Draco wasn’t actually reading any of the advertisements and notices on the St. Mungo’s bulletin board, not even the ones with the smiling witches winking to get his attention. He was only out in the corridor looking at them because it was marginally less agonizing than sitting in the waiting room next to his mother, staring into empty space and watching the minutes refuse to tick past. Three hours already, at least another four to go.
The explanation of the surgery had gone far beyond his ability to understand. Something about ameliorating the symptoms of the Azkaban Blood Spores, which couldn’t actually be cured for no reason anyone had explained to him, and maybe afterwards his father would be able to breathe for longer than five minutes between coughing, but then again maybe not. His mother had hinted they shouldn’t ask too many questions of the healers. He was meant to be grateful they were treating his father at all, he supposed.
“Hello, Draco.” Looney Lovegood had stopped by the bulletin board: she was carrying a basket full of bushy pink flowers, individually wrapped in copies of the Quibbler.
“Lovegood,” he said shortly. He wished he wasn’t grateful to have someone talk to him. “What are the flowers for?”
“They’re for patients who have to stay overnight,” she said, airy. “I like to come on Mondays. Mostly people are at work, so there aren’t as many visitors. It means someone to talk to, and then the magazine takes their mind off things. It’s nicer to worry about the Munglebark Infestation than about yourself, I think. Are you going for the course? You have the NEWTs.”
“What course?” Draco said, then, “No, don’t be ridiculous,” when he realized she meant the notice pinned up on the board he’d been staring at: Applicants To The Introductory Mediwizard Course For The Coming Term Shall Present Themselves In The Chief Mediwizard’s Office On Weekdays Between The Hours Of Four And Five O’Clock By Close Of Business August 24th. The smaller print added No applicants shall be accepted without NEWTs of E or higher in Transfiguration, Potions, Charms, Defense Against The Dark Arts, and at least one of Herbology or Arithmancy. He did in fact have the NEWTs, except for drippy Herbology. He hadn’t done much work to earn them, but the examination administrators at the time had understood perfectly well that the Malfoys might be in slight disfavor with the Dark Lord, but they were still in the inner circle, and therefore not to be trifled with. At the time.
“Oh, I thought you might,” she said. “Well, goodbye.” And off she wandered again in her addled way. There wasn’t anything else to do, so Draco went back to the waiting room. The minutes crept over him like dusty ant feet. He would’ve liked to drowse off. He hadn’t been sleeping very well. The nights were broken with his father’s coughing, and with a creaking that sounded like someone coming up the stairs, even though there was no one in the house but them anymore. But he wasn’t sleepy at all.
Then the clock rang and the gnome popped out and shouted, “Four o’clock!” at the waiting room. Draco startled halfway out of his chair anyway, his heart pounding, and stood up the rest of the way just to pretend he hadn’t.
“Do you want anything?” he asked his mother. “I’m going to the tearoom.”
“No, darling, thank you,” she said.
He asked for tea and sat down at one of the tables along the wall, with a copy of the St. Mungo’s weekly newsletter to have something in front of him. The dinners for the rest of the week theoretically included roast chicken, pasta alfredo, lamb with green curry, and cottage pie, although Draco didn’t mean to offer odds about any of the dishes being recognizable. There was a talk being given tomorrow morning on Novel Applications Of Tincture of Nightshade, and Wednesday was the final deadline for applicants to the Introductory Mediwizard Course.
He kept his eyes fixed on the newsletter while people walked past, several looking at him coldly, and he carefully didn’t flinch at the whispers of shouldn’t let him in the place and belongs in Azkaban. It had been several months, but the Prophet still occasionally filled in a slow day on the editorial pages with a bit more railing against the Ministry’s supposed leniency. Father and Mother ought to have been banged into prison immediately, he himself was due to spend a few years sweeping the streets or something else sufficiently degrading, and of course their fortune was to be confiscated, along with the Manor itself. Draco had half been tempted to write a letter to the editor inviting anyone who liked to try: it would’ve been entertaining to see how the house disposed of them.
He’d already been subjected to the grotesque humiliation of throwing himself publicly on the Wizengamot’s mercy. The family solicitors had given him a careful script: how sorry he was for all of it, how ashamed of the things he’d done, like for instance obeying the Dark Lord who’d have murdered his parents the instant he didn’t. There’d been lots of begging forgiveness from the solemn sanctimonious wizards in the chamber, half of whom had followed Death Eater orders for months without blinking, and all of whom would have soiled themselves after thirty seconds in Voldemort’s presence. And all the groveling in the world still wouldn’t have saved him from prison if not for Potter’s unwilling testimony to his complete failure to have done anything of significance in the war, which was almost worse than the rest.
Draco binned the newsletter when he had finished and walked back towards the waiting room. He halted outside the doors, staring in at the implacable clock on the wall: it seemed impossible, but less than twenty minutes had gone by. He didn’t want to go back inside and sit down again. He wanted—he desperately wanted—to go somewhere else. Anywhere else. So after a moment, he kept going down the corridor, past the nurses’ station to the stairwell, and he walked up two floors and came out in the offices. Derwent Whisely, Chief Mediwizard had a secretary who looked up and smiled at him professionally and without recognition. “Here about the Introductory Course, dear?”
“Yes,” Draco said.
He didn’t really know what he was doing, even as he filled in the form in the outer office. A few moments later he was told to step inside. He’d never met Whisely before: the man wasn’t pureblood enough or rich enough to be in his family’s orbit. A stout, grey-haired wizard of perhaps eighty, with tufty white-tipped sideburns and large and unfashionably round spectacles. “Have a seat, Mr. Malfoy,” he said, but even after Draco had sat down, Whisely only sat there behind his desk and kept frowning at him in a silence that dragged on like days.
Draco finally said, “Is there any trouble about my marks?”
“No, you’ve the NEWTs, all properly certified. I like to see a few more Outstandings in the mix, but there wasn’t much of that from your class.” Whisely abruptly sat forward in his chair, folding his hands upon the table and leaning over them. “No, but I confess, I am somewhat surprised, and I will say, a little concerned by your application. Are you aware that there is an insidious antipathy between the Healing Arts and the Dark Arts?”
“I don’t know what that means,” Draco said, warily.
“It means, Mr. Malfoy, that the two interact very badly. And given your record—”
“I haven’t got a record,” Draco snapped. The groveling and the expensive solicitors had been put to some purpose, after all.
Whisely’s eyebrows raised. “So you have never cast a curse? Have never voluntarily submitted to Dark magic, in a way that might have…left a permanent mark?”
Draco didn’t know why he didn’t just get up and leave. He was breathing hard, angry. Whisely clearly wasn’t going to let him in. It was never going to be over, he’d never get away from all of it, any more than his father was ever going to be well again. But he stood up and unbuttoned his cuff and jerked up his sleeve, exposing the Dark Mark on his arm, shoving it out into the open. The colors had faded out of it after Voldemort had died, and the slither of the serpent, but nothing would take it off. He’d tried.
“It’s not pretty,” he snarled, “but it doesn’t mean I’m going to hex patients who fail to improve, if that’s what you’re afraid of.”
Whisely pursed his lips. “I cannot risk the damage that would certainly occur, both to you and to your patients, if you should continue to practice from both schools of magic.”
“Naturally,” Draco said bitterly, rolling his sleeve back down. There were a dozen small buttons; he worked them shut rapidly, one after another. It had been stupid all round, why he’d even bothered—
“Therefore, if you are to undertake the course,” Whisely said, and Draco jerked his head up and stared at him, “it must be under the terms of a complete renunciation of the Dark Arts, even beyond the extent necessary for most Healing Arts students. Do you understand?”
“I—” Draco stopped; he didn’t understand in the least.
“No curses, hexes, or jinxes, ever again, for the rest of your life,” Whisely said. “No brewing of any potions higher on the Malevolence Scale than Veritaserum. No Transfiguration of living creatures, save to assist them, and none to create weapons or anything that you expect to do harm. For the length of the course, you must also refrain from any of the Dubious Charms—a prohibition that may have to continue further into your life as well, depending on how far you choose to pursue the Healing Arts.”
“You’ve got to be joking,” Draco said. That would neatly rule out almost every spell he even knew. He had always been better at hexes and jinxes than anything else, they were his strongest suit of magic. Bellatrix had even told him he’d be a natural at the curses, soon as he “stopped being such a squeamish little boy,” painfully squeezing a pinch of his cheek as she smiled at him with something like affection making it out of her mad eyes. He swallowed the sour memory back down.
“I am not joking,” Whisely said. “Should you use even slightly Dark magic in any way after making a serious attempt at the Healing Arts, you will quickly induce a severe rupture in your noumenia—the vital essence of your magic,” he added, seeing Draco’s incomprehension, “that will almost certainly be fatal to you and very likely any nearby bystanders. You will also have to replace your wand,” with a nod at Draco’s sleeve, “and avoid all contact with artifacts of Dark magic. Your house was occupied by Lord Voldemort in the late War, I understand?”
“Yes,” Draco said, staring at Whisely almost fascinated.
“You will need to make your home elsewhere. I would recommend your staying in the resident quarters here during the course of study in any case.”
“You’ve made your point,” Draco said tightly. That was the crowning glory of the whole ridiculous litany of demands. Move out of the Manor, the ancestral home of twenty-four generations of his family, to live like a monk in some rotten halls of residence above the wards, as if he were some impoverished Muggle-born with nowhere else to stay.
Whisely nodded equably. “Do you wish to withdraw your application?”
That was what Whisely really meant by it all. He didn’t want a Malfoy in his precious course, polluting the sacred precincts of St. Mungo’s—as though Malfoy money hadn’t paid for any number of the halls. Which was why he also didn’t want to simply turn a Malfoy down flat. Instead he was just making the conditions so intolerable that Draco would walk out on his own.
And of course the whole story would get out. Did you hear Draco Malfoy tried to get taken on as a Healer? What a joke, can’t believe he thought they’d let him in the doors. He could hear Blaise saying it with exactly that gleeful note in his voice, maybe laughing over it with Pansy; the two of them were going together these days, a rumor Theo Nott had made sure to casually mention in passing when he’d crossed Draco’s path at Gringotts last week. Draco knew he had to find a way to punish them all for the betrayal, for imagining that he was so weak that they could treat him like that and escape retribution. He’d been trying to think of something, only it was hard to think at all these days with his father’s constant, unending cough echoing everywhere through the house.
He would find a way past it. He had to. That was why he’d come up here in the first place, looking for something to do, anything to do but what he had been doing. But of course he couldn’t do this. The idea of it was absurd. Get rid of his wand, abjure his magic, even move out of his house—as though he could slough off the whole of his life in one enormous heave—
“No. I’m not withdrawing,” Draco said through his teeth. He'd make Whisely reject him, and if it turned out Whisely wasn’t quite ready to pick a fight with a Malfoy, that meant Draco could give the conditions a month of lip service and then do as he liked. “Are you rejecting me?”
Whisely pursed his lips again, but he reached for his quill and signed the bottom of the form, on the line where it said Approved By, then handed it back to Draco. “The course will begin on the first of September. The interdiction against the Dark Arts begins immediately. Break your wand and put the pieces into the hazardous waste,” he indicated a small bin at the back of his office, next to the washbasin and a cupboard of medical supplies. “Eleanor,” he called, and his secretary looked in. “Please arrange for Mr. Malfoy to be assigned a room at once.”
She blinked, but she said, “Certainly, Magister,” and whisked back out.
Draco slowly got up out of his chair. It still didn’t seem quite real as he went to the bin and took his wand out of his sleeve. He wasn’t particularly attached to the thing; he’d bought it only nine weeks ago, when the trial had cleared him to carry again, and he’d got it from that second-rate Kiddell, who’d overcharged him to boot. But it was still his wand, and as he held it over the bin, a memory heaved itself up—Voldemort taking his father’s wand, the snap of the wood, the flinch in his father’s body beside him. There was a sickening metallic taste rising in his gorge.
A hand came on his shoulder. “Steady, there,” Whisely said, a calm, low voice in his ear. “Look straight ahead—look at the eye chart, try and focus on the lowest line you can read. Don’t think about anything else. A deep breath.” The crisp businesslike tone of authority carried Draco through it. “Now.”
Draco jerked his hands. The snap felt like being struck across the face. He only just managed to drop the pieces in the bin before he threw up straight after them. Whisely gave him a paper towel. Draco wiped his mouth, rinsed it with water and spat into the basin. He felt strange, shaky and wretched as the flu. He wiped his hand across his mouth again and turned around.
Whisely peered into his face, bushy and intent, then straightened with a nod. “All right, go on, get the key to your room from Eleanor and give her your form. Go to Ollivanders for the new wand straight away. Tell him I said unicorn hair or phoenix feather only, and only the three Kinder Woods.”
Still feeling deeply askew, Draco might have staggered off on demand, but that stopped him. He’d gone to be gouged at Kiddell for the quite obvious reason. “Ollivander—” He stopped.
“If he refuses to serve you, come back and I’ll Owl him,” Whisely said.
It wasn’t a long walk to Diagon Alley: you just went through the tunnel beneath the hospital, relic of a tube line that had never been finished. It was nearly empty at this odd hour of the day, dark, and there was nowhere along the way to turn off; Draco could only keep going one step after another towards the round mouth full of light at the end.
Ollivander met him at the door of his old dusty shop, unsmiling, blocking the way in. Draco halted on the stoop. “I need a new wand,” he said, avoiding the man’s eyes—why did he have to stare so, anyway.
“Indeed,” Ollivander said. “I am aware of the circumstances under which you lost yours during the war, Mr. Malfoy: an interesting and one might even say fortuitous chain of events. However, this seems a long time to go without. I would have expected you to have acquired a replacement elsewhere before now.”
“I broke it,” Draco said. What business was it of Ollivander’s, anyway. He lifted his chin. “I’ll pay triple the usual.”
Ollivander made an irritating humming noise under his breath. “Well, let us see.” He turned round and let Draco follow him into the dark shop. He went over to the back wall and brought down a box in arm’s reach and turned round, lifting off the lid. “Yellowwood and heartstring of a Black Widowmaker. Quite a powerful wand, if somewhat obvious.”
He held it out. Draco looked down at the polished, gleaming length. His hands itched for it; he already felt naked without one. He curled his fingers into his palm. “What are—what about the Kinder Woods?”
Ollivander’s eyebrows lifted. “Rowan, holly, or willow. An interesting request.” He whisked the yellowwood wand away and went into the back. He brought out several more boxes. “Unicorn and rowan? No, I found it unlikely myself.” A nine-inch holly and unicorn wand also refused to so much as twitch, lying like an inert stick across Draco’s palm.
Ollivander made five more trips to his stock room, wands piling upon wands on the table while he only grew more and more animated, a mad gleam in his eye. “A challenge, a most intriguing challenge,” he murmured to himself as he went tottering about. Abruptly he wheeled round on Draco. “I must ask: what happened to your last wand?”
“I told you, I broke it.”
Ollivander didn’t look away. “By accident?”
“No,” Draco said shortly.
“Ahhh,” Ollivander said. “Are you perhaps considering a change of practice, Mr. Malfoy?”
“I’m taking the Mediwizard course,” Draco said.
“Very interesting,” Ollivander said. “Very interesting, indeed. We must look a little deeper for you, then. I think—yes, I think it must be a wand that is—waiting to be convinced.” He vanished into the back again, and this time he didn’t come back out for nearly ten minutes before returning from the depths covered in dust, with a single box, the color of it badly faded with age. He held it out. “An old-fashioned wand, some might say,” he said. “Willow, twelve inches, but remarkably unyielding for that wood. The core of phoenix feather. A tilting towards control versus flexibility. It has been exceptionally resistant to finding a match.”
Draco almost said something pointed about being fobbed off with a wand no one else wanted, but he’d been here looking nearly an hour, and his mother would be wondering where he was. He reached out and picked it up. The wand just sat on his hand a moment, not stirring, but this time Ollivander left it there, watching it. Draco looked down at the thing—clunky and antique-looking, but he had to have one, and at least it fitted Whisely’s requirements. It didn’t tingle, but it didn’t feel wrong, either.
“Let us see,” Ollivander whispered. “The spell of your choice.”
Half a dozen quick jinxes immediately leaped into his head, stupidly: of course Ollivander would tell Whisely straightaway. Draco shook his head angrily and pointed the wand straight out. “Lumos!”
