Summary: Two months after Draco Malfoy was reported dead, Harry and Ron found him tangled in Strangler Ivy on the grounds of Hogwarts.
Acknowledgements: Huge gratitude to my betas, scrtkpr, blamebrampton and, later, sarahtales.
Disclaimer: The world and the characters are Rowling's, not mine. No money is being made from this fic.
A/N: (1) Part of the premise for this fic was inspired by an element of Terry Pratchett's Mort, which is also where the title comes from.
(2) NOT Deathly Hallows-compatible.
(3) Not actually about ghosts!
Two months after Draco Malfoy was reported dead, Harry and Ron found him tangled in Strangler Ivy on the grounds of Hogwarts.
It had already been an odd morning.
"Whose is it, though?" Seamus dropped to his knees on the new bed, feeling about as though he might find the owner under the covers. "Do you think somebody in one of the other dorms is looking for their bed?"
"They would've been kicking up a fuss in the common room." Ron had been prowling around it, eyeing it from all angles, ever since they woke up and found an extra four-poster bed next to Dean's.
Seamus flopped onto his back. All four of the boys watching held their breath in case the bed swallowed him.
He wriggled. "S'comfy. Nicer than mine." He grinned. "Maybe I'll swap."
Harry sat down on the end, running a hand over the mattress.
"If it isn't hexed in some way, then somebody must be playing a joke on the owner." Harry touched the red and gold curtains. "They might not even be in Gryffindor. Whoever it is could have transfigured the curtains."
Neville nudged one of the bedposts with his knee. "Do you think we should report it to McGonagall?"
"Nah, don't do that," Ron said. "If someone is playing a trick, that'll ruin it for them. Think about it: there's probably some Slytherin wandering around the castle right now trying to find their bed. It'd be hilarious. They could come in here and not even recognise it."
Neville looked disapproving. "What if it's not a Slytherin?"
Ron shoved Seamus over so he could flop on the bed next to him. "Bet it is. Why else would someone think it was funny to put it in here?" He stretched. "I hope it's Malf—"
The unfinished sentence hung in the air for a moment.
"We're going to be late for breakfast," Harry said at last.
"Yeah. Yeah." The other boys gathered themselves up. Seamus rolled off the bed. Ron folded his lanky limbs and caught Harry up at the door.
Ron shoved his hands in his pockets. "I don't know who to hate in Slytherin any more," he admitted. "I mean, Crabbe? Goyle?"
Crabbe and Goyle wandered around the school like lost souls this year. They never strayed an inch from each others' sides. Harry didn't think he could hate them.
It was just — weird. Harry didn't know whether he should be sorry about Malfoy being killed. He'd never liked him — he'd been an evil-minded little git. Only ... he'd been killed by the Order of the Phoenix. In a Death Eater skirmish, and it was perfectly okay for Order members to kill Death Eaters, even ones who were on their first raid. But the Death Eaters had never been Harry's classmates before.
It preyed on his mind all morning. Hermione wasn't at breakfast, and after that she had Ancient Runes, so he and Ron didn't see her until lunch. Harry pushed his food around a bit, then broke in on Ron telling her about the Mystery of the Appearing Bed. ("What were you thinking, Ron; it could have been dangerous!")
"Hermione? Do you know who actually ... you know, with Malfoy?"
She looked blank.
Harry made a frustrated sound. "Killed him. Do you know who it was who killed him?"
"Um. I think it was Kingsley Shacklebolt."
She kept looking at him. "You're thinking that it could have been you, aren't you?"
Harry shrugged and looked away.
"In the bathroom that time, when you cast Snape's curse, you could have —"
"Yes. I know."
Harry wished that he could just forget about the Sectumsempra incident. He'd forgotten it easily enough at the time; after the first moment of blood on the tiles and Malfoy's white face and cold dread twisting in Harry's stomach, he'd pushed it from his mind so well that he'd almost convinced himself that he'd done nothing to deserve the detention Snape gave him. Then in July the report had come in that Malfoy had been killed in a skirmish in London. Suddenly he was thinking about what had happened in the bathroom all the time.
Ron gave him a sideways look. "Don't worry about it too much, mate. He was being a total git at the time."
