Chapter 14 - Dust and Ashes
Who so loves, believes the impossible.
"Do you believe in fate, Hermione?"
The cool evening wind ruffled Harry's dark, unruly hair; he didn't bother to push away the fringe that fanned across his eyes. He stared out across the lake, tranquil like a mirror of liquid glass, as ripples of troubled thoughts rose in his mind.
"Do you?" Hermione asked simply.
Harry shrugged, his gaze fixed across the waters. He liked how they remained calm even as gentle winds swirled over the surface. There was a dense, balanced quality about the lake that was infinitely calming.
But even after the storm was calmed, the damage still remained.
When Harry didn't answer, Hermione seemed on the brink of saying something, but she held back. Harry was quiet for a while, casting for the right words to express things he didn't quite understand.
"I don't know," he finally said, the frustration and hopelessness shining through his voice, glistening like unshed tears. "Is there any other way that'll make this easier to accept?"
Hermione's expression softened. She reached out, and touched Harry's arm.
"It's not your fault," she said quietly, "and neither is it Malfoy's. Sometimes things just turn out very differently from what you expect."
"Like the way he was the one who drank the love potion, but I'm the one finding it hard to let him go?" Harry blurted out bitterly; then he caught himself, and said quickly, "To let go, I mean."
Hermione took a deep breath, and sighed.
"You can't let go of what was never yours in the first place." She looked intently at Harry; her tone was meaningful. "You never really had him, Harry. You have to try to remember that it was the love potion influencing him, and any affection, or... or, love, as it might've seemed none of it was real."
The stark truth fractured Harry's fragile veneer of composure raw emotion flashed through him like a whip of lightning, and Harry closed his eyes. There was nothing left to see, nothing to hold on to.
None of it was real.
"This seems like a convenient time to blame it on fate, don't you think?" he said wearily. "It was all so wrong to begin with I find it hard to believe this wasn't written in the stars of a very dark night." His voice quavered. "The night I went to the Forbidden Forest."
"So you think that you and Malfoy were meant to meet each other there?" Hermione asked pensively, a small frown etching her brow.
"I can't explain it any other way," Harry answered. "I wasn't supposed to be out of bed. Somehow I got it in my head that I had to sneak out to send an owl to Sirius in the middle of the night, even without my Cloak. And that same night Malfoy was in the Forbidden Forest, at precisely the time I went past. Do you think the bizarre crossing of our paths was just a coincidence?"
Hermione looked thoughtful for a long moment. Her eyes were bright and alert, as if her mind was running through everything which had transpired since that night in the Forbidden Forest whether it was fate, fortune, or something else altogether.
"I don't think it was meant to happen," Hermione said finally. "It just did." She paused, then added softly, "And in the most unlikely place, you and Malfoy found each other."
Draco sat on his bed, his arms crossed, a frown on his face and a scowl on his lips.
He'd been like this all day. And yesterday. And the day before that. Until even Crabbe and Goyle knew better than to ask him what was wrong, and just stayed away without being told.
Draco sighed, and rolled over to lie on his stomach. When nothing meaningful filled his time, it was easy to keep track of how much of it had gone by. It had been almost a week since Harry had given him the Invisibility Cloak; it was now carefully stashed in his trunk, under his bed.
Draco was feeling restless but it was a different sort of restlessness, not on the edge of a dream, but rather, at the end of it, when reality swallowed up the beauty and perfection that illusion had conjured. It was the restlessness of remembrance.
So it was over with Harry. He had made sure Harry knew that.
Perhaps now he should start convincing himself.
On impulse, Draco leaned over and rummaged through the drawer by his bedside. His fingers groped for cold metal, the touch of ice that had once braceleted his wrist, marking him more deeply than he had realised until now.
Cold was warmth, being owned was a willing offering. That's what Harry had done to him.
He drew the single handcuff out, and held it up for inspection. The smooth metal glinted in the dim firelight that flickered from the lone torch on the dormitory wall. The weight of the handcuff on his palm was comforting, a broken circle that fitted perfectly within the contours of his hand.
The inscription on the cuff stood out starkly, like silver fire-writing on the outer band, fanciful lettering forming a simple name. Draco closed his eyes as memories flooded through his mind, a relentless tide that overwhelmed him then everything began to dissolve to nothing, purified in the relentless crucible of his heart, until there remained only the essence of what still held a place deep inside him.
Draco opened his eyes, and stared at Harry's name on the cuff: H J Potter.