It shivered in his grip. After a moment a light bloomed at the end, faint at first then growing rapidly to full strength. Ollivander nodded. “Yes. Yes, I think it may do for you, Mr. Malfoy. A wand for a wizard who has a long road to travel, I would say. A very long road.”
Draco walked back to St. Mungo’s through the streets, ignoring the looks his robes and rings collected from the Muggles: he wanted some air after the stuffy shop, not the dark close feeling of the tunnel. A few teenagers gathered behind him on one block and followed him a short way, jeering. He didn’t notice them at first, but then he overheard and nearly whirled to face them. He could hit all of them with a Scrofulous Faces hex in a single stroke of his arm, perfectly defensible by the Ministry’s standards. They were tossing stones in his direction—pretending not to be aiming at him, but that would change in a moment.
But he couldn’t afford to defend himself to the Ministry. Anyway, he’d need to build the habit, to keep from slipping up in front of the other Healers. Whisely would probably pass the word round to everyone to watch him for a single wrong step that would be the excuse to throw him out. So instead Draco breathed deep, curled his fingers around the wand and murmured the irreproachable “Protego.” The shield spell slid over his body, and the next handful of pebbles rattled right off into the gutter. After a silent moment the gang peeled away down a side street and left him alone.
His mother was still in the same chair when he got back to the waiting room. “Did you go for a walk, darling?” she said.
He sat down next to her and stared down at his hands. “I went to see the Chief Mediwizard. I’ve signed up for the course.”
She looked over at him in surprise. “Darling, you know your father will receive the best of care,” she said after a moment.
“That’s not why.”
She was quiet. “If you’re concerned about our financial circumstances—”
“I’d be quite right to be,” Draco finished for her, dryly.
“Not that concerned,” she said. “We took precautions long ago—many of them. We may need to practice a few economies, but nothing which ought to make you go to such lengths.”
Draco looked away. “I haven’t anything else to be doing.”
His mother didn’t say anything for a while. “It can’t hurt,” she said finally. “Our family will be under scrutiny for some time, and it will certainly look good. Still, darling, it’s so much work, surely. And commuting to London? You’ll be in the air two hours every day.”
“I’m going to stay here. They’re letting me have a room in halls,” Draco said, carefully not mentioning anything about having to keep away from the Manor or the ridiculous interdiction; anyway, he’d only keep it up until Whisely stopped paying attention. “It’ll be all right, mother.”
She didn’t argue any further. They sat in silence, waiting.
He would’ve likely changed his mind again that night when he went up to the tiny white-walled cell of a room they’d given him, if only he hadn’t been so exhausted that he fell onto the brick-hard cot and fell asleep at once. The surgery had taken a total of eleven hours, and afterwards the consultant in charge of his father’s case had come out with a grave expression and shook his head and said things about indelible scarring and countercurse resistance. Draco woke the next morning staring at the blank ceiling, equally blank himself. Eventually he got up and went down to visit his father in the hospital room—a private room in the Altaribus Black Memorial Wing, twice the size of Draco’s new quarters, with a handsome four-poster bed enchanted with Breath of Respite. The charm couldn’t cover the lingering smell of blood and rot. His father’s face was sunken and hollow against the pillows.
The secretary intercepted Draco that afternoon as he got a cup of water from the fountain at the nurses’ station. She handed him the list of required spell equipment and told him the course would begin the next morning. He went out to Diagon Alley and bought all of it new, and a toothbrush, and three sets of blue robes.
He went in braced for the other healers to sneer or torment him, like going back to Hogwarts except instead being dumped in Gryffindor with no allies at his back and surrounded by people who hated him. But the taunting didn’t materialize. Oh, there were cold looks, but right from the start, none of them had time for anything but work. After a week or two, he even stopped watching his back, because he didn’t have time for anything but work either: he had remedial Herbology classes to make up the two years of NEWT levels he hadn’t taken, besides the ordinary course, and on top of that the blasted spells wouldn’t come. He had to try over and over to make any of the healing charms work, and when they did work, they came grudgingly. It took him thirteen goes just to make a mild burn go away, with five other students and an impatient instructor all standing round watching.
He almost broke the interdiction after that particular humiliation, later that same day. One little Face-Heating Jinx instead of the Warming Charm to make someone look flushed, who’d it even hurt? Not even the victim—the patient—would know, and he could toss off a Face-Heating Jinx in his sleep—but even as he began forming the intention, he felt a tightening somewhere inside the back of his head, clear and sharp, a thread being drawn to breaking point. He fumbled the Warming Charm out after all—four tries for that one—and after dinner, he went to the hospital library and read up on interdiction, and discovered the case accounts where Healers had gone in for Dark magic, all of which had ended in their extraordinarily grisly deaths.
Whisely appeared the next day to look in on their rounds, and Draco glared at him savagely. The old bastard had done this to him on purpose, tricked him into the course to make sure he could never use any really powerful magic again, only fumble around as a useless half-healer—and he couldn’t even give it up, because now he couldn’t do anything else. Whisely frowned bushily back at him, but said nothing. He watched them all take a turn at casting a Blood-Bloom Charm to help an anaemic feel better—Draco could barely turn his witch subject’s lips faintly pink, and that only after nine attempts—and then slipped away again.
Draco went back to his room to eat his lunch on his own—he certainly didn’t want to go out to the Leaky Cauldron with the rest of his classmates and endure whatever they’d care to say on the subject of his performance. There was a Ravenclaw witch from his year who watched him unsmiling, and two Hufflepuffs from the year after; he’d heard them snigger behind his back this morning.
There was a note under his door saying Come see me. —W. Draco stalked down to Whisely’s office and faced him over the desk. “Well? Going to tell me I’m useless at this and oughtn’t have tried it?”
“No,” Whisely said. “You have maintained the interdiction?”
“I’m not stupid,” Draco snapped. Perhaps Whisely had meant for that outcome, too—Draco Malfoy blowing himself to bits because he hadn’t been able to function a month without Dark magic. The papers would’ve adored it.
Whisely only nodded. “Your difficulties will not be permanent. However, they will persist for some time. You have spent many years under the influence of the Dark Arts. The clean break of the renunciation has won you some breathing room, which is why you are able to accomplish any healing spells whatsoever, but only time and practice will form and strengthen the new pathways. Do you wish me to speak with your instructors and make them aware of the unusual challenges you are facing?”
“Hardly,” Draco said, even more coldly. Be slagged off as some sort of pathetic incompetent to every other wizard on the staff? Wouldn’t that be magnificent. “If you’re so keen to help me, give me the full curriculum for the course.” At least then he could practice ahead of time.
“Hm,” Whisely said. “I would ordinarily warn a student against overwork. However, in this case, I think it can be permitted.”
The other students on his course went home for the evenings, or out for a drink together. Draco shut himself into his bare little room and practiced healing incantations on the stupid plants he had to raise for Herbology, and the occasional injured or sick mouse the laboratories would grudgingly let him take. It still took him twenty times to master spells that ought to have come straight off, like he was a snot-nosed first year once again, and not even himself as a first year. It was like he was Neville Longbottom—except the other day he’d heard one of his Hufflepuff classmates telling the other that Longbottom was doing very well for himself in an advanced course of Herbology at the University Magicarium, and seeing one of the Greengrass girls.
Draco gritted his teeth and cast Episkey on the broken stem of his mugwort plant yet again.
The endless practice allowed him not to make a fool of himself in front of his teachers and classmates, even if the spells still only came grudgingly, gracelessly. Ollivander had undoubtedly fobbed him off with a second-rate wand, too, but Draco was too tired in the evenings to muster up the energy to go and beard him in his den, and anyway what good was it? Ollivander would deny it, surely. The wand did work, only it was suspicious of everything he asked of it. That sounded absurd, but it was the closest way Draco could describe it.
His father had left hospital after four days’ stay, looking a little better. His mother had taken him to their house in Spain to recuperate, and shut up the Manor. “If you’re certain you won’t want it, darling,” she said. “That would certainly be the quickest way to retrench.”
“Yes, it’s fine. I’ll come and visit in the Christmas holidays. Merlin knows I don’t want to be stuck in dismal England in December when I could be in Barcelona instead,” Draco said, although as he spoke he had a vision of the Great Hall with the fire roaring, the ancient table covered from one end to the other with platters, the rich smell of roast meat and the tenant carolers coming to the door. He’d always rolled his eyes at the noise and more often than not amused himself by going up to the higher floors and dropping chestnuts down at the heads of whichever singer was about to begin, to throw them off, but suddenly he felt so homesick for all of it he ached.
But he hadn’t gone back to the Manor since he’d broken his wand, not even to get anything. His home had vanished beneath the oceanic wave of work, along with all the other features of his once-comfortable life: decent food instead of hospital slop, more than five hours’ sleep a night, going flying, reading a book, talking to anyone. He didn’t go out, he didn’t even speak to anyone from school, any of his old friends. It seemed sometimes as though his entire life had all happened to someone else.
He thought of giving up the course a dozen times a week, but right when he’d almost worked up to leaving, one of the nightmares would come. He’d wake up sweating and cast Lumos a dozen times all over the room, afraid that it was this that was happening to someone else, that he was still sitting in the Great Hall, watching his father’s hands tremble while Voldemort’s bare snake-feet went rasping hideously against the flagstones behind him. Those nights he was painfully grateful for the antiseptic white walls and the cold bare floor and the ugly silver washbasin in the corner of his room, all of it refusing to align with anything familiar. He couldn’t get back to sleep after the dreams, but that was all right here, too. He could just get up and take out his books. There was always more work to do.
Four slogging months into the course, Draco was still working like a dog to land every single syllable of every single spell. He was on a rotation through the Plant Poisoning wards when Ernie Macmillan was brought in with a bad case of Trisomastis Rash. Hideous red pustules were already bursting out all the way up to his elbows and spreading rapidly, with the ones on the fingers where he’d grasped the vine beginning to swell up and go white. He was pale green and shivering with agony as they carried him in.
“Right, Malfoy, let’s have a Relieving Charm,” the house officer on duty said, and Draco stepped forward only to get shoved sideways and knocked into a tray of lancing equipment. He went sprawling on the floor amid scalpels and wipes: Susan Bones was glaring down at him, furiously.
“Is this somebody’s idea of a joke?” she spat. “I wouldn’t let Malfoy pet a stray cat I liked, much less cast a spell on my friend! Pain-relieving charm—I’d like to see it. Crucio’s more in your line, isn’t it, Death Eater?”
He sprang up, hot with rage—he’d show her Crucio, if that’s what she wanted—his wand was in his hand, hate and fury boiling straight up his throat, carrying a dozen hexes to his lips. He had the right, every right; she’d knocked him down, she was even pointing a wand at him, with witnesses— He stopped, his hand clenching down tight, the sensation of a dozen fine threads thrumming with tension somewhere in the back of his mind.
“I only cast Unforgivables in my leisure time, Bones, it’s rather frowned on in the wards,” he said icily, instead. “Now, if you’ve quite finished interfering in care, why don’t you dose yourself with a Chamomile Calming Draught before Security has to have you removed. Remissas!”
He was twice the recommended distance away for casting a Relieving Charm, and the floor was littered with the scattered tools around his feet. But he’d rehearsed the proper posture before the mirror thirty times that week, and he struck it without taking a step: wand at the exact forty-two degree angle, arm in line with the shoulder, extended forward from the body, elbow straight, bend all in the wrist, emphasis on the middle syllable—
Ernie gave a sudden gasp and his rigidly arched body went limp in the bed, his face gone slack and almost ecstatic. “Oh, that’s better,” he moaned. Draco dropped his arm, surprised at first, but he recovered and threw Susan a cool, superior smirk, although it was wasted; she’d already turned towards Ernie instead, her hand going out to his shoulder.
The house officer was still eyeing Draco a bit dubiously, though, so he turned the smirk on her, instead. No one liked a scene on the wards: after a moment she cleared her throat and said businesslike, “Well cast, Malfoy. All right, Radley, let’s hear what you’d try to arrest the progress of the rash?”
Maybe it was just the lingering sense of satisfaction, but it seemed to Draco that after that incident, healing finally began to come easier. The wand’s action smoothed out a bit more, and mastering new spells only took a dozen repetitions instead of forty. A few of his hardier plants began to put out new leaves, and the mice went back to the laboratories, more or less healed, just in time for the holidays.
Draco took an international carriage to Barcelona and spent a solid week sleeping and trying not to hear his father’s voice through the walls. His mother did all the spells. Lucius didn’t speak very much while awake, only sat in the garden when led out by the hand, and ate some mouthfuls mechanically if something was put before him. His mouth was slack, and even when his eyes came alert once in a while, they went darting around as though he were still sitting at Voldemort’s table, instead of in a bower full of orange trees. One afternoon he started awake from a drowse and said to Draco sharply, “Where is He? What is He doing?”
“He’s gone out,” Draco said, trying not to flinch. He let the lines from his Infectious Diseases textbook roll through his head, antiseptic and cool. Common symptoms of a Blood Spores infection that has been compounded by severe curse exposure include confusion, vivid nightmares, difficulty in focus, and occasional hallucinations, typically associated with the period of curse exposure. It is generally more effective to respond in the context of the victim’s delusions than to attempt to correct them.
“Ah, yes,” his father said, nodding. He leaned forward, a waft of sweat mingling with the sour-sweet breath of his daily infusion of honeysuckle and henbane, and the rot beneath. At least the stench didn’t bother Draco much anymore; there was worse in the wards every day. “We must think, Draco,” Lucius whispered. His hand clutched like a claw at Draco’s arm, too-long fingernails gripping tight through the thin linen of his shirt. “He is angry with us now, but we can regain His favor. Once the last resistance is gone, He will have much work for His faithful to do…”
The words pulled a dim curtain over the world, as if Lucius was drawing him into the hallucination, into another life, beneath a lingering green-tinged shadow, clammy dark walls rising around him, his mouth full of rotten-sweet curses and his ears full of screams. Draco jerked his arm away, involuntarily, and went to stand in the pouring sunshine out on the grass until his hands stopped shaking. He spent the rest of the holiday working sunrise to sunset in the garden, practicing Herbology spells until the walls were climbing with purple clematis and cup-of-gold, and the herbs trying to climb out of their beds.
His mother occasionally came out and watched him with a puzzled air. “Surely you need more of a rest, darling,” she said tentatively, when he came in to dinner. “You seemed so tired when you arrived.”
“I’m fine,” Draco said, drinking three glasses of water. “Any number of incompetents finish the Healing course, mother, it’s hardly that difficult.”
“Of course,” Narcissa said. “Only, things have settled down a great deal already, you know. There’s no reason you need continue. Our goblin of business tells me our funds are recovering well. We could reopen the Manor.”
The thought of sleeping in his own bed, walking over his own grounds, induced a wave of longing matched only by the wave of horror that swept back the other way. They’d had a cleaning crew in after the war, of course, and his mother had put away the long table, but even so a chill had still lingered deep in the Great Hall, sending fingers of cold into the corridors. Draco imagined waking from one of the nightmares back in his own bedroom, and he didn’t think he’d be able to go downstairs after, out of terror that he’d find green flames leaping in the grate, and a tall, smooth-headed figure standing before them, just beginning to turn.
“Not on my account,” he said, swallowing.
“Well, then perhaps your father and I will stay here a little longer,” she said. “If you don’t feel too lonely, my darling. I do hope you’re not working too hard.”
He went straight back to working too hard with a sense of deep relief. The second half of the term wasn’t any easier, but at least he’d begun to feel less incompetent. Half of his classmates hadn’t returned from the holidays, as though reacquaintance with sleep and a normal life had brought them back to their senses, and the instructors treated the survivors differently, as though the first half had been a winnowing exercise, and the ones who’d come back had proven they meant to stick it out and were now worth taking seriously.
He even went out for drinks a few times. Not with his actual classmates, but one night Mirabilis Vent, the senior specialist registrar, banged on his door and stuck her head in. She was one of the dozen students who also had rooms at the hospital, the better to spend all their time either working or sleeping; they were the ones aiming to become those rarefied creatures, consultants. “We’re going down to the pub, Malfoy, if your reputation can endure being seen with a bunch of halfbloods and common working folk,” she said.
He was quite aware he ought to have scornfully refused the invitation—hardly our sort of people, his mother’s voice said in his ear; Mirabilis herself had a Muggle father and a halfblood mother to boot, of no known lineage whatsoever—but instead he said, coolly, “My credit is good enough to carry it off, I imagine,” and he left the dusty old Manefort’s Mystickal Remedyes tome on his desk and went down with her.
