle. Now it's a study pocket, where harried pre-exam pupils can find a few hours' solace away from their nervous peers. Empty bookshelves line the walls, insulating the room from noise in the halls. There's a few desks, a few chairs, and little else.

Gingerly, Draco unwinds Pomegranate and lays her on a desk. She's as lovely as ever, and swings her head up to butt Draco's hand. Draco rubs her fondly, and tickles the underside of her muzzle.

He's faintly aware of Pansy closing the door behind her. Her shoes tap on the paved floor, measured steps that sound like considered intent. Draco summons the snake book he left on his bedside table, pleased when it glides meekly through the window instead of crashing off the ceiling as it did last time.

The snake charmer on the Troubleshooting page raises his exquisite eyebrows. "This is a fine snake, very healthy," he says, and his voice is exotic enough to make Draco shiver. "See, her eyes are a fixed green - she has chosen you, above all others. Congratulations."

"Chosen," Draco repeats, liking the sound of that. "So she's not suffering?"

"Not while you care for her," the charmer says.

Draco thinks for a moment. "I don't need to feed her more than once a week?"

"Maintain your current treatment, and she shall live as long as you."

Draco thanks him and closes the book, then taps his wand to send it back to his room. Pomegranate takes the opportunity to wind back around Draco's wrist, sliding deliciously tight round and round the base of his palm.

Pansy smiles at him. "I told you Granger was just jealous."

"I had to be sure," Draco says happily, stroking Pomegranate's head with one finger. He'll check with Snape too, of course, but the charmer ought to know. And if two days coiled around his warm skin wasn't enough to upset her, he can't see any problems developing in the next couple of hours.

"Of course she was jealous," Pansy says, stroking Pomegranate's body where it's curled around Draco's wrist. "I'd like to see her find a griffin this lovely."

She lifts her hand, tilting up Pomegranate's chin and gazing at her. Pomegranate slides over her fingertip and down to loop her wrist, then doubles round and pours back through Draco's fingers, binding their palms together in cool, supple strength.

Draco looks up, lets his satisfaction show in his eyes, and Pansy sighs sexily and meets his gaze.

"Mm," Draco says, resting against the desk, folding his fingers through hers and pulling her closer with his other hand. "Now, is this about me or my pet?"

Pansy laughs softly, moves her hips a little, and guides his hand down to her thigh. "She's beautiful, but I prefer men," she says, and he slips his fingers under her skirt and finds there's only a scrap of underwear up there, really no contest at all.

He hopes that staircase doesn't come back any time soon.

Crabbe and Goyle don't look so nervous around him now they know Pomegranate isn't venomous, but they still back up a step or two when she yawns.

"Mr Malfoy," Snape murmurs, as the class starts to settle and a few latecomers stutter in, "would you kindly approach the front desk?"

"Sir," Draco says, smartly. He feels the class' attention fix onto him, and enjoys it. He has nothing to say to any of them, not really, but their attention is still fun to command.

Snape folds his arms. "You deemed it appropriate to bring an animal to my lesson when it's not expressly required?" he says, then glances up. "I don't recall telling you to listen," he tells the class, silkily. "Ten points from any student who feels eavesdropping is more important than copying out the relevant facts from page 319 of Shades Of Grey: A Guide To Dark Chemistry. Starting now."

Draco carefully holds his smile inward, and blinks innocently in Snape's direction. Snape will naturally be as fascinated with their house symbol as any of them, but he'll probably go about quenching his thirst using a subtler method than those favoured by his students. "Sir?"

"Lay it on the desk, Malfoy," Snape says, then sighs. "Yes, Weasley?"

"Relevant to what, sir?" Weasley asks, and Snape closes his eyes for a moment, eloquently conveying that Weasley frustrates him beyond all imagining. Draco hopes some day to be able to effortlessly broadcast such disdain himself, and knows he has the privelege of studying a true master.

"The topic on the board, boy," Snape says. "If you could drag your attention away from Miss Granger's ankles for long enough to read an entire sentence, your position in this class - and indeed, school - might not be so frequently jeopardised."

"Sir." Weasley nods, going pink.

Ankles, Draco thinks, smugly, as he lets Pomegranate glide through his fingers and coil balefully on the wood of Snape's desk. He saw a lot more than Pansy's ankles this morning. After years of grudging circling, they're suddenly getting along superbly. This is a good day.

"Ah," Snape says, for his ears only. "And where did you pick up this prized specimen, I wonder?"

"My father sent her," Draco says. Prized. Snape called Pomegranate prized.

"I guessed as much," Snape says, and runs his finger down the snake's spine. His voice is eminently casual, and as rich and soft as Draco's best robes. "You know these creatures have a bonding capability?"

"Yes, sir," Draco says, touching his knuckles to the desk, glowing with pride as Pomegranate sniffs the air and makes immediately in his direction. "She's attached herself already, as you can see."

"Indeed," Snape says, nudging his thumb against the hinge of Pomegranate's jaw. "Mm. Why did your father send her, I wonder. A special occasion?"

Draco smiles. "My birthday later this week, sir." Idly, he contrives to move his hand so that his fingers collide with Snape's over the soft, cool snakeskin, a hot shock of sensation for his very favourite teacher.

Snape makes a small noise in the back of his throat, moves his hand away. "What a delightfully barbed gift."

Draco is halfway through letting his blissful smile surface when he realises that wasn't a compliment. "What?"

"You heard me," Snape says, then reaches out a hand as a book launches itself into his grasp. "Let's see. Corculus anguisa. Ah yes." He gives Draco an icy smile. "If I were to confiscate this little status symbol of yours, I could make the most powerful persentio draught in England."

Fury laces itself in Draco's throat. "That's as may be," he says tightly, "but I don't think my father would approve of his gift passing into your hands, whatever potion you might be lusting after." And she's more than a status symbol, the back of his mind growls, but he has the sense to keep that, at least, silent.

"No, I'm sure he wouldn't," Snape says, and something of a smile lingers on the edges of his voice, crumbling Draco from the inside. Snape thinks his snake's no more than an ingredient.

He looks at the creature curling blindly over his hand, and sees it for a second as nothing more than an undergrown lizard, a length of fleshed-out snakeskin ready to be chopped into parts. A little hot clang of distress sounds in his stomach, and he grits his teeth. Right now, even Pomegranate's vaunted scales look dull.

"Mister Potter," Snape barks, making Draco jump and then try extremely hard to hide it. "Has your brain ceased to measure time, or do you simply regard my lesson as a negotiable detour from your critically hectic afternoon?"

"Sorry, sir," comes Potter's voice, and Draco looks over to the door, realising with an odd jarring sensation that this is the first time he's seen his least favourite legend all day. Maybe something to do with the match tonight - but no one gets that sort of practise time.

Potter's perpetual wince is firmly in place, even as his eyes sweep the classroom. Potter has an odd air about him most days, and today's no exception; he looks thin and well-travelled, and his eyes are a little glazed. There's been gossip floating around: he's sick and needs treatment, he got a part-time job to pay his school fees, he has a girlfriend at Beauxbatons, and floos there whenever he gets the chance. Draco doesn't like any of the reasons ventured, and prefers to ignore his classmates when they discuss the matter.

"Got a... note," Potter says vaguely, digging in his pocket as he approaches the desk, then freezes, a pace or two away, eyes locked on Draco's wrist. "Is that-- ohh."

His eyes glaze over even more, and he passes Snape a crumpled piece of paper without even looking at him. His mouth shapes a couple of strange words, though he doesn't make a sound. Draco swallows, unnerved. Potter's practically swooning.

"Mr Potter?" Snape says dryly, after a moment. "Would you kindly look at me when you wish to initiate an interaction?"

Unbidden, Draco's mind casts Potter onto his knees, hands curved against Snape's thighs, refusing to look up as he searches to service with his mouth. Initiating an interaction, oh yes. Draco swallows, riding out the image. Potter just-- affects him like this, sometimes.

"Sir, yes," Harry protests, "but this is a -- shalistishia," and his voice falls into something sibilant and intoxicating on the last word.

Draco isn't surprised, when he looks up, to see the entire class staring. Parseltongue has a habit of causing a stir.

"Shh," Harry continues, voice pitching headily through a volley of syllables, and Pomegranate lifts her head from the base of Draco's thumb and hisses softly back at him.

The light hits her muzzle perfectly, and her scales coruscate.

"Oh, Malfoy," Potter breathes, gazing at him with something akin to worship, "she's yours?"

"You don't think a snake like this would be seen on anyone else, do you?" Draco manages to sneer, but it's weak, because he's just intensely thrilled right now. Harry Potter is in love with his snake. The day just got better again.

Pomegranate yawns, her dark jaws cracking open slowly and then folding obscenely far back, showing the glossy pink contours of her long mouth, the suggested depth of her elastic throat. "Oh," Potter hisses, as the impressive display folds back into a neat pretty snake-head, "she chose you? Oh, Draco, she knows your name--"

"Yes, very well, Potter, that will do," Snape interrupts, and Draco tamps down hard on the rush of joy at that news. "If the headmaster permits your absence from class, I suppose I must tolerate it-- for now," Snape says, brandishing the note. "Now get to your desk."

Draco tries to enjoy that for a moment, Potter's face slightly crumpled, but it's difficult when Potter's just given him the best news all year. And in that voice, too. Gosh.

"And you, Malfoy," Snape adds, as soon as Potter turns away. "I expect to see you unadorned, next lesson. Off you go."

Draco, the latest letter reads.

It is imperative that you confirm your birthday gift was delivered safely to your hand, or I shall assume that EagleMail has failed in its assignment and have appropriate corrective measures put into action.

The ink is slashed briskly into the paper. It offers no indication of his father's mood, even when Draco runs the tip of his wand over the words; either it's a sealed parchment, or Lucius felt no emotion whilst writing whatsoever.

I am sure your silence is indicative of your enthusiasm for pursuing the task at hand, and I assume that all aspects of the situation are under control. Do not fail to notify me if you are proving inadequate in your duties.

It's signed in gold ink, his father's mercantile trademark. Draco assumes this means Lucius wishes to communicate with him through official channels, that this is another sign of his impending adulthood.

It would surely not be merely a precaution taken in case the letter fell into the wrong hands, a feint to convince spies that corresponding with his son is a matter of business for Lucius, and no more.

Father, Draco writes. No, Dear Father. No, just Sir.

There's a clamour of broomsticks outside, destroying his concentration. He curses softly, and his quill wilts, and that does it, actually: he certainly hasn't got the skill to seal the parchment against his father, and a letter wreathed in this much disruption would not help his cause at all.

He immolates the parchment. He'll write after the match, when he's feeling calm and regal, so he can casually mention the gift amid news of his Quidditch victory.

"I don't think it would be appropriate, letting her serve as a mascot for the whole team," Draco says idly, stringing Pucey along as he puts Pomegranate to bed. "Not with things as they are."

Pucey hovers behind him, urgently. "What things?"

Draco smoothes the dark satin in the box on his desk a final time, and admires the luxurious length of his snake's body curving round and round to its centre in perfect, gleaming symmetry. "Well, after all," he murmurs, so that Pucey is forced to strain to hear him, "I can still count at least two mudbloods, amongst the pure."

He hears Pucey chuckle softly. "That's what's bothering you?" he says, and hums. "Sometimes I forget, Malfoy, that you're such an idealist."

That's a double-edged compliment, but Draco's in the mood to indulge this evening. The sun is setting outside, and the pitch fires are being sparked. Quiddich is amazing in the dark, with all the balls apart from the snitch clearly illuminated, and the crowd a shrieking mass of moonlit teeth below. Exhilarating.

"Oh, really?" Draco says, and gives Pomegranate a final stroke before gently lowering the lid. Pomegranate arches grandly, then settles her head on her tail; the last thing Draco sees is shining eyelids closing over those dewdrop eyes.

"Malfoy," Pucey says, voice low and impatient and commanding, "look at me."

Draco hesitates a few deliberate seconds and then turns slowly, pressing his palms back against the desk. "Yes?"

"The mudbloods in question," Pucey says quietly, enunciating with malicious precision, "are extremely good players. They make us more likely to win." He moves closer to Draco, skims his fingers dangerously slowly up Draco's arm.

"They are," Draco concedes, curious as to where Pucey is taking this. He tilts his head meekly when Pucey's fingers reach his throat, and Pucey leans in.

"Draco," he murmurs, mouth brushing the hinge of Draco's jaw, "We wouldn't be Slytherin if we didn't put aside our values in favour of an increased chance of victory, once in a while."

"That's a good point," Draco says, shivering a little. The touch of hot breath to sensitive skin will always have that effect, a fact Draco enjoys exploiting, once in a while. Pucey's free hand slides over Draco's fingers, holding them against the desk, stroking persuasively. Persuasive, Draco thinks. That's the catch-word.

Pucey brushes his other thumb against Draco's ear. "You know it would give the team such a lift, having a creature that wonderful as our mascot," he breathes, and if Draco had been pining after him then he would be on the floor by now, lapping at whatever Pucey offered and making promise after promise.

Good thing he's not the type to pine over common sportsmen. "No," Draco says, matching Pucey's tone, and he feels Pucey not get it and then realise and momentarily hate him for it, hate that his animal magnetism hasn't run according to plan.

"I'm sure you'll reconsider," Pucey says, drawing back and giving Draco a slow, thoughtful appraisal - and again, if Draco had been brought up by anyone but his father, the pull to reconsider could have been absolutely overpowering. He's a Malfoy, though. They've never let themselves be manipulated, and Draco isn't about to break that tradition.