Harry James Potter, the Boy Who Lived to make people question their belief systems. Harry had certainly taught him the meaning of "nothing will ever be the same again." And this is what Draco feared most that it would wreck him, and destroy Harry. There was too much at stake. Too much to lose that neither of them could afford.
Draco let the handcuff drop softly onto the covers next to him; like a fallen steel petal, hollowed in the middle. Draco looked at it for a long moment.
He'd done everything he could to push Harry away.
And it had worked.
"Are you going to tell us why you and Harry aren't talking?" Seamus asked, always the epitome of tact and discretion.
Ron, who was sitting near the fireplace of the Gryffindor common room, looked up from his book; his expression was closed, and his voice was hard as he said, "No, it's nothing, really."
"Okay. Why aren't you talking to Hermione, either?"
"Look," Ron suddenly seemed agitated. "Why don't you go ask Hermione about it? She knows more about Harry than I do."
"We did," Seamus said woefully. "But she won't tell us. She told us to mind our own business."
"That isn't bad advice," Ron pointed out.
"But these invisible walls you're building all over the place aren't good," Seamus protested. "We might walk into them."
"Oh, c'mon, Ron," Dean chimed in, scooting closer to the redheaded boy. "Wars are always fought for a reason. Well, most of the time, anyway. So what is it? Did Harry read your diary? Forget your birthday? What did he do that's made you so mad at him?"
"Maybe it's more like something he didn't do," Ron said, a streak of anger in his voice. "He forgot that I was his friend." An expression of bitterness crossed his face. "There was a time I thought I knew Harry. I thought he trusted me, the way I trusted him. But I was wrong." He shrugged. "I don't know him at all."
Seamus and Dean exchanged alarmed looks.
"Gosh, Ron, cut it out, you're scaring us," Seamus said, with wide eyes. "What's going on?"
"I don't want to talk about it," Ron said shortly, with a tight shake of his head. "No offence, but you two wouldn't understand, anyway." He abruptly stood up, and walked towards the portrait hole. "I'm going for a walk," he tossed over his shoulder; and he was gone.
Dean and Seamus blinked, and looked at each other.
"So much for your fledging career in espionage, Seamus," Dean remarked. "On that note, I don't recommend you become a shrink, either. Your patients would run away, like Ron just did."
"Only a little snag in the plan," Seamus said stoically. "Don't worry, we'll find out what's going on soon enough. Trust me."
"Sure," Dean muttered. "Probably when what's going on finds us, first."
Harry went into his dormitory alone. He missed having Ron by his side and then felt guilty because, for the couple of weeks he was preoccupied with helping Draco, he hadn't been a very good friend to Ron at all. Harry walked towards his bed and from a distance, a dark blur on his pillow caught his eye. He blinked, and went to take a closer look.
When he saw what it was, his heart skipped a beat, and then another. With trembling hands, Harry reached over, and picked it up.
It was a black rose.
Harry stared at it for what seemed like an eternity everything seemed to fade around him, like shadows receding away from the pure black of the rose he held in his hands, its dark velvet petals unfurled in a perfect bloom. A thorn on the stem pricked his finger, a reminder of reality; but Harry ignored it. He felt his legs give out, as he sat heavily down on the bed.
There was no note accompanying the flower, no other sign of who could have given it to him, except for the rose itself. Harry had seen the list of ingredients for the love potion enough times to know what the last element of the concoction was a black rose.
Ever since he sent Draco his Invisibility Cloak, Harry hadn't heard a word from the other boy. He'd half expected Draco to send back the Cloak, but the Slytherin hadn't; he'd simply accepted the parcel without acknowledgement or reply. Almost a week had passed, and Harry had all but given up hope of hearing from Draco; he'd told no one about the loan of the Cloak, not even Hermione.
Now all the words he had waited for were crafted in the rose itself the colour of the night they had met, the fragile perfection that would only fade with time. And the trickle of blood was a reminder of the new form of pain that Draco had shown him how to feel.
Why had Draco given the black rose to him?
Harry stood up, swallowing the emotions that threatened to overwhelm him. He held up the rose, and looked at it again; already it seemed more subdued, black fading into a paler shade, some of its vibrant darkness diffusing into the atmosphere of wistful sadness all around.
What had Draco meant?
Picking up a library book on potions that Hermione had lent him, Harry left the boys' dormitory, and went to look for her. She wasn't in the common room, and so Harry ventured up the stairs to the girls' dormitory. Knocking twice, there was no answer from within but then, he hadn't really expected any of the Gryffindor girls to be in their room in the middle of the day.
