A/N: Hello, Internet :) Before we get into anything, I have just a couple of warnings for all you lovely faces who have found your way here. What you're about to read is an eighth-year Drarry fic involving an angry, protective Harry, as well as a sad, slightly depressed Draco. There will be arguments and misunderstandings and an over-abundance of sentimentality and preciousness. There is also juuust a smidge of violence, both towards Draco (from douchebags) and in defense of Draco (from Harry). Mostly the only real warning here is a heads-up about the teenage violence contained in the plot. Oh yeah, and there is also some profanity and a bit of gay smut. I know how much some of us are into those two things.

But that being said, the warnings have officially now come to an end and it is time to begin. Welcome to the story :)


Like Fire and Rain

Part 1

This was the end.

Harry's life was over.

Never before had he been so certain of his doom.

Harry had survived the entire bloody war—every Death Eater, Snatcher, and Horcrux—only to be killed off now, when he was least expecting it, when his guard had been completely lowered and he had foolishly allowed himself to relax. It was so bloody fucking unfair. He had sacrificed everything in his life, including his life, and it still wasn't enough to guarantee good fortune, apparently.

Why did the universe hate him?

Or, more importantly, why did Slughorn?

Oh sure, the man acted as though he was on Harry's side, as though he cared about the Gryffindor; his smile was always cheerful and friendly, as were the overly-familiar shoulder touches that the professor was making an annoying habit of indulging in every time they spoke. Why was everybody always thinking that Harry was so starved for physical contact? Or that it in any way comforted him? Why was everyone always thinking that Harry even needed comfort, like he was in some sort of constant state of grief?

Why was everyone always treating him like he was broken?

With an angry sigh, Harry kicked at the nearest stone wall in frustration. Whatever the reason behind the forced touches or the pitying comfort, it never made Harry feel anything but uncomfortable. But, like the trusting, naïve git that he was, he had taken it all in stride, borne it all in polite suffering and ignorant silence, only for Slughorn to turn around and do something like this.

Well, see if Harry ever went to one of his stupid parties ever again. As if Harry even needed those stupid parties. There were plenty of other stupid parties he was always getting invited to, thank you very much. Slughorn would be the one regretting this in the end, Harry was certain of that. If Harry had to suffer as a result of this appalling decision—the man was most likely bloody pissed off his fucking arse at the time, honestly—then it was only fair that someone suffer right along with him. And at that moment, Slughorn deserved to be that person.

Kicking at the wall again, Harry raked angry hands through his unkempt hair, still fuming with frustration. In truth, if he was willing to be honest with himself, it felt good. He hadn't felt anger like this in months. Not since before. His heart was pounding in his chest, fire and adrenaline were coursing through his veins, searing through his body; Harry felt alive, in a way that he didn't always feel these days.

Leave it up to him to be the cause of Harry feeling any sort of rush of emotion in the heavy grey pallor everyday life now seemed shrouded in.

Pacing back and forth with long, indignant strides, Harry felt his extremely justified rage boiling within him with a restless, burning heat; his knuckles itched and he longed to do something, anything. He wanted to flee, chase, fight; wanted to run so far he would never find himself again, sprint so fast his heart would never stop hammering in his chest. Sometimes he really could not bear to remain still, halted and unmoving, cemented behind stone walls with nowhere to go, locked away in the castle with nothing to do but boring, mind-numbing mundane trivialities. Like fucking homework.

He just wanted to run away from it all; he just wanted it all to end.

And it had.

Harry was doomed.

oOo

The large room sounded strangely silent.

The thought seemed an odd one, considering the actual amount of noise Draco could hear around himself. But despite the loud and layered sounds of flames hissing beneath ebullient cauldrons, the noisy rustling of parchment as students scanned the text, the scratch of quills as they scribbled notes, every squeak and scrape of chairs being adjusted atop the hard stone floor…for some reason, it all sounded flat and hushed to Draco's ears. The entire room felt mute.

Maybe his ears weren't working right. Maybe the reason Slughorn's announcement had filled him with such dread was that he had simply heard wrong.

But no, Draco mused, twisting a silvery strand of hair around one finger in thought, that would not explain why Potter's hearing had apparently failed as well, because there Potter sat, only inches away from the blond, stiff and rigid and positively radiating fury. The man was practically shaking with it, for god's sake, his fingers trembling with suppressed rage as he gripped a quill tight enough to snap the thing in half. The Gryffindor wasn't even pretending to read the text, and despite the quill still clenched in hand—about to shatter in his grasp at any second, surely—he had yet to take a single note.

A quiet sigh escaped Draco as he folded in on himself even more, hoping to curl up as small as possible to avoid the wrath of the dark-haired boy next to him. Judging by the vicious glares he kept shooting Draco's way every other minute, he clearly held the blond responsible for their current unfortunate situation. As if Draco would ever be responsible for this. For Merlin's fucking sake, was Potter really fool enough not to see that Draco hated this situation even more than he did?

With another sigh, Draco hunched further down in his seat. Of course Potter was too blind to see that, the boy most likely thought his suffering to be the very absolute height of torment.

Heart pounding, Draco snuck a peek at the brunet out of the corner of one eye. The glare that had been directed at Draco most of the morning was now burning a hole—not literally, Draco really hoped that Potter was not that angry—into the surface of the table they were sat at.

But as Draco watched in rapt fascination—determinedly pretending that he was doing no such thing—the anger on Potter's face melted away to be replaced with a distinctly unhappy expression, one that lasted less than a second but sent an odd swoop of pity through Draco at the sight.

The next instant, however, the anger was back and Potter's eyes lifted to glare directly into Draco's own, who jumped a little at getting caught staring. Heart pounding fiercely, Draco considered the furious green gaze of the boy next to him as some part of himself wondered distantly if Potter had ever once, in the entire eight years of them knowing one another, ever looked at him with anything other than seething hatred or disgusted disappointment.

The glare sharpened and Draco knew he had his answer.

A sudden loud throat clearing snapped Draco's attention away from the enraged boy to his right, swinging back to land on Slughorn, and the blond was grateful for the excuse to look away. He could feel his face flooding with heat and did the only thing he could do to protect himself, immediately crumpling in on himself even more, hunching his shoulders and allowing his long hair to swing forward and curtain his face, helping to hide him from view of the others.

Especially Potter.

More than anything, Draco wished he could sink into the cold dungeon floor, simply melt away and vanish without so much as a whisper. He could vanish without a trace at that very moment knowing with certainty that no one would care. No one would even notice him gone. Sometimes he really could not bear being surrounded by so many others, locked away in the castle with no reprieve in sight, trapped behind cold stone walls in a cage full of people who loathed him and would love nothing more than to see him dead.

And Draco hated being confined there—he just wanted to disappear from it all. He just wanted it all to end.

oOo

"Calm down, Harry," Ron rolled his eyes in exasperated amusement, "it's not that big a deal."

"Not that big a deal?" Harry asked incredulously, nostrils flaring. "How is it not a big deal, Ron? It's going to last all the way through fucking Christmas, of course it's a big fucking deal!" Several heads swiveled in their direction, peering curiously at the three older Gryffindors tucked away in a corner of the slowly-emptying Common Room. "Are you saying you wouldn't be upset if it was you?"

"Not that upset," Ron shrugged, gesturing at Harry. "I don't think I would be taking it quite so personally, at least."

"Of course it's personal," Harry grumbled, squirming angrily around in his seat. "Slughorn chose me to torment. I'm the one having to suffer here."