None of the older students seemed to hate him, or for that matter to want to curry his favor. They were willing to have a drink with him in the pub and chat about Quidditch, although mostly they argued with each other over his head about their current cases and new journal articles and the proposed modernization of the Healing Arts course. Draco had never expected to like being anything but the center of attention in any gathering he deigned to attend, but—it was almost relaxing.
He meant to go back to Barcelona for the summer holidays, but in May, Whisely came by his rooms unexpectedly and said, “You’re doing well, Malfoy. Will you take a summer post at the Pantaleimon Sanctuary?” and Draco was taken so aback by the praise he said, “Yes?” without actually knowing what the Pantaleimon Sanctuary even was, so instead of a relaxing holiday on the beach in Spain, he had a long slow grind of a summer in the sweltering Istanbul heat under the severe and watchful eye of the Mother Superior, learning to treat two dozen magical diseases of Turkish origin that no one had ever seen in Britain and most likely never would. No Djinn was ever going to be voluntarily caught in a country where it got foggy on a regular basis, and Carpathian Roots wouldn’t grow there.
He stayed anyway. He had spent the first week of the summer with his parents. His father had just received an experimental treatment that had helped with the coughing, and made him more alert, so now he regularly went on rambling screeds about the vengeance the Dark Lord would take on the Muggle-lovers and occasionally demanded of Draco what he was doing to curry favor, and if he’d properly tortured that last suspected blood traitor.
The summer position ended well before the next term at St. Mungo’s began. On the evening when Draco was staring at his packed trunk and dreading a month in Barcelona, one of the sisters came around urgently recruiting for people to go on a medical mission to South Sudan, where what she called an epidemic of the Sweating Prickles had just broken out. Draco had never in his life contemplated doing anything for charity that didn’t involve formal wear and large cheques, but he seized the opportunity of escape. It didn’t seem as though it could be that onerous; in his experience, the Prickles were a minor ailment exaggerated by malingerers who wanted an excuse to spend a few more days lying about at home eating ice cream.
Draco arrived just as two of the four senior physicians on staff went down with exhaustion, and was instantly ordered to take care of the entire ward crammed with Prickles patients, half of them out of their mind with the desire to scratch the pricklebumps down to the bone and requiring restraint, the other half gone catatonic from being restrained and now needing to be fed and bathed. There were two nurses, a handful of listless orderlies, and a completely bare supply cupboard. It seemed the Prickles were a minor ailment, unless you didn’t have adequate supplies of comfrey and oil of lavender on hand and sufficient healers to concoct the ointment for treatment.
He would have fled at once, except one of the senior Spell Damage consultants from St. Mungos had flown down for the weekend, and he’d already seen Draco in the canteen—which had no tea at all, and only dreadful instant coffee and some kind of American Muggle soda—and made an approving noise which would undoubtedly turn into a highly disapproving one if Draco got himself clear of the whole mess by running away like a sensible person.
So instead Draco made the orderlies reorganize the patients so all the catatonic ones were together at one end of the floor—together they made for a welcome break from the howling he had to endure in the rest of the place—and then assigned all the patients’ family members a visiting window in which they were responsible for the feeding and bathing thereof themselves. He put his nurses exclusively to applying the Relieving Charms and the ointment three times a day—the shortage of which gave him an ironclad excuse to spend all his own time in the gardens, growing comfrey and lavender and doing the stewing.
The gardens were far better than the wards, but more than sufficiently hot and tiresome in their own right. The comfrey wouldn’t put out a single flower for him until he sent an owl with his own money and got new seeds shipped in from Kinshasa at outrageous expense, and even the lavender, which would grow for any Muggle who gave it a cup of water, was sluggish. There was only one silver spoon, which he found deep in the recesses of a supply shed, and the handle was half as long as his forearm, so he had to limit his batches to the smallest cauldron size, and he had to throw half those out in his first week. He was glad everyone else was utterly slammed and there was no one to see him, sweating like a pig and splattered with purple goop, dumping runny failed ointments that had refused to set into the bare concrete yard out in back of the gardens.
He did his required rounds late at night to avoid the many complaining family members, and when they did catch him, he told them coldly, “If you don’t care enough to feed and bathe the wretch, I hardly see why we should,” and even snapped at his nurses when they sneaked around behind his back to help. Anyone with a little sense could see the only thing to do was to spend their time getting the patients out, not coddling them.
He also made the nurses tend to the lightest cases first, which helped with everything except their increasing resentment, and was rewarded by seeing the number of his patients begin to decrease rapidly. After the second week, he had enough herbs and time to make a triple-strength ointment that took care of the last actively-whimpering one. Then at last they had blessed silence, except for patients whinging about being thirsty or hungry outside the normal mealtimes.
A week of applying the triple-strength ointment five times daily handled the Prickles for the catatonics, too, and most of them woke up within the next week, after which the handful of lingering cases were no longer contagious and could be safely dismissed over to psychiatric care, where they became someone else’s problem. Draco surveyed his emptied ward with enormous satisfaction as the orderlies began the process of Scourgifying the entire place top to bottom, and then turned round and found himself facing the very loudest of the complaining family members, a woman who’d cornered him three separate times over her son’s case.
“He was dismissed yesterday!” Draco said indignantly, the more so because he’d actually gone and worked a Skin Regrowing Charm on the boy last night, just to get rid of her. Six attempts to get it to come off successfully, and one of the nurses had overheard him casting it over and over. The staff had all been smirking rudely at him ever since.
The woman nodded and burst into tears and threw her arms around him—Draco noticed too late the bushel of flowers she was holding, which were crushed thorn-pokingly against his side in the embrace—and told him in excessively voluble terms for five minutes how wonderful he was, which it had never occurred to him could be an excruciating experience.
Draco finally escaped back to the gardens, where he threw the crumpled flowers in the bin and spent an hour angrily lashing the stains out of his robes and off his equipment. He didn’t want to be thanked; he’d only suited himself, and he meant to go on suiting himself, and what business did weeping family members have, treating him as though he really were interested in their pathetic cases. He was a Malfoy, it was beneath him. His father had once said to him, “Draco, I hope you understand that the reason people practice kindness towards strangers is that they expect—with justice in many cases—to be in need of such kindness themselves one day. One who has sufficient power in his own right ought never need to depend on so unreliable a resource.”
That had been in the old days, of course. Lucius had said it in perfectly creased silk robes, adjusting the fall of his cravat; Draco had been—nine or so, permitted to watch his father dress for a meeting with the Minister for Magical Transportation, to arrange for the dismissal of a proposed new bus route that would have come unpleasantly close to the Manor and encourage an undesirable degree of communication between their tenantry and the teeming crowds of Muggle-borns to be found in London. The route had quite naturally never materialized. It hadn’t even occurred to Draco to imagine any other outcome, once his father had decided to express his opposition.
Draco was still vengefully blasting cauldrons clean when the head of the hospital and the two remaining senior physicians appeared. It was the first time since the day of his arrival that he’d so much as caught a glimpse of them; they’d been handling every other case that had come into the hospital, most of which unlike the Prickles required more than a single year of medical training. They congratulated him on his performance, and the head of hospital informed him that he’d written a letter of commendation to Whisely for his record. “You may be certain that you can call upon me for a further recommendation whenever you are considering a fellowship, I should add, or for that matter any future post,” he added, beaming.
Draco shook their hands and smirked in satisfaction and also a private relief, not angry anymore at all. That was all right; that was a worthwhile reason to have done it for. He flew back to England in a self-congratulatory mood, pleased with himself.
Everything became differently hard in second year: all of them were now capable of being actually useful in routine cases, so they were all ruthlessly put to work, on top of all the studying they still had to do in order to make them useful for anything more. Draco was almost glad for having spent his summer in an endless slog; at least the contrast wasn’t so stark, and he even put it to good use: his Herbology instructor grudgingly excused him from the rest of the remedial work after Draco wrote up a long case study of his volunteer stint, making sure to mention all the patients he’d saved and discussing the different varieties of comfrey and how he’d tested several to find the best one, by which he meant the one that would grow for him.
“As long as you keep tending your window plants,” Professor Mimbley said. “I want you to keep working on them at least until you’ve sprouted a wormwood by starlight. Naturally, excellent supplies are available here, but as you’ve seen, a Healer never knows when they may be called upon to produce their own! I’ll inspect them at the end of term, come see me if you run into any difficulties.”
Draco swallowed a grumble. It was better than having to spend time in Herbology lectures. In any case, if he had been allowed to let his plants continue on to the merciful deaths that his best efforts just barely kept them from most weeks, his room would have become even more of a barren cell.
He suffered through a few more awkward incidents, because they were now occasionally taken into the upper wards with the more difficult cases, including Severe Spell Damage, where injured Aurors generally landed. He had a particularly narrow escape one afternoon from bumping into Harry himself—not that Potter had got hurt himself, naturally; he’d just come in with another Auror who’d been standing too close to him and had got a curse reflected off the heroism or something. Draco was nearly to the small alcove round from the nurses station—they kept a tea urn there, which ordinarily they guarded from visitors like dragons—when he caught a glimpse of the shock of unruly black hair, poking up from a gaggle of cooing admirers.
Draco immediately about-faced and hunted down the nearest house officer. “Healer Addersley, has there been any word on that odd Scrofulous Mange patient from yesterday? It just occurred to me that a secondary case of Ringpallor might be accounting for that green rash.”
The thought had actually occurred to him several hours ago during a bit of early-morning reading, but he’d been saving it to mention only at the end of his shift, as otherwise the natural reaction, which Addersley instantly exhibited, was to ship him off to Very Infectious Diseases to look into it himself, where it would be ages on either end getting in and out of the tedious protective gear and going through decontamination.
At the moment, however, spending a block of several hours away from Spell Damage was eminently desirable. Draco hadn’t seen Harry since the trial, and he didn’t want to. Harry’s testimony had been useful, but that didn’t mean Draco had enjoyed listening while the great and noble hero of the War grudgingly admitted Draco didn’t quite deserve to spend ten years of his life in Azkaban, mostly because he’d funked it at several critical junctures.
Thankfully Harry wasn’t there anymore when Draco finally came back upstairs, but his more-hapless Auror colleague was, and she decided to make a different scene of it during the evening rounds. “No thanks, Malfoy won’t be casting any countercurses on me, and for that matter, neither is anyone else until I get an explanation from someone for why he’s even here,” Alicia Spinnet said, the ice in her tone palpable even through the wheezes.
“To treat you for overmorbidity arising from the simultaneous impact of being hit with a Dazzling Jinx and having a Wernucke’s Wyrd reflected back at you,” Draco fired back, deeply grateful that he had already finished that supposedly optional reading assignment about complex spell interactions, optional being code for something your supervisor might spring on you at any time and look disapproving if you didn’t know it, “which is going to start you asphyxiating in roughly two hours if you really insist on waiting to speak with an administrator, assuming one can even be found who’s willing to bother.”
Mirabilis Vent was overseeing the case—she had just made it into the rarefied ranks of Healers who were working to become Spell Damage consultants. She said, “A little more effort on the bedside manner, Malfoy, if you please,” in a beleaguered tone, and added to Spinnet, “However, the diagnosis is accurate, so we’ll be treating you now, shall we? Malfoy’s only second year; I promise he’s not allowed to torture anyone unsupervised yet. Zalibar, let’s see you have a go at the countercurse for the Dazzling Jinx.”
Draco folded his arms and watched with a sneer. Possibly thrown off by the awkwardness, Zalibar’s wand wobbled off by a full six degrees from the optimal casting tilt on the Dazzling counter, and Aubrey made two mispronunciations in the reversed Wyrd, which meant Spinnet would need a second dose of it tomorrow morning before her lung capacity returned to normal. “I could hardly have done worse, if you’d let me,” he added to Mirabilis vengefully, when he pointed it out afterwards in the corridor.
She turned to him and put her hands on her hips. “Right, Malfoy, except I couldn’t let you, because you’d bit her head clean off. So one of my patients got worse care today because of your attitude. Find a way to talk her into letting you take care of it by tomorrow morning, or you’re not coming back to Spell Damage for a month.”
He gawked at her. “How am I supposed to do that? You saw, she hates me!”
“You’ll have to apply some creativity to the problem, I imagine,” Vent said, and sailed off.
He ground his teeth. Getting kicked out of Spell Damage, even temporarily, was by no means on his agenda; it was the most highly respected of the specializations, not to mention what was he going to be doing while everyone else was there? Roaming the wards and twiddling his thumbs? He spent the rest of the day seething, especially when Mirabilis had the nerve to knock on his door that evening and say, “We’re going to the pub, if you want to join us.”
“What, despite my attitude?” he snapped at her. “I think not,” and after she’d shrugged and said, “Suit yourself,” and gone away, he got up and threw on his old black cloak out of the bottom of his trunk and went out to Knockturn Alley. There was a little potion shop there that his mother had shown him once, which stocked certain esoteric items, including a Concoction of Compliance, a few drops of which sprinkled on Spinnet’s unpalatable breakfast would make her highly cooperative. Surely just using a potion couldn’t have the same ill effects as brewing one.
He got as far as raising his hand to the knocker, which was shaped like a large spider; the shop window was dark and papered over, with flickering firelight going behind it and half-obscured shapes skittering around. The street was cold and dark, a clammy draught breathing over the back of his neck from some unseen vent, and he couldn’t make out the faces of anyone going by. Of course, that was just as well. No one would even know he’d been here. He stared at the enormous iron spider, and then he dropped his hand and turned and went hurriedly back along the street to where it spilled back out into the cheerful evening bustle and noise and light of Diagon Alley.
He stood a few minutes breathing hard, sweat broken out on his face, and then he went to Matery Alley and stopped in at Galindra’s Gourmet and ordered a large picnic basket for delivery the next day, including a Bottomless Carafe of fresh hot tea, her famous Appetizing Buns, and two Unshelled Three-Minute Eggs, along with bacon, sausages, and several fruit tarts. The smell when it appeared the next morning was shockingly glorious, and brought heads popping up from the nurses’ station when he marched past with it to Spinnet’s room. She was sitting up and staring glumly at her breakfast tray—Draco had no idea why the eggs congealed on the way up from the canteen every time, there was a Keep-Fresh Charm on all the trays, but congeal they did—and when he plonked the basket down on her bed and opened the lid, she actually took in a deep involuntary whiff before she even glared at him.
“What do you want?” she demanded hoarsely, reaching for her wand. “I’ll call Security—”
“And say what, that I attacked you with pastries?” Draco said. “Stop making a ridiculous fuss. If I wanted to go around cursing people, I wouldn’t be doing the Healing course in the first place, as should be patently obvious.”
She scowled. “So why are you here? Going to tell me you’re making up for being a rotter all your life? Or have your lot lost all your money and you’ve had to go to work? I’m pretty sure I remember you all weaseling out of the whole business without a scratch.”
He thought of his father coughing steadily in the sunshine, the dull waxy sheen over his eyes, and nearly snarled at her. “My motives are none of your affair,” he said coldly. “I’m here, meaning in your room, because for some incalculable reason, my supervisor wants me to treat you, even though you’re being utterly unreasonable. So what will it be? Will you have a decent breakfast and let me clear out your lungs and send you on your way, or are you going to sit here contemplating that hideous mess on your tray, and spend another four hours hacking before the senior physician on duty gets round to you?”
It called for some emphasis, and anyway he was starving, so he took out one of the Appetizing Buns and bit into the magnificently yeasty dough and licked pastry cream off his lips. Spinnet eyed it with poorly concealed longing—he’d waited for morning very strategically—and said through her teeth, “How much trouble will you get in if I say no?”
“Nothing I can’t weasel out of, as you put it.”
“That’s true enough, I’m sure,” she muttered. “Fine, but I want another healer here watching you do it, and if I feel even the slightest bit worse, I’ll have you up on charges, see if I don’t.”
He itched to say something rude back, but he swallowed it and stalked out. Mirabilis was down at the records station getting ready for rounds, looking over her notes from the previous day. “Spinnet has been made to see reason,” he said coldly, “but she’s demanding the promised supervision before she’ll let me treat her. If you don’t mind?”
Mirabilis came back with him and watched Draco execute two note-perfect countercurses—he’d spent four hours last night practicing—and nodded equably afterwards. “Right, we’ll get you released shortly,” she told Spinnet, and went back out without the slightest sign of approval, or for that matter of remorse at having put Draco to trouble and expense. He scowled at Spinnet, too, who was making ecstatic noises inside her basket and certainly didn’t say thanks or anything remotely apologetic for mistrusting him or trying to humiliate him before his colleagues.
