Chapter 1: Angel
When I was fifteen years old, I presented as alpha, and it was as though heaven had opened up, a long overdue apology for the torment of my childhood. I woke up on my bed of hay, streaked with sweat and shaking, my cock throbbing and my knot swollen, and it was a baptism. After so many years, I had potential, I had options, I was free.
I left the hateful thrall of my aunt and uncle that same day, my paltry belongings all thrown into one rucksack, and left with minimal explanation. They had given me nothing and as such I owed them nothing, least of all a goodbye. I didn’t know where I was going when I left, but I knew it was far, far away from Surrey. When I came to the main road and turned west, I decided that west was as good as any direction. What did the direction matter, after all, when my new life was beginning?
In the fond retrospect of these, my later years, I count my idealism as amusingly childish. Every young alpha born into the lower classes thinks their presentation is the turning point, but the wisdom of age has taught me that this is not the case – not for the majority, and certainly not for me. Looking back now, I know the day my life changed, and it wasn’t when I presented. It came several weeks later, when I met Draco Malfoy.
I remember the day with such brutal, devastating clarity. I had been on my own for the better part of a month, moving west, ever west, until I found myself in Wiltshire. It was April, and the rolling green pastures were resplendent, bright with color and bursting with life. I had seen a want ad posted in the sleepy little hamlet of Sherrington – there was need of a new hall boy at the nearby great house, Avebury Manor.
I had no formal experience in service, of course, but I was optimistic. After so long as a ward of my dreadful aunt and uncle, I was no stranger to cleaning, and my newly minted status as alpha meant that there was a good chance I could be promoted to valet, or even to butler, within a few short years.
Avebury Manor, I was quick to learn from local gossip, was not just a great house, but the seat of the Earl of Wiltshire. And when I came upon it, I knew there was no way such a remarkably beautiful building could be anything but. As I came up over the hill it loomed down at me threateningly. Its bright sandstone walls seemed to challenge me, demanding to know what business I – a boy with and from nothing – had hoping to serve the noble House of Malfoy.
I would have lost my nerve and turned back if it hadn’t been right at that moment that I saw him.
I find it an incomparable challenge to put into words my thoughts and reactions to that first time I laid eyes on him. He was only one in a crowd of nearly two dozen, all of them on horseback and dressed for a hunt, but he stood out. Then again, no – “stood out” is not a term that does him justice. He did not stand out, he eclipsed. The beauty of Wiltshire, of the stately great house, of that perfect day in mid-April, shone like stars – but even stars vanish in the radiance of the sun.
And radiant he was, like an angel – with skin like porcelain and hair like platinum, he did all but glow. The perfect angles of his face where sharp enough to cut, and already they had wounded me. My heart thundered in the side of my neck. My nerves burned with some terrible combination of enchantment and roaring desire. I was overwhelmed.
“Can I help you?”
The voice slapped me out of my stupor and it was such an abrupt transition I nearly staggered where I stood. At some point, I had approached the front of the great house and the gathered hunting party preparing to leave.
The man addressing me was tall and reedy, with dark hair and darker eyes. I knew at once from his gait alone that he must have been the butler.
My traitorous voice refused to work. I cleared my throat and tried again.
“I saw the want ad posted in the city,” I managed.
“For the new hall boy,” the butler said, and he turned his hawkish nose down slightly as he regarded me. Under his scrutiny I felt woefully inadequate. I became extremely aware of the accumulated dirt and dust on my trousers, of the streaks of sweat along my shirt, of the mud on my boots. I cursed my lack of foresight. I should have cleaned up before coming.
I averted my eyes from his discerning gaze and looked back up at the radiant angel on the black gelding. He was speaking to someone, smirking, and the curve of his lips was torturously appealing.
It was then that I noticed a gentleman behind him loading a shotgun with thick, clumsy hands. He’d put in the ammunition and had clicked the gun back into place, then began fumbling carelessly with it.
The butler was speaking to me, but I did not hear it. Several things happened one after the other.
First, I lunged forward, grabbing the angel by one arm and pulling with all my might.
Second, there was a deafeningly loud gunshot, followed immediately by several cries of alarm and the frantic whinnying of horses.
Third, my angel fell from his horse and landed on top of me in the dust.
There was shouting, frenzied at first and then angry. I could not hear them.
He was staring down at me, his eyes wide, his mouth open slightly, his body pressed flush to mine. My hands were on his arms, gripping tightly. I felt electric, alive and primal and possessive – was this, some distant part of my cogent brain wondered, the alpha dominance I had heard so much about rearing its head for the first time? Was he an omega awakening my instinct?
But I couldn’t detect a scent on him, and given the proximity, I should have been able to. I was forced to conclude that he had not yet presented, and that whatever it was making me want to devour him must have been something else.
“What—?” my angel began, and we were so close that the heat of the word ghosted across my cheek.
I swallowed and sat upright, with some difficulty. “Are you hurt?” I asked him, scanning his now dusty hunting clothes for signs of blood.
My angel had grey eyes flecked with silver. His pupils blew wide as he sat back on his haunches in the dust and slowly shook his head. He seemed nervous – surprised, too, though it was muted by a thrum of residual fear.
“Thank God,” I said, smiling, hoping it would ease him. It seemed to, somewhat. He hesitated, then returned the smile.
“—should have you brought up on charges for your gross incompetence, loading a gun in a crowd – Draco! Draco, where are you?”
The Earl of Wiltshire – and I knew at once that he must have been the earl, just by the look of him, his gravitas, his countenance – parted the horses as Moses parted the Red Sea. He was every inch my angel’s father, the same face, the same eyes, the same hair silvered with age. He was all sharp lines and hard angles, handsome and understated in his starched hunting garb.
“I – Father, I’m fine,” my angel – Draco, what an incredible name – said, and in his father’s steady grip he pulled himself out of the dust. The earl looked him over, not satisfied at his son’s insistence that he was well until he could see so for himself. “I’m fine,” he said again.
“That gun was pointed right at you,” the earl said gravely.
“I was pulled from my horse just in time,” Draco answered, looking across at me.
I hurried to pull myself up before the earl’s eyes could fall on me. Again I regretted with agonizing intensity my lack of foresight at not having cleaned up before I arrived.
He was an alpha, of course – inheriting nobility always were – but I could have known it on my own blindfolded and from ten feet away. He was every inch an alpha, the scent of it came from every pore, it was written into every line of his face and carved into his soul.
“And who’s this mysterious savior?” the earl asked. His voice was still tight with what remained of his initial panic, but his hackles had come down.
“I – My Lord, I’m Harry Potter, I…”
“He came about the want ad we posted in town,” the butler suddenly supplied.
The earl’s eyes darted to the butler and then back to me.
“Did he, indeed? After a display like that, I think we’d be remiss not to give him the position.”
After such an intense moment of fear, the quip brought a few nervous laughs from the surrounding hunting party.
“You’re an alpha, aren’t you?” he continued, hand canting to one side, nostrils flaring. It was an expression I’d grown used to over the past several weeks – whenever people came close enough to catch my scent, they’d always take a second breath of it, as if to be sure they weren’t mistaken.
“Yes, My Lord. I just presented last month.”
“Not every day an alpha crops up in the lower classes,” he remarked. “You’d make an excellent valet some day, I think it’s fair to say. You’ve already shown quite a strong protective instinct.”
I bowed my head. I hardly dared to believe my luck. I knew that, as an alpha, I’d have a natural advantage, but this all seemed almost too good to be true. “Thank you, My Lord. But it was just a stroke of random luck. Anyone would have done the same in my position.”
“And yet,” said the earl, “you’re the only one who did. For that, you have my most profound and sincere gratitude. Mr. Snape, why don’t you take young Mr. Potter to your pantry and get him set up?”
“Right away, My Lord,” said the butler – Mr. Snape, apparently – with a shallow bow.
“And thank you,” Draco suddenly said, after having been quiet for most of the conversation. “Mr. Potter. Thank you. You saved my life.”
God, but he was beautiful at that moment. The image of him, with his hair burning gold in the sunlight and his eyes wide and sincere, has stayed with me through the rest of my life.
It was that moment I knew on a very primal level that I would happily and enthusiastically kill anyone who dared harm him. It was such a simple feeling, so serene and honest, that it was not for several hours that I finally realized how strange it was of me to think it. Beautiful as he was, I barely knew him. What on earth could possess me to feel so violently protective of him so soon?
It seems almost comically obvious in hindsight. What could possess me to feel so protective of him? There was but one thing it could have been.
And as I followed Mr. Snape away from the hunting party toward the wide iron doors of Avebury Manor, I stole one last look at my angel and found that he was staring back at me, his expression some queer combination of anxiety and heartache and desire. My heart thrummed in my neck and it took everything in me not to run back to him and soothe it away.
Chapter 2: Ghost
Avebury Manor, I have since learned, is a vortex that consumes every part of you. It is its own pocket of reality, completely separate from the rest of the world. I had scarcely been there three days before I realized that I already considered Avebury Manor my new home – not because it was particularly hospitable (though it certainly was), but because its own bustle and activity and urgencies had allowed me so easily to forget that anything else existed outside of it.
I spent my first week shadowing one Mr. Peter Pettigrew, personal valet to the Earl. He was a short man, portly, with large rat-like front teeth and yellowish skin – not handsome by any means, but he must have done something right to rise so high in station.
He was in any case an assiduous enough teacher. He showed me around the massive estate, helping me to memorize its occasionally labyrinthine layout, introduced me to the other members of staff – uniformly beta, I discovered – and gave me overviews of what my duties as hall boy would include.
“Mind you,” Mr. Pettigrew said one afternoon as we walked together through a large corridor connecting the servants’ quarters with the main foyer, “your duties are likely to change very soon.”
“You are an alpha,” Mr. Pettigrew said, not without some measure of disdain. “An alpha in service is never low-ranking for very long.”
I felt quite abruptly awash with guilt. I’d never really considered how easily my natural advantage could translate into a disadvantage for others. I flinched.
“Likely, you’ll be promoted straight to valet of Young Lord Malfoy, once he presents.”
Some unnamed emotion twisted painfully in the pit of my stomach. “He is presumed alpha?” I asked, rather without meaning to.
“Of course,” Mr. Pettigrew said. “There hasn’t been a non-alpha firstborn of House Malfoy for centuries.”
Perhaps, my mind supplied, that was for the better. Since taking up at Avebury Manor, my affections for him had not waned in the slightest – indeed, every time we caught sight of one another in the halls or out in the garden, time seemed to dilate, and my vision warped and tunneled until I saw only him.
