Throughout my life, my father has always known just how best to overshadow me.
At least the owl arrives during the champagne reception, I suppose, and not in the middle of my speech. Still, it's not every day one's son accepts the Prix Flamel from the Académie des sciences morales et politiques magique for his work on early modern Florentine curse-breakers. It doesn't seem quite courteous to derail the festivities, but Lucius Malfoy, good breeding aside, has never cared for civility, particularly when it gets in the way of his own desires.
I'm standing over the crudités, engrossed in an argument with Thierry de Larosière--the same one we always we have over Paracelsus's work on the Archaeus--when Blaise comes up, immaculate in his black dress robe. He's in Paris with me tonight. All my colleagues clearly consider us a couple, which has amused Blaise most of the evening. He's only fueled the fire by flirting with me outrageously since he took his first drink right after the award presentation. Pity they don't know he's straight.
Then again, they are French. It might not even matter.
"You're a fool, Thierry," I say, over the rim of my champagne flute. "One day you'll realise--"
"Sorry," Blaise says, his hand on the small of my back. "Must steal the wizard of the hour for a moment, if you don't mind."
Thierry beams at him. "But of course. You wish to congratulate him yourself, I am certain." He winks at Blaise, and I roll my eyes.
"Filthy old man," Blaise murmurs as he leads me away.
I snort. "One can hardly blame him, the way you've been tonight." He doesn't laugh, and now I'm worried. "What is it?"
Blaise pulls a folded piece of parchment from his pocket. "This just arrived for you." His face is solemn. "It was delivered via medical courier."
Tensing, I take it, recognising Mother's seal as I hand him my half-full flute. I've had dispatches from hospital before, usually when Father's drunk too much for Mother's charms to handle. "He's done it again, hasn't he?" It's been twelve years since the War, and Father's still trying to forget.
We all are, in our own ways.
The letter opens easily; she's barely warded it this time. My heart drops, and my fingers tighten on the thick rag paper Mother orders in quantity each year from a stationer's in Florence.
St Mungo's. Your father. Hurry.
Mother's usually pristine penmanship is shaky, ink-spattered. It tells me all I need to know. Whatever he's done this time, it's bad.
I hand Blaise the crumpled note, my hands shaking. He reads it quickly, then passes me my champagne flute. "Drink first," he says, and I start to object. He cuts me off. "You'll need it. Meet me at the Floo."
He disappears, off to make my apologies, I suppose. Thank God.
Fingers tight on the stem of the glass, I down the champers in three quick gulps, not even pausing to savour the perfection. He's right. We both know it. I hand the flute back to a passing elf, wiping the corner of my mouth with one finger. I'm numb already.
Taking a deep breath, I look for the Floo.
Blaise leads me through the din of the casualty ward as if he owns the place, which I suppose, isn't far off the mark.
He stops a mediwitch. "Malfoy?" he asks sharply, in the clipped, sharp tone of a Healer who expects an immediate answer. I assume she'll direct us to the private ward Father's usually placed in, the one named after Grandfather Abraxas and Grandmother Eleanora. Instead, she looks at me, and I think her face softens.
"Second corridor, sir," she says, and I'm surprised as I always am at the respect shown to Blaise at St Mungo's. "Third door on your left." She gives Blaise a long look I can't interpret right now.
It's all I can do to make one foot follow the other. I know before we go in what I'll find.
Blaise hesitates outside the door. "I'll wait for you," he says, and I nod. We both know I have to go in by myself. He touches my arm. "If you need me, I'll be right here."
This hallway is quieter here, though I can still hear the bustle of the hospital around me. I pause, my hand on the doorknob. I could walk away, I tell myself. I don't have to go in.
I'm very good at lying to myself.
It's the murmur of voices that finally makes me turn the knob. I step into a small, sparse waiting room. Mother's on a sofa with Aunt Andromeda at her side, holding her hand tightly. Light flickers in a small wall sconce, barely reaching into the shadowed corners. The door swings shut behind me, and the Sonorus calls for various Healers or codes disappear.
It's cold, nearly as cold as a Dementor's touch, and twice as grim. Nothing good happens here, I realise. I can almost feel pain hanging in the air, thick and heavy. I shiver, wrapping my arms around myself, barely able to breathe.
"Draco," Mother says, and when she looks at me her face is wet with tears. Her hair is loose around her shoulders, sliding free from the charmed pins that usually hold it in perfect place. "Oh, my Draco." She reaches for me. Her clothes are streaked with blood.
It stains the sleeve of her robe, her shoulder, the curve of her breast where she must have held him to her, screaming.
My legs give out beneath me. I sink to the floor with a keening cry, my face buried against my mother's lap. I twist my fingers in her robe, trying to steady myself.
After all the threats, he's finally done it. He's left us. Alone.
She's crying too now, and our raw sobs fill the tiny space, suffocating us in our grief.
The funeral's scheduled for Saturday afternoon.
I make the arrangements in a fog. Mother's no use; she doesn't leave her bed. She just lies silent, curled in on herself above the coverlet, staring at the wall as she clutches the pillow my father slept on. He must have known what this would do to her, I think. How could he not have? He'd been her life for nearly forty years.
Did he stop to realise she'd be the one to find his body on the floor, covered with blood, his wand lying inches from his fingertips? Or had he been too pissed to care about anything but his own torment?
I don't want to know. I'd rather not hate him more than I do at the moment.
The Manor is hushed. Lifeless. I hate it. It's been months since I've set foot in the house. There are too many memories here for me. Too many nightmares. Five years after the War, my weekly Sunday visits had slowed to once a month. Another twelve months and I was there only for holidays. Father had barely noticed--by then it was impossible to compete with a bottle of brandy for his attention--and Mother, without questioning my reasons, had begun quietly to meet me more frequently in London or Oxford for tea.
There are things my family still do not speak of. Perhaps it's better that way.
Now it takes all I have to visit daily, to walk the halls, to sit silently by Mother's bed, to hold her hand in mine, my throat tight and tense.
Blaise asks me each morning if I want company; Millie touches my arm gently and offers to take my place at Mother's side.
"No," I say, too sharply, and I feel only the slightest twinge of guilt at the worried glance they exchange. Neither of them presses the issue; we three have shared a house in Oxfordshire for seven years now, and they know me and my moods far too well.
And so I Floo after breakfast to a subdued Manor where my boots echo on the polished parquet of the entrance hall and the house-elves barely speak above a whisper. All the mirrors are draped; the unused rooms, hidden away. Like my mother, the house has closed in on itself, its core centred 'round Mother's room and the careful to-and-fro-ing of the elves.
I don't think. I don't remember. I can't let myself; there's too much to do. I don't have the luxury of fearing the past at the moment. Instead, I breathe, shallowly, and I look away from the shadowed corners and their whispering ghosts that haunt my dreams yet after all these years.
Aunt Andromeda helps. She brings me tea and gently reminds me I've an appointment with our priest to discuss the Order of Service. The Reverend Doctor Cornelius Wyndham-Ffoulkes is kind as he takes my hand, ushering Aunt Andromeda and me into his office. He should be. The Malfoy family has had the advowson of the living for centuries.
I choose the music blankly. Byrd's Ave Verum Corpus for the choir and as the congregational hymn, Be Still My Soul. As an afterthought, I add Love Divine, All Loves Excelling, just to spite Father. He'd always hated that damned hymn. Wyndham-Ffoulkes just raises an eyebrow. Father and he'd argued the Wesleyan versus Calvinist alterations more than once after yet another Sunday where Father had demanded it be removed from the hymnal and the wearied rector had informed him that was impossible without Lambeth Palace's agreement.
None of us mention that Father took his own life.
"It will be traditional rites then," Wyndham-Ffoulkes says. He doesn't meet my eyes. Society, if not canon law, has purportedly moved past the archaic notion that suicides be denied The Order for the Burial of the Dead, but the stigma still remains in many quarters.
"Yes." I stand, moving to the window. I'm grateful Wyndham-Ffoulkes has more liberal views on the matter. Some wizarding parishes still linger in the Thirty-Nine Articles era. "But for God's sake, don't use Common Worship. I'd prefer not to be haunted by Father from beyond the grave."
Through the wavy glass of the leaded panes I can see the graveyard, filled with Malfoys. While the family mausoleum in the centre, framed by weeping willows on either side, still has room for a few more of us, Father'd made certain he wouldn't be buried there. He'd demanded plot of his own and a monument in his will. He'd no intention of sharing eternity piled on top of anyone, much less his family.
There's silence for a moment. I'm certain the rector and Aunt Andromeda are exchanging glances behind my back. Wyndham-Ffoulkes coughs softly. "Will you be wanting the Eucharist--"
"No," I say sharply. I look back at him. He nods and a long crimson quill makes another note in the thick black folder floating by his side.
"And the eulogy?"
I don't answer. I know I'm expected to give one. I don't think I can.
"Draco," Aunt Andromeda says quietly, moving towards me, and it's only when she pulls me into her arms that I realise I'm crying.
Mother stands next to me, her shoulders stiff in her black silk robe.
She looks beautiful in her grief, her silvery blonde hair twisted into a soft chignon, her pale face drawn and weary. It's the first time she's been out of bed since I'd taken her home from hospital.
My fingers tighten around hers, and she looks at me, eyes dull. She tries to give me a wan smile, but her lips barely curve. Aunt Andromeda is on her other side with Teddy, who's been pulled from Hogwarts for the day. His hair is a subdued ash brown that reminds me of the silver-framed photographs of my cousin Nymphadora from the latter years of the War that line Aunt Andromeda's side tables. He's tall for twelve, as long and gangly as his father had been.
The hymn ends. Blaise catches my eye from across the aisle, his brow quirked. He knows quite well how my father felt about that particular song; he's endured my grousing about Father's high-handed demands for years. Millie pokes him, giving him a frown, and he turns back to look at Wyndham-Ffoulkes and the gleaming walnut coffin that holds my father's lifeless body.
We sit, and Wyndham-Ffoulkes speaks. It's a faint rumble, drowned out by the pulse of blood in my ears. Afternoon sunlight filters through the stained-glass windows, bright and clear. It casts soft pools of gold and green and red and blue on the worn stone floor, broken only by the faint shadows of leaded panes and bare tree branches that sway in a cold mid-November breeze.
Somehow, at some point, I stand and make my way to the lectern to give the eulogy. I've no idea what I say; I haven't so much as written what's on the paper clutched in my hands. Millie wrote it out for me the night before as I sat blankly at the kitchen table. She'd taken the quill from my cold fingers, replacing it with a warm cup of milky tea, and she'd sat beside me, crafting the words appropriate for me to say.
The faces before me are a blur. It surprises me how many people have attended. The church is small, but more than half the pews are filled. I wonder how many of them have come to pay their respects to my father or whether they're here for my mother. She's done what she could over the years to restore our tattered family reputation. Along with Aunt Andromeda she's spent hours volunteering at St Mungo's, reading to patients, sitting at the bedsides of the men and women in stasis comas, playing with children.
My hands shake as I spread the parchment across the lectern. I can't do this, I think, and then I look towards the pew containing my friends. Blaise circles his finger, telling me to get on with it, and Millie, solid and steady in her neatly tailored black robe, her usually unruly dark curls swept up into a tidy knot on top of her head, just nods. Pansy smiles at me gently from Millie's other side, black hat tilted elegantly over one eye. She wipes her thumb across the other. My goddaughter Iris is curled sleepily on her lap; a soft stuffed Horntail dangles from her fingers, one wing wet and worn from repeated chewing. Goldstein sits beside his wife and sleeping child, radiating calm.
With a deep breath, I speak.
It's short. Simple. I don't mention the War. There's no need. Everyone here knows my father's misdeeds. Instead, Millie has sketched a portrait of him from the stories I've told over the years, remembering the kindness he would show me as a child, welcoming me warmly into his library when I was lonely in a too large house; the gentleness of his love for my mother, expressed in the smallest of ways sometimes, such as his personally bringing her the first narcissus that bloomed in the garden; the pride he had in his family, in our accomplishments. My voice catches in the back of my throat, and I blink away the hot burn of tears. I stop midsentence, looking out over the church.
They're all silent, watching me. Millie leans forward. Blaise touches her arm, pulling her back into the pew.
"He was my father," I say after a long moment. I stare at the coffin in front of me, piled high with white flowers--roses, gardenias, narcissi--and glossy green leaves. I've no idea where they came from, who found them this time of year. My anger is swallowed by a wave of grief that crashes over me, choking it into half a sob. I draw in a ragged breath.
I meet my mother's gaze. Her eyes are wet, but she smiles at me for the first time since St Mungo's. "He was half of me," I say to her, my voice raw and strained. "How the hell do you say goodbye to that?"
My eyes fix on the rose window over the doors in the back of the nave. I breathe out slowly. No one speaks as I step away from the lectern, Millie's parchments left on it. I touch the coffin lightly as I pass. I miss him already.
I take my seat. Mother slides her fingers through mine, squeezing gently. No one knows how this feels but us. For better or worse, Lucius Malfoy had been our world.
The rest of the service is a blur. It's only when Teddy steps past Mother, touching me lightly on the shoulder that I realise I'm to stand. I follow him out of the pew. Blaise and Goldstein step out across the aisle. Silently the four of us walk to the coffin, each of us taking a gold handle and hefting it to our shoulders. It's light; the proper levitating charms have been put in place.
We walk down the aisle slowly. I stare straight ahead, ignoring the sympathetic looks of strangers. One foot in front of another, I tell myself. Don't think that you're carrying your father to his grave. I flatten one hand on the side of the coffin, steadying it. One foot. Now the next.
The doors fly open in front of us, flooding the church with late afternoon light. We carry Father down the stone steps and into the churchyard. The pyre's waiting over the already dug grave, a wide ‘V' of slender willow branches, and we set the coffin down on the heavy white silk shroud lining the centre.
Mother comes up beside me. The grave is surrounded by people, a sea of black and grey robes against the fallen leaves covering the nearby headstones.
I take Mother's hand. Wyndham-Ffoulkes stands on her other side, his prayer book open, the hem of his white alb fluttering in the breeze. He speaks; I don't listen. It's only when Mother pulls away that I know what comes next. I'd watched Father do the same for Grandfather Abraxas.
"We commend unto thy hands of mercy, most merciful Father," Wyndham-Ffoulkes says, his voice ringing across the churchyard, "the soul of this our brother departed, and we commit his body to be consumed by fire."
I step forward, raising my wand. My hand shakes; I steady myself. "Incendio," I whisper, and a blue orange flame blooms beneath Father's coffin. Wyndham-Ffoulkes continues reading behind me. I don't care. I can't tear my eyes from the fire that laps at the sides of the coffin, curling across the top. For the briefest moment I think I see Father's profile before the flames grow too thick, consuming all of the wood. The heady scent of balsam and oil drifts from the fire. Heat rolls over me, and it takes Mother pulling me back gently before I realise I'm close to being burned.
It's over quickly. As the fire reaches its peak, the shroud rises up, folding itself over the coffin before drifting down over dying flames and sifting ashes. The 'V' of branches separates, shifting and rising with a flick of Wyndham-Ffoulkes' wand to invert themselves over the grave, and the shroud and its contents slip gently into the dark hole. The willows follow, interweaving into a lattice that settles over the shroud.
Amen is murmured around me. The earth will follow later; it's considered bad form to close the grave in front of the family. I can't help but be grateful for that.
People file past Mother and me, one by one, pressing our hands, whispering their condolences. Granger is near the end of the line, her bushy curls trapped beneath a truly hideous dark brown cloche. When she reaches me, she leans in, brushing her cheek against mine. I don't pull away; as Britain's up and coming magical history scholars, Granger and I have had adjoining studies for the past five years in the hidden wizarding range of Hawksmoor's Quadrangle at All Souls.
"I'm sorry," she says softly, and I nod my thanks. I'm about to express my heartfelt gratitude that she had the good sense not to bring the Weasel along, when I realise that, beside her, an all-too-familiar head of unkempt black hair is bending close to my mother.
"Mr Potter," Mother says, and her smile as she clasps his hand is genuine. "I thought we'd lost you to Australia."
Potter shakes his stupid, shaggy head. His hair falls over his glasses. "Five years was enough." He's tanned, his golden brown skin making me look pasty and ill by comparison, I'm certain. He turns to me. "I'm sorry for your loss, Malfoy."
"No, you're not." Any goodwill I've felt towards Granger has dissipated. That ginger husband of hers would have been bad enough. Potter, however, is beyond the pale.
Mother looks at me. I can feel her disapproval. She thinks I should feel gratitude towards the speccy bastard for all he's done for us; I'm quite aware. I don't. I never have. The very idea that I should be indebted to Harry bloody Potter is enough to make me retch. It's bad enough I have to share Teddy with him. I thought I'd escaped this particular horror when he fled to the shores of Woollongong with the Weasley bint.
"You loathed my father," I say tightly. I feel ferociously, inexplicably protective in this moment. "Don't pretend otherwise."
Potter has the decency to look uncomfortable.
"Draco," Mother says, and I know by her tone she's now both embarrassed and annoyed.
I don't care. I clench my fists; my fingers dig into my palms. There's a tightness in my chest, a twisting ache that burns. I swallow hard. "I can't--"
It's too much. Mother'll make my apologies, I know. She always has.
With a strangled cry, I walk away, Apparating before I reach the churchyard gate.
Severus's grave is in a quiet corner of a West Yorkshire cemetery, not far from the River Calder. His father buried him here alongside his mother.
We'd brought his body to Todmorden together, Father and I. I'll never forget Tobias Snape's face, the way his wary disdain had crumpled the moment Father had laid Severus's limp body across the threadbare sofa in that small, grimy Muggle flat. Tobias had ignored us both, and dropped to his knees beside his son, grasping Severus's cold hand in his, a raw sob wracking his stooped shoulders.
Father had rested his hand on the old man's shoulder, the first--and only--time I'd seen him ever touch a Muggle with anything nearing kindness. "No father wishes to outlive his son," he'd told me later, not meeting my eyes. "No matter the gulf between them."
I sit on the dead grass now, my knees drawn to my chest.
"He's gone," I say after a moment. "But I suppose that doesn't surprise you."
A raven caws on a tree branch above us. I smile faintly. "I didn't think it would."
I'm silent, watching a small brown beetle crawl along the top of Severus's headstone. I miss him. In many ways he'd been more of a father figure to me than my own father had. If nothing else, he'd done everything he could to keep me alive, if not safe.
No one could have kept me entirely safe, under the circumstances.
An old Muggle woman walks along the grassy path between the graves. She passes me and nods. I wonder how curious I look to her, sitting here in my dress robe. She doesn't seem to notice, though. Or care. I suppose no one does in a place like this. Grief is a great leveller.
The raven takes off from the branch, its wings snapping against the wind. It circles above me, slowly, its gyre widening.
I don't know why I come here. It's been twelve years since his death, but I still find myself drawn to Severus when I'm upset. He'd always known how to calm me, what to say to convince me my world wasn't yet crashing in on me.
He'd shown me how to survive.
Each time Yaxley summoned me from Hogwarts that horrible year, Severus would bring me silently to his office and hand me a phial of Draught of Peace. Only one sip, he'd say sternly, and I'd lift the phial to my lips. It'd been enough to steady me, to get me through what I knew was coming.
And when I returned, shaken and stunned, my body aching and my mind screaming, Severus would heal what he could, then settle me on the sofa in his quarters, curled in on myself, shuddering, and force a swallow of Calming Draught through my clenched lips. The blessed numbness would set in, finally, and I would stay there for hours, my head on Severus's thigh, his fingers gently stroking my hair from my forehead until I was able to sit up again, breathing slowly, and tell him I was fine.
We both knew that was a lie but it was a lie to live by.
My fingers trace the deeply carved S on the headstone.
With one last dry, rasping caw, the raven disappears into the clouds.
The Warden and College of the Souls of all Faithful People deceased in the University of Oxford is five hundred and seventy-two years old. Established by the Archbishop of Canterbury during the reign of Henry VI, it opened its doors a century and a half later to wizarding scholars consule Robert Hovenden, warden for forty-three years--a record that still stands to this day--and Squib nephew of the composer Musidora Barkwith.
There are no Muggle undergraduates at All Souls, thank God; it's a research college, comprised of various levels of fellows, all working on their own projects and special papers beneath the spiked spires of the college's pinnacles and Twin Towers. The Magical Studies division is located near the gate facing Radcliffe Camera in a forgotten corridor assumed by the Muggles to be blocked off. There are only a handful of wizarding Fellows at a time, all funded by an endowment left by Edgar Stroulger upon his death in 1798 and managed with an iron fist by the Gringotts goblins.
Granger and I are the only two Magical History fellows: her speciality is mediæval legal history and mine is, of course, history of the Dark Arts. We're both Examination Fellows; with two more years left to go for each of us, we're in a race for one of the coveted Senior Research Fellowships (Wizarding). The Prix Flamel has already stirred Granger's surprisingly competitive spirit; I'd best begin thinking about the next monograph in my research plan. I, for one, have no intention of coming in second to Granger again. I'd spent too many of my Hogwarts years chasing her marks.
My study is located at the top of a narrow, twisting staircase. The wooden stairs, treads worn smooth by centuries of feet, creak dreadfully as I climb them, and I'm not surprised to find Granger out on the landing when I reach the last step, the door to her study open wide behind her.
"You came in," she says. Her hair's twisted up and held in place with a quill. "I wasn't certain you would."
I unward my study door. "Why wouldn't I?" I keep my voice even.
Granger hesitates, her lip caught between her teeth; she's obviously trying to gauge my mood. There's an ink smudge on her cheek. She'd probably come in before breakfast if I know her, and after five years of working in such cramped quarters, I sadly do. I can only pray her mother-in-law was willing to watch her brats today. At two, Hugo has become far too fond of chewing on the books he enjoys nicking from my shelves. Frankly, I preferred him when he was a sleeping lump in the corner of Granger's office, even if his wails had driven me mad at times. As for the girl, as bossy as she already is, I strongly suspect Rose Weasley will end up running the entire wizarding world at some point. God help us all.
"I just thought," Granger says finally, "that you might need some more time--"
"Well, I don't." I push open my door. It's a lie, but she's far too Gryffindor to recognise it. Work, I'd told myself this morning, forcing myself out of bed. Work will keep me going. The last thing I want is to give my damned father the satisfaction of upending my entire existence.
Granger stops me, her hand on my arm. I look back. "I'm sorry," she says gently.
I can't bear any more sympathy, particularly not from her. "Don't be," I snap. "It's useless."
She steps back, her face flushing. I'm becoming used to this reaction. No one knows what to say. It's all about them, of course. They're terrified of offending, not because they give a damn about you but rather because they'd prefer not to be seen as That Sort.
I curl my lip. "If you don't mind," I say, stepping into my study, "I've work to do."
I've nearly closed the door when Granger flattens her hand against it. "I shouldn't have brought Harry." A curl escapes from its messy knot and brushes against her cheek. She looks tired. "I'm sorry for that."
"You should be." I look at her through the crack, my hand still on the doorknob. "It was rather stupid of you."
Granger nods. "It's just..." She sighs and crosses her arms over her chest, pulling her thick, cabled cardigan tighter across her robe. It's freezing in the stairwell; warming charms dissipate far too quickly. "Well, he asked to come with me, and I didn't want to tell him no."
This surprises me. I narrow my eyes at her and let the door open slightly more. "Why?"
She blinks. "Well, with everything he's been through--"
"No." I cut her off. I've absolutely no interest in hearing about Potter's woes. "Why on earth did he wish to attend my father's funeral? I don't know which of us he despises more."
Granger doesn't say anything for a moment. Her fingers twist a thick wooden button on her cardigan. "Don't think Ron didn't ask him that, too," she says finally. "He just wanted to come. He said he owed it to your mother."
I look away, bile rising in my throat. "Of course he did." My mouth twists. "More that he wished to remind us exactly what we owe him."
Our lives. Our freedom. Our wealth. It'd only been through Potter's testimony that Father and I had been spared Azkaban, and I know damned well that he'd interfered to keep the Ministry from decimating the Malfoy coffers. At one point there'd been serious talk of the Manor being taken. How I wish they'd done it.