He went after Mirabilis, and cornered her down the corridor. “Well?” he snapped. “Satisfied?”
“If I wasn’t, you’d know about it,” she said. “And for pity’s sake don’t go on like I’m your nemesis now because I made you fix a mistake. It’s not like you don’t know you’ve something to prove.”
Heat flushed his cheeks. She’d never said anything, none of the instructors said anything, but he did know; he knew they were all watching him, looking for signs—they all wanted to ask just like Spinnet: why are you here, wanting him to grovel and moan about how he was sorry and how he was going to make up for it all.
“I was sixteen!” he hissed at her. “What would you have done?”
“No idea, and I’m very grateful I didn’t have to find out,” Mirabilis said. “Although I’d more likely have been on the other end, of course.”
He whirled away from her and stalked down the corridor.
He turned down all the invitations to the pub after that, and redoubled his work. He wasn’t going to let anyone wonder why he was here; they were going to be forced to acknowledge it was because he was good at it. He made a point of asking all his instructors for further reading and made sure his every paper had at least a dozen obscure details that hardly anyone would know, the sort of suck-up nonsense that Granger had always used to make herself look like a star amid the firmament. He’d never bothered with that sort of thing before—a Malfoy hadn’t needed to.
When the year drew to a close, he didn’t wait for Whisely to come to him again; he went to the office and looked up the most prestigious summer openings and lined up one in Japan and one in Brazil, where no one would know his name and most likely they’d only even vaguely heard of Voldemort. Perhaps he’d even transfer, he thought vengefully in Mirabilis’s direction, and not come back at all.
Two days before he was due to leave, he was glaring at her in person in the Spell Damage wards again; she was in charge of another case that the second year students had been allowed to come in and see. As they were all trooping back out of the room, a hideously expensive international express goose burst honking into the wards and dived straight for him, and dropped an urgent message from his mother into his hands. He took it into an empty room to open it, almost unnecessarily. Come at once was all it said. He stood holding it in a blank stupor, without moving.
A few minutes later Mirabilis came in and gave him a cup of tea and said, “Go, it’ll be all right.” She was only saying that it would be all right for him to leave term early, but he tried to believe her. He drank the tea down and went.
Despite the urgency of the message, there turned out to be no rush. It was three grotesque lingering weeks in the hospital, dutifully asking all the right questions and translating the jargon for his mother’s benefit, which all reduced down to what they already knew: the last treatments had failed, and the spores were winning the battle. His father demanded to know how soon he would be let out of the hospital, even as he coughed up bloody lumps the size of sickles, and accused the nurses of trying to murder him, asking Draco loudly if they were all pureblood.
And then he stopped being able to speak that much, but he kept refusing the palliative measures even when he could barely croak anymore, eyes darting mad and terrified and full of hate to all their faces as they bent over him, trying to explain there was nothing else left to do.
When his doctors left frustrated, Lucius groped still for Draco’s arm, and when Draco bent over him, Lucius dragged his ear down to his lips and hissed, faint and thready, “Why does the Dark Lord not come? He will save me!” as though Voldemort of all people could have cast so much as an Earwax-Clearing Charm.
When Draco tried to draw away, Lucius clutched harder, nails digging in, and whispered, “Your fault! You failed Him! Why didn’t you kill the old man as you were ordered? We could have ruled! Coward! Traitor!”
Draco finally dragged himself away and went down to the hospital cafeteria, which had a familiar comforting dinginess, and drank two cups of bad tea with shaking hands. By the time he went back upstairs, Lucius had slipped into a fitful sleep, and when he woke up later he could no longer speak.
It still didn’t end for a few more days. Lucius writhed and moaned until he grew so incoherent they could justify giving him the relief he’d refused before. Narcissa sat by the wide-open window with an expression as blank as a still pool of dark water, refusing to acknowledge a reality that displeased her. Draco sat by the bedside as a kind of penance for not wanting to be there at all. He wanted to be wretched, and he was, but not for the right reasons. He kept thinking of Charity Burbage, oddly. Well, he thought about her often; she appeared in his nightmares with hideous frequency, but he couldn’t stop thinking of her right now—the way she’d writhed over the table in agony, begging for help, and the horrible green flash of the Death Curse striking, the wave of shivering cold that had gone rolling over the room. Draco hadn’t cried for her at the table, and he wasn’t crying now, only his eyes kept leaking tears, and the nurses gave him sympathetic looks. They hadn’t any idea he wasn’t crying for his father.
When it was finally over, there was still the funeral to endure, standing in the churchyard with his mother and holding a black parasol to ward off the oppressive sunshine, flowers blooming everywhere, the smell of orange trees. They’d briefly discussed burying Lucius back at the Manor, but Draco had said no without the slightest hesitation, and his mother hadn’t argued.
They went back to England together and spent two days in the solicitors’ office for the droning tedium of going over every word of every paper. “You must always ask at least four questions whose answers you already know, to be sure they are answered as you expect, and after that as many other questions as required to understand everything you sign,” Lucius had told him, sternly, every time he’d signed a contract; Draco had been taken along as soon as he’d grown old enough to sit still in a chair and watch. “If you even once allow others to believe that you can be imposed upon, you will be imposed upon: that much is certain.”
Draco heard the words over in his head while he sat in silence and let the solicitors go through it all. The papers were all perfectly in order. There were no actual numbers to consider, the entail was comprehensive and his mother’s money had been kept separate, so it was simply everything coming into his hands, as though he was meant to step right into his father’s place and carry on. The solicitors told him he should consult with his goblins to review the funds and get the keys to the house out of their vault, and Draco could hear his father’s voice telling him to go at once. He nodded and shook their hands.
“I’ve been thinking, darling,” his mother said, walking out into Diagon Alley with him, when it was all over, “I might go back to Barcelona a while longer. I’ve got so used to the climate.” It was late June, but London was swathed in proper grey, fog curling around their ankles and a faint cool mist in the air. “If you’re all right.”
“Of course,” he said. They had a very civilized lunch together at the Hotel Enchantment down on Reeg Alley, and then he walked her to Kings Cross station for the international carriage, and stayed on the platform until it had gone out of sight.
The special express cart to Gringotts left from a discreet side tunnel just down the stairs from the platform, and customers at Draco’s level were always welcome to use it. Instead he turned and went back into Diagon Alley, walked to St. Mungo’s and went straight up to Whisely’s office. The secretary let him in, and Whisely looked up from his desk.
“I’ve missed my summer posts,” Draco said.
Whisely nodded. “Do you want some work to do?”
“Yes,” Draco said. That was exactly what he wanted.
His third and fourth years blurred together, without landmarks. He worked, he studied, he went out only rarely. Not because he was still angry with Mirabilis; he wasn’t. He couldn’t seem to find anger at all, even though it had always come so easily. It just all seemed small and pointless now. Everything did. At least work was a matter of life and death, often literally. He did let himself care whether his patients did well, in a sort of safe, academic way. It was a way to measure himself, after all, and conveniently it was the way other people measured him too, now.
He didn’t have any more unwelcome encounters with old school friends. Most wizard patients generally ended up in hospital as the result of their own mistakes, and therefore fell into one of three categories: young, old, or addled. His classmates all had a few years of practical life experience under their belts now, and they’d stopped showing up in the first group; the patients appearing in that category these days had all been several years behind him, too young to really be involved in the war. The war grew more distant for him, too, marching steadily away into the past with the rest of his old life, disappearing over the event horizon that divided his life into before and after the start of the mediwizard course.
Draco didn’t know when he stopped even thinking of casting hexes, when the healing spells began to come easily, naturally. It felt as though there ought to have been a moment he could look back to and say there, that was when it happened, but there wasn’t. But one day in his fourth year the house officer said to him, “Malfoy, they’re slammed in Poisoning: go up and take a shift, will you?” and on the stairs going up, Draco realized in sudden surprise that he’d made it. He was going to finish the course in nine weeks, and then he’d be a healer.
He went up to his narrow room that evening and sat staring at his little row of plants on the windowsill, including the starlit-grown wormwood resting under its opaque shade. He had no idea what to make of himself. If anyone had suggested to him that he’d be a mediwizard one day, he would have laughed in their faces. Probably even if they’d suggested it to him after he’d already enrolled in the course. “Healer Malfoy,” he said out loud. It sounded absurd. Minister Malfoy, that would have been all right; even Supervisor Malfoy. Lord Malfoy: he could carry off a Lord, if put to it, he had no doubt of that, but was he really going to try Healer? It seemed unlikely.
But the week before graduation, Whisely called him into his office and said, “You’re welcome to stay on as a house officer, if you care to continue,” and Draco said, “Yes,” so evidently he was. He certainly hadn’t any other ideas what to do with himself.
Whisely nodded. “Have you considered a specialty?”
“I thought—Spell Damage,” Draco said, a bit defiantly: it was the hardest to get into, of course, but he didn’t mean to settle.
“Very good,” was all Whisely said.
Draco was a junior house officer for a year, then senior for another two. The time slid away so smoothly that he barely noticed it going. It wasn’t especially different from being in the course. The division of his hours spent tipped over towards work instead of studying, but he kept on with his independent reading and began to take the Spell Damage journals. There were entire weeks when he didn’t leave the hospital. He spent his few and brief holidays abroad with his mother, who had settled quite firmly into the Barcelona wizarding set. She’d even got some color.
Those three years were the minimum required to sit the examinations to specialize in Spell Damage. In practice, most healers spent five or seven in full-time work before making the first attempt, but Draco didn’t want to wait any longer than he had to: he was getting bored with the routine cases, and even more with being supervised by consultants all the time. He put his name on the list the day he finished his third year of work.
He felt sure he was ready, but he was anxious the whole week after the examinations, because the questions had seemed too easy. He was certain he had passed, but there were only four positions open in St. Mungo’s, and if he wasn’t high up, he might have to go elsewhere. It started to feel like a bad idea that he’d taken the exam in a room full of healers who’d all had at least two years’ experience on him or more.
Then the results came in, and he found himself blankly staring at the posting on the wall outside the residents’ quarters with his name heading the list. “Yes, yes, smugness is unbecoming, Malfoy,” one of the other house officers said, walking behind him. “As if anyone else had a chance with you grinding away day and night.”
Whisely spoke with every applicant after their examination results. Draco’s turn came halfway through the alphabet, a week or so later. He still hadn’t quite absorbed the idea he had climbed to the top of his cohort, but Whisely didn’t seem particularly surprised.
“We are prepared to offer you a post as specialist registrar,” he only said, businesslike. “I would suggest you pursue the deep intervention course for your broad specialization, rather than general mediwizardry,” he added. “The more challenging forms of Spell Damage almost always require deep work to address. A course of research may suggest itself to you in a few years: there is no need to hurry it along.” He frowned at Draco in his owlish way. “I think perhaps the prohibition on Dubious Charms should become permanent, if you proceed, but I will not insist if you feel otherwise.”
“No,” Draco said. In fact there were a handful of Charms that he felt ought to have been on the Dubious list and weren’t; any spell that had a touch of Dark in it went distinctly crabbed and uncomfortable in his head when he even thought about it, these days.
Whisely nodded. “Very well. Congratulations on your results, Healer Malfoy.” At least the three years had filed off the most baffling edges of the title.
The deep intervention course knocked out more than half of the mediwizards who signed on for it. Most of them weren’t prepared to practice spells a dozen times over, finding the precise positioning of wand and body to make the one-millimeter’s difference between cure and disaster. But Draco found it almost ecstatically satisfying, flying downhill after a long slog up the mountain. He could almost have coasted, but instead he devoted his time to making his castings perfect, making them beautiful. Where before he would have practiced a spell a dozen times over just to get it right, now he tried a dozen deliberate variations, with spell fields all round him measuring the minutely changed effects.
To his delight, by the end of his second year in specialist training, other mediwizards started to come by his operations to watch him work, or to consult him on their own complex castings. All this time, he’d just kept going and going straight ahead, mostly to avoid looking around behind him at the things on his heels, but now—coming out at the head of the exams, finding himself the top of his class—it woke something up in him. He’d always been parched-thirsty for everyone to acknowledge his brilliance, and it seemed that after years of being slapped thoroughly round instead, he had suddenly discovered he was brilliant at something after all.
His senior consultant even said his polished forms were worth a thesis, if he put together at least twenty significantly improved casting positions. Draco was vaguely dissatisfied with the topic, it didn’t feel quite grandiose enough, but he meant to get his M.D. on principle—he’d more or less got used to Healer thanks to sufficient repetition, hearing it twenty times a day in the wards, but Magister Malfoy would be a definite improvement—so he began working on it.
At that point, the full consultants were already letting him take on the most difficult cases with only the barest pretense of supervision. He never refused a case when the house officers asked him, and swelled with fresh satisfaction every time one of them brought him an impossible one and he managed to carry it off.
Of course, establishing a reputation for enjoying a challenge did occasionally have some awkward consequences. “Set off an Advanced Anti-Burglary Charm while installing it, got hit with an automatic Confusion Hex and Fumble-Fingers Jinx, then stumbled straight into a cursed Transformation Cabinet, got turned into an earthworm, and was bit in half by the cat before the family could stop it,” the house officer said, holding out a tray with two wriggling halves of an earthworm, and an anxious gaggle of wife and six children and two elderly parents behind him.
“Why didn’t you just take it straight to the cemetery, at least the worm might’ve been happy,” Draco said, rather outraged. “Yes, all right,” he added impatiently, to the crumpling faces. “I’ll see what I can do. Get me a tub of moonlit acacia from the greenhouse, and I’ll need a bucket of Skele-Gro.”
He managed to join the two halves back together, and after that it was two solid weeks of minor daily transfigurations to shift the earthworm up through cautious small hops along branches of a cladogram—a new technique someone in Germany had come up with for medical transfigurations; Draco had studied it there on a fellowship—naturally while having to repeatedly counter-hex the Confusion every step of the way.
Finally Draco ended up with a small lemur—which kept trying to climb all over his room and falling because of the Fumble-Fingers; also it left droppings all over—and from there it was only—only—a complex four-hour-long operation to clear off the Fumble-Fingers and untangle the mess of the Anti-Burglary Charm while simultaneously restoring the patient to his hapless human self and the bosom of his grateful family.
“We can never thank you enough, Healer,” the wife said.
“You certainly can’t,” Draco said, looking with distaste at his robes: the lemur had messed three more times just during the final proceeding. “Next time, straight to the cemetery,” he informed the house officer. “Half an earthworm, honestly.” But secretly he was full of triumph as he took himself off to the showers. No one was going to ask him why are you here ever again, not when he was saving people who’d literally been bitten in half, he was sure of that.
Afterwards, the house officers occasionally started coming to him first, especially during the night. Most of the consultants would grumble a bit at being woken up, even if they were officially on call. But three weeks later when Draco was paged to the intensive wards at four in the morning, he rolled out of his cot and went straight back down, even though he’d only just got to bed after a full shift.
“Well, Finley, what’s the case?” he said, coming in already pulling on his gloves, and halted, his breath stopping in his throat: Katie Bell was in the bed, with three house officers rotating to keep a Sustaining Field up around her.
She was thin—thinner than she’d been in school, gaunt-cheeked, her brown hair faded to grey and her eyes dull and red-shadowed beneath. One part of his head was cataloguing the symptoms automatically—the effects of a minor jinx in the Domination school, interacting with an earlier weakness due to some form of nerve damage, and aggravated to a dangerous level by secondary exposure to a major curse in a harmonizing school, Debilitating or—but of course, he didn’t need to speculate.
“We’re worried about administering an Interspectral Scan, with her vitals as they are,” the senior house officer was saying. “But without the diagnosis—”
“What was the precipitating incident?” Draco said mechanically.
“Just a basic Jelly-Arms jinx, as far as we can tell,” Finley said. “This past weekend. She was playing a pick-up game of no-holds Quidditch, took a hit, recovered promptly after the counter-jinx was administered. She went home, complained of fatigue to her boyfriend, and went to sleep early. Her condition deteriorated gradually over the last five days, and at three this morning her boyfriend woke up and found her convulsing in agony, unable to speak, and brought her in by Side-Along Apparition.”
Draco stepped slowly up to the bedside. Even with the Sustaining Field keeping her heart and lungs going, Katie looked vague and far-away, her hand limp in the boyfriend’s clasp. The man wasn’t anyone Draco recognized; he hadn’t been at Hogwarts.