Harry blinked. "Gee, thanks. It's nice to know I would have been justified in murd—" his tongue tripped on the word "— murdering him because he was being a git."
"No! I didn't mean — well, what I mean is, he was really being a git. He cast an Unforgivable on you. That's kind of the pinnacle of git-ness, right?"
Harry took a breath. "Yeah. I suppose."
Ron thumped him on the back.
"Anyway, we knew you'd be like this about the bed," Ron said, turning back to the more comfortable conversation with Hermione. He adopted a scolding tone. "It could have been dangerous, Ron. It's probably a Horcrux, Ron."
"Shut up." Hermione was trying not to grin. "And don't talk so loudly."
Ron and Harry grabbed their bags as they finished lunch. Hermione was checking the books in her bag. She looked up. "You two have a free period, don't you? Are you going back to the library? I think we were close to a breakthrough with that text on bloodline-bound jewellery; I wish I'd been allowed to take it back to my dorm."
Ron groaned. "Hermione. The sun's shining. I haven't even seen the sun since we got back to school. I see books whenever I close my eyes. That's not normal."
She looked confused. "We only came back to school at all because the library here is the best in the world. We need to ..."
"We will," Harry promised. "After dinner we'll all go back. We're just going to stretch our legs a bit, or we'll go spare."
She hesitated. "Oh ... all right." But they noticed that she cast a longing look toward the library as she left for Arithmancy.
Ron almost exploded out of the castle doors.
"Yes! Yes!" He punctuated each step down the broad steps with a jump, then a spin at the end that nearly sent him into a fifth year Slytherin. She hid a smile under the book she was hugging to her chest.
Ron looked sheepish, settling into a normal walk. He was still grinning, though. Harry shoved him with his shoulder and grinned back. "Smooth."
Ron just sighed happily. "I don't get Hermione." He swerved around a bed of Munching Mossflowers in their path; they were grabby at this time of year. "How could she actually prefer to spend all her time with books on Dark Magic in that library? I mean, I get it, research, Horcruxes, important — but to prefer it?" He shook his head. "Definitely something not right."
"You're noticing this now?"
Ron made a face. "Well, it becomes more obvious every time she expects us to do it with her."
It was a beautiful day, even without the thought of the deathly quiet of the library as a comparison. Feathery clouds peppered the horizon, but the dome of the sky was an intense blue. There was just enough of a breeze to keep their cheeks pink.
Down the slope of the lawn, the lake glittered in the sunshine. The squid must have been sleeping, or resting deep down, since nothing disturbed the surface but the ripple of the breeze. Harry let his eyes skim over the expanse of water to the smudge of the village in the distance, and wished they'd brought their brooms.
There weren't many other students out on the grounds; most people had classes. When they slipped through the twin statues of Edwin the Ugly and Edwin the Unruly, and down into the uneven path between the herb gardens that began there, there were no others at all.
"D'you reckon this bloodline-jewellery book could really be useful?" Ron asked. "You-Know-Who would only have been able to use Slytherin-bound stuff, right? And we already know what the Slytherin Horcrux was ..."
It took Harry a moment to see why he'd stopped speaking. He looked in the direction Ron was staring, and pulled up short. It looked like — only of course it wasn't, but —
A boy sat against another ivy-draped statue. One of his knees was drawn up. His head rested on it, his shoulders slumped. White-blond hair slipped over his forehead, brushing the black robes covering his knee.
He looked up. His tired eyes lit in relief and he pulled himself to his feet.
"Oh, thank god. I have the worst headache; I think some of those curses actually hit me. I can't believe you two made it out unscathed." He looked down and made a face. "And then I stayed here too long and I think the ivy's tried to eat me. Come and give me a hand — my foot's all tangled up."
His expression grew uncertain as they stared. "Ron? Harry? You're all right, aren't you? What — what's happened?"
"Malfoy?" Harry felt silly asking, because Malfoy was right there in front of him, but ... He couldn't be.
"I ... yes?" Malfoy looked behind him, then back. "Really, what's going on? Did something else happen? Did you get hit?"
"You called me Ron." Ron sounded horrified. Apparently that had made more of an impression than the part where Malfoy wasn't dead.
Malfoy didn't seem to have an answer for this. He opened his mouth, then tilted his head to the side as though waiting for Ron to finish the sentence. "Er ..." he said eventually, when it was obvious Ron was finished.