"Draco," Granger says, a furrow drawing her brows together. "You know he didn't mean--"
"I know exactly what he meant," I say flatly. Potter hadn't intended to express sympathy. He'd intended to put me in my place as the only child of a drunken, pathetic Death Eater, who, in the end, hadn't even the courage to face the world around him. How thrilled Potter must have been to see the fall of the Malfoys, to take pity on our ruin.
"You don't know Harry," Granger insists. "You never have."
I meet her gaze. "I know all of you. I know what you think of us. I know what you thought of my father. You don't even have to say anything; it's written across your face any time my family are mentioned. The only one of us who's escaped approbation is Mother, and she's had to work her fingers to the bone to prove that she's not the evil chatelaine the Ministry was desperate to cast her as in this farce of a morality play it calls history."
Granger looks away. She can't argue with that, and she knows it.
"The victors always write the story in the end, don't they?" I laugh, bitterly. "Always in their favour, of course. And you and I? We spend our careers trying to find the actual truth in the historical records. And yet it wouldn't be politically expedient for anyone to do the same for this war."
"You could," Granger says quietly.
I lean my head against the door. "I won't," I say after a moment. There are too many ghosts to face. Ones Granger can never understand.
We look at each other. I can see the pity in her eyes, and it exhausts me. I'm tired. Weary. They all think they're being kind, I suppose, but it's not kindness I'm interested in. I'm not even certain what I want, to be honest, other than to be alone, surrounded by the comfort of my books and my papers. Even Blaise and Millie try too hard. They'd spent all of Sunday hovering over me, trying to distract me with conversation and drunken Exploding Snap. I'd drawn the line when Blaise had, in all seriousness, after one too many bottles of wine, asked me if I needed to express my feelings.
Not bloody likely.
"I have a kettle on," Granger says finally. I wonder if it's bred into us, this idea of tea as comfort. The Russians have their vodka, the French their sex. We British find our peace in the bottom of a teapot. "I could bring you a cup of that Earl Grey you like."
"No." I try to keep the harshness from my voice, but when she looks away again I know I've failed. I sigh. "But thank you."
She nods, with a small, weak smile. After all these years Granger still doesn't entirely know how to take me. I suppose that's a relief in a way. "I should go back to my papyrus," she says. "I've another pile of tax receipts from Oxyrhynchus to sort through before lunch."
"Unfortunately." She hesitates, with a sideways glance towards me. "You're certain about the tea?"
Granger's heels echo across the wooden landing.
I sport my oak firmly and lean against the tightly shut inner door, drawing in a shallow breath as I sink to the floor, my forehead pressed to my knees.
Janus Wattle-Waugh coughs discreetly as I enter his office and glances at the clock. I'm nearly a quarter-hour late, I'm quite aware. I'd lost myself in Eldred Worple's latest monograph on vampire popular culture.
Mother looks up at me as I sit beside her. I brush her cheek with a kiss. She looks exhausted and drained, her hair loose around her shoulders. I haven't seen her this distracted since the end of the War, and it frightens me.
"Have you slept?" I ask. Mother's been staying at Tonks House since the funeral, claiming that she can't bear sleeping in the Manor alone. I can't blame her. I don't want to set foot in the house at the moment either.
"Some," Mother says, at the same time Aunt Andromeda utters a firm no from the other side. Mother gives her sister a reproachful look. "You know I have, Andi."
Even after all these years, Mother refuses to use the nickname Ted Tonks gave his wife. Dromeda is an utterly ridiculous name, she says with a sniff. I think she still hasn't forgiven my uncle for taking away her favourite sister and leaving her to deal with Bellatrix's madness alone. There are times I wonder if my father might have escaped the Death Eaters if his sister-in-law hadn't been His Lordship's mistress.
Then again, Father had always been spectacularly successful at cocking up his life on his own. It's most decidedly a Malfoy trait.
Janus coughs once more, shuffling the papers on his desk. He's been the family solicitor as long as I can remember. Probably for as long as Father had been able to as well. His hair--what's left of it, at least--is pure white, and his skin is wrinkled and mottled. I've thought him old since I was a child.
He peers at me over the rims of his spectacles. "You are, I assume, Mr Malfoy, aware of the contents of Lucius Abraxas Malfoy's last will and testament, yes?"
I nod. "As of the alterations of June last."
"Excellent." Janus slides a stack of papers across his desk. "That is the latest version your father left on file with the firm. As you know, the majority of the estate goes to you, with provisions made, of course, for Narcissa. A jointure." He glances over at Mother. "Lucius set up a Gringotts account in your name with more than enough funds to carry you through the remainder of your life, as well as making certain you'll have a dower suite in the Manor."
Mother looks away. She twists a lace-edged handkerchief around her fingers. "I'll not require the latter at the moment," she says quietly. Aunt Andromeda takes her hand.
"Ah." Janus blinks. "Well." He turns to me, obviously unsettled. "Given the size of the estate, there'll be an Inheritance Tax to be paid to the Ministry, of course. The firm will be more than happy to handle that paperwork for you, though, as executor of your father's estate, I will need your signature on these probate forms." He taps the stack of papers with a quill. "All fees and taxes will be taken out of the estate, unless you'd prefer other arrangements to be made?" He raises a bushy white eyebrow.
I shake my head, taking the quill from him. As I scrawl my name and the date across the bottom of various parchments, I can't help thinking this all seems utterly surreal. A week ago Father was alive. I'd had supper with him in Diagon Alley two days before his death. If I had known then what he was going to do, could I have stopped it? If I had stayed home from Paris, would he still be alive?
My hand trembling, I set the quill down. Guilt twists my stomach. It takes everything I have not to run from the room. As it is, I can't bear to look at Mother.
"Good, good." Janus's brusqueness is oddly comforting. He collects the papers and tucks them in a purple folder. With a tap of his wand it zips towards the Floo, disappearing in a puff of green smoke. "That's the probate registry done, then. Should the tax be due before the assets are settled, your father did make arrangements for the firm to pay it and be recompensed from the estate."
"Of course," I say. The words catch in the back of my throat, and I cough. A moment later, Janus's assistant is at my elbow, offering a cup of tea with a quiet murmur. I wave her off, as does Mother. Aunt Andromeda accepts the cup.
We're all silent for a moment.
I stare at the painting behind Janus's head. A group of wizards on winged horses chase a Graphorn across a snowy mountain ridge; their cloaks flutter in the wind.
"The Manor," Janus says finally. "You'll be taking possession of it now, of course."
Mother and Aunt Andromeda both turn to me, surprised. "Don't be ridiculous, Draco," Mother protests. "It's your home--"
"You know as well as I do I haven't wanted to be there for years." I still won't look at her. She knows why, as well, but my parents have always wanted to pretend that particular set of family secrets doesn't exist. Their experiences at the Dark Lord's hand have always been more important to them than my own. I rub my thumb over the carved ebony arm of the ridiculously uncomfortable chair. "I'm happy where I am."
"Oh, for Circe's sake." Mother's annoyance spills over, pushing her grief aside. "You're far too old to be sharing that ramshackle house with Blaise and Millicent--"
My head snaps up. "I like that ramshackle house. It's the first place in years I've felt at home."
Mother sniffs. "You should be thinking of a family of your own."
This isn't an argument I wish to have at the moment. Father had been furious with me for not settling down and providing an heir by now. My distinct lack of interest in either sex had frustrated him. He had even approached me about alternate methods of conception and legal arrangements for gay wizards, much to the embarrassment of both of us. Still, he had his moments of perception sometimes.
"Don't," I say, my voice harsh, and Mother falls silent. She looks away, her shoulders stiff.
Janus clears his throat. "There will be a point in which you will need to take possession of the Manor," he says mildly. "Unless you wish for it to revert to the Ministry, of course. As it was a gift from the Crown to your ancestors, there is a requirement that upon refusal of habitation, title should revert to the Crown in Moot, in this case, the Ministry of Magic."
I stop myself from saying let the bastards have it, then, although I'm sure Mother can read the expression on my face. I hear her quick intake of breath beside me. I've already offended her. I've no desire to widen the chasm between us. And I know I couldn't give up the Manor. Not really. As much as I fear it, as much of a coward as I am, it's still part of me and the thought of letting it leave the family is utter anathema.
"There's still Dark Magic in the house," I say after a moment. "The Dark Lord's wards and other spell remnants from the Death Eaters. I'm useless at dark curse removal, and I won't live there until they're gone."
I can feel Mother tense beside me. She hates the reminders of the magic that the Dark Lord used to make the Manor his. They still linger in the walls, the floors. The Aurors did what they could after the War--or what Father would allow them, at least--but the memories of death and violence seeped into the very foundations of the house. My left forearm aches each time I enter it. I've no idea how Father survived it. Sometimes I think the constant reminder of His Lordship's deeds burned into his skin drove him to brandy. At least when he was drunk, the pain was deadened.
Aunt Andromeda places her hand on Mother's. "We'll find someone to handle that, if you'd prefer," she says gently, and I nod.
"I don't want to think about it. I just want it done."
Janus seems relieved. "Shall we continue then?" He unrolls a scroll of parchment. "You will be required to make a full account of the estate, including value of household goods, your father's jewellery and all other personal belongings excluding those of yourself and your mother's."
I settle in my chair and sigh.
Janus steps into the anteroom of his office. Mother and Aunt Andromeda have just left, with quick kisses on my cheek and the promise of supper the next night. I'm at the Floo, buttoning my wool coat. It's frigid for this time of year. I look up. "Yes?"
In his hand is a small phial, the glass a deep, bright blue through which I can see a faint shimmer of liquid. "There's one last bequest." He gives me a sober look. "One your father asked me to make the day before his death."
I don't say anything. Janus holds the phial out. I take it, my hand curling around it slowly. The glass is warm against my fingers.
"Lucius requested I give it to you in private," Janus says. His eyes are gentle. Kind. "I know his death was a shock, but I'm quite certain it wasn't impulsive." He nods towards the phial. "He was insistent that you and you alone have this particular memory."
"He planned it entirely," I say dully. The seal on the cap has the date stamped into the wax. 15 November, 2010. The day before Paris. The day before Father took his life.
Janus hesitates. "Perhaps."
"Did you know?" My eyes flick up to his. I have to ask. I don't want to know the answer.
"No." A shadow crosses Janus's face. "I would have tried to stop him had I realised. I'm terribly sorry."
I shake my head, suddenly angry. At whom, I'm not certain. The world perhaps. Myself without doubt. "You've no reason to be. It's not your fault my father was a self-centred fool." I turn away, reaching for the Floo powder.
"Neither is it yours, lad," Janus murmurs.
The flames burst into a rush of green. "According to him it was," I say softly, stepping into them, and they pull me away before Janus can reply.
The next two weeks pass in a jagged, excruciating blur.
I barely see Mother. We firecall every day or two, but neither of us truly wishes for company. It's difficult to talk to each other. Somewhere, deep down inside, I suppose, I'm angry with her. I blame her for not stopping Father, for not realising how close he was to the edge. I'm certain she blames me for the same reasons. We're both lost in our grief, uncomfortable and overwhelmed. It will get easier, Aunt Andromeda assures me, and her face is wistful. She lost a husband and daughter in the War, and I want to believe her, but it's hard to feel anything but a dull numbness which spikes into fury at a moment's notice. Mother, on the other hand, spends most of her days in bed, hiding beneath the covers. I can't fault her for that. There are days it takes all I have to crawl out from beneath my own blankets and pull on clothes. I force myself, though. I'm afraid if I don't I'll never get out of bed at all.
During the days I hide myself away behind the high walls of Oxford. The Bodleian is my refuge for hours at a time, and I lose myself in the stacks of Sackler and Christ Church, or settle myself in the Ansom Room of All Souls. I don't bother with work; none of my projects hold any interest for me, not even my article on Arnold de Villeneuve's Theatrum Chemicum. For three days, I sit on the tiny sofa beneath my diamond-paned study window, cigarette in hand, ignoring the knock on my door whenever Granger decides that she'd best check on me, as I read a horrifically researched--and highly fictionalised--account of the All-England Wizarding Duelling Competition of 1430. I'm ashamed at myself for wasting valuable time on such tripe, but scrawling caustic notes in the margin about the likelihood of a relationship between Alberta Toothill and her rival Samson Wiblin--both of whom loathed each other historically--keeps my mind occupied for at least a few hours at a time, until I cross some portion of the novel that would have amused Father, and I realise once again I'll never have the chance to share it with him.
When I come home late at night, Millie or Blaise--whichever has decided to stay up to wait for me--hands me a plate of food, sitting with me until I've eaten at least half of it. I'm not hungry. I never am. Still, it's easier to eat than to argue, and I know rationally that food is important. My trousers hang off my hips, though, and I know I've lost weight. Millie just frowns at me when I take off my robe and adds another spoonful of potatoes to my plate. It doesn't seem to help.
Neither does sleeping--if I can sleep. Some nights, no matter how exhausted I am, I lie awake until the wee hours of the morning, staring up at the dark corners of my bedroom ceiling, thoughts whirling through my head. It's nearly impossible to shut off my mind without a glass or two of wine, and that's a path I'm careful of walking. I know what drinking can do. I know how it changes you.
I smoke instead. I go through packs of Cliodne Fine Cut, the ones with just the slightest bit of moondew added to the tobacco and which are only stocked by Leavitt & Peirce in Knockturn Alley. They calm me, keep my hands steady.
The winter storms start, strange and early, with greater force than usual. By the third of December, thick snowdrifts cover the ground, nearly knee-deep in places where the roads haven't been cleared, and I forgo the library for a long walk through The Parks. It's quiet, the still-falling snow muffling the sound of Muggle cars along the road. I walk for hours, barely feeling the cold that stings my cheeks and chaps my lips, stopping only at the arch of Rainbow Bridge to look out on the frozen surface of the Cherwell. I can hear Carfax bells in the distance, chiming out the quarter-hour.
It's twilight, and blue shadows stretch across the wide expanse of white snow. I lean against the black iron railing, my wool gloves already wet and cold. My breath comes in warm puffs of white that dissipate in the cold air.
I love Oxford. I have from the moment I set foot into All Souls, five years ago. Severus had always told me I was a born academic--I have the arrogance, the natural inquisitiveness, and the bloody singlemindedness (and bloodymindedness, come to that) necessary for a successful career. I think he'd hoped I'd find my place in potions, and I suppose I had too, but I'd known after the War I couldn't. Potions research would always be Severus's domain, and the loss of his guidance left me adrift and empty. I'd found myself in the Manor library one day, reading Adrastus Argos' account of Burdock Muldoon's tenure as Chief of the Wizards' Council, and I realised I could have written a better one myself.
Father had been incensed when I'd told him I intended to become a historian. He'd seen no need for such a useless career--if I were to insist upon becoming an academic, he'd said, I could at least pick a practical subject. It'd been the first time I'd defied him; I'd been trembling and nauseous after our shouting match, sitting in the window of my bedroom, when it struck me that I'd lost respect for him. I suppose I'd known it during the War, but I hadn't let the thought rise to the surface. For so many years I'd adored Father, had wanted to do anything I could to please him. That night I hadn't given a damn what he'd said.
It had been a sobering realisation, one that had shaken me to my core. I've never entirely recovered from it. I don't think Father had either. Blaise claims I'd become my own man that day. I think it was the precise moment I'd begun to lose my father. My family.
Perhaps even myself.
The cold rouses me from my reverie. The hair not tucked beneath my knit cap is wet with snow and freezing against my cheeks. It's growing darker, and my stomach rumbles. I haven't eaten since breakfast.
With a sigh, I turn my steps back towards Mesopotamia, that now-snow-covered stretch of land between the upper and lower Cherwell, crossing over the footbridge and through the wooden gate that will lead me down King's Mill Lane and then to Cuckoo Lane. Our house is in Headington, just east of Oxford proper, a white stone house on Sandfield Road with an arched door and three brown-shingled peaks on the roof. I'd bought it when Gringotts had finally allowed me access to the trust my grandfather had established. Mother had protested my move from the Manor, but I'd been desperate to leave and had eased her worry by convincing Blaise to take a room while he finished his Healer training. He's been at St Mungo's for three years now and has yet to move out. Millicent joined us a year later after her relationship with Greg had gone sour. Greg's never quite forgiven us for taking her side, but honestly, even he knows she could have done much better than him. Millie, on the other hand, doesn't.
She's in the kitchen when I come back in, kicking the snow off my boots, and she looks up from the pile of papers spread across the table. She's deputy head of Broom Regulatory Control, is Our Millie, and it's a rare weekend she hasn't brought half her office home with her.
"You're home early." I hang my damp coat on the rack next to the door.
Millie glances at the clock. The smaller hand containing my picture has just slid into Home beside her. Blaise's is still at St Mungo's and is likely to stay there for most of the evening, if not well into the night. "It's half-five on a Friday."
"And you're usually at the office until half-six," I say, picking up the stack of post on the counter and flipping through it. Adverts, mostly, and two days of the Prophet that none of us have looked at yet. I sigh. There's another owl from Aunt Andromeda. I open it, sitting down at the table across from Millie.
She watches me. "Your aunt again?"
I hand her the note, and she sets her quill aside. "She's after me to come to the Manor. Again." It's the third owl she's sent this week telling me she needs my help at the house. I've ignored them all.
"Maybe you should go," Millie says quietly. She folds the parchment and lays it on the table between us. "The Manor is your responsibility, not hers."
"I don't care to." The tightness in my chest increases. I can barely breathe. I stare down at the table, rubbing a thumb across its polished wood.
She doesn't say anything. The steady tick of the clock echoes through the room. I can feel her disapproval, and I hate it. None of them understand. Not even Blaise and Millie, though they claim to. They can't. They don't know the whole truth. No one does.
"Draco," Millie says finally, and I push my chair back.
"Don't," I say, looking back at her. "Please."
Millie meets my gaze. "You ought to go," she says again, her voice firm.
She's right. I know she is.
I don't really care.
I wake with a cry.
Pale, cold moonlight filters through the windows, casting shadows across my bedroom, and I shiver, pulling the thick down duvet higher up over my shoulder as I will my heart to slow.
It'd felt so real, the way the dreams always do. I haven't had one in years, though, and their return unsettles me. I can't close my eyes again, still far too terrified.
The door creaks open. I sit up, my breath catching in the back of my throat.
"It's just me," Blaise says, moving through the shadows, and then he's standing beside the bed wearing that ridiculously tatty Aran jumper he calls comfortable. I know he only keeps it because his fifth stepfather--the only one he actually gave a damn about--gave it to him at Christmas our fourth year. It still fits him. Bastard.
"Drink." He holds out a glass of water, and I take it silently.
The water tastes horrible, but it's wet against my parched mouth, so I sip it gratefully. "How'd you know," I begin, but Blaise cuts me off.
"Monitoring spell." He sits on the edge of the bed, looking at me. "I've had it on you the past few nights. We've been worried."
I frown at him and lower the glass. "Stop hovering like an old woman. I'm thirty years old. I rather think I can take care of myself."
Blaise snorts. "You're thirty years old, and you still share a house with me and Millie. I don't really think any of us are capable of taking care of ourselves." He pauses, thinking. "Well. Millie probably is. You and I are completely hopeless."
"What time is it?" I set the water down on the nightstand. My voice is thick and hoarse.
I nod. "How long have you been home?"
Blaise's fingers close around my wrist, warm and strong as he checks my pulse. I don't pull away. "About forty minutes. They brought a little girl into casualty just before midnight." His face is grim. "She was four."
"Is she all right?"
"No," he says shortly. I don't press for more; it's always the children that upset Blaise the most. For all he's a heartless bastard in general, he has a curious soft spot for the little wretches, unlike myself. Children unsettle me at the best of times.
We're both silent.
"Do you want to talk about it?" Blaise asks neutrally, not meeting my eyes as he drops my wrist, and I shake my head. He hands me the water again. "Then finish this."
"What'd you put in it?" I eye the glass with suspicion as I take it.
"A Calming Potion, and don't give me that look." Blaise settles against the pillows next to me, stretching out his long, bare legs over my duvet. "You need it."
I sip the water slowly. The cold horror of the dream is fading, but only just. I know if I close my eyes I'll see the long corridor outside of my bedroom in the Manor, I'll hear his footsteps echoing down it, coming for me, and I'll cry out for Father, knowing full well he won't arrive. I shudder, and water splashes across my fingers. I'm gripping the glass too tightly. Blaise slides it out of my grasp.
"Is it the same one?" he asks. I nod, and he swears under his breath. Blaise had been there seventh year, the only one in our dormitory who'd figured out what Yaxley had wanted from me. He hadn't known what to do at the time. He still doesn't, not entirely, but he pushes back the duvet and slides beneath it.
"What are you doing?" I ask, but I know. He's never left me like this, not when he's found me.
Blaise doesn't touch me; he's learned that over the years. Not even an accidental brush of an arm or a leg. "Shut it," he says roughly, and he rolls over, his back to me. "You need to rest."
I press my face into my pillows, relieved.
Even so, it's long after Blaise's breathing evens into a steady, slow rhythm that I close my eyes and sleep.
"Millie's right, you know," Blaise says, handing me milk for my tea. He scrapes plum jam over his toast with a yawn.
"I generally am." Millie sets a plate of sausages and eggs in front of me. She likes cooking breakfast for the three of us on Saturday mornings for some mad reason. Neither Blaise nor I complain; Millie does a decent fry-up.
I poke at an egg with my fork, and the yolk runs over my bangers. "I'm having nightmares again." I look up at her. "You know I can't go to the Manor for weeks after one."
Millie sits down at the table, brushing her hair back out of her eyes. "Aren't you tired of being controlled by them?"
"Don't be ridiculous." I take a bite of yolky sausage. I've eaten this way since I was a child; it always makes Blaise gag. Then again, he refuses to touch sausages at all, insisting that only God knew what pig parts actually ended up inside the casings. For such a self-proclaimed hedonist--a claim which makes Millie and me roll our eyes--he's a terribly picky eater.
"If you want my opinion," Blaise says through a mouthful of toast, "I think you'd best go to the Manor, bit by bit, and make new associations. If you are not going to give it up, you want to redraw your mental map of it." He gives me a pointed look. "Slowly."
I put my fork down and reach for my pack of cigarettes, lighting one. "Please tell me you haven't been reading Lovegood's book again." I blow a stream of smoke towards him.
"She makes some valid points." Blaise sips his tea. "And she's done good work with traumatised Aurors."
"Oh, for God's sake." I'm disgusted. "That's complete rubbish, not to mention Lovegood's a mad bint and we all know it, you especially, or would you like me to bring up the two weeks you shagged her and poor Millie and I were forced to endure breakfasts in which the possibility of Fwooper song as a therapeutic method was discussed in great detail? Something anyone with half a brain would be able to tell you is utterly daft and quite possibly legally actionable, and don't even get me started on the damned Crumple-Horned Snorkack, which has never been seen in Sweden, I might note."
Millie looks thoughtful. "He has a point."
Blaise gives me an exasperated scowl. "Go to the damned Manor, Draco."
"I went when Father died," I say defensively.
"Yes," Millie says, shifting another egg from her plate to mine in the obviously vain hope that I'll eat more, "and that qualifies as a huge traumatic event."
I glare at her, taking another drag off my cigarette, and she shrugs.
Blaise ignores us both. He drains his teacup and stands, carrying it to the counter. He's already dressed in his hospital robe. I haven't bothered to change out of my pyjamas. "The whole point is that you need to go and experience something small and every-day. Go look at the flowers in the garden--"
"It's winter," Millie says and nicks the last piece of toast from his plate before handing it to him.
Blaise rolls his eyes and sets the plate in the sink. "Fine." He looks back at me. "Go throw a snowball at the trees or look at something you've always liked, a portrait or a vase, and then leave."
I stab a sausage, watching the juice squirt out. "I don't throw snowballs."
"Maybe it would be better if you did," Blaise says tartly. He glances at his watch. "In any case, I'm on early shift and I'm twenty minutes late. But think about it."