He suddenly remembered that Hermione had a meeting with McGonagall about her Advanced Transfiguration project. He let himself into the dormitory, and went to leave the book on Hermione's bed. But as he turned to leave, Harry spied a scroll on Hermione's bedside that looked... familiar.
He hesitated, then leaned over and picked it up. A shiver coursed through him as he recognised what it was and now, the memory of it felt so detached, so far removed, as if from another life, a life that had since passed him by.
It was Draco's Imperius essay.
He sat down on the edge of Hermione's bed, unfurled the scroll, and began to read. His eyes skimmed over the parchment, as he felt every nuance in Draco's words spear through him, twisting like the pain of a blade shard lost deep within his soul.
"Over time, probably the most destructive effect of Imperius on a person is the gradual, conscious yielding of the mind, until submission becomes almost voluntary, an acquired habit..."
Harry closed his eyes, unable to read further. He felt a terrible tightness knotted in his chest, rendering him almost incapable of breathing properly. When he finally opened his eyes once more, the words coalesced and blurred for a moment, before they came into focus again.
"That is when the Curse has finally conquered the last citadel of one's character his heart."
And Harry couldn't have described it better.
"We're starting a new topic," Professor Lupin announced, "which will be of much practical value to all of you. Today, we will learn more about wizard's duels."
Harry glanced at Hermione, sitting next to him. She was studiously scratching away at a fresh piece of parchment, which was steadily becoming filled with her small, neat handwriting. As Lupin gave a brief introduction to wizard's duels, Harry looked furtively to his right, where Ron was sitting with Neville.
Ever since that night in Dumbledore's office, he and Ron hadn't exchanged more than two words at a time; Harry was painfully reminded of their rift back in their fourth year, when Ron had misunderstood Harry's entry into the Triwizard Tournament as a quest for glory.
The only difference was: this time, there wasn't a misunderstanding.
Ron had understood the situation perfectly, perhaps even more than Harry could bear to admit to himself that somehow, against all sense and reason, Harry had found a place in his heart for Draco Malfoy. That was the truth. And there was nothing Harry could do to mend their falling-out this time; even facing a fiery dragon would not change anything.
Then Harry looked across the room, at Draco.
The blond Slytherin was twirling his quill listlessly, looking bored in an altogether fetching way. Harry noticed how Draco was sitting upright, free from the invisible weight of unrequited yearning that had hunched them before. Harry watched as Draco raised his hand to push his fringe out of his eyes; he saw the way Draco's hand was steady, those slender fingers tucking the stray strands behind his ear.
Draco looked so different, yet, still the same. It was a strange paradox to look at Draco now, having seen the two very different facets of him. There was the Draco that he had known before, who kept everyone at bay with his spiked fences of cruel sarcasm and spite; but also the other Draco he had come to know so intimately, who was proud yet not arrogant, witty without being malicious but at the same time, tortured without any hope, suffering without any cure.
Or so they had thought.
Then Harry had given him the cure he needed; and, in so doing, he gave up the other Draco whom he had become attracted to, whom he had grown to care about. He was foolish to have hoped that somehow, after things went back to normal, Draco wouldn't revert to his former self.
He'd been hurt once already. That bruising kiss in the classroom was more than enough to remind him how imagining Draco would still be drawn to him was a stupid dream that deserved to be shattered. And Draco had done him that favour extremely well indeed. Since then, Harry had made himself truly believe that Draco didn't care about him any longer.
Until the black rose.
"... invite Harry Potter to tell us his experiences?" came Lupin's voice, breaking into his thoughts.
Harry blinked, jolted back into reality; he hastily picked up his quill and poised it over the blank piece of parchment laid flat in front of him. He saw the rest of the class turn to look at him expectantly except for Draco, who didn't even turn his head.
Hermione cleared her throat. "He wants to interview you," she muttered out of the corner of her mouth.
"Yes, Professor?" Harry rose to his feet, feeling distinctly ruffled and unprepared. He hadn't been listening to Lupin's lecture, and had absolutely no idea what he was being asked for.
If Lupin noticed Harry's distraction, he didn't show it.
"I've done enough lecturing from the books for this lesson. There's only so much I can tell you about duelling." Lupin gave Harry an encouraging smile. "But, I think hearing Harry share his experiences of duelling will prove to everyone here that duelling has nothing to do with age and everything to do with skill and, most importantly, determination. Harry would you please come to the front of the classroom?"