"I'm sure I'll let you know if I do," Draco says pleasantly, and Pucey checks his watch casually.

"Twenty minutes, anyway," he says, wiping the slate of their conversation swiftly clean, and Draco nods, because that is politics.

"I'll be there."

Harry Harry Harry Harry Harry Potter Potter Potter Potter snitch Potter Potter Harry Harry snitch Potter snitch--

Draco rounds a curve in the darkness too quickly, and his world is forced out of its tight, perfect focus; the glitter-lit ground far beneath him shudders, and he has to battle on with his eyes closed for a moment until his vertigo stops telling his brain he ought to be dead right now.

He has no problem with heights, but he likes his environment controlled, and the lights-- the lights can be disconcerting.

Which is what makes the dark matches so especially intense, he thinks, letting his broom glide rather than race while they've nothing to pursue. It's not responding as efficiently as usual, he's noticed nervously; still an amazing vehicle, of course, but there's a tiny lag in its customary razor-sharp reflection of his commands. He resolves to concentrate harder, spurring it on for another lightning tour of Gryffindor territory, and this time the broom speeds eagerly, and Draco relaxes once more.

Just have to let it know who's boss.

He feels the non-vacuum of Potter swerving up alongside him, can just make out the glimmer of his eyes in the dark, and then they're bulleting in different directions, some sort of unspoken mutual repulse.

The pitch is marked out in mage-coals that flare appropriate colours whenever they're crossed by one of either team, while the broomsticks are all rolled in tinted lumos powder, and the quaffle and bludgers are bewitched to give off ominous red and blue glows, respectively. By contrast to this heavy-handed lightplay, the snitch's wings are merely laced with refractive crystals which change in the moonlight, a faint and unreliable guide.

The result paints vivid clever pictures across the faint-starred sky for the crowd below. The sport becomes one of teams, rather than individuals, with Slytherin spectators rooting for any green-tinged player, not just Pucey or Montague or Bole.

Draco sees a flash of light to his left, swerves frantically, but it turns out to be that Weasley fourth-year, panting as she turns to make for the quaffle again. Immaterial.

Draco rounds the Gryffindor end of the pitch and tenses, catching a flicker of silver high up against the unruly edge of his vision. Concentrating hard, he guns his broom and sweeps after it, pushing himself higher and harder until it comes into focus and he realises it's just a feather, drifting down from some soaring owl's wing.

He tips the broom down again and lets gravity plunge him almost vertically back into the match. No harm done, and he'll have distracted Potter, which is always a bonus. If he'd grabbed the thing, that would have been a different matter, but as it is, he decides, he's just proved himself to be agile and astute.

That sort of thing isn't uncommon anyway, he reflects, as he takes stock of play again. Several matches Draco has played have paused because his overenthusiastic opponent seized a passing silverfly and the commentator mis-read the situation and proclaimed victory on the opposing team's behalf.

In the tense silences that follow such a mistake, Draco has often enjoyed reversing the proclamation. No crowd cheers as loudly as one that has just snatched triumph from its gloating enemy's paws.

Draco hears the crack of leather on bone, followed by a short cry and a whoop from the spectators, and hopes that wasn't one of his team. No time to look round and check though, suddenly, not when Potter is zigzagging round the opposite corner like a cat on fire.

"And the quaffle's going to Johnson, to Finnigan, now on to Ginny Weasley and that was a beeeautiful hit, sent it right into the Slytherin defence zone, and can she finish that with a point, can she, can she--"

No, Draco hopes, racing almost blindly, shocked when his broom hitches mid-flight and then loses speed until it's almost as sluggish as the Gryffindor goalie's. A cheer goes up from the Slytherin side of the pitch, and Draco actually hears the commentator exhale with disappointment.

Nothing like unbiased support, oh no.

"Too late," Potter gasps, as Draco reins his broom in hard to avoid collision, and then Potter's wheeling and climbing. Draco follows suit, squinting into the darkness for whatever's turning Potter on. Even sluggish, his broom's got the edge - the Comet Centenary-Mage Edition, while Potter's stuck on his old Firebolt - and he grinds through the inches to come alongside Potter's tail.

Speed's no use, however, when you're only chasing the melting midnight sky; he blinks hard against the wind, then catches sight of something whistling silver and deadly past Potter's cheek, and slams himself into earnest pursuit.

The lumos powder from his broom is rubbing off on his hands, imprinting them behind his eyes as ghostly-glowing spectres reaching impotently for the tiny globe just out of reach. That is the snitch, right? right, and he forces himself harder, groping the empty air with his shining hands.

The broom hitches again, listing left. Draco curses silently, trying to concentrate and wondering what the hell's gone wrong. He misses the cuff of the snake around his arm, he realises; feels slightly unbalanced without it, and then the silver winks out completely, and he whips around, lights flashing horribly in his eyes as he sees Potter screech off in the opposite direction.

"And that's Finnigan narrowly dodging a bludger right in the hoo-ha's, and Pucey's got the quaffle and he's headed for the Gryffindor goal and he looks unstoppable, ladies and gents, will you look at that speed and--"

Draco turns his broom and launches into pursuit, but it lurches again, dropping several yards and almost dislodging him.

"--and Harry Potter's got the snitch," Jordan yells, elation and triumph unfairly cushioning the words, and Draco twists viciously on his unresponsive broom and barely resists the urge to knock Potter onto his glittering, victorious nose.

He's too well-bred these days, though, so he holds back.

Pucey doesn't look at him once as they descends the stairs back to the Slytherin common room, and the rest of the team aren't much better. Draco's seen the Gryffindor team after a defeat, all back-slapping and downcast hugs, and so much gracious apology that even Draco begins to feel it was just truly rotten luck that Slytherin won.

"If you'd caught it, we'd have won," Montague says, and Draco grits his teeth, hating that if he doesn't reply then fight law says he'll look pathetic.

"If you guys hadn't been run-round by the tiny Weasley brat, maybe Potter would have had more to think about than riding my tail," he hisses, and that shuts up the younger half of the team, giving Draco the time to storm across the common room without too much hindrance.

"I think we need a new mascot," Pucey says, his voice maleficent, just as Draco's about to step into his personal room. Draco pauses, and even though his instincts are screaming for him to get through the door and bolt it tight, he turns slowly. Dignity, at all costs.

The last of the team shuts the door behind him, and the room falls into an untwitching silence. The air is rich with restrained violence and freshly dried sweat. Crabbe and Goyle detach themselves from the crowd and shuffle over to Draco, unwittingly drawing all eyes. Goyle's still holding Draco's broom, and the twigs bump against the floor. Pansy's nowhere in sight.

"Malfoy," Pucey says, and his eyes are dreadfully intense, and Draco thanks himself once more for not having succumbed to pining several years ago. "Retiring so soon?"

For a fraction of a second, Draco is at a total loss as to what to say. Anything with a hint of appeal, guilt, fear...

"My broom was hexed tonight," he says, making his voice hard and cold. "I'm sure you won't begrudge me some time alone to identify the culprit and plan my revenge."

More like it.

Crabbe sticks a finger in his ear and rummages around. The collective gaze swings back to Pucey, satisfied. Draco breathes fast and shallow and silent, then snatches his broom off Goyle, the rasp of twigs being abused suddenly unbearable in the quiet room.

"I look forward to hearing about it," Pucey says, and chafes his hands together. "Someone spark the fire. Sportsmen need to keep warm."

One of a handful of non-team Slytherins struts over to the fire and strikes a sharp blaze. Draco keeps his eyes on Pucey, because that simply can't be it--

"Anyway, this mascot, Malfoy," Pucey drawls, and Draco's mouth goes dry. "Good of you to offer up that snake of yours, if only appropriate, under the circumstances."

I did no such-- "She won't be communally owned," Draco says archly, recognising when he's on the defensive, "but as she is such a fine symbol, I thought it only appropriate for her to be known as the representative of such a fine team."

There's no applause, but Draco wasn't expecting any; the sort of person to make this team is not the clapping type. There are hard smiles, which is the best he can hope for from teenagers still smarting from defeat. A couple of the younger ones don't even look angry any more. The warmth of the fire must have reached them.

The ice-cold fury of betrayal has reached Draco. He can't believe the Quidditch Captain would have hexed his broom for the sake of a power play over a mascot, but the glittering jackal eyes confronting him can barely contain Pucey's glee.

The crassness of this development is nauseating.

"Meanwhile," Draco says firmly, and touches Crabbe on the arm. "I am not to be disturbed unless Snape wishes to see me himself," he says, just loud enough for it to carry. Again, the younger ones look the most impressed by the suggestion that Malfoy and their Head of House are on after-hours terms.

Crabbe nods, and his features shift minutely, transforming from bumbling idiot to rock-solid bodyguard before his eyes. "Sir," he says.

"Good," Draco says, and opens his door.

"Aren't you going to bring our new mascot out for a quick parade?" Pucey calls, softly enough that Draco has to answer for fear of looking deaf.

"Not right now. She's sleeping."

"I'd bring her out, if I were you," Pucey says, and his voice is like a rough tongue licking long, sharp teeth. "Some of the team were practising all week, and haven't yet had a chance to see."

Implicit: while you were here, showing off. "She is sleeping," Draco says tightly, and Crabbe and Goyle bare their gritted teeth right on cue. "Tomorrow, perhaps."

Pucey examines his fingernails. "Now."

"No." Draco swings the broom up and studies the tail. "I will not be indulging the whims of a captain who puts his petty personal vengeances before the glory of his own team."

Pucey's eyes flash, and Draco wonders what use Crabbe or Goyle would actually be against a fully-fledged psychotic. "Malfoy," Pucey purrs, "I think you misunderstood me."

"I think I understood you perfectly," Draco replies silkily. Unfortunately, the crowd's with Pucey, because he's bigger, and Draco lost the match, and anyway, they all want to see the snake.

Draco pulls out his wand and drags the tip across the air of his doorway. "impervius decepio inimicusa," he mouths, casting a spell inside a spell, the strongest protection ward he can think of inside a mask of deception. He looks at Pucey steadily. "I advise you do the same."

He picks a girl at random and smiles at her charmingly; she blinks and then preens, and he ducks into his room, shutting the door behind him and leaning on it, shivering. He hasn't eaten in too long - that's why, he tells himself.

He's never felt so grateful for having a private room rather than one of those plebeian four-posters before. Spells sometimes get confused about boundaries if the walls aren't solid.

He doesn't think anyone would actually try to sack his room for Pomegranate, but the protection ward will see to that, while the deception mask will prevent people seeing how strong a spell he's cast. Better people don't know how insecure he suddenly feels in his own House, no?

He brushes a bit of glowing dust off his sleeve, then gives up and undresses, pulling on clean dark robes and buttoning them right to the collar.

He tells himself he feels better, then opens Pomegranate's box, and feels terribly, suddenly worse.

For a moment, he thinks it's not the same snake. The gleaming scales, the silken shiny eyes, the gradation-- the creature on the satin looks rough and drunk, like some common garden grass worm.

She lifts her head eagerly and tries to butt at Draco's fingers; Draco lets her, horrified, and discovers that she does, at least, feel the same.

"Hey," he whispers, and Pomegranate blinks miserably at him, and Draco swallows hard. He puts the box on his bed and tips it gently onto its side. Pomegranate wriggles pitifully, and flops back onto the satin.

Draco gets a flash of the strong, supple wind of snake around his throat, and looks around angrily. This is not appropriate behaviour from a Malfoy pet.

He summons his snake book, and it hurtles into the pillow with a crash. He's too upset to care about a lapse in control right now. He opens the book, narrowing his eyes. Symptoms, symptoms. Mistaken identity?

He skips straight to the questions page, and the charmer frowns at him. "You mistreat your pet," he shouts, waving a hand irritably in Pomegranate's direction, jangling with bangles. "You do not care for her properly, and this is the result."

Draco snarls. "How do I make her better?"

"You do not make her do anything," the charmer says, disdainfully. "She will be fine if you nurture her properly, instead of indulging only your personal whims."

Draco chews over the opaque words for a moment, staring blankly at the pathetic curl of snake lying limply in the bottom of the box. "What does nurture involve?" he asks, eventually, then stares at the page, which now appears to be a closed door bearing a sign over one glass-panelled window.

Out to lunch with a friend.

"Hey," Draco protests, picking up the book and resisting the urge to shake it, "come back, I--"

Need guidance, he thinks, cutting off. He doesn't know how to soundproof and simultaneously maintain the protection wards, especially not since the simplest spells seem to be taking it out of him today, and while he doesn't think Pucey would actually push it - well, he's not lived this long by underestimating his enemies.

Pansy? Pansy might know, might be able to help-- except Pansy's the last person he wants to see him weak, and the very last he wants to appeal to. If they're to have a successful future, it is imperative that the power remains on Draco's side.

It's not as if she has any actual experience with a corculus anguisa, either. That's the point of rare possessions: nobody else can even hope to share your understanding.

Harry Potter can talk to snakes, he thinks.

No. Unthinkable.

Potter understands snakes.


Draco fetches his other snake book, flicks straight to the Troubleshooting page, and curses.

Out to lunch with a friend.

This can't be happening. This-- it just can't. He imagines the two charmers sitting together, chatting about old times and forgotten tails and snakes gone by, all as Pomegranate withers in Draco's hands.