To say I yearned for him would be an entirely disingenuous understatement – it would be fairer to say that I lacked for him, as I would lack for air if I were strangled. Every instinct I had told me that this beautiful, disparate creature was an essential part of me, and each moment I spent without my arms wrapped around him was the most exquisite agony I had ever known.
There were times when I wondered if he felt the same – moments when our gazes met and held from across the hallway or through open doors and I would entertain the idea that perhaps he was just as desperate for my touch as I was for his, that he felt the same inexorable, magnetic pull.
I never let myself think about it for too long. What did it matter, after all? He was the firstborn of an earl, presumed alpha, set to inherit an immense estate – and I was no one.
“They are a cadet branch of House Slytherin, you know. I am sure their strong alpha genetics come from their royal roots.”
The words pulled me up through the levels of my own mind. My eyes refocused.
We had come to a stop in the foyer, a grand marble room with a massive, curling staircase leading to an upper landing, dominated by a single chandelier hanging from the vaulted ceiling.
“They are?” I asked, surprised, though trying my best to hide it.
Mr. Pettigrew nodded, his face showing traces of second-hand pride. “It was founded by the second-born alpha of Alastor Slytherin.”
“They’re descended from one of the dukes of the Four Royal Houses?” There was no hiding my surprise, not anymore – House Slytherin was illustrious parentage, indeed.
“Just so,” Mr. Pettigrew said, smiling toothily. “That’s why they’ve been coming into the limelight so much as of late. What, with only one of the houses remaining and our Omega Queen growing old without issue, inheritance has been a topic of great consternation. They say that His Grace Duke Thomas Marvolo of House Slytherin will be the next monarch.”
And that would make Draco, by extension, a member of the cadet branch of the ruling family. Even though I never really had any hope of making him mine, it still hurt to learn just how far separated we would be.
I was about to respond when there came suddenly a loud chime that echoed through the foyer – someone had rung the doorbell. Synchronously, we turned toward it.
“Are we meant to answer it?” I asked.
“Under most circumstances, no,” Mr. Pettigrew said. “That is normally a duty reserved for the butler, Mr. Snape. But since he’s working in his pantry and asked to remain undisturbed, the duty falls to the highest-ranking valet, which is me. It’s good that you’re here for this – you may need to learn the procedure one day.”
Mr. Pettigrew adjusted his waistcoat and started off across the foyer towards the massive iron door. I followed a few paces behind and stopped off to the side as he pulled them open.
I had not been adequately prepared to stare into the faces of two ghosts of my recent past.
Vernon Dursley, my uncle, looked at Mr. Pettigrew for only a moment before his beady eyes landed on me.
“There he is!”
“I – what—?” Mr. Pettigrew began, but my uncle shoved open the door, knocking poor Mr. Pettigrew aside and grabbing me by my arm. With a cry, I wrenched myself away from him.
“We’ve been looking for you!” my uncle said, trying again to grab me. “Let’s go home.”
“Have you lost your mind?” I snapped, but soon my aunt, Petunia, was flanking my other side, her horselike face eager, eyes dewey with faked tears.
“We’ve missed you!” she said. “Come home. Let’s go home now!”
“I certainly will not – get your hands off of me!”
“How dare you!” Mr. Pettigrew managed, upon regaining his sensibilities following such an open display of abhorrent rudeness. “I demand you leave at once!”
“Not without our Harry!”
In addition to horribly jarring, utterly blindsiding, and somewhat nauseating, it became confusing – I had spent most of my life being treated like scum by these people, forced to sleep in their cupboard, tolerated only because I was an extra pair of hands to help with housework. When I left all those weeks ago, they had seemed relieved to have me gone – I could not imagine what had possessed them to hunt me down, let alone make them eager to have me back.
“I am – I am not your Harry – get out! Both of you get out!”
“I’ll go fetch Mr. Snape,” Mr. Pettigrew said, and while I was not eager to have the butler introduced to my dreadful aunt and uncle, I knew that if anyone could force them out, it would be the stern-faced, steady-handed Severus Snape. Mr. Pettigrew fled the room, and my aunt and uncle closed in on me even further.
“Come back with us,” my aunt said, and her hands were gripping the sleeve of my newly-issued oxford shirt, rumpling the starched fabric. “Come on, now, Harry, let’s forget all about it and go home.”
“Listen to your aunt,” my uncle supplemented, and he grabbed me by both shoulders, trying to forcibly steer me toward the door. I jerked away from both their hands and whirled.
“Do not touch me!” I snarled. There was an angry heat rising in my chest. I was so furious that my hands shook. “What in God’s name are you doing here?”
“We want you to come home,” my uncle said.
“Nonsense! You were beside yourselves with glee when I left! It’s not as if you had even the faintest shred of fondness for me—!”
The wide, almost manic smile altered ever so slightly and became something like a grimace. I could see my uncle’s thick, meaty hands clench at his sides.
“Listen here, boy,” he growled, his voice low and dangerous and finally familiar to my unpleasant memories of him, “someone very important is looking for you.”
“What? What do you mean?”
“He has offered us quite a bit of money—”
A derisive snort left me before I could reign it in. Of course it was about money. Why else?
“—and we are not leaving without you!”
“What is the meaning of this?”
The voice came form behind. I spun on my heel in time to see my angel gliding down the curving staircase. My heart was crushed under the weight of the mere idea that he would be forced to see these wretched people I called family.
My aunt and uncle, for their part, seemed to recognize his dress and accent as belonging to nobility, and withdrew from surprise, if nothing else.
“My Lord,” I said. “I’m so sorry, I…”
But how could I hope to finish that sentence? What combination of words would make this embarrassment forgivable?
“Harry, who are these people?” he asked upon reaching the bottom of the staircase.
“Begging your pardon, My Lord,” my uncle said, words thick and clumsy with lack of experience – he had never spoken to anyone of a station as high as Draco’s, I was sure. “But this boy is our ward, and we need to take him home.”
Draco’s brow knit and he looked to me, as if for confirmation. I felt white-hot with shame, and I lowered my eyes.
“I… it’s true that I am their ward, My Lord, but I have no desire to go back with them.”
“That’s not your choice—” my uncle said sharply, suddenly, but was cut off.
“Excuse me,” Draco said with a hard, commanding edge to his voice that took me entirely by surprise, “but you do not have any authority over my servants.”
“He—” my aunt stammered, “—he is our ward!”
“He is also an alpha,” Draco continued, and short though he was, the tone of his voice made them both shrink to ten inches tall. “He has presented, which makes him legally independent.”
My uncle blustered and stuttered and turned a satisfying shade of purple. “My Lord—!”
“And how dare you barge in on this noble house without warning or invitation? And to assault a valued member of its staff, no less! You are obviously not welcome here and I would thank you to leave immediately – Mr. Snape! Just in time.”
I spun on a heel. Mr. Snape was striding out of the adjoining corridor, looking even more foul-tempered than usual.
“Mr. Snape, if you would please remove these people from this house, and if they are so audacious as to return, summon the police to have them escorted off the property.”
My aunt and uncle might have been slapped, for their horrified reactions. Mr. Snape inserted himself between me and the door, looming down over them.
“At once and with great pleasure, My Lord,” Mr. Snape said.
“And Harry – this way.”
There was a weight in my stomach that grew heavy at his words. My legs moved, though not of my own volition, to where Draco had indicated – the nearby sitting room, awash with golden afternoon sun and fragrant with the scent of tea.
There was a bright yellow canary in the corner of the room, chirping and twittering in its gilded cage. I stood in the center of the room and watched it in silence.
The sitting room door closed with a click, and it felt like a gunshot.
We were silent for several unbearable moments. I couldn’t bear to meet his eyes, lest I see his disappointment – or even worse, God forbid, his pity. Instead I stared at the canary.
“Who were they?” Draco asked behind me.
I swallowed dryly. “Ghosts of my recent past,” I answered. “My aunt and uncle.”
“You ran away?”
“Like a bat out of hell, the moment I presented. They were not…”
He had a right to know, of course, but I couldn’t bring myself to say it. Grisly things like that shouldn’t be uttered to angels.
There passed another beat of silence. The little golden canary chirped and beat its wings against the bars of its cage.
“I’m so sorry, My Lord – I should – my things, I’ll get my things—”
“There’s no need for that.”
I looked back at him in surprise. He was leaning against the sitting room door, caught in a stripe of sunlight, and God, the realization that we were alone hit me like a blow to the stomach. His skin glowed golden in the light and the lines of his throat rolled as he swallowed.
“You’ve done nothing wrong, Harry,” he said, though there was some strain in his voice. “You obviously didn’t want them here, and they were removed with no harm done.”
I opened my mouth to speak, but found I did not know what to say. Behind me, the canary cried and battered its cage. Draco moved forward, slowly.
“I am just…” he faltered a moment and stopped a foot away from me, his hands clasped behind his back. “I am sorry that you ever had to deal with such vileness.”
I would have loved to tell him that all vileness left the world the moment he spoke to me, that his radiance burned away with all the ugliness in Creation – I would have loved to gather him into my arms, to thank him for his compassion and understanding, to kiss him until our lips bruised, to peel away those starched clothes and lick the golden sunlight off his skin—
—but I did not. Instead, I swallowed, I breathed, I listened to the canary beat its wings against the bars of its cage, and I said, “Thank you, My Lord.”
And then I left.
Chapter 3: Desire
Between knowing and uncertainty, between imprisonment and freedom, between having and having not, there exists a long, thin line. Society tells us that it is preferable, desirable, or even necessary to be as far away from that line as is possible to be, and after a few months at Avebury Manor, I began to understand why.
I lived in that in-between, straddling that long, thin line. It became a second home to me. For months I served as hall boy for Avebury Manor – making friends, carving out a place for myself, establishing an identity and a purpose – and yet miserable. Miserable, because despite all the ways in which my life had turned around precisely as I had hoped it would, I walked along that terrible, wonderful line of having and not having Draco Malfoy.
I had learned from a thousand little moments – stolen glances across the garden, lingering silences in hallways, shy and secret smiles, stuttered breathes – that my affections for him were not unrequited. In any other situation that fact would have given me hope, but it only made me miserable. It seemed a cruel, cosmic irony – now not one but both of us were forced to suffer the unbearable burden of loving someone for whom showing that love would be an unforgivable indiscretion.
But oh, when it was good, it was wonderful. Our hands brushed and my heart stopped; he said my name and it was a sound sweeter than music; he smiled at me and the world stilled on its axis. I would have been furious with him for making himself so easily an extension of my own heart if I hadn’t been so desperately in love with him.