He looked exhausted. He also looked as though he were beginning to panic.
"It's Polyjuice," Harry realised. He laughed and turned to not-Malfoy. "Whoever you are, you should have researched a bit more if you wanted to be convincing."
The boy gaped at him.
"Anybody could have told you Malfoy and Ron and I weren't friends," Harry continued. He gave the boy a speculative look and made sure that he could feel the end of his wand in his robe pocket. "If you're a Death Eater, you're not a very good one."
Not-Malfoy stared at him blankly for a moment. Then he gave a weak laugh. "This is a really stupid joke, you know. Quit it."
"Ugh." Ron shook himself. "Right, yes. Polyjuice. Whoever he is, we should take him to McGonagall."
Harry bit his lip, looking back at not-Malfoy. "We could Stun him and cast Levicorpus ..."
Not-Malfoy went pale. Harry wouldn't have said that he could when he was so pale to begin with, but now he was white. He stared at Harry and Ron, his eyes hard and furious. Harry didn't quite know what this person was trying to achieve, but he was really, really good at the expression Malfoy had worn right after Harry had insulted his mother.
Not-Malfoy drew himself very, very straight, his grip on the statue white-knuckled. When he spoke it was almost in a hiss.
"All right, I don't care what this is about. Are you listening? I don't. But if you try to touch me, I swear you won't ever be able to hold your wands again."
Harry squared his shoulders. It was difficult not to think of the boy as Malfoy — especially when he said things like that. He had to keep a refrain of dead, dead, dead running through the back of his mind.
"If you don't want to be Stunned, you're going to have to give us your wand and come along to the Headmistress's office."
The boy watched him and didn't say a word. His eyes glittered with rage; his shoulders were as tense as wire.
"Listen —" Harry said.
"I'm not going to play along, Potter."
Harry shrugged and pointed his wand. "Expeliarmus!"
"You saw it broken in front of me, you freak."
Ron tilted his head. "I don't think he has a wand. If he did, he wouldn't have been sitting there all tangled up in ivy, would he? And he probably would have, you know ... hexed us to bits before we noticed him."
Not-Malfoy didn't say anything, but looking at his expression Harry thought Ron was right. They would have been painful bits.
"All right." Harry lifted his chin. "You're going to have to walk in front of us, then."
Not-Malfoy glared slit-eyed poison at him and didn't move. After a moment Ron coughed and pointed his wand at the Strangler Ivy coiled around his foot. The vines held on stubbornly for a moment, then slithered out of the way.
The boy stepped out of the coils. He stumbled and grabbed the statue again. He straightened, not quite looking at them, and turned up the path.
Harry and Ron fell in behind him. Harry kept his wand trained on the stiff back in front of him. Ron kept his wand out too, but he looked as though he wasn't sure how seriously to take this. Harry had already lost one Death Eater in these grounds while trying to escort them to custody, though. He wasn't losing another one — no matter how tired and incapable of fighting they looked.
There was nobody in the halls when they got back inside. Harry was glad; he didn't want people to have another excuse to stare at him.
He had no idea what the boy who definitely absolutely wasn't Malfoy thought about it. He turned directly towards the Headmistress' office; he never glanced at Ron or Harry behind him, or gave any sign that he was walking at wandpoint.
When they reached the gargoyle not-Malfoy said, biting the word off, "Justice."
Ron and Harry stared at him. It was only as not-Malfoy stared fixedly at the gargoyle that Harry realised — bizarrely — that Malfoy was saying a password.
Except that it wasn't actually the password. Harry stepped around him, gave him a searching look, then said, "Self-discipline."
The boy's lip twisted in a sneer as though he blamed Harry for the wrong password, but he didn't say a word as the gargoyle ground out of the way. He stepped onto the staircase. Harry stepped up quickly beside him as he began to move. He felt Ron climb on behind them.
Harry held tightly onto his wand as they rose in the dim space. He was having sudden and horrible second thoughts. What if this boy had managed to conceal a wand, and he leapt out at the top of the staircase and cast Avada Kedavra on Professor McGonagall, sitting peacefully behind her desk? What if that had been his plan all along? Harry nudged up closer against him, hoping to be able to grab him if he made any sudden movements.