He nods at me as he heads for the Floo.
"I'm not a coward," I say to Millie. Smoke from my cigarette curls around my head.
"Of course not," she says gently.
I sigh and pour another cup of tea.
Forty minutes later, I Apparate to the hedged path within the main gates.
The Manor looms above me as I walk down the path, snow crunching beneath my boots. One of Father's peacocks peers at me from the boxwood, his white feathers nearly blending with the snow around him. I'd always hated the creatures. They'd chased me as a child, pecking at my legs. I suppose now, though, I can be rid of the damned things if I wish, if I have the courage to change anything.
I pause at the foot of the steps, looking up at the three storeys of tall glass windows and weathered stone. When I was a child I'd dreamed of the day it would belong to me. Father would lead me through the rooms, introducing me to the portraits of my ancestors as he told me how one day I would be required to look after them. I'd been so pleased and proud at the time.
Now I want nothing more than to run.
Taking a deep breath, I push open the door. There's a faint prickling against my arms when I step into the entrance hall. The wards feel different somehow. Cleaner. Lighter. It's almost a relief not to sense them dragging heavily across my skin. My Mark barely stings.
The hall's warm and filled with light; the heavy curtains Father had favoured in recent years have been pushed back to reveal gleaming window panes, and the wall lamps have been lit to combat the heavy grey sky.
The parquet floors gleam, and I can smell the faint traces of beeswax. For a moment I almost think Mother's returned, but I know quite well she's less likely to step foot in the Manor at the moment than I am.
The memory of my dream thuds through my head, and it's all I can do to focus on the here and now and force myself to move deeper into the house. I square my shoulders and tell myself I'm being ridiculous. The Dark Lord's not here. He hasn't been for years. Neither have the others, any of them. Still, after last night, I can't help but be spooked by the silence, anticipating the quiet fall of boots across carpeted floor.
Golden curls ruffled by a non-existent breeze, the cherubs painted on the underside of the curving stairs and along the wall watch me as I walk up the Grand Staircase, the tread of my boots muffled on the thick Aubusson runner. The cherubs press their faces against the gilt carvings that circle them, their curiosity evident. I can't blame them. Other than the few days before Father's funeral, it's been years since I trod these steps. The landing is black and white Italian marble in a diamond pattern, installed by the mason James Sayers at my grandfather's great-grandfather's commission and confiscated from the floor of a crumbling Borgia villa on the outskirts of Rome. Three enormous windows stretch from floor to ceiling, looking out over the snow-covered gardens below.
Around the moulding, trailing up the staircase, is painted An revera habitabit Deus in terra ecce Cæli ipsi & Cæli cælorum non capiunt Te quanto minus Domus hæc quam ædificavi, the gilded remnant of Brutus Malfoy's failed attempt at piety in the mid-sixteenth century. The man himself glowers at me from an austere portrait at the top of the steps.
"About blessed time," he snaps, and when I ignore him, he follows me down the length of the North Gallery, pushing my other ancestors out of the way as he strides from portrait to portrait. "Back here, boy," he shouts. "Do you know what's been going on in your house?"
I don't particularly care. Brutus has always been an irritating twat, in my opinion, and I've no wish to spend an hour listening to him explain to me exactly how I've yet again sullied the Malfoy name. It'd been bad enough during the War: he'd been appalled by my cowardice in failing to kill Dumbledore.
He'd once told me I deserved any punishment His bloody Lordship had meted out to me. I've hated him ever since.
The library is a welcome escape. I close the door behind me with a sigh. This had always been the room I'd been happiest in, even during that dark year. I spent most of my holidays in the upper stacks, hidden in a window seat behind a heavy velvet curtain, with a book or two perched on my lap. I climb the wrought iron spiral steps, my hand sliding along the rosewood railing. The walls are lined with books and scrolls, some of which have been in my family's possession for six or seven hundred years now.
My heart is thudding heavily against my chest, but the thick, musty scent of the books is beginning to calm me. I turn the corner, only just realising where my feet have taken me. I suppose it's not surprising, all things considered.
Heavy and dark against the tall windows behind it, it looks out over the library below. I'd spent hours when I was a child playing between its carved African blackwood legs.
This is where Mother had found him.
I'm fairly certain this isn't what Blaise had meant when he'd urged me to go look at something I've always enjoyed, except for the fact that I had enjoyed this spot most of my life.
Slowly I move around the desk, trailing my fingertips over its smooth top. The blotter's been removed. My stomach twists when I realise it must have been discarded after being soaked with Father's blood. I press my hand against my chest. I've still my own Sectumsempra scars, left by Potter's idiocy so many years ago. I'd nearly died that day myself, my blood running across the loo tiles, mixing with the flooding water from spell-shattered sinks. Severus had saved me again, as he always had.
Father hadn't had the chance to be saved.
I can feel the staccato thud of my heart against my palm. The few days between Father's death and his funeral I'd avoided this room. Neither Mother nor I have talked about what she found; I only know what it must have been like from the Auror's report I've seen, and the post-mortem. They'd suspected murder at first. A domestic, the Auror whose signature was scrawled across the bottom of the report had suggested. Idiot. Mother would never have killed Father. He was her world. Her everything. I've never understood why anyone would not instantly realise their marriage was a love match, despite anything whispered in the Prophet after the War. Mother had never been coerced by Father into anything: she'd followed him willingly and blindly, certain he could do no wrong.
Love makes even the intelligent to be fools at times. Yet another reason to swear off it, I think.
I sit in Father's chair, my throat tight. What must it have been like for him that night, drunk and miserable, knowing what he intended to do? Upon testing his wand, the Aurors had determined he'd cast Sectumsempra himself, pressing the tip against his chest, judging from the wounds blossoming across his chest.
They'd asked me at St Mungo's if I'd wanted to see him. I'd refused. I'd no wish to remember my father, once tall and strong and proud, lying torn and bloody on a cold porcelain morgue table.
My hands shake as I flatten them on the desktop. I can barely think. The finish on the wood is faintly sticky against my palms. I'm terrified that when I pull them away, my father's blood will be on my skin. Drawing in a deep breath, I move my hands, turning my palms up.
"Draco," a voice says behind me, low and warm.
My heart clenches, and I pivot the chair towards the wall. A small portrait hangs between two windows, painted nearly twenty-seven years ago. My father had been a young man then, barely younger than I am at this moment. There's no silver in his pale hair, no lines furrowing his brow, drawing his mouth into a perpetual scowl. I lean against his knee, not even three yet. I'm plump and pink in my spotless blue robe, a thumb in my mouth. Father removes the thumb gently and picks me up, settling me on his thigh. We both sit in the same chair, a stack of books at Father's elbow in the portrait, another open on the desk behind me as if he'd just turned from it to speak to the infant me.
He looks at me imperiously from his frame. "I've been expecting you. Earlier, I must say, though Brutus tells me you came by after the funeral."
I feel ill. I'd forgotten about this portrait--at least that's what I tell myself. I'm not sure I believe my own lie. "Briefly." I hesitate. "But not here." I stand, pushing myself out of the chair. "Were you here when he..." I trail off. I can't bring myself to say it.
A shadow crosses my father's younger face. He smoothes back the hair from my infant self's forehead, a careful touch that I can't remember him making in life. Surely, though, he must have. Portraits are shadows of their subjects' real selves. Father sighs and shifts in the chair, his painted black robes brushing the polished tops of his boots.
"Of course, I was," he says finally. "Damned foolish of myself."
I don't ask whether he means his portrait or real self. "What did he--" I look away, my fingers twisting in the sleeves of my coat. It's cold here. The wind seeps through the cracks in the old windows. In the last year Father'd let the maintenance charms go, Mother had told me. Other than a brief two-week heat wave in August, it hadn't mattered so much.
Father looks at me, his eyes shadowed. "Do you really wish to know?"
I nod. He whispers something into my portrait's ear, and then I slide off his lap, with a curious, backwards glance at myself before I run out of the frame. Father straightens his robe, looking after the younger me with a small smile."You always were easy to distract," he says, then he turns to me. "I fought doing it, you know." He looks past my shoulder, his face drawn and pale. "It's a bit odd, to watch oneself struggle with the decision to take that final step."
My mouth's dry. "Did you talk to him?"
"Yes," Father says sharply. "Of course I did. I told myself I was an idiot, that you would be devastated and that Narcissa--" His voice catches and he has to look away. It takes him a moment to regain his composure. "It wasn't fair to her."
"It wasn't," I murmur. I touch the edge of his frame. "He didn't listen."
Father's mouth thins. "Obviously not." We're both silent for a moment, then he shakes himself with a sigh. "I'd made my mind up."
"Why?" I ask, but I don't expect an answer. There isn't one to that question. I don't think there ever will be.
My father's silent, watching me.
I draw in a shallow breath. "Did I see it?" I glance down the row of bookshelves. My portrait's settled into the frame inhabited by Great-Aunt Halcyon's pet Crup. It's a pampered, lazy thing that spends most of its time sleeping on a thick velvet pillow.
Father shakes his head. "I hid your eyes when I realised I couldn't stop myself," he says quietly. "No son should have to witness that."
"Thank you." I can barely choke the words out.
We look at each other, Father and I. "I didn't mean to cause you distress," he says finally.
"But you did." My eyes sting. I blink hard, willing the tears away. I won't cry. Not in front of him. I won't give him the satisfaction.
Father turns away. He'd never been able to take my pain. I wasn't strong enough for him. And yet, here I was, after everything, still standing. Still breathing. Still alive.
"I hate you," I whisper.
He walks out of his frame.
It takes the historical section of the library and half a packet of Cliodnes to calm me. I'm sitting on a leather sofa in the lower stacks, a copy of Bagshot's biography of Hesper Gamp in one hand, a cigarette in the other, when the door from the Long Gallery creaks open. I snap the book closed.
"Who's there?" I call.
A small head peers around the door, messy chestnut hair falling into brown eyes. "You shouldn't smoke that," he says, looking at my cigarette.
I'm taken aback as the child pushes the door open. He can't be more than six or seven, and he's a curious combination of long limbs and a short, sturdy torso, clad in Muggle jeans and a red jumper just slightly too short in the arms. He's shoeless, his stockinged feet sliding silent across the dark wood floor. "And you shouldn't be here," I say.
He ignores me. "Who're you?" he asks. He has an odd accent, mostly English--and Home Counties at that--but with the faintest tinge of something not-quite-right.
"Draco Malfoy." I stand up, eyeing him suspiciously. I set my cigarette in the ash tray floating beside me. It disappears with a crack. "And I'm rather certain there aren't any children in this house." My voice sharpens. "How'd you get in?"
He shrugs. "Down the staircase." He tugs at the back of his trousers, hitching them up on his narrow hips. "You don't live here."
"I used to." My attention's caught by a house-elf--Gobbo, if I remember his name correctly--popping through the door.
"Master James--" Gobbo draws up short, looking at me. The white hairs sprouting inside his ears twitch. "Oh. Master Draco, we is not knowing you is coming--Mistress Andromeda is saying--"
I frown at him. "Andromeda's here?"
Gobbo nods, twisting his long fingers in his tea towel. "She is sending Gobbo for Master James--"
Oh, for God's sake, I think. The brat's obviously one of Aunt Andromeda's charity cases, but she ought to have known better than to allow him free reign in the Manor. With an irritated sigh, I toss the Gamp biography on the sofa. I'm spoiling for an argument, I know. Perhaps it'll do me good.
"Bring her here, damn it." Elves annoy me at the best of times. Right now I'm restraining myself from ordering the bloody thing to slam its ears in the door, as he can damned well tell. With a squeak and a bob, Gobbo pops out again. I turn to the child. "James."
The boy's sitting on the sofa, rifling through my discarded book. "There aren't any pictures," he says with a scowl.
"Of course not, it's an adult's book." I take it from him.
"I know that." James looks at me as if I'm an idiot. "It's a book about somebody and there are no pictures in it. That's boring."
I can't say that I disagree with him, which disconcerts me. "How old are you?"
James pulls his feet up on the sofa, crossing them. There's a hole in the bottom of one blue-and-green striped sock. "Six." He looks up at me through impossibly long eyelashes. "How old are you?"
"More than that."
We are still eying each other suspiciously when my aunt sweeps into the library followed by, of all people, Harry Potter.
James calls out, "Dad," and I realise with a start that those long eyelashes looked familiar, in fact, the whole face did. This must be Potter's child with Weasley.
"What," I say to my aunt tightly, my chin jutting in Potter's direction, "is he doing here?"
Potter looks at me much the same way James had a few minutes earlier. Dust and cobwebs streak his dark hair. Although I'd addressed my question to my aunt, the impertinent bastard answers. "I'm working."
"Harry's clearing the Dark magic out of the house, darling," Aunt Andromeda says. "You asked me to find someone."
"I didn't ask you to bring him!" My voice is far too close to a screech. I pull myself up short, exhaling slowly.
James is looking at me, a curious expression on his face. "You're red," he says. I resist the urge to throttle the brat. As furious as I am, I'd rather not find myself in Azkaban for strangling Potter spawn.
"Yes. Well." My teeth grind against each other. "We'll blame that on your father, shall we?"
Potter runs a hand through his hair, his exasperation more than obvious. He seems bemused when a cobweb coats it as he pulls it away. He flicks it off his fingertips, and Gobbo catches it before it hits the floor. "Look, Malfoy, Dromeda said you needed some help removing Dark curses. I happen to be rather good at that--"
"Killing a psychopathic Dark Lord does not a specialist make, Potter." I cross my arms in front of me, my fingernails digging into the balls of my palms.
"No," Potter agrees. "But five years studying with Dark Arts experts in the Southern Hemisphere does. You'd be surprised at how much of that sort of research comes out of a former penal colony."
"I'm quite aware of that," I say stiffly. "I published a monograph two years ago revisiting the ramifications of the Glenrowan Shootout vis-à-vis the Muggle interpretation of events."
Potter just looks at me. "I don't think I've ever actually heard anyone use the term vis-à-vis in actual conversation, you know."
I sniff. "The Weasel hasn't yet evolved past grunting? Pity."
"Draco," Aunt Andromeda says, and I narrow my eyes at her. She makes the subtlest gesture in James's direction. He's perched a stiff-backed chair and seems to be enjoying the to-do immensely.
"Don't you even start with me," I snap at her. "You knew damn well what I'd think of this--"
Potter steps forward, fists clenched, his eyebrows drawing together. "Don't talk to Dromeda like--"
I whirl around. "You." I glare at him. "Don't you dare tell me how I should speak to my aunt in my own house!"
Aunt Andromeda takes one look at us and reaches an elegant hand out. "James, why don't we go check on the chocolate biscuits in the kitchen?" James accepts her hand but seems reluctant to leave us, turning his little head back to where his father and I are glaring wordlessly at each other. Andromeda coaxes him forward and the door shuts behind him.
"Malfoy, this isn't your house." Harry says. As I start to protest, he continues. "You may own it, but you haven't taken possession of it.
He's right and it galls me. I want to rip his face off. "What business of that is yours?"
"And you shouldn't talk to her like that no matter where you are," he says, completely ignoring my challenge. "It's rude."
I completely lose my composure. "Get the hell out. I don't care who summoned you here. I don't want you, and it's enough my decision to make."
"I'll be delighted," he says. "Particularly since I'm sure you can handle what's in the dungeons."
When I flinch, he says, "You aren't the only one with bad memories of the War, Malfoy. You're just the only one on your side here."
He storms out of the door and I taste the bitter tang of fear in my mouth as panic seizes me.
I have lunch with Mother at the newly reopened Savoy Grill.
She's already waiting for me when I arrive, out of breath from running, my rage at Potter barely subsided. I'd come through the wizarding Floo, discreetly placed in a corner behind a wall of lifts in the hotel lobby, and sprinted in a vague hope of shaving a few seconds off my tardiness. I take a moment to calm myself before approaching Mother's table, fixing a pleasant smile on my face.
"I took the liberty of ordering a bottle of wine, darling," Mother says, lifting a half-empty glass. "Chapoutier Ermitage le Pavillon '06."
I slide into the curved velvet booth. "A bit young for you, isn't it?" Mother's preferred vintages are all older than herself--which she claims with a laugh is nothing later than a '71. Or she once had.
Mother takes a sip from her glass. "One makes changes, Draco." Her eyes are sad, and I haven't it in me to press her further. Instead I unfold my napkin, draping over my lap as the waiter pours my wine.
"How are you?" I ask when he steps away, and Mother lifts one cashmere-clad shoulder expressively. Her hair is swept up in a twist, and a short strand of pearls gleams against her black jumper. Grandfather Black had given them to her on her seventeenth birthday.
"Perfectly fine," she says, but she lifts her glass to her lips again. It worries me. A glass of wine usually lasts Mother halfway through the mains. I've never seen her drink this quickly.
The waiter sets dishes of foie gras and baked scallops on the table. I raise my eyebrow.
"I ordered starters as well," Mother says, stating the obvious.
"I see." I reach for a scallop wrapped in a buttered leek. At least Mother knows what I enjoy. She always has, from the first box of sweets that arrived at Hogwarts for me.
Mother doesn't touch either of the starters, instead nodding to have her glass refilled. "It's not quite the same now," she says, looking around the redecorated room. Lacquered walls gleam around us, and four crystal chandeliers glitter from the ceiling. She sighs and sets the glass down, her nose wrinkling. "It's far too Muggle. Your father would have hated it."
"And complained to Spebbington afterwards," I say through a mouthful of scallop. Father and the head of the Savoy's Wizard Relations department had been in the same dormitory at Hogwarts. "Loudly."
That elicits a small smile from Mother. She twists the stem of her glass between her fingertips. "Lucius always did make his own rules of etiquette."
We're both quiet for a moment, lost in our own memories.
"No matter," Mother says finally. She lifts her glass. "What are you working on?"
I shrug. "Nothing in particular. Wrapping up an article and a conference paper and starting research for my next project." I'm lying, about the project at least. For the first time in my academic career, I've no idea what I'm going to work on next.
"Lovely." Mother doesn't press for details. She never does. "I was just saying to Andromeda--"
"Oh, don't even bring up that wretched aunt of mine," I snap, my fury rising again. "Do you know what she's done?"
Mother looks at me from over the rim of her glass. "Calm down, Draco."
I spread foie gras over a point of toast. "She's bloody well hired Potter to clear the Manor."
I nearly choke on the toast. I swallow, then take a sip of wine, coughing. "Mother. Potter. In my house." I scowl, thinking of Potter's claim that I hadn't taken possession yet. "And it is my house, I don't care what he thinks. And who the hell would let a child roam free--"
"Your father and I did." Mother gives me a look, cutting off my protest. "I assume you're referring to young James. Andromeda is quite enjoying watching over him during the days, now that Teddy's away at Hogwarts. It's difficult for her with the house so quiet, and I prefer not to have her hover over me, so I've encouraged her. As for Harry, Andromeda thought he'd be an excellent choice, and I agreed. It wasn't easy to convince him to take it on, either. It seems he has similar prejudices to yours regarding the house."
"So?" I glower down into my wine. "I want him out." I look up at her, my jaw tight. "I'll throw him out myself. I almost did this afternoon."
Mother sighs. "Draco, do try to restrain yourself. It's a temporary arrangement, and Harry's quite good at what he does. Andromeda thinks it might be cathartic for him as well, dismantling the Dark Lord's wards."
"I don't care what it is for him--"
"Draco." Mother's sharp tone stops me. "That's more than enough." I fall silent, and she leans forward, her hand hovering lightly above the table. A silver and diamond serpent coils around her wrist. Father had given it to her last Christmas. I look away. She touches my hand. "He'll be done soon. By New Year's at the latest."
"It's the fourth of December," I protest, but a firm look from Mother quiets me. "This is ridiculous."
Mother gestures to the waiter as she settles back against the booth. She reaches for her wine. "Perhaps. Now, you'll order me the braised hare, and I think you might enjoy the venison, yes?"
With a sigh, I agree. If Mother's in support of Potter's presence, I've no chance of getting rid of him.
When I drag myself to All Souls late Monday morning, Granger is sitting at the top of the staircase, a thick copy of McKitterick's tome on Carolingian law perched on her knees.
"Did Clive change the wards again?" I ask, switching my satchel from one hand to the other as I climb the steep steps. There are times I wish they'd take the damned Apparation wards down, but then, I also don't want to end up with Horace Slughorn's physique. "I just spoke to Edmund in the porter's lodge and he didn't mention it."
Granger closes her book and folds her hands over it. She's blocking my way. "You," she says calmly, "are a complete arse."
I stop halfway up the stairs. "Right." I sigh. I'm not in the mood for this. I'd retired to bed early last night with a pot of chamomile tea and the Bagshot I'd taken this weekend from the Manor library. I don't care if the woman was the preeminent magical historian of her day; she was absolute balls at writing a proper biography and I'd spent half the night underlining passages I thought could be better supported. "I suppose this is about Potter then."
"Might I at least make it to my rooms before you start haranguing me?" I step up a stair, giving her a pointed look.
Granger stands, brushing off her robe with one hand as she tucks McKitterick beneath her arm. I push past her, irritated. This morning has got off to a lovely start: a malfunctioning alarm, burnt toast, an empty tea tin thanks to Blaise taking the last spoonfuls and not bothering to purchase another, and now Granger in a strop. I lean against the door to my rooms a bit too hard, and it slams open, rattling the photo of Greg, Vince and myself from sixth year that hangs on the wall beside it, sending us all tumbling into the white mat.
I try to straighten the carved black frame, but my hands shake too much. Vince pushes himself up, frowning at me as he helps my photo self to my feet. He would have turned thirty-one a month ago if he'd lived. Greg's still not over his death. It's almost as if a part of him died that day with Vince. At least that's what Millie's always thought and she's probably not wrong.
When I turn around, Granger's watching me from the landing, an inscrutable look on her face. "What?" I snap.
She doesn't say anything for a moment, then she steps forward, setting the slightly cocked frame right. "It's been twelve years," she says quietly.
"Twelve years, seven months and four days," I say. "If one wishes to be precise."
Granger just looks at me.
I shrug and sit down in the chair at my desk. "I remember that day all too well."
"We all do." Granger takes the sofa. Her hair is loose today, falling around her shoulders in a tumble of frizzy curls. She looks oddly young, her robe covered with a white cardigan that has flecks of black knit into it. A red and black Fair Isle yoke frames her thin, pale face. She hasn't bothered with makeup, but she looks, if not pretty, then handsome enough, I suppose. I seldom notice those sorts of things. It's easier not to. Safer, even.
"I suppose," I say noncommittally. I lean back, crossing one leg over the other. "Is this where you lecture me?"
Granger tucks her hair behind one ear. Her wedding ring gleams in the cold light filtering through snow-encrusted windows. I shiver. All Souls has many things, but decent insulation from the cold is not one of them. "I don't lecture."
That earns her a snort. She purses her mouth at me.
"You know, Harry doesn't need the money you're paying him," she says primly.
"I'm not paying him a damn thing." I steeple my fingers, staring down at them. "My father's estate is."
Granger waves her hand in disregard. "Semantics. The fact of the matter's that he's working in the house because your mother and Andromeda asked him to and we've all thought--except for Ron of course, but, really, he's about as prejudiced as you are--well, anyway. We all thought it would be a good chance for him to get out and stretch himself, if you will, before he takes on the Deputy Head Auror position after the New Year."
"Potter, Deputy Head?" I sit up straight. "Have they lost their minds?"
"Kingsley's been after him for years to take it," Grangers says with a frown at me. "Harry wouldn't agree until he and Ginny came back from Australia, but that's been a complete cock-up as well now." She looks at me. "She's left him, you know."
I look out the window. I can see the front quadrangle from here. They haven't bothered clearing the snow from it yet, but a footpath's been worn into the drifts. "I don't see why I should care about that."
Granger lets out a huff of annoyance. "I'm trying to say he's having a bit of a difficult time lately, and your little tantrum this weekend didn't help."