"You're hardly the only one, Harry," Hermione said, voice sounding both pitying and far too amused for Harry's liking. "I'm sure that Malfoy is just as upset as you are."

"Do you have to say the prat's name?" Harry sighed, crumpling up a spare bit of parchment just to be destructive and lobbing it to the other side of the room just to be juvenile. "Christ, he wouldn't even look at me. The entire fucking time! He just sat there staring at the table, looking all sad and pathetic and hiding behind his stupid long hair."

Hermione raised one eyebrow, voice still sounding amused. "Well, it sounds like you were staring at him enough for the both of you."

Harry shot her a glare. "My point is,"—he maturely chose to overlook both her comment and her tone—"how is this whole partnership thing supposed to work out if the two of us can't even talk?"

"Have you actually tried?" Now even Ron sounded amused, and Harry turned his glare onto the red-haired traitor who dare call himself Harry's best friend.

"Of course I haven't tried," his jaw ached from gritting his teeth. "It's fucking Malfoy, Ron. Why don't you try talking to the bloody wanker sometime?"

"Never actually had a real need to," Ron shrugged. "I'm sure if the day ever came, though, that I was left with no other option, I would at least be able to."

"Oh, sod off," Harry sighed, rubbing his eyes. "He's impossible to find out on his own now, you know that. None of the Slytherins wander about on their own anymore. And just because I'm stuck having to talk to him doesn't mean I want to talk to the rest of them. We had a plan, the three of us, a good plan! We were just going to ignore them all forever and hope they went away for the rest of eternity, you remember that!"

"Well, clearly the plan has changed," Hermione said lightly, hidden laughter coloring her tone. "But I'm sure you can handle it, Harry. You've handled much worse before, after all. Ron and I have every faith in you."

Swinging his glare between his two so-called friends, both of whom were fighting twitching lips, Harry felt his anger worsen. They weren't listening, and he decided to tell them that. "You're not listening," he growled, flexing his fingers and ignoring the growing itch in his knuckles whispering to him that it would feel really good to hit something right about now.

"Harry," Ron sighed wearily, peering at Harry with exasperation, "when it comes to Malfoy, we've already heard it. Several times over. When it comes to Malfoy, we have had every conversation under the bloody sun about the git. We don't need to listen because we've already heard. Term just started, Harry, please. For the love of Merlin, please don't make this another Malfoy year."

"A Malfoy year?" Harry repeated blankly, frozen with one hand in his hair. The way Ron spoke, it made Harry sound a bit mental; one might even say obsessed. Pathological, even. A heavy frown slid across his face. Harry was most definitely not obsessed—with anything. Especially not with Malfoy. Harry had plenty of other things in his extremely full and oh-so-nauseatingly-interesting life to focus on other than pratty, posh Slytherin albinos.

But when Harry attempted to come up with a solid example of something else in his life that he was able to get as equally riled up over, anything that made him feel the same way that Malfoy did—even if that feeling was scorching anger—he drew a blank. Blinking, he scratched his head and thought harder. Surely there was something else besides Malfoy that Harry was just as impassioned about.

"Can we just for once have a single school year where you are not constantly going on about the prat?" Ron asked seriously, staring directly into Harry's own confused gaze.

How often did Harry really speak about Malfoy?

"I don't talk about him that much," he argued, straightening in his seat. Sure, Malfoy had been the main topic of most—or possibly all, Harry hadn't thought to keep track, unlike Ron—of their conversations over the past forty-eight hours, but that was because of the current situation, not some sort of sick need Harry had to discuss the blond. It made it sound like the slimy git was even worth discussing—which he was clearly not.

The defensive statement made both Ron and Hermione snort loudly as their eyes widened in amusement. "Harry!" Ron sounded as though he was just barely holding back laughter, "You talk about him more than anyone else in the world! And I mean anyone else. In the entire world. In the whole eight years of us all knowing one another, I don't think I've heard you talk about anybody more than you do about Malfoy."

"That's not true," Harry continued to disagree, body feeling numb with disbelief. Surely it wasn't true…? Ron was just taking the piss as usual, or else simply being dramatic. There was no way Harry talked about Malfoy that much. Ron was wrong. "You're wrong," Harry told him, deciding that the redhead could only benefit from being made aware of just how wrong he was and learning from the obvious—and very, very incorrect—mistake.

"I'm not though, Harry." The expression on Ron's face was pitying and his voice was soft, and Harry felt his anger worsen at being patronized, as though he was some naïve, unaware child who did not yet know himself. "I'm your best mate and we've been through way too much for me to lie to you now. So, believe me when I tell you that this is all true, because I'm usually the one on the other side of that conversation. Trust me when I say that most of them are about him."

"No," Harry shook his head stubbornly, folding his arms and deciding that denial was his only real option. Ron was the mental one here, not Harry.

"Yes," Ron said back, copying Harry's crossed arms and sounding nearly as stubborn as the brunet.

Both boys narrowed their eyes at one another.

"Stop it," Hermione interrupted, glaring at the both of them. "You're both being ridiculous, this isn't even an argument."

"Yes, it is," they both responded at the same time, startling grins from all three Gryffindors.

"All we're trying to say, Harry," Hermione continued, smile fading as she looked him over with a serious expression, "is that there's nothing you can do about being partnered with him. Whether you like it or not, Slughorn paired the two of you together and there's nothing to be done but try to make the best of the situation. There's nothing to be gained from acting anything less than civilly towards one another.

"And, Harry," she continued, the expression on her face somehow becoming even more stern, "I know you're angry, but please don't take it out on him."

"What does that mean? Are you defending him?" Harry asked incredulously. "Or—or trying to protect him, or something? You're—Hermione! You're trying to protect him from me!"

"Of course not, Harry," Hermione scoffed, straightening in her chair and tucking a thick curl behind one ear. Harry watched it spring right back into place the moment her fingers were back in her lap. "But even you have to admit that you've never really had the best handle on your anger, and I know that you clearly dislike the current situation and clearly dislike Malfoy and I know you already dislike Potions on top of everythi—"

"Hermione," Harry interrupted, not needing a list of all the things in this world that he did not like. None of them had the sort of time needed to listen to such a long list. "Just say what it is you're trying to say."

"Harry," Ron cut in, sounding amused once more, "all she's saying is that you need to control your temper. Don't take your anger towards the situation out on him, is all. It's not his fault you two've been partnered. He's probably just as upset as you are, so just don't punish him for it."

The other two Gryffindors were silent as they stared at Ron in surprise, mouths slightly open.

"It's what Hermione was saying!" Ron defended, eyes widening at the looks he was receiving. "I was just summing up what she meant, I don't care what you do to him, Harry! Take all your wrath out about everything on the sodding git for all I bloody care! Just, you know," he shrugged, "don't whinge on to me about it afterward."

"Whinge?" Unable to formulate a proper response, Harry could only gape in disbelief as strong, sticky fingers made of his own sudden and very well-justified anger gripped him tightly, paralyzing him in his seat and holding his entire body still. "You lying prat, I don't bloody whinge! Especially about Malfoy!"

Ron held both hands out palm up in a sign of surrender. "I guess we'll see, then, won't we?" he said lightly.

"Yes, we will," Harry narrowed his eyes. "We definitely fucking will."

oOo

Harry felt rooted to the spot. His legs felt odd—heavy and stiff—almost as if all the muscles and bones and blood inside them had all been taken out without his awareness and somehow replaced with sand, weighing him down and making moving much harder than it should be. Had walking always been this difficult? Or was it the intended destination making his feet drag this slowly?