Not-Malfoy stiffened. "Back off, Potter. Didn't your aunt teach you that hands are for keeping to yourself?"
The staircase stopped before Harry could think of an answer. He knocked on the door and it swung open.
Not-Malfoy didn't make a lunge. Harry relaxed, barely.
McGonagall was standing by the bookshelf on the left side of the room, near Fawkes' empty perch. She looked up from the heavy volume in her hands, shifting it to one palm so that she could adjust her spectacles with the other hand. Her eyes focused on Malfoy (not Malfoy) and she raised her eyebrows.
"Well, this would seem to explain the roll this morning," she murmured.
"Just a moment, Mr Potter." She crossed to the fireplace and knelt before it, her knees giving alarming creaks. She threw a handful of Floo powder in and said, "Professor Slughorn's office," then leaned into the flames. They couldn't hear the conversation, but after a few moments she withdrew her head and rose. Her knees clicked again.
She turned to face them. "Professor Slughorn will be joining us in a moment, as the head of Slytherin House. I have also asked him to summon Professor Sinistra, if she should be free. I think that we will hold off explanations until they join us."
Harry chafed but kept quiet. Ron was looking around, interested. He'd only seen the headmaster's — headmistress', now — office once or twice before this. It was considerably more austere now than it had been in Dumbledore's time, but McGonagall had kept a few of the old headmaster's whirling gadgets and odd golden objects scattered around the shelves. They caught the dusty light from high windows, winking and spinning.
"Professor?" Not-Malfoy asked. He bit his lip. "Do you have a headache potion at all?"
McGonagall looked at him sharply, then took three quick steps, taking his chin in her hand. Harry tensed for a pounce (sickly green light marked the fall as the body tumbled off the Astronomy tower, spinning over and over) but the boy let McGonagall examine him.
She drew in a breath. Then she turned and transfigured a book into a chair, which she levitated behind him.
"Sit down," she said. He lowered himself with a brief look of relief. McGonagall crossed to the fireplace again and asked for the hospital wing. She stayed in there a longer period this time, and when she withdrew her head and arm she held a small bottled vial. She stood and crossed the room to give it the boy. He took it with a tiny nod of thanks and drank it down.
She returned to her desk and leaned against the front of it, regarding them all with sharp-eyed interest.
Harry had only just begun to fidget when the fireplace flared. Professor Sinistra stepped gracefully out of it.
She gave a curious glance around, then looked at Professor McGonagall.
"I believe I was summoned, Minerva."
McGonagall nodded. "I have some of your students here, as you see."
Sinistra looked back at Harry and Ron, a light furrow appearing in her brow. "I don't believe that they are, you know," she said. "Did you drop Astronomy, boys? You look a little tanned."
McGonagall clicked her teeth shut. "Your students as Head of Gryffindor, Aurora."
Sinistra tilted her head. "Oh, yes. That." She arranged herself against the far wall, giving the boys a once-over again.
The door opened a moment later, and Professor Slughorn stepped into the room.
Ron looked vaguely disappointed. "I was hoping we'd get to see him climb out of the fireplace," he whispered.
Harry was confused by Professor Sinistra's presence. He supposed he and Ron were her students — for all that he couldn't remember her coming down from the Astronomy Tower for anything other than the Welcome Feast each year — but he wasn't sure why their head of house needed to be here. Malfoy's, yes, but —
"Good god," Slughorn said, interrupting his own jovial greeting to McGonagall. "Is that the Malfoy boy?"
"No," Harry said. Everybody turned to look at him. He flushed. "Er. We — Ron and I — think it's Polyjuice."
Not-Malfoy threw him a look of utter loathing and turned away again.
"I see," McGonagall said. Then, to Slughorn, "And yes, Horace, this is the reason I summoned you. One of your ex-students appears to have re-emerged."
Not-Malfoy straightened. "One of his what?"
McGonagall clapped her hands. "I believe we will begin at the beginning. Mr Potter, Mr Weasley, your story is likely to be the shorter one. How did you come upon Mr Malfoy here?"
Slughorn transfigured himself a wide, squashy chair and lowered himself into it, his eyes fixed in fascination on the three boys. Harry couldn't help noticing that it looked a lot like the one he'd turned himself into the first time Harry met him.