My irritation rises exponentially. "He's having a difficult time? Oh, I see." My mouth twists to one side. "So terribly sorry, Potter; it's not as if anyone else's father might have just happened to have Sectumsempra'd himself to death--"
"That's not what I mean, Draco." Granger laces her hands together over her knee. She looks distinctly uncomfortable. "It's not a competition to see whose life is the worst. I'm just telling you that Harry has it rough. He's sharing custody of James and working on a divorce, and it's not as if being at the Manor is easy for him either--"
"Then he can bloody well leave!" My voice rises and Granger flinches. I look away. "It's my house."
"Not entirely." Granger rubs a thumb over her robe. "You haven't claimed possession, and in wizarding law that leaves the house in a state of limbo without a Master." She hesitates. "Or Mistress, depending on the inheritance structure."
I run my hands over my face. "God, not you too," I murmur. She just looks at me. I sigh. "Fine. So I'm to treat Potter with kid gloves because Ginevra's had the good sense to chuck him to the kerb? I think not." I glare at her. "You lot are too damned protective of him anyway. He's not spun glass."
"You're determined to misunderstand me." Granger stands with a sigh. "I'm just saying that you were a berk, to be bluntly honest, and--" She cuts off my protest, one hand held up. "--and that doesn't mean Harry wasn't as well. The two of you together are like Erumpent fluid and an Incendio sometimes. I just think you should know he's in a fragile place himself at the moment, and perhaps going out of your way to antagonise someone who's actually providing a service for you might be a little, oh, I don't know, short-sighted."
My mouth tightens. "I'll keep that in mind." I reach for a quill. "Are we quite done?"
"Draco," Granger says, almost wheedling.
I look at her, my face hard. "If you don't mind?"
The door closes behind her with a quiet snick, and I bury my face in my hands.
I don't move for quite a while.
I sulk for the next week.
Not that anyone notices, mind. I hide myself away in my rooms at All Souls during the day, timing my arrivals and departures to avoid Granger's punctual eight-to-four schedule. I stay late, often past ten at night, and when I get home, I eat whatever's been left on the hob to warm for me and then crawl beneath the covers, cold and numb. If Millie or Blaise rap softly on my door, worried at my mood, I ignore them, pretending I'm asleep.
A laugh, that. Nights keep me awake now, my down duvet pulled up to my nose as I stare out the window beside my bed onto the snowy garden below, utterly unable to shut off my thoughts and terrified to close my eyes, lest my mind betray me again with nightmarish memories of a house I hate and a father I once adored.
In the end, my self-imposed solitude is shattered on Friday.
I should have known better than to answer the sharp rap on my door at quarter to five, but it's stronger and harder than Granger usually knocks and I was afraid it might be Marwick stopping by to discuss the article on Inferius reanimation we'd been considering publishing together. With a sigh, I push myself off the sofa.
When I open the door, Blaise is leaning against the stone doorframe, arms crossed, and smirking. "You," he says, pointing one long, graceful finger at me, "are going down the Phoenix and Homunculus with me."
"Enh." Blaise holds up his hand, cutting me off. "I promised Millie I'd ply you with proper sustenance. Whether you drink it or eat it, I don't care, but you're getting out of these horrid rooms for at least an hour or two." His eyes narrow at me. "Don't argue."
There's no point. I let him drag me down to St Giles, chattering inanely the entire way about one of the mediwitches on ward he's considering pursuing--she looks like she'd be worth an earthshattering night or two before she bores me, he confides--and I find it disturbingly comforting.
He waits until he sets my second pint in front of me before he starts in on the real reason we're here.
"Why the hell have you got such an arse-on this week?" Blaise sits down across from me. "It's more than just your father, isn't it?"
I wave a hand, trying to indicate general Weltschmerz without really saying anything. I know the vague excuse of work will not fly with Blaise--he watches me far too well and knows I'm happiest when most busy.
"Your trip to the Manor can't have been that bad," he says finally when I offer no verbal excuse.
I frown and take a long swallow. The Hebridean Black IPA is particularly strong this week, but I'm certain I'm going to need more shortly, given the line of questioning. "It wasn't really that good either."
"Yes." He puts a hand near mine, the closest he will come to touching me spontaneously unless I ask him to. Which I never do. "But you haven't had any nightmares--or much sleep for that matter, which at some point we're going to talk about -- and you are going to take a proper sleeping draught." He gives me a pointed look. "Anyway, you've been an utter bastard all week and that usually means you're angry about something. Or at someone."
I set down my empty glass. "Mother told you, didn't she?"
Blaise arches an eyebrow and sits back. "Why would she do that?" At my frown, he rolls his eyes. "No. I haven't wanted to worry her about you. She's enough on her mind as it is."
He takes a mouthful of bitter, and I wish fleetingly, as I do sometimes, that he wasn't my friend and that I wasn't utterly uninterested in anyone. He's a beautiful man. Oh, and I suppose I'd have to wish that he weren't straight as well. Still, watching him is a great pleasure, and it's all or more than I need. While I'm wishing, I might as well wish for him to be stupid. And unperceptive.
"I need another," I say, lifting my glass, and my chair scrapes across the worn wooden floor as I stand. I don't look back at Blaise as I push my way through the crowd to the bar. Every wizard and witch in Oxon seems to be in the damned pub tonight.
When I come back with a pint and a plate of greasy chips in hand, Blaise leans forward, his hands wrapped around his beer. I sit down, setting the chips between us and Blaise takes one, popping it into his mouth and chewing slowly.
"So I hear Potter is in Wiltshire," he says finally, and I hate him, I really do. I almost spit out the sip of ale I've just taken.
When I can speak again, I glare at him. "What does that have to do with anything?"
"You tell me." Blaise looks slightly to my left and pretends to be very interested in a wizarding darts match that's going on in the back. Some group of undergraduates are making fools of themselves and disturbing play for the regular patrons. Old Hordley is probably going to intervene from the bar shortly. I'm oddly looking forward to it.
"Blaise," I say warningly. I'm not really in the mood to revisit this, and I've no idea how he's made the connection.
"Your aunt told me," he says. "We were both at the holiday luncheon for St Mungo's benefactors."
I imagine Blaise among the sponsors and almost laugh. He's a perennial favourite with the older set, women and men; everyone, it seems, loves an attractive young Healer. And it must be good for business. St Mungo's seems thrilled to have him at fundraising events. I glower. "She's a traitor."
Blaise laughs. "She is not. She's a formidable and clever woman and every inch your mother's sister."
"Don't flirt with my aunt," I snap. "And she let him in. To the Manor. With his brat."
Blaise looks at me quite seriously. "She prevailed on him to come, you mean. I can't imagine that he wants to go back there any more than you do." He pauses. "Particularly since he doesn't have any positive associations."
I snort into my ale. "Neither do I."
"Draco, stop being difficult." Blaise is not taking my side on this, I note with rising irritation. He sets his glass down. "Although I do realise that's akin to asking the sun not to shine."
I continue to glare at him moodily. "I'm not trying to be difficult. I just don't like it. At all. Why is he there when I'm trying to go there? It's given me another excellent reason not to go back."
"Yes, I know." Blaise's face softens and for a moment he looks almost sympathetic, but then the keen look is back in his eye. "But you're also looking for excuses. You don't need any more reasons. You need to admit that you're afraid."
I'm almost at the end of this pint and suddenly I want to be home now, in bed, with the duvet pulled over my head. "You have to admit having Potter in the house is a serious deterrent."
Blaise shakes his head. "No. I actually think it's brilliant. It gives you something to focus your anger on that's concrete, and really, you can't be afraid of one Gryffindor."
I look up outraged, and I can feel my nostrils twitching. I'm turning into Mother and I knew this day would come. "I'm not afraid of him."
Blaise shrugs. "Suit yourself."
I sigh. "Blaise, I'm not."
"Then why haven't you been back to the Manor again?" he asks, feigning diffidence.
"Because I bloody well don't want to go back, you imbecilic berk!" A few patrons' heads turn my way and Hordley glances at me. I lower my voice and hiss. "Is that so hard to understand?"
Blaise sighs but smiles for the onlookers. Everyone relaxes and ignores us again. "No, it isn't. But you have to, and you know it."
"It doesn't feel like my house," I say more petulantly than I mean to.
"Until you take it back, it isn't," he agrees.
I'm struck by familiarity of what he's just said. "You know, Potter said the same thing. He said something about my not taking possession of the house from some esoteric standpoint."
"Well, perhaps he's grown a brain since last we saw him." Blaise turns his smile on me this time. He's trying to make peace, and I let him.
"No," I say. "He's just a bit older and perhaps a bit fitter than I remember."
"Really?" Blaise lifts his glass to his mouth. "How rude. Why can't all of our enemies grow ugly and fat?"
I feel the constant tightness in my chest ease ever so slightly. For now.
I go back to the Manor the next day.
Blaise and Millie have hunkered down in the sitting room under blankets and warming charms to listen to the England-Morocco Quidditch match being played in Marrakesh. ("Damn them," Millie had said bitterly when the QMS presenters had joked about the heat, and she'd refreshed the warming charm dissipating around her toes.)
I stop in the doorway, wrapped in my coat and a thick, heavy scarf. I pull a dark grey knit cap over my hair. "I should return the Bagshot," I say, and Blaise pulls his blanket down enough to look at me from his spot on the sofa.
"Not a bad idea," he says.
With a nod, I look away, settling my satchel over my shoulder.
I Floo before I can change my mind.
The entrance hall is silent and shadowed when I tumble out of the Floo, legs askew. I brush myself off as I stand. I hate Flooing. Apparition is much more civilised.
I take the steps two at a time, my hand trailing along the banister. I know Aunt Andromeda won't be here today; she's taking Mother's place at a charity dinner that Father's old skiff-and-punting club is hosting. The library is empty when I walk in. I lay the Bagshot on a table next to the door and within moments it flips open, pages fluttering before it slams closed again and lifts off the tabletop, flying with perfect precision to its proper shelf in the upper stacks. I glance up at Father's desk. His portrait is sleeping in his chair, arms around me curled on his lap, my fingers twisted in his robe. I inhale softly. I wish I could remember Father like that. I have flashes of memories, I suppose. Of summers spent on the banks of the River Nadder, fishing rods in hand. Of my father's hand on my shoulder as he smiled down at me as we walked through Diagon Alley. Of Christmases filled with lights and trees and a warm house and Father's laughter and Mother's kisses.
They all fade though, into those awful two years at the end of my Hogwarts days when life was shadowed by His Lordship's presence.
I don't think I've ever stopped being afraid in a way.
Shaking, I draw the library door closed behind me.
The gallery is quiet. Grey winter light filters through the tall, paned windows, disappearing into long shadows. The blue and white carpet is soft beneath my boots, muffling my steps, and as I pass, portraits of my ancestors watch me from the dark paneled walls. Mostly, they don't speak; Brutus is off somewhere sulking. There's an alcove beside a fireplace where I'd lain on my stomach for hours as a child, toy wizards spread before me as I planned another offensive on the Aurors' fortress on the windowseat above.
I stop beside a heavy walnut sideboard built for my great-great-grandmother. In happier days the top would have been covered in Christmas decorations: a cut-crystal bowl filled with boiled sweets from Honeydukes that I would nick and the house-elves would replace, a small tree swathed in fairies and clear glass globes and silver stars, tall white tapers that would burn bright and clear all night long. Now there's nothing but a gleaming surface and Great-Uncle Antonius's scowling bust. I rub the tight curls on the top of his head and he glares at me.
"Enough of that, lad," he barks, but I've already tilted him just enough that the hidden doorway swings open, revealing a narrow staircase, panelled in oak, a thick grey rug running up the steps.
I don't know why I climb them. I know where they'll lead, and it's the last place I want to be in the house. Still, I'm at the top of the stairs, pushing open the door with trembling hands.
My Slytherin banner still hangs cock-eyed over the chair in the corner, next to the framed print of Puddlemere United's Benjy Williams. The curtains at the windows have been pushed back; dust motes swirl in the streams of light that flow to the floor, highlighting the planks of the dark wood.
The passageway door closes behind me with a soft thump. I'd used it constantly when this had been my bedroom. Another hidden door in the opposite corner, panelled with polished cherry and pale blue damask, leads down to the kitchens. I would sneak down late at night for snacks during hols, smuggling a pillowcase filled with tarts and cakes and bottles of pumpkin juice back to my room with--if not Mother's approval--the elves' at least. It's a wonder I didn't end up twice Vince's size, the amount I ate.
I step into the room. Bookshelves line one wall. I walk along them, my fingers lightly brushing the books' spines. My Hogwarts texts are all here, lined neatly in order, as are the children's books I grew up on--the tattered Beedle the Bard that Mother had read to me over Father's objection: he'd preferred Bloxam's Toadstool Tales; the Children's Anthology of Monsters that had been passed down to me from Grandfather Abraxas; the Ned Newton, Unspeakable series I had devoured as a first and second year. In the corner I find my old broom, my Quidditch gloves still hanging from it. I touch them lightly. The leather's soft and almost warm. I draw in a shaky breath and turn.
The rug's still there. Round and large, its black and white scrolls stretching from the hearth to the bed. I can't suppress a sudden shiver. I close my eyes, my fists tightly clenched, my breath catching in the back of my throat. I can still feel the scream building inside of me, that first night, fighting the entire time he pulled me to the floor, his hands on my neck, my jaw. The more I'd struggled, the more he'd laughed, and I could smell the whisky on his breath.
I don't drink whisky. Ever.
Another step, and I'm on the rug. It surrounds me, and I know how it feels against bare skin, how it scratches, how it burns.
My fingers curl around the tall, narrow post of my bed. I cling to it, barely able to breathe, my hand gripping so tightly that the carvings bite into my skin. I haven't been in here since the end of the War. I'd moved my clothes out as soon as the Aurors had let us back in, taking another bedroom at the opposite end of the hall. I'd told Mother and Father I'd wanted my privacy. They'd known I was lying. We all had. But we'd never talk about any of this.
I can hear his whisper in my ear. Such a good lad. I stare at the bed. The damask duvet is pulled tight over the mattress. It matches the walls, pale and light, and I have an irrational thought that if I pull it back, the bloodstains will still be there. He'd liked me to bleed, liked to hurt me.
The low moan that comes out of my throat surprises me. I sink to the floor, my hands dragging along the bedpost. I can't breathe. Can't think. The memories come, far too quickly, things I'd not even realised I'd forgotten, all crashing over me. His smell, his touch, the taste of his spunk on my lips as his fingers twisted in my hair, jerking my head back.
The pain. His laugh, when he'd told me I was his. The way he'd pressed me into the bed, my face smothered by pillows, my arms wrenched high above my head.
The sharp sting of a Diffindo against my shoulders, trailing down my back.
"No," I choke out, and I push myself to my feet. "No." I reach out blindly, my hand hitting the lamp on the table beside the bed, and when it shatters against the floor, I whirl, reaching for my wand.
My hex hits the wall, taking out a chunk of damask.
Missed me. I can hear his taunt. I turn again, and another curse strikes the bookshelves, sending books flying across the room in a flurry of paper and leather.
"Bastard." My voice is raw.
He's there then, his brown hair neat, his suit pristine. Miss me? he asks, and when he reaches for me, I stumble backwards, throwing curses wildly.
Arms catch me, holding me tight, and I shriek, kicking and twisting, my wand dropping from my fingers as I claw at the hands on my chest.
I dig my fingernails into a wrist, scratching wildly.
"Malfoy!" The voice is near my ear, loud and commanding. I'm bent forward, gasping for breath. Shhh, the voice says gently, but my heart's still pounding. "It's okay."
The moment the hands loosen, I twist away. I've a glimpse of glasses and dark hair and a small boy clinging to the door, but I'm already racing for the passageway, the one that leads to the kitchens where I'll be safe. I was always safe with the elves. Always.
I run down the steps, my open coat flapping at my heels, my satchel banging against my hip. Twice I nearly pitch forward, but I catch myself on the walls. I don't dare look back. I can't. I can hear him behind me, breathing hard, shouting for me to stop.
The elves turn as I push into the kitchen.
"Master Draco," one says, but I'm still pressing forward. I can't feel. I can't breathe. I can't--
My fingers close around the nettles on the chopping block, freshly cut and waiting to be washed. I can barely feel the sting; I grip the nettles tighter, desperate.
I just want to bloody feel.
"Jesus." Potter's there next to me suddenly, and his hands pull at my fingers, tugging the nettles from my grasp. "You idiot--" He stops with a huff. "Essy--"
Essy hands him a tin before he can finish.
Potter pushes me gently into a chair and unwraps my scarf from my neck, tugs the strap of my satchel over my head. He lays them and my wand on the table next to me. I'm shaking. My palms are raw and red. I clench and unclench them, forcing the pain deeper. Potter unscrews the tin and dips his fingers in, then he takes one of my hands. I jerk it away.
"Stop," he says, his voice soft. He reaches for my wrist again, pushing up my coat sleeve, and when his thumb strokes across my pounding pulse I feel myself relax slightly. "You need this."
I can barely keep my hand still as smoothes the salve into my palm. The sting disappears. I hate him for it. I look away as he smears salve over my other hand, biting my lip. It's difficult for me to allow him to touch me like this. I feel out of control. Off-kilter. James is standing across the table, watching me, his brow furrowed. Potter glances over at him.
"Essy," he says quietly, letting my fingers slip from his. A wave of uneasiness washes over me. "Take Master James upstairs, please."
The elf bobs her head, and she reaches for James' hand, leading him away silently. All of the elves in the entire kitchen are watching us. Potter draws away, his footsteps echoing on the tile floor. He's back in a moment, with two glasses and a bottle of firewhisky.
"No," I say. My voice cracks. "Not whisky." I swallow. "Or brandy. Anything else."
Potter doesn't argue. He turns, but there's already an elf there, holding a chilled bottle of vodka.
"For Master Draco, sir," it says with a worried look towards me.
Inexplicably, it surprises me that the elves know my drinking preferences. I don't know why. Surely they know everything I like. It's their purpose in life, isn't it? I suppose it's the concern that is more unsettling. I've never treated the elves the way Father had, a boot to the gut when he was--all too frequently--displeased. I ignored them for the most part once I'd reached a certain age, or pulled an ear or two when I was in a temper. Still, they'd been my playmates as a child, many of them. I look at the elf.
"What's your name?" I ask.
It bobs its head, peering at me from the corner of its eye. "Blodwen, sir."
"Bloddy," I murmur and a smile crosses the elf's face. She'd been my nursemaid when I was younger, until she'd had an elf of her own and Mother had sent her back downstairs. No one wanted to see a pregnant house-elf wandering the halls, after all. "Thank you."
She nods, her shoulders straightening. "You is being welcome, Master Draco, sir." She casts an imperious glance back at the other elves as she steps back.
Potter fills the glasses and hands me one, clinking his glass against it. "Cheers."
I drain the glass in a long gulp. The vodka's ice cold. When I hold it out again, Potter pours me more without a word.
"Why not whisky?" he asks finally.
"It's what he drank." I stare into my glass.
Potter sets his aside. "Your father?"
I shake my head. “He drank brandy. Mostly.” It's still thick and fuzzy, and my heart's only just begun to slow. "Whisky was Yaxley’s drink." I lift the glass to my lips, swallowing.
When I lower it, my hands shaking slightly, Potter tops me off. "Yaxley." His fingers are tight around the bottle. "That's who you were fighting up there?"
"I suppose." I hold my glass in both hands. The cold against my sore palms feels pleasantly painful. "Yes," I say after a moment.
We're both silent for a moment, then Potter touches my arm. I pull away, my breath catching.
"Don't." My voice is sharp, high. An irrational wave of fear washes over me.
He leans back, just looking at me. "What did he do to you?" he asks.
"What do you think?" I feel dull. Lethargic. My panic is subsiding into exhaustion.
Potter doesn't say anything. He just watches me. Finally, he runs a hand through his hair, setting it on end. He looks ridiculous. "That's why the house bothers you."
I stare at the elves preparing dinner. They've stopped watching us. I suppose after living through the Dark Lord's commandeering of the house, one idiotic wizard's breakdown doesn't hold much interest. "It's been a while since I've been in that room," I say finally. "That's all."
"Do you want to talk about it?" Potter asks hesitantly.
I look at him in horror. "No!"
Potter almost looks relieved. "If you wanted to..." He trails off, and he takes a sip of vodka.
"Well, I don't." I meet his eyes evenly. I set my empty glass aside. "And if you say a word about this to anyone, Potter, I will hex your balls into whatever eternal damnation exists after this life, I swear on my father's grave."
"No intention to, Malfoy." Potter eyes me as I stand, one hand on the table keeping me from swaying. "Are you okay?"
I stiffen my shoulders. "I'm fine."
Potter puts his glass down. "James was worried about you. He sent Gobbo for me when you..." He sighs. "Look, I just want to make sure when I tell my kid you're okay that you actually are. He's had it hard enough lately with me and Gin--"
"I said I'm fine." I look down at Potter, my mouth tight, I have to get out of here. I don’t have it in me to spar with Potter at the moment. Not after…I barely suppress a shudder, and Potter’s eyes narrow. It annoys me; he’s Potter, for Christ’s sake. He’s not supposed to be perceptive.
"You don’t seem--"
I cut him off. "And I'm not going to ask what your brat was doing following me."
"Gobbo keeps him in the Long Gallery when I'm working," Potter says calmly. "I've already cleared that space."
I button my coat and wrap my scarf tighter around my neck. The elves watch me sideways as I reach for my satchel, still busying themselves with cooking. "Keep him out of my room," I snap. I tug my hat down over my ears. "And yourself as well."
Before Potter can answer I Apparate.
I walk home from the Cherwell. I need time in the cold and the snow to calm myself.
Blaise is in the kitchen, steeping a pot of tea. He looks at me, eyes narrowed. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing," I say, unwinding my scarf. I drop my satchel next to the table."Potter." My hands are still unsteady, and I don't look at Blaise. He's far too perceptive at times. I drape my coat over a chair back and nod towards the pot. "What kind?"
"Darjeeling." Blaise reaches for another mug. "You're certain it's just Potter?"
"What else would it be?" There's a rack of sultana scones cooling on the counter. I take one and bite into it. It's soft and warm and sweet.
Blaise frowns. "When Millie asks where one of those went, I'm blaming you." He pours the tea and hands me a mug. "As for your question, any number of things."
I ignore him, looking out the kitchen window. Snow covers the rose trellis, coating the thick, wide vines. "Did England win?"
"Lost," Blaise says grimly. "By over two hundred. Hence the scones." I wince, and Blaise gives me a pointed look. "Best lie low this evening."
I intend to.
When I come out of the shower later that night, there's a phial sitting on my bed. Dreamless Sleep.
I take it, gratefully.
Snow falls lightly outside my leaded windows. Despite my protests to Millie that I absolutely must come in to work today to spend time on a crucial project, I'm resting in my office, enjoying the peace and quiet of the near-empty halls. I have an old newspaper over my face, a fresh warming charm up, and I'm wearing my favourite sheepskin slippers. I sink into a blissful state of relaxation until I hear the voices in the hall.
Recognising Granger's voice, I quickly sit up and stuff my feet into my boots. My hasty lacing charm is just in time. The knock comes at the door, and I'm sure Granger means to drag me out for a Fellows' Lunch or some equally odious occasion. I contemplate fleeing, although the Apparition wards are strong and escape out the windows is a measure of last resort.
I open the door, and my excuses die on my lips. It's Potter.
He leans against the doorframe, looking hale and unnaturally tan and strangely at peace, whilst I stand gaping at him like a fish. Somehow the hall doesn't seem as bare or foreboding with him in it: he exudes vitality.
It truly irritates me.
"Hullo, Malfoy," he says.
I forget all manners. "What the hell are you doing here?"
Apparently he doesn't care. He waves a hand in the direction of Granger's rooms. "Visiting Hermione."
I nod, and we stand facing each other. Simple courtesy demands I should ask him to come in. I don't.
But that doesn't bother him either. Potter looks at me with a level gaze, neither impatient nor upset. He's not waiting; he's just here.
I crack first, idiot that I am. "I suppose you might as well come in." Say no, I think. Please.
"Sure," Potter says simply and steps over the threshold.