I remember with extreme clarity the night that he presented. I think it’s fair to say that it has been seared indelibly into my memory.
Summer had ended early that year and turned into a vibrant autumn. By mid-September, the forest surrounding Avebury Manor was all shades of crimson, orange, and gold, and the air was cool and crisp with the tang of nearing winter.
It was a Thursday, and I was on my way down to the servants quarters after doing my nightly chores when I heard some consternation and calls of alarm. Concerned, I peered down the corridor from which the noises came and saw two chambermaids hurrying away. The door to Draco’s bedroom was wide open.
There could be no pleasant reason for such alarm that late at night, and with a knot of worry in my gut I headed over.
When I came to his door I knocked hesitantly on the wall since the door itself was wide open. “My Lord—?” I began, but my voice left me almost immediately.
The thought came to me before my conscious brain could catch up with it.
Omega. There was an omega in this room. An omega in heat. An omega saturating the air with an impossibly enticing blend of pheromones that, in a moment, in an instant, rubbed raw every nerve in my body.
Draco was sprawled out on his canopied bed—
—God above, my mind interrupted—
—limbs splayed, shaking and panting and dressed in nothing but a long nightgown. His porcelain skin was glistening with sweat. The lines of his body were taut, trembling.
He was staring at me and my world came undone around me.
Omega, my body thrummed. Draco was an omega. He was in heat.
All the songs and poems by the great artists of history fall woefully short of truly encompassing an omega’s estrus and its effects on an alpha. It was as though my body, my mind, the very essence of me was burning up, and he was an oasis of clear water into which I could throw myself. I wanted to – I had to, for surely my body would rip itself apart and burn to ash if I did not.
He arched his swanlike neck in a sign of supplication and submission and my very soul ached at the sight of it.
“Please,” he sobbed. “Harry, please…”
There was wanting in his voice, but also pain and desperation. A combination of insufficient education and rumor had told me that an uncoupled omega in heat would be in unendurable agony, and the idea of my sweet angel being in such pain was unthinkable.
I could end his pain, some dark little part of my mind whispered. He wanted me to – he was begging me to. My body reacted to the mere thought – bending down over him, hushing him, assuring him that I would take care of him – smelling the wetness between his thighs, tasting his skin – knotting him – breeding him—
There was a firm hand on my shoulder that spun me around. I’m sure I made some ugly, inelegant sound as my attention was ripped away.
Mr. Snape was staring down at me, dark eyes searching. Finding words was the hardest thing I’d ever had to do.
“I—” I stammered, “—I heard a clamor, I didn’t know…”
“You would not have been expected to know,” Mr. Snape said. His voice was firm, but not unkind. “Under the circumstances, your restraint was remarkable. But you should leave now.”
I looked back at him. Draco sobbed again and the sound of it ripped the heart out of me.
“Go outside and take several deep breaths of fresh air,” Mr. Snape continued. “It will help to clear the pheromones from your body. When you’ve gathered your wits, go and tell His Lordship of this development.”
I nodded dumbly but my feet refused to move.
“Go, Harry,” Mr. Snape said with gentle urgency, and he pushed me from the room. Once I was in the hall, he shut the door with a resounding noise.
I stood for several moments, feeling like I no longer knew how to move the muscles in my legs. With a great concentration of effort, I took a step – then another – and another. Soon I was stumbling down the hallway.
My head was full of images of Draco, supine on the bed, wanting, needing, desperate, but unfulfilled. I could go back – it was not too late – if I could just—
I stopped at a window and fumbled with the brass locks so I could push them open and stick my head out the window. Deep breaths, Mr. Snape’s voice echoed in my mind. My body shuddered, and I braced my hands on the sill, willing myself to calm down.
The night air did relax me – or at the very least, it softened the sound of my own heartbeat in my ear – and though images of Draco and the numerous things I wanted to do to him subsided, one fact remained quite stubbornly in the forefront of my mind:
Draco was an omega.
I had no idea what this meant to me in any practical sense. It seemed somehow terrible, wonderful, astonishing, and unsurprising all at the same time. It meant nothing to me, and yet somehow it had changed everything.
I closed the window and moved stiffly for the ground floor.
At this time of night, His Lordship was always in his study, working on ledgers or answering correspondence by candlelight. When I knocked on the handsome oak door I heard his familiar baritone rumble through.
I pushed open the door and became aware of the little canary in its cage by the candelabrum on the desk. It was one of many throughout the house, and it was frantic – crying and twitching and flapping its golden wings against the bars. I was overcome with the desire to reach in and soothe away its fears.
His Lordship Lucius Abraxas Malfoy, Earl of Wiltshire, looked up at me over a pair of thin reading spectacles.
“Ah,” he said. “Harry. It’s getting quite late, I assumed most of the staff had gone to bed. You seem pale…”
I opened my mouth. I wanted to respond – really, I did – but I could not make myself speak.
“Has something happened?”
That poor little canary flapped and fluttered with all its might, desperate to be free. I set my face and swallowed my anxiety.
“My Lord, your son…”
The earl sat up a little straighter, and the line of his mouth twitched downward into a frown.
“What’s wrong with Draco?”
“I… nothing, My Lord, not as such, I – he…”
“Out with it,” he said impatiently, my words having done little to soothe his anxieties. Nothing ever did, when it came to his son.
“He’s presented, My Lord,” I managed. “He has gone into estrus.”
There fell a long and dreadful silence, punctuated only by the little canary, restless and crying.
The expression on the earl’s face was inscrutable. After a moment he looked away from me and down at the half-finished letter he’d been writing.
“Did you alert his chambermaids?”
“They knew already, My Lord. I didn’t discover him, I just – there was some noise and I went to investigate – Astoria and Penelope are getting everything ready.”
“A spot of brandy, thank you, Harry.”
I swallowed and hurried across his study. There was a small cabinet on the wall with an assortment of drinks in fine glass bottles. I hurriedly uncapped one and poured him a glass.
“Omega,” he said when I returned to his side with the brandy. “My son, an omega. The Lord is indeed a vicious bastard.”
I did not know what to say to such a remark. I had a suspicion that he wasn’t saying it for my benefit, in any case. I remained silent.
“The only heir of House Malfoy cannot inherit. No relatives to claim the estate nor wife to carry another child.”
The canary cried and battered against its cage. I thought of Draco, shut up in his room, likely being bound by his hands and feet to protect his virtue, and my chest ached.
“So ends four hundred years of legacy,” he said, before taking a rather overlarge swallow of his brandy. “A disappointingly anticlimactic denouement, don’t you think?”
I couldn’t imagine caring about any of that, and I wondered how he could. His son was going to spend the next three days tied up in his room in unbearable agony. I wanted to find him a sedative strong enough to let him sleep through his pain; I wanted a physician to advise him through his body’s treachery. How could anything else matter?
“Draco always was so disagreeable as a child. I might have known he’d present as omega to spite me.”
It was a joke, I knew, but I thought it cruel and unfunny. I set my mouth and bit my tongue to keep myself from speaking.
“I’ll promote you in the morning.”
I nearly cut open my tongue for the way my jaw clenched. “Excuse me, My Lord?”
“That – how could I be your son’s valet, he’s – it wouldn’t be—”
“You will not be his valet,” he said, “you will be mine.”
He took another swallow of brandy and I stared at him, utterly lost for words.
“As a reward for showing such restraint,” he continued when the lapse of silence grew too long. “I know from experience that self-control around a room-bound omega is no easy feat. Besides, it would not do to keep an alpha in such a low rank. You were promised a promotion.”
“But – but Mr. Pettigrew—”
The earl waved one hand dismissively, cutting short my protestation. “A simpering beta fool. I’ve been eager for an excuse to be rid of him. If he won’t accept the demotion, he can find work elsewhere. Besides, we alphas should not spend time around common folk, if we can avoid it.”
In the months I’d thus far spent at Avebury Manor, I had thought myself growing rather fond of the earl. He had an admirable poise and careful dignity about him that I found laudable; he had seemed to me to be exactly what a nobleman should be.
But now the curtain had been pulled back and I saw to the ugly, twisted core of him. He was noble in name but not in virtue. He was a man who was told his son would spend three days a month in agony for the rest of his life and thought of his estate; a man who thought betas both figuratively and literally beneath him.
He was no nobleman, he was a blackguard. The coldness of this realization seeped into my bones.
“Yes, My Lord,” I said.
The little canary wept and wept in his cage and when he dismissed me, I went down to Mr. Snape’s storeroom to find something – anything – that might be able to help Draco. Someone had to.
Chapter 4: Envy
On Thursday afternoons and Saturday mornings, the earl and his son took walks together through the sprawling, well-manicured gardens that stretched out behind Avebury Manor. On the first Saturday following Draco’s presentation as omega, he was still room-bound, weak from sedation and unfit for anything more difficult than eating, and the earl elected to cancel their morning constitution.
Come the following Thursday, however, Draco had been up and about for several days. It was a blustery day, as I recall, and the perfect rows of flowers and shrubs were strewn with drifting, skittering leaves.
As the earl’s new valet, I was expected to follow (at a distance, of course) in case he had need of anything. After nearly a week of tending him – helping him dress and undress, accompanying him into town, overseeing his schedule – my cool dislike for him settled into an icy revulsion. All the little habits I had once so admired in him now rang of insincerity and hollowness, and served only to drive the wedge deeper.
But there was, I’d discovered, one ray of sunlight in the grayness – the earl spent a lot of time with his son, and by extension, so did I.
“Mr. Pettigrew has left, I hear,” Draco remarked towards the end of their walk, the silver of his hair flashing golden in the afternoon sun.
The earl made a vague, noncommittal noise. His hands were clasped behind his back and he was staring up towards the clear autumn sky.
“I hope you didn’t dismiss him outright, Father.”
He cast his son a sidelong look – the same sort of look one would give an unpleasant child demanding sweets. It made Draco frown.
“He’s been your valet for nearly six years. He deserved your loyalty.”
“He deserved nothing but his payment, which he received,” the earl said. “They are our servants, Draco, not our friends.”
“That’s very cold of you to say, Father.”
“Your omega sentimentality is clouding your mind,” he said dismissively, and Draco visibly quashed a look of offense.
“My mind has not changed so much in the week since I presented.”
“We will have guests at dinner tonight,” the earl continued as though he hadn’t heard him.
“The Viscountess Hereford, Her Ladyship Marigold Parkinson, and her newly-presented daughter, Pansy.”
I swallowed, because I knew what that meant – and by his violent, horrified reaction, so did Draco.
“Father – for God’s sake, it’s barely been a week! Surely you can wait a month or so before throwing me at whatever unwed alpha wanders nearby—!”