Sighing heavily, Harry squared his jaw and straightened his spine, taking a deep breath as he opened the door and crossed the cold room, ignoring all the sets of eyes he could feel assessing him. The blood was racing through his veins, making him feel light-headed and tingly. What was it he was feeling? Was this…was he nervous? Harry frowned. How could he be nervous? What the hell was he supposed to be nervous of?

Still frowning, Harry glanced around the Potions room and sighed as he realized he had already reached the station he had been headed to, the one he would now be sharing with Malfoy for the next few months. Christ, though, Harry could not believe his misfortune. Was killing Voldemort and ridding the world of the evilest human being on the face of the earth really not worth enough karmic points to prevent something like this? Why was Harry still being punished?

Another sigh escaped him as he sank down onto a hard stool in defeat, silently unpacking his bag before glancing at Malfoy out of the corner of his eye. Malfoy had already set up everything they would need and was quietly reading their Potions text, scribbling the occasional note on a nearby parchment.

Taking advantage of Malfoy's adamant, unblinking focus on the notes spread before him, Harry turned his head to the side to study the blond more openly, frowning as he cast an eye over the full length of the lanky teen's body. Even though the war was long over, Malfoy still looked much thinner than he should, his pale face appearing hollow and sharp, but in a way that was somehow different from the gaunt, haunted look that had clung to him so viciously only months past. His cheekbones caught Harry's eye, looking sharp enough to slice glass, pointy and angled, yet at the same time also somehow delicate and breakable, appearing to be carved from cold porcelain instead of warm flesh. The unexpected fragility of the man's features in contrast with his sharp jawline and dramatic bone structure was a startlingly pretty effect, especially when curtained by long silky sheets of silvery-blond hair. Harry's eyes followed the sharp sweep and fierce cut of the pale face before him, and he could not help but stare as those damn cheekbones caught his attention once more.

Still taking notes, Malfoy continued to purposefully ignore him, and Harry decided that if he was going to be ignored so openly, he may as well continue to stare so openly at the one ignoring him. Mumbling something to himself, Malfoy reached one hand up to tuck a lock of hair behind his ear, twirling the ends around one finger as he chewed on his rather pouty bottom lip.

But as Malfoy lowered his hand back to the table, Harry nearly gasped, his breath catching as he noticed something he had never seen before. There! On Malfoy's earlobe…was that an earring? Was Malfoy's ear pierced? Were both of his ears pierced?

What the bloody hell?

Harry's eyes narrowed as he studied the piece of jewelry sticking through Malfoy's earlobe. It was small; Harry bent closer to get a better view and saw that it was a tiny skull made of gleaming silver with two sparkling diamonds for eyes. The sight of it in Malfoy's ear was so ridiculously unexpected that Harry felt as though he could now look at nothing else.

After all, what the hell else was there to look at in the whole entire world when Draco Malfoy was sitting right next to Harry, wearing earrings?

Feeling both intrigued and slightly mesmerized by the sight, Harry had not even realized how close he had gotten to Malfoy until the blond suddenly turned his head to the side and his breath caught audibly at their proximity. Automatically, Harry froze in response, a quiet gasp escaping him as both boys studied one another with cautious eyes. There was something in Malfoy's gaze, something hooded lurking just beneath the surface of his stare that made Harry suddenly want to open his mouth and begin spouting endless questions of the Slytherin.

Harry blinked.

In response, Malfoy quirked a silver brow at him, sweeping his gaze curiously down Harry's body before turning back to his notes.

Heart pounding wildly, Harry also turned away from the other boy, staring down at the cold stone tabletop instead and attempting to calm his racing mind.

But for the rest of the day, Harry could not help but wonder what Malfoy had been thinking as they'd stared into one another's eyes in wary silence, just as he could not help but remember the way Malfoy's gaze had traveled over his entire body before looking away.

oOo

Potter was planning to kill him.

That was the only reasonable explanation that Draco could come up with for why the Gryffindor had been staring at him so intensely all throughout the horrendously-long Potions hour. Potter wanted him dead and was actively coming up with ideas to make that happen.

Sighing sadly, Draco bit his lip and attempted to swallow down the sad realization that nearly the entirety of the wizarding world wished Draco dead; Potter's hatred was neither unexpected nor uncommon. Far too often these days, Draco wondered whether he should just do the world a favor by ending his own life for them and saving them all the hardship of having to deal with his hated existence. Surely that must be better than all the constant Howlers and daily hate mail, all the jinxed envelopes containing cursed letters and unrepeatable threats, the angry shouts echoing down corridors from the swarms of glaring students, the constant terror that swept through him every time he felt someone approach from behind. Death surely had to be better than the tiny, lost, insignificant feeling that had taken up permanent residence inside him, reminding Draco every single day—whispering to him every single minute—that he was worthless and unloved, inconsequential and alone, useless and unimportant. The voice said he didn't matter, and Draco knew the voice was right. It was the same voice always reminding him that not a single person cared about him, not a single person would be sorry if he died. It was the same voice that reminded him that the vast majority of the population would most likely be happy to see him dead; his death would bring smiles to entire scores of faceless strangers. It would bring happiness to others in a way that Draco no longer seemed capable of achieving himself anymore.

Draco could honestly no longer remember what happiness felt like.

The days all seemed to blend into one, a single grey canvas stretching out into a long blank stretch of terrifying nothingness, summing up everything he felt and everything he saw and everything he had to look forward to in his dismal future, the one that was just as bleak and empty as the present was. What did Draco have to live for, really?

His home life was destroyed beyond repair and his family a broken thing of the past, both parents now residing in separate cells of Azkaban and both ineligible for visitation for at least two more years. And along with his family, his two oldest friends were both gone as well, one dead from the war and the other hopelessly lost to grief. Draco didn't even have Quidditch anymore, since his entire team now feared him and thought him a disgusting representation of the House of Slytherin and their desperate new image of absolute reformation, fearing terrible ramifications if they dare even associate with him.

Not that it mattered much, anyway, even if his old team did still want him. Along with his past love of the sport—something Draco could hardly even recall the feeling of—all of Draco's beloved broomsticks were now gone, sold off to pay both his parents' and his own legal fees, despite it being nearly impossible to find a solicitor willing to take their case. And the one that had had nearly robbed him blind all whilst doing as little as he could to aid in their defense, resulting in the life sentences of both his parents. Even now, the blond was unsure as to why the Wizengamot had agreed to strict probation for Draco as opposed to jail time.

Rubbing both temples, Draco laughed bitterly to himself in his own head before flopping back on his mattress and staring up at the ceiling with indifferent eyes. Would the world look any less grey if viewed from behind steel bars? What did Draco even still have in this world?

Christ, not even his owl had survived.

Mouth suddenly trembling, Draco thought back to his gorgeous eagle owl, the one that used to bring him sweets every day with the morning post, the one he had had since he was eight, the one who would sit on his shoulder as he carefully fed her scraps of his breakfast with his fingers and nuzzle his ear as she listened to the happy gossip of his friends. Draco's eyes burned as he tried so very desperately not to relive that awful, horrible night when Mulciber had killed her. It would remain seared into Draco's memory forever, haunting him to his dying day—he would never, ever be able to forget the deranged look in Mulciber's eyes as he screamed and howled with drunken laughter, blasting ancestral portraits and priceless works of art off the Manor walls with manic glee right before slicing the owl from the air with a slash of his wand as she swooped through the room on her way back to her perch in Draco's chambers, the man's wild, crazed laughter gaining volume as her broken body fell. Draco's fingers clenched into fists as he tried desperately not to think of the sight of her suddenly dropping to the ground in separate, broken heaps, feathers twisted grotesquely and once-beautiful body cleaved in two; he dug his nails into his palms as he tried his hardest not to remember the sound of the two very distinct thumps he had heard as both halves of her body hit the drawing room floor, or the insane cackles of his mad aunt as she congratulated Mulciber on his aim.