A room seems to focus about him when he's in it. I can't explain it, but it's like a whoosh of energy entering my study. Suddenly everything looks a bit different. He takes in the scene before him, books, papers, manuscripts, piles of everything, my magical magnification and deciphering apparatus, the quick quills, more stationery than he's probably seen in his life.
"Wow." Potter eyes a stack of parchments copied from the depths of the British Museum. It's threatening to topple over. "You like paper."
"More than I like human beings," I say pointedly.
He takes my mood in stride, moving over to my small curio cabinet, filled with the usual detritus that seems to gather around historians in particular. A seventeenth-century cursed lock from Brussels that had been intended to make thieves impotent but whose lockmaker had, in actuality, crafted it to rebound on the Flemish gentlemen who commissioned it. A poison ring said to belong to Lucrezia Borgia but which had most likely belonged instead to Anne of Cleves. A box filled with a sixteenth-century Arabic medicine made from ground mummies. The last phial of Dreamless Sleep that Severus bottled for me, dated the day of his death.
"This has a lot of energy." Potter gestures to the poison ring with a frown. "I'm not sure you should have it in your room. It's too small in here for this."
I stare blankly at him. "What on earth are you talking about?"
He sighs. "Malfoy, I'm an expert in the energy of spaces. I work on stagnant energy and things that have become trapped within walls and other enclosed spaces. It's why Andromeda thought I could help you with the Manor."
"I heard you were driving everyone mad."
Potter raises an eyebrow. "That too," he says after a moment.
"Shacklebolt wouldn't let you step directly into Deputy Head?" I can't stop my snide tone. He doesn't seem fazed.
He shrugs, his hands in his pockets. "I wanted some time to myself."
"Working on the Manor." I know I sound sceptical. "You can't stand my family--"
"Sometimes buildings need to be cleared," Potter says quietly. "Regardless of whom they belong to." He looks at me evenly. "Ghosts aren't always visible."
We eye each other. I look away first.
"So now you don't approve of my rooms here," I say.
Potter glances around. "It's not horrible, but it could use some help."
"Well, this is an old building. I'm sure there's a lot here to work on." I move a pile of old academic journals I've still to read from the sofa to the floor.
"You'd be surprised. It has nothing to do with the age of the building and more with the history of the occupants."
"Hm. Sounds suspiciously like Muggle headshrinking." I cock my head at him. After the War, desperate, and on Aunt Andromeda's recommendation, Mother had once tried to send me to a Muggleborn Healer who had insisted that talking might help me overcome my (and I quote) "personal difficulties," until I told her I couldn't possibly derive help from another situation where I had to lie about my past. Also the thought of anyone analysing the contents of my brain makes me ill. I'd become a master of Occlumency for a reason.
Potter grins. "Not related in the least. Space clearing is much older and works whether you believe in it or not. It's just like washing your windows"--I glance over to the leaded panes that can only be cleaned by magic and stay intact--"except it's more like washing inside so you can look clearly, rather than outside."
I'm curious despite myself. "What would you say about my space?" I ask.
Potter looks around casually. "You don't like to let projects go. You have a lot of paper that you don't need to work on lying around still. And the books on the floor are keeping you from moving on to your next project."
"How is that not true of every academic?" I counter.
"I don't know," Potter says. "But I just visited Hermione's office and it didn't have these sorts of energy blocks on the floor."
With a sigh, I sit on the chair at my desk, looking around. "I have been feeling rather stagnant lately." I don't tell him he's right about letting go. The last thing I want is to encourage him.
"I can shift a few things if you'd like," Potter says. "I mean, it's best for you to clear up your clutter first. But I can move a few things out that might make it easier to do that."
Strangely I realise I trust him with my space. I don't like letting people in here and yet I'm willing to have him move stuff around. How odd, I reflect.
"As long as you only move energy," I say, narrowing my eyes at him, but he seems to take it quite seriously.
"Agreed," he says.
Potter walks around the perimeter of the room, looking, and then asks permission to go into the back room where I have a sofa and my favourite or less-needed books. I hesitate and then agree. He doesn't seem to take over space when he walks into it. To my surprise, he's respectful and doesn't displace anything. He doesn't even look closely to see my collection of Victorian wizarding erotica or my volumes of Skeeter's scandalous biographies. Instead he examines the shelves, the nooks, the crannies and the empty spaces. He holds his hand out to feel the corner.
Finally he opens the window and it does feel like something rushes out. I'm not sure what it was, but the room seems brighter afterward.
He repeats the process in the main room and then goes to the sink to wash his hands.
When he's finished, I feel strangely calm. Lighter. His presence seems to have that effect on me and whatever he did enhanced that feeling in my rooms. I find I have new energy to attack a particularly nasty review I need to write in the most polite terms.
"Thank you, Potter." I never thought those words would come out of my mouth.
He holds out a hand to say goodbye and before I know it, I take it. Like any normal person might. The fact that this is extraordinary for me goes unremarked but inside my brain is singing and I feel almost giddy with it. Touch is so forbidden in my universe and yet here I've let Potter touch me. Only Millie and my mother are allowed to have any physical contact with me and then only on special terms.
"Goodbye, Malfoy," he says and walks down the hall back to Hermione's rooms. Most unlike our first encounter, I am loth to see him go.
I wake with a gasp, my heart pounding wildly against my chest.
The ghosts from the dream slip from me, leaving me cold and empty. I know it was him. It had to be. I can still feel his touch on my skin, his whisky-tinged breath against my ear.
Moonlight shines through the window, a blueish-white reflected from snow. I push the duvet off, standing shakily. Just a dream, I tell myself, and I regret refusing Blaise's offer of another dose of Dreamless Sleep.
This one was different though.
Father was there.
The gibbous moon hangs low in the sky, so close I could almost grasp it, I think. I stare through the leaded panes into the clear sky.
There's a knock on my door.
"Come in, Blaise," I say wearily.
Millie steps into my room, wrapping her dressing gown around her. Her feet are bare and her hair hangs down in rumpled curls around her shoulders. "He set the charms before he went on ward."
"You know, eventually he's going to annoy me with those," I say. She steps up behind me, her reflection pale in the window panes. She's tall for a woman, nearly as tall as myself, and I wonder if she realises how striking she is. She'll never be a beautiful woman, not like Mother or Pansy even. But she's handsome and competent and suffers no fools. It's no wonder I catch Blaise watching her at times.
"Eventually," she agrees. "I'm getting tired of the both of you waking me. I've work in the morning."
I glance back at her and she gives me a small smile. "Sorry."
"Don't be." She lays a hand on my shoulder, lightly. I'm not certain why I don't flinch away. Perhaps because I'm slightly less afraid. Or perhaps because she's Millie, solid and warm and unflappable. "Was it the dream again?"
I nod. We stand there silently for a long moment, then I sigh. "I have to go back, you know."
Millie leans her forehead against my temple. "I know." When I pull back, she's not offended. "I'll go with you."
I shake my head. "You can't." I draw in a deep breath. "I have to do this on my own."
Millie just watches me in the window, her eyes sad.
I turn away and reach for a jumper.
I stand outside the Manor gates for a quarter-hour, fighting with myself.
"Oh, for God's sake," I say finally, in sheer disgust at my cowardice, and I put my hand on the iron gate.
Before I can jerk away, I'm drawn through them in a rush of smoke and warmth.
Potter finds me sitting cross-legged on the rug in my bedroom, a tiny toy Snitch in my hand, my coat and scarf piled next to me.
He squats beside me, his hand light on my shoulder. "Malfoy."
I look at him blankly. I don't know how long I've been sitting here. Long enough for one leg to go numb at least. "Oh. You."
"The wards shifted," he says. "I've been up and I noticed..." He sits down in front of me, crossing his own legs, our knees almost touching. He's wearing a t-shirt and blue plaid pyjama bottoms. "Are you all right?"
I nod. I think I am, at least. Inexplicably. "You've done something in here. It feels..." I hesitate. "Different. Like you."
"Might have done," Potter says. He toys with the frayed hem of his pyjamas. His pale feet are long and bony, the soles callused and his toenails in need of trimming. "I thought you might be back." He looks around the room. "Rather a bit of nastiness in here, I have to say. I don't know how you survived that last year here. It's faded over the years, but it must have been a hundred times worse then."
"It was only hols." I stare up at the photos tacked to one wall with a sticking charm. We're all in them: me, Vince, Greg, Pansy, Blaise. Millie and Theo linger at the edges of one or two photographs. In half of them Pansy's draped over me, her face pressed to mine. She'd been the first girl I'd slept with. The only girl, actually. There'd been that one week in sixth year, just before Christmas hols, when we'd been afraid we might have slipped up, conception potions notwithstanding. We'd nearly decided we should go to Severus for an abortifacient--or I had at least--when she'd started bleeding. It'd been the only time I've ever been thrilled to hear about a menstrual cycle.
By the time we'd come back to Hogwarts in January, we'd broken up. The thought of having a child together had been too much for the both of us.
Sometimes I wonder if that's what had sent me into Theo's bed later that term. I can't regret that. Yaxley'd been furious that I hadn't been a virgin. At least I'd had that against him.
Potter nudges me with his foot. "Oi."
I look at him, blinking slowly. I still find it inexplicable that Potter's touch doesn't make me flinch. It should. I hate him. Or I did, at least. My confusion annoys me.
"Lost you for a minute," he says.
"Sorry." I'm not, and we both know it.
He touches the Snitch in my hand. "What's this?"
"What does it look like?" My tone is waspish. I turn the toy between my fingers and sigh. "It's from a Quidditch set Father gave me when I was five. Or four. Sometime 'round that age." I look down at the Snitch. It's smooth and cool against my skin. "I'm furious with him."
"Yeah," Potter says. Moonlight glints off his glasses. His hair sticks up wildly.
"You look a fright," I say.
Potter doesn't answer. He takes the Snitch from me and examines it. "So you're angry."
"Don't try to make me talk, Potter." I lean my head against the post of my bed.
"I'm not." He hands the Snitch back. "You're the one who brought up being furious with your dead father."
I flinch. "Your bedside manner is atrocious."
He shrugs. "I'm not a Healer."
"Don't worry," I say grimly, thinking of Blaise. "They're horrible as well, trust me."
We sit silently for a long moment. He watches me. "I don't think I've ever seen you in jeans before," he says.
"Ah," is all Potter can manage. There's a look in his eye I recognise, and I sigh again. Everyone makes the same assumption at one time or another. Ridiculous of them. Blaise and I are close, but I'm not the one in the house he wants. I know that, even if he's not quite managed to make it out yet.
"I'm not sleeping with him."
Potter rubs his thumb across the rug. "It wouldn't be my business if you were."
"No." I meet his eye. "It wouldn't."
Neither of us speak, and then Potter pushes his glasses up his nose, blinking at me. "So. Do you want to talk about why you're here?"
"Malfoy." Potter's voice is gentle but firm. "You haven't hexed me into oblivion yet. You obviously need to talk."
I scowl at him. "You sound like Blaise."
Potter shrugs and leans forward, his elbows on his thighs. "Maybe he's right."
"Maybe you're both meddling bastards." I pull my knees up to my chest. "It's nothing. I just dreamt about him tonight. Father, that is. And Yaxley as well."
"No, Potter," I say, sarcasm flooding my voice. "The three of us picked wildflowers in a meadow and threaded them through our hair. What do you think, you moronic twit?"
Potter just looks at me, waiting. Silence stretches between us, long and tense.
I glance away, swallowing hard.
"You don't know what it was like, living here with the Dark Lord," I say after a moment, my eyes fixed on the Slytherin banner on the wall across the room. "It wasn't our house any more. We were being punished for our failures." I turn my head towards him. "I know what you think of us, and you're not entirely wrong. I've had enough time to come to terms with the War. More so than Father." My throat closes on me and I clear it. "He never could forgive himself."
"For what?" Potter asks.
I shake my head. "For any of it. For failing the Dark Lord. For believing him. For trusting him. For putting Mother and me in danger." My hands hang limp and heavy between my knees. "For being an utter cock."
Potter's quiet. I breathe out, a soft huff of pain.
"I suppose," I say, "I'm angriest at him for giving up. He crawled into a brandy bottle that year and never came out." I press my lips together, biting them. "Not even for me." I let the Snitch go. It hovers above my head, its tiny wings buzzing. "Bastard."
"And the dream?"
"Do you really want to know?" I ask, my voice low. I've never spoken about them, not in any detail.
Potter hesitates, then moves closer. Solid. Stable. I can feel his energy wash over me. "Do you want me to?"
I look at him then. "I don't know."
"You don't have to," he says. I can smell coffee on his breath.
I watch the Snitch as it darts between us, zipping up to the tip of the bedpost. "They're memories, I think," I say slowly. "But worse. Just of Yaxley touching me. Coming after me." I tuck my hair back behind my ear and wrap my arms around my knees. "Sometimes he fucks me." I look over at Potter. "I usually try not to let him get that far."
Potter meets my gaze. It unsettles me. No one ever looks at me when I talk about this. Not even Blaise and Millie. It makes them too uncomfortable.
"You've had them for a while?"
"Since the end of the War." I tug at the sleeve of my grey jumper, my finger dipping into the cables. "They'd slowed, though, until..." I trail off, gesturing around us.
We sit, silent.
"How long did it last?" Potter asks. "Yaxley."
I shrug. "Until the end." The Snitch dips past my head. I watch its flapping wings, slowed from usual competition speed so that a child could easily catch it. "The Dark Lord--"
"Voldemort," Potter says crossly.
I frown at him. "The Dark Lord gave me to him the summer before seventh year." I shudder, remembering how His Lordship had derided me for my failures and my father's in front of the entire gathering of Death Eaters, Aunt Bella looking on with a triumphant smirk and Severus barely able to meet my eyes. I take a deep breath. "It was my punishment. My family's punishment." My mouth twists to one side. "How better to humiliate the Malfoys than to make their heir less than a whore?"
"He raped you."
I draw in a ragged breath. "One could call it that."
The room is quiet, save for the soft buzz of the Snitch. I rub my hands over my face, shaking. It's the first time I've said it out loud. I've alluded to it enough that my friends have figured out what happened, and they were there at the time. They heard the whispers in the Slytherin Common Room, the rumours that Severus would quench mercilessly the moment he caught wind of them, throwing whomever was responsible to the Carrows.
He'd protected me more than Father ever had.
"Yaxley," I say, my voice rasping, "would send for me at school whenever he wanted me." I look at Potter's face. It's pale and horrified in the moonlight. I have a vicious urge to disgust him, to make him turn away from me in revulsion. "Neither I nor Severus was allowed to refuse him. If he felt particularly vengeful, he'd make arrangements to share me with others. Pius Thicknesse was a favourite of his. He'd tweak his Imperius to make Pius fuck me in the most repugnant manner he could think of. Or vice versa. Yaxley was rather fond of coercing me to force myself on a resisting Pius." My heart races, my body clenches in remembered pain, Pius's cries still ringing in my ears, and I press my knuckles to my mouth, desperate to keep control. After a moment, I grit my teeth, forcing myself to look at Potter coldly. "You'd be surprised at my depravity."
"Not yours," Potter says quietly. It's only then I realise he's shaking.
Potter nods; his hair falls into his eyes. "Not at you."
I just look at him, my brows drawing together in confusion. Why should he care? He doesn't know me. Not really. "But you hate me." I spread my hands out. "I've just given you every reason to continue--"
"Don't be an idiot," Potter says, his voice rough. He swallows, his jaw tight. "And I don't hate you. Jesus. I think you're an enormous cock sometimes, but that doesn't mean I hate you."
"You don't know what I've done," I murmur. I can feel my cheeks heat.
Potter holds my gaze. "It's what he did that matters."
I look away.
The Snitch flutters past. I reach up and catch it, watching as its wings beat gently across my fingers.
"You calm me." I smooth a finger along one golden wing, then glance over at Potter. "I find that highly disturbing, you realise."
Potter gives me a small smile. "I'm certain." He rubs his arms. "It's cold in here." The warming charms I'd cast when I'd first come in have faded away. He clambers to his feet and looks down at me. "You shouldn't go home yet."
I shake my head. "Probably not." I pocket the Snitch. "I won't sleep anyway."
"Well, neither will I. And I've some beer and crisps in my rooms--" He stops at my sharp look and rolls his eyes. "No, that's not a proposition."
"Good." I curl my lip at him. "I wouldn't accept anyway." I eye him suspiciously. "And I thought you didn't swing that way."
Potter laughs softly. "You'd be wrong." As I ponder that revelation, he holds out his hand. "Come on. Free beer, and I'm not that horrific company, really. No matter what Hermione says."
Hesitating, I look up at him. His dark, shaggy hair falls in his eyes, over the rim of his glasses. His t-shirt clings to his broad shoulders.
I take his hand, my fingers curling around his, and he smiles.
Potter has chosen rooms tucked away in a forgotten corner on the third floor, which had once belonged to my Great-Great-Uncle Alfie. We didn't talk much about him in the family. He'd been the sole Gryffindor for generations. Trust Potter to find his refuge.
The suite is wide and open. I haven't been in here for years. Uncle Alfie's portrait hangs on the wall of the sitting room; he's dozing when we walk in, but with a grunt and a snort, he wakes up as Potter closes the door behind us.
"What, what?" he calls loudly, rubbing the sleep from his eyes, but Potter hushes him quickly.
"Sorry," he murmurs to me. "James is sleeping across the hall, and he's a right little prick if he wakes up in the middle of the night."
I ignore him. I'm transfixed by a box in the corner of the room, playing some sort of moving picture. "What the hell is that?" I ask, tossing my coat and scarf over a chair.
Potter flushes. "Right. Sorry. It's just the Ashes are this month, and Dromeda didn't think there'd be a problem with a telly in the house. I've charmed it to run off magic, not electricity, but--"
"That's a Muggle device?" I give him a horrified look. "In the Manor?" Father must be spinning in his grave. The thought nearly makes me laugh.
"I'll turn it off." Potter reaches for it, but I stop him.
He looks at me curiously. "Since when did you become sanguine about Muggle technology?"
"Since when did you start using the word 'sanguine'?" I throw back at him. I sit on the sofa. It's oddly comfortable for being an enormous poufed velvet Victorian monstrosity. In a truly horrific scarlet at that.
"True." Potter flicks his wand at the box and the faint sound coming from it softens even more. I can't stop looking at it. Men in white amble around a green field, swinging what I'm damn certain are--
"Those are Quidditch bats," I say.
Potter laughs. "Not quite. Cricket, actually."
"Cricket," Potter says again. "A bit like Quidditch, actually, but without brooms or Bludgers."
I sniff haughtily. "What's the sense in that, then?"
"A lot of people might agree with you." He sits on the arm of the sofa. "But it's why I'm up tonight. England are playing Australia in Perth. First night of the third Test."
"I have no idea what you're on about," I say, but I watch the box carefully. I'm eager for any distraction from my thoughts, even a Muggle one. "So there's no Snitch?"
Potter grins at me. "No."
I frown. "How the hell do they score?"
"Hitting the ball and running," Potter says, and he laughs at my rolled eyes. "It can be a bit dull at times if you don't know what to look for." He stands and walks over to a sideboard. "England're doing well tonight, though," he says over his shoulder as he bends over to rummage in a cupboard. I can't help but notice the way his jeans fit. My face heats again. "First innings and Tremlett's been taking wickets right and left."
I hmph noncommittally. "I take it that's good," I say as he stands.
"Quite." Potter hands me a bottle of lager. "Sorry. I'd wake the elves, but..."
"This is fine." With a flick of my wand I uncap the bottle and lift it to my mouth. Potter watches me, and I raise an eyebrow. "What?"
"I don't know," he admits. "It's odd to see you drinking beer, I guess. I always thought you were more the wine type." He coughs. "You know. Civilised and all that."
"You're an idiot."
Potter sits on the sofa beside me. "Probably." He uncaps his own beer and takes a sip.
I hesitate. "I prefer cider or ale," I admit, and Potter grins at me. I glare at him. "Belt up."
We sit quietly for a while, watching the men in the box. Potter tries to explain the game to me, and I shush him in irritation. It can't be that difficult to follow; it's less complicated than Quidditch.
An hour later, I've given up.
"It makes absolutely no sense," I say, annoyed, taking a third beer from Potter as he sits back down. I've taken off my boots and have sprawled across half the sofa. "Wickets, outs, bowls, bah. It makes me want to take a Bludger to them all. The only decent thing about the damned game is that they're all fit." I pause. "Well. England, that is. The Aussies look as if they've been hit with Stinging Hexes."
Potter chokes on his beer. "I've thought the same." He eyes me. "Pity Broady's out of play with an injury. I'd be curious as to what you'd think of him."
"Why?" I lift my bottle to my lips, curious.
"No reason. I've just always found him..." He hesitates, his mouth quirking to one side. "Interesting, I suppose."
The beer buzzes through my head pleasantly. "You mean you've..." I gesture intimately with my hand, and when Potter flushes, I laugh. "You're such a prude."
"Fuck off," Potter says, but he's smiling.
The sky's a light grey outside the window, and snow's falling again. We haven't had a December like this since I can remember. I shiver slightly and wrap my arms around myself, leaning into the corner of the sofa and resting my head on the back. It's probably near time for brekker.
"Are you tired?" Potter asks. He pulls his bare feet up on the sofa, turning to face me.
I shake my head. "Not really." I'm surprised. Potter's strangely good company. There's something about him that stills my disquiet. I can honestly say he had the utterly opposite effect on me in school. "You've changed," I say, watching him.
"How so?" He takes another sip of beer.
"I don't know." I study him for a long moment. "But I don't want to put my fist through your face any longer."
"You stomped on it, actually," Potter says mildly. "Hurt a bit, that did."
I frown for a moment, then realise what he's referring to. "Oh. That. If I recall correctly, I was a bit perturbed about Father."
Potter just mmmms and lifts his bottle again. We fall silent. I roll my beer between my palms. I'd kill for a cigarette just now.
My eyes flick towards Potter. "Do you care if I smoke?"
He shrugs, and I set my beer on the floor and stand, walking over to my coat. I riffle in the pocket and pull a half-empty packet of Cliodnes out. I light one with the tip of my wand, then cast a charm to draw the smoke away, Banishing it. Potter watches me.
"Where'd you learn that?" he asks.
"Slytherin common room." I hold out the packet, and he waves it away.
I sit back down, taking a slow drag off the cigarette. It steadies my nerves, but not as much as Potter's presence does. "I suppose," I say finally, "I should apologise for that." I look at him. "The face-stomping."
He waves me away. "Under the bridge."
I'm silent for a moment, then sigh. "I was a bit of a tit about Father then--"
"Among other things," Potter says, and I glare at him. He drains his beer and sets it aside. "Sorry."
"You were an arse yourself, you know."
"I know." Potter holds his hand out. "Cig."
I pass it over, and he lifts it to his mouth with a long inhale. Grey smoke streams from his nose in a slow huff.
"Christ," he says, handing it back. "I haven't had a good smoke since Ginny was preggers with James."
"How terrible," I say dryly. I look out the window at the falling snow. "I am angry at him, you know."
Potter hesitates. "Your father?"
I nod. "I don't know why, though." I take another drag off the cigarette, then tap the ash out. The charm catches it, Banishing it along with the smoke before it can reach the floor. "Well. I suppose it's more that I can't decide why. Whether for taking the coward's way out and leaving Mother behind like this, or for..." I lift the cigarette to my mouth, letting the thought hang between us.
"Not protecting you." Trust Potter to speak the unspeakable.
All I can do is shrug. I don't trust my voice at the moment.
Potter leans in to touch my ankle, but I shift, sitting up before he can. "I've told you too much about me, you know. I think you owe me something in return."
"Like what?" Potter settles back against the arm of the sofa.
"Why'd you leave Australia?"
Potter pulls his knees to his chest. He holds out his hand again, and I pass the cigarette over. "Ginny only had a five-year contract with the Warriors. We'd always meant to come back when it was up, and then when she was offered the position with the Harpies, well. There wasn't any reason to stay. What else do you want to know?" He blows a stream of smoke towards me. Bastard.