He doesn't know how long he's got before the wall reforms. Hurriedly unhexed, his broom seems to understand, and redoubles its speed, cutting the corner between two turrets at a pace that would make Hooch dizzy. The Quiddich pitch wheels into view, still blazing merrily, dots of bronze-red marking the victorious players.

He didn't risk leaving his room by the door. He can't do invisibility charms yet, and anyway, the door would still have to open and close, causing a certain amount of upheaval. He can't fit through the window, dungeon rooms being what they are. He can't bring Pomegranate down here, and there's no way on earth that he'd leave the room unbarred with Pucey's interest piqued.

The wall, then, rendered permeable with a satisfying blast of power.

He parks by the edge of the pitch, in the gloomy undergrowth behind a long hedge, and locks his broom with a quick spell. It's not strong, but he took the time to scrub the lumos powder off its twigs, and just has to hope no one will take interest in this particular patch of secrecy during the evening's celebrations.

Untrue to type, he's hoping no one will take any interest in him, either. He walks as long as possible behind the hedge, then sidles out when it ends. The grass is trampled and muddy underfoot; by morning, Draco thinks bitterly, it will be fresh and even turf again, the beauty of certain people's parties being what it is.

He frowns slightly, as if thoroughly preoccupied, and walks purposefully into the crowds of celebrators. Hang your head in the Gryffindor crowd and they'll flock instinctively to comfort you; smile and they'll suspect mischief at best.

"To victory!" someone is toasting, apparently right by his ear, and the clink of glass ricochets around his brain. He wonders if that punch they're drinking is regulation pure, then reminds himself that this is a Gryff party. Dumbledore will overlook any minor infraction with a twinkle in his eye.

He passes Ginny Weasley, her hair sprawling in loose copper curls about her gleaming shoulders, holding hands with some dark girl Draco doesn't recognise. They clearly recognise him, though, and exchange glances that make Draco want to backhand them both to the grass.

The air is musky, even though mage-fire doesn't smoke. Something herbal, Draco bets, but he's no idea what. Not party to such information, sorry, sir.

A firework whistles off behind his head, dragging a chorus of ooh's the length of its flight. The ground strobes briefly red-gold, and Draco doesn't have to look up to see the burnished lion paw the sky. It was there last term, too. He remembers when that was a sensationally beautiful serpent, green and silver arching luscious-bright across the sky. Months ago now, sorely missed.

Another racket breaks out, this time cheers for - something. Some new wonderful House thing, Draco thinks bitterly, and comes across Potter and his cronies all of a sudden, sitting comfortably on a low grass verge.

"Malfoy," Potter says, getting warily to his feet, and Draco wonders if he's been drinking before remembering: golden boy - vices sold separately. "Come to congratulate me?"

Not on your-- "Yes," Draco says. "Why don't you come over here and I'll congratulate you properly?"

"Careful," Weasley warns, and Granger touches his arm.

"It's all right," she says, "he doesn't mean any harm. I set a detector imp on him when Harry got back from the Chaotic Tarns. He hasn't had any thoughts of malice since."

Ron looks at her with such awe that Draco wants, sincerely, to vomit. Potter raises an eyebrow at Draco.

"In that case," Potter says, "there's no reason I shouldn't--"

"Find out what he wants first," Ron says, dragging his adoring attention from his girlfriend for the moment, or perhaps trying to impress her with his loathing of all things Slytherin. "Malice or not, he still can't be trusted."

Oh, great, she's impressed by it. Draco scowls. "Why don't you ask me, you simpering little git?"

Ron's eyes widen, and he visibly swallows. "Okay," he croaks. "What do you want with Harry?"

"A word." He's not going to co-operate that easily.

Granger's eyes gleam. "About what?" she says, a wealth of restrained glee in her voice.

The sidekicks have been granted enough of his time, Draco decides. He folds his arms. "It doesn't concern you in the slightest," he says stiffly, and meets Potter's eyes. Time to lay it on thick, even if it is nothing more than the truth. "You're the only one I'm willing to discuss this with. Are you coming or not?"

"I think you should go," Granger says, then yelps and looks accusingly at Weasley. "What? I do!"

Potter tilts his head. "Okay," he says. "Let's hear what you have to say."

I need you to examine my snake. Nothing, right now, would make Draco say those words aloud. "Just-- follow me, okay?" He jerks his head at the end of the hedge where his broom is hidden, steps back.

"Pushy," Granger grins, giving Potter's calf a shove.

No one's touched Draco like that, ever. And where does she get off, setting anti-malice imps on him? No wonder he's felt so strange lately, oddly blank, like the glee he should be parading at his coming of age has all been stolen away.

Malice-detecting, not restricting, says a small voice that he steadfastly ignores.

He reaches the hedge and pauses, then steps behind it into the shadow. It's gloomy, leafy underfoot and overhead, and the light from the fires is thankfully obscured. There's a rustle, then Potter's behind him, streaks still glowing faintly up and down his tunic, beautiful and exotic. He brushes at them ineffectually with one hand.

"Malfoy?" he says.

I need you to examine my snake. Draco looks around, checking for eavesdroppers. Potter smiles lopsidedly.

"It's okay, no one saw. And Hermione won't let anyone follow us. What did you want to talk about?"

Draco swallows, and reconsiders. He doesn't need to do this, surely. He could have found another book; he could have asked Snape, or even that imbecile Hagrid might have known. He didn't have to come see Potter, of all people, and the fact that he has is a slip of resolve he shouldn't have permitted. There's no harm in harbouring vague fantasies about pushing Potter down onto cool green grass after a Quidditch loss, but the fact that he seems to be seeking him out is a cause for concern.

"Oh, come on," Potter says, and rolls his eyes. "You said I'm the only one that will do," he misquotes. "Why's that?"

Because, Draco thinks, I might not get another chance.

He doesn't like it when the landscape of his plans changes without his permission, and he didn't anticipate that Potter might be a landmark he's reluctant to lose sight of.

Since agreeing to take the position Lucius has found for him at the Ministry, he's come to realise that the future he imagined and the future he faces bear no resemblance to one another. He's fine with that, he really is, but he still sometimes has to pause and make the small mental adjustments required by his recently altered fate. Clearly, he has to adjust to the idea that soon he won't be at school with Potter anymore, that he'll never push him down on the grass and do what he really wants to him.

"Malfoy," Potter's saying. "Did you want to talk to me or not?"

"You're the only person I know that can talk to snakes," Draco admits, eventually.

Potter's smile freezes. "This is about Pomegranate?"

This, Lucius' voice comes, is what they in conversation call The Advantage. "Yes," Draco says, and fights the autopilot that would sneer, what else would it be about?

Another cheer comes from the other side of the hedge, and a second volley of fireworks paints the sky like hot coals. Potter has folded his arms and looks increasingly annoyed.

"She's sick," Draco says, stubbornly refusing to acknowledge the darkness encroaching on Potter's cheeks in the gloom. "I need you to talk to her."

"I thought you knew how to look after her," Potter scowls, and his voice is cold and glass-sharp. "Or is someone of your calibre just too proud to put something else's wellbeing before his own whimsy?"

Nothing new. "I think she might have been hexed. I will fix it as soon as I know how," Draco grits out, and Potter gives him a quick once-over, then freezes, shakes his head in disbelief.

"Taking off that ring might be a start," he says, indicating Draco's hand with a curt nod, and Draco swallows and folds his fingers over his father's ring. The ring? Shit. How the hell did Potter--

"This? How--"

"I've just come back from-- well, somewhere quite removed from Hogwarts, I can tell you that much, and I recognise the influence rings when I see them." He looks exhausted again, and the glowing powder brings out the whites of his eyes. "What were you trying to do, drown her? That's horrible, even for you." He turns and stalks back through the hedges.

Draco hurries after him, pulling off the ring as he goes. It doesn't make sense, he thinks wildly, because Lucius surely would have told him if Pomegranate could be harmed-- and besides, what on earth is he meant to do with a ring so exquisite, if he can't display it to evoke the envy it warrants? And--what influence?

"Wait," he manages, and Potter pauses, glaring back at him as he blinks his way into the bright light again. "What does the ring do?"

"I can't imagine why you'd care," Potter snaps.

Anger curls little tendrils around Draco's sinking stomach. "You don't have the faintest idea what I might care about," he begins, and then his eyes adjust to the light all at once, and his stomach lurches. On the left, Granger's frowning at them, clearly unimpressed. On the right, Lee Jordan's got an arm round Pansy, and she's laughing as she licks something from his fingers.

Draco stares, and Potter follows his gaze. "Oh dear," Potter says, syrupy venom in his voice. "Looks like you've got a busy day ahead, what with the cheating girlfriend, miserable snake and dark magic artefact on your hands."

Fuck, Draco thinks. It's fucking shameful, but he always suspected, in his childish dreams, that Potter would be sympathetic to his situation. Who better to understand having your life dictated by a higher power than the Boy Who Lived? Draco had thought, foolishly, that they shared a vague empathy at fate's cruel hand, an occasional half-smile at the travesties of destiny. Turns out that Potter really hates him, and that Potter really likes his own life.

Draco storms back behind the hedge to find his broom.

Hurrying to the desk as soon as he dismounts, he thinks at least one thing will be better now he's taken off the ring-- but Pomegranate has got even worse. Her eyes are wet and don't open more than halfway, and her head swings drunkenly when Draco lowers a shivering finger into the box.

Draco feels a surge of hatred for the thing, and jabs her with his finger. She flinches and writhes, and her eyes seep a little more viscous yellow liquid down her scales. Revolting.

He rummages through his cupboard for the EagleMail casket the presents arrived in, and clips the ring securely back into its compartment.

If you can deduce the enchantment on this ring, it will stand as my contribution to mark your passage into adulthood.

Thank you, Father. What a marvellous, generous gift.

You know what to do with it.

Wear it with pride, he thought, but obviously not. Use it, somehow, then -- but for what? Potter says it makes Pomegranate worse, but taking it off only seems to have exacerbated the situation. He doubts Potter lied - Saint Potter would never take out his hatred of Draco on an innocent snake - but why then would Lucius bestow a gift which makes another gift worthless? Lucius is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a wasteful man.

Potter called it a dark magic artefact; Draco wonders if he's somehow supposed to wrestle the ring onto Potter himself. Heat skips in Draco's stomach, and he has to clamp down on all the images that thought brings: Potter's fingers, Draco's frustration, Potter acquiescing at last. Petty fantasies of a naive child, Draco tells himself, sharply. He won't indulge in them any more.

No. The ring clearly isn't for Potter. He knows what it is, for one, and secondly, Lucius would never put a task like that in his hands with so little instruction. The ring is not part of the war, or at least, not an important part.

He's weakly grateful that he hasn't had to hurt Potter or the other students yet. He hasn't fully adjusted to that idea, even though despising them is an acceptable start.

The snake makes a noise like a rasping sneeze, and Draco's stomach aches sharply. By Merlin's Fire, Pomegranate. Please. Stop this. Please, snap out of it, get better--

He remembers Granger talking about the killing heat of his body, and the charmer contradicting her, saying Draco was treating his snake just fine. He tries to work out what's changed since then, and snatches up the box, staring in at the pitiful excuse for a serpent, dull and limp and glazed.

"You don't even look fit for ingredients," Draco whispers, startled to find his throat tightening hard, terrified to feel a low burn of heat in his eyes.

Pomegranate eyes him dizzily.

Draco decides, excruciatingly slowly, not to embarrass himself by shedding an actual tear. He's a Malfoy, and he will not indulge in mindless sentiment about a situation which is not currently arranged to his advantage. The appropriate thing to do is take corrective action, and if that action comes at a price, a Malfoy is always well-equipped to pay, or at least to maliciously default on payment.

"Give that to Potter," Draco says, the words scuffing over his tongue, dry and resentful.

His owl bullets off, swerving out of sight the moment it clears the window ledge. Draco clears his throat and straightens his shoulders, taking a few deep breaths. He's putting aside his pride in favour of an increased chance of victory, and that's a perfectly acceptable thing to do. Since Potter seems to know all the answers, Draco will deal with the consequences of begging him for help once Pomegranate is better.

He's got to get to the North turret, third along from the oft-occupied Astronomy Tower, by midnight. He's got half an hour.

That's if Potter actually turns up, of course.

There's the tiny problem of curfew, in that he's not confident about flying above the school while the teachers might be patrolling. Flying signals intent. To be caught on foot - looking for Snape, hoping his dear teacher could help him understand his snake, of course - is far more forgivable.

Pulling his darkest cloak around him, the one with the pale silver stitching and regency-grey lining, he squares his shoulders and tucks his snake box under one arm.

"Finite incantatem," he says, tapping the door with the tip of his wand, feeling the power flow stronger now the defensive ward is gone.

Pucey is lounging by the fire, surrounded by minions. Flinging back his cloak, Draco storms up to him. In the crook of Pucey's arm, Pansy looks on in wide-eyed interest.

"I suppose you think this is funny," Draco spits, glaring down at Pucey and pointing at the box with his wand. "Cursing a baby corculus anguisa? You fucking imbecile."

Pucey opens his mouth. "I-- what?" he says, and starts to get to his feet. Draco rips the top off the box and thrusts it under Pucey' nose, and Pucey falls back against the sofa. Pansy squirms frantically away from him, a horror too ugly to be feigned distorting her face, winding up sitting on Bole, the Slytherin beater who sent a bludger into Weasley's soup that one time.