“Don’t be so dramatic, Draco,” he interjected, as they came to a stop outside the large French doors at which their promenade started. “House Parkinson comes from good stock and Pansy is set to inherit her mother’s title. If it is to be the end of our house, I’d like for its estate to be inherited by a worthy family.”
Draco looked wounded, but Lucius seemed almost bored. He nodded to me, and I held open the door for them, but my hands felt clammy on the cool brass of the doorknob. When they moved inside, I took their coats.
“I apologize for so disappointing you, Father,” Draco said, his voice soft, “but I hope you realize that I had no agency in my presentation.”
A moment of tense silence passed. Lucius regarded his son with a frown as he adjusted the front of his waistcoat.
“One does wonder,” he said coldly, and the turned on a heel and strode away.
Draco shattered at the impact of his father’s callous words. He sank back against the wall and covered his face with both hands. The sight of it shredded me. I wanted to offer him some comfort – any at all – but what could idle words avail unless I could show him the raw empathy and love that so consumed me?
“You must not let him affect you, My Lord,” I said. “Your sex does not determine your worth.”
With a small, strangled noise, he looked up at me. His gray eyes were glossy with tears and I nearly came undone.
“My Lord, please, don’t—”
I reached out to wipe a wayward tear from his cheek, and the moment my skin met his, he arched against my hand like an animal starved for affection. I was sure my heart could be seen beating through my waistcoat, but even still I dared not remove my hand.
He stared at me as if pleading for help, and I was desperate to help him, to do anything at all to quell his pain. At that moment, he could have told me to burn down Avebury Manor and the whole of Wiltshire and I would have gone looking for a book of matches without question.
He lifted his chin, arcing his neck and oh, God.
Was it an intentional movement? Was he deliberately presenting his throat to me, a sign of submission and desire? Had it been an unconscious reaction? Something else? Neither?
“You’re always so kind,” Draco whispered, and I unravelled. I had to leave. I had to leave now, before the desire, the sheer, desperate want of this angel overtook my senses.
I withdrew and backed away, trembling. Without the heat of him under my hand, I felt strangely bereft. “I… I shouldn’t have – I’m sorry—”
“No, please, it’s—”
I hurried away, my heart slamming and my head spinning. The rest of the afternoon passed in a dreadful blur.
I remember being there when the Viscountess and her daughter arrived, and I remember thinking that Her Ladyship’s daughter looked rather like a pug. I also remember her eyeing Draco as if he were a cut of steak, and willing my hands to unclench at my sides.
I was not present for dinner, of course – servants are not allowed in the dining room during meals unless they were serving the food – but I heard a grand account of it from Penelope afterwards, who told me all about how Lady Pansy was so complimentary to Draco and clearly infatuated. I wondered if she wasn’t seeing what she wanted to see rather than what actually happened – after observing how she’d eyed him upon her arrival at Avebury, I doubted her comments were quite so romantic as Penelope insisted.
That evening, with images of Draco’s pleading eyes and exposed throat still swimming in my mind’s eye, I was on my way upstairs with the earl’s fresh nightclothes in a whicker basket when I heard muted words from the adjoining hallway.
“… the rumors of your beauty have fallen woefully short, if anything,” said the first voice, who I recognized as Lady Pansy’s. It was a lascivious tone with a saccharine edge, and all at once I felt my skin prickle with a primal rage.
“That must be terribly disorienting,” Draco’s voice answered, sounding curt.
I rounded the corner and saw them standing several feet away. Lady Pansy was lounging against the wall in such a way that Draco was effectively trapped between her and an end-table.
She smirked. “You do have some wit, don’t you? There’s no need to be so cold, My Lord – or do you need some warming up?”
The lewdness of her comment revolted me, enraged me, and the handles of the whicker basket cracked under my ever-tightening grip.
“I assure you, My Lady, that I can find my own warmth if I need to.”
“I have no doubt.” She leered closer to him, and, lips curling away from his teeth in disgust, Draco pushed himself flat into the wall to avoid the proximity. “My mother tells me that the coldest omegas will often have the warmest heats. Do you think she’s right?”
“I – how dare you—!”
Little braids of whicker cracked and broke in my hand. My vision was flooding with red.
“So flustered now, but I’m sure all your words would evaporate the moment I got a knot into you, wouldn’t they?” Her voice had dropped to a sultry whisper and she pressed ever closer. “And pretty as you are, I’m sure you’d be even lovelier swollen with child…”
Draco let loose a startled shout, and her hand – her hand was on his stomach.
There was one thing – and only one thing – keeping me from launching myself forward and physically attacking her, and it was the knowledge that it would likely frighten Draco. Instead, I stepped out of the shadows of the adjoining hallway, my vision dark with fury.
“I would advise you to take your hands off Lord Draco at once,” I said, and they both wrenched around. This late at night, I’m sure neither of them had anticipated an interruption.
Pansy saw me and straightened, set her shoulders. It was an entirely primal reaction: an alpha’s challenge to another alpha. We both became each other’s biggest threat, and our bodies were thrumming with blood and adrenaline, ready to attack.
“You speak out of turn, servant,” Pansy spat, though she backed away from Draco.
“And you act out of turn,” I parried. “How dare you put your hands on him? He is not your property.”
She bared her teeth at me. “And what right do you have of it one way or another?”
My body was tense and hot and ready for a fight, and if Draco had not intervened when he did I likely would have gone straight for her jugular:
“If you think my father will show you any mercy when he learns of your filthy, wandering hands, you will be disappointed – moreso if he learns that you began picking a fight with his valet as he came to rescue me from you.”
The silence that fell was deafening. Pansy’s eyes did not leave mine for an instant, nor mine hers, and slowly – so, so slowly – I saw the changes in her face. Anger, resentment, scorn.
She shoved past me without another word, and I was half tempted to follow her down the hallway and beat her bloody—
—but there was a sound, a soft sound, no louder than a whisper: a loosed, shaky breath. I turned and saw that Draco had leaned back against the wall again, trembling.
In a heartbeat, all my rage was forgotten.
“My Lord—” I looked around, briefly, for the nearest room where we would not be disturbed, “—this way.”
Leaving the whicker basket on the floor, I guided him through to a nearby siting room. It was not used in the evenings, and the only source of light was the clear, silvery moonlight through the window. I checked to make sure the hallway was empty a final time before I closed the door and turned around again.
Draco was standing by the window, next to the birdcage, and the little canary, silvered with moonlight, sang mournfully, its tiny body stilled.
I swallowed. I could detect the subtle trembling in his shoulders, the fear and the anger that had been welling up, emotions so profound they threatened to rip him open where he stood.
“I hate this.”
His voice was near-silent. My throat tightened.
“I hate this, Harry,” he whispered. “I have doomed myself and my house over something I cannot control. Doomed to be subservient, doomed to a marriage with someone like her. I feel like my world is falling apart and I can do nothing.”
Birdsong had never sounded so tragic. The subtle quavering in his frame turned into full-body shaking. He braced both hands against the window.
“I am so lost, Harry, and my world seems so very dark—”
He covered his mouth with one hand to suppress a sob that tore out of his throat anyway. And even though he was a noble and I was a servant, even though we could not have been more disparate, even though one day he would likely have ties to the King of England, I closed the gap between us and gathered him into my arms.
Draco, for his part, fell into me as though our difference in station meant nothing. He buried his face in my shoulder and gripped me tightly, holding onto my for dear life, and I carded my fingers through his moonlight-whitened hair.
“You are not lost,” I told him, speaking softly into the heat of his neck. “You are here with me. If you are ever lost, I will find you. And I would burn myself up in an instant if it meant I could light your dark world.”
His grip on me tightened and he lifted his eyes to mine. They seemed to glow. He was the most beautiful and tragic creature in Creation at that moment and I—
—God, I was in love with him. I loved him. I loved him with such intensity and unshakable clarity that it became a law of nature. The earth pulled us down, the sun rose and set, and I was in love with Draco Malfoy.
I kissed him, and anything that existed beyond our skin went away.
For that moment, perfection was given life. He returned my kiss, matching me for all my desperation and heartache and wanting, and together we dangled by the thread of eternity in that instant of flawless bliss.
And then he withdrew, and at the same time, we both realized what we had done.
He stumbled away, covering his mouth with his hand, and I swayed in my spot. I was numb from shock. What had I been thinking?
I tried to speak. I could not find my voice.
“I…” he said. “I have to…”
With a whisper of fabric and the click of a door, he was gone. I stared after him, into the golden light of the hallway.
The canary was silent.
Chapter 5: Serpent
The next few weeks passed as a strange and nervous dream from which I could not awake.
Everything I did, I did with the ghost of that fateful kiss on my lips and the heavy paranoia of consequence that did not occur. I had no fear that Draco would oust me, of course – one could never accuse me of not knowing his character – but the weight of knowing that I’d done something terrible, unforgivable, something that would surely cut short this wonderful new life at Avebury Manor I had carved out for myself if anyone were to learn of it, was a black stain on my conscience all the same. I was a perpetual bundle of nerves.
It was made worse, of course, by the fact that we did not speak of it. The only sign that it had even happened came in the long, lingering silences that blanketed our moments alone. We both of us knew and knew better. Both wanting, both resisting.
Suitors came and suitors left. The earl seemed hellbent on finding Draco an alpha as soon as possible – for what reason, I could not quite imagine. He was only sixteen, and it was not so odd a thing for omegas to delay marriage into their twenties, even in those days.
Draco, at least, was putting up a fight. He seemed to have no compunction whatsoever to get married, and I could not say I blamed him. Even though a fair number of his suitors were charming, erudite, intelligent, and even genuinely taken by Draco’s grace and poise, he turned them all down, sometimes politely and sometimes with cutting sarcasm.
But nothing could have prepared him – or me, or anyone – for the letter that came in late November, announcing the intended visit of His Grace the Duke of Cambridge, Thomas Marvolo of House Slytherin.
Though House Malfoy was a cadet branch of the Royal House of Slytherin, it remained unaccustomed to visitors of such a high esteem. Avebury Manor went into a flurry of preparation, and the question was on everyone’s lips, right up till the day his carriage came rattling down the snow-dusted path.
“You know of his intentions, I hope,” the earl said, his words a twisting gray mist in the cold November air.
Draco, standing besides him, did not answer.
For such an auspicious arrival, all the servants were lined up outside, despite the frightful chill of the new winter. The duke’s carriage, I could see, was pulled by two lean, glossy horses whose night-black coats were a stark contrast to the snowscape.
“You have thus far been rather obstinate in our conversations concerning His Grace, Draco, so let me be clear.”