The Gryffindors grinned and clapped as Harry made his way to the front, where Lupin was standing. Harry felt himself blushing, and hoped it wasn't too obvious.
"So, Harry," Lupin started, "tell us about wizard's duelling no, don't tell me, face your classmates and tell them about it."
Reluctantly, Harry turned to face the rest of the class. He willed himself not to look at Draco. He couldn't afford to show what he felt, not in front of everyone. It would be too humiliating for him, and for Draco.
"What about wizard's duelling?" Harry asked, partly stalling, partly not knowing how to begin.
"Well, when did you first learn about it?" Lupin asked easily. "When was your first duel?"
Something about Lupin's questions struck a chord with Harry; and suddenly his apprehension melted away, and the words came to him naturally, like waters crashing past a broken dam, a profusion of suppressed emotion finally finding expression.
"I first heard of duelling when I came to Hogwarts," Harry began; his own voice surprised him with its strength and steadiness. He lifted his eyes to look directly at Ron. "And my friend Ron explained to me how it worked."
Ron looked up, startled at the mention of his name.
Harry kept holding his gaze, as he continued, "It was, to say the least, very intimidating to me. I never imagined I would be able to hold my own and when I was first challenged to a wizard's duel, I hadn't a clue what to do." Harry gave a wry smile. "But Ron stood up for me, and offered to be my second. If not for him, I would never have worked up the nerve to accept that challenge."
Ron was staring at Harry, as if in disbelief. Harry smiled at him, a fervent smile which spoke his sorrow and asked for forgiveness. Ron hesitated, and didn't smile back; but the edges of his mouth twitched slightly, and the expression in his eyes softened.
"So what became of that first challenge?" Lupin asked.
"It never happened." Harry turned back to Lupin. "Which was a relief, really, since I don't think I knew enough magic then, and spells gone wrong are often messier than necessary." He managed a grin. "I think Mr Filch would've had quite a lot to say about that."
Lupin allowed a small smile in return. "If that challenge didn't materialise, then when was your first proper wizard's duel?"
"A Duelling Club was started in my second year," Harry answered; he willed himself not to glance at a certain boy sitting on the Slytherin side of the classroom. "We were taught the basics of duelling, and a few simple spells like the Disarming Charm. Then we were paired off for the first duel." He halted for a heartbeat. "My first duel."
Lupin nodded. "And in retrospect, what do you think of that first duel?"
Harry didn't even hesitate. "I think it was the most important duel of my life."
Two rows from the front, a blond head snapped up; a pair of grey eyes watched Harry with narrowed surprise.
"Is that so?" Lupin asked, eyebrow raised. "Could you tell us why?"
Harry steeled himself to remain steady, and he kept his eyes fixed on Lupin. But even though he didn't turn his head, he could feel Draco's gaze on him, unfaltering; and the titillation being watched by Draco sent a shiver of cold fire up his spine.
"There are many reasons," he said finally. "And most of them didn't become apparent to me until much later. But I gained a lot of experience during that first duel, lessons that I've carried with me ever since."
"What kind of lessons?" Lupin prompted.
"How to be careful," Harry replied. "How to watch your opponent and never trust him to play fair, because in real life there's no such thing as playing by the rules." He paused. "Rules are anything that can help you survive. In the first few moments of that duel, I found out the world of difference between the way things should be done, and the way they actually happen."
Lupin looked mildly surprised; perhaps he hadn't expected such frank comments from Harry, especially not to a class who was supposed to learn the proper etiquette of wizard's duels. But he let Harry continue.
Harry bit on his lower lip; he cast his mind back to that night in the Great Hall, when he had stood across from Malfoy, poised, waiting for the count of three and the years seemed to melt away, and that duel half a decade ago was still a vivid memory. Time changed nothing.
"It taught me to expect the worst, and be prepared for it." Harry spoke in a quiet voice, but in the silence of the classroom it rang clear as a bell, resonant with melancholy. "It was the first time I picked up a wand for the purpose of duelling, and I wasn't sure what to expect."
Harry broke off abruptly; and for a moment the memories were so devastatingly stark that he remained silent, too overcome to do justice to the intensity of the feelings that ran through him.
"I remember the only question my duelling partner asked me that night," Harry's voice was filled with a quiet, delicate tone of acceptance. "He asked me if I was scared. And I told him, 'You wish.' "
His words drew a scatter of laughter from the class; but Harry didn't smile. His expression remained completely serious, as he continued speaking.