"Er," Harry said. He looked around. "He was just ... sitting out in the grounds. He was all tangled up in some ivy. He doesn't have a wand."
"He's acting really weird," Ron added. "He keeps talking as though we're ... friends, or something." He shuddered. "It's really weird, Professor."
Harry chanced another look at not-Malfoy. He was still furious and tense, but he was also nervously clenching his fingers in his robes. McGonagall turned to him. "Mr Malfoy, perhaps you might tell your own story of how you came to be on the grounds?"
He opened his mouth; closed it again. "Professor, what ...?"
He stopped once more and obviously came to a decision. "I think ... a banishing spell, or something like that," he said instead. "That was sort of what it looked like, anyway. Ro — Weasley and Potter and I were out of school grounds — which I realise is against the rules, but there was a lead for ... something important, at Merope Riddle's grave in London. Only there turned out to be Death Eaters nearby. I don't think they were waiting for us; I think they were just stationed there on general principles. Yaxley took my wand and broke it, in the middle of it all, and then something hit me. I, er, think it might have saved my life, actually. There was an Avada Kedavra, too — it came right at me."
"Yes, that would explain the headache," McGonagall said absently. "I'm afraid we've not yet come to the heart of the issue, however, Mr Malfoy."
His mouth made an uncertain shape. "I thought we might not have."
Sinistra was frowning, the delicate furrow back in her forehead. She smoothed her hair back from her face and looked at McGonagall. "Do come to the point, Minerva. I realise that I don't entirely keep up with those parts of the student body who do not take my class, but surely the Malfoy boy is generally ... doing less breathing than this, these days?"
McGonagall looked irritated. "Yes, thank you, Aurora, that is the issue here." She turned to Malfoy (not Malfoy, he couldn't be; why was McGonagall treating him as though he were?) who was looking a bit greenish. "You are absolutely sure that you are Draco Malfoy?"
He just looked at her. "Yes," he said after a moment, when it became clear that she wasn't going to move on without an answer.
She leaned back, pressing her hands against the desk behind her. "I saw you die two months ago, you see," she said. Her mouth twisted. "It was something I decidedly did not enjoy. But it does give us something of a conundrum now, don't you agree?"
"Professor, he's lying," Harry said. "Why are you believing him? Nothing he's saying makes any sense. Why would we go to Merope Riddle's grave with him? And we didn't, anyway, we were here all morning — we were at breakfast. Plus Malfoy's dead. You said he was. You said you saw it. He's dead."
"My god, Potter, would you stop saying that." Malfoy glared at him. Harry stared back, challenging him.
Sinistra shifted. "How very interesting," she murmured. "I really think I would have petitioned to be Head of House years ago had I realised how exciting it was."
McGonagall gave her a cold look.
"Not that you weren't doing a sterling job," Sinistra said, unperturbed.
McGonagall turned back to Harry, Ron and the interloper. "We will, of course, have to monitor Mr Malfoy for the full hour to ensure that it truly isn't Polyjuice," she said. "But the castle certainly believes you to be alive, Mr Malfoy. Your name spontaneously appeared on the roll — albeit not on that section of it I would have expected — this morning, and the house-elves tell me that the castle has also produced a new bed in your dormitory."
Her tone more than her words triggered the small warning flag in Harry's head.
"Professor," Ron said slowly, "that can't be right. That bed the house-elves told you about — it has to be the one that turned up in Gryffindor Tower."
"Yes," McGonagall agreed. "So they told me. And I must admit that I was rather startled myself when Draco Malfoy's name appeared on the student roll under the heading 'Gryffindor House'."
She looked at Harry, who was gaping like a fish, and at Ron's suddenly thunderous scowl; then at Sinistra turning a calculating stare on Malfoy, as though he had become twice as interesting.
It was Malfoy who broke the silence.
"Professor," he said, "what house did you expect me to be in?"
"Slytherin," she said simply. Her brow creased, and she looked at him almost sympathetically. "I'm afraid you've got a bit lost, Mr Malfoy."
Harry didn't know what to think.
McGonagall had said that there would need to be a more extensive questioning session to attempt to get to the heart of the ... serious weirdness ... of everything, but that Malfoy was exhausted and had spell-backwash damage and it would have to happen after he'd had a period to recover in the hospital wing.