The earl turned to his son and locked him with such a chilling glare that it put the November snow to shame.
“If he proposes to you,” the earl said, “you will accept.”
Draco remained silent. His eyes were fixed on the approaching carriage as if it was a harbinger of his own destruction.
“He is a duke, Draco,” the earl continued. “There is a better than decent chance that he will be king of England one day. You’d best thank your lucky stars that he has even decided that you are worth his consideration.”
The carriage rattled to a halt, and Mr. Snape stepped out of line to open the door, dropping into a deep bow.
Out stepped the Duke of Cambridge.
I confess that I did not know quite what to expect the Duke of Cambridge to look like, but I don’t think I would have ever considered that he would be one of the most handsome men I’d ever met – and he was decidedly handsome, not beautiful like Draco, but strong and elegant in a very classical, patrician sort of way.
His hair was a deep chestnut brown, nearly black, and his eyes were sharp and quick. The features of his face were elegant and his limbs were long and well-proportioned. He wore a suit of pressed pinstripe and carried a mahogany walking stick with a weighted handle. He was, undeniably and unequivocally, a duke. An alpha. A king.
And his eyes landed immediately on me.
Before he’d stopped to get his bearings, before he’d looked to Draco or even to the earl, he looked at me, and his dark eyes burned into my skin. At once I was lost for breath.
“Your Grace,” the earl said, stepping forward. “We are honored.”
Finally, finally the duke’s eyes left me and turned to His Lordship. I’m sure I sagged under the weight of my own relief.
“It’s good to see you again, Lucius,” he said, offering a thin hand which the earl took in a strong, steady grip. “It’s been too long.”
“Nearly a decade,” the earl agreed.
“And this must be your son.”
Draco tensed, but dropped into a deep, wordless bow. The duke returned it, more shallowly, and when Draco rose, the duke reached down, took his hand, and kissed the knuckle.
“The suitors whose hearts you have broken spoke at length about your sparkling wit and grace, but I dare say they left me woefully underprepared for your beauty.”
My mouth went dry. I felt nauseous, and Draco seemed momentarily lost for words.
There was no denying it any longer; anything past this was just formality. The duke had plans to propose to Draco, and Draco would have to accept.
“You are too kind, Your Grace,” Draco managed, voice hoarse, after a lapse of silence.
Another carriage rattled up behind the first – one for a few servants of the duke’s, no doubt – and the earl, looking particularly pleased with himself, clapped his hands together loudly.
“Let’s get you inside, Your Grace,” he said. “After a day of travel in this frightful weather, I’m sure you’d be glad for a chance to thaw by a fireplace.”
The earl, the duke, Draco, and Mr. Snape started inside, and as soon as the door closed behind them, the servants broke out into excited whispering about the duke and his intentions for Draco and how they might be serving a future monarch.
I was not so eager and did not join in the enthusiasm. Instead, I went over to the duke’s servants’ carriage to help unload his things, but reeled back in sudden shock when—
He had just climbed out of the second carriage, bundled up against the cold. When he saw me, he smirked.
“Mr. Potter,” he returned, and there was venom in his voice.
“What are you – you’re working for the duke?”
“I’m his valet, in fact,” Mr. Pettigrew answered, straightening. “He searched me out specifically when he learned that I’d been let go.”
He spoke as if the words were meant to wound me, though I couldn’t imagine how they might. Despite my confusion at his apparent malice, I smiled.
“I’m happy for you,” I said, because I was. “It was unkind of His Lordship to let you go. I’m glad you were able to find work again – and with a duke, no less. That’s quite a promotion.”
Mr. Pettigrew frowned, as though he was disappointed that I wasn’t more upset.
“You should get inside,” he said after a moment. “I know where to take his bags.”
I frowned, wanting to ask him what was wrong, but the servants had all set to emptying the carriage and it was getting rather cold. I pushed my way inside, rubbing my hands together and wondering if Mr. Pettigrew blamed me for his dismissal. I suppose I couldn’t blame him if he did.
By then, the earl, his son, and his illustrious guest had gathered in the sitting room. The duke and the earl were on opposite sides of a loveseat while Draco was perched uncomfortably on an armchair. I crossed toward the fireplace, gathering a few pieces of firewood from the bucket by the wall and adding them to the fire.
The earl finished saying something about their plans for Christmas, and then the duke changed the subject: “Your valet?”
I looked reactively over my shoulder before I turned forward again.
“Yes,” the earl said. “Harry Potter.”
“An alpha,” the duke observed. “I hear that alphas make excellent valets.”
“Well, he’s certainly an improvement over Mr. Pettigrew. I heard you took him up!”
I brushed the dust from my hands and rose to my feet in time to see the duke sneering.
“Yes,” he said. “Obsequious little beta, though competent enough in his duties. Still, I think I’d replace him in an instant if I could find an alpha to take the position.”
“I fear I shall have to jealously guard Mr. Potter from you,” the earl said. “You’re quite right in your observation – an alpha is a far superior valet. Mr. Potter, why don’t you pour us all some brandy?”
“Yes, My Lord,” I said, moving towards the liquor cabinet in the corner.
“Still, alphas are so very rare in the lower classes,” said the duke. “You don’t often get breeding good enough to let them crop up. I say, Mr. Potter, was your father an alpha?”
I hesitated mid-pour – but only for a moment. I regained my bearings and continued.
“I couldn’t say, Your Grace,” I answered. “My father died shortly after I was born, along with my mother. I never knew them.”
I filled the last glass, set them all on a small tray, and carried the drinks back over. To my surprise – and a rather creeping sense of deep-seated dread – the duke was smiling widely, almost manically. The sight of it made me very nervous, especially when it widened as I handed him his brandy.
“Is that so,” he said, rolling the snifter between his fingers. “You don’t know anything about your family at all, then?”
I had no idea why he was so interested in me, though if the expression on his face was any indication, I had a feeling I would rather not know.
“I know that their names were James and Lily,” I said, doing my best to act as if the duke’s scrutiny didn’t bother me in a very visceral way; and indeed, under his questioning and careful visual dissection, I was both emotionally and physically unsettled. “I know that they died when I was a baby. I know my mother had red hair. But apart from that…”
The duke’s smile had grown even wider, and he took a long, silent pull of his brandy, though his dark eyes didn’t leave me for an instant.
“I didn’t know you were an orphan,” the earl said.
“I was raised with my aunt and uncle, My Lord.”
Draco, I noticed, was giving me a sad, sympathetic smile, and it warmed me better than the fire could. We’d spent the last few weeks avoiding each other as much as possible, and seeing that soft smile again was a breath of fresh air.
“And you don’t know anything about them,” the duke said, quietly, thoughtfully. “You don’t know anything at all.”
I looked back at him, the warmth from my angel’s smile was tempered by uneasiness from duke’s manic smirk.
“No, Your Grace.”
He finished off his brandy, and his dark eyes didn’t leave me once.
Chapter 6: Rat
“You summoned me, My Lord—?”
But it was not the earl, and my words fell off.
Draco turned around, away from the birdcage where he’d been trying to soothe the frantic little creature on its perch. His face was the picture of anxiety, and when he saw me, he swallowed, rubbing his hands together.
It is a curious feeling, to be filled simultaneously with dread and hope. As when hot air meets cold wind, it creates a storm inside of you, furious and destructive. I had been living with the feeling for the past several weeks, every time we were in the same room, every time we saw one another and were crushed under the weight of the terrible-wonderful could-have-beens.
“I – Mr. Snape told me your father had summoned me into the drawing room,” I said.
“I know,” Draco replied, voice wan. “I asked him to lie to avoid suspicion.”
“Oh,” I said.
“He’s asked me to join him in the sitting room,” Draco said.
“The duke,” Draco hissed as though it were obvious. It was at that moment I noticed that the reason he was rubbing his hands together so feverishly was to hide the fact that they were trembling.
“Oh,” I said again. I had a feeling I knew where this conversation was headed, and it was turning my veins to ice.
“He spoke with Father last night,” Draco whispered, and he began to pace back and forth. The fevered movements seemed to upset the canary, who began to cry in distress again. “He said nothing of it, but I know what they must have spoken about. The duke was asking for my father’s blessing to propose.”
My limbs felt very heavy and my vision clouded.
I knew, I had always known that it would come to this. I knew that Draco would have to marry another, but still the news felt like hot knives twisting in my gut. I didn’t know if I was more upset with the duke for proposing or myself for reacting as I was.
Somehow, perhaps, I had talked myself into thinking we had more time. He’d only been here a few days.
“I can’t marry him,” Draco said, and the tearful tone of his voice was not nearly so distracting as what he’d said.
“My Lord,” I said, my body tense.
“I can’t,” Draco said. “I don’t care that he’s a duke. I don’t care that he’ll be king one day. I can’t marry him. I don’t love him; I can never love him.”
I dared not speak. Draco stared at me, tears rolling freely down his cheeks, and God, was it awful of me to think he was beautiful when he cried? Was there ever a moment when he wasn’t beautiful? I wanted to wipe away his tears, but I dared not take a step closer. I feared what I would do if I did.
“My heart belongs to another,” Draco said, and his voice was so small that I almost didn’t hear him. At once, I found myself also on the brink of tears.
“My Lord, please,” I whispered, “please don’t, I can’t bear it.”
“How can I swear before God to dedicate my life to one man, when there is another who is the center of my universe?”
“Stop,” I hissed, my vision blurring with tears. “Stop, please.”
“I am pulled to him inexorably,” Draco said, moving toward me, “as the tide is pulled to shore, as the streams are pulled to the ocean. He is gentle and kind and I could never love anyone else and when I am with him I feel like I could fly—”
“Stop,” I said, though the word came out like a sob. I held out one hand to keep him at arm’s length and used the other to brace myself against the door. “Stop it, please, Draco, I can’t bear this. We can’t. You know we can’t.”
“We can,” he whispered. “Fly with me.”
I stared at him uncomprehendingly as my grief-addled mind worked through what he’d just said. I understood the words, but within the context of a sentence, it felt like another language.
“Fly with me,” he said again. “Let’s go tonight. Let’s go now and not look back.”
Even the canary was silent. I felt a tremor in me, deep down, that rattled my bones.
“You would do that,” I said. I was not sure if it was a question.
“Of course I would.”
“You would give up everything – your family, your house, your station—?”
“I would give up all the years of my life if it meant I could spend a single day with you.”
The tremor became shaking; my labored breathing became sobbing. I was undone with a slowly-spreading ecstatic joy. What in my life had I ever done to deserve this beautiful creature’s devotion and love?