A tear slipped free and slid slowly down Draco's cheek, cold and tickly, and he scrubbed it away with an angry palm, attempting to swallow his grief and control his breathing as he wondered, for possibly the hundredth time that day, what exactly it was that he was living for.

Try as he might, he could not think of one single thing.

Part 2

Limbs still trembling and heart still racing furiously, Harry attempted to control his shaky breaths as he leaned back against the stone wall of the narrow corridor he had found himself in, closing his eyes and willing his pulse to slow. God, he honestly was not sure how much longer he could do this, how much longer he could force himself to smile at all the naïve, simpering masses begging him to tell them his story, forcing him to acknowledge their pain and their losses, demanding that he empathize with them, demanding that he feel every scrap of pain they felt.

Christ, he still wasn't even sure where the mob had come from. He had been walking down a corridor toward the Gryffindor Tower when suddenly, he was surrounded on all sides by dozens of students from various Houses, all swarming close with grabby hands and effectively trapping him in the middle of the large group as they screamed their gratitude and begged him to recount the night of the Final Battle, attempting to force him yet again to relive that awful, horrible night, pleading with him to shake their many faceless hands, to learn their names and all their losses, demanding to see the scar hidden beneath his unruly bangs.

"Harry! We're so grateful—"

"Thank you, Harry! Thank y—"

"—want you so much more now, you're the most perfect—"

"You're a hero, Harry—"

"—so brave and selfless—"

"—you're my hero, Harry!"

"Tell us what it was like as you faced down You-Know-Who—"

"—would surely have died without you—"

"I love you, Harry!"

"—still think of your parents all the time? I certainly would—"

"—brother was killed that night! We were both right there with you, fighting right alongside—"

"Please go to Hogsmeade with me!"

"—still have nightmares?"

"Harry Potter! I love you!"

"Date me, Harry, please—!"

"—anyone else would have been terrified, you were the only one brave enough—"

"Do you remember me, Harry?! I was there that night, I saw—"

"—feel as if I really know you, in a way no one else—"

"—play Quidditch! You must know the most brilliant tricks!"

"—understand you, Harry, I really do!"

"—the suffering you went through, you poor thing—!"

"I love you, Harry!"

"—the horrible things you must have seen, I can only imagine—"

"How often do you visit your parents' graves?"

"What did You-Know-Who really look like up close? Was he as terrifying as everybody—"

"—lost nearly my entire family in the war—"

"I love you!"

"—hope they track down and kill every last one of his followers—"

"Show me your scar!"

"—cried so hard when Dumbledore died, I'll never forget that night—"

"—kill every worthless Death Eater scum still alive—"

"—be perfect together, the two of us—"

—prison's not enough for them!"

"Harry! I love you!"

"—always wanted to see your famous scar!"

"—can't believe you were only one at the time—!"

"—surely you must want to see them dead even more than I do—"

"—love you, Harry!"

"—ever been back to see the house your parents died in?"

"Please, Harry—!"

"Show me your scar!"

"—completely in love with you—"

"—the scar!"

"You're a hero!"

"SHOW US YOUR SCAR!"

And all Harry could do was gape wordlessly as the throng pressed in even closer, reaching out to touch any part of him they could reach, grasping at him with claw-like fingers until he felt as though he would surely suffocate beneath the smothering onslaught, feeling overwhelmed to the point of dizzying terror.

Slipping his wand from his sleeve as his heart pounded hard enough to make him feel faint, Harry cast a wide shield charm around himself before beginning to shove his way through the endless crowd, forcing a path through the glassy-eyed admirers before he was finally able to tug his Invisibility Cloak out from his bag and hastily throw it over himself. The second it was on, he ran for what felt like his very life, grateful that his ringing footsteps were drowned out by the shouting of the crowd, screaming for him to come back, most of them running after him despite not knowing which direction he had disappeared in.

Harry didn't stop running until he was absolutely certain there was nobody following him, feeling dangerously light-headed as he ducked into a narrow corridor hidden behind a large tapestry. "Fuck," he whispered hoarsely, burying his face in the safe darkness of his palms and breathing deeply for several minutes, holding the inhalations in his lungs for as long as he could as he tried desperately to calm himself. He would never, ever get used to the frenzied and oftentimes demanding attention that the swarming mobs of the wizarding world forced on him against his will. At school, it was not normally so manic as that; not like it was outside the castle. Harry shuddered as he thought back to the first and only time he had attempted to visit Diagon Alley after the war. Just the memory alone was nearly enough to send him into a full-on panic attack.

"Fuck," he repeated in a whisper, drawing several deep breaths and holding them before lowering his hands with a sigh as he glanced around himself. The corridor was dark and deserted, stretching straight ahead of him before curving out of sight. He wasn't entirely sure where it led to, but he sure as hell was not going to exit the way he had come and risk running into the mob once more.

Setting off with only slightly trembling knees, Harry tightened the Cloak around himself as he followed the dimly-lit corridor, wishing for possibly the hundredth time that day that he could be anyone other than himself. What he wouldn't give to not be Harry Potter, even if it was only for one day. He would give anything to not be himself sometimes, anything to not be the Saviour of the Wizarding World. He would give anything to feel safe and happy, and he was certain that he would never feel either of those two things ever again as long as he was Harry Potter.

If he was being honest with himself, he could not remember the last time he had felt truly safe, instead of the horrible, empty, suffocating feeling that had taken up permanent residence in the hollow of his chest. Every day felt more smothering than the last, and Harry was certain that it would one day be too much for him and he would simply keel over with no warning, lips blue from a lack of oxygen as the life was slowly strangled out of him by the overwhelming and unrelenting expectations and demands that the rest of the world seemed determined to heap upon his exhausted shoulders. When did Harry finally get a break? He had thought that things would be so much better after the war; he hadn't thought that it would be like this. Without a doubt, he knew that the world really was an unarguably better place without the existence of Voldemort, but it was still so very different from how Harry had imagined it would be. Harry felt so different from how he had imagined he would feel.

"You're a hero, Harry…"

His heavy steps slowed as he laughed bitterly to himself. He was nobody's hero, and if the world knew the real Harry Potter, none of them would ever accuse him of being their hero ever again.

And that was the only way that Harry would ever be free.

Sighing despondently, Harry tugged the Cloak tighter around himself, knowing that the only time he felt even relatively safe these days was hidden beneath its invisible folds.

Ready to heave yet another morose sigh, Harry paused as he heard what he thought to be a sniffle from up ahead. Fuck. His heart started pounding wildly, pulse immediately rocketing as he halted in his tracks, certain that the mob had somehow managed to track him down. Chest hammering, he stood frozen near the wall, heart thumping frantically for several moments in the loud silence before taking one cautious step forward. He nearly jumped out of his skin when he heard the sound again, even louder than before, but this time it was accompanied by a quiet sob.

Head tilted curiously, Harry began to creep forward with slow footsteps, reminding himself that the mob would be much louder than the sound of one solitary individual crying, and even if they were there, Harry still had the distinct advantage of being invisible.