"Granger says you're getting divorced." I watch him closely, but he doesn't seem put off.
"I thought that was common knowledge by now." Potter quirks an eyebrow at me. "It's been all over the papers."
I snort and take the cigarette back. "I don't read papers unless they're at least fifty years old."
"Clever of you."
"I know." With a flick of my fingers, I Banish the cigarette into its charm and reach for my bottle of beer. "Answer the question."
Potter eyes me in amusement. "I thought it was a statement." He pauses, and he looks away, out the window. "Would you believe me if I said we grew apart?"
"No." I drain the last swallow of beer and set the bottle aside again.
He gives me a rueful look. "Well, it's true. Mostly. It's hard to be married to a Quidditch player. The training, the matches, the tours..." He sighs and takes his glasses off, rubbing at them with the hem of his t-shirt. His eyes are ridiculously large without them. And he's obviously never considered eyebrow grooming.
"It's difficult. We'd been growing apart for at least a year. Maybe longer. And then she met someone else, and, well, six months before we were scheduled to come back to England, she told me she wanted to come back separately. She moved out of the flat, and we spent the rest of the time working out custody arrangements with James. I have him most of the time. It's easier with her match schedule. She gets him weekends when she's home, and on holidays." He slides his glasses back on and blinks at me. "Strange how civilised the breakup of a marriage can be."
I don't answer for a moment, and Potter looks away. I sigh. Feeling sympathetic for Potter is disconcerting at best. "You must be angry."
Potter nods. "I was. But I suppose it was just as much my fault as hers in a way." He shifts, obviously as uncomfortable as I am, which makes me feel oddly more at ease. I like that I've put him on his back foot now. He takes a deep breath. "We married too quickly, and we both knew it, but then James came and we wanted to stay together for him..." He breaks off. "Do you want another beer?"
Dear God, I thought he'd never ask. "Yes." When he pushes himself off the sofa, I add, "And stop being so bloody noble."
"Pardon?" He looks back at me.
"You heard me." I'm watching the cricket again, frowning at the box. "Be angry for Christ's sake. Your wife left you for another man--"
Potter reaches into the sideboard. "Woman, actually."
That pulls me up short. "What?"
Potter pulls out two beers and stands again. "It wasn't something unexpected, at least not to me. Ginny and I both knew we liked men and women. It was something we'd fool around with back when we were young and stupid. Go to a Muggle club, pick up a boy or a girl, take them home with us--"
"Dear God, the Savior of the Wizarding World's a kinky sod?" I take the beer he hands me.
"Something like that." Potter sits down, uncapping both our bottles with a swish of his wand. "Don't tell."
I grimace. "Don't worry. You have dirt on me."
"True," Potter says.
I look at him over my bottle. "Do you still love her?"
"Sometimes." Potter's quiet for a moment. "She's James's mother. I always will, I suppose."
We drink our beer, neither of us looking at one another.
"I've never been in love," I blurt out. My cheeks burn. I have no damned idea why I said it. Too much beer, I suppose. Or the moondew in the cigarettes. Or just the fact that I'm a morose idiot foolish enough to find a modicum of peace with the man I've hated since I was eleven.
Potter just looks at me. "No fit Slytherins?"
"Plenty of them," I say. "None that I'm interested in."
"Why not?" When I give him an exasperated look, he flushes. "Oh. Really?"
"I'm not a virgin--"
"Obviously," Potter says, and then his flush rises higher. "I mean--
I roll my eyes and take a sip of beer. "I know what you meant. What I meant is that there were people before then." I look at him. "Of both sexes, thank you."
"And now?" Potter gives me a curious look.
I shrug. "I'm not interested in sex."
"You're joking." He leans forward. "Everyone's interested in sex."
That earns him a baleful glare. "I haven't exactly had a very good track record with it, Potter." I finish my beer and set it aside. I wonder why I'm talking to him like this. I don't really care. It's the first time in years I feel as if I could say anything I like without making someone fret or frown at me. "I suppose one could say I peaked early and it's all been downhill from there."
Potter frowns. "That's not funny."
"I thought it was."
He turns his beer between his hands, his fingernails picking at the label. "Do you wank?" he asks after a moment.
I sit up straighter. "That's impertinent."
Potter lifts his bottle to his mouth. "I'm just curious."
For a moment I consider hefting myself from the sofa and Apparating, but I'm tired and it would require far more energy than I have. "Yes," I say with a heavy sigh. "I'm male, therefore I wank. To thoughts of boys mostly, to answer your next question."
"I wasn't going to ask that," Potter protests.
Unconvinced, I just raise an eyebrow. "You were thinking it."
His mouth twitches. "Stop reading my mind."
"It's not that difficult." I'm surprised to find myself honestly amused. I haven't really laughed since Father killed himself. "I'd say you were an open book, but I think even Martin Miggs the Mad Muggle had more depth than you."
"You must be feeling better."
I glance back at the box. The men in white are still on the green pitch. "A little." I watch as one hits the red ball with his Quidditch bat. It bounces across the grass, another man diving for it. "When did you start watching Muggle sport?"
"Cricket, you mean?" Potter looks over at it. "In Australia. My partner on the Auror force was a Muggleborn and insisted if we were going to spend as much time together as that required, that I'd have to be at least able to converse intelligently--" He breaks off at my sharp laugh. "Oh, fuck off, you. Anyway. I was there when England took the Ashes in '05--brilliant series that. Totally hooked me. And then they promptly broke my heart when they lost them again Down Under the next year." He makes a face. "Bastards. Robinson didn't let me live that one down, let me tell you."
"It's going pretty well for England so far?" I nod towards the box. "This one, I mean?"
Potter grins. "Yeah. So far England has dominated the series, if you don't count that first innings in Brisbane." He looks wistful. "I wish I was in Oz to rub it in Robinson's face, but it would be almost cruel."
"For Australia, yeah." Potter settles closer to me on the sofa. I don't pull away. "The guy they have up right now, Hussey, has been the one performer on the whole team."
"Oh?" I watch more closely as the dark-haired Muggle steps up, swinging his bat. His face is smeared with a white cream. Zinc, Potter had told me when I'd asked before, to protect their skin from the harsh Australian sun. I wince just thinking about it--both the cream and the sun--but I wouldn't mind a little warmth. Just not thirty degrees of it. "He doesn't look like much."
"Fit he's not," Potter agrees, "but he can hit a ball."
I snort. "Not that difficult."
"Surprisingly harder than you think."
I give him an incredulous look, and he laughs. "Get stuffed, Potter," I say with a faint smile, "and hand me that throw. It's bloody freezing in here."
He tosses the thickly knit wool blanket my way, and we sit in companionable silence, watching the men play.
When I wake, there is a sound of rustling and quick breathing. I open my eyes and James is staring at me. Not looking--staring. He's sitting cross-legged on a tufted ottoman in perfect concentration.
I start upright. "What...?"
"Did it work?" he asks.
"Did what work?" I ask, a bit more harshly than I mean to. I'm tired and more than a little in need of a Hangover Potion.
James huffs and rolls his eyes. "My experiment. Could you hear me telling you to get up?"
I blink. This is one odd child, but somehow he doesn't annoy me as much as most brats do. Perhaps because, as much as I'm loth to admit it, he reminds me of myself at his age. Lonely and precocious, wandering a too-large, too-empty house with no one but a house-elf for companionship.
"I don't think so," I say, "but I was asleep, so I can't be sure."
A look of genuine disappointment crosses his freckled face. "Knickers! And I've been trying so hard to perfect my method."
An involuntary fit of laughter seizes me at the invented expletive--clearly James has been in trouble for using real ones. Or he just has a healthy imagination and little outlet. "Don't worry." I do my best to be comforting as I surreptitiously check my cheek for dried saliva. I'd fallen asleep on a sofa for God's sake. Mother would be horrified. Despite the unconventional pallet, I feel rested for the first time in days. "From what I heard, your father was always pants at Legilimency, too."
James looks at me, screwing up his little face. "Why are you here?"
"I fell asleep," I say, sitting up. The world shifts slightly around me before righting itself again. "I was watching a sporting event with your father on that." I wave in the vague direction of the strange Muggle box. "It was in Australia."
James's eyes show pain, then, and I'm not so hardened yet that I don't notice it.
"Do you miss it there?" I ask carefully. Six-year-olds are volatile creatures requiring delicate handling at times. The last thing I want is a wailing child on my hands.
"Sometimes," he says stubbornly.
"I'm sorry," I say. "It's very warm there now isn't it?"
James nods. His hair falls into his eyes, and I'm struck by his resemblance to his father. "England is weird. The summer and the winter are all mixed up. Mum, I mean, my mother warned me about that."
I nod. "We usually say Australia is mixed up, but it's true. It's very different."
He swings his feet. "Dad said you should come down to eat now."
I sit up a bit more and look out the window. By the angle of the sun, I'd guess it's almost noon. "Nice of you to tell me," I venture, annoyed. I should have been up hours ago. I rub my face and sigh.
"Yes," James says matter-of-factly, my sarcasm entirely going over his head. He holds out a small hand. "They're waiting for us in the kitchen."
I let him lead me down a concealed back staircase, the steepness of which he takes great delight in--I remember taking similar joy in the hidden and narrow passageways when I was young--and we come out eventually into the back of the great Manor kitchens. Potter is sitting at a small table in the corner, and Boddy is serving him something from a platter. The elf looks very uncomfortable when she sees me.
"Master Draco should not be eating in the kitchens," she says, twisting her tea towel between her long fingers. "Nor Mr Potter."
Potter grins. "I like the kitchens. They're warmer than the rest of the house. And a bit happier."
I can't help but agree--as a child, I'd always enjoyed coming in for snacks from the elves and sitting unnoticed in the corner as pots clanged and hissed and bubbled around me. "It's all right, Boddy. Mr Potter is a guest and he prefers the kitchens."
Boddy looks at me with large, almost bulbous blue eyes. "As you is wishing, Master Draco." She still doesn't sound pleased.
We sit and eat a modest lunch. Potter and I have roast chicken with mushrooms and James has a ham sandwich, evidently his favourite food.
As I watch, James takes the sandwich apart meticulously, peeling mustard and ham from buttered bread. He cuts the bread into fingers and eats them one by one, then rolls up the ham and eats it.
Potter lets him do it, and I marvel. I'd been disciplined at that age for taking a bread roll with my bare hands before the elves set it on my plate or asking for more jam at table. I think I prefer this.
We eat in a companionable and quiet round, each self-absorbed but not in an unfriendly fashion. After a slice of custard tart--a favourite dessert since long before Hogwarts--I get up. "I'm going to the library." I say.
Potter nods over the rim of a mug of tea. "We'll stay away then."
James looks up, a frown crossing his face. "Why?"
"Because Mr Malfoy needs quiet to work." Potter explains.
"Oh." James nods and kicks the rungs of his chair with the heels of his trainers. "Okay." He returns to his shortbread, crumbling it across the tabletop with each bite. I wonder how many times his father's given him the same excuse, then I feel a moment of guilt at my assumption. Potter's a better father than mine had been, that much is obvious.
I walk off, not as taxed by human company as I usually am. Both Potter and James wear silence like a right and I feel oddly comforted by their quiet and their willingness to let me be.
The library is bright, sunlight streaming through grey-white clouds and reflecting off the acres of snow outside the tall windows. Only the green of the boxwood breaks the wide swath of white on the side lawn. I cast a warming spell and wander through the bookshelves, pausing before the section on Transfiguration. After reading Bagshot's work, I'm thinking about looking into Gamp's Law now.
An hour later, James comes in. I hear his soft footfalls.
"Weren't you supposed to stay away?" I ask. There are books spread across the table in front of me, and I've found a blank scroll of parchment in a hutch in the corner. I've stayed away from the upper stacks. I've no wish to see Father's portrait right now.
James leans on the corner of the desk, his chin resting on his arms. "I'm bored," he announces with a deep sigh. He toys with the edge of a book. "The elves are cleaning and Dad's upstairs sleeping."
I move an inkpot out of his reach. The strange little figure is oddly affecting. "What do you wish me to do about it?"
"Don't know." He shrugs, then gives me a sly look. "Dad won't let me go out by myself ‘cause I might get in trouble."
"Your father occasionally makes use of his brain."
James frowns. "But it's snowing."
I look outside. I hadn't realised it was snowing again. Fluffy flakes drift to the ground outside the library windows. "It's too cold--"
"But I can wear a coat." James turns pleading eyes on me. "Please?"
I glance between my stack of books and the windows. James twitches with eagerness beside me, tugging his jumper sleeves over his fists. I can remember what it felt like to be his age and desperately lonely, and I haven't seen a snowfall at the Manor in years.
"All right," I say after a moment.
James's face brightens.
We explore the lesser labyrinth together.
The snow crunches beneath our boots and dusts our coats and hats glittering white. James races ahead of me with a whoop, scarlet mittens dangling from around his neck. He takes a corner, slipping slightly, and his feet send an arc of snow in the air. He peers back at me around the edge of a clipped boxwood.
"I'm quite a bit older than you," I say. I've tucked my jeans into my boots, but they're still damp. My nose is cold and, I'm rather certain, pink.
Bare tree branches arch above us, black against the grey sky. A raven perches on one, watching us. It's silent here, every sound muffled by the soft swish of falling snow.
I turn the corner, and the Manor rises above me, cream stone and grey slate and darkened windows above the high boxwoods that form the labyrinth's coils. The peaked gables and pointed turrets are white with snow.
"It's pretty, isn't it?" James asks, his eyes fixed on the dragon gargoyle carved around the tip of the North Tower. With a stretch of its ruffled wings it slides across stone, curling itself around the turret.
For a moment I see the house with a child's eye, large and palatial and filled with storybook thrills.
"Very," I say finally, and James smiles up at me and takes my hand.
When we finally make our way out of the labyrinth, James dashing ahead of me again, laughing and shrieking as I pelt him with perfectly aimed snowballs, Potter is standing on the steps in a navy blue wool coat, his hair dark and curling and dusted with snowflakes. His cheeks are still flushed from sleep, or the cold, I can't tell which.
James runs to him. Potter bends to his son, ruffling his hair. "Why don't you go inside?" he suggests. "I think I saw jam tartlets in the kitchen."
Potter nods. "Just out of the oven."
James's eyes grow huge, and without a second thought, he barrels toward the door, fumbling a bit with the handle, then wedging himself through the crack.
I walk up the steps, my gloves wet with snow, a slight wind blowing hair against my cheek. I'm slightly out of breath.
Potter looks at me thoughtfully. "He likes you," he says.
I nod, unsure of what to say. I'm not used to being liked by children. "He's an odd child."
"He doesn't usually like adults," Potter says. "And he's pretty reticent with other children as well."
I smile. "I find him less tedious than most children." I pause. "My goddaughter excepted, of course." Iris unsettles me at times, though. She seems so delicate, but no one who ever witnessed one of her tantrums would think that she'll be unable to fend for herself when she gets older. She's that much of Pansy in her. There are moments I think about the fact that she could have been mine, had life taken another path, but that's too strange to consider. It's a different world now.
"Does it bother you?" I ask after a moment. "Being here?"
Potter glances back up at the house behind us, thoughtfully. "It did at first. I didn't sleep for a week. I kept expecting to walk into a room and see Voldemort there." He tugs at the cuffs of his coat. "Ginny kept James until I'd cleared some of it out."
"I'm sorry," I say, and I mean it. The five years after the war I'd spent living here had drained my soul. I'd never been so happy to escape a place.
He shrugs. "Doing this helps to deal with my ghosts, too," he says quietly. "Dromeda was right about that."
The snow falls between us. I draw my coat more tightly about me. A fat flake lands on my nose, and Potter reaches out to brush it off, his wool glove rough against my skin.
"Snow suits you," he murmurs. "Icy and grey..."
I swallow. My cheeks sting with the cold. "Indulging in flights of fancy now, Potter?"
"Perhaps." Potter is looking at me, his sleepy eyes impossibly green. His breath comes in puffs through the softly falling snow, and the world feels alive and soft and new. Although it's snowing, there's a curious light to the sky and the world around us almost glows. "Doesn't change facts."
He steps closer. His fingers brush the ends of my hair sticking out from beneath my knit cap. Snow coats the tips of his glove. His mouth softens, and when his hand cups my cheek, just barely, my breath catches.
I feel a flicker of something I'd long since thought I'd hidden away.
"Potter," I whisper, leaning into him, and he stills. I see his pink lips, slightly chapped, and the snow melting on his glasses: he must have used a weather charm on the lenses. I'm close enough to smell the warmth of his skin and to see the golden stretch of his neck above the thick collar of his coat.
I lean closer. His breath is warm against my cheeks. My eyelashes flutter in the snow and I feel a strange, almost ghostly longing. My lips are drawn to his. I want so much to kiss him.
And I step back. I can't. This. Not here. No.
"I have to go." I say, not looking at him, and I rush into the house.
Potter doesn't follow.
It's hot in the house when I Floo in. Someone--most likely Blaise, the delicate creature--has been casting warming charms, and although our windows are drafty, my room is unpleasantly stuffy.
I shrug out of my coat and unwind my scarf, hanging them up on my coat rack in the corner. I want to sit at my window and brood, but the heat gets to me. I also need to eat something, and my headache is coming back.
I amble downstairs, stopping in the hall to get a hangover potion from the closet.
When I walk in, Blaise is sitting in the kitchen at the heavy round table, a copy of Men Who Love Dragons Too Much open before him. He eyes the bottle in my hand.
"I'll make you an omelette if you tell me how the sex was," he says lightly. Blaise has always had an instinctive feel for how far he can tweak me when it comes to that sort of thing. Today, however, still oddly unsettled by my urge to press myself against Potter of all people, I'm not in the mood.
I scowl at him. "What the fuck are you talking about?"
Blaise shrugs. "Just testing you. I've never seen you gone this long before when you weren't at All Souls."
I down the potion in one swallow and grimace. It tastes truly awful, but the pounding in my head starts to lessen immediately. "How do you know I wasn't?"
"Hermione firecalled and asked if you were ill." Blaise turns a page and frowns down at it. His lip curls, and he tilts the book to one side. "Really, I'm fairly certain that's not physically possible." He glances back up at me. "You missed the Fellows' Holiday Luncheon."
I roll my eyes. "I would have skipped that anyway." Although I should be pleased that my research colleague and competitor knows me so well and cares, I'm not at the moment, not with Blaise waiting for my explanation. "And should I ask what you're doing with that book? Is there something you want to get off your chest?"
"There's a new case on ward," he says. "And you don't really want the details, trust me."
"Right." I sit down at the table. "I'll pass on that."
Blaise studies me. "So where were you? Really."
I sigh. There's no derailing Blaise when he's curious about something. "The Manor, if you must know."
Blaise cocks an eyebrow but says nothing.
"I threw snowballs as you suggested."
Blaise still says nothing, waiting for me to continue.
"With Potter's brat."
"Oh?" Blaise's eyebrow quirks even higher. "You don't care for children."
"James isn't unbearable." I study the backsplash behind the sink. The black and white tiles are pristine; Millie insists on that. "And he's lonely. I know what that feels like at his age."
"I know for a fact you had friends as a child," Blaise says archly. "And I'm certain Potter's spawn does, too. God knows there's enough Weasleys about. That bastard Percy's wife just dropped one last week. Really, the way he goes on about the state of St Mungo's care I've no idea why they let the twat inside the doors--"
Blaise's disdain for our Senior Undersecretary for Magical Health Services is legendary, both inside and out of hospital. I cut him off before he spends the next two hours raging about Ministry interference.
"You don't know what it's like in that house on your own." I rest my chin on my fist and sigh. "It can be overwhelming."
Blaise just watches me with a clinician's eye. "You're transferring," he says. "Just because you felt a certain way as a child doesn't mean another child--"
"Oh, put a sock in it, Blaise," I say, irritated. "You've been hanging about the neuromagical ward again, haven't you?"
"Their mediwitches brew the best tea."
I snort. "Don't say that in front of Millie."
"Do I look a complete fool?" Blaise leans back in his chair, tipping it onto its back legs. "So you spent the entire time throwing snowballs, did you?"
"Obviously not." I flip through his book, eyeing the photographs warily. "I watched Muggle sport on a box with moving pictures on it." I hesitate. "With Potter."
"Really?" Blaise is visibly having to pick what to be most shocked about. Potter loses out. "He's got Muggle things in the Manor?"
"Yes," I say. "And the thought of my father's horror is pleasing me no end, believe me. Plus the teams were interesting to watch: all fit men and all in white."
Blaise nods slowly. "So no sex was involved." He sounds disappointed.
"No," I say with a roll of my eyes. "Just cricket. Now make me an omelette."
Blaise snorts and pushes his chair back. "Demanding wanker."
I reach for the book, pulling it across the table towards me. A glance at the diagram Blaise had been examining makes me blanch.
From the Aga, Blaise says, "You like him then?" He waits with his wand, staring at the well-worn copper pan on the hob.
"Potter?" I consider for a moment. "No, I don't think so."
"Still, you spent an entire day with him and no one died." Blaise whirls around and looks at me. "Oh, God, tell me Potter's body isn't lying in the Manor--"
"Fuck off," I say. I grab an orange from the bowl on the table and throw it at him. "You're an insensitive prat."
Blaise catches it with a grin. "Thank you." He says a few words and the omelette sails out of the pan perfectly and onto a plate. With another flick of the wand, the plate lands in front of me. "So if you don't like him, why'd you stay?"
"I don't know," I say through a mouthful of egg and cheese. I hadn't realised I was quite so hungry. I frown down at my plate, considering. "I know it's mad; there's just something about him that makes me feel..." I search for the word.
Blaise turns the hob off. "What?"
"Safe," I say finally.
Blaise takes one look at me devouring the food and starts making toast. In the end, I consume an omelette, three pieces of buttered toast, two sausages, and a leftover brownie from the batch Millie baked two days ago.
"Didn't they feed you?" Blaise is amused as he sits down across from me again.
I wipe my mouth with my napkin and pour more tea. "Well yes. At lunch. But I slept through breakfast and didn't have anything in the afternoon."
"Ah. This sleep--did it happen with Potter?" Blaise can't help asking. He's very good at difficult questioning; I think his Healer training has augmented his naturally shameless and inquisitive nature.
"No, Blaise. I slept on the sofa."
Blaise cocks his head. "Why do you think you like being around him?"
"I can't explain it exactly. It's his effect on space." I think for a moment. I don't quite know how to put it in words. "It's not just that he changes the space around him. He also creates space."
"What do you mean?" Blaise asks. It must be his time with Lovegood that's given him the ability to keep a straight face during this conversation. I on the other hand cannot believe I'm actually talking about space clearing and Harry bloody Potter in my own kitchen. I run a hand through my hair, pushing it back off my forehead. I've lost my mind. Truly.
"I suppose he gives me space to have my own reactions." As I say the words and try to explain, I become aware of Potter's effect on me more consciously. "It's not like everyone else. You lot are worried about me; I know you are, but sometimes..."
Blaise just listens, his brows drawing together.
I bite my lip. "It's hard when you actually care about someone to remove yourself from the situation, yes? All your past and your present and, well, everything is all tangled up together."
He considers thoughtfully. "We worry about you; you worry about us being worried about you and so on and so forth."
"Something along those lines. Everyone always blames themselves even if they don't mean to because they love me and they were there. Potter's the first person who doesn't take it personally." I look at Blaise. "He doesn't rush in and demand anything from me because he thinks friendship requires expressing concern. He lets me come to him if I feel like it, and if I don't, he's not fussed."
"And do you?" Blaise asks. "Come to him, I mean."
"Er." I colour. "A little."
The Floo whooshes and Millie shouts a greeting from the hall. After a few moments she appears in the door of the kitchen, cheeks red from the cold and dark eyes bright. She's several shopping bags from Diagon Alley in one hand. "Ah, the fugitive has returned."
"I was watching cricket." I say quickly. "At the Manor."
Millie stands motionless. "Potter's a cricket fan?"