"See what your precious mascot looks like now," Draco sneers to the crowd, trying to ignore Pansy burying her face in Bole's neck, and Pomegranate writhes limply and lists to one side. He cradles her gently and turns on Pucey again. "I take it back. If this is the way you'd treat her, use her for your petty vengeance against me, then there is no way I'm letting my snake stand for your team."

"We wouldn't want her if she looks like that, anyway," Pucey mutters, but his eyes are wide and alarmed, and his minions look uneasy. Even Slytherins have a little honour, in that they know what's splendidly wicked and what's just pathetic.

"I'm going to see Snape," Draco announces, and smoothes the lid back onto the box. "You'd better hope I'm better at covering for you than he is at finding out who did this."

Pucey doesn't attempt to deny it, because there'd be no point. Draco feels slightly better. Framing a ruffian is always enjoyable, especially after being framed. He'll pin the hexed broom on Pucey tomorrow, too, if Pucey doesn't somehow land himself in it on his own.

Draco twirls his cloak more securely around his body and stalks out, satisfied that that crowd, at least, is now back on his side.

The turret room is spacious and cold, and there aren't any chairs. Plenty of jagged dark hiding spaces, but Draco doesn't feel like leaning sinisterly in the shadows right now. He feels like curling up in an armchair by a fire, except that could only happen if everything were right with his world. Shivers creep up and down his skin as he gazes numbly through the arrow loop at the warm, winking expanse of Hogwarts below him, lit from within, an illusory haven. The wind drives round the parapets, tugging insistently at his robes like the gnarled hand of fate.

It's a stupid place for a meeting, really.

He grumbles quietly as he sits down on the floor, leaning against the chilly stonework, because these robes are his darkest and also his second best, and they're certainly worth more than upholstery. It's sheltered down here, but the cold feels more penetrating. He shouldn't be worrying about Pucey, but he is: their slow-burning rivalry has sparked into open hostility, and although Pucey is a common lout who'll go down in flames in intra-House warfare with a Malfoy, he's also mad enough to take Draco down with him.

He refuses to even think about Pansy.

Gradually, entire wings of Hogwarts lapse into darkness, and the stars seem brighter, more piercing. He checks on Pomegranate just long enough to notice that she looks as bad as before, and that the gleaming tip of her muzzle has gone dull and dry. She's probably unhappy with the temperature too, he thinks, and wishes Potter would hurry up.

He stares at the stars, then cringes, shapes jumping out at him with eerie prominance; curved blades, a fist with its forefinger stretched accusingly towards him, a profile bisected by something horribly like a veil. He closes his eyes, feels the world wheel about him, and opens them again, electing to stare only at the paved floor between his leaden heels.

A moment later, gripped with the sudden idea that it might be warmer, he tries to wrap Pomegranate round his wrist; she just hangs, like dense string. He puts her back in the box and her white belly shows where she lies, crumpled. No amount of fiddling will get her lankly twisted body to rest the right way.

Pomegranate makes another of those dreadful rasping noises, like impatience and despair curdled together. Draco forces down the desire to smash his fist into the box and put an end to this fucking nonsense. He sits with his knees up and rests his head in his too-cool hands, and squeezes his eyes tight closed.

"You all right?" Potter's voice comes, disembodied in the darkness.

I'm fine, he almost says, but he really couldn't be bothered. It's almost a shame he's given up longing for Potter to ask him that. He lifts his head, trying to think of a dignified reason for his depressed posture, then gives up. "She's in the box," he says. "She's sick. Find out what's wrong."

Potter wets his lips. He's still wearing his quidditch uniform, his cloak folded over one arm, but the lumos powder must've been neutralised or scrubbed away, because Draco has to squint to make out his face. "You didn't answer my question," Potter says.

"I'll be all right when I know Pomegranate's all right," Draco snaps, and he's appalled to realise that's true. His personal satisfaction is genuinely resting on a once-lovely pet.

"Wow," Potter says, and sits down next to him, precisely one snake-box's space away. He bundles his cloak up and sets it next to the box, then lifts the lid with his scuffed white hands and frowns when Pomegranate doesn't react. "You must be really depressed," Potter says bluntly. "I didn't know it was this bad."

Draco, cringing inside, isn't here to talk about himself. "What's wrong with her, though?"

Potter frowns at him. "She's a corculus anguisa, Malfoy. I don't need to talk to her at all - you feel wretched, and this is the result."

"Excuse me?"

Potter's frown deepens, then resolves into awe. "You don't know anything about her, do you?" he says, and Draco scowls because this feels like what those in conversation call The Disadvantage, and Potter actually has the audacity to laugh in his face.

More of a disbelieving chuckle, but a trigger nonetheless; the tip of Draco's wand presses against Potter's jaw, and Potter's eyes flash. "What's there to know?" Draco says, voice dangerously low.

"Get that filthy piece of bamboo off me," Potter replies, speaking through his teeth, "and I might tell you."

Sweet Merlin. "You'd better." Draco stashes his wand again, trembling a little. He tries to make his voice hard. "Well?"

"The snake's empathic," Potter says, icily. "She reflects whatever's going on in your sewage works of a brain, and lives or dies accordingly. Traditionally," he adds, glaring, "they take an owner when they recognise a noble, bond-worthy match. You can imagine my surprise when I realised she picked you."

Numbly, Draco remembers the sighed awe in Potter's voice as he said, "she chose you," in Snape's lesson. Of course. That's so much clearer in sudden, chilling retrospect. "She reads me," he says, not quite able to work out what this gift now means.

Potter's glare fades. "Aren't you happy to have something that really will live or die at your will?" he says, but there's not much malice to it. He sounds genuinely curious, and that's bad enough.

Draco feels sick. If Potter's serious, then his own state of mind is not only fucked enough to seriously endanger the only entity that was stupid enough to relate to him, but also visible for any idle spectator to dissect. He curses loudly, the snake flinches, and Potter glances from one to the other.

Draco swallows, twists away from the two of them. "I don't want her showing everyone how I feel."

"It's not about what you want," Potter says, a shrug in his voice. "She wants it. She - saw something she liked and chose you."

"She chose me," Draco repeats flatly. "To kill her?"

"Obviously not," Potter says, but his voice is too soft to be properly abrasive. "People have been known to decide something is worth taking a risk for, you know."

"Tell her to choose someone else," Draco says, coming to the conclusion all at once. She'll choose Potter - any fool could predict that - but Potter will probably have the grace to keep quiet about it, and Draco can just say he got bored of the thing and sent it home.

Potter talks some parseltongue, and the hairs on the back of Draco's neck shiver. "That's not how it works," Potter says eventually, in English. "And she seems to be hurt that you'd even consider it."

"She'll be pretty bloody hurt if I don't," Draco growls, exasperation stinging his pride, and he feels something brush his wrist, and finds it slightly baffling that it's Potter's fingers.

"Right now, the link to you is the only thing keeping her alive. Don't cut her off. I need you to think, um, happy thoughts."

Slowly, Draco raises his eyes to stare at Potter. Think happy thoughts about a gift from his father which puts his heart on his sleeve where he can watch it die.

Potter rubs his arm awkwardly. "Er, you know, it's nothing to get upset about. Pansy's not serious about Jordan. Everyone knows she's after the Malfoy inheritance."

Draco folds his arms quickly. "Pansy? That conniving whore?" Just because he has to marry her, doesn't mean he cares. He doesn't care. He never did.

"You wanted me to fix it," Potter says, grimly. "This is me trying."

"Happy thoughts," Draco says, deadpan. He's sitting on the floor in a chilly turret, fresh with the discovery that he's sapping the life from his only loyal companion, and Potter wants him to whistle a cheery tune and dance a jig? "Any suggestions?"

"How about the last time you knocked me off my broom?" Potter snaps, and Draco retorts,

"Too long ago to savour properly."

Potter glares, then apparently tells himself to knock it off. "Look," he says, gently. "Please. For Pomegranate." Draco wishes he'd never named the stupid thing, and Potter flinches. "Don't," he says, then exhales slowly. "I think the petty stuff is worse."

The snake's talking to Potter, Draco realises, with a dreadful certainty. The snake's telling him what's going on in his mind-- only the flavours of it, maybe, but that's bad enough. "Why would my father send me an empathic snake?" he demands, and Potter's face goes very bland. "It's such a public humiliation."

"She's still a very valuable creature," Potter says, and Draco gets a hideous feeling that he's one step behind the game. He watches Potter warily. "The most valuable snake that could survive in Hogwarts, I imagine."

"But only if I." don't bond. If she finds I'm insufficient to her needs.

He imagines Lucius discussing the gift over afternoon tea, waving down his associates' concerns. "Oh, do not concern yourself unduly - Draco is hardly the type to inspire the creature's bonding instinct."

Safe, Draco thinks. It's a safe gift for someone so odious and shallow. He bites the inside of his cheek, hard. "Well," he manages. "He seems to have underestimated me." It doesn't give him much comfort.

"Well, or, perhaps you're meant to be controlling your feelings," Potter says hesitantly. "If you're going to be a Death Eater, then--"

Potter looks away, and Draco swallows hard. He's not sure which is worse; the idea that Lucius relied on his innate lack of nobility to ensure the gift remained valuable, or the suspicion that the entire experience has merely been a lesson.

Thank you, Father, for teaching me the weakness inherent in having emotions. The snake makes a low, sick noise, brokenly sibilant. Draco stares at her, at the absence of light in her eyes.

"Fuck," Draco says.

Potter shakes his head and rearranges himself, sitting cross-legged opposite Draco with his hands on his knees. "Come on," he coaxes, apparently warming to his plan, leaning forwards earnestly, "just try and remember the last good-- well, anything."

Draco thinks about the high points of this week, and it's all pathetically snake-related. Aside from that - well, anticipation of his Quidditch victory ranked awfully near the top. An entire morning of getting along with his future wife, that was a highlight.

"Draco, come on," Potter urges. "You're not trying."

Swallowing carefully, Draco studies Pomegranate and casts his mind back. Getting a higher score than Granger in Potions, although rather insignificant in the long run, proved she wasn't the be-all and end-all of academic success. When Flitwick asked him if he would be taking a Charms NEWT, and offered to lend him some books over the summer vacation. When Snape took him aside last spring and said softly, confidentially, "If you want a study room for the bank holiday instead of going home, I can arrange that for you."

--last spring?

Potter's staring at him, a wealth of deep, dark softness in his eyes. Draco wants to scream. Can't summon a single decent memory, and Potter knows?

There's no point thinking about school things, because he can't stay at Hogwarts after his OWLs. He tries to think about Quidditch, two terms ago, where he plucked the snitch from the air between Potter's fingers, and it's embarrassing that this memory is a bit of treasure in his brain, something precious to him.

The snake twitches, her eyes barely open, and Draco chokes on the realisation that this, here and now, is one of the worst moments of his life. It's rated up there with when Lucius trailed his fingertips in a very distinct pattern over the shrieking delicate flesh of his arm; worse than when Dumbledore took him aside in second year and warned that if he didn't pull his socks up then no amount of quiet money would stop him being held back a year.

And to cap it all, Draco thinks, frustration and self-pity sinking in tandem through his stomach, Harry fucking Potter just has to be primary witness for this excruciating experience. Draco stares unhappily as the snake twitches again. He can see the nodules of her spine, wants to cradle her, can't face touching her, can't even stand to watch for long.

"You're too damaged," Potter says glumly, shoulders slumping. "She's going to die."

"That's very useful," Draco snaps. "Fuck off, then, if you're done helping."

Potter glares. "What else can I do?"

"Fix it! That's what you do, isn't it?"

"What, fix you? Oh, that'll be easy."

"You're not helping."

"What do you want me to do?"

Draco scrubs his face with his fingertips, then sighs. Nothing. There's nothing to do. "Just--forget it," he says, and it feels good to just give up. "It's hopeless."

Potter frowns. "It's not hopeless."

"No, I'm just suffocating the best thing in my life with my own neurosis," Draco says pleasantly, and it feels surprisingly good to actually say that out loud - a little less poisonous, perhaps.

Potter straightens. "She liked that."

Draco eyes him suspiciously, hope scratching him in the chest. "What?"

"You're--" Potter's watching the snake intently, one hand raised halfway in Draco's direction, fingers curled. Familiar fingers. "Do that again," Potter says.

Draco scowls. "What, talk about my own shortcomings?" he says, and Potter winces like he found a nettle in his lettuce.

"Okay, that backfired." He reaches into the box, rubs his thumb over the snake's head and trails his fingers gently down her body. A sort of nameless, hopeless envy curls in Draco's stomach, and Potter looks up sharply. "But - that's new."

Wanting Harry's hands on him is new? Draco laughs harshly. "No, it's not."

Potter looks at him evenly, then wets his lips. "I was angry when you came down to the field earlier," he says carefully, and Draco blinks. "I thought you wanted to see me, not just someone with a certain talent."

Draco sits straighter. "What on earth are you talking about?" he says, trying not to sound affected, and Potter smiles at him suddenly, sparkling.

"I keep hoping," he says slowly, "that some day you'll--" He looks down at the snake suddenly. She's lifting her head in something resembling hope. Potter grins and leans forward, and Draco's eyes are torn between Potter's face and Pomegranate's returning shine.

Draco feels his lips parting, feels the wild surge of something that can't possibly be happening.

"That some day you'll come to me," Potter says, as soft as magelight on water, watching the snake avidly. She looks alive.