Feeling somewhat more confident, Harry quickened his pace, moving as silently as he was able to under the Cloak, sneaking closer and closer to the source of the crying. He wasn't sure why exactly it was that he was so curious, other than the fact that the person, whoever they were, sounded exactly as Harry felt. It was a sound beyond sadness and beyond even grief; this person sounded lonely, so very, very lonely, and loneliness was something that Harry understood more intimately than any other emotion he could name. His footsteps slowed as he rounded a bend, halting completely as he turned the corner only to nearly stumble into a figure hunched on the floor, sitting with his back to the wall and his legs drawn up to his chest, head bowed and face hidden in his knees.

Harry's heart rate immediately picked back up at the sight of the boy on the floor, because even without being able to see his face, Harry would still recognize Malfoy's hair anywhere. The long, silvery strands cascaded down Malfoy's shins and covered his black trousers in a platinum curtain as his slim frame shook with quiet sobs, face still buried in his knees as his shoulders trembled from the force of his crying.

Harry could only stare.

Just like the first time he had witnessed it, the sight of Draco Malfoy crying forced Harry to a frozen stop, unable to do anything but watch with horrified, pitying eyes at the sight of the once-proud Slytherin crumpled in a heap on the cold stone floor of a hidden corridor, sobbing in a way that nearly broke Harry's heart.

Without warning, Malfoy's head jerked up and looked directly at Harry, whose pulse went into overdrive at the certainty that Malfoy had caught him watching and was now about to hurl a Crucio at him for once again walking in on a crying, vulnerable Malfoy not wanting company.

But the blond only craned his neck and peered down the corridor, confusion creasing his forlorn face, and it was at that moment that Harry noticed the bruises. Malfoy's eyes were puffy and swollen, and Harry would have believed it was from the tears still streaking his pale face if not for the large purple tinges coloring the very cheekbones that Harry had been unwillingly admiring only just a few days ago. As Harry continued to stare, Malfoy lifted a hand and placed it gingerly against his ribcage, wincing as he inhaled. His lip was split and eyebrow bloody as he gave up on looking down the corridor, leaning his head back to rest against the wall, and even in the dim lighting, Harry could see dark finger-shaped bruises outlined on the Slytherin's slender throat. The sight made Harry's heart constrict painfully in his chest.

"Oh, Jesus fuck," Harry breathed, forgetting for a moment that he was supposed to be invisible and that he was also supposed to hate Malfoy. But the sight of the hated-Slytherin sitting there bloody and bruised, crumpled and defeated on the cold stone floor with teary cheeks and desperate misery pouring out of his thin frame with every trembling sob released, left Harry floundering uselessly for the feeling of contempt that he had been so certain would always rear up within him at the sight of Malfoy.

But it just wasn't there.

At the sound of Harry's muttered oath, Malfoy's neck snapped up, staring directly through Harry with narrowed eyes.

"Who's there?" the blond demanded in a raspy voice, and Harry's felt his heart twinge painfully at the sound of it.

What the hell had happened to the Slytherin?

"Look," Malfoy began wearily, dropping his head and burying his face once more between his knees in defeat, "if you're here for another go, then fine, I won't stop you." He paused to press a careful hand to the same spot on his ribs, wincing as a dark chuckle escaped him. "I honestly couldn't even attempt to run at this point. But," his eyes narrowed dangerously as his neck snapped back up, glaring right through Harry and his pounding, aching heart, "at least don't sneak around and hide in the shadows like a coward. Just come out and face me, like a fucking man, and get it over with already."

Stomach churning with nausea, Harry watched as Malfoy closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the wall, exposing the smooth column of his bruised throat, and Harry felt his own throat close up in sympathy, finding himself unable to do anything more than stand there uselessly, staring as still and silent as a statue as Malfoy remained just as unmoving.

Harry had no idea how to respond.

He had never imagined that he would ever be able to feel this much for Draco Malfoy, the boy he had actively and unashamedly hated for eight long years, but standing there, watching his silent defeat, tore at Harry in a way that he had not been expecting. The sight of Malfoy so broken and bruised seemed to sever something in Harry's chest; his heart ached with the sudden urge to wrap the injured Slytherin up in his arms and gently wipe every silvery tear away; it made Harry want to sprint him all the way to the Hospital Wing to be healed, all the way to the Headmistress' office to demand that the Slytherin be protected—hell, it made Harry want to be the one to protect him.

At that thought, Harry released a sharp breath, causing Malfoy's eyes to snap open with a glare.

"Just fucking come out already!" he growled harshly, voice sounding sore and gravelly. "You lot have already proven a dozen times over that you don't need a Disillusionment Charm to kick the shit out of me, so I honestly don't understand what you're bloody fucking waiting for! Are you wanting me to come down there and investigate? Go wandering down the dark corridor looking for attackers? I have to warn you, it won't be much of a surprise when you all jump me." Sighing heavily, he once again leaned his head back against the wall as his eyes slid shut, revealing blackened lids.

Harry's heart constricted at the sight.

"Just get it over with already," Malfoy said quietly, voice small, and it was then that Harry noticed that, despite the bravado and perceived resignation to his fate, Malfoy's fingers were trembling where they rested on his knees.

And Harry could no longer just stand there.

Silently, he slid the Cloak from his shoulders, folding it nervously in his arms before speaking in the softest tone he was sure he had ever used with the Slytherin. "Malfoy," he began, startling as Malfoy's body jerked up at the sudden sound, only to sink back against the wall with a heavy groan, wrapping both arms around his torso and whimpering softly as he clenched his eyes shut in pain, breathing heavily through his nose.

"Fuck, Malfoy," Harry dropped to his knees beside the blond, hands fluttering uselessly over him. Fuck, how much pain was Malfoy really in? What the hell had those sick bastards even done to him?

The sound of his name caused Malfoy's eyes to snap open, fixing immediately on Harry, who felt suddenly frozen in the silver glare meeting his own worried gaze.

"Potter," Malfoy chuckled darkly, but then immediately winced, holding his ribcage even tighter as he dropped his eyes. "Of course it's you. Of course it is. I was wondering when you would finally get around to tracking me down like this." He spoke with his gaze locked firmly on his own knees, silver hair swinging forward to shield his face from view, and Harry's fingers itched with the urge to sweep it aside.

"Well," Malfoy sighed impatiently, eyes sliding shut. "Get on with it, then."

"Er," Harry stammered, unsure of just what to say or how to help, "Get on with what?"

At the question, Malfoy cracked one eye open to glare at the brunet. "What the fuck do you think, Potter?" he spat viciously, flinching and rocking back with a prolonged moan.

The pained sound felt as though it would wrench Harry's heart in two.

"Malfoy," Harry could hear an edge of panic in his voice, "what the hell happened to you? Who the fuck did this?"

The dried blood lining Malfoy's temple cracked as he raised one silvery eyebrow at Harry, not speaking for several moments. "Your admirers," he said finally, turning his head away in an attempt to surreptitiously wipe the tears from his bruised cheeks before propping one arm on his knees and leaning back against the stone wall. "As much as they adore you, Potter," he laughed again as he spoke—a dark, broken laugh tumbling free from his injured chest—and Harry felt chilled at the sound, "they hate me even more." A sudden sob wracked Malfoy's frame violently, forcing an anguished gasp from between his blood-stained lips accompanied by a heavy flinch as he jerked upright with a cry loud enough to startle Harry, the blond squeezing his own midsection tightly as he whimpered in agony. "Please, Potter," he gasped, fresh tears leaking from between his clenched eyelids as he held himself as stiffly as possible, "just—please, just—fucking—just—fuck! Just get it over with already!"