“Hullo, Malfoy,” Katie said distantly. “Heard you’d gone in for healing. Funny,” so she wasn’t going to refuse him, he couldn’t even take that escape route.
“Yes,” he said. “It rather took me by surprise myself. What was it you had, third year, I think? It kept you off the field half the Quidditch season?”
“Oh, yeah,” she said, a brief spark struggling to life in her eyes. “Mumblemumps. Ugh, what a bore that was.”
Draco stepped back out of the Field and turned to Finley. “Begin an infusion of adder’s milk and green night-blooming lilies harvested fresh in the last three weeks. I’ll operate in two hours, after it’s had a chance to circulate. The jinx fractured open an old spirit injury along the central axis: extended exposure to the Imperius Curse and direct physical contact with a Cursed artifact in the Debilitation school, second order, with complications from incompletely healed Mumblemumps lesions.”
Finley gaped at him. “But—” She looked at Katie and back at him, bewildered. She was one of the good ones; these days Draco kept all the junior healers strictly classified in his head as competent, barely adequate, or a future embarrassment to the profession, and Finley was one of the handful in the first category. “How—that’s not evident on surface examination! How could you possibly know what she was exposed to?”
“Because I was the one who exposed her,” Draco said shortly. Finley stared even harder. “Start the infusion and have the east theater prepared for the intervention, windows open: I’ll want sunrise on her.”
He went to the chapel to hold the pre-operation vigil. His hand wanted to tremble, lighting the candles, but he didn’t let it. He couldn’t let it. He’d already tried to argue himself into putting Aggardley or Corvic on the case instead, and failed. Deep intervention on a patient under a Sustaining Field, trying to repair nerve lesions at the same time as rebuilding nearly the entire spirit framework, and physical damage to the pulmonary system—he’d been so proud of his skill, his precision, and now he couldn’t convince himself there was a Healer in the place who had a better chance to pull the thing off than he did.
He knelt before the candles and started the chant. It wasn’t required anymore: recent studies had shown conclusively that intervention success rates didn’t change with the chant or not. Draco ordinarily disdained it himself as old-fashioned. But he had two hours to fill, and he couldn’t bear to leave them empty.
“Mr. Malfoy, they’re ready for you in the east theater,” a nurse said, putting her head in, and he blinked: he’d only just started, surely. But the candles had burned down to nubs, and the sunrise was just coming over the horizon.
“Thank you,” he said, his voice a bit hoarsened, and stood up. Even after two hours kneeling, his body wasn’t sore, his head was clear. He reached out and snuffed the candles with a twist of thumb and forefinger, and went to the theater.
Katie was lying on the table, her eyes half-closed, deep in a Dreaming Sleep. Two fresh junior house officers had taken over the Sustaining Field, passing it between them carefully, a rhythm like jumping rope. The examination lights were turned up to full blaze.
He hadn’t known what truly Dark magic could do, back when he’d taken the necklace out of the Manor vault in desperation. He hadn’t known how the damage looked, the way it ate into the foundations of the spirit and poisoned the wells of the body’s strength: a splash of ink in a small pool of clear water, spreading murk.
He’d spent the last six years—six years that had just somehow vanished, it seemed to him belatedly; he couldn’t remember a single thing out of them that wasn’t work, a single day that wasn’t either the hospital or the few blank hours on the Barcelona beaches. Six years learning to see the damage, learning to care, as if it had all been training for this moment, so that under his own spell-light he could see every excruciating detail of the harm his own clumsy and vicious hands had done, and feel the hideous corruption of it.
And it wasn’t just in Katie—of course not just in her. He’d treated dozens of wizards for the effects of too much curse-casting, for interactions with Dark artifacts. The first question on the Spell Damage examinations, three years before, had asked for an explanation of first-stage noumenia rot and its challenges for treatment. He’d filled half a foot of parchment without even having to think about it, easily going into detail about how primary noumenical corruption occurs in direct proportion to the extent of damage inflicted by the caster on others through the deliberate invocation of magickal forces, and the extreme difficulty of identifying the condition at stages that still permitted treatment, as the rot proceeded from the innermost layers outward, with the effects concealed from examination until the damage had grown so extensive the body’s visible resources began to be consumed.
He’d gone into his family’s vault at the behest of a Dark Lord, a wizard who had entirely and deliberately shed his noumenia in order to avoid that very rot. He’d opened the doors and taken out a cursed artifact with the intent of committing murder. He’d held the necklace in his gloved hands, the vicious power of it penetrating the silk. He’d used the Imperius curse on an innocent girl, one who wasn’t even an enemy of his, and forced her into the role of carrier. And all the while he’d been thinking, panicky, only of himself, of what would happen to him, to his parents, if he didn’t succeed.
He hadn’t thought about it at all in—ten years. Not since it hadn’t worked. He’d thought of other things, horrible things. He’d dreamed helplessly of Voldemort, rasping over the Manor floors. He’d remembered Charity screaming. But he hadn’t thought about—the things he’d done. He’d tried not to think about them even at the time.
But even at sixteen and terrified, he had known he was doing something vile and wrong, unforgivable in every sense of the word. He’d known. He’d only pushed it out of his mind, averted his eyes. But magic didn’t care if you looked away, and now thanks to his six years of slogging work he knew with terrible clarity that he’d been carving up his own soul, gouging scars into his spirit as gruesome as the ones he was looking at right this moment.
Some part of him instinctively wanted to flee; he wanted to race with shaking hands down the corridor to the next operating theater and beg Corvic or Mirabilis to examine him, to find the damage, to heal it, to weave him back together. There were shivering chills running up and down his back, a prickling feverish heat across his forehead.
Draco swallowed the nauseating wave of horror, and reached in desperation for the one thing he did remember, from the last six years: the endless hours of repetition and habit. He stepped into the precisely correct operating position, on the left side nearest the heart, and raised his wand, tilted seventeen degrees from the vertical to the northwest. “Let’s begin,” he said.
He’d enjoyed all his complicated operations before now—they had been exhilarating, discovering one challenge after another and fighting his way through them with verve and panache. But this one was only nightmarish. He tried to keep it mechanical—he began with the outer perimeter, repairing the minor damage, working his way inward along a spiraling path. But he kept meeting one sliver of curse magic after another, and when he extracted them, the counter-curses stung as he cast them, like having to take out shards of glass that cut his own fingers. The curse of the opal necklace was even more elaborate than he’d realized: as he went deeper, he could see the savage lingering traces that hadn’t been fully eradicated in the first healing, stray bits of curse magic still trying to reach completion and destroy all the life force it touched.
He isolated each one and worked his way through them, systematically: repairing the physical damage, then a spirit cleansing to loosen the spell’s grip, a focused blast of healing magic to burn the trace away, and a final minor healing charm to seal the site and allow healthy regrowth. The repetition was soothing at first: after a dozen times, he fell into a steady pattern, moving closer in until there was only the small remnant of the original injury left, a tiny pocket ahead. This almost might have been any healing, any patient.
And then he reached the end and probed into that pocket, and had time for one instant of horror. The curse hadn’t been eradicated at all. It was still there, the whole thing—the original healers must have used the wrong counter-curses, or not all of the right ones. All they’d managed to do was prune the curse back and force it into concealment, leaving it to grow back to full strength—those hadn’t been traces, those had been tendrils of the actual spell, starting to reach out again to fulfill the original intention of the curse.
He had that single moment to recognize what had happened, and then Katie arched up off the table, screaming, as the spell boiled out of the dark compressed knot, giving up its hiding place. The cold shiver of Dark magic exploded through the room, just as if the curse had been freshly cast, and the two house officers recoiled instinctively. The Sustaining Field started to drop, and Draco threw out his off-hand and caught it with Accio, wandless and wordless, because he had to: the curse had flung fresh tendrils all round Katie’s heart, and if the Field fell now, she would die in an instant.
The weight of the Field yanked on him heavily, all the force of the curse behind it, trying to push him off-balance. He gritted his teeth against the dragging sensation and fought to keep his balance, only the endless hours of rigid practice making it possible. With the curse blossoming outward, he could see it more clearly: it was an interweaving of a delayed Avada Kedavra and a Crucio, as he’d thought, but there was something else also, something smaller…a Bad-Luck Jinx.
He almost wanted to laugh wildly when he spotted the misshapen lump of it. Dumbledore had been right to call the necklace a crude, desperate attempt at assassination. This curse would never serve anyone’s intentions, even Dark intentions. Because Draco had intended to kill Dumbledore, the curse had twisted aside to find a different victim. Katie herself.
The necklace’s spells were all expertly interlocked, almost impossibly so: they’d been cast all at once, together, in the finishing stage of the necklace’s creation, Draco realized suddenly. That was what had made them so resistant to destruction. Even if a Healer countered all three curses separately, the knot at the middle would remain. The only way to unwind it would be casting two interlocked counter-curses and a counter-jinx together. He already knew every word of each separate counter spell, every syllable; he’d worked each one before. But putting together a brand-new interweaving of counter-spells was normally the work of a week and careful review, not something you just spun together as you went. And even if he tried it, all the while he wouldn’t be able to let go of the Sustaining Field, not for an instant: now that he’d jumbled up all the ley lines of it into his fist, it couldn’t be handed off to a different mediwizard again without a break that would kill Katie.
He couldn’t do it. No one could do it; it was impossible. But she was screaming, so loud, the same way she’d screamed when—
Draco clenched his teeth and brought his wand up to the highest striking position, arm fully extended, the only way to go after a Death Curse. He shut his eyes a moment, blocking out the screaming and the clammy creep of Dark magic against his skin, those familiar old friends come back to visit him. He closed them out of his mind the way he’d closed himself into his room at the Manor, the way he’d closed his ears to the screams from the cellars far below, the way he’d closed his thoughts into his head against the snake-touch of Voldemort’s prying.
He started into the first syllables of the counter for the Death Curse. They flowed into the middle three of the counter-jinx, and back out again to the beginning of the counter for the Crucio. He moved his wand in the harmonizing patterns, matching the motions from one counter to the incantation of the next; it flowed easily, the tip leading his hand naturally through the joins.
The curse began throwing more desperate tendrils out, with so much pent-up strength it began to scorch her flesh. If it just boiled Katie alive in her skin, it could reach completion that way, too. He somehow managed to push the Sustaining Field to the higher level, a Rejuvenating Field, and kept the interweaved counters going. He wasn’t sure how. He should have been struggling, fighting for every moment, but instead his breath had begun coming more easily, his wand gliding as smoothly as thought, a strange clarity descending over his sight. The last of the counter-incantations rolled off his tongue, and he finished back in the original striking position. Without a pause he threw the entire interwoven counter again, polishing the movements this time, and found he had enough strength to feed the Rejuvenating Field, too. Katie’s screams were dying away and the tendrils were curling back—the curse was trying to creep back into its safe hole.
Not this time. Draco found himself grinning savagely as he whipped into the third casting and the tripling effect took hold. The counter-spell glowed brilliantly in and through Katie’s flesh, meeting and eradicating the tendrils of the curse as it found them, surrounding the last tight knot. Its own interwoven knot closed around the curse and sank into it, a full neutralization, and the last scraps of Dark magic vanished away as the counter-spell’s glow faded out.
Draco gave a long sigh as Katie’s body relaxed, and he looked down at her. He was still holding up the Rejuvenating Field. The danger was past, but the spell energies surging through her had left damage he could see all throughout her noumenia and her body both—she’d survive, but she’d be a year recovering, and she’d never be playing no-holds Quidditch again on a sunny weekend.
With sudden decision, he brought his wand hand into the Rejuvenating Field. He’d never done this himself before—he’d only seen it done a dozen times, and been the second supporting Healer once. It was dangerous to the Healer, you weren’t even supposed to try it without two supporters unless it was a matter of life and death. But he felt like a hunter with the quarry in sight, the Golden Snitch gleaming just ahead in the fourth hour of a Quidditch game; he wasn’t going to give up now. He took secure hold of the Field and started the Major Healing Incantation as he shoved upwards, and with that push the true Healing Field formed, blue radiance welling up around his hands, shimmering gently out over Katie’s skin, the distant high beautiful song of the spell sounding from the corners of the room.
He listened to it a long while, mesmerized, keeping the Field in place until the last echoes of music died naturally away, and then he blinked dry eyes and drew a breath, and closed his hands up as he let the Field lift away and dissipate.
Katie was curled onto her side on the table, smiling in an easy, natural sleep: her skin was flushed with healthy color and her cheeks full, her lashes dark against her cheek. She looked as young as a girl still in school.
“Finite Incantatem,” Draco said, formally ending the operation, and then he turned and nearly jumped back. The two house officers who’d originally been holding the Sustaining Field and the three nurses who’d been managing the room and the infusions were all standing along the back wall staring. Behind them, the observation balcony was crammed full of people. Every one of the senior consultants were in the front row, other specialist registrars behind them, house officers in the back craning to see over them. Draco stared back a moment, but one thing he knew without having to think about it was how to play to an audience. He swept his wand back into his sleeve, gave a small gracious inclination of his head, and glided out of the room.
The boyfriend was standing outside in the waiting area, pacing back and forth; Katie’s parents were with him, by now. They stared at him, and her father began to frown faintly. Draco didn’t want to talk to them. But he never wanted to talk to any of the families, so he’d grudgingly had to learn how. The habit carried him mechanically through. “Ms. Bell is going to be fine,” he said, and the half-recognition faded before relief; they had a hundred questions for him, which he answered with clipped words, detailing everything he’d fixed, as though he’d done it all a hundred times—just a bore really, doing impossible castings twice before breakfast and tossing in a Healing Field just to save the bother of all that tiresome rehabilitative medicine—and going over all the damage in excruciating detail, trying not to think of the mirror half of that damage that was still—in him. He didn’t feel it. He also wasn’t even particularly tired, after a healing that should have flattened an entire circle of mediwizards; even as he droned through the layman’s explanations, in the back of his head he was wondering in rising alarm whether it was—a symptom of some kind.
The senior nurse came out of the theater—he looked exhausted—and said, “The patient is awake, and asking for Mr. Errols, and for something to—Healer, can she eat or drink yet?”
“If she likes she can fly,” Draco said, with a dismissive flip of his hand. “Only not in the actual wards, please,” as if everything was perfectly fine, but after the family had all trooped off to go see Katie with a last flurry of thanks, he went straight up to Whisely’s office.
“Go right in, dear,” Eleanor said, smiling and nodding at him, as if he’d been expected.
“I rather thought you would come,” Whisely said, pouring him a glass of the brandy he kept in the bottom drawer, which he ordinarily reserved for the times when you’d lost a patient in a hard-fought battle. Draco left the glass sitting on the desk.
“You guessed it was there, didn’t you,” he said flatly. “The—damage to my noumenia. All those years ago.”
“Certainly,” Whisely said. “It was not a difficult diagnosis, Healer.”
Draco swallowed. “How…bad is it? What do I need to do?”
Whisely pulled down the spectacles and peered at him over the top. “Come now. Physician, heal thyself. Well?”
Draco stared at him, and the question sent his brain lurching out of queasy terror and back into the well-worn paths of diagnosis and treatment, the ones he walked ten times a day: self-inflicted noumenia rot could only be healed by active avoidance of Dark magic, the regular use of spells from the higher-virtue categories, and frequent small infusions of positive spiritual energy, given freely by those with healthy noumenia themselves—
“Oh,” Draco whispered, his voice cracking: thinking of every grateful patient who had hugged him round his cringing shoulders, every family member who had seized and pumped his hand while he winced and tried to extract it, or wept on his shoulder damp and uncomfortable—
He did take the glass of brandy, then, and drank it. When he was finished, he set it down with a clink on the desk. “Then—what happened in there?” he said. “I felt I could have cast a dozen Healing Fields.”
Whisely shrugged a shoulder, a small gesture, with a gleam in his eye under the brows. “Perhaps you would be interested to know that there are only three even vaguely documented cases in the literature of Dark wizards who renounced the Dark Arts and turned to Healing.”
“And?” Draco said slowly.
“All three became the greatest Healers of their age. By a considerable margin.”
For some absurd reason there were tears stinging Draco’s eyes. “That’s why you let me in.”
Whisely shook his head. “No. I let you in because you asked.” Then he let out a tiny smile, his round face suddenly illuminating. “But I might have kept it in mind.”
“But today—it’s been easier, the last few years, but not like this. Why did everything change today? Why—” Draco stopped, because of course, he knew why. He’d answered that on the examinations, too: he’d fixed an evil done by his own hands. He’d undone the worst part of the Dark he’d put into the world.