Then she'd had a brief discussion with Sinistra and Slughorn about whether Slughorn was happy to pass Malfoy over to Sinistra's house, and Harry could only sputter. At which point McGonagall had noticed that they were still there and had kicked them out.
They met Hermione, who listened with wide eyes and a certain amount of envy at missing the excitement. Harry was too restless to go to dinner, so they grabbed some food from the kitchens instead and traipsed back up to the boys' dorm to have a look at the bed.
"Why is she trusting him?" Harry demanded, for the third or fourth time. Hermione sat down on the edge of Malfoy's red and gold-curtained bed, tucking her robes under her.
"Hermione!" Ron looked scandalised. "You might catch something!"
She rolled her eyes. "I really don't think I'm going to catch Slytherin-ness from a bed, Ron. Especially a Gryffindor bed."
"He wasn't just a Slytherin."
"Well, I don't think I'm going to catch Malfoy-ness or Death Eater-ness either."
Harry glared at the slice of pie on his plate. He put it down on his pillow. "Either he's tricking everyone and he's not really Malfoy, in which case he's a spy," he said, marking it off on his fingers, "or — or — he is Malfoy, in which case he tried to kill the headmaster and he let Death Eaters into the school and he pretended to be dead." He balled his hands up. "I know I can't be the only one who thinks that that's slightly suspicious behaviour."
"Or the third option," Hermione said calmly. "The one that McGonagall believes: that he belongs to a different reality."
Harry let his mind skitter over that idea for a moment, as it had when the headmistress spelled it out in her office. Then he shook his head.
"That's ridiculous, Hermione. I've never heard of that."
"Well, it's not common. I mean, you can't control travel between realities, the way you can time with a Time-Turner. But it is documented."
"O mighty documentation," Ron said quietly, making a vague worshipping motion. Hermione clicked her tongue at him. He grinned.
Harry had to pause for a moment there. It was true that he hadn't realised time travel was a possibility either, until Hermione had produced a Time-Turner like a rabbit out of a hat at the end of third year. But still ... Malfoy as an alternate-reality traveller?
He really did think that Malfoy as a lying, evil, twitchy little spy who'd pretended to be dead was the more convincing image.
"He said he was a Gryffindor, though," he said, pulling out his ultimate argument. "And there's no way in the world."
Hermione made a face and took a bite of her shepherd's pie. Then she delicately sipped her pumpkin juice. "It does sound very odd," she agreed, frowning at the tray on her knees. Then, looking up, "Oh, I wish I'd been there! I'm sure you haven't told me everything that was said. It doesn't make proper sense the way you've told it."
"Oi." Ron looked offended. "It didn't make sense. He kept talking about all these things that didn't happen, and acting as though we'd been friends. It was just weird." He brightened. "Do you suppose he might be mad?"
Hermione hesitated. "It doesn't sound like a delusion, though. If it were, he would be used to people contradicting it, wouldn't he? But it sounds as though he was really shaken by people thinking he was dead." She tapped her fingers on the edge of her plate. "And it would take a lot to fool the castle about what house somebody belonged in; I don't really think it could be done. I honestly think McGonagall's probably right about this."
Then she frowned again, more sharply, as something occurred to her. "He didn't mention me, did he? You would have said if he had. He didn't mention being friends with me."
"Er." Ron looked uncertain. "D'you ... um, want to be friends with him?"
She waved that away, scowling. "I just think it's typical, that's all. Even in his own alternate Gryffindor reality, none of his friends are Muggle-born."
"See, that's proof that he's lying," Harry said. "As if we'd ever choose him over you in any reality, Hermione."
She looked a little bit pleased.
Ron flopped onto the bed next to Hermione and folded his knees up, apparently forgetting that it had Death Eater cooties on it. "You know the other weird thing?" he said. "When he talked about following a lead to Merope Riddle's grave — don't you think that kind of sounded like a Horcrux hunt? How did he even know about Merope?"
"It could have been anything," Harry said. "Just because we were thinking about checking out her grave ..."
"Maybe we should."
"Or maybe it's a trap." Harry gave him a pointed look.
Ron flushed. "Um, yeah. Right."