"But…I…er…" Harry gaped at him wordlessly, mouth opening and closing like some stupid, useless goldfish, unable to find anything helpful in his brain to say. "But, Malfoy…fuck, Malfoy, who the fuck did this to you?!" The question rang out harshly along the corridor, echoing down the darkened hallway, and Harry immediately regretted his tone as Malfoy flinched sharply, drawing in a pained breath as he clutched at his torso.

"Malfoy," Harry said softly, reaching out to touch the other boy lightly on the shin, praying to god he wasn't bruised there as well. "Malfoy, I'm not here to hurt you, I swear it. I didn't even know you were down here."

Resting his pale forehead against his knees with a pained expression, Malfoy rolled his head to one side to peer at Harry with empty eyes. "That is literally the only reason anybody ever tracks me down on my own these days, Potter," he said softly, eyes still steadily leaking tears. "I cannot believe that you would be any different, especially considering it is all done in your name. So, please," he continued wearily, speaking louder as Harry opened his mouth with a glare to argue that statement, "please, just get it over with already. I will not deny that you have more of a right than almost any other individual."

With a heavy sigh, Malfoy tucked his face back between his kneecaps, silent and waiting. His only reaction was a rather violent jump as Harry placed a careful hand on the Slytherin's shoulder, fumbling for his wand with the other. As Harry finally wrestled it from his sleeve and grasped the handle between sweaty, nervous fingers, Malfoy chose that moment to look up, grey eyes growing wide with fear as he stared without blinking at the wand now pointed directly at his face.

"Please, Potter," he said quietly, his entire body suddenly relaxing in a way that confused Harry for all of two seconds, until Malfoy finished speaking and all Harry was left with was a feeling of horrified dread burning through his chest, "please. Just finish it already. I would honestly rather it be you than some angry, faceless stranger whom I've never met before but still blames me for their every misfortune.

"Please," he pleaded softly again, speaking in a resigned voice. "Please, Potter, just—god, just finish it already."

Swallowing heavily, Harry nodded once, throat closing as Malfoy's eyes slid shut with a small smile lighting his face gratefully, slender body melting back against the stone wall as he patiently waited for Harry to end his life.

oOo

Everything hurt.

Absolutely everything hurt.

Draco's body entire body throbbed with pain, shivers of agony wracking through him from head to toe every time he shifted, every time he so much as fucking breathed.

He had barely been able to stumble away from his attackers, somehow managing to cast both cloaking and silencing spells over himself through a combination of survival instinct and wild magic before clumsily staggering away from the deserted corridor he had been jumped in, leaving the enraged assailants whipping their heads round in confusion as they searched for him to ever-growing fury, and the sound of their heightened anger made Draco shuffle away even faster, despite the exorbitant amounts of pain wracking his entire body, desperate to get as far from that corridor as he could.

Before the attack, Draco had been strolling down that particular hallway in indifferent dejection, sad gaze locked firmly on the ground, when suddenly he looked up to find himself surrounded by four others, all wearing matching looks of contempt.

His heart had dropped and his stomach churned with nausea, knowing exactly what was about to happen.

The four had started out with taunts and jeers, stepping into his space and tossing him around with rough hands, passing him back and forth between the lot of them with hard shoves and nasty threats. Then he had made the mistake of trying to flee with no clear exit in sight, causing one of the boys to catch him by the hair and drag him back with a callous grin, tugging harshly and wrenching a cry from Draco's lips before the other boy sank his fist into Draco's stomach. And as Draco doubled over, gasping in pain, another boy's knee suddenly slammed up into his face, catching him across the brow and sending him flying back to land in a dazed heap on the floor, touching his forehead gingerly before attempting to scramble away.

And that's when it really began.

Before he knew it, he was being kicked at from every direction, fists and feet raining down on him mercilessly as the four boys spat cruel slurs and death threats at him, not even giving Draco time to suck in pained gasps before another vicious blow would land.

Without warning, a hand suddenly reached down and seized a fistful of his long blond—and oh, how Draco had wished at that moment that it wasn't so very long— hair at the very base, wrenching him up to balance precariously on his bruised knees, whimpering in pain as the hand squeezed tighter and tighter, ripping several strands out at the root as a voice growled a steady stream of homophobic jeers to the other boys, the insults mostly all centered around the length of Draco's hair and his skinny frame, heart pounding at a wild rate as hot, sour breaths were panted smugly against the bloodied shell of his ear.

The same boy holding him by the hair used the opportunity to smash his fist into Draco's face, and Draco was unable to move. Fingers wrapped around his throat and squeezed viciously, and Draco saw tiny black dots beginning to cloud his vision; he could not breathe, he could not think, he could not escape. There were so many times he had thought that he would die within the walls of Hogwarts, but he certainly had never imagined it would be like this.

Not like this!

A sudden fusillade of lightning sparked through the air around them without warning, crackling along Draco's entire body as it threw the four boys away from him with a loud BANG. His skin glowed eerily for several moments as he began to stumble away from his attackers, his flesh feeling nearly white-hot until suddenly, Draco had somehow been shielded from sight in a way he would have once thought to be impossible, listening with a whimper of relief as the four boys behind him shouted in furious confusion, angry voices growing softer and softer as Draco limped further away.

Finally, he reached a narrow tapestry guarding an even narrower passageway, one that Draco ducked into with a grateful sigh, hobbling as far up it as he was able to before collapsing in a pained heap on the stone floor, biting his lip against the overwhelming wave of agony that washed over him as he landed heavily on fresh injuries.

The corridor was mercifully dark, allowing Draco peace and blessed silence, finally allowing him the chance to curl in on himself and weep for what his life had become.

Until Harry Potter came along and ruined everything.

oOo

Harry was not sure if he had ever felt more useless in his life. Sitting there, watching Draco Malfoy ask so resignedly for his own death…it tore at Harry in a way that he honestly would never have expected to be possible. If anyone had told him even an hour ago that he would soon be sitting on the floor of an abandoned corridor, eyes burning in sympathy for Malfoy, feeling the insane urge to gather the trembling boy up in an embrace and whisper that everything would be okay, that Malfoy was safe now, because Harry would not allow any more harm to come to him…Harry would most likely have laughed in their face.

But now…

"I'm not going to hurt you, Malfoy," Harry told him quietly.

Malfoy's eyes snapped open to meet Harry's own, and Harry was not certain at all what emotion was reflected back at him from within the silver pools of Malfoy's—pretty, so fucking pretty, how had Harry never noticed how pretty they really were?—deep grey eyes.

"That makes just you, then," the blond rasped, voice still sounding hoarse and pained, and the sound made Harry instantly furious, longing to track down whatever sick bastards had done this to Malfoy and vowing to make them pay.

Silently, Harry placed one finger under Malfoy's chin and gently tilted it up, studying his bruises in the dim lighting. The sight of them made Harry feel sick. Malfoy's lip was badly split and his nose bloodied, both eyes purple and blackened, directly below a large gash spreading along his forehead and temple, crusted in dried blood.

Gritting his teeth and forcing down his fury, Harry began to quietly murmur the very limited amount of healing charms he knew, tracing his wand over the wounds and watching as they began to close and gradually vanish, leaving Malfoy's skin still slightly puffy and swollen, covered in dark flakes of dried blood and a slight yellowish tinge where the bruises had been. Harry cast the gentlest cleaning charm he knew, siphoning as much of the blood off the other boy's face as he could, all whilst studiously ignoring the confused look Malfoy was giving him.

Gently, Harry used his hold on Malfoy's chin to twist the other boy's head slowly to one side and then the other, making sure that he had healed all the little cuts and bruises marring the Slytherin's flawless porcelain skin.