"Wow," Draco says. He's done it. She's better. "Potter," he declares, fervent with relief, "I'm making you an honorary Slytherin."

"The Sorting Hat wanted to put me in Slytherin," Potter confesses, in the same tiptoe voice, coaxing Draco's blood to race.

"Wow," Draco says again, feeling oddly redeemed. The Boy Who Lived should have been a Slytherin. That would have been one for the books.

Potter's almost laughing now. "Look at her! I can't believe how happy that made you."

Draco puts out his hand, fingers curled, and Pomegranate hinges off the ground and pushes her head into the tunnel of his loose fist, nosing her way with confident determination. She's so incredibly beautiful, Draco thinks helplessly, lifting his sudden handful of snake and letting her flow from wrist to wrist, loving the way the gloom becomes gilt-edged when its dust flanks her skin.

He draws her against his chest, instinct rearing to cradle and protect, and she squirms out of his grasp and coils around his neck instead, flickery dry tongue learning the contours of his jaw.

It tickles, and he laughs a little, meeting Potter's shining eyes. She's healthy again, which means he's healthy again, and Potter's running around saving the world as a secret Slytherin, and he wanted Draco to come to him, and--

Potter the would-be Slytherin. Saying exactly what Draco wanted to hear, to save his snake from his own inability to look after her.

Potter, who isn't a Slytherin, and if the Sorting Hat wanted to put him there and he's in Gryffindor, well, there are only so many conclusions that can be drawn from that. His own moment under the hat had been reassuringly efficient, he'd felt at the time. Slytherin? the hat had said, and Draco had thought, of course.

Slytherin? the Hat had said to Potter, and: oh, no, please Mr Hat, Sir, please put me in Gryffindor instead.


Potter looks from him to the snake and back in alarm. She's wilting again, right before his eyes.

"What did you do?"

"What?" Draco demands.

Potter waves his hands around, and his voice goes frantic. "You just. For a moment there, she looked good, and then you swished it round and why?"

Draco lets himself shout, his voice cracking hoarsely into the night sky. "You're the one trying to appease me with the crap about--"

"I don't lie," Potter interrupts, eyes bright and angry. "So don't start."

"Right," Draco says, beyond patience and conciliation, because damn it all, lashing out is going to feel good. "You lie awake at night, hoping I'll come to you."

"I do," Potter insists. "Honestly, Draco-- If you would just realise that there's no future for you as a Death Eater; you must see the way Voldemort treats his minions! You're wasted on them but to us you'd be invaluable!"

Fuck, Draco thinks, mind spiralling helplessly downwards. Potter, you stupid fucking fuck.

"No, no, don't! Not for the information," Potter shouts, hands reaching out like he's going to start shaking him, "don't think that, okay? You'd be invaluable because you're smart, and throw curses like an angry goblin, and you're not afraid to do what has to be done."

It's a small consolation, Draco thinks, that Potter so earnestly wants him on his side. He looks down at Pomegranate. It's a consolation, he thinks, it really is. Just because the entire situation is hopelessly impossible, just because he's trapped like a fly in his father's web, doesn't mean he's not consoled.

Pomegranate is not convinced. Her skin is almost grey, and she's gasping slowly, suffocating by torturous degrees.

"Malfoy, for fuck's sake, please!" Potter's shouting. "She's dying, please, just kick me or curse me or do something that makes you happy."

Fuck you, Potter, just fuck you, Draco thinks venemously, and fuck Pansy and fuck Pucey, and fuck the fucking Slytherins and fuck Voldemort with a hexed fucking broomstick, and - he throws a punch - fuck Lucius for putting him in this fucking position.

His fist dissolves midair and falls - another betrayal and that's nice, that's hellishly appropriate: now he's even been undermined by his own body, because it caught sight of Potter's wide about-to-be-punched eyes behind those stupid glasses and wouldn't let him go through with it, melting and leadening his fist until it falls uselessly to his knee instead.

He stares down, trying not to tremble.

"Thanks," Potter says faintly, and the stupid fuck's practically leaning over him, and that's Gryffindor all over - never Slytherin, never so idiotic - and Draco looks up sharply, disgusted with them both.

"Don't," he sneers, and then figures lightning-blind that why the fuck not? and grabs Potter's stupid scruffy hair with his other hand, and tugs Potter's mouth against his own.

Potter's lips are babysoft and completely, heartbreakingly unresponsive. The foolish pleasure that Draco couldn't help but expect is actually a moment of pure horror. It feels like stepping off a cliff, feels like plummeting into an abyss, feels like dying in a thousand nasty humiliating ways. Sorry, my beautiful serpent, Draco thinks. No happiness for you now, never again. Sorry, Draco.

He hears Pomegranate retch and feels his own stomach lurch in sympathy, and then Harry's hands spread against the back of his head and his mouth warms open like a sunrise, and Draco flinches with surprise and almost pulls back in suspicion, and feels Harry's lips nudge his own into a smile.

"Works for me," Harry breathes, brushing his tongue between Draco's teeth with devastating softness, and Draco tries to kiss him hard and then hears himself whine when Harry shies backwards.

Harry makes a noise like snagged leather and kisses Draco closed-mouthed, twice, firm, drawing back, and Draco blinks in confusion, the terror that this is Harry being unable to Go Through With It occurring to him with insidious suddenness.

"And don't start that again," Harry mutters, keeping one hand cupped behind the back of Draco's neck as he slides his glasses off with the other. Oh, Draco thinks, stupidly. Yeah.

Harry's eyes look vulnerable as he blinks and smiles and darts forwards again, which Draco thinks is odd because his own eyes are naked all the time and he's not vulnerable at all, and then Harry's fingers are curving in Draco's hair and Harry's kissing him properly, and Draco closes his eyes and tries to tell himself this is real.

He lets his hands fall to Harry's waist and Harry makes a soft noise and kneels up, bringing his hips against Draco's palms, warm hips that Draco wants to hold and strip and know. It's shockingly nice, he discovers, lightly sucking Harry's tongue and feeling him shudder, to be sat on the floor with his face upturned and Harry leaning down to kiss him; feels like Harry could be shielding him, guarding him.

On the other hand - well, the hip thing.

Catching his breath, Draco rises to his own knees, bringing their faces level again, pulling Harry against him and steadying him there; Harry kisses him harder and then deeper, shifting and pressing close, his fists relaxing in Draco's hair and then gliding round until Harry's arms are loose around Draco's neck and they're just kissing, no urgency, content to go on and luxuriously on.

Pomegranate, Draco thinks fuzzily, but he doesn't want to break away, not when this feels like a slice out of time, a moment of symmetry, where it's just Harry's warm mouth and delicate, affectionate noises, Harry catching his breath when Draco licks at his tongue.

Draco shivers, knees twinging against the stone floor, and decides he could happily stay here until a search party comes calling.

Pomegranate, though, his mind insists, and he forces himself to pull back. Harry makes a frustrated noise and tugs him closer again, kissing dirty and leaning their hips hard together and squirming, and Draco realises all of a sudden that now Harry's working to make him hard.

The thought is quite, quite surreal.

"I've got to," Draco mumbles, "um," and Harry mutters something against his mouth and pushes him to the floor, and Draco's legs unfold gratefully and wrap around Harry's waist, locking his ankles behind Harry's knees. Good - amazing - to feel Harry solid between his thighs, the heat of him negating the chill of the floor.

But-- he has to know she's okay, he thinks restlessly, reaching out blindly, scuffing his knuckles on the floor and then shuddering with delight when Pomegranate slithers onto his wrist and around.

Keeping his hand shy of his body, Draco twists sideways and rolls Harry onto his back, holding Pomegranate safely high above them as he grinds down once and kisses Harry again and then sits back on his heels and brings her to his face.

She's shining.

Dizzy relief slashes through Draco's chest. "I'm sorry," he says, touching his lips to the top of her smooth head, "my beautiful, my darling, I'm so sorry." He kisses her again, imagines he hears a happy little hiss, then laughs to himself at his own whimsy and kisses her again.

Next to him, Harry sits up and runs a hand through his tangled hair. Harry's glasses are by Draco's knee, quiet and sensible. If Harry thinks he's going to put them on and leave, Draco thinks contentedly, letting Pomegranate slither up to his throat and wrap around, then he's never seen a Malfoy with a new-found hobby before.

Harry reaches for his glasses, and Draco catches him off balance and climbs on top of him and kisses him some more.

"If you're lying," he whispers into Harry's mouth, "don't ever let me find out about it."

"I'm not lying," Harry pants, wrapping his long arms and legs around Draco and pulling him closer. Draco feels Pomegranate glide down his spine and then his leg and then curve once round his ankle and melt away onto the paving stones again. Safe, sensible pet. "I've wanted this," Harry's saying, tipping his head back so Draco can kiss his throat. "I've wanted--"

"You can have anything you want," Draco tells him, sucking a slow path down from the hinge of Harry's jaw. He's absurdly, deliriously, wantonly happy, and Harry tastes like salt and chalk and freedom.

"So can you," Harry tells the ceiling, running his hands up Draco's back, then gasping under Draco's teeth and tugging until Draco feels air hitting skin between formerly-orderly robes.

His father wouldn't approve.

Draco smiles against Harry's neck and flexes as Harry's hands slip beneath the grand, imposing clothes and clutch at him like Draco's the only heat in Harry's world. Suits him, Draco thinks.

"Anything I want," Draco whispers, fingers wandering intently to the knots on Harry's uniform, tugging them apart and pushing Harry's top off his shoulders, confessing, "this is what I want," in helpless delight at finding naked skin.

"Good," Harry says, abandoning Draco's clothes to hold Draco's mouth against his skin, then cursing softly and snatching up his wand and muttering something into Draco's hair.

Draco, so used to wearing spun silks that he barely notices them anymore, shivers violently as the fabric of his robes begins to wriggle and peel away from him, the sensation of it like cool water on sun-flushed skin.

Harry's hands are a firm demanding warmth after the swish-slide of the silk, gliding down Draco's back and then rolling him over, and Draco realises he's naked, they're both naked, and under the open sky.

"Cold," Draco complains, as Harry stretches out on top of him and starts moving, fitting their bodies together, pressing Draco against the frigid stones from nape to thigh. "But don't stop," Draco adds indignantly, when Harry pauses, and Harry makes a small frustrated noise and grinds down hard. Draco yelps, even as he arches his hips to meet the force of it for as long as he can. "Cold!"

"You're a whiney one," Harry mutters, rolling off him and ignoring Draco's outraged panting, crawling over to Pomegranate's box. "Who chose to meet in the open air, anyway?"

"I didn't exactly plan this," Draco retorts, watching Harry's thighs, and Harry grabs his nice big cloak, and rises to his feet to shake it out over the floor. Harry's-- just hot, Draco thinks, dizzily. Starlight on his skin painting him an ethereal pale blue, exquisite proportions and subtle exoticism and, as he glances up and sees Draco's face, a roguish smile. No common sportsman, this.

Draco's throat tightens with avarice and lust, and then Harry's sinking to his knees on the nice big cloak, and leaning forwards, and pressing his mouth to Draco's lower lip. Harry's arms are sliding round his waist and dragging him onto the cloak, and they're rolling fierce and gloriously horizontal with the wind slashing above their skin.

He thinks wildly that he's never known a happiness as complete and viciously wonderful as this, and then he gets thoroughly distracted because a corner of the cloak folds over Draco's ankle and - what?

"Hey," Draco protests, and Harry looks down at the angled chunk missing - just gone - from Draco's leg and tweaks the cloak flat against the floor again.

"Sorry," he says, and kneels over Draco, one knee between Draco's thighs, his hands guiding Draco to pitch sideways and settle into a moving clinch with Harry on the strange fabric.

Very strange fabric, Draco thinks distractedly, as Harry applies a sly, debilitating pressure with his hips and far more important things than invisibility magic take over his mind. "That thing must be-- useful," he manages, to prove that he isn't so easy that a single grope makes him forget vital, um, cloak things, and Harry laughs wickedly against his ear.

"We can do whatever you like under it, if you're quiet enough," he drawls, and Draco imagines Harry stealing naked through the Slytherin common room and into his room and blowing him against the door. Or, better--

"We could go to your room," he says, and Harry runs his hands down Draco's back and shifts him on top, tipping his head back when Draco shifts his arm under as a pillow and kisses Harry's throat.

"My room?"

"Mm," Draco manages, though he's losing the thread of the conversation already, his mind fizzing into untidy hazes every time Harry does something like part his legs or bite his shoulder or, worst of all, writhe.

"I haven't got a room," Harry says, then hisses when Draco shifts onto one knee, rising off him just enough to slide his hand between their stomachs. "I'm in the dorm."

"Dorm?" Draco asks, unable to believe his ears. Harry Potter sleeps in a dorm? No private room? Just curtains?

"Yeah," Harry says, moving urgently. "Can you just--"

"Oh, my," Draco interrupts, and his hand finds the responsive heat it was searching for, "can I come to your bed? I want to do all sorts of things to you right there."

He moves his fingers experimentally, and Harry groans, and then freezes as the words visibly sink in. He stares up with something like suspicion. "You want to do things on enemy turf?"

Draco moves his hand again, in a long slow slide, and enjoys the distracted hot flicker in Harry's eyes. "No," he murmurs, gripping harder, wanting to hear more of that noise, "on your turf."

"Oh," Harry gasps, nodding quickly, quite clearly failing to process a single word. "Um, yes?"