She's quick on the uptake, Our Millie. Having spent six months dating a Muggleborn like Kevin Entwhistle probably helps. "Yes. Because of Australia and all."
"Oh, right." Millie waves her free hand. "He would be." She walks to the counter and sets her parcels down.
"Millie," I ask sweetly, "might you know who someone called--" I stop to recall the name. "--Broady is?"
Millie turns to look at me for a second and then starts laughing. "Oh, he didn't."
"Didn't what?" I ask petulantly.
To my great annoyance she continues to laugh for quite some time. "Here, let me..." She goes to the recycling bin and pulls out a back copy of the Telegraph she picks up on occasion when she steps out to the Muggle market down the street. It's ridiculous, she claims, to not keep up on Muggle affairs if we're living outside of Hogsmeade or Diagon Alley. Blaise and I have always just humoured her. Entwhistle'd had quite the influence. "Here." She jabs a finger. "That's Stuart Broad."
I scan a headline about injury and then stare into a face remarkably like my own. It's hard to tell from a non-moving picture - the face is longer, he appears to be a bit taller than I am, and his eyes are blue, but the likeness is bizarre.
"Oh," I say. "And he's well-known then."
Millie grins. "I'm surprised you haven't noticed. Remember when those tourists asked you for your autograph in the High Street near the Covered Market?"
Comprehension dawns. "Ohhhh. Right. They were saying something like 'Broad' now that I think about it. But I thought they meant breadth and I couldn't understand it."
Blaise blinks. "I still don't understand."
I give him the paper and he laughs. "Oh, this is good. So perhaps Potter fancies you because you look like one of the England players?
I freeze as Millie says, "Potter fancies you?"
"No," I say forcefully. "Blaise is being a bastard."
Blaise just shrugs and grins. "He let you hang about all day--"
"It's my house," I splutter. "For Christ's sake. Potter didn't let me do anything."
Millie and Blaise exchange an amused glance.
"You're both arseholes." I stand up, haughtily. "I have things to do, so if you'll excuse me..."
They have the decency to hold back their laughter until the door slams shut behind me.
Honestly. Sometimes I don't know why they're even my friends. And Potter doesn't fancy me. If he did, he would have stopped me from leaving.
I stomp up the stairs.
The next two days pass quietly.
Millie makes up for her faux pas by baking my favourite spice cake. Blaise brings me tickets to a sold-out Puddlemere United-Pride of Portree match in January that he just "happened" to obtain from another Healer at work who couldn't make it. I wonder how much of a bribe the man had agreed to.
I try not to think of Potter.
I fail utterly.
I can't sleep.
Every time I close my eyes I see Potter in front me, snow dusting his hair, his eyes dark as he leans towards me. I can feel his breath on my lips, the brush of his fingers against the back of my hand.
I throw the duvet off. I'm hot, sweltering even, but the cold air on my skin does nothing to cool my damp flush. My heart skitters, tight and tense. Christ.
The clock on my dresser ticks loudly. It's barely three. I'd told Mother I'd be at church in eight hours. It's the Fourth Sunday of Advent, and she wants me to light the wreath. I roll over, desperate to squeeze out a few hours of sleep.
It doesn't work.
With a quiet fuck, I roll out of bed, reaching for my trousers.
He'll be awake, I know.
I can hear the muffled sounds of the box through the door when I knock.
Potter throws it open, mouth tight, but his scowl softens slightly when he sees me. "I thought you were an elf," he says.
"A bit more human," I say, "but barely." I hesitate. It's ridiculous that I'm nervous. This is my house, for Christ's sake. Or nearly, at least. "Why so irritated? Have they done something?" I lower my voice, stepping into the room as Potter opens the door.
"It's fine," Potter says. "Gin has James this weekend. As for the elves, no. It's just the test match."
"Oh." I haven't bothered with a coat this time; there seemed no need for one if I was going Floo-to-Floo. Instead, I've thrown on a thick, cream-coloured Aran jumper that I know suits me quite well. I don't particularly want to think about why I chose it.
Potter closes the door behind me. "Do you want something to drink?" I can smell the faint scent of beer on his breath.
I glance around. Two empty bottles are already on the floor next to the sofa, along with a bag of Muggle crisps. Prawn. I wrinkle my nose. How vile. The men in white are on the box again, looking grim. "Am I interrupting?"
"Better that you are." Potter rummages through the sideboard and pulls out another two bottles. He uncaps one and hands it to me. It's cider this time. I just look at him, and he shrugs. "You said you preferred it."
"I do." I turn the bottle in my hands, surprised that he'd remembered. "I couldn't sleep."
I think of his eyes, bright and dark in the snow. "Not exactly." I take a sip of cider. "I just thought you might be up. But if you're occupied--"
"Malfoy." Potter sits on the sofa, his knees spread, and looks up at me. "Sit." He has different pyjamas on tonight, black ones with a faint grey stripe through them, and the dark red t-shirt he's wearing is soft and stretched. He looks--I stop that thought before it finishes, feeling the heat rising in my cheeks. I sit stiffly on the sofa, as far from him as I can get. Great-Great Uncle Alfie's snoozing on the wall again, his hands folded over his brocade-vested paunch.
"Does he ever do anything but sleep?" I ask, and Potter glances up at the portrait.
I study my uncle. "I never knew him, you know. Hardly anyone spoke of him and the few times I came up here, a house-elf would whisk me away again."
"He's a decent sort," Potter says. "Not what I expected from a Malfoy."
I look sharply at him. "Really."
Potter shrugs and lifts his bottle to his mouth. "But you aren't either, I'm finding."
"Of course." A bitter tone tinges my voice. "I'm the family failure."
"I wouldn't call you that."
"My father would."
Potter leans forward. "Lucius Malfoy isn't fit to wipe your shoes," he says fiercely, and his bright eyes capture mine. "You survived. He chose not to. You automatically win."
I can't look away from him.
"You've made yourself who you are." Potter's voice rises with the stubborn determination only found in a Gryffindor in his cups, and I realise he's had more to drink than I'd thought. "Not the Dark Lord. Or Yaxley. Or your father. You're an academic now, at Oxford even--"
I snort. "I study the history of the Dark Arts, Potter. Plenty of people look askance on that, believe me."
"Bollocks." He turns his bottle up again. His fingers are long and wide against the smooth brown glass, the nails neatly trimmed. I want them in me, I think, and I'm horrified. I look away quickly. "I've read some of your articles that Hermione gave me. You study the history of Defence Against the Dark Arts. There's a difference."
"Not much of one." I'm taken aback, I have to admit. "I wouldn't have thought you'd make it through my work without falling asleep." I take another sip of cider. "Who knew you could read?"
"I might not be a swot like you and Hermione," Potter says with offended dignity, "but I'm quite a bit smarter than you seem to think. Besides, you're a good writer. Terribly witty at times, much to my surprise. Thought you'd be rather dry and dull like Binns." He grimaces. "Or Hermione, but if you tell her I said that, I'll call you a lying wanker to your face."
I can't stop my laugh.
Potter looks pleased. "And I rather liked what you had to say about Chesterton and Crowley."
"Ah." I rub my thumb over the neck of my cider bottle. "So you looked at my piece on English magical rivalries. It's very early," I caution.
"You were always good," Potter says with a smile. "And less afraid to restrain your sharp tongue in that one." He looks at me, his sincerity obvious. "You should write the history of the Manor, you know. Some of the portraits have some interesting stories to tell."
"I couldn't." I look away. "There's too much personal--"
Potter interrupts me. "That's why you'd be perfect for the job. It's your family. Your history. No one can tell it better."
I study the label on my bottle. It was brewed in Somerset. By Muggles, of course. I simply must introduce Potter to proper wizarding cider. It's far superior. "I don't touch the War," I say finally.
I give him an incredulous look. "Really? You have to ask? I don't see you going around writing a memoir yourself, oh Savior of the Wizarding World. Don't tell me Obscurus Books--or Whizz Hard, for that matter--wouldn't be salivating at the bit to get their grimy hands on your autobiography."
Potter shrugs. "I'm a shit writer. You should read my incident reports."
"Of course you are." I frown at him. "Haven't you ever heard of a ghostwriter? I'm certain Granger would be more than happy to help." I ponder. "Or Rita Skeeter."
"You're a bastard," Potter says with a roll of his eyes, his bottle against his lips.
We sit silent for a moment, both of us staring at the box, then with a groan, Potter sits forward and with a flick of his wand, turns it off. The only light in the room comes from the flickering fire in the hearth and a small wall lamp behind him.
"You can keep the box on if you want," I say. It's oddly comforting in an inexplicable way. As much as I hate myself for it, I like sitting here with Potter, watching some ridiculous Muggle game.
"It's not worth the agony. Johnson just bowled out Swanny. Finny's up next, but he's a better bowler than he is a batsman. We'll be out in a quarter-hour." He looks glum. "If that."
"Muggles have such strange surnames," I murmur, taking a swallow of cider. "So England's doing poorly now?"
Potter just laughs, ruefully. "What Quidditch team do you support?"
"Pudd United." It'd been Father's team and his father's before him.
"Well," Potter says, "imagine if the United were playing the Cannons--" He holds up his hand at my curled lip. "--No, really. And imagine they'd been playing well enough the first part of the match, only to be blown away by the Cannons by the end to the point where even catching the Snitch wouldn't save them."
I wince. "Oh."
Potter sighs. "Yeah. England have lost the plot tonight. Totally out of form. Fuck Johnson and Harris. Frankly, I don't know if there's been too much sledging or too little this round."
I look at him curiously. "What's sledging?"
"What you and I used to do to each other on the Quidditch pitch." His mouth twitches.
"Oh." I ponder. "Beat the shite out of one another?"
"Verbally, at least." Potter gives me a long-suffering look. "And for fuck's sake, you know as well as I do you were never able to take me down, you scrawny tosser."
"Scrawny?" I glare at him. "I'm a good three inches taller than you. And I seem to recall someone falling from a broom because he was afraid of a Dementor or two."
He flips two fingers at me. "Get stuffed."
"You wish." I can't believe I said it. At Potter's quirked eyebrow and small smirk, my face flames. "I didn't mean--oh fuck off." I finish off my cider and set the bottle down.
Potter just smiles again. "England only has to draw the series to keep the Ashes. It's 1-1 and the Brisbane draw, and we've still the Melbourne and Sydney tests."
"So there's hope."
"There's always hope, Malfoy," Potter says, and his eyes find mine.
I barely suppress a shiver. "That's not something I have much experience with," I say quietly. I don't look away from him.
I shake my head. "I doubt it."
With a soft creak, the sofa shifts as Potter slides closer to me. "Hey," he says, and his fingers settle over mine.
The world has become a strange place, I realise, when I let Harry Potter hold my hand.
"I wanted to kiss you," I say, not looking Potter. His hand is heavy and warm. "Thursday."
"As opposed to any other day." I look at him then, and his mouth quirks. "You could have."
I shake my head. "I didn't know what would happen next." I pull my hand away and fold my arms across my chest, uncertain. "I'm not good at this sort of thing," I admit.
Firelight glints off Potter's glasses. I'm grateful for the dark. It hides my embarrassment well.
"You've kissed someone before," he says. "Other than Yaxley."
I nod. "Pansy. Theo. Blaise once after a bottle of vodka. That was more than disturbing, I can tell you."
"Then why not me?" he asks softly.
It's a long moment before I can bring myself to answer. I glance over at him, my shoulders tense. "Because you scare the hell out of me, Potter."
Potter just looks at me. The fire cracks and pops behind us, sending shifting shadows dancing over our skin and across the wall. When Potter reaches out, I don't pull away. His fingertips are featherlight on my jaw.
His fingers glide over my skin, tracing the curve of my cheek, brushing across my temple, then down to my throat. They pause on my pulse, and I know he can feel its faint flutter.
"You are beautiful," Potter says. "Whatever you might think."
I can't speak.
He takes my hand again, his fingers gentle around my wrist, and he lifts it to his face, pressing it against his jaw. His stubble is rough against my palm as he gently drags my hand along his skin. I can barely breathe.
Potter guides my fingers, kissing them lightly as they slide over his lips. I touch his throat, and my breath catches when I feel his pulse warm against my fingertips.
"It's not just that you don't let people touch you," he murmurs. "You don't touch anyone either."
"No." My voice cracks. One fingertip runs across the jut of his collarbone.
Potter watches me, his green eyes dark in the shadows. "That's a pity."
I don't know what to say, but when Potter pulls away, I feel bereft. It's all I can do not to reach for him again.
And then he twists his fingers in the hem of his t-shirt, tugging it up to reveal a swathe of golden skin that takes my breath away.
Potter pulls his shirt over his head, then tosses it aside. His hair is on end and his glasses askew. I reach out, my throat dry, and straighten them.
"You can touch me," he says, his voice thick.
I shake my head, averting my gaze. "I don't need your magnanimity, Potter."
"Draco," he says, and my head jerks up. He's watching me, and his gaze isn't filled with pity. Or demand. "If you want to, I'd like that."
I do. Oh, Christ, I do.
Potter stands and holds his hand out to me. Hesitantly, I take it, and he pulls me up, off the sofa.
"Touch me," he murmurs.
My breathing stutters as I lift my hand slowly, flattening it against his chest. I can feel the steady thump of his heart against my palm. His skin is warm and soft, and his muscle twitches lightly as my fingertips slide across it.
I touch his pink-brown nipple, marvelling as it hardens beneath my finger. It's a perfect nub, and when my fingernail catches on it, Potter draws in a sharp breath. I pull my hand away.
"You don't have to," Potter says. He swallows and licks his bottom lip. "Unless you'd rather..."
"No," I say, and I touch his other nipple, rolling it between my fingertips. Potter bites back another gasp. I know my face is flushed. I don't care. I haven't touched a man like this since I was eighteen. While I'm quite aware of the mechanics of arousal, it's one thing to discover them on yourself, and an entirely different one to see them on another's body.
There's a slight chill in the room; I watch as gooseflesh rises on Potter's arms. "You're cold," I say.
We speak in short, staccato whispers.
My hand smoothes across Potter's chest. His hair is dark and sparse and coarse against my skin; his muscles are firm. He's lean and wiry and golden from the Australian sun. There's an oval scar on his chest, barely visible through a swirl of hair. I touch it lightly, following the smooth curve as I look at him.
"From the War," he says roughly. "An artefact burnt me before Hermione could get it off--"
"A Horcrux, you mean." I've seen descriptions of those burns before in mediæval texts.
Potter looks slightly taken aback. "Yeah."
"I'm a Dark Arts historian, Potter," I say with a snort. "You needn't hide the existence of Horcruxes from me. What form was it?"
"A locket." Potter eyes me. "Hermione had to use a Severing Charm."
I shudder. "Painful."
"I'm sorry." I touch the centre of the scar. It's slick against my fingertip.
Potter just looks me. "We're both scarred by him," he says finally. "In different ways."
I nod, my throat tight. I hesitate for a few moments, not certain what to do next. Potter stands complacently, watching me, waiting for me. I make up my mind and walk around behind him. With my thumb I trace the line of his spine along the cleft of strong muscles, to the flat stretch of his back just above the waistband of his pyjama trousers. There's another scar there, long and thick and white against his skin, that disappears into the soft flannel. I touch it lightly.
Potter's shoulders tighten, and I watch the shift of muscles beneath his skin. "No. Bit of an altercation with an Antipodean Opaleye a few years back."
"Playing hero again?" I murmur, and my fingertip dips down past the gathered waistband. I can feel Potter shiver at my touch.
"Rather more like being a fool," he says. "But I suppose."
My hands slide around Potter's hips beneath the flannel, and my fingertips skim across the sharp juts of bone. Potter trembles, and I have a heady sense of my own power, being able to make him feel like this. It's been so long since I've had control of anything--anyone--but myself. I lean in, careful not to touch him with my torso, and breathe softly on his neck, just under the dark curls at his nape. Potter gasps.
I stay there for several moments, still, save the warm huffs of my breath against his skin. In. Out. In. Out.
Potter doesn't move. Barely breathes.
I wish I could take this moment and encapsulate it. The desire is so pure.
Slowly I slip my hands from his pyjama trousers, trembling. I touch the nape of his neck, feeling the warmth of his skin and the softness of his hair. My fingers trail along his shoulder and down his arm as I circle around him, aware of his eyes on me. His mouth is soft, open, his face flushed. I can see the beat of his pulse in the hollow of his throat.
My hand finds the tie of his trousers. I can barely look at him, but I whisper, "May I?" and he nods.
The knot is tight, but I manage to loosen it, and the pyjamas slip down Harry's hips, catching on his swollen cock. At Potter's gentle tug, it springs free, and the flannel slides down his long legs. He steps out of them and kicks them aside.
A wave of panic rises inside of me. I haven't been faced with another man's erection in twelve years. I take a step back, involuntarily, and my heart stutters, clenches. "I can't--" I choke out, but Potter's fingertips brush my cheek, skimming against my skin before he drops his hand.
"Only what you want," he whispers. "Nothing else."
Our eyes meet, and I nod. How Potter of all people can calm me the way he does still perplexes me.
My hand brushes Potter's hip. Shadows and light from the hearth move across his body, warm his skin. He stands there silently, watching me, and his prick grows harder, curving against his taut stomach.
I kneel. My fingertips trace the muscles in Potter's thigh. I swallow, and my breath catches. I can smell him, the musky, heady scent of his want. Part of me needs to run, to escape whatever this is building between us. Instead, I stay, one hand on Potter's calf as I turn my head, looking at the thick ridge of his cock and the soft, swollen sac beneath it.
My hands shake. I run a single fingertip along the bend in Potter's thigh. I stop just before I reach the curve of his balls. He breathes in; a muscle in his stomach clenches.
Potter wants me. The thought is blinding. Disconcerting. And my body responds to it, my prick pressing against the zip of my trousers.
Neither of us moves. The head of Potter's cock is damp and red; I can see it glisten in the firelight.
It would be so easy to touch him.
And yet I can't.
I stand, my legs barely able to hold me. I don't look at him. I'm too afraid.
"Mother," I say, and my voice is raw and hoarse. "Mother's expecting me in the morning."
Potter draws in a ragged breath and nods. "All right," he says, and nothing more. No recriminations. No pleas. No judgment.
I don't sleep the rest of the night. By the time I meet Mother for church at St Swithun's, I'm tense and exhausted. We've barely time to slip into the pew before the procession enters, Mother elegant in her pristine dark blue robe. I'm quite certain I look shabby and thrown together next to her.
Wyndham-Ffoulkes steps to the lectern, and we stand. "The Lord be with you," he says, and the small congregation murmurs And also with you in response. I stand tense and rigid as he leads us through the Confession and the Collect. I don't want to be here. It reminds me too much of Father's funeral. I can almost see Father's coffin at the front of the church--I draw in a sharp breath. Mother frowns at me, tapping me lightly with her liturgical programme, the way she had when I was a child and misbehaved in church. I sigh and try to put on a pleasant expression before the two of us step up to light the Advent wreath.
It's going to be a long service.
I don't recall any of Wyndham-Ffoulkes's sermon but upon leaving I nod an acknowledgement and thank him for it.
"And how are you, lad?" he asks softly. I think he actually is interested in the answer.
Still, I step away, shoulders tight. I'm a Malfoy, after all. "Quite well, thank you." I know he doesn't believe me, but he's the discretion not to press.
Mother and I take lunch at the Old Vicarage Hotel in Oxford. A fire crackles in the fireplace besides us. Portraits look down at us from their perches on the deep red walls, and the green leather of my chair creaks as I shift. I'm toying with my food, my head filled with thoughts I'd rather not be thinking. Mother isn't eating either.
She reaches for her glass of wine. "It's such a pleasure to have a proper meal. Andromeda's house-elves aren't really much in the kitchen."
I just look up. "What?"
"Nothing, darling." Mother eyes her rabbit and mustard. "How's your trout?"
I have no idea, actually. I sigh. "It's fine."
"You look peaked." A frown creases her brow. "Have you been working late in your office again?"
"No." I take a bite of trout and chew it slowly. A rare wave of honesty overtakes me. "I was at the Manor last night."
Mother's fork stops on the way to her scarlet lips. "What? Whatever for?"
"Talking to Potter," I admit.
"Oh really? How is his--" Mother waves a long hand vaguely. "--whatever it is that he does progressing?"
"Well. I think." I pause, dragging the tines of my fork down the side of the trout. The question that's been circling my mind the most bursts out. "Do you hate Father now?"
Mother sets down her fork and looks at me. "No. I don't." She pauses for a moment, searching my face. "Do you?"
Mother hesitates, then takes a light breath. "Well, I suppose it's not uncommon to hate one's father sometimes. Especially after the abrupt manner of his leaving us."
"You can't tell me you're not angry." My look towards her is more than sceptical.
Mother's face is a mask of calm. "No, Draco. I'm not. And if I were, would it make any difference? He's gone now."
I slam my fork against my plate, and she flinches. "He took a coward's way out."
"Draco." Mother looks around to see if anyone saw my minor outburst, hissing "Please do not talk like that here."
"He did," I say hotly. "And you know it, and we're just going to sit here like we always do and pretend nothing's wrong, nothing's ever wrong, we're all bloody happy families, are we?" My anger spills over, years' worth and I don't know if I can contain it any longer.
Mother casts a privacy charm. "I don't understand what's wrong with you," she says. "We're trying to have a pleasant luncheon--"
"I don't want a pleasant luncheon." My hands shake and I nearly drop my knife. I set it and my fork on my plate, reaching for my wine.
"What do you want then?" Mother asks calmly.
I clench my glass tightly. "I don't know," I say after a moment. I don't look at her.
Mother sighs. Neither of us say anything.
I sip my wine, staring at the fireplace. A painting of The Parks duck pond in summer hangs over the marble chimneypiece. Mother presses her fork against a small roasted potato. The red skin bursts, and the potato flakes into buttery white fluff.
"Nothing I can do will bring him back," Mother says finally. Softly. She brushes a stray lock of her hair back. "Being angry with him won't help."
"I don't care." I set my glass down and look at her. "He left us to deal with everything he couldn't. I think that entitles me to a bit of bitterness."
Mother bites her lip. "You don't understand--"
"What don't I understand, Mother?" I sit forward, my elbows on the table, etiquette be damned. "That he never recovered from the war? That the Dark Lord left deep scars? You don't think I know that?" I jerk the sleeve of my robe up. The faint outline of the Dark Mark is still visible on my pale skin. "And that's only the one you can see."
I feel ill. My hand shakes as I smooth my sleeve back down. I reach for my glass and drain it before setting it aside. "Yaxley," I say quietly.
"Don't, Mother." I look at her. Her face is pale, set. "It's not as if it's a secret."
Mother takes a breath. "No."
We sit there, looking at each other, Mother's eyes bright and wet.
"How could you?" I ask finally, and my anger gives way to weariness. "He gave me to that bastard and you just let him."
She can't speak. She looks away, pressing her knuckle to her mouth. A single tear slips from her lashes, leaves a long trail down her cheek.
"I tried," she says at last. "I begged--" Her voice catches, and she looks at me.
"Do you know what he did?" I ask dully. I trace the gilt rim of my plate with a fingertip, trying to keep the memories at bay. "What he made me do?" I glance up at her. "I don't even want to tell you because I don't think you could understand."
Mother's hand settles over mine. "I can," she says, and I see the truth in her eyes. I breathe in sharply.
"You…" I trail off.
"It wasn't easy being a woman in a house filled with those men." Mother looks away again. "Particularly when His Lordship encouraged your father's humiliation."
I hadn't known. I hadn't even suspected. Perhaps I should have. I'd seen her haunted face at every hols.
"It wasn't the War your father never recovered from," she says after a moment. "He could never forgive himself for not protecting us." She meets my gaze, and her cheeks are damp with tears. "That's why he left us, darling. Guilt is a difficult foe to fight."
My fingers twist between Mother's, holding her tightly.