"Come on, then, Malfoy," Harry said softly, finally releasing Malfoy's chin and leaning back on his heels. "That's as much as I'm willing to do, considering I am definitely not a Healer and I have no way of knowing how severe your injuries are. I don't want to risk any more when I don't know what I'm doing."

"Okay," Malfoy said slowly, voice still sounding so tiny and confused, and Harry's heart clenched even harder at the sound, tightening even more as he realized that everything he had been saying to Ron and Hermione over the past fortnight was no longer true; he was not sure if he would ever again be able to hate Draco Malfoy after seeing him like this, after being the one to find him and heal him.

"So, let's go then, yeah? Let's get you up and I'll help you there, shall I?" Harry stood as he spoke, offering one hand down to Malfoy to help pull him to his feet.

At the sight of the proffered hand, Malfoy blinked quietly in obvious confusion. "Go where?" he finally asked, sounding wary.

"The Hospital Wing, of course."

"But…I—I don't…" Malfoy continued to blink up at him, and Harry felt his heart rate increase as they stared into one another's eyes for long moments.

"I don't know if you have any broken bones, Malfoy," Harry said seriously, finally breaking the silent stand-off, and Malfoy jumped slightly at the sound, clutching his ribcage with a heavy wince. "I'm not going to risk healing them, so the best I can do is get you to Madam Pomfrey as soon as I can."

Malfoy dropped his gaze to the floor, appearing lost. Harry did not lower his hand, still reaching out toward Malfoy without wavering, waiting patiently to help him to hospital. "Why are you doing this, Potter?" the blond finally asked in a low voice, nearly whispering the bewildered and almost embarrassed sounding question. "Why are you helping? I thought that you, out of everyone…"

"What, Malfoy?" Harry asked, cringing at the overly-defensive tone to the two words.

"I just thought…" Malfoy took a deep breath, "that you would be the one person, more than anyone else, who would be glad to see me suffer like this."

At the words, Harry felt sick; his stomach churned with sudden nausea, and it was nearly a full minute before he was able to form a response. "When have I ever enjoyed seeing anything suffer, Malfoy?" The words were steeped in indignation. Did Malfoy really think that was the type of person Harry was? Was that really the way that Harry came across to him?

"Right," Malfoy's mouth twisted grimly. "Is all the pity you feel for me ruining any enjoyment you might have gotten out of seeing me like this? God," he chuckled darkly, and Harry was surprised to see a fresh tear slide down his cheek, "you really are every inch the hero you are portrayed to be, aren't you?"

The words made Harry's hackles immediately rise and he wanted to snap at the untrue statement, but Malfoy continued speaking in a soft voice and Harry swallowed back whatever retort he might have uttered, listening instead with a tight chest as Malfoy said, "You hate me, Potter. You have hated me from the very moment we first met; I won't think any less of you for simply walking away and leaving me here."

"Shut up, Malfoy," Harry snapped angrily, regretting his tone as Malfoy flinched away from him. "Shut up," he said in a softer voice, dropping to his knees to look Malfoy directly in the eye. "I am NOT leaving you here like this. You said yourself earlier that you're in no shape to move. So," he said louder, speaking over whatever Malfoy had been opening his mouth to say, "I am taking you to the Hospital Wing, and you are going to deal with it."

The words were underlined with a glare, as though daring Malfoy to argue. They stared at one another in silence for long moments until Malfoy finally relented with a sigh.

Heart still pounding, Harry stood with a nod, once more reaching down to offer Malfoy a hand and holding his breath until Malfoy's cold palm met his own. As the blond tried to stand, however, he only made it an inch off the ground before releasing a loud, agonized gasp as he fell back against the floor, clutching desperately at his midsection and seeming to hold his breath as he whimpered in pain.

The sight instantly made Harry drop to his knees once more, placing one hand carefully on Malfoy's shoulder and the other on his knee. "Fuck, Malfoy," he whispered in a panicked voice, feeling tears prickling at his own eyes as he helplessly watched Malfoy rock back and forth in obvious agony. "Tell me who did this to you, please!"

"Does it really matter?" Malfoy gasped, face even paler than normal and covered in a light layer of sweat and tears.

"Of course it fucking matters!" How could it not matter? Malfoy could not even stand! It mattered, and Harry was determined to find whoever it was that had done this to Malfoy. He had not sacrificed his life for the entire world just to have them go straight to the other extreme of things. Why did people continue doing shit like this?! Why couldn't everybody just leave each other the fuck alone?! Harry was sick to death of seeing unnecessary violence and hatred; he would not stand for any more!

"Oh, Potter, you bloody Gryffindor hero," Malfoy sighed, resting his head back against the wall as he regarded Harry with serious eyes. "This really is you, isn't it? You really are the absolute epitome of chivalrous heroism. You really are just as selfless and benevolent as the world claims you to be."

For a moment, Harry felt nearly insulted, feeling the familiar itch to snap at Malfoy and say something hurtful, something to refute the untrue accusation, because Harry knew that he was not a hero; he was not selfless or kind. He was angry and he was broken and he was so far from perfect it was nearly laughable.

Before he could argue, however, Malfoy was speaking. "For years," he said quietly, eyes searching Harry's face in a way that made the brunet shiver, "I had thought you were simply putting on an act for your peers and devoted fans, certain that you were only playing up your gallantry as you thought they wanted you to act. But you're not, are you?" Malfoy asked quietly, reaching out one hand to grasp at Harry's shirt collar, "This really is who you are, isn't it? You really are just as kind as your blindly devoted followers proclaim you to be, aren't you?"

Harry was unsure of how to respond. For so long, ever since the war had ended, he had been actively trying to convince himself that he was the exact opposite of the way the nation seemed to portray him. And, even though a large part of himself still wanted to argue with Malfoy's words, an even larger part was flushing with pride at the praise, for some reason longing for Malfoy to say something else complimentary, a large part of himself yearning for Malfoy to think highly of him.

What the fuck does that mean? Harry wondered in bewilderment. He had never cared before what Malfoy thought of him, why should he start now?

"Come on, Malfoy," Harry finally mumbled, shifting closer to wrap one arm around the Slytherin's slim waist. "Let's get you to the Hospital Wing."

Relenting with a sigh, Malfoy closed his eyes and drew several deep breaths, draping one arm over Harry's shoulder and bracing himself as he clutched at Harry's far shoulder with both hands, struggling to stand despite the obvious agony. Harry did what he could to support Malfoy's willowy frame, flinching sympathetically as the blond cried out in pain, wishing desperately that there was anything he could do to relieve Malfoy of his undeserved anguish.

Eventually, after a long struggle, they were both finally upright, Malfoy leaning heavily into Harry as he struggled to draw breaths through his pained whimpers.

"Are you all right?" Harry asked in a low voice, immediately regretting his stupid question. Obviously, Malfoy was not all right.

"Yes," Malfoy panted, clutching at Harry's shoulder even tighter, and it suddenly crossed Harry's mind that they were practically embracing. He was basically hugging Draco Malfoy to himself, and Harry was surprised at his lack of revulsion at the contact. Just as short a time as that morning he would have expected himself to feel nothing but disgust at being this near the Slytherin, yet now…Harry couldn't help shifting slightly closer, feeling an intense wave of protectiveness swell up within him. Malfoy felt so frail and fragile in his arms, as though he was made of glass, and Harry suddenly wanted nothing more than to protect him. Malfoy was so slim and slender, seeming at that moment to be as delicate as a porcelain doll, one which had very nearly been shattered, and Harry was surprised at how distressing that realization was.