Hermione had gone back to puzzling over possibilities. She was chewing on a bit of her hair. "What did he say about getting cursed? When Professor McGonagall asked him how he got to Hogwarts, I mean, what did he say?"
Ron and Harry looked at each other. "A banishing spell?" Ron asked. "I think that's what he said."
"No, that's not enough," Hermione said. "Didn't he say anything else? A banishing spell isn't even a curse, it's just a hex. It doesn't specify the destination, so it doesn't have the malice necessary for a curse. But if he had a horrible headache and he was exhausted like you said, that could only have come from the backwash of malicious magic."
Harry looked at her. "Um. All right." McGonagall had mentioned spell backwash, he remembered. "I'm pretty sure he said banishing, though, like Ron said. He said he thought it saved him from an Avada Kedavra."
Hermione's eyes gleamed. She opened her mouth to say something, then changed her mind and closed it again. "I just need to check something," she said, pushing aside her tray of food and pulling her bag towards her. "I'm sure I read something that ... I think I put it in here ..."
Harry would have found it spooky that she happened to be carrying the right book around if it had happened last year; even given that Hermione was Hermione. But over summer she'd taken advantage of being able to do unsupervised magic for the first time, and, in between Horcrux research, she'd learned how to cast internal expansion and lightening charms on her bag. She now kept the equivalent of a small library in there. It always put Harry in mind of vague childhood memories of Mary Poppins pulling pot plants and full-length mirrors from her bag. He remembered peeking from the corridor while Dudley watched the telly.
Well, until Aunt Petunia had noticed that Mary Poppins could fly and had banned the video from the house.
Hermione dragged out an enormous reference tome, her wrists trembling with the effort, and flicked quickly to a point about three-quarters through. She read with her eyes three inches from the minuscule text. Then she looked up, marking her place with her elbow, and let a curl of a smile slide over her mouth.
"I knew I'd read something," she said. Harry and Ron waited, but she turned back to the book again, muttering to herself, furiously turning pages. After a moment she looked up once more, blinking hair out of her eyes. "I need to go study this," she said vaguely. They watched her trail out of the room, her eyes still devouring the book. She avoided walking into the door only by some extra Hermione-sense, honed over years.
"I suppose we'll find out what that was about?" Ron asked after a moment.
"Do you ... do you think it's really him? Forget the alternate reality stuff — do you think it's Malfoy?"
"Yeah," Harry admitted. Nobody else could make his teeth hurt that way. "And I think we need to find out what he's doing here."
"Yeah, guess so." Ron chewed on his lower lip, frowning at the coverlet under his hand. Then he sat up and pushed his crumb-scattered tray away. "Bloody weird, though."
Harry gathered up his tray and left it on his bedside table. He gave Malfoy's bizarrely red and gold-curtained bed one last look as they left the dorm. It sat there, looking like any other Gryffindor bed.
Which showed that you couldn't trust appearances.
There was a babble of excited voices as they came down the stairs. It switched to silence as they stepped into the common room, and sixty expectant faces turned towards them.
Apparently dinner was over. And news of Malfoy's return had got out.
"Is it true?" Ginny demanded, bounding over to them. She looked fierce and uncertain and hugely curious. "Draco Malfoy's come back from the dead as a Gryffindor?"
Harry rubbed the back of his neck. "Um, sort of," he said. "He's back, anyway. I don't think he was ever dead."
He never knew how to act around Ginny any more. He'd expected to miss her horribly, and he did feel kind of envious when he saw her laughing and swinging arms with people who weren't him. But it wasn't like losing Hermione in third year, or Ron in fourth. He'd tried to imagine getting back together with her; defeating Voldemort and then sweeping her into his arms in a sort of mirror-image of their first kiss after her own Quidditch triumph. But it was a distant image, and to be honest, all he could really see was her punching him in the nose and telling him he had a nerve expecting her to wait around like that.
She was giving him an odd look now. "Harry?" She looked at Ron. "Well, is it true? About him coming to live in Gryffindor?"
"Worse luck," Ron said, flopping into an armchair. A second-year girl scuttled backwards out of his way.
"Why?" Dean hugged his long legs and stared at them.
"Supposedly he's from another reality," Ron said.