Draco threw himself into my arms and I embraced him as tightly as I could, if only to assure myself that he was real, that this was all real.
“I love you,” I said, voice choked, into his hair.
“I love you,” he answered, “and I want to leave tonight. Can you ready my horse?”
“Yes. Yes, I – I can be ready in a half-hour.”
“I have some money. We can head west for London – the anonymity will hide us.”
I pulled back just enough to kiss him, deeply and thoroughly, which he returned with such intensity and ardor that my skin came alive with fire. It was a toe-curling, nerve-electrifying head rush of a kiss that left me dizzy when we parted.
“Go,” Draco whispered, and though the tears on his cheeks were still wet, he was smiling and his eyes were gleaming. “Go now. I’ll meet you at the stables.”
I kissed him again, just because I could, and then I ran.
I did my best to pretend as if my life hadn’t just changed, as if I wasn’t a man who’d just received everything he could have possibly wanted. My blood thundered in my veins and my chest felt as though it was about to burst open. I made my way into the servants’ quarters, ducking quickly past the scattered maids and footmen moving through the halls.
I came to my small, plain bedroom – thank God I had it to myself, as an alpha – and shut the door. I began to pack, throwing open my drawers and armoire, my head spinning as I tried to think of what else I could take that we might need. Would the chef notice if I took some food for the road? What about wine or juice or something to drink? Could I get away with taking a few extra changes of clothing from the sewing room?
My valise was half-full and getting fuller when I heard the click of my doorway and spun on my heel, a sudden assault of fear nearly knocking me flat.
There he was, his face dark and shadowed, his shoulders shaking as though he was out of breath.
“Nowhere to run,” Mr. Pettigrew said, in a voice so low and terrible that I was thrown.
“What – what do you mean? What are you talking about? This – this isn’t what it looks like—”
“It’s exactly what it looks like,” Mr. Pettigrew said. He shut the door behind him. “Found out about our plan, did you? Nipped into His Grace’s bedroom and saw the research?”
“What are you talking about? What research—?”
My sentence fell off when Mr. Pettigrew suddenly withdrew a large, glinting hunting knife. At once, every muscle in my body was tense, whipcord-tough, and there came a loud rush of endorphins putting my body into a state ready for fight-or-flight.
“What are you doing?” I hissed.
“We had plans to make it look like an accident,” Mr. Pettigrew said, “but since you’ve discovered us, I suppose the plan has been accelerated.”
“Mr. Pettigrew—” I began, but suddenly he had launched himself at me. With a startled cry, I dove to the side, and my shoulder knocked painfully into the armoire, sending it toppling over to one side and crashing against the wall.
Mr. Pettigrew snarled and lunged again and again – for a man so small and so round, he was devilishly fast, and that knife did not look friendly.
I held him off for as long as I could. From outside, I could hear a clamor – doubtlessly, someone had heard the sound of my furniture falling over and had called an alarm. If I could just hold him off until some of the other servants arrived, perhaps—
—I lost my footing for a single moment, stumbled, and then there came a strange coldness in my abdomen that stilled me.
The pain did not come for several moments later, and when it did, it was with the force of a typhoon.
I could see the handle of Mr. Pettigrew’s knife pressed against my side. The blade, I realized with sobering detachment, was inside of me.
I released a breath and blood fountained from my mouth, splattering along the bed.
The door was thrown open. Mr. Pettigrew wrenched around, taking the knife with him, and pain, God, so much blinding, deafening pain ripped through me.
“God, what have you done to Mr. Potter—?”
“Someone get him!”
There was a scuffle, a shout, a clatter – my world was being swallowed by an inky, numbing darkness, and I became suddenly aware that this is what dying was.
Draco, my mind said. Draco, Draco, Draco. I chanted his name in my head. I had to get to him. I couldn’t die like this. Draco, Draco, Draco. I had to see him.
The clamor was uproarious now, and servants were thick in the hallways. I pushed my way past them, even as they grabbed at me, asked me questions, tried to stop me. Draco, Draco, Draco. I had moments left on this earth, I was sure, and I would fight away the pain and the swallowing darkness to see my Draco, Draco, Draco.
Up and out of the servants’ quarters, my head lightening with each step, my own lifeblood flowing past the fingers that grabbed uselessly at the wound in my side. Into the hallway, Draco, Draco, Draco. Into the foyer, Draco, Draco, Draco.
Coming down the stairs with a valise.
Reaching the bottom landing, turning, seeing me—
He dropped his valise and screamed.
I fell onto my side.
“Harry! Oh, God, someone call a doctor! Help! Help!”
He came scrambling over to my side and bent over me. I could see him through my half-lidded eyes, through the swallowing darkness that was consuming me whole, and I stared up at my poor, beautiful angel as tears came streaming down his face.
“Harry, oh, my God, what happened – Harry, your side – no, please no, please no—”
He touched my face and with what was left of my strength I grabbed his hand. Draco, my angel, my love, the center of my world, my sun, my moon, there was so much I wanted to say to him, so much I wanted to experience with him, but with the situation as it was, I could take some small comfort knowing that he would be the last thing I saw before I died.
“Harry, no. Stay awake. Stay awake. You can’t die. You can’t.”
As I fell deeper into the swallowing darkness, I found myself wishing that I could apologize, but all my throat could produce was blood.
“You can’t die, you have to stay awake, I can’t lose you, not now, not now, we were supposed to run away – Harry, Harry, we were supposed to fly—”
“Fly,” I managed, though the word was more blood than air.
“Yes,” Draco choked, gripping me tightly. “We were supposed to fly, Harry. We were going to fly away together. You can’t, you can’t.”
There was shouting nearby that grew closer at the same time as it grew fainter. The darkness was closing in and my angel was weeping.
“Please,” my angel begged me, “please, please, please.”
And as I drifted into the swallowing dark, it was to the sound of his voice and the heat of his arms, and it was almost as though he was lulling me to sleep.
Chapter 7: Alpha
And then, quite to my surprise, I woke up.
The first thing of which I became aware was a dreadful throbbing pain in my abdomen, followed shortly by a heavy fog in my head. My senses were at once razor-sharp with agony and muted with haze. I groaned and began wishing that I’d just died – at least then, I wouldn’t have to deal with this fresh hell.
“Welcome back to the land of the living.”
I recognized the voice, but just to be sure, I opened my eyes. Indeed, Mr. Snape was standing over me, dark eyes glinting, hands clasped behind his back.
“Mr. Snape?” My throat felt rough, though I could not tell if it was because of disuse or thirst.
“The very same,” he answered. “You should count yourself lucky that I am a chemist and anatomist of some skill. If we had been forced to wait for the doctor, you surely would have bled to death on the floor of the foyer. As it stands, barring unforeseen infections, you should be fine.”
I blinked my eyes a few times, willing the world around me to come into focus. Though my vision remained blurry, I could tell that I was not in my bedroom in the servants’ quarters – in fact, I could feel silk kissing my skin, and a soft, luxurious warmth surrounding me.
“Where am I?”
“You are in the first guest room of Avebury Manor,” Mr. Snape answered.
“The guest room?” I repeated. Servants weren’t allowed into the guest rooms unless they were cleaning them – I couldn’t imagine that one would be allowed to recover from an attack there, either.
“I know that you must be in quite some pain,” Mr. Snape said, “but there are things you need to know – they may not be easy to digest.”
I looked over at him. His sallow face had the ghost of concern upon it – not an expression I was used to seeing in his usually detached, businesslike countenance.
I knew what he must have been referring to, of course – my mind was not so addled that I had forgotten the attempted murder. I could not imagine that there could be any palatable reason that someone should want me dead.
I took in a breath and nodded. There was no point in delaying the inevitable.
“Stay here,” he said. “I’ll fetch the inspector. He wanted to be informed when you woke.”
I was at first surprised, and then quickly not the least bit surprised, that they had called in a detective. As much as I disliked the idea, there were clearly larger pieces at play, a dense tangle of treachery and deceit that needed an inspector’s clinical eye.
Mr. Snape left the room with a rustle of fabric. I was left alone in the expansive queen-sized bed, surrounded by down-filled pillows and covered in a plush silvery-blue comforter. With some difficulty and several jabs of pain, I sat upright.
My stomach was bound with white silk bandages, recently changed, and apart from a pair of simple sleeping trousers I was naked. I did not bother with embarrassment; it would have served no purpose.
A moment later there was a knock at the door.
“Come in,” I said, and in stepped a tall, swarthy, handsome man in a pressed blue police uniform.
“Inspector Kingsley Shacklebolt,” he said by way of introduction, and to my astonishment, he bowed low before me.
“Pleased to make your acquaintance, Inspector,” I said. “Do you make a habit of bowing to servants?”
“I don’t,” he answered, and there was a strange reservation in his voice. “I trust… you remember what happened?”
Images flashed through my mind’s eyes – Draco and our planned escape, Mr. Pettigrew and the hunting knife, the wound, my love’s frantic tears, the swallowing darkness.
“Yes,” I replied. All too well, I remembered.
Inspector Shacklebolt pursed his lips and nodded shortly. He crossed the room and took a seat in the chair by my bedside, which I had no doubt Mr. Snape and whatever physician had been here used to tend to me as I recovered.
“Did your attacker say why?”
I had vague, inconsistent memories of the conversation, but nothing substantial. I shook my head.
“You have been unconscious and in recovery for nearly two days now,” Inspector Shacklebolt told me. “In that time, I’ve had ample opportunity to conduct my investigation, and I must admit – if someone else had explained to me this case, I would accuse them of creating sensational and fantastic lies. Believe me when I say, Mr. Potter, that I have never seen anything like this.”
I frowned. Carefully, I turned around and threw my legs over the side of the bed so that we could speak face-to-face.
“The attempt on your life was carried out by Mr. Pettigrew, but so far as I have been able to tell, it was orchestrated by His Grace the Duke of Cambridge.”
“The duke…” Found out about our plan, did you? Nipped into His Grace’s bedroom and saw the research?
“He has left Avebury, of course,” Inspector Shacklebolt continued, the lines of his face twisting into an unflattering frown. “Privilege of peerage makes him immune to arrest.”
“I don’t understand,” I said. “Why would the duke want me dead?”
“A fair question, and one that presented the most difficult problem for me in putting the pieces of this case together,” Inspector Shacklebolt said. “Your lives could not have been more disparate. There was no reason to suspect that you were even aware of each others’ existences – why, then, would he spend, by some of the dates I discovered in his papers, years trying to hunt you down?”
“Years?” I could scarcely believe it. What could the Duke of Cambridge and heir presumptive to the throne of England want with me so badly that he would spend years looking for me?