"Will you please tell me who did this?" Harry asked suddenly, embarrassed at the obvious desperation in his voice. Harry would find whoever it was and make sure they paid for every single bruise and every single pained flinch Harry had witnessed in Malfoy. Why wouldn't Malfoy just tell him?

"Does it matter?" Malfoy repeated in a weary tone, wrapping both arms around Harry and holding tight as he began taking small shuffling steps forward, and Harry tightened his own hold on the other boy as they began to slowly make their way along the corridor.

"I've already told you it does." Harry felt his nostrils flare in irritation. "And if you saw what you looked like right now…Malfoy, please! I'll find them, I'll make sure this doesn't happen again!"

Malfoy paused to laugh a hollow, broken laugh. "Then you'll have to find them all, Potter!" he cried hysterically, nails digging into Harry's shoulder as he paused to breathe heavily. "If you think this is either the first or the last time something like this has happened…"

"It's the last," Harry growled, arms automatically tightening around Malfoy's waist. The blond flinched and sucked in a sharp breath, and Harry immediately loosened his hold, glancing away in remorse. "Sorry," he mumbled, allowing Malfoy to lean more fully into him and supporting his weight as best he could as they continued down the corridor in their odd shuffle.

"I'm not your problem, Potter," Malfoy said quietly, gaze fixed firmly on the floor as they limped forward. "I am neither your problem nor your responsibility; you owe me nothing. So please don't burden yourself even more under the devastating weight of your own heroism, simply for the sake of someone as trivial and worthless as myself. Save the civility for someone who actually matters."

"Trivial and worthless?" Harry repeated in an angry voice, feeling indignation rise within him at the horrifying adjectives. "Is that really how you see yourself, Malfoy? As someone who doesn't even matter? You honestly don't even sodding care that a bunch of ignorant cunts have been kicking the shit out of you? Malfoy—!" It was like Harry was talking to a complete stranger. Where had the old Malfoy gone? Who was this new unassuming look-alike? Where had the pride and arrogance that Malfoy had once been bursting with disappeared to? Harry had felt so positive that he had known the blond, really truly known him, down to his very core; but standing there, listening to him say those things, in a tone of voice that Harry had no doubt fully believed his own heartbreaking words of worthless insignificance…Harry didn't even have the words to match the feeling it left him with. It seemed to be an odd combination of regret, fury, and heartbreak.

Ever since he had met him, Harry had thought that he had hated Malfoy, and he had been so sure that he would continue to hate him forever. But every word that the other boy spoke sent fresh waves of pained torment slashing through Harry's chest, leaving him with the desire to grab Malfoy by the shoulders and shake him until he finally snapped out of it and came to his senses. Unfortunately, what with Malfoy's injuries and Harry's intense desire to cause him no further pain, shaking him roughly by the shoulders was one of the worst things Harry could have done right then.

At Harry's questions, Malfoy simply turned his head away and shrugged, clearly trying his hardest to act casual, but there was no hiding anything from Harry when they were so closely wrapped around one another.

"What's happened to you, Malfoy?" Harry asked in a troubled voice, alarm seeping through his every word. "This isn't like you at all!"

"Who the hell says you ever really knew me in the first place?" Malfoy asked coldly, shifting his weight forward as though he meant to push away from Harry and continue on alone, and Harry retightened his hold instinctively, unwilling for the prickly blond to leave his arms just yet.

"Even if I didn't," Harry responded quietly, not believing his own words about not really knowing the other boy but wanting to get the conversation back to less hostile areas, "I've never heard you speak like this before, Malfoy. You're freaking me out, to tell you the truth."

"I…" Malfoy fell silent as he pondered what to say. "I'm just being honest," he finished after long moments, "about how I feel, for what is arguably the very first time in my life. I'm just trying to be honest, Potter."

"And that, Malfoy," Harry spoke grimly, "is exactly what is freaking me out so much. Is this honestly how you feel about yourself?"

Malfoy said nothing for a very long time; the only sounds to be heard were the shuffling, dragging steps of their feet as they continued heading in the direction of the Hospital Wing. Harry had nearly given up on either of them speaking again before reaching Madam Pomfrey, until Malfoy said, in a very quiet voice, "I survived when I wasn't supposed to, Potter. I was not meant to make it out of the final battle; I was not meant to live through this war. And as a result, everything after that has just seemed…so utterly meaningless to me, because it shouldn't be. I'm unnecessary and unwanted, and I can't help but feel as redundant as I am."

"You're not redundant, Malfoy," Harry whispered in a choked voice, halting in place and forcing Malfoy to pause as well. Everything Malfoy had just said…it was though somebody else had finally, finally, for what was possibly the very first time in the entirety of the war's aftermath, put Harry's exact feelings into words. He had never even recognized that that was the meaning behind the empty hollowness within his chest, echoing through him every day with the reminder that Harry simply shouldn't be. It was something that neither Ron nor Hermione understood at all, despite their constant—annoying and aggravating—attempts at cheering him up, wanting him to be as happy with his existence as they were, constantly reminding him that he was still alive and still well and to take joy, if from nothing else, then from that one simple fact. And Harry, despite knowing what a miracle it really was that he was still alive and despite feeling like an ungrateful berk for not being more appreciative, had never been able to find any sort of happiness just from the thought of still existing, something Ron and Hermione seemed incapable of understanding.

But here was Malfoy, putting into words everything Harry had been feeling without even realizing that there were words to describe it.

Malfoy clutched at Harry's shoulder and straightened himself somewhat, looking the brunet directly in the eye from only centimeters away, and Harry felt light-headed at both the contact and the closeness. "I am, though," he said softly, grey eyes searching Harry's face with an intensity that made the brunet shiver. "And you understand that, don't you? I know you do, Potter. You understand exactly what I mean by that. Neither of us was really meant to live through it, were we? We aren't meant to be alive. And yet here we are."

"Here we are," Harry repeated in a dazed tone of voice, heart pounding fiercely and feeling nearly faint from how hard his pulse was racing. Malfoy was so close…so close and so tragically beautiful and so achingly mysterious…so lonely and sad and somehow able to understand Harry in a way that he had never before felt. "Malfoy…"

As he watched, Malfoy's cheeks flushed pink as he bit his bottom lip, chewing it nervously. "Potter…" he whispered, lifting one hand from Harry's shoulder up to his cheek, trembling fingers combing gently through the long strands of black hair hanging in Harry's face. "You understand, don't you?" he continued softly, shifting a fraction closer. "I know you do. I know you understand, just as I know that you're the only one who really does."

Unable to speak, Harry nodded slowly, eyes never leaving Malfoy's own as he clutched almost desperately at the other boy's waist.

"I get it," Harry conceded quietly, reaching up to cover the hand Malfoy still had tangled in Harry's hair with his own. "Maybe…" he hesitated for several heart-stopping seconds before steeling himself and continuing, "maybe we're the only ones who really understand each other, Draco. Maybe we're the only ones who can."

At the softly-spoken words, a smile—a real, absolute, genuine, agonizingly beautiful smile—spread across Malfoy's lips. "Maybe we are," he agreed, eyes scanning Harry's face with an intensity that made the brunet shiver with sudden nerves. Malfoy shifted a centimeter closer, and Harry turned his head away with sudden apprehension, breaking the stare as he took a small step forward.

"Come on, then," he said with forced cheerfulness, cringing at the very obvious fake tone of voice, "we really need to get you to hospital."

"Right," Malfoy said flatly, keeping his gaze fixed on the stone floor ahead of him as he began to shuffle forward once more.

He did not look at Harry again as they made their way to the Hospital Wing in silence.

TBC