"Ooh!" Seamus had been standing when they came in. Now he bounced down onto his knees, his hip knocking Dean off balance. "Is that what the bed was, then? Was I lying on Malfoy's bed?"
Lavender nudged him. "Lucky thing," she murmured. Seamus stared at her for a moment, then coloured as he got it. He shifted his hip away from Dean's. Dean rolled his eyes.
"It's not true," Harry said. "He's lying, and for some reason McGonagall believed it. That's all."
"But Harry," — this time Dennis Creevey, who'd shot up to tower over his brother over the last year, and now spoke in a preternaturally deep voice that made Harry feel as though he were being told off — "how could he have faked dying? My friend's brother was at the funeral. He said it was open casket. There was a body."
Harry hadn't heard the portrait opening. He only realised somebody had come in when he saw Dennis' eyes shift beyond him.
Malfoy looked a lot better than he had when they had found him. The strained lines around his eyes — probably pain from the headache — had eased, and he no longer looked so white and shaky.
He didn't look at either Harry or Ron.
"You should watch that morbid streak, Dennis." He leaned back against the wall by the portrait hole. "That's how baby Death Eaters are born."
"You've a nerve saying that, Malfoy." Seamus sounded almost awed.
"You've a nerve coming in here at all," Harry said. He could feel his glare coming back.
Malfoy looked at him then, a vicious glance that could have been a bite. He flipped his tie in Harry's direction, red and gold stripes catching the light. "Gryffindor, Potter," he said. "They let just anyone in this house, don't they?"
There was an odd tone to that last line — as though he were quoting something. Harry had the the sudden conviction that it was something Malfoy had said before, in his own reality.
Then he realised he was treating Malfoy's lie as though it were truth. He narrowed his eyes.
"Only until I prove what you're doing, Malfoy. I will. I promise I will."
Malfoy gave him one last look that conveyed, quite well, that Harry was too stupid to live. Then he turned back to Dennis.
"I'm not dead," he said. "I was never dead."
Seamus pulled himself up onto the arm of the sofa that Lavender and Parvati were sitting on, raising his chin so that he had a clear view. "So how'd you fake it, then?" he demanded. "Was there somebody else in the casket? Did you off somebody, Malfoy?"
Malfoy gave him an incredulous look. He shifted the backpack he was carrying higher into his arms, clutching it to his chest. "I never died," he said tightly. "I never pretended to die." His eyes moved to the rest of the room. "The next person who mentions my death, I swear I will cut up and feed to a Thestral."
He crossed the room and disappeared up the stairs.
Dennis blinked. Colin dropped down beside him, and they fell into a conversation of furious whispers. Colin kept looking at Harry, his face worried and determined. Harry had a terrible suspicion that he was trying to recruit his brother for a scheme to protect Harry from Malfoy and his attack Thestrals.
Ron looked at Harry. "Do Thestrals eat people?" he asked blankly. Harry stared at him.
Ginny chewed on her lip and leaned her elbow on Ron's shoulder. "He looked pissed off, didn't he?" She was gazing at the staircase Malfoy had gone up, her face twisted. "Aren't you worried he's going to hex your stuff up there or something?"
Ron's eyes widened. He leapt to his feet, dislodging Ginny so that she slipped backwards onto the chair behind him. Harry got up with him.
Ginny was right. He didn't trust Malfoy alone in the their dorm for a minute.
When they got up there, though, Malfoy was already in bed. The curtains were drawn tight around, and Harry could hear deep, even breaths. He didn't believe Malfoy could really be asleep so quickly.
He sat down on his own bed, his shoulders slumping. Ron dropped down beside him. "I forgot: he doesn't have a wand anyway," Ron said quietly.
Harry shot a doubtful look at the closed curtains of Malfoy's bed. "I still don't trust him," he murmured. Ron gave him a 'Well, yeah, obviously,' sort of look, then rolled onto his face on Harry's bed.
"This is so weird," he said into the pillow.
Harry didn't hear any sound from behind Malfoy's curtains until long after they'd all gone to bed. The muffled choke and the rustle of somebody pushing his face into a pillow disturbed him as he was dropping off. He lay there in the dark, trying to muffle his ears with a blanket; but he couldn't help imagining that he could still hear somebody quietly sobbing.