Draco touches his smile to Harry's mouth, turns it into a lopsided kiss, and laughs. "If I wanted you on enemy turf, I'd take you home to meet my father."

"Oh, please," Harry gasps, getting his legs around Draco's waist and writhing, trapping Draco's wrist between their bodies. "If you're lying to me," he whispers, deep and throaty, "I don't ever want to find out about it."

"I'm not lying," Draco whispers back, and under the cold, clear sky with the wind curving over his spine it feels like a vow. Harry works his own hand between them, and reaches down to touch Draco. It feels like heaven, sends delighted shudders fizzing through his blood and expels the air from him with the force of a bludger to the chest. Mind hazing black and sparkling silver, he pushes back against Harry, against their crushed, entangled fingers, and as he comes he feels a whole new future opening up inside him.

Harry slumps back on the stone floor with a drawn-out moan, and Draco lets himself relax into the curve of Harry's shoulder. Harry's fingers trail lazily through his hair and then down the nape of his neck. Draco remembers Pomegranate when he feels her slide like silk around his throat again, and then remove herself to Harry's fingers. Harry brings his arm down to rest on his chest, where Draco can see her. She looks sleepy, well-fed, and satisfied; there's a definite glow underneath her gleaming scales.

"She looks positively post-coital," Draco says.

"Mm," Harry agrees, eyes still closed, stretching languorously. "She liked that."

Draco tangles his fingers with Harry's and smiles as Pomegranate wends between them. "She really did," he agrees, holding her up, and Harry lifts his palm to Draco's and then trembles when Pomegranate wanders down his wrist.

"Bloody hell, she's gorgeous," he breathes.

"Talk to her, if you like," Draco says, generously, a possessive joy swelling in his chest at sharing his lovely beautiful snake with his lovely beautiful boy.

Harry shakes his head, "no, I'm shy," and Draco curls delightedly on his side to raise an eyebrow at him.


Harry is all scruffed-up hair and wide eyes. "We just," he says, waving his free hand around, "you know, and she'll ask me what made you so happy, and it's too weird."

"You don't want to talk to my snake about sex," Draco says, feeling his grin widen when Harry looks sheepish. "Well, fair enough, I suppose."

It strikes him suddenly that this lovely beautiful boy is quite capable of talking about him to his lovely beautiful snake, and that he isn't in the least bit disturbed. He trusts them, he thinks, slowly. They're both young and fresh and radiantly complicated, and while anything would be welcome after a Malfoy upbringing, this isn't just anything, and never will be. They're sharp-edged like gems, these delightfully barbed gifts - but Draco can handle them because they're his to handle.

Pomegranate waves her head around demandingly, and Draco wraps his fingers round Harry's wrist and watches her glide up and around his arm.

"We should go," Draco says, glancing at the changed constellations in the sky, then back at Harry's face, enjoying the dismay. On impulse, he kisses Harry's hand, a chaste sweet ceremonial gesture that somehow winds up with Harry's hands buried in his hair kissing him open-mouthed hard enough to bruise.

Breathless, Draco rolls backwards, feeling the whip-slide of Pomegranate taking herself clear of the action, locking Harry's body against his own with a deftly wrapped leg. No cloak this time, and his shoulderblades grate against the floor as he moves, but hell, Harry, wriggling like a salamander and--

"Sneaking around, you say?" comes Filch's snuffling voice, and Draco rolls on top and covers Harry's mouth with his hand, then blinks when Harry grabs the cloak from quite possibly out of nowhere and flings it over Draco's head. It settles with a noise like tissue paper, filling their tiny space with ricocheting heartbeats. Draco sinks down to rest his head on Harry's chest, lying as still as he possibly can.

They hear footsteps on the stairs, see a roaming ball of light zigzag round the room and hover for a few indignant seconds over Draco's invisible head. Draco presses down further, holding his breath, and eventually, reluctantly, the light slinks off, and Filch grumbles his way back downstairs.

"That was a little too close for my comfort," Harry mutters, and it buzzes beneath Draco's ear. Harry's trembling, Draco realises. Delicious--

"We'd better go soon," Draco agrees, before his desire for instant gratification can get the better of him. He rises to his feet, taking the cloak with him, then stares down at the mussed-up, red-mouthed, utterly wanton creature lying between his feet. "We'd better go now," he amends.

Harry's-- well, gazing is really the word. Draco folds the cloak over his arm, because it's not proper that he should be invisible while Harry may want to look at him. "Tomorrow," Harry says, pushing up on his elbow, still stretched out long and lean, "can you come up here tomorrow?" and Draco says,

Try to stop me. "I think that can be arranged."


Draco offers up his hand, and Harry takes it, tugging at a crucial moment in the getting-up process to stumble Draco against him. "Okay," Harry says, breathlessly, against Draco's mouth, "accio glasses."

The glasses glide to his fingers, and Harry lifts them pointedly, as if to ward Draco off. Draco glances at them, then back at Harry's mouth. "One moment," he says, ducking between Harry's hands and kissing him again, and smiles at the unmistakable tug of Harry's arms sliding round his neck and Harry's warm mouth opening beneath his tongue.

An utterly perfect way to spend the evening, this. Harry's been the answer to all his problems. Ah, except, Draco thinks, stroking his hands down Harry's sides and gathering him closer warmer lewder, except for the ring. Which he could ask about right now, except, well, just at this minute Harry is busy and Draco would be quite put out if he could actually answer questions.

He kisses him until his hands start to make their way of their own accord down Harry's back in search of more of that glorious skin, and then Harry gasps and pulls away, one hand pressing on Draco's chest, the other furtively shoving the glasses onto his face.

"Right," Harry says, "okay, you can't kiss me again now, see? see these?" and Draco makes a show of slowly studying his face, enjoying the earnest pale lines of it, the smudge of dark mouth just waiting to be taken again.

"They're crooked," he smiles, then lifts his own hands before Harry can protest, gently drawing the glasses away from Harry's face before sliding them back on, straight this time. "There you go."

Harry's eyes are huge.

"Although," Draco says, judging the angle carefully, "I could probably still do this," and he tilts his head, brushing their mouths deftly together, then has to pull swiftly away before the sensation of Harry's soft lips parting readily can unravel all his well-meaning control.

"That's... true," Harry agrees, and he looks so thoroughly corruptible that Draco has to avert his eyes.

"Tell me about the ring," Draco says quickly, concentrating on the stone wall, the cold unyielding stone wall, not a pinch of charisma to it, no chance of sexy helpless sighs. "Do you know what it does?

There's a pause, then Harry clears his throat. "Um, yes. It's an adnexus ring."

Draco isn't sure he heard him right. "A ring of..." Conjugate the verb, and it sounds an awful lot like: "binding? a what?"

"Yeah, dark magic," Harry sighs, looking like he's collecting himself to explain, then shakes his head. "I have a book out from the library. You should probably see it."

Dark magic, Draco thinks bitterly, and he's been wearing it like a jewel. If Pomegranate-- "What's the book? Did you bring it?" he demands, looking around, and Harry's mouth crooks wryly.

"It's in my dorm," he admits.

"I need it - I need to know what the ring does," Draco tells him. "I need to know what my father means by it."

"In that case," Harry smiles, "it looks like you're going to be sneaking into Gryffindor Tower after all."

It's stuffy under the cloak, and warm, and Harry very charmingly decrees that the best method of navigating the corridors is to have Draco pressed against his back with his arms round Harry's waist and his chin tucked over Harry's shoulder.

"We'll never get anywhere like this," Draco says, as they practise walking from one side of the room to the other, and Harry grunts distractedly.

"No, just - fit your strides to mine and it'll be easy. Like marching--oh."

Draco grins and nudges his hips again, spreading his palms lewdly over Harry's stomach. "We'll never. get. anywhere," he drawls, and nibbles on Harry's ear.

It's stuffy under the cloak, and soon gets very, very warm indeed.

"Okay," Harry whispers, determinedly, when they're standing at the top of the tower's staircase, "Take Two."

"Two what?" Draco says, and Harry ignores him, and - side-by-side now, with Harry's arm round Draco's waist and Draco holding Pomegranate's box safely against his chest - they start to creep up the stairs.

Draco relaxes after about thirty seconds. The corridors are just corridors, but a little darker than normal, for all he flinches when they round a corner and almost pass right through Nearly Headless Nick. Harry squeezes his hip while they hover back a moment, and Nick floats silently off into the gloom. Draco isn't sure if it's a reassuring squeeze or just a grope, but either's fine with him.

The Fat Lady opens one eye when Harry says, "dragon scales," and wags a finger in their direction.

"Most irregular," she scolds, then stretches and blinks and beams. "But congratulations on your victory, young sir. A fine catch, if the gargoyles are to be believed."

That was only this evening, Draco thinks, leaning heavily against Harry as they step into the Gryffindor common room, squinting against the sudden light from lamps and the fireplace, and tensing at the noise from a dozen revellers. Red hair everywhere, and Hermione as always bending her fuzzy head to Ron's. Draco wonders if he'll have to stop insulting them in Harry's presence, but how could he ever restrain himself?

Of course they're all still celebrating, the older ones, sitting with photos of triumphant Gryffindor predecessors and chuckling over apple champagne. Why wouldn't they?

"Try this one! It's better, honestly," one of the twins insists; the other pours a gently smoking liquid with a grin and a flourish, and presses the glass into Johnson's hand. The camaraderie of the room is like a low hum, warm and jostling, and Draco just holds his breath and watches the floor rove past their feet, relieved when Harry makes straight for the dorm.

"We did the confundus through a mirror this time," the second twin confides, proudly, "so it shouldn't make you fall over--"

Draco catches himself smirking as they pass up the stairs and into the quiet darkness without mishap. He doesn't feel bitter about the match anymore, he realises, with a jolt of surprise. It was just one game, and there'll be others, and he still has the best broom and a staggering amount of natural flying talent. He almost caught the snitch on a hexed broom, after all.

Someone across the room snuffles and sighs, and Harry steers Draco towards a somewhat-untidy bed. "Sit there," he whispers, pressing Draco down by the pillow. "I'll just be a minute," he promises, slipping out from beneath the cloak and walking over to a low chest by the wall.

Draco watches him sink to his knees and rummage; he's quiet, efficient, and serious. With a twist of his memory, Draco casts him naked, braced against the chest, then very noisy indeed.

He likes the cloak.

Draco thinks about sprawling back on Harry's bed, one knee drawn up, his fingers brushing leisurely against his stomach - but the effect would be lost due to, well, being invisible, and Draco was never one to waste a pose.

Harry looks nervously back at the bed, and Draco pokes the pillow twice to demonstrate his attention. He moves over as Harry comes back, though not far enough for Harry to actually get onto the bed without pressing decidedly intimately close.

"Here," Harry whispers, rolling onto his belly and opening the book on his pillow. "Lumos candela. That's the chapter. You should probably take it with you."

Draco imagines staying, lying invisibly on top of Harry in the faint light and reading over his shoulder, nuzzling his ear to signal that it's time to turn the page.

There are maybe four other boys within hearing distance if it gets out of control, not to mention the intoxicated buffoons downstairs.

"Well," Draco says, "yes. But you can at least walk me to the door."

Striding jauntily back through the corridors, brandishing Pomegranate's box as a pre-emptive excuse for flaunting curfew, and letting her curl about his wrist like a birthright, Draco decides to take advantage of his disastrously dishevelled hair and what feels like an unseemly glow.

In adoring Snape, Draco knows he is simply exhibiting fine Slytherin taste. While none of the plebs in the school appreciate the man, his loyal House more than makes up for those ingrates' idiocy. Snape's favour is a highly-valued currency in Draco's world. And where, after all, do his fellow Slytherins think he's been, all this time?

He wonders if it's sacrilege to be reliving Harry's goodnight kiss, cloaked and sweet, while he crosses the threshold back into the Slytherin common room.

Probably. He rubs his lips vigorously to make sure they look bruised, smiles and steps through the door.

There are a few still up. Millicent and Blaise are studying, while young Baddock and Pritchard are building competing matchstick towers on the rug. Pucey is hunched alone in an armchair, glaring at the fire. Pansy is sprawled across Goyle now, with her head in Crabbe's lap. She's nearly asleep, and Crabbe is stroking her cheek with deep, dull-eyed concentration. Draco almost rolls his eyes: her choice of companions is increasingly petty and brash, even by Slytherin standards.

"You're back late," Pucey growls, looking at Draco balefully.

Draco stretches, luxuriously, letting post-coital shivers work their way through his muscles. "Well, yes," he drawls, when he's sure their attention is firmly snagged, "I spent a little longer with Snape than I planned, but I can assure you it went exceedingly well on all counts." He can't rein in the just-got-laid smile on his face, and, noting their reactions, stops trying.

Pucey squints at him, eyes glinting resentfully in the firelight. One of Pritchard's matches makes a dash for it, commiting a quick act of sabotage, and the tiny outraged shrieks of Baddock's crumpling tower sound very loud in the sudden tension of the room.

Draco remembers the heat and tremble of Harry's chest beneath his hands as Draco pressed him against the wall by the Fat Lady's portrait and eased his legs apart with a deliberate thigh-- and lets the memory show on his face as he scans the assembly. Pansy's eyes are on him, he notes, blazing with jealousy, and he smiles distractedly at both the cause and the effect of his glow.

He swings his concentration back to Pucey, and draws himself up, raising his snake-adorned arm to smooth distractedly at his mussed hair.