The inspector nodded. There was a strange and tragic look that fell over his features, one that made me think he did not quite know how to broach the answer to his own question.
“What do you know about your parents?”
It was not the first time that week I had been asked the question. Did all of this mess have to do with two dead people I never knew?
“Almost nothing,” I admitted. “I was raised by my aunt and uncle – my aunt was my mother’s sister, and they didn’t get on. I was never told anything about them more significant than their names.”
The answer seemed to grieve him. It wasn’t as though it wasn’t a tragic story on its own right, but mine was most certainly not the saddest story in England.
“Your mother’s full name was Lillian Evangeline Evans,” Inspector Shacklebolt said with a peculiar gentleness in his voice. “A beta woman, middle-lower class, not in any particular way remarkable. She was born and raised in Essex, in a little village near an estate not very different from this one.
“From what I have been able to put together from the duke’s notes, she was a seamstress of some talent, having been raised as an apprentice to the local tailor. It was in that shop, training in her skill that she met, quite by accident, your father – His Grace James Alexander of House Gryffindor, Duke of Oxford.”
My mouth felt very dry.
My first thought was that there was no way that could be true. It was patently impossible.
“Apparently, your grandfather – that is to say, your father’s father, John Westerly Gryffindor – died when your father was quite young, and he was forced to take up his title and the duties of his estate without being adequately prepared. As such it made him a very restless, free-spirited person, unconcerned with propriety and noble duties.
“So when he met your mother in town, he was unreserved in his affections for her and unafraid of pursuing them. I cannot say that I know the details of their relationship, but it must have been quite a love they shared, because there are records of their elopement several months later at a little chapel in Dover. Though their marriage was a happy one, it came at the cost of your father running away from his inheritance.
“And then, of course, there was the fire…”
I swallowed, though it was a useless gesture, because my mouth was absolutely arid. “Fire?”
“It caused quite a stir when it happened. The Royal Houses of Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff, the dukes and duchesses of Kent and Cornwall, had already died out, leaving only House Slytherin and House Gryffindor. What with our Omega Queen never having issue, inheritance…”
“The Queen,” I said, blindsided by an abrupt and devastating understanding. “No. Inspector, you must be wrong. You have to be wrong.”
“I’m afraid not,” he replied, patiently, carefully. “Why would a duke come after a presumed common-born orphan if not for something monumental? They thought that the infant child of the Duke of Oxford died in the fire—”
“No,” I said, “no. No, no.”
“—but he did not. Unconventional though the marriage was, it was legitimate. Your full name is Henry James Gryffindor; you are the heir to your father’s title—”
“No, this isn’t possible.”
“—and the only other person alive besides the Duke of Cambridge with legitimate claim to the throne of England.”
My breath came out in wheezes, uneven fits and starts that made my still-healing wound burn with agony.
This could not be true. I was no one. I was a common-born orphan, I was not a duke and I was not a king.
It felt as though my carefully-constructed reality, all the little threads that held together the world around me, were unravelling, shattering like glass, and I could do nothing but fall through the ever-widening gaps in my understanding and into chaos.
“Your Grace,” Inspector Shacklebolt said, suddenly rising from his chair, “you must calm down.”
“I’m not – don’t call me ‘your grace’, I’m not a duke, I’m just Harry, I’m just Harry—”
“God in heaven, your wound – sit down! You have to sit!”
This wasn’t possible. This wasn’t possible.
“Mr. Snape!” Inspector Shacklebolt cried. “Send him in! Quickly!”
The room was spinning around me and I felt lightheaded. Inspector Shacklebolt grabbed me by both arms and lowered me back down onto the bed. I could feel heat blooming against my skin, a wetness, and all I could think, all that was running through my mind, was no, no, no, no.
Mr. Snape came in along with several servants. There was a clamor, shouting, but it was drowned out by the sound of my heartbeat in my ear.
“Draco,” I rasped. The need to see him was sudden and brutal and all-encompassing. “Where is – where—?”
“You can see him when you stop bleeding to death,” Mr. Snape said tersely.
I had to see Draco. Surely if I could just see him, talk to him, hold him, breathe the scent of him, this would all make sense.
A small rag over my mouth, the smell of chloroform, and thoughts of my angel, Draco, Draco, where were you?
Chapter 8: Omega
Sedation left me in the hazy ether between waking and dreaming, cogent enough to hear the goings-on around me but not to respond. For hours – days, perhaps, for time became less and less meaningful – my mind filled with a thousand strange and otherworldly visions of bizarre structures and impossible geometry.
But in between the hallucinatory lapses were periods of what felt like lucid dreaming, and those moments were wonderful. My dreamscape was clay in the hands of my subconscious to shape in the way my heart of hearts wished, and shape it they did. There were full of warm and sunny fields of heather, laughing children with sandy hair and bright gray eyes, a sprawling manor-house on the edge of the water, and wedding bells, low and sonorous. They were full of laughter and warmth and soft rains that brought the scent of petrichor, they were full of loving whispers and wet heat and gasps and strangled words of more, please, yes. They were full of Draco, Draco smiling, Draco laughing, Draco and his silvery hair, Draco and his sharp wit, Draco and his fire, Draco and everything about him.
When at last I roused, it was with trembling limbs and a unshakable certainty of what I had to do.
There were a few suits laid out for me, so after washing up in the ensuite I dressed and went downstairs. By then, the last traces of sunset left stripes of orange-gold along the walls and floors of Avebury Manor, and my still-healing wound didn’t trouble me at all.
I knew at once where they were, because I could hear them arguing through the walls. I stopped outside the sitting room door.
“—being perpetually obstinate, if that’s honestly what you think will get the job done—”
“Are you so deluded that you still see my actions as obstinance? Is it impossible for you to step out of your own solipsism and try to understand something from another perspective?”
I frowned and pushed open the ajar door. The squeal of its hinges brought the conversation to a very abrupt halt.
Draco and his father were both facing me; Draco was standing by the birdcage, in front of a window opened to the cold December air. His father stood by the fire, his hands clenched tightly at his sides. I regarded them both in silence for several long moments.
“Get out,” I said to the earl without preamble.
It seemed to startle both of them.
“Excuse me?” the earl said.
“Get out,” I said again, turning my head towards him.
I couldn’t tell if the earl was more offended or confused. Either way, I found the look on his face intensely satisfying.
“How – how dare you—?”
“How dare I? Very easily, as it happens. I’m the Duke of Oxford and I don’t like you, so get out.”
His expression settled into rage. It was all the more delicious because there was nothing he could say to something like that and he knew it.
“We’ll speak later, Draco,” he hissed, before turning on a heel and striding past me with a furious stare.
I locked the door behind him and looked back at Draco. His gaze could only be described as hungry, and when I saw it I suddenly began to feel rather peckish myself.
“You’re feeling better?” he asked, voice low.
“A bit sore,” I replied, “but your butler has a magic touch. Overall, I feel ten times better than I have any right to.”
Draco was keeping a polite distance, but I could see – and, hell, feel – his eyes moving across the lines of my body. It wasn’t until a strong breeze carried a familiar scent over to me that I suddenly realized—
Proestrus. Draco would be going into heat soon. Maybe a day, maybe a few hours, but soon. My mind began to blank of anything else in the world that wasn’t my delicious, beautiful angel. I took in a deep breath of the tantalizing yet achingly thin aroma of nearing heat.
“You’re dressed to your station,” he remarked. There was a subtle tenseness in his voice.
“There were a few suits left for me,” I answered as carefully as I could.
“You wear it well.”
“The suit or my station?”
God, but he looked absolutely edible. Behind him, the winter sun was sinking down behind the forest, setting him on fire with an orange halo of light. Wind-tousled hair, pale skin flushed from the cold air whipping around him, and that intoxicating, irresistible scent…
He swallowed, and the lines of his throat rolled. “Yes?”
I stepped forward. “You were ready to give up everything for me.”
Draco gave a start. That clearly wasn’t the direction he was expecting me to take, but I had to get through the point.
“I – what?”
“The night I was attacked. Knowing nothing about my inheritance, you were ready to run away with me, leaving behind everything.”
I closed in on him. The scent was thicker and it was getting harder to concentrate. I could feel the thrumming reaction in the bones of my body, and my fingers itched to work him out of that handsome three-piece suit.
“I have never loved anyone in my life so much as I have loved you,” I said. “I feel as though we are two halves of a whole, and that night proved to me beyond any doubt that you felt the same.”
Draco took in a shaky breath and lifted his chin. I nearly buckled at the sight. There was no way it could have been anything but absolutely deliberate. Draco was presenting his throat to me – supplicant, submissive, wanting. I felt my heartbeat in my neck and my cock stirred at the mere sight of it.
I reached out and ran my thumb up one of the lines of his throat and Draco arched eagerly into my touch.
“Now that I have this inheritance – and God knows, I have no idea what to do with it, but it doesn’t matter. It’s made me worthy of you. Whatever this new life may become, I want to share it with you.”
“Harry,” he mewled, pressing closer, “you were always worthy of me. And I would never want to spend my life with anyone else.”
“Draco,” I said, “will you marry—?”
Before I could finish the question he was kissing me, and I was undone by an all-consuming fire the kiss sparked within me. I groaned into his mouth and pulled him closer with an arm around his waist, pressing our bodies flush together. Winter wind whipped around us, the sun vanished behind the forest, and any pretense of self-control evaporated. I needed Draco more than I needed my next breath of air.
“Yes,” Draco said into my mouth. “Yes, I’ll marry you. Of course I’ll marry you.”
A groan tore its way out of my throat. An agreement of marriage should not have been as intensely erotic as it was. “Draco,” I muttered, raking my hands down his sides, “God, I need you.”
“I’m already yours.”
My fingernails dug into his hips, and when he fell onto the fainting couch between the fireplace and the birdcage, he took me down with him. My hands were clumsy, frenzied, as I worked open his waistcoat and shirt, frantically undressing him, desperate for the heat of his skin.
“God in Heaven, Draco,” I said when his torso was bared before me, and he was perfect, all pale lines and gooseflesh from the wind, “if you want to protect your virtue form me you should speak now. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to stop touching you once I start.”
Draco reached up and pushed my jacket off my shoulders.
“To hell with my virtue,” he growled.
The words went straight to my cock, which was by then straining uncomfortably against the front of my trousers. Undressing felt like an impossibly difficult task when all I wanted to do was memorize every inch of Draco’s skin with my tongue, but we did it, somehow – layers of restrictive clothing came off one by one, falling in uneven piles on the floor. Thank God I’d had the foresight to lock the door.