Whisely was nodding. “But not so much has changed,” he said gently. “You have been one of the finest Healers here for some time.”
“You’ve never said so.”
“It has never been my observation that you required much encouragement to think highly of yourself, Mr. Malfoy,” Whisely said primly.
Draco narrowed his eyes; he was starting to feel a bit more like himself—if he quite knew what that was, anymore. “I could have used some, those first years. But I suppose you’ll tell me now that might have interfered with my progress?”
“Let us say it is best not to argue with success,” Whisely said.
Draco made himself glare at Whisely’s twinkling expression, trying to be annoyed: it ought to have infuriated him, and since it hadn't, he would just pretend it had, and respond accordingly. “In that case, when will you name me a consultant?” he said coolly.
“Today,” Whisely said. Draco blinked. “There is no sense in subjecting your seniors to the task of supervising you when you might instead be relieving them of some of their load. Magister Ganset has five new registrars to look after: I will tell her to assign you two of them.”
“You’re giving me students?” Draco said in now very-real outrage. “Do you want them to drop?”
“I trust you will be able to rise to this new challenge.”
“Of course you do,” Draco muttered. The sly bastard. He scowled at Whisely, and demanded, suspicious. “What was your house, anyway?”
Whisely raised his eyebrows and motioned his chin towards the back wall: there was a small photograph of the famous 1955 undefeated Slytherin Quidditch team on the bookshelf, the one that had won every game by more than 200 points, with a small, owlish Seeker in the front.
Whisely announced his retirement three years later. Draco spent the six months leading up to his departure laying the groundwork for staking a claim to the office. He didn’t see why he shouldn’t have it. He was the acknowledged best Healer in England now, by far. Mediwizards from all Europe were applying to study with him, and the office had to issue tickets to the observation area whenever he operated. He’d blazed through his thesis in three months, all on the construction and dismantling of what he’d named the Opal Curse, so now he had the Magister in front of his name, and he was even working on a new monograph, about the effect of the early use and then renunciation of Dark magic on Healing skills.
The only reason he could see not to give it to him would’ve been—everything he’d just given ten years of his life to carve out of his past. Well, and also he was five years younger than the next plausible candidate and a match for the youngest Healer who’d ever been named to the post, and that had been Francis Bacon; but very well, why not him, too. And then at least it would be something his mother could understand, instead of her lingering faint bewilderment and hints that he didn’t need to keep slogging away anymore, the estate had recovered and their reputation had as well, surely it was time he quit his job and came back into society and began meeting some nice girls from the right sort of families.
Pulling strings, taking the hospital directors to lunch, exchanging polite social conversation and impolite gossip, the whole campaign stretched muscles he hadn’t used for years. But he’d been bred up for this sort of thing from the cradle: whispers in his ear before guests arrived, be sure to speak nicely to Great-Aunt Elisabeth, she hasn’t any heirs; the Godfreys are having money trouble, you can see they’re all wearing robes made-over from last year’s style; that Carrolls girl isn’t really fit company for you, darling, her grandfather was a Muggle.
Getting the position was still going to be a battle, but a battle he meant to win, and then a few days before the retirement party, Whisely called him in and said, “I understand you’re putting yourself forward for the position,” in a mild way that immediately put Draco’s back up.
“Is there a reason I shouldn’t?” he said, folding his arms.
“You must tell me,” Whisely said. “You need not go to any further lengths. If you truly want the position, it is yours: I’ll be speaking to the directors privately tomorrow to give them my recommendation, and given your efforts, I imagine they will be inclined to follow it. Do you want the position?”
Draco glared at him, chest swelling indignantly, furious—he’d been fighting for it all these months, working as hard as he could to take it, and now here was Whisely offering to hand it to him, instead of warning him off, and— “No,” Draco spat, and it felt nearly as wretched as snapping his wand, all those years ago.
Whisely nodded. “Then I will be recommending Mirabilis Vent for the post. She could use your support with the directors: she is quite young for the post herself, but she has particular qualities I think suit her for the task.”
“And what would those be?” Draco said, bitterly.
“She sets limits very effectively,” Whisely said, the significance of which Draco didn’t appreciate immediately.
Instead he left Whisely’s office and went up to his room still seething, and threw himself into his chair glaring at the plants. He’d wanted to imagine he was done, somehow, that he had made enough tally marks on the other side of a balance sheet and now he could go on to be—not a monster of a Dark wizard, but also not—a pathetic do-gooder, his father’s voice whispered inside his head, as vividly as if he’d heard it echoing around the bare white walls of the room, and Draco shivered suddenly, on a miserable wave of understanding.
He wasn’t done. He wouldn’t ever be done, because he still had that voice inside his skull and he still wanted the wrong things—he still wanted power, he still wanted to use that power to control other people, to make himself superior. And he couldn’t have that kind of power, any more than he could cast a Hot-Up Hex to warm his tea, even though other people could: people like Mirabilis Vent, who’d never tortured someone in her parents’ cellars at a Dark Lord’s command. He’d been sharpened to a killing edge all his life, that’s what he’d been meant for, and yes, he’d turned it to surgery now instead of murder, but it didn’t mean he wasn’t still—what he was.
And what Whisely had really been telling him today was—that no one else was going to hold him back anymore. So not only wasn’t he done, it was all on his own shoulders from now on. There wouldn’t be anyone else watching over him, nudging him to be good. He’d have to choose it himself, always.
Or, of course, he could choose something else. It didn’t even have to be something stupid, blowing himself up; he could go on avoiding Dark magic perfectly well and still be Chief Mediwizard. Only he knew that would mean giving up—his healing. Because this unexpected power that he had been given was a power that could only serve others, not rule over them. He knew exactly what his father would have thought of it.
“Fine,” he said aloud, resentfully—at least he didn’t have to be cheerful about it, which might have made the whole thing unendurable. “Fine, the terms are understood and accepted. I’ll keep the bargain. Would it really have ruined everything for me to be Chief Mediwizard, though? It’s not as though I’d have to commute.”
He tried to make it flippant, but he didn’t feel flippant at all. He abruptly put his face into his hands, tears prickling his eyes. He’d distracted himself from the reality of his life all these years with the promise, ever dangling out ahead, that it was temporary. That one day he’d be done, and then—he could go back to himself, that he could have back the things he’d liked about his life. But you couldn’t always keep the healthy flesh when you were doing surgery, and now he saw the surviving parts of his life laid out before him on the table: this little room, and his patients, and nothing much besides. And all right, yes, he’d been an absolutely rotten little boy, and he’d hurt other people and he’d swallowed poison willingly and shared it round, but he had been a child, and the cup had been put into his hands by the ones he loved. It didn’t seem fair that it should never end.
But it wasn’t fair either that he should be able to heal all but the dead, and occasionally those too if they weren’t deeply committed to the state. He breathed out, acceptance settling into him. He’d take the bargain, and keep putting tally marks on the other side of the balance sheet that no one else would even look at, and remember how many worse fates he’d escaped. He wiped his face and stood up resolutely, and went back out to the wards.
He spent the next two weeks accustoming himself to his new vision of his life. He worked sixteen-hour shifts and afterwards went and spent another hour or two in the Long-term Care wards, trying to intervene in some of the hopeless cases that had been filed away. He even stopped making the sarcastic remarks that routinely occurred to him and tried on an attitude of benevolent distance instead, something a bit more lofty. It felt rather like erasing the last parts of himself that he recognized, but he supposed it would eventually start to feel natural if he kept it up long enough.
He began to get tired again, which hadn’t been happening lately—the nightmares had disappeared after he’d treated Katie, and he’d almost never run out of strength on his old caseload. He kept the new pace up anyway. It helped him fall asleep. Otherwise he lay awake and began to think a little too much about the future.
Mirabilis came by and asked him to lunch her first week into the job, and he reluctantly accepted; he meant to give up going out, too. He did suggest eating in the canteen, but she insisted on the Two Seasons restaurant, and when he ordered a salad and a glass of water, she snatched the menu out of his hands and told the waiter to bring him the roast goose instead. “And we’ll have a bottle of the Old Willow, with two glasses, if you please. Malfoy, why are you suddenly performing early Christian martyr? It can’t be resentment; I know Whisely offered you the position. Is this your way of finally getting revenge on me for the mad folly of once trying to improve your bedside manner?”
“Hardly,” he said, cool and remote. “I fail to see what the problem is, Vent. I’m simply giving my full attention to the welfare of our patients.”
She rolled her eyes. “When Whisely told me you’d changed your mind, I had the misguided thought that you’d done something sensible for once in your life. You being Chief Mediwizard was such an obviously terrible idea that even the board of directors were uncertain about it. It’s loads of management and fundraising! Two things you don’t know anything about! Our last gala, you lectured three major donors about the stupidity of having given money to the greenhouses instead of the boilers, as though we hadn’t used the money for the boilers, except for a thousand Galleons we spent on tidying the greenhouses and putting their name on a plaque.” She sighed. “To be fair, I should have realized that you’d take it like a stab wound to the soul. It’s all about the title, isn’t it?”
“It is not,” Draco snapped, forgetting entirely to be cool and remote.
“Mmhm. Sorry, Malfoy, I realize you’re hopelessly addicted to drama, but I’m not having it.” She frowned at him for a moment in thought, then said decisively, “Right, I don’t blame Whisely for not taking on a final pre-retirement battle with the massive basket of egotists that is the Spell Damage consultants, but it’s past time we stopped treating you like you’re just another one of us, and started using you as a resource instead. This little theatricale of yours will help the others swallow it, actually,” she added. “Everyone’s irritated that you’ve been snatching up three-quarters of the cases. So from now on, the house officers won’t be allowed to bring you in directly. They’ll have to go to another Spell Damage consultant first, and it’ll be their duty to decide when a case is worth bringing you in. Congratulations, Special Consultant.”
He paused, caught in the middle of crafting the appropriate withering response, realizing that this made him by far the youngest Special Consultant ever named. Then the goose and the magnificent wine arrived, and by the end of the meal, during which they discussed the diagnostic criteria that would make a case worthy of his time, and hashed out a plan for international referrals, complete with revising his teaching duties and creating a new fellowship program so he’d have a special small cadre of students who would all themselves be consultants, he was even grudgingly willing to admit that perhaps Mirabilis had a point.
That sensation lasted only until after the coffee, at which point she nodded and said, “Good, and now that’s settled, from now on, you’re not to set foot in the hospital more than five days in seven, and not more than ten hours in any given day, either.”
“I live in the hospital!” Draco spluttered.
“Not anymore you don’t.”
“What?” Draco said, and the upshot was, she gave him a week’s notice to clear out of the residents’ hall.
“Go get a decent flat. Take up a hobby while you’re at it,” she added. “Get some fish, maybe; I hear they’re very relaxing.”
“And how long before the first patient dies for lack of my help?” Draco glared at her. Pet fish, of all the indignities.
“You won’t be saving anyone after you’ve worked yourself to death,” she said. “Get out, Malfoy. Starting now.” She had the carriage drop him outside an estate agent’s office before it took her back to the hospital.
He spent seventeen hours over the next three days going around every wizarding street in London without finding a single flat he was willing to pay for. “You’ve lived in a single bare room above the wards for ten years!” Mirabilis said in exasperation, when he tried to wheedle more time out of her.
“Landlords in this cursed city want three hundred Galleons a month for a single bare room in a rat-infested hovel!” Draco said. “How do you know I wasn’t impoverished by the war?”
“Because if you’d ever spent so much as five minutes impoverished, you’d have troubled yourself to find out the salary for a senior consultant on St. Mungo’s Spell Damage wards, and you wouldn’t be looking at flats for three hundred Galleons a month,” she said, and sent him back out with a threat to have his things dumped into the corridor by Friday.
He frowned, and went to Gringotts to inquire about the contents of his personal vault. Of course there was the massive family vault full of money somewhere down in the five-mile depths, but Draco didn’t mean to use that money for his flat, and that wasn’t drama. The key to the Malfoy vault was still sitting in a locked box in the bottom drawer of his dresser along with the clothes he’d worn into the hospital all those years ago. When he uncovered the box and let himself imagine taking the key out, he could consciously feel the danger, bright and clear. That money had been built up with Dark magic and cruelty, and if he took it for some selfish purpose, even something as mild as paying a mortgage on a luxurious flat, he would be opening a door to that darkness.
And even if he didn’t have to be a monk, there was still a large and expensive distance between what he had, and anything he’d actually enjoy. A distance, he’d assumed, he couldn’t possibly cross on his own personal funds. But on inquiry, he discovered that in fact, years of compounding a salary he’d barely ever touched and which had grown to significant size since his promotion to consultant, not to mention substantial bonuses for working additional shifts, had produced fairly remarkable results, even by his standards. He sat blinking at the numbers, and the goblin behind the desk even added, “If you are considering a mortgage, Magister, we would of course be happy to assist,” so apparently Draco was allowed to have something he’d actually like.
Or so he thought, at first. “All right, never mind, stop showing me reasonable flats,” he told the by-now frazzled estate agent. “I want a proper wizarding house, if you please.”
He spent another three days looking into one formal townhouse after another—and interviewing their painfully eager house-elves. Each time he spoke to another one, he kept having vivid flashes of that time when he was seven when he’d made Dobby hit himself in the head with a cast iron pan for an entire day, laughing at every bang. “No, not that one either,” Draco said, fleeing yet another perfectly elegant house that not even his mother would have found fault with, only six blocks from the hospital, with a tiny house-elf dressed in shreds who earnestly told him Mistress had kept proper discipline and never let a house-elf make off with so much as a scrap of cloth.
But the modern flats with automated cleaning charms built in left him utterly cold, even the expensive ones with their dazzling city views and even more dazzling arrays of mod cons, private carriage platforms and swimming pools and something called fy in the walls. Well, he didn’t know why fy, and no one seemed able to explain it to him; when he asked, they just nodded beaming and occasionally told him it came in broad bands. It was evidently a massive selling point given how prominently it was mentioned in any building where it was offered.
He didn’t want it. He didn’t want mod cons. He wanted—well, what he wanted was his actual home, only he had the training now to understand what had been frightened-animal instinct at first, and blindly following Whisely’s instructions: the Manor was barred to him. It was a place of Dark magic, and not only because Voldemort had taken it as his headquarters. It was the other way round: Voldemort had stayed because the house had made him welcome.
Draco didn’t even know all the dark hidden corners of the place; there were secrets he’d been meant to learn only after he finished school and came home to begin his adult life. He was no longer the boy who could have gone home and eagerly followed his father all over the house, pretending there weren’t bloodstains on the floor beneath him. Instead he was a high healer, and that meant he couldn’t go home at all. He was still a Malfoy, and the house would recognize him, and love him, and want him, but the Dark in it would try and corrupt him, too. It would all go hideously wrong, and most likely he’d destroy the place and himself both.
So he couldn’t have what he wanted, and what he could have, he didn’t want, until finally the agent said, through her teeth, “Perhaps you’d consider the renovated development on Matery Alley?”
It was an old Georgian mansion that had once belonged to a cadet branch of the Rosiers. The innards had been left to rot for half a century thanks to a violent dispute over the estate, then both of the parties had got themselves killed in the war and the whole thing had fallen to the Ministry. By accident it had been handed over to someone with taste: it had been gutted and done over completely in a modern style, but without any hideous plastic—all the materials first-rate, lush hardwood and brass and dragon-fired stone. Everything Draco touched felt right, without being a mimicry of something else. And he liked the clean, straight lines: he’d got used to them, in the hospital.
“The house-elf died some time ago of old age, I’m afraid, but of course there is excellent maid service available,” the selling agent said apologetically.
Draco bought it at once, moved in the next day, luxuriated for the next week in the expansive space and peace and quiet, and then almost immediately started feeling peculiar. He didn’t know what it was; he even spent a week going over the place with danicum smudges and trying to detect any signs of curse magic or maybe a lingering half-haunting, but there was absolutely nothing: the renovation had gone down to bare stone. The next morning, lying in bed staring up at the rain pattering onto the vast skylight over his bed, he found himself wishing vainly that someone would page him to the hospital for an urgent case, so he would see people, talk to them—and the slow and horrible realization crept over him that he was lonely.
Draco wasn’t going to admit anything of the sort—curse Mirabilis, anyway—but in desperation he decided to throw a dinner party for his colleagues. He could pretend it was a matter of showing off the new house.