"But the truth was that I was scared. And too scared to admit it least of all to the very person who... unsettled me so much." Harry drew a deep breath. "I suppose there's a first time for everything in life, not just duels."
And then Harry turned, and looked straight at Draco; their eyes locked, and everything seemed to crash to nothing, falling away as they held gazes for that eternal moment. Draco's eyes were remote, yet filled with a veiled emotion too vague to be interpreted. Harry felt himself being drawn simply by the unwavering power of Draco's eyes watching him, like a moth to a flame; to its destruction.
Harry's lips moved, and the words left his mouth like whispers in a dense dream
"And when you've never done, or felt, something before," Harry's eyes never once left Draco's. "It scares you."
Something flitted across the calm expression in Draco's eyes, ripples quickly swallowed up by still waters and then Draco looked away, breaking their intense eye contact.
The moth blazed to ash.
Everything moved again, but in a different way not falling away, but falling apart. Harry's mind spun as he forced himself to turn to Lupin.
It was the end. There was nothing left to say and now he couldn't even blame it on words left unspoken, because there were none. He'd said what he wanted to, bared a part of his soul in front of the entire class because that was the only way he could make Draco listen... and now, there was nothing left for him to give.
"So," Lupin said, "how did learning these lessons help you in other duels?"
Hearing Lupin's question, Harry was suddenly struck by the ironic symmetry of past and present, of mistakes made and lessons gleaned and a sense of overwhelming sadness filled him, because he had finally come full circle.
"I said there were lessons," Harry gave a wry, bitter smile. "But I never said I learned any of them."
There was no need for pretenses any longer. Harry glanced up, and saw Hermione looking at him anxiously; he knew she understood what he was talking about. That was more than could be said of his other classmates, including Ron, who were looking bewildered at Harry's cryptic comments. But he hadn't been talking for them.
He'd said those things for Draco.
"Thank you for sharing your experiences, Harry," Lupin regarded him thoughtfully; just as Harry was about to return to his seat, Lupin added, "Before you go, just one last question?"
Harry halted, and turned. He was feeling tired, in more ways than one. "Yes, Professor?"
"Who was your first duelling partner?"
Harry looked at Lupin for a long moment.
"Draco Malfoy," he said finally.
A low murmur rose from his classmates, although it wasn't out of surprise, as almost the entire class had been at the Duelling Club five years ago. Most likely, they still remembered that particular duel between Harry and Draco, which had resulted in Harry's discovering that he was a Parselmouth. Rather, they were probably puzzled, and somewhat disconcerted, by Harry's plain acknowledgement that he had been scared when he faced Malfoy in that duel. How could Harry ever say that, especially in front of Malfoy himself?
"Malfoy?" Lupin sounded surprised; he hadn't been a teacher at Hogwarts at that time. He looked at Draco with renewed interest. "I had no idea you and Harry had duelled before..." and both lived to tell the tale, was the sentiment that was discreetly implied at the end of his trailing sentence.
Draco remained impassive, and said nothing.
Harry filled in by nodding; he added softly, "We have." Duelled, and done a lot more since then.
"Well," Lupin looked contemplative. "Since I was also planning to have a live demonstration of a proper wizard's duel in class today, I wonder if both of you would like to be participants." He paused, and glanced from Harry to Draco, and back to Harry again. "Especially since your previous duel together proved to be such a memorable one. Draco, you can take heart from the fact that some of the experience Harry gained while duelling with you, probably helped him triumph when he faced the Dark Lord himself."
That last comment caused a mutter of muted outrage among the Slytherins, but Draco was unmoved. Perhaps not quite unfazed, but rather, too preoccupied to care.
Lupin cast a sidelong glance at Harry. "Are you willing to help in the demonstration?"
Harry's eyes flickered briefly to Draco. The Slytherin remained seated, but Harry could see the tension in Draco's squared shoulders, his slender body held proudly upright. Although Draco's face was carefully wiped clean of emotion, Harry could see the keen wariness inherent in Draco's manner: much like a cat sensing approaching shadows and drawing itself together, poised and ready to strike.
"Yes if he wants to," Harry replied cautiously; once more, he didn't know what to expect, and the thought of duelling with Draco again awakened a thrilling sensation within him.