I kissed lines down Draco’s stomach as he arced and squirmed on the fainting couch, making delicious little noises of desire under my ministrations. As I came lower, I nudged open his thighs and was nearly knocked flat by the scent.
His inner thighs were slicked with wetness, glistening in the firelight. He smelled ambrosial, so good that my mouth watered and I felt my knot start to swell at the base of my cock.
“Please,” Draco whimpered, and my mind went back to the night he presented. My hands dug into the skin of his hips. “Please, Harry, I need you…”
There were a million things I wanted to do to him, but one more than the others. I crawled up his body, between his thighs, and loomed down over him. I carded a hand through his hair.
I hushed him, kissed him once. “I’ll take care of you,” I promised. Draco was so supplicant, so utterly responsive; I was hypnotized. “I’ll make the pain stop.”
Draco keened and bucked his hips, and his wetness smeared against the length of my cock. My entire body twitched in response to it, and when Draco threw his head back, I gnashed my teeth against that exposed neck. It drew a hoarse, desperate shout from him.
“Beautiful,” I whispered against his throat as I positioned myself between his legs. “I’ll fill you, angel. I’ll knot you, angel, breed you.”
“Yes,” he sobbed. “Yes, please. Please, now.”
I moved my hips forward, sinking into that wet and waiting heat and it was only by the grace of God that I did not scream myself hoarse at the sensation. It was an enveloping, all-encompassing feeling, being so buried inside him, a feeling so exquisite that it felt as though we were alone in the universe.
“Angel—” I managed, voice strangled.
Draco was all but sobbing from sensation underneath me, his hands scrabbling at my arms, his neck presented, his mouth open. He was inarticulate, panting out words like yes and God and Harry and more.
I started to rut, my hands braced on his hips, and as I stared down at him he was the most beautiful creature on God’s earth.
I bent down over him. My knot was swelling ever wider. “I love you,” I rasped against his throat.
“Harry,” my angel wailed.
“I love you and I promise to spend every day we are married proving it to you again and again.”
His arms moved around my shoulders and he pulled me into an urgent kiss. My body shuddered and my hips slammed faster.
“I will sire by you,” I whispered, realizing it for the first time. “I’ll watch you swell with our children. God, but you’ll be so beautiful when you’re with child.”
My knot had expanded and God, Draco’s body was clamping down around it. We were tied, some distant part of my mind realized, and it was such an ecstatically beautiful and profoundly uncomplicated sensation. My thrusts became shallower, faster. I was close, and by the way Draco’s body was gripping me, so was he.
“I’ll grow old with you,” I said, though it was getting harder to talk. I pushed my fingers through his sweat-streaked hair. “I’ll spend my life with you.”
“I love you, I love you.”
“I l-love you – Harry – oh, God—!”
His body bucked and spasmed. From behind us, there was a clatter as his leg hit the birdcage. And as I shouted into his skin and emptied myself into him, knot throbbing, as he screamed and came around me in tight pulses, the birdcage fell and broke open, and the little canary flew away and out the window, free, soaring into the dusk.
Chapter 9: King
I feel I should say as a preface that my husband does not know I have read his little memoir of his, and he certainly does not know that I am adding to it in these last few pages he left blank. I find it difficult to imagine that he’ll remain ignorant forever, but in the interim I feel a certain obligation to fill in a few gaps.
My husband, devoted and wonderful as he is, can be a bit of a prototypical alpha, you see: he thinks that the story begins and ends with me. It begins when he meets me and ends when he lays claim to me. And while those may serve as good poetic markers of open and close, they fail to include the best parts, because the best parts come well after our first night together.
So here you are, Harry: the epilogue. As much as you’d like to believe otherwise, I am not the sum total of your life’s achievements, and it’s unfair to imply otherwise.
We made our engagement public at Christmas (leaving out, of course, the fact that my virtue had been thoroughly and repeatedly ruined, in several different positions and rooms of Avebury Manor), during a party. I am pleased to say that the look on my father’s face was a delightful combination of abject horror and overwhelming nausea.
That was when word began to spread – not just word of our betrothal, but word of the newly rediscovered Duke of Oxford, heir to the Royal House of Gryffindor, and the incredible story of how he came into his inheritance.
Harry was, of course, completely unprepared for dukedom, but luckily he has excellent choice of partners and I was there to smooth the transition.
As we planned for the wedding, we began the lengthy process of rebuilding – physically and metaphorically – the House of Gryffindor. We were able to prove Harry’s birthright with the testimony of Inspector Shacklebolt, and reclaim his vast, forgotten fortunes. The historic seat of his dukedom, a resplendent and sprawling castle on the rolling plains of the Sussex Downs, had fallen into some measure of disrepair, and together we set to the task of rebuilding it.
It was no easy thing, making livable a castle that had for nearly twenty years gone uninhabited, but Harry was driven. Almost constantly he spoke of how he wanted it to be more than just a seat of a duke, but a home – one in which we could raise our children, one that could be passed down and marveled at for its beauty.
In April, we were married out behind the newly-reconstructed Northanger Park, seat of the newly-minted Duke of Oxford, and we said our vows. Harry chose, of all people, Mr. Snape the butler to be his best man. I recall him saying something about how, in addition to being his good friend and mentor, Mr. Snape was a “reminder of his humble roots” – ones he had no intention of forgetting.
We were, of course, desperately and passionately in love. Harry has always been such a very assiduous lover, very careful to please me, and taking his pleasure from mine. And though we were hardly strangers to one another’s bodies by the time we were married, we still took some comfort in knowing that we no longer had to hide it.
I fell pregnant in May, and Harry was undone at the news. He took me into his arms and all but wept into my hair. I would never say this to him out loud – though I am sure by now he knows it all the same – but I have always found his utter devotion to family his most attractive quality, even though it does frequently broach into the realm of needlessly sentimental twaddle.
It was during my pregnancy that something even more extraordinary came to pass: our Gracious Queen Victoria, in her wisdom, saw fit to revoke the privilege of peerage.
Allow me to explain why this news was so remarkable, and why it changed everything.
While Harry and I had been busy beginning our life together, his story had been circulating through England – and in particular, through the House of Lords. For years, the very idea of privilege of peerage – that nobles of England should be immune to arrest simply because they are lords – had been falling under scrutiny, but the news that the His Grace Thomas Marvolo, the Duke of Cambridge, had so abused the privilege brought the issue to the forefront of the public consciousness.
The case against him, after all, was airtight and, by then, common knowledge. He had tried to murder a man in cold blood – another duke, no less – in an obvious attempt to eliminate any competition to his claim to the throne. That he went unpunished was considered obscene. The cry for justice got louder and louder, went higher and higher up the ladder, until at last it reached the ears of Her Majesty Queen Victoria, who, in response, revoked the privilege of peerage for all nobility, but in particular for the Duke of Cambridge.
In an enormously publicized debacle, he was arrested and taken to trial for attempted murder. Before a jury of his peers, he was found guilty, stripped of his title, and thrown in prison.
Harry, curiously, refused to testify. I asked him why, but all he did was shake his head and mutter something about leaving the past as the past and caring only about the future.
He always was such a sentimental fool. It is agonizing, sometimes, how much I love him.
Our first child, female (and, we would later discover, alpha), was named Lillian Evangeline in honor of Harry’s mother. Giving birth to little Lily was one of the worst experiences of my life, and when the whole thing was over I was quite ready to tell Harry that I never wanted to be pregnant ever again—
—but alas, I saw his expression before I could say it. He held his daughter in his arms, his face a picture of open adoration, and all my words fell short. I suddenly thought that perhaps I might like a second child, after all.
In fact, I was pregnant with my second when we were, quite out of the blue, invited to stay at Buckingham Palace.
Harry was mystified as to why, and I thought his confusion so adorable that I almost didn’t explain, just so that I might see his shocked expression when he finally did learn the reason.
We spent two months in London becoming acquainted with the Queen of England (and yes, it does still feel strange to write those words, and I don’t think that will ever change). She was very curious as to the nature of Harry’s character, because though the issue of inheritance was all but a foregone conclusion, it still needed our gracious monarch’s seal of approval to be set in stone.
Of course, she saw in Harry what I saw in him. She saw his humble disposition, his idealism, his bravery and strength, his unshakable dedication to his family and country, and his profound love of and respect for all life. She saw a king, not just in right but in temperament. By the time I went into labor, the papers were signed: the throne of England would go to House Gryffindor.
But students of history will know that our gracious Queen Victoria was tenacious, and we had many, many years yet before she had any plans of dying.
It was for the best, I like to think, because raising two children was no easy task.
Our second, Severus (male, and a beta, appropriately enough for his namesake), was born about two years after his older sister, and even with a team of servants to pick up our slack, they proved a challenge. Before either of them could even speak in complete sentences, they were thick as thieves. They had my intelligence, Harry’s tenacity, and a knack for getting into trouble that was all their own.
In 1901, Queen Victoria passed, and Harry took up the throne in a coronation ceremony that was a thing of unmatched beauty and splendor. At the age of 48, Harry became King Henry IX, monarch of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and Emperor of India.
As I write these words, we are both well into our twilight years. Looking back on our life together, I cannot say that it has been perfection. We are both of us flawed in our own ways, and neither our marriage nor our lives have been uninterrupted bliss. We have had difficult times, strains in our relationship, hurdles that needed overcoming – but there has never been an obstacle that we have not been able to surmount together.
The bedrock of our marriage – and, in many ways, our lives – has always been a strong and unflinching devotion to each other. Even when I am disagreeable and obstinate, even when Harry is hotheaded, even when we argue, that love is always there, patient, smiling, unmoving.
Harry once told me that he truly believes that we are soulmates, that our love was written in the heavens long before we twain were ever born. I do not know that I believe in destiny, but the perspective of over half a century of marriage is a certain evidence unto itself.
These days, our lives are as quiet as they can be for royalty. We wake up with the sun, have breakfast with Lily and Severus and their families, and go for a walk in the garden. Harry tends to the business of the Crown while I manage the royal charity. We meet with visiting diplomats, attend galas, and go home. We have dinner and make love, just as utterly devoted to each other as we were as newlyweds, and as we doubtlessly will be for the rest of our lives.
And in the mornings when I wake up to the scent of him, I see the songbirds take wing from their cage and fly out into the sunlight. I smile and I am unconcerned with their departure. Our songbirds are no longer prisoners, and they always come home.
Harry, my husband, my world, father of my children, ruler of my country, I do love you, more and more every day, even after all these years. I don’t say it as often as perhaps I should, but I hope you know it all the same.
I do, my love. I do. -H