He’d been bred up to this sort of thing, too, so he knew how to go about it even without a house-elf. He hired a reputable wizard caterer and made his expectations ruthlessly clear: the correct seven courses for an informal dinner, with their best china and stemware—which was only up to his second-best standards—and high court silver. He wrote the invitations himself, of course, by hand. Everyone he asked accepted, which pleased him unreasonably, even if he suspected half the reason was a zoological impulse: see the overbred pureblood in his natural habitat. Some of the guests weren’t even subtle about it. “What is this? Where are the suits of armor? The portraits haranguing the lowborn intruders to leave? The secret passageways behind the tapestries?” Leonora Weedstone said mournfully, having arrived half an hour before the invitation time, the better to go prying all over the house and looking into the bedrooms. She rotated a large stack of romance novels through her office which she read in single gulps whenever there weren’t enough trauma cases to command her attention. “Draco, you’re letting down the side. Where is the gloomy ancestral hall?”
“In Wiltshire,” he said dryly, but he forgave her, because her enthusiasm had also extended to her housewarming gift, a bottle of the summer pressing of the 1963 Glasswine. She forgave him after dinner, which she approvingly pronounced fit for Versailles on the eve of the Revolution, after they’d all retired to the sitting room.
“Barely acceptable,” he corrected her; he’d just been thinking he would have to try another caterer for the next party. Everyone jeered at him, a bit weakly—they’d all sprawled half-conscious upon sofas and armchairs, and Milton Zalibar was stretched full length on the floor claiming someone was going to have to Apparate him home.
Draco sent round the port, though, and they all revived a bit. He also meant to offer cards and music, the usual diversions, but the party never reached the moment of dull suspension that he was waiting to disrupt. He recognized from a host’s distance that the conversation was objectively appalling: once they started talking, they all talked only of work, full of jargon and technicalities, and four entirely separate and loud arguments over courses of treatment broke out before the evening was over.
But he enjoyed it, which was odd: he certainly didn’t remember enjoying any of his mother’s parties. There wasn’t any of the—the jockeying, the sense that all position was fleeting and changeable, that he had to be the cleverest every time not to be a disappointment. He didn’t have to think out what to say; he already had opinions on most of the topics, and they weren’t opinions held for the sake of having one that people might agree with if they wanted to demonstrate allegiance, or even just sounding clever; they actually mattered. He didn’t have to worry about his position, anyway: he was respected all round, and he thought perhaps even liked by some of them, which was novel.
“You really are a ridiculous toff,” Catherine Graves said, and kissed his cheek as she left, and he didn’t even mind.
He worked his way through three more caterers over the course of the next two months before he finally went down to the new hiring hall where you could find free elves, these days, who expected things like wages and time off—how absurd, Narcissa’s voice murmured inside his head. He silenced it by hiring the most expensive one with the best references, but the elf insisted on a trial period before committing herself, and even sniffed over the perfectly serviceable stove and demanded he bring in a goblin-forged replacement of twice the size. “And Flikka is having fifty Galleons a week for the shopping,” she added.
“Fifty Galleons! I haven’t a family of ten,” Draco said, indignantly.
“Forty Galleons, then,” she said grudgingly.
He resigned himself to her insane profligacy the instant he sat down to dinner that night. His thoroughly-trained palate had mostly spent the last ten years in hibernation, from abuse, but by the middle of the fourth course it had woken up fully. He lingered over every glorious bite of the thirteen formal courses and ate himself nearly sick, and when Flikka came out with the brandy and coffee at the end, he was drunk with pleasure and said fervently, “Spend a hundred Galleons a week, only never leave me,” and her ears came up and went pink with satisfaction.
The first dinner party afterwards, everyone literally went silent after each course appeared. “You know, Malfoy, if you’re not planning to feed us like this regularly, you’re just being cruel,” Milton said in plaintive tones. As Flikka liked large appreciative audiences just as much as Draco did, dinner at his house on Sunday nights became a tradition without his exactly planning it. He found himself looking round bemused at some point almost every time, perplexed by his own contentment—Leonora and Gabrielle yelling over each other in the corner about debriding wounds, or Mirabilis refereeing a game of Questing Cards that was more than half a debate over the most urgently necessary renovations to the hospital, or Milton occasionally colonizing the piano and coaxing half the room into more or less tunefully—less, usually—singing along. No one was dressed properly—except for him, of course; these days he couldn’t so much as leave off his tie to go to the shops, or Flikka looked mortally betrayed; she was very much of Leonora’s mindset when it came to keeping up the side. But everyone else was in work robes, or even just Muggleish sort of clothes, and no one was paying attention, and everyone was having a good time and being—friendly to one another. Not polite, of course, but that didn’t seem to matter. It wasn’t anything he would have imagined for himself, and certainly nothing he’d planned, and occasionally when he looked down the length of his cheerfully noisy table and remembered sitting at another table with Voldemort at its head and his father shivering beside him, he was so painfully grateful he had to go out of the room for a bit.
He tried to stop at gratitude, and as long as the guests were there, he could and did. But every once in a while, the evening would end just a little early, before he was fighting off yawns, and he’d sit alone by his fire with a glass of brandy, hearing the rumble and noise of city life going by outside, and remember vividly the deep blanketed silence of the Manor in winter, lying on the rug before the fire in his mother’s sitting room while she wrote letters.
When he’d been a small child, he’d asked her over and over for the story of how she’d come to the Manor for the first time, after the wedding, and the whole house had woken up to greet her, doors flung wide and all the portraits inclining their heads, welcoming the new lady home. “I became a Malfoy that day,” she’d always said, stroking his head, and he’d felt certain to his bones there was nothing better in the world to be, and so proud of the gift he would one day be able to confer—naturally only upon the most deserving and perfect girl alive, of purest lineage and impeccable breeding, who would look at him the way his mother looked at his father: not so much with love as with admiration.
By now, of course, he’d realized it would be a boy, not a girl, if it were anyone at all. His family name had rather a thick layer of tarnish upon it; and he couldn’t make himself care about lineage anymore. Not that a Muggle-born wizard would much enjoy living in the Manor, unless it were someone iron-plated like Leonora who would find the violent disapproval of the portraits delightfully quaint and charming. Not to mention he couldn’t set foot in his own home himself. But that didn’t mean he didn’t still want…what he knew he couldn’t have.
He’d had opportunities, now and again. For years, he’d given himself all sorts of excuses for turning them down—they weren’t good enough, or he had too much work to do. But now he turned them down because he understood with fresh clarity what he’d only instinctively sensed before: that it was dangerous. He was dangerous.
He’d let the Dark in of his own will. He could list all the reasons and excuses and defenses he wanted, but that didn’t help any more than you could cure a cold by explaining why you hadn’t washed your hands. He’d been a child still, which did help, but only in the sense that he hadn’t done as much Dark magic, and his soul and noumenia had been better able to regenerate after he’d cut out the damaged parts and burned them back. But the scars remained, and the Dark still had a claim to him, if he opened the way.
And bringing a lover home and into his heart, someone who wouldn’t think twice about casting a Dubious Charm or even the occasional minor Hex, just living their ordinary life—that would do it, quite likely, and for both of them. The other week, a handsome wizard from the greenhouses had smiled at him, and the thought had come into Draco’s head, what would be the harm in asking him to lunch. That same night Draco had dreamed of coming into the greenhouse and finding him standing bloody-handed over a tub of Murderous Snapdragons, smiling just as charmingly, with small white bones poking out of the soil between his fingers. Draco had woken up with a violent jerk, and he’d taken the warning to heart. There would be harm.
So instead he tried to be grateful for what he had, and he managed most of the time. The worst moment of envy came at Mirabilis’s wedding: she’d met Edgar Golswoope while fundraising for the hospital, and he’d had the sense to snap her up when she gave him the chance. He was of a Kensington family pureblood for a respectable nine generations or so, and the reception was held at their country house. The place was nothing like the Manor really, only just close enough to make Draco violently homesick, and during the course of the evening, no less than three different good-looking wizards asked him if he’d fancy a walk around the grounds. Mirabilis was aglow with happiness, and all his colleagues had brought someone, except Leonora, who firmly refused to date just in case she met her dark-eyed ideal somewhere.
Draco was grateful for her madness in the present instance, as it meant he didn’t have to stand around awkwardly unpaired, but it was nevertheless an effort to be as visibly pleased as appropriate, and to keep anyone from noticing that he was less than sincere. Fortunately, if there was one thing he’d really been trained for, it was keeping up appearances. He danced a slightly more than respectable amount, drank exactly one drink too many, and kept himself there for an hour past when the first guests departed. When he did leave, he made a full formal leave-taking of the family and then murmured to Mirabilis as he kissed her cheek, “I’ve told the department I’m covering for you for the next month; congratulations, Magistra,” before he strolled out, stopping to chat with a few colleagues along the way.
He knew he carried it off; Leonora wouldn’t have had the slightest hesitation demanding to know what was wrong with him if he hadn’t. But when he had dropped her off and come home, and closed his door behind him, he went to his study and got inelegantly drunk and had to be woken up in the morning by Flikka to get to the hospital in time for his first case.
He spent the next three weeks in a funk, struggling not to let anyone know. Work helped, but even with Mirabilis’s cases on top of his own, he couldn’t work himself to exhaustion; his workload was now too close to reasonable, and he was too wretchedly powerful. Somehow it also seemed that suddenly his every patient had an anxious devoted lover by their side, which grated on him day after day until he caught himself feeling violently irritated because a mother kissed her small clinging child before an operation.
He realized at that point that he had to do something about it. He immersed himself in the chant for an hour before he did the surgery, clearing his head, and when it was finished, he went straight back to the chapel and knelt and breathed out and went through a full Supplication Ritual before the ancient rough stone fountain, the one that healers had been chanting to for more than a thousand years, and finished in an entirely open-ended request, only saying aloud, “I’m sorry. Help me, please,” laying himself bare, and smothering the urgent hissing voice in his head saying pathetic and weak.
His shaving razor broke in his hand that evening, scoring a deep and sharply painful line along his jaw. He patched it up easily, of course, but he was vain enough—pointlessly, a small insidious voice whispered in his ear—to use a Superficial Stitching on it, which meant it would sting for a week before healing without a scar. He went out to buy a new razor in some irritation. The Abradarius Boutique was still open, fortunately, as it was the holiday season, and he was contemplating a choice among several seventeenth-century silver-handled razors when someone said, “Why, Draco, what a surprise,” and he found himself looking over the case at Pansy, resplendent in white furs clasped with silver, her hair perfectly coiffed and her mouth red.
He stared at her, a little blankly, and she smirked back. “Whatever have you been doing with yourself all these years?” she said. “Are you still at the—hospital, did I hear that right? It didn’t make the least sense to me, but someone or other I ran into at a party the other day absolutely insisted.”
“Yes,” he said slowly. “Yes, I’m still at St. Mungo’s.” He didn’t bother telling her he was a consultant, or anything else; he was certain she wouldn’t have cared, any more than he would have, once upon a time. “How have you been, Pansy? You’re looking very well.”
She preened a bit. “You’re too kind. This is such luck; will you help me? I’m looking for a gift for Blaise—oh—perhaps you didn’t know that Blaise and I—well—”
“I’d heard.” It felt like a telegraph from another world, though.
She came round and took his arm. “You did just—vanish on us all, it seemed,” she said, smiling up at him with a hint of wistfulness. “Now, come look at these sets. You must tell me which ones you think the best.”
She asked after his mother, expressed regrets about his father, complimented his taste a couple of times, and never once said anything about the war, or even allowed a suggestion that anything unfortunate had happened at all during their school days. Instead she mentioned Hogwarts with more of that faint wistfulness, how young they’d all been, what fun they’d had, how lovely it was to see him again, and how it brought everything from those days back to her…He didn’t need her to say outright that she’d have been happy to trade Blaise back in; she made it perfectly clear, without ever once exposing herself too much.
Which made perfect sense, of course. It had been a long time since the war. His reputation had been repaired, and there was still all that money and ancient lineage to think of. He imagined it wouldn’t have surprised Blaise, nor even hurt his feelings particularly. Everyone had understood even in their school days that Draco was a catch of unusual degree, and it wasn’t something to take personally if Pansy had the good sense to have a go at him, now that he was one again.
She didn’t betray any regret when he didn’t take up the line she threw him; instead she smoothly shifted to pressing him for a lunch date with her and Blaise. They’d have been quite happy to establish him in their social circle, as an alternative. “Why not tomorrow?” she said.
He knew that she’d undoubtedly have a list long as her arm of suitable wizards to offer him, if he gave her the chance, and be delighted to arrange it. And in her circles, any number of those suitable wizards would undoubtedly be quite willing to accept whatever conditions Draco liked to set, including living under the interdiction right along with him.
And—he wasn’t interested. He wasn’t interested at all.
“You’ll have to let me off, Pans,” he said, with more gentleness than he’d have expected from himself. “I’ve become a spectacular bore, I’m afraid—all work and no play. I’m operating six days of the next seven.”
She blinked at him. The sincerity threw her; she would have assumed he was giving her a shove, otherwise. “Are you really?” she said after a moment, a bit warily.
“Yes,” he said. “This time of year, the Weasley shop and Zonko’s enter a determined competition to see which of them can deliver us the most patients, with bonus points the higher in the wards they go. Don’t buy a Turbulent Twistabout for any children you like.”
He saw her out to her waiting carriage, and went back in to get his razor. It cost four hundred sixty Galleons, and was worth every penny. He took it home, slept like a log, and went back to the chapel the next day with a package of fresh candles of pure beeswax made only from rowans in flower. He lit them and said, “Thank you,” and meant it truly.
He was all right after that. It had helped to be so starkly reminded that what he wanted now had never been in his reach, not even if Voldemort had never come crashing into his life. He’d never have even known to want it. He would have wanted something else, and he’d likely have got it, and he could even still have that now, but he hadn’t the slightest desire for it anymore.
Instead he made himself work, a bit clumsily at first, on better enjoying the life he did have. Leonora mentioned wanting to see the Spectral Opera, so he took her and a handful of others to the family box; as a child he’d rolled his eyes and sulked and complained what a bore it was to be dragged, the only real purpose of course being to see and be seen, but now he discovered the pleasures of paying attention to the actual performance. He thought of joining the hospital’s Quidditch league, but when he went to the game against St. Quiteria, he had to flee midway through the first half—the St. Mungo’s team was cheerfully terrible, and he just barely restrained himself from standing up yelling violent remarks. Instead of that, he joined a weekend flying club that went for long cross-country flights, although he occasionally had to abandon brooms all over the countryside when he was summoned back for emergency operations.
Nearly a year went by like that, and he had conquered the longing down to nothing more than an occasional wistful twinge, and then the holiday season rolled round again and Mirabilis came knocking on his office door. She’d further made up for her heartless cruelty in kicking him out of his room over the wards by giving him an enormous corner office with a view that overlooked all of Diagon Alley clear to Gringotts, with a pair of large window boxes for his plants. “I need to ask a favor,” she said.
“By all means,” Draco said, with a lordly wave; he always enjoyed being asked for favors.
Mirabilis laid out a set of plans on his desk for a new top floor meant to replace the antiquated deep intervention operating theaters, which he’d been complaining about to her at increasing volume ever since he’d gone over to the L’Hôpital des Innocents in Lyon to do a pair of operations on a badly-hexed child who couldn’t be moved; the contrast between the St. Mungo’s theaters and the sparkling new quarters at Innocents had displeased him. These designs were splendid in every way: more rooms, with better windows and larger observation areas, and in the very center a large domed chamber with a retractable ceiling for working under starlight and moonlight.
“Exactly what we need,” he said, approvingly. “How soon can it be built?”
“As soon as we can raise the funds,” she said, “which brings me to the favor.”
“How many zeroes do you want on the cheque?” he said dryly.
“I was thinking something rather more elaborate. We need more than a single large donor. Would you host a ball?”
“For how many?” he said, contemplating his entertaining space: with Expansive Charms, the dining room could be opened up to seat a hundred—
“A thousand, I should think,” she said, interrupting that train of thought quite thoroughly.
“You want me to open up the Manor,” he said slowly.
“Right,” she said. “Assuming you’re willing to pollute the halls with Muggle-borns, of course.”
“The halls have stood worse polluting than that,” Draco said. He couldn’t actually have said which of his colleagues were Muggle-born anymore—of course some of them must have been, but he’d forgotten to care some time ago without even noticing. The world divided far more neatly these days, into Healers and those who weren’t, with an upper category for consultants and magisters if he was feeling snobbish. “You do know the guest of honor at the last formal occasion was the unlamented Lord Voldemort.”