All eyes now turned to Draco. The blond boy didn't bat an eyelid, or move a muscle he simply sat where he was, nonchalant despite the heightened anticipation that awaited his reaction in the crucial moments that were to follow.
Finally, Draco stood gracefully. With a fluid sweep of his left hand, he picked up his wand from where it lay on the table. He stepped away from his chair and, exuding nothing but elegance and supreme confidence, made his way to the front of the classroom, where Lupin and Harry stood waiting. He drew to a halt several feet away from Harry, standing directly opposite him.
"Thank you, Draco," Lupin said pleasantly; but his tone bore a firm warning as he continued, "Now please bear in mind that this is a demonstration. Charms used during this duel must only be from the list of permissible magic spells, found in your textbook. Should things get out of hand, I will halt the duel promptly so if you wish to derive the most practical benefit and experience from this exercise, keep in line." Lupin looked at the two boys appraisingly. "I won't worry about giving amateur handicaps, since both of you seem well-matched."
Both of you seem well-matched. Harry's mouth twisted humourlessly. Indeed.
Lupin now addressed the class. "As you can see, Harry and Draco are in the starting position for a wizard's duel: a fair distance apart, directly opposite each other, wands ready. Always stand straight, shoulders upright."
Now Lupin paused and looked at the students, who were all waiting eagerly.
"Something is missing," Lupin said, "that would often be present in a proper wizard's duel. Can anyone tell me what it is?"
Hermione's hand was, as usual, first up in the air. Lupin gestured towards her. "Yes, Hermione?"
"A second," Hermione answered. "To take over in case something... untoward happens to the main dueller."
"Yes, that is correct," Lupin nodded approvingly. "Seconds are not always featured in wizard's duels, since they aren't compulsory. Also, the situation sometimes does not allow for a second to be formally appointed for each side. But, for the sake of our demonstration today, we will let our duellers appoint their second. Harry, whom do you choose?"
Without hesitation Harry said, "Ron."
Ron sat up with a jolt, looking flustered. Harry gave him a long, silently imploring look. He was grasping at the last straws of their floundering friendship; and he fervently hoped that Ron wouldn't turn him down now or it would mean things between them were truly beyond repair.
"Ron," Harry said again, in a quiet yet clear voice. "Will you be my second?"
Hearing Harry speak his name again seemed to spur Ron to action. He stared at Harry for a moment longer; then he got up, grabbed his wand off the table and headed towards the front of the classroom.
Harry exhaled a sigh of relief; and, from where she sat, Hermione broke into a small smile. As Ron came up to stand beside him, Harry turned to him with a look of gratitude that radiated from deep within him.
"Thank you," he whispered.
Ron only nodded in reply; but in his blue eyes, Harry could see the start of the familiar warmth returning, which he had badly missed seeing over the past couple of weeks. His spirits lifted slightly, and the gloom seemed to recede at least not all was lost.
Harry glanced up, and saw Draco watching them. Even though Draco's eyes were inscrutable as always, Harry knew the Slytherin clearly discerned the covert beginnings of reconciliation between him and Ron.
Lupin now turned to Draco. "Whom do you pick for your second?"
Draco shook his head once, not taking his eyes off Harry. "I don't need one."
The arrogance that came so naturally to Draco's voice caused a stir among their classmates. The Slytherins smirked and cheered their comrade on; the Gryffindors muttered indignantly about Draco's irreverence, and cast dark looks at their counterparts.
Lupin gave Draco a meaningful look. "Are you sure about that, Mr Malfoy?"
"Absolutely." Draco's expression didn't alter.
"Well, then, it's your choice." Lupin turned his attention to Ron. "For this demonstration, if Harry is thrown off his feet or temporarily stunned by a spell, you can take his place in the duel."
Now Lupin looked first at Harry, then Draco, and finally the rest of the class.
"Now this is very important, so listen carefully," he said. "In reality, during actual wizard's duels, no one actually waits for the count of three before throwing their first spell. You hesitate, and you may find that you've already turned into something not very pleasant at all. So the question is, how do you know when to strike?"
Lupin gestured for Harry and Draco to get ready to duel.
"It all has to do with the precise timing of the bow. The moment both partners bow to each other, the duel begins, and spells come fast and furious. So it's imperative that you already have your first spell in mind. I cannot emphasise this enough. Now," he glanced pointedly at Draco. "Remember, permissible spells only."
Lupin took a step backwards, clearing sufficient space for the duel. The rest of the class leaned forward in their seats, riveted by what promised to send sparks flying to the top of the Astronomy Tower a wizard's duel between Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy.