"I was in too good a mood to turn you in," he says, with his father's own brand of generous cruelty, "but I won't be forgetting your little scheme in a long time. And anyone else," he adds, regarding the rest of them coldly, "who takes liberties with Pomegranate in the future will, I promise, answer to both myself and Snape for it."

He nods crisply and pads into his room, leaving them to their communal sulking. They all looked so miserable, he thinks, collapsing onto his bed. Stupid fools.

He's almost too tired to spell on the light, but he can't resist admiring how beautifully shiny Pomegranate is now that he's enjoying himself again. Low light, then, to make her preen and glow.

He puts her box on his desk, and she curves down next to it, majestic silken serpent gliding through his fingers in silent adoration. He sighs happily and lies down on his bed, then freezes; on the pillow, a single feather, most definitely not from an owl.

He looks round the room, and sees the Malfoy hawk standing sentry by the window, not even a feather stirring, its bright eyes murderously serene. It holds a letter bearing Lucius' marbled seal, the paper - Draco knows - charmed to be unmarked by the polished blade of the bird's beak.

Draco cringes as the breath flees his lungs. It is unheard of for this particular messenger to let a message go unread, or depart without a written reply. The only violence the bird will not commit is that which could injure the quill hand.

It's fine, Draco thinks, smoothing his palms on his robes. He's fine now. He has the book. He'll piece it together and compose an appropriate response. After all, he learned the diplomatic arts from Lucius himself. He really has nothing to fear.

He opens it at the chapter where Harry thoughtfully left a glow-marker, and traces his finger down the page. The hawk bristles and stalks to the side of the bed, holding the letter in Draco's line of sight.

"Placos," Draco instructs, which will calm the bird for perhaps ten minutes, if he's lucky. It will have to be enough.

He turns the page, finds a small illustration of - yes, of his ring. It revolves steadily, shining on a gleaming backdrop of blue velvet, the snake's gemstone heart flashing an expensive luscious green. The Serpent's Heart, Draco reads. From the Coniuratius family; in the common tongue, one of the Union rings.

A bound union, Draco surmises, carrying the book to his desk and sitting gingerly. A few pieces of the puzzle fall into place.

The hawk shifts restlessly to face him, and Draco hurries on, skimming. Union rings... rare, priceless, uniquely forged... polished by moonlight, gem alchemised from the creature's-- ah.

The gem must be alchemised from the creature's first shed skin and affixed by moonlight to venom-slaked silver. The enchantment is secured when the ring is presented to the Bride, at which point a ritual performed with blended blood will guarantee the union's fecundity.

Beneath the words is a picture of a young, blond boy determinedly blinking back tears as he draws an exquisitely carved silver blade across the heel of his thumb, then lightly slices his black snake's belly, watching the dark blood dripping readily into a silver bowl. The heavily veiled bride watches, her fingertips seeping slow droplets, and in the bottom of the bowl, the ring lies, glowing.

Draco forces himself to release his breath, and sets the book aside for a minute. Pomegranate slides over and curls around his arm, a solid, secure comfort, and Draco realises he's trembling.

"They're not going to hurt you," he mutters, and she slides back down onto the desk and preens. She doesn't seem to be reacting to every nuance of his mood anymore, he notices. Certainly she doesn't feel this surface distress, except as an urge to make contact with him.

He skips the rest of the Preparation section, turns to Usage, reading, then frowning.

"Worn with the snake's eyes facing the heart," he reads softly, trying to concentrate as the Hawk stirs beside him, "the ring conveys the Groom's emotions to the Bride. Worn with the snake's eyes facing the world, the Bride inflicts her emotions on the snake."

He looks at Pomegranate; she's watching him placidly, coiled into a tidy pyramid, her eyes glinting half-closed. Draco tries to remember which way he wore the ring. With the snake's eyes toward him, he thinks. Which would mean he'd... been receiving his own emotions?

And then sending them back to Pomegranate, through the bond, only to receive them again. Hell's furies, he realises: a vicious cycle of ecstasy or agony. He resolves firmly not to do that again.

He starts to turn the page, and the hawk rustles its wings imperiously, holding out the letter, jabbing it forwards menacingly when Draco reaches for his wand.


At a loss for what else to do, Draco takes it and breaks the seal.

Draco, I cannot imagine what you hope to achieve by ignoring my correspondence. Answer directly: did the corculus anguisa bond with you? And have you given the ring to Miss Parkinson? I will not tolerate further delay; the betrothal must be now, for propriety's sake, as the marriage will occur promptly upon your completion of your OWLs and your withdrawal from Hogwarts.

Ah, Draco thinks, leaning back on the pillows. The Dark Lord wants more children, since all the ones from his last reign are about to come of age. The last generation, clearly, produced too few children for his liking.

Pomegranate is rapidly losing colour, and he wonders idly whether it would be better or worse for her to die now. Alive, she's both a doorway to Draco's deepest feelings, and a hostage to Pansy's happiness. He can't imagine a blood-bound union with magically ensured offspring will be anything but a fine breeding-ground for incessant, grinding misery-- and the ring places both Draco and Pomegranate at Pansy's mercy.

Better, he thinks, for the snake to die. As if on cue, Pomegranate begins her death throes.

The hawk nips at his ear, not at all gently, and Draco reaches up absently to wipe the trickle of blood away. This is so much worse than the fate he expected. It's almost humiliating to realise that his withdrawal from Hogwarts is for so prosaic a reason as breeding. It makes sense, of course-- if he were Lucius, he'd do much the same, and not care one whit how his son felt about his role in the proceedings. Much less, of course, the girl, and even less the children of a family so profoundly condemned to loathing one another.

He chokes back hysterical laughter at the thought of Christmas dinner fifteen years from now, his father carving the turkey, his mother sitting with perfect posture in acidic silence, Pansy drinking herself into a stupor, and a dozen blond children viciously pummeling one another over the sickles in the Christmas pudding. Himself, adorned with a dull, lifeless snake to betray his every necessary mask. The Dark Lord, of course, would sit at the head of his table, gazing with pleasure on his creation.

The hawk batters him with its wings and then seizes a clawful of his hair and yanks it out. Hysterics are bubbling to the surface now, as Pomegranate gasps and wheezes on the desk beside the book and his letter. He can't do this. Bound to a girl who'll be bound to the birthing chamber-- there's nothing enviable, nothing splendid or grand or even dignified about it. Even though Pansy would sleep with half the Gryffindor Quidditch team for a sickle, and all of the Slytherin team for a knut - even though marriage to her was promising to be a long life of humiliating cuckoldry - he can't bring himself to inflict this fate on her.

A piercing screech and a sharp pain in his shoulder draw his attention to the hawk, which has inked a quill and now holds it ready, hovering over a blank parchment page. Draco's mind has gone blank, but he accepts them anyway; he hasn't really got a choice.

Dear Father, he writes hastily, when the hawk stares savagely at the unmoving nib of the quill. I'd rather stab out my own eyes with a wand than marry Pansy for your intended purpose. You may inform your Lord that such duties are far beneath my station in life, and additionally that Potions Master Snape has an impotency remedy which might enable him to perform such tasks for himself in future.

Doubtlessly, my refusal places you in an awkward situation, but perhaps you'll be willing to overlook it, since my predilection for shagging Harry Potter is a far greater sin against the family name and a much more serious threat to the Voldemort's plans for dynastic overlordship.

Your faithful and obedient son, Draco.

He rolls the parchment carefully, affixes it with wax and applies his personal seal. Pomegranate retches loudly as he performs the enchantment against prying eyes and the curse on all, bar his father, who break the seal.

He was a fool to think a few stolen moments with Harry Potter in some lonely tower would change anything. He's his father's son, and as a consequence subject to his father's will. There's nothing he or anybody else can do to prevent the future that Lucius has arranged for him. Not even the Boy Who Lived can keep Draco at Hogwarts when his own father wants him elsewhere, furthering the family agenda.

Apparently a true Malfoy, Pomegranate seems to be dying in the most ostentatious fashion possible. She's writhing and twisting, fangs bared, whipping tail wreaking havoc on Draco's ivory desk set.

Rather like the effects of cruciatus, Draco notices. He sees his future coalescing into a bloody marriage and endless children, tied to Pansy by his snake and her ring, and maybe they'll get the Dark Mark as a wedding gift, for what greater honour could possibly be bestowed?

Pomegranate spasms, flashing a sickly grey. Maybe she's isn't dying, he thinks, numbly. Maybe she can't die until he dies, his mind adds, and his father wouldn't allow that, so it won't happen. She'll just suffer and suffer and suffer--

"No, shh," he says quickly, snapping out of the curious daze. "Don't worry, I won't send it. I'll think of something." He picks her up and she goes limp, slipping into the cradle of his arm and lolling silently. "I will," he promises. "I'll play the dutiful son, and then convince him to let us stay at Hogwarts, and then I'll warn Pansy and we'll figure something out."

Using his free hand, he picks up his wand and levitates the letter, gathering his faded strength before targeting it with his best immolation spell-- but the hawk screeches and swoops, breaking his concentration, seizing the letter and shooting off like an arrow.

Draco howls, then rushes to the window, stabbing with his wand and shrieking, casting every spell he can think of, collections and summonses and disintegrations and fogs and disorientations-- even, finally, avada kedavra -- but the hawk is long gone. Pomegranate is retching again, and Draco has to grip the window ledge as bile pushes hard against his choked throat.

The disrupted immolation spell has hit a Quidditch poster on his wall, he realises distantly, the numb glaze settling over him again as the nausea fades to bearable. Little medic wizards are clustered around the little green-silver striped seeker whose broom was just immolated from beneath him, while little hounds are keeping the little crowd back from the smoking ruin of half the little stands.

Furious, Draco slashes a vanquish rune across the painting with all his strength, then laughs in bitter incredulity when a red-and-gold cloaked team swoop into the picture, one small player clutching the snitch. He turns his back on it, and the sky mocks him, its glittery light illuminating the dark shape of a hawk winging back to its all-powerful master, carrying with it the most profoundly stupid thing Draco has ever done.

Exhausted, Draco stands and watches until the hawk is long gone and Pomegranate is as lifeless as a dirty rope thrown carelessly onto his desk.

He throws himself onto his bed and curls up, hugging his knees, watching her instead, turning his back on the stars. His stupidity with the letter pounds through his head again and again. No lie on earth will convince Lucius that he didn't mean it. There's really nothing left to do but wait for the inevitable.

He tries not to think, but it's wasted effort. He has just, essentially, informed his father that far sterner measures will be necessary to gain Draco's compliance. He's confessed a relationship with Harry Potter, and his father is not one to sit idly by when opportunity presents itself. There's no point trying to warn Harry. However Draco will be used against him, it will be orchestrated by a team of Death Eater experts armed with the entire contents of his memory. Draco will have no control over it, and Harry won't have a clue. By comparison, blood-bound marriage to Pansy was an idyllic.

Not, of course, that his confessed relationship with The Boy Who Lived will prevent the marriage, if the Dark Lord wants more children in his ranks. Pansy will hate him with a passion distilled from years of bitter bondage and thwarted ambition, and he'll hate her, and himself, with the same rarified fire.

The sky eventually blends pink and then pale, filling the room with unfamiliar shadows. Pomegranate still hasn't moved.

When Goyle brings his breakfast coffee and the morning report, Draco ignores him. His stomach doesn't even stir at the rich scent; he hasn't eaten since lunchtime yesterday, but frankly, such a mundane concern as hunger feels beyond him right now.

Goyle blinks in confusion he sees the motionless reptile on the desk, then backs quickly out of the room.

Time slows down to the degree that Draco almost feels entertained by the wedge of sunlight creeping across his desk. Pomegranate doesn't even twitch as the light slinks over her, and her eyes reflect a glassy nothing in Draco's direction.

He stares back, understanding that when the sun reaches him he will have to move or have his eyes scalded, but content to sit and wait here because what else is there to do? He doesn't know how to undo the spell, and anyway, it's pointless. Wait for the sun, wait for the father, wait for his precious snake to expire on a wilted breath-- it's all the same to him.

Time speeds up when the door bursts open by itself: it's an entrance worthy of just one man, and Draco whips round and glares against the sun and sees a flash of silky silvery-gold and curses.

In this moment where it's finally upon him, he finds he doesn't want to accept his fate like some meek crawling minion, and he won't, not while he can still snatch up his wand; he casts ninguesius and then stupefy on the shape revealed by the cascade of snow, kicks the shape a few times for good measure, casts a petrificus totalus and an obmutesco just to be sure, and then a finite on the invisibility charm.

The finite doesn't work. He tries aclaro and then aperio, before realising, of course, that it's a cloak, like the one Harry has.

"Accio cloak," Draco commands, wondering how far and how fast he'll need to run to escape his father now. At least he'll be able to look him in the eye first, he thinks, as the cloak flurries to his hand, and he looks at the crumpled shape of his father--

of his--


Fuck, Draco thinks, storming over to where a somewhat bruised and extremely crumpled Harry is glaring up at him from a petrified, pelted, dumb-struck, undeniably visible puddle of ice.

"Well, what do you expect?" Draco mutters sheepishly, pulling the spells off like so many cobwebs, eventually helping him to his feet and summoning a towel.

"What do you mean, what do I expect?" Harry snaps, scrubbing at his hair. "What do you expect? Sorry, should I take off the secret magic cloak while I'm still in your common room, which I might add I gained a highly illegal entrance to, just to blow our cover a little more? I'm so sorry for being worried about you. Clearly I wasn't thinking straight."