On Thursday, I come home late in the afternoon, finally bored with staring out the window of my rooms while pretending to myself and everyone else that I'm working. I'm not working at all. In fact, I've got less work done than in any other week in the past year, perhaps past five years. I sit around folding origami cranes and thinking about Potter, the smooth brown of his stomach, the goose pimples across his shoulders, and how much I want to touch him again. And then I think about leaving the country and taking up a research post in Saskatoon. Or Ulan Bator.
Millie is in the sitting room wrapping presents and affixing holly to bows.
"He's owled again," she says without looking up from her wrapping. She casts a hold-tight charm over the stack she's assembled and turns to the next group of presents to wrap.
I lean against the door frame, twisting to see the parchment roll on the hall table. "Oh."
"Any particular reason he's trying to contact you?"
I sigh and walk to the frayed sofa, dropping heavily into its all-encompassing, overstuffed embrace. "Not that I know of."
Millie shoots me a sceptical look. "I see."
I run a hand through my hair and mentally curse the receding line that is impossible to ignore. "I spent time with him naked Sunday. Well. Saturday night, I suppose."
Millie curls an errant strand of burgundy ribbon intently. "Really."
"Yes," I say. "I mean, he was naked, not me. He let me touch him."
Millie nods slowly. She doesn't look at me. "And then?"
"And then nothing. I ran away." I trace the ridge of the upholstered arm with my thumbnail.
"And now you're avoiding his owls." Millie waves her wand to wrap the next group of parcels. She's always been far too good to her family, in my opinion, but it brings her joy, so I've never mentioned a thing.
"There's nothing really to say." I counter.
She shrugs. "Well, that's all right then, isn't it?" She's called my bluff and she knows it.
With a sigh, I sit up, shifting to the edge of the chair. "I can't stop thinking about him. And ... and doing it again."
Millie tilts her head and looks at me, her chocolate brown eyes penetrating. Our Millie never has suffered fools well. And I know I've fallen into that particular category lately. "Well, why don't you do it again?"
"I can't," I say. "You know. I can't ... I don't want to let him touch me."
"Are you sure about that?" she asks.
"No." I look at her. "Not at all. But it's too complicated. I can't explain."
Millie frowns and turns back to the presents. "I think I understand."
"Do you?" I ask. "Do you mean with Blaise?"
Her head turns sharply, and her voice takes on an edge. "What about Blaise?"
I'm surprised at how quickly her temper flares. She's usually the steadiest of all of us. "He is mad about you, you know. Has been for at least a year."
"I know." She says and flicks her wand irritably. The holly scatters, and she swears.
"I'm sorry," I say.
She stops for a moment and takes a deep breath. "He's giving me an antique holly brooch, you know." Her hand shakes. We both know what it means in wizarding lore, even if Blaise will pretend not to. Nine holly leaves twined in a knot/Soon may my truelove therein be caught.
"No, I didn't." I'm lying through my teeth--Blaise had shown me the delicate, filigreed goblin work several weeks ago. It is utterly breath-taking and perfect for Millie.
"He doesn't know I know, but Hecuba Pryce who works at the jeweller's asked me who Blaise was getting the brooch for when I went in to get the clasp on Mother's pearls repaired. I know she's always fancied him."
"It could be for someone else," I point out, and she just looks at me. "Okay, so it's probably for you."
She nods. "I'm not ready for something like that. I love Blaise like, well, better than a brother. And yes, of course, he's gorgeous. But, let's be honest. We all know that I don't get to have gorgeous things."
I wait, listening, knowing she needs to say more.
"I mean," she says, her eyes fixed on the present in her hands, "I learnt at school that I shouldn't expect much. Not the way I look. I've been lucky to have Greg and Kevin, Pansy's made certain that I know that, as if I didn't already. Oh, Millie, darling, with your looks, you should be oh, so very grateful you've two boys who've been willing to fuck you--"
"Pansy can be a bitch when she wants to be," I say.
Millie looks up at me. "You should have shared a dormitory with her and Daphne. I'm quite aware of my physical limitations. And I know Blaise thinks he's sincere, but really, even if I did say yes, it would be whispers of 'her with him.'"
I stop her. "No. I think you're wrong there. You underestimate yourself and you underestimate Blaise."
And then I realise that this is exactly what I've done to Potter.
"We can't be heartbroken if we don't play the game, Bulstrode," I say lightly. "And we can always buy each other drinks afterwards."
She smiles at me, first weakly and then more firmly. I smile in return.
"It's terrifying," she agrees.
Millie's hand closes over mine. "So. Potter then."
I give her half a smile. "It's mad, isn't it?"
"Makes entirely no sense," she agrees. "Are you going to owl him back?"
I shake my head. "Not until after Christmas, I think."
Millie gives me a sympathetic look. "They say the first one is the hardest."
"The ubiquitous They are usually wrong, you know."
"I know." She squeezes my hand. "You'll be okay."
I nod. "Do you want help wrapping?"
Millie tosses a package my way. "I won't say no to that."
Christmas Eve dawns bright and cold.
Blaise and Millie both are expected by their families today; Mother and I have decided to have a quiet Christmas Day with Aunt Andromeda and Teddy tomorrow. She's assured me Potter won't be invited. He's to take Teddy to the Burrow on Boxing Day. I can't help but wonder how awkward that will be, given the divorce.
I'm in my bedroom surrounded by presents and piles of silver ribbon, cursing as my wrapping charm fails again, when Millie pokes her head around the doorframe. Blaise had already stopped by before the Portkey to his grandmother's house in Naples went off. He still hadn't known if his mother would be there. I look up at Millie with a sigh. I'm sure I make a charming picture, sitting cross-legged on my bed in pyjama trousers and a thick jumper, scowling at the shredded paper adorning my duvet.
"You're certain you don't want to come?" she asks. "Mother won't mind another chair at the table. Whittie's bringing someone which Mother says ought to distract him somewhat from being a complete and utter prick."
I shake my head. Millie's brother and I have never got on well. Then again the only person Whitlock Bulstrode seems to be interested in is himself. "I'll be fine."
She gives me an appraising look. "You shouldn't stay alone on Christmas Eve. You'll end up drinking the gin Blaise laid in for New Year's and--"
"I will not," I protest.
"--And getting horribly morose in the process," Millie finishes. She leans against the door, a worried frown creasing her brow. "Just come. You don't have to stay the night."
With a sigh, I pick up a Beater's bat that I've bought for Teddy to replace his nearly splintered one. He has a tendency to hit the Bludgers far harder than necessary, no matter how many times I've tried to coach him otherwise. I turn it in my hands, smoothing my fingers over its polished willow. It reminds me of Potter and his Muggle sport. He's spending Christmas Eve with his son, I suppose.
"Draco," Millie says, and I look up at her.
"I'd rather stay here," I say finally. "Thanks."
She hesitates, then nods. "I'll be home tomorrow then. You know you can reach either of us via Floo--"
"I know, Millie." I appreciate her concern, but I just want to be alone.
Millie just looks at me for a long moment. "Happy Christmas, love," she says, and when the door clicks closed behind her, I breathe a sigh of relief.
It takes another half-hour to finish wrapping the presents. I stack them in a neat pile on the bench beside the hall hearth. Most of them are marked for Teddy. I've always spoiled him at Christmas. The bat tilts, falling to the side against the small hall table that we leave our post on. It's covered with Christmas adverts and holiday cards and three days worth of Prophets that we haven't touched. They slide to the floor with a clatter, and I swear.
Bending down to pick them, I notice a small phial next to the table leg. It's a deep blue glass and when my fingers curl around it, I know what the date stamped into the wax will be.
15 November, 2010.
I sit on the edge of the bench and stare down at the phial. I roll it between my fingers, watching the liquid shimmer and shift against the glass. The setting sun casts a golden glow through the narrow paned window alongside the door, and Muggles pass by outside, laughing as they slip along the icy pavement.
My thumb sweeps along the wax and a bit crumbles off and tumbles to the floor. The phial must have fallen after I'd come back from the solicitor's over a month ago. I turn the phial over, looking at Wattle-Waugh's mark on the other side of the seal. Perhaps Blaise is right. We do need a house-elf.
I make up my mind and stand, my fingers tightening on the phial. Blaise keeps a small Pensieve under the sink in his loo.
Heart in my throat, I head upstairs.
The lights of St Swithun's shine in the dark, and the stained glass windows glow. Greenery decks the grey stone above the arched wooden door. It's half-ten, and the sound of carols from the beginning of the midnight Eucharist drifts across the snowy churchyard. The sky above is dark and swollen with the promise of more snow.
I make my way through the graves to the one headstone that stands higher than the others. Father had arranged for it in his will; Mother had insisted his instructions be followed. It's a simple granite cross, smooth and grey. At the base a serpent is coiled, always on guard. It raises its head as I approach and hisses softly, only settling when it realises I have familial authority.
My breath is visible in the cold air. I stop beside the grave, a bouquet of Christmas lilies in my hands. It's taken me all evening to work up the courage to come here. I'd sat on the floor of Blaise's bath for what felt like hours, my back pressed against cold tile as I stared blankly in front of me. One tiny phial had shattered my beliefs about my father. About myself, I suppose.
How many secrets had we kept from each other, Mother, Father and I?
I lay a hand against the cold stone of Father's grave, brushing the snow from the arms of the cross. It sticks to my gloves. "Hullo," I murmur, and then I hesitate. I trace the L in Lucius, uncertain what to say. I'd felt drawn here, to the ground in which I'd consigned his ashes.
"You're a bastard, you know," I say, but my voice is mild. A faint wind ruffles my hair and blows snow from a tree branch. It scatters across the churchyard in a shimmering arc. I'd like to think Father was responsible.
I set the lilies next to his headstone and cast a stasis charm to keep them fresh. "I opened the phial."
Silence is my only answer.
"I wish," I say wistfully, "you'd told me before...." I sigh. "But you couldn't, could you? You'd never let any of us know you'd failed. Still." I wrap my arms around myself, shivering. "I wish you'd told me you'd tried."
There's a rustle of wings, and then a raven settles in the tree above me. He watches me, hopping to the fragile end of the branch.
What I'd seen in Blaise's pensieve will never leave me. My father, once so proud, so demanding, on his knees in front of the Dark Lord, pleading with His Lordship to spare me. Asking to take my punishment on himself. To be given to Yaxley.
My father. Begging. For me.
And when the Dark Lord had asked him, dispassionately, why he would ever wish to do that, all Father had said was "He's my son, my Lord. What choice do I have?"
His screams when His Lordship cast Cruciatus on him still echo in my ears.
Throat tight, I close my eyes and breathe a ragged breath out. When I open them again, the raven's watching me with one glittering jet eye. I press my palm to Father's name.
"I forgive you," I whisper, my eyes stinging.
The suffocating weight I've been carrying for years begins to dissipate, washed clean by the new year and the snow.
I suppose I've known I'd end up here tonight.
The Manor is cold and dark. There's no sign of stirring, not elf, mouse or Potter. I'm disappointed, despite the fact that I knew quite well the likelihood of my finding Potter here on Christmas Eve was next to nil.
His mark is on the house though.
I wander through the hallways, and I can feel him beneath the wards, the Dementor-like traces of the Dark Lord replaced by Potter's calming magic. There'd been a time not too long ago I would have been appalled by his presence. Now I ache for it.
And I refuse to ask myself what that might mean.
Brutus is snoring in his portrait when I pass him. His glowering scowl, ever present before, seems lessened now, even in sleep. All the portraits seem subdued, less high-strung.
I take the passageway to my room.
When I push open the door, I pause for a moment in surprise. Light twinkles from the bay windows. There's a garland draped over them, lit with fairies, and beneath it is a small tree, covered with glass ornaments and more fairy lights. A silver ribbon is twined between the branches, and Mother's silver star hovers at the top.
My throat tightens. There've been no Christmas decorations in our house this year. I hadn't any interest in them and Blaise and Millie hadn't bothered to put them up. A tree just hadn't seemed important this Christmas, I'd thought.
I'd been wrong and I realise this now to my delight.
I move towards the tree, circling it. The lights reflect in the windows, and I can see myself with them, my pale skin glowing. Outside snow falls again.
The carol from the churchyard twists through my mind. In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan. Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone...
I only realise I've sung it aloud when Potter answers. "Snow had fallen, snow on snow." He steps into the room. "Snow on snow. In the bleak midwinter, so long ago."
He has a lovely voice.
"You did this," I say, turning to him. My fingers brush an evergreen branch. It's still cold and fresh. The scent of fir fills the room.
"I thought you might come by tonight," he says. His eyes are shadowed, the lights glinting on his glasses. "Or I hoped you would."
We look at each other. He's hesitant. Cautious. I know whatever happens next is entirely in my control.
"Where's James?" I ask.
"Ginny has him," Potter says. "I'll pick him up from the Burrow on Boxing Day. She has a match in Ballycastle."
I move away from the Christmas tree. "So, you're alone at Christmas, too."
"Yes." Potter watches me. He toys with the sleeves of his jumper.
"I didn't answer your owls." I step closer to him. I can see the flutter of his pulse against his throat.
Potter doesn't move. "I didn't expect you would. But I wanted to give you a trail to follow back."
His dark hair falls into his eyes. I want to push it back, to kiss that damned scar of his. "I read them all."
"I know," he says, and I don't ask how. Instead I touch his cheek, my fingertips skimming lightly across his stubbled skin.
He stands still as I touch him, as my fingers smooth across his jaw, over his mouth, down his throat. I drop my hand and we stand there, gazing at each other.
"Everyone," I say finally, "treats me like I'm made of broken glass. Except you."
"You're not." Potter's voice is low, warm. "There's nothing broken about you."
I swallow. "There is."
"Only if you think so." Potter reaches out, slowly, and his hand curls around the nape of my neck. His thumb slides into my hair, making tiny circles against my scalp. "I'd disagree."
The only sound in the room is our soft breath.
"I could tell you anything," I whisper, "and it would be okay."
"I've never had that before." I let him draw me closer.
"I'm sorry." He means it. I know this.
When I kiss him, his breath catches, and his fingers tighten on my nape. It's a slow kiss, careful and gentle. Potter's lips are rough and warm against mine, and I can't bite back the groan that escapes my lips. I've wanted him so much, more than I thought I could want anything or anyone again.
"Do you want to go to mine?" Potter asks, his voice thick.
"No," I say. "I want to be right here." And I do. I want this back again, my room and all that is mine.
As I trail my hand down his chest, he shivers a little and gives me a lazy smile. Emboldened, I tug at the hem of his jumper, encouraging him to lift it over his head. He complies, and I bite my lip, suddenly nervous. It's been far too long since I've done this willingly. He touches my cheek, and leans in again. "May I?" he whispers and I nod.
His soft kiss takes my breath away. My fingers twist in his dark green shirt, holding him tight. When he pulls back, his mouth is wet and swollen. I brush his lips with my fingertips, and he kisses them lightly.
I make short work of his shirt buttons, pausing to stroke the skin laid bare by my efforts. Potter's breathing becomes shallower; I can tell he's trying to control his responses, to hold his body still, and I find this achingly erotic. His skin is warm, his muscles just as firm as I remember. I've been dreaming of this for nights now, of touching him, feeling his body beneath my palms.
My fingers trail through the sparse, dark hair on his chest. I push his shirt off and look at him, amazed to have him in front of me, real, and not in my fevered imaginings.
"Harry," I say, for the first time, and I look at him, my pale hair falling in my face. I feel self-conscious but oddly calm as well. His smile and the crinkles at the edges of his eyes are a comfort. He pushes my hair out of my face with a careful touch. I don't flinch, in fact, I enjoy it. "Harry."
His name feels odd on my tongue. Awkward. Pleasant.
"Harry," I say again, with a soft laugh. I kiss the corner of his mouth. "Harry." The last is a whisper, a soft breath of his name against his lips that makes him shiver against me.
"What would you like?" His voice is low, almost rasping with need.
"You." I say simply.
With a slow, languid smile, Harry slides off his trousers, and I can't stop my hands from touching him--the broad flat plane of his shoulders, the punctuated ridge of his spine, the gentle swell of his chest, his breath rising with controlled effort. I want all of him, and he doesn't deny my anything. My hands go wherever I will.
I trace my fingers along the waistband of his pants, and he inhales.
"Please," I say, and silently, he removes them for me, the white cotton slipping over the swell of his prick and down his thighs.
This time I can't draw my gaze from his cock. It's rather beautiful as these things go--but perhaps that's because it's attached to him--slick and long and thick without looking too formidable. I kneel before him, trailing one finger in the wiry black curls at the base of his erection, and then I lean in to plant a kiss on his hipbone. My hair falls to my cheek, brushing the skin of his thigh.
He moans and throws a hand out to grasp the tall, black post of my bed.
I look up at him. "You don't have to," he says, breathing hard.
"Don't be an idiot, Potter," I say, but I'm smiling up at him. I catch his wrist, drawing his fingers across my lips, over my cheek, into my hair. He twists my pale locks around his hand, pulling hard.
With a sharp gasp, I rub my face against his thigh.
"Christ," he whispers.
My hands settle on his hips, my thumbs stroking small circles. I press my mouth to the flushed skin above the jut of his hipbone, and Harry gasps. His fingers tighten in my hair.
As I continue to kiss him, my lips trailing down his thigh roughly, he shudders.
"Draco, I'm..." Harry breaks off with a groan.
I know he's close. His prick bobs against his stomach, and I can see how tightly his balls are drawn to his body.
"It's all right," I say, growing braver and leaning to plant a kiss amongst the curls, my cheek brushing the soft skin of his cock.
He cries out once and then he's coming, hand clenched on the bedpost as his body trembles. Warm spunk spatters across my skin.
I stare in unabashed amazement, watching him come undone and fully drunk with the power of it. This response, to me. I can't believe how it makes me feel. What it makes me want. This is nothing like it'd been before. Nothing like the youthful rutting in Theo's bed. Nothing like the pain at Yaxley's hands.
He's still gasping. I stand up and kiss him, threading my hands in the hair at his nape and roughly sucking on his full, reddened lips.
I step back and we look at each other for a long, liquid moment. He reaches out, dragging his fingertips through the spunk on my cheek. I catch his wrist and turn my head.
"Draco," he whispers, and I lick his fingers slowly, watching his face shift from want to need. He tastes slightly bitter, slightly metallic and completely exquisite.
He draws in a careful breath. "You," he says, and then he pulls me to him. We fit together well. It surprises me. "I want to see--" He breaks off, looking at me uncertainly.
"I know." I shift and roll my hips against his. My cock presses into his thigh, hard and aching. It feels incredible.
When I reach out a hand, he takes it. I lead him to the bed, stopping beside it to kiss him again. Our mouths move together, wet and eager, and his hands tangle in my hair.
I pull away, gasping. Harry's green eyes are dark, his mouth swollen. I could kiss him all night.
Instead, I step back, taking in his flushed skin and heavy breaths. My hands smooth over his shoulders, across his chest. I push him back onto the bed. "Lie down."
He slides back across the mattress, his legs spread. I stand still, watching him, warmth rising on my cheeks. He's gorgeous, all dark hair and gold skin across the pale blue brocade of the duvet.
I want him. Horribly.
Harry watches me, a gentle look of question on his face.
I take a deep breath and pull my own jumper over my head. It lands on the rug with a soft whisper, and something inside me breaks. This isn't going to be simple, I know, whatever this is between Harry and me, but the better things in life seldom are, I've found.
I look at him. "I'm not easy, Harry. I never will be."
Harry raises himself up on an elbow. "I don't need you to be easy. I like challenges."
"I'm bitter, and sarcastic, and I will always loathe gingers." I start to unbutton my shirt. "I'm fairly certain I'm allergic to them."
He leans back on the many pillows of the bed and watches me. "There are potions for that."
I slide my shirt off my shoulders. "I'm an utter beast before I have my tea in the mornings."
"I'll buy a Teasmade."
"Arse." I enjoy the way Harry's eyes slide over my body, appreciatively. He doesn't flinch at the web of faint scars that criss-cross my chest. "I'm selfish and irritable, and when I'm working, I'll hex the first person who disturbs me."
Harry licks his bottom lip as my hands undo my trousers. "I'll keep James out of your way."
My trousers slip down my legs. "I'm not fond of children."
"Bollocks," Harry says. His cheeks are flushed.
I smile and slowly slide my pants off. I stand naked before him and let him look at me.
"Turn," he says, voice raw, and it's a request, not a demand. I do so, slowly, feeling his gaze rake my body.
When I'm facing him again, I quirk an eyebrow.
"You're beautiful," Harry murmurs. His hips shift and I can see his cock start to swell.
Instead of terror, I feel joy. I lower myself onto the bed, stopping near him but not quite touching. He looks amazing, sprawled out beside me, honey brown and flushed from what I hope is just the beginning of the evening.
I kiss him and he reaches to touch me, then stops. I grab his wrist and pull his hand onto the skin of my shoulder.
His fingertip slips along one of my faded scars. "I did this to you," he says quietly, and his brow draws together.
"Under the bridge," I murmur. "Remember?
His touch is warm and heavy against my skin, and when he slides his fingers down my side and across the flat of my hip, I shiver.
No one's touched me like this. Ever. Searching, passionate, gentle. I arch into his touch, showing him how much I enjoy it.
He watches my face as his hand slips to my cock, fingertips trailing lightly up the underside. "I--"
My mouth catches his, cutting him off, and I roll over him, pressing him into the mattress. We lie there kissing, his hand on my prick, mine on his hip, until I pull back, looking down at him.
"I want to fuck you," I whisper. "Please."
He moans and that's all the answer I need.
Somewhere the bells strike. It's Christmas.
"Draco," Mother says softly at my elbow, "I do believe the elves are ready to serve the roast. Boddy seems quite insistent, in fact."
I turn from my conversation with Aunt Andromeda, a glass of wine in my hand. "I'll move everyone along."
Mother smiles at me and touches my cheek. The past year has been difficult, but we've made it through, the both of us, and it's Christmas again. A more festive holiday now than the year before, although that one had opened the way to this one.
The Manor is filled with greenery and fairy lights the way it'd been when I was a child. Candles glow from every chimneypiece, and the scent of fir and cloves and cinnamon hangs heavy in the air. On the dining room table, the elves have placed the Black family candelabra, heavy and solid and goblin-made, all five twisting silver branches polished until they gleam, thick white candles adorning each. The enormous tree in the drawing room is bedecked with glass globes and ribbons of silver and gold and more fairy lights than any one tree should possibly hold. James had been in charge of that particular detail.
I look at him, across the room. He's sprawled beneath the tree, surrounded by remnants of wrapping and bows, Granger's Rose on her knees beside him, her ginger curls in her face. They're watching a Reusable Hangman morosely climb the steps to his doom. James whoops when the door drops, leaving him swinging on the end of a rope.
He's horrifically bloodthirsty, that one. I rather approve.
The room is filled with friends and family. Teddy sits with Granger, her Hugo on her lap, both of their heads bent together over some book he's brought home from the Hogwarts library. Blaise and Millie are on the sofa across from them. Blaise's hand rests protectively on Millie's stomach. She's only just beginning to show. Come May I'll have another godchild. I can only hope for a boy. The last time I'd said that in front of Millie, however, I'd ended up with a cushion aimed at my head.
Father's portrait has been moved from the library. It now hangs above the chimneypiece, and he surveys the chaos with a grim eye. He's already objected twice to having Weasleys in his Manor. I've had to remind him sharply both times that the Manor's mine now. Fully. He meets my eye and nods, raising a glass of wine I'm fairly certain he's nicked from Brutus. I raise mine in return.
Harry stands at the window, a gin and tonic in his hand, laughing at something the Weasel's said. When he turns, he catches sight of me, and he smiles, a bright happy flash of teeth that catches my breath.
He's been there during the sleepless nights. The rages. The grief. During one of my flares of fury, I'd thrown my great-grandmother's bone china teapot at him, just barely missing his head. He still hasn't left, despite my best attempts to force him away. And he's a dab hand at fixing shattered china.
Millie says that's what love is. I think perhaps she's right.
He steps away from Weasley, clapping him on the arm, and he makes his way across the room.
"Hey," he says when he reaches me. His hand catches mine, our fingers twined together. "Happy Christmas, love."
I kiss him softly.
And a happy Christmas it truly is.