Harry and Draco faced each other. The air was charged with heated excitement Harry could hear the pounding of his own heartbeat in his ears as he watched his partner; and Draco was all he saw, all that mattered in this moment that was exclusively theirs.
With a barely perceptible quirk of his eyebrow, Draco curtly dipped his head. Harry did the same, his fingers tightening on his wand as he bowed, and when he raised his head again he was struck, not by the first spell of their duel, but by the expression of perfect composure on Draco's face.
It was the quintessence of calm and control, as if there was nothing Draco wanted to change about this transient instant in time, hanging on the edge of a moment that was about to be lost forever.
Neither of them moved. Stillness roared like a silent flame.
Lupin eyed Harry and Draco curiously. "You may begin," he suggested.
Eternity passed by, and vanished like smoke.
Draco took several steps forward, and Harry tensed, a defensive spell on the tip of his tongue but to his utmost surprise, Draco dropped down on one knee in front of him.
With both hands, Draco carefully laid his own wand at Harry's feet, and then straightened in a single, swift movement. He stood in front of Harry, his eyes of silver flame burning like the sun across arctic shores; Harry found himself frozen to the spot, unable to do anything but just stare, enthralled.
Draco's lips parted to utter two simple words: "I concede."
Then Draco stepped away, and without another word or backward glance, returned to his seat.
Harry watched Draco in utter disbelief; fragments of thoughts swirled through the giddy confusion in his mind like random snowflakes against a dawn-lit sky, which melted as he caught them in his hand he couldn't make sense of any of them.
For once, both the Gryffindors and Slytherins were stumped. Everyone exchanged quizzical glances, and turned to stare at Draco; the blond boy kept his eyes steadily on the front, his face masked and betraying nothing more than his actions already had.
Even Professor Lupin seemed slightly thrown.
"Well," he cleared his throat. "What Mr Malfoy has just demonstrated for us isn't how most wizard's duels end, I can assure you. But at least you've seen how to prepare for a duel, and the proper stance to assume in starting position. Thank you for your participation, Harry. So we've covered the basics that you should know, and what we'll discuss next are the dark spells usually cast in duels, and how to defend yourself against them."
Lupin checked the time; there were only a few minutes to the end of the lesson.
"All right, that's all for today. Class dismissed." He glanced at Draco. "Before you leave, Mr Malfoy a word, please."
Harry made his way back to his table as the rest of the class gathered their things and filtered out of the classroom, murmuring with muted excitement about what had just happened. Harry was so absorbed in his own thoughts that he forgot that Ron was by his side, until the other boy tapped him on the shoulder.
"You okay, Harry?" Ron's voice brought him back to the present, and he quickly turned. Ron was looking at him with a mix of curiosity and concern.
Harry shook his head, still dazed. "I'm not sure," was all he could truthfully answer, just as Hermione hurried up to them.
"Harry!" Hermione seemed as if she was bursting to tell some news. "Are you all right? I can't believe Malfoy did that. I simply..." she looked truly awed. "I simply can't. Malfoy, of all people!"
"What do you mean?" Ron demanded, casting a suspicious look in Draco's direction. "What the hell was that all about?"
"Malfoy conceded," Hermione said in a low voice, filled with amazement. "You do know what that means, don't you?"
Harry blinked. "What?"
Hermione made an exasperated sound. "It's all in the textbook, middle section of the chapter on wizard's duelling. Don't you ever read the textbook?"
"As a matter of fact, it's one of your habits that hasn't quite rubbed off," Harry responded impatiently. "Now, will you just tell me what it means, that he conceded?"
Hermione looked at Harry, as if calculating the effect what she had to say would have on him.
"To 'concede' in a wizard's duel is the highest form of etiquette there is," she finally said. "It's a very rare occurrence there have been less than a dozen times in recorded wizarding history where one party has conceded to the other. Most cases, it happened when a student had to face his mentor in a duel." She paused for effect. "To concede is an ultimate sign of respect, a humble acknowledgement that one is not worthy of his opponent. It's the greatest tribute anyone can pay to his partner."
Harry stared at her, stunned. It took several moments for the impact of Hermione's explanation to sink in. Even Ron was at a loss for words; all three of them stood quiet, pensive.
Then Harry glanced over his shoulder at Draco, who was now standing at the front of the classroom, talking to Lupin. He gazed at that blond head, and for the millionth time wondered what the hell Draco was thinking.