For a moment, listening to the irritated voice come from beneath the damp towel, Draco mourns the future he thought, briefly, wasn't impossibly out of reach.

Harry throws the towel on the floor and glares at him. He looks like a model in one of those swimming resort brochures, he thinks wistfully, except exceedingly angry. "You weren't at breakfast," he says, "and then I heard that Pomegranate was dead."

The world swings neatly back into place, and Draco waves negligently at the desk. "If she's not dead now, she soon will be."

"No!" Harry crosses to Pomegranate and picks her up, stroking her limp body, staring at Draco over the top of her head. "why?"

"Because I disobeyed my father and he knows about it."

"Oh," Harry says, sounding not at all impressed. "Right." He carries Pomegranate over to Draco's pillow and pours her onto it, kicking off his shoes before settling on the bed next to her. "Hey, now," he whispers to her, stroking her head with one fingertip. "It's fine, don't worry. Shhhh."

Draco stares at him, blackness welling inside him. "Oh," he mimics, "it's fine. Nothing at all's wrong. Right?"

"Give me the ring," Harry orders, gathering Pomegrate into the palm of his hand.

"Why?" Draco demands.

"I want it," Harry says, "I need to show you," and he's just too relaxed, too relaxed and confident and sexy, and Draco thinks, on receiving his letter, exactly who would Lucius--

"Shit," Draco breathes, going cold, because polyjuice, fuck. He stabs his wand at Lucius with an icy, trembling hand. "Get the hell away from me, Father."

Lucius squints and adjusts his glasses. "Okay," he says, "now is not the time to be neurotic, Malfoy. I bet your father doesn't know that I told you last night about the Sorting Hat."

But if Lucius were party to that information, that's exactly what he'd--

"Or that I was wearing boxer shorts with werewolves on them," Harry continues, and bites his lower lip.

"Possibly true," Draco admits. He didn't actually see Harry's boxer shorts, but Lucius would've raised his eyebrow, and Harry just looks wet and crumpled and impatient.

"So give me the ring," Harry says, and Draco hesitates, and Harry rolls his eyes and tosses his wand onto the desk. "Unarmed, okay?"

"Okay," Draco says, fetching the ring, cupping it a moment in his hand before closing his fist and touching it to Harry's outstretched palm. "If I can't trust you--"

"Of course you can, you bloody messed up fool," Harry mutters, puncturing the ceremony of the moment, "I'm a Gryffindor." Draco sighs and opens his hand.

Harry slips on the ring, the eyes of the snake looking outwards, and Pomegranate lifts her head curiously, then shakes off the pall on her scales. The Bride's emotions are revealed in the snake, Draco thinks, stunned, as the snake in question twines curiously around Harry's hand in a lively shimmer of silver and green. So that's what happens to the snake when the Bride isn't a font of seething hatred and misery.

"Look," Harry says, stretching out and letting Pomegranate weave around his arm. "I'm happy. You came to me and I've got you on my side and, in case you haven't noticed, I'm lying on your bed waiting for you to shag me again. See?" He holds up Pomegranate. "Happy."

"In case you didn't work it out from the blindingly obvious circumstances," Draco snarls, "I'm expecting my father any minute now, and he knows what we did, and he'll use me to try to get at you and then marry me off to Pansy with that pretty little," he points to the ring, "dark magic artefact." He points to himself, since Harry clearly doesn't grasp even the most basic facts of the situation. "You can dance naked in fields of tulips with my snake if you want, but I am not fine."

Harry sits up and looks up at him warily. "No, hey," he says, placating, "I know, it's big, but it's fine. Don't worry."

He reaches for Draco. Draco steps backward, coldly incensed. It's not fine, he's not fine, and he doesn't appreciate being told that he is. "You have no idea what you're dealing with!" he shouts.

Harry's eyes darken, and Draco stares furiously at his current reality: Harry Potter is sitting casually on his bed, holding Pomegranate, smiling like Draco just doesn't understand. "I have no idea what you're dealing with," Harry repeats blandly, and then flares in irritation. "Malfoy, you have no idea what I'm dealing with. Have you even noticed that I'm hardly in school any more?"

"Of course I have," Draco snaps, Draco folding his arms and glaring back at him.

Harry shakes his head. "Honestly, Draco! If I didn't have such a mad crush on you, I'd kick you in the head right now. You're so hung up on your father, you couldn't care less about Voldemort."

"I don't give a damn about Voldemort!" Draco shouts, and Harry gives him a predatory, frankly Slytherin smile.

"Good," he says briskly. "I could use someone who doesn't give a damn about Voldemort. Meanwhile, I don't give a damn about Lucius Malfoy, so I'll take care of him. Any questions?"

Draco stares at this beautiful confident crazy boy who just confessed a mad crush on him and didn't kick him in the head. "You're insane," he manages finally. "My father will be dragging me back home any minute now."

Still smiling, Harry shakes his head and picks up his cloak. "Get Pomegranate's box," he tells Draco.

Draco throws the box at him, and Pomegranate slides happily into her space when Harry holds it out to her.

"I like what you've done with the poster, by the way," Harry says cheerfully, waving his free hand at the revelling Gryffindor players, dancing drunkenly around Draco's vanquish rune while the Slytherins sulk near the frame. "Very appropriate. You'll have to show me how you did it."

Draco stares at him, an explosion loitering in his throat.

"Hermione was complaining about the Slytherin portraits in the East Wing only last Tuesday," Harry continues, flipping the box shut and holding it out to Draco, smiling expectantly. "And Ron would love it."

Draco flinches, the heat in his throat cresting painfully. "Shut up, shut the fuck up!" He's close to tears, now, struggling fiercely to keep them down. "Fuck, how can you-- You know what the ring does! He wants me get married with it. I can't do it but I can't hide from him either!"

Harry moves closer, presses the box into Draco's numb hand. "Look," he says. "It's your birthday tomorrow, right?"

"Yes." In all the excitement, Draco thinks acidly, he's forgotten to look forward to it.

"Your coming of age?"

"Yes," Draco snaps bitterly. "I expect I'll get betrothed to mark the occasion."

Harry bats his eyelashes at him. "Well, I'm not sure I want to rush into anything."

Draco stomps his foot and lifts his hand, and he's really going to punch him this time. "Potter, stop being such a fucking imbecile! I'm in serious trouble here."

"Wrong," Harry shrugs, and swings the cloak over the two of them. "You're of age tomorrow - you can tell Dumbledore that you don't want to be removed from Hogwarts and he'll protect you until your NEWTs."

"Dumbledore wouldn't help me," Draco sneers into the blanketed space between them. "He'll be glad to see me go."

Harry smacks him not-too-gently on the arm. "When you come of age, in case you haven't figured it out, that means you can make decisions for yourself. School regulations say Dumbledore can't let anyone remove you from school without permission-- and once you're sixteen, that means your permission, not your father's. So I'll hide you until tomorrow, and then everything will be fine. If," Harry turns to look at him with eyes wide beneath his glasses, "if you want to stay at school, that is."

Draco swallows hard; he can't quite believe it. "Dumbledore will be on my side when my father comes?"

"He'd help you anyway, but yes," Harry promises. "All the teachers will. You're thinking as if you have to fight every battle alone, but you don't."

There's an easing, a long, weary sigh from some place deep inside of him. "I didn't think there was anyone to help me."

"I know. Believe me," Harry grins, a little wryly, "I know. And if I've learned anything about battles all these years, it's that nothing's worse than fighting alone."

"I'm sorry," Draco blurts, and he's clutching Harry's shoulder, babbling with relief. It's as simple as making the choice, but it never occurred to him that he'd be given one. "I'm sorry, I didn't know."

"It's fine," Harry tells him, smiling, and slides an arm around Draco's waist. "We're fine. So you do want to stay, then?"

Draco wonders breathlessly if this could possibly, ever, in a million years, work, but with Harry bloody Potter and his adoring teachers on his side, it just might. In a split second, he's decided. "If I'm not at Hogwarts," he promises, "I can't thrash you at the next Quidditch match. Now get me out of here."

"Someone in this dorm needs a triple-strength sinus tonic," Draco whispers, stretched out against Harry in Harry's bed, the soft fall of the invisibility cloak tickling his nose. Pomegranate is curled around the bedpost, glimmering in the dark. Harry can't seem to stop nuzzling him. The last minutes of Draco's childhood are dripping away, and he feels, with an undeniable degree of nervousness, that this entire situation is a glorious fuck-you to everyone who's ever held sway over his future.

It's perfect, except, Draco reflects, for the unwavering snores coming from across the room - they're soft, and almost regular, and just varying enough that they refuse to fade into background noise.

"I like it," Harry whispers back, and Draco smirks and shifts closer, resting his ear on Harry's collarbone.

"It must be music compared to what passes for singing among your team-mates," Draco says, and Harry chuckles, stroking his arm.

"Nah, it just means there's peace at Hogwarts," he says, then adds, "well, temporarily. Or maybe that the screams haven't reached us yet."

Draco laughs, but he can't help wondering--

"It's not going to happen," Harry says, quietly serious, interrupting him so fast that for a moment Draco wonders if he's still wearing the ring. "Believe me. We have wards spreading halfway into the Forbidden Forest right now, and there's a dozen people alerted when there's even a scrape of trouble, including me. No one's going to let you get taken, okay? Ever." His voice warms into a tease. "The next time you see your father, it'll be because I sent you, and isn't that reassuring?"

It is, actually. "So that's the plan?" Draco says archly, to avoid muttering embarrassing truths. "You get to order me around now?"

"Do I?" Harry says, sounding altogether happy with the prospect. "Excellent."

"No, you don't," Draco insists.

Harry makes a disappointed noise. "But--"

"You get to coax me, though," Draco interrupts, inspired, as the clock hoots midnight. "Or, hmm. You will be allowed to present your suggestions as reasoned and logical arguments, and I shall consider them at my leisure. During which time you are free to continue the coaxing process, using any means you feel appro--"

"Hey," Harry says, rolling on top of him, speaking against his mouth, "Happy Birthday."

"--priate, mm," Draco finishes, magnaminously allowing himself to be kissed, finding that the deliberate nuzzle and slide of Harry's mouth sets nerves ringing in expectation all over the place. His body's been primed, he realises, over the last fifteen glorious hours of invisibility, to expect great things when Harry's tongue slips into his mouth. What a great Birthday Eve. He can only hope his actual birthday is able to match it.

From the catch in Harry's breath when Draco lifts his hands above his head, Draco suspects great things may well be brewing once more--

But he breaks away reluctantly, because he has a lot to do, having come of age at last. One very important thing first, and then he can start dealing with all the others, like Pansy and the Slytherins and what on earth he's going to do with his life, now that it's in his own hands.

Draco reaches for the letter he wrote earlier, and hands it to Hedwig. "The Headmaster," he tells her, and she shoots off into the night.

"Welcome to the other side," Harry tells him. "Where you're probably going to get cursed, poisoned and bruised on a regular basis, and are expected to study for NEWTs in between life-threatening adventures."

"Sounds great," Draco admits. "Do I get to skip classes?"

"Only if you're flying all over the Forbidden Forest investigating alarms and checking on wards."

"Count me in. I can ride a broom all by myself, you know."

"I know," Harry says softly, and curls himself closer. "We're going to be great."

Draco rolls his eyes. "Of course we are. We're Slytherins."

Outside Harry's window, the stars have wheeled around to a new set of constellations. Draco reaches up and lets Pomegranate slip down from the bedpost onto his wrist. It feels like he's never been without her there. Her scales gleam like polished silver, and there's a glint of smug satisfaction in her gleaming eyes. She's exquisite. And as for the ring... he picks it up from Harry's bedside table and studies it. It is, he admits, a thing of profound beauty, with a rarity to rival Pomegranate's. A gift worthy of the finest Slytherin.

"You can decide what to do with it, now," Harry murmurs, and Draco flicks the ring into the air. It spins, Harry catches it, and that, Draco thinks, is all he needs to know.

Harry toys with it-- facing inwards? facing outwards? Draco's curious as to what he'll decide, but Harry seems unwilling to do either. Eventually he reaches over and snags a few strands of Draco's hair.

"Ow," Draco whines, and Harry rolls his eyes at him.

He twists the hairs into a thread and then conjures a gold chain from them, looping it through the ring. "All right?" he says cautiously, and Draco nods. Harry hangs the chain around his neck and then reaches for Pomegrate, who curls up happily between them.

"She was right to choose you," Harry says quietly.

"Tell her thanks from me." Draco yawns hugely, ready to close his eyes on the day, the week, the whole damn year, and wake up to a new one.

"She says you're welcome," Harry says, "and that I'm a better Seeker than you, and that you're to buy her lots of chocolate frogs and give them to me to look after."

"I'm going to have to learn Parseltongue, aren't I? There must be a charm somewhere..."

Harry reaches over and spells out the lamp. "You'll love it," he mumbles. "It's got a grammatical form just for insults."

The Gryffindor Snorer redoubles his efforts, and Draco feels himself drifting down into dreams where everything's fine, if not exactly harmonious, with the world.

"Remind me," Draco says sleepily. "I must write to my father."

Harry half-opens his eyes, and lets them fall shut again. "Mm?"

Draco feels the flicker of a tongue against his fingers, and smirks tiredly to himself in the darkness. "I never did thank him for his wonderful gift."

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