"Why would he do that?" Harry asked softly, almost to himself.
Hermione tilted her head thoughtfully, and was silent for a long while.
Finally, she said, "I haven't the faintest idea."
And so it was that once more, Harry did what he swore he would never do again, a mistake that he would never make twice he decided to go look for Draco, outside the Slytherin dungeons.
After Lupin's class, he told Ron and Hermione to go back to Gryffindor Tower without him. Ron seemed on the verge of objecting, but Hermione swiftly cut in and said, "We'll wait for you there." Then she firmly took Ron by the arm and steered him away. As he watched them leave, Harry was reminded how thankful he was to have Hermione as his friend. With a sense of relief, he thought of how his friendship with Ron seemed on the mend, and he hoped that the worst part of the storm between them was over.
If friendship was hard, love was damn near impossible.
The hallway leading to the Slytherin dungeons was empty; all the Slytherins had already gone inside. The corridors that stretched to either side were silent and shadowed, mirroring the troubled brooding in Harry's mind. Time seemed to be running on an agonisingly slow track, and Harry was restless with impatience as he stood, and waited.
But for Draco, he'd always wait.
Finally, Draco appeared around the bend. He immediately caught sight of Harry; he didn't seem in the least surprised to see Harry standing there, although a hidden emotion quivered in those ice-grey eyes.
Harry spoke first. "I need to talk to you."
Without a word, Draco jerked his head towards the same classroom they had gone to the last time they talked. They went inside; and Harry was struck with a sense of déjà vu. Everything felt so familiar the dim curtain of shadows, the titillating mood of melancholy and allure... he remembered it all, in heartbreakingly vivid detail.
Draco took a single, decisive step forward, bringing him in front of Harry, only a couple of feet away.
"We're talking now," he said steadily; his gaze pierced Harry's soul.
"Why did you concede?" Harry's words were unlocked simply by the powerful intensity of Draco's eyes.
The edges of Draco's mouth lifted ever so slightly, and Harry could have sworn that it was a sad smile. But it faded as quickly as it had risen, as all beautiful things always did.
"Because you deserved to win." Draco's voice was quiet, filled with a sincerity that touched Harry by its plain, raw truthfulness. "You always have."
"No, Draco," Harry said softly. "We both lost."
"There's a first time for everything in life," Draco answered; the echoes of Harry's own words sounded bittersweet coming from Draco's lips. "We've learned our lesson now." He paused significantly. "Or, have we."
It wasn't a question; not even a statement. It was both a challenge and an acceptance, asked and answered, an tentative step into an unknown realm, in fear of the truth that would be found.
Draco tilted his head slightly, still looking at Harry. "Thanks for the Cloak. I would tell you that you didn't have to but, you already know that. So instead I'll ask, why did you want to?"
Harry gave a little shrug. "It's the least I could do." His voice was wistful as he added, "All I can do."
"That sounds familiar," Draco said evenly. "I've heard you say that before."
Harry nodded, feeling a tightness in his throat; and he couldn't stop the question that spilled from the deepest part of himself, "What changed since then?"
He knew what Draco would say, of course. Everything. Everything had changed.
But Draco answered simply: "Nothing."
Harry couldn't hide his surprise. "I've heard you say that before."
The same word, from the same person. Nothing. Spoken in the same place, the same situation. But what a world of difference it made once hurting, twice healing.
Something else occurred to Harry. "Why did you give me the black rose?"
A distinct expression flitted across Draco's face not quite warmth, although it seemed to melt the remote distance in his eyes.
"I thought you would've known," Draco said deliberately; his eyes shone like burnished silver.
"No I don't," Harry answered; and there was nothing he wished more than that he did. "Why don't you tell me?"
There was a long pause, filled with expectation and hope so fervent that it could not be articulated except by the waiting silence that followed the delicate balance of shared past and uncertain future, of what they both knew but didn't dare to believe.
And when Draco finally parted his lips to speak, Harry was breathless with anticipation. Draco seemed to hesitate, as if his natural eloquence deserted him at this critical moment, or as if words were the only solace when his feelings didn't know how to find form any other way.
"If it weren't for the black rose," he said finally, "I would never have been in the Forbidden Forest that night. The black rose was the reason we met," Draco broke off he took a deep breath, then continued, "and it seems only right that it is where we end."
...but this isn't where we end this story. Not yet.
In IP15 find out how things turn out for Harry and Draco. Will they have a happy ending?
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