“Yes, yes. Dig into that pile of yours and have the place properly cleansed. You can even write it off on your taxes as a donation to the hospital. No one can quibble, you’re not using it otherwise.”
“Naturally I won’t do it if you’d mind,” he said to his mother, speaking to her over the International Floo later that day. His hands were out of sight under the desk, clasped to keep the tremor out of them.
“No, darling, it’s your house, you should do as you like with it,” she said instantly. “I’ve thought it’s a shame it’s been shut up so long. And of course, it’s for the hospital.” Then she paused and said, in a slightly bemused tone, “Do you know, I went to a benefit at the Museum here last week, and the Contessa di Ysidro asked me if we were related—she said you’d saved her son’s life.”
“I save a dozen lives a week,” he said, a little shaky with relief. “They rarely get to see me unless they’re dying, of course—it’s hardly worth my time, otherwise.”
“Of course, darling,” she said, and even added, “I’m very proud of you,” although she still sounded rather more puzzled than anything else.
After he hung up, he sat staring through the wall in the direction of Wiltshire. He was still wary of how much he wanted it, but he thought… this might be all right. Hosting a ball to benefit the hospital—that would do. He could spend the family money to cleanse the Manor, for that purpose, and the Manor might even cooperate, as long as the renovation was expensive enough. A ball for a thousand was the sort of event the Manor was made for. It had been shut up all these years; it wanted life and people back in the halls, it wanted admiration—just like he did. Perhaps it too would be willing to give up being dreaded, in exchange for being magnificent. He’d get rid of all the Dark artifacts, the malevolent plantings, get in the best professionals…
He shut his suddenly prickling eyes and put his head down against his hands. It wasn’t everything he wanted, but it was—so much more than he’d thought he could have. He swallowed down a swell of gratitude and reached for quill and paper, to write to his solicitors.
# # #
Harry was discussing the Dementor stage of the new training course with Elmyra Vane when out of the corner of his attention he heard Jeremy Whistlethrop, a junior Auror, saying in a slightly quavery voice to the Artifact Disposal secretary at her desk down the corridor, “Althea, do you suppose I could schedule—a triple-size disposal team? And—forty-seven containment units?”
Althea lifted her head and fixed him with an unamused flat expression. “That’s funny, is it?”
“Not so as I’d noticed, no,” Whistlethrop said, hollowly. “Perhaps I had better talk to Greenwalt first?”
“Yes, I think perhaps you had better,” she said.
Harry said to Elmyra, “Hang on a minute,” and went down the corridor. “Jeremy, is it?” he said, and the boy—it was at bit appalling how young the latest recruits looked, these days—straightened up promptly and said, “Yes, sir!” in an even more appalling way.
“Have you actually tracked down forty-seven Dark artifacts somewhere?” Harry said.
“It’s not me that’s tracked them down, sir,” Whistlethrop said. “He’s brought in this book of the things—it’s some sort of massive family collection, they’re all legally licensed as museum pieces—”
“Who’s this?” Harry said.
“His name’s Malfoy,” Whistlethrop said.
Harry slowly opened the door to Jeremy’s office, half disbelieving, but—yeah, it really was Draco Malfoy: he was sitting in a half-reclined, insouciant pose, a massive black leatherbound ledger sitting on the desk in front of him. He turned to look at the door with a look of exasperation that turned into surprise of his own when he saw Harry. “Potter,” he said after a moment.
“Er, yeah,” Harry said, staring. “Jeremy says you want to get rid of—was it forty-seven Dark artifacts?”
“Well,” Malfoy said, “only on the assumption that this department can actually manage the job of disposal without falling over them and accidentally destroying yourselves and my house in the process, which I’m beginning to doubt. I’m reasonably certain my solicitors explained the case when they called for an appointment: why was I fobbed off with a wet-behind-the-ears trainee?”
“I’m going to guess that whoever took the call didn’t actually believe them,” Harry said. “What have you even been doing with that many Dark artifacts?”
“Avoiding them,” Draco said.
Yeah, sure he’d been avoiding them. Harry leaned against the doorframe and folded his arms across his chest. “And now you’re just going to hand them over? And you don’t want anything in return?”
“What would I—no, you’re quite right, I do want something,” Draco said, interrupting himself; evidently he’d realized he was talking to Harry and didn’t have to keep up his usual pretenses. “I’m throwing a fundraiser at the Manor. I want you to co-chair.”
Harry gawked at him. “You want me to come to a party at your house? Malfoy, I don’t go places Hermione’s not invited.”
Draco waved an airy hand. “Bring anyone you like. You’ll have to fill three—no, let’s say four tables.”
“With guests, Potter,” Draco said, in patient tones, as if this were all perfectly obvious. “Ten thousand Galleons a table, twenty-five seats each. We’ll list your name on the invitations.”
“Wait—wait a minute,” Harry said, in rising incredulity. “You want me to pay forty thousand Galleons to come to a party at your house?”
Malfoy’s eyes narrowed. He lifted the massive ledger from the table: it was a good two inches thick. “I could legally put these all on the market and clear at least two hundred thousand Galleons. Which do you prefer? You inherited the Black pile, you can afford it. Besides, it’s for a worthy cause. We need to replace the operating theaters.”
Harry glared at him: that was right, Malfoy had somehow managed to slither his way up into the senior ranks at the hospital; a couple years ago people had been talking about him as Chief Mediwizard, of all ludicrous things. Harry had been glad when he’d heard he’d lost out on the position, to a halfblood witch at that. “Let me guess, you want fancier rooms to work in.”
Draco smirked back and stood up, swinging his cloak over his shoulders in a showy whirl. “I’m so glad we’ve come to this understanding. How soon can you have them cleared out?”
“We’ll go over at once,” Harry said grimly. “And we’ll also take away any other Dark artifacts we find at the same time, just in case you’ve missed one or two.”
“By all means,” Draco said. “I’ve got to get to the hospital, but my house elf will let you in.”
“And that’s another thing, I can’t believe he’s somehow got another hold of another one,” Hermione stormed, as the two Auror carriages began descending: Harry had Flooed her urgently to come along and help with the containment, while he’d rounded up a large team of Disposal specialists. “Of all the people who ought never to be allowed to have an elf—Harry, Arthur’s got to get the mandatory emancipation bill passed, it’s unforgivable we haven’t pushed it through, yet. I don’t care how many elves show up to protest.”
But when they got out at the gates of Malfoy Manor, the house elf waiting outside was a free one, fully dressed like a miniature housekeeper out of a 19th century diorama, mobcap and apron and all, and she was scowling suspiciously.
“Flikka is watching all of you! Flikka is not having any damage to the house!” she informed them, and followed them the whole way through the Great Hall and up into the master study, mopping the floor literally at their heels while muttering about them tracking dirt on the marble, and screeching furious protests if any of them so much as brushed a finger against the furniture along the way.
Harry had been braced for having to come back into the cold, hostile looming walls, but the Manor only felt—empty, somehow, as if it had been hollowed out. Most of the rooms looked like they’d been shut up for ages: in the study itself everything was covered in dust cloths and the curtains shut.
“Flikka will be opening those!” she snapped, when poor unwary Lisabeth went for a window, and the curtains all shot open at once and shook off an enormous cloud of dust as thick as if no one had opened them since the last time Voldemort had visited. They were all sneezing for five minutes.
“Right,” Harry wheezed, wiping his eyes. “Let’s have the storage room open, please.”
The study was really more of a library: two stories high, walled all round in books on three sides with delicate staircases winding up in gold spirals to the upper shelves. Flikka went to the back wall and said, “Master says to open!” and the lower section of the double-height wall of bookshelves split down the middle and folded itself outward, a wave of cold shivering out, to reveal an inner room paneled entirely in black oak, lined with cases of Unbreakable glass, many draped with black velvet, and inside them dozens of artifacts in tidy rows.
There was a vault door of heavy metal in the very back, but Flikka refused to open it until after they’d dealt with all the rest.
“We’ll be all morning with this anyway, I suppose,” Harry said, after he’d taken a first appalled circuit to look them all over. The catalog hadn’t prepared him at all. It was one thing to read about Knife, used by the Witch of Windley in ritual sacrifice, third order, and a very different thing to see the cruel, hook-tipped thing, black crusted bits still disgustingly clinging along the edge.
“Right,” said Elsine Greenwalt, the head of Disposal, as she pulled on a pair of elbow-length Dangerous Gloves. “Trainees, I’m not going to let you actually touch any of these, there’s too many of them together. You’ll take turns carrying the containment units back out to the transport carriage, and when you’re not doing that, you’ll stand along the far wall and observe.
“Everyone else, we’ll do this one at a time, taking turns with the actual handling. A full Cleansing Charm after each one, and everyone watch out for cross-contamination—trainees, what that means is, sing out loudly if you see any of us going to touch anyone or anything with the gloves on, and for Heaven’s sake don’t be shy about it; anyone can forget and scratch their nose. Watch me for the process, please.”
She went to the first case, held her wand over it, and put up an Enclosing Shield spell around the whole thing. “Make sure you’ve got enough room to lift the top of the case without knocking it into the shield,” she added, and then levitated the lid open and reached in with her gloves and picked up the first thing, a heavy steel ring with a deep red jewel carved into the shape of a skull, the band engraved with runes. She picked it up with only thumb and forefinger, then drew it out, closed the lid, and brought the Enclosing Shield spell off with her, round her hands, all the way to the containment unit Jeremy was standing over.
She put it inside, and then shrank the Enclosing Shield back down until it just covered the ring, drawing her gloved hands out. She pinched a fold of the gloves at the top, rolled them down until the top had folded over to expose the inner surface, switched hands and pulled the other one off, kept it in her still-gloved first hand, then took the folded-over bit and rolled it down the rest of the way and over the other glove, inside out, and dropped them into the unit. Jeremy slammed it shut and threw a second Enclosing Shield around it, and two other Aurors from the Disposal unit put in the carrying handlebars on either side, while Jeremy cast a Cleansing Charm over Elsine.
“And that’s how we do it,” Elsine said, turning to the trainees. “When we get to the first-order artifacts, or anything too large for one person to carry, all the handling wizards put on a personal Shield, and then we put a second Enclosing Shield round the entire team. It looks like you’ll all get a chance to see that, too, by the end of the day. Harry, I don’t suppose you have any other old school chums with massive collections to dispose of? It’s certainly a magnificent training opportunity.”
It took them half the morning to clear one wall of the storage room, and then Elsine wanted them to have a break. They trooped downstairs and Harry blinked to find the table covered with a massive spread of sandwiches and pastries, and pitchers of a truly glorious faintly glimmering green lemonade, not too sweet, that felt like having a Cleansing Charm cast on the inside of your lungs. “What is this stuff?” Harry said, draining a second glass. He could’ve drunk it by the gallon.
“Yes, it’s lovely,” Elsine agreed, sipping her own. “And I’ll take another of those liver sandwiches, thanks.”
Flikka, who was replenishing the plates, bridled with pleasure. “Flikka is brewing it!” she said. “It is a new Reviving Draught coming from Japan. Master Draco is giving Flikka the recipe!” which made Harry squint down at it a bit dubiously, but the stuff tasted too—clean to suspect, really.
“And—he’s not treating you badly?” Hermione said to Flikka. “Does he pay your wages on time?”
Flikka gave Hermione an indignant look. “Master is not handling his own funds,” she said repressively. “Master’s goblin is paying Flikka’s wages. Master does things properly,” she added, with a coldly superior sniff, “not like most wizards these days,” and she banged out again with the emptied plates.
“Guess Malfoy’s found a perfect match,” Ron said, with a snort.
Even after a third glass of the lemonade, Harry still found it rather a slog to climb the stairs and start back in on the hideous artifacts. He had to sit down a moment when they got back into the study, and Hermione frowned at him. “You’re out of breath again,” she said. “Have you seen the Healer yet?”
“Yes, Hermione, everything’s fine,” Harry said. She narrowed her eyes. “Finley said it was overwork,” he admitted.
“Oh, I can’t imagine why she’d even consider that possibility,” Hermione said. “Why, you took a holiday not four years ago.”
“Yes, fine, I’m going to take some time off!” Harry said.
“When?” Hermione demanded.
“Um,” Harry said. “This summer, sometime?”
“We’ll book it for you together,” she said. “This weekend.”
“I don’t know where I want to go, yet!” Harry said.
“Decide by Saturday,” Hermione said, with a martial glint in her eye. Harry sighed, even though he’d known he wasn’t getting out of it this time. He didn’t like taking time off. He never felt any better for going on holiday. It just made him restless and irritable whenever he wasn’t busy.
At least that wasn’t a problem today. They finished carting out the last artifact in the front room right at lunchtime, and went downstairs hoping for more sandwiches only to find that Flikka intended to feed them all a four-course meal with china and linen in Malfoy’s banquet hall. “I suppose we hadn’t better drink before we go back to handling Dark artifacts,” Elsine said, refusing the wine a bit wistfully, “but I’ll take another half-glass of that lemonade, if you please.” Harry drank five glasses, himself.
It was starting to get late in the afternoon by the time they got back upstairs, and Elsine squinted at the sun through the windows of the study. “We’ve got forty-one of them already boxed up and gone,” she said. “That leaves the six in the inner vault. I think we can safely manage it before sunset. Do you agree, Harry?”
“Yeah,” he said, after a moment. “Let’s do it. I’d rather just finish the job in one go. I think we’d better send the trainees away, though, just to be safe—I’m guessing whatever’s in that vault is going to be a lot worse than what we’ve already brought out.”
He was even more glad they’d sent the trainees away after Flikka opened the vault door. She had to shrill at it and bang on the metal with a fist and finally roar out, “Master orders it! The vault will be obeying!” in a terrifying voice at least ten times her size that made them all jump, and then finally the wheel turned with a horrible grating noise, deep clanging sounds within as gears ground against each other. The door cracked open, a frigid whispering blast hissing out all round, fogging the edges of the door and sending tendrils of cold air reaching through the room. They all had their wands out, instinctively, and on that same instinct Harry abruptly shouted, “Expecto Patronum!” The stag leapt from his wand, shining, and charged into the display room and right through the vault door. A flaring of white light came from inside, and the faint sound of murmuring voices died away as the door swung a little further open, more easily.
They all relaxed a little, lowering their wands, everyone a bit pale; Harry wasn’t the only one panting for breath. “Well, that’s a nice thing to have in the house,” Ron said after a moment. “Do you suppose he popped it open a few times a year or so to play with his toys?”
They all pulled on Dangerous Gloves, even just to open the door. “I think we’d better strip this entire room after we’re done, for that matter,” Elsine said. “Down to the bare stone, if we can, and I have no idea how he thinks he’s going to be purifying this thing,” jerking her chin to the inner vault.
“Master is having the Purificatoria dei Curia come,” Flikka piped up, and they all swiveled their heads to stare down at her.
“He’s got the Vatican wizards coming?” Harry said.
Flikka nodded, looking smug. “And the goblins will be dismantling the vault,” she added. “Master is saying the whole thing must come out, and be melted down in dragonfire.”
“Well, all right, yes,” Elsine said a bit blankly, after a moment. “That would do it.”
Ron snorted to Harry as they took hold of the door and pulled it the rest of the way open. “Bet he reckoned it wouldn’t look good for a consultant at St. Mungo’s to be harboring a bunch of murderous Dark stuff in the library when he’s about to have a load of guests tramping through.”
“I don’t care why he’s letting us anymore, as long as we get rid of it all,” Harry said grimly. His skin felt clammy and shivering all over, and going inside when it was his turn to bring out the next artifact was—one of the hardest things he’d ever done, which was saying something. He tried not to even look down at the blackwood staff except to make sure he had a proper grip on it—he’d put on three pairs of gloves, and a full mask over his mouth and nose—and to avoid brushing the ends against anything as he carried it out to the containment unit Hermione had brought right up to the vault door. He slid it in, top knob first, and slammed the door shut on it violently. “Put it inside a second unit,” he said, and Hermione nodded, and he threw his gloves and mask inside there, and then stripped his robes off over his head and threw them in, too.
“Go stand in the sunlight,” Elsine said. “And—Flikka, do you suppose we might have another pitcher of that lemonade?”
Harry drank nearly the whole thing by himself.
They just managed to get out the last one before sunset: a portrait of a young girl sitting in a chair who looked at them with clear black eyes after they uncovered her, and started asking questions in a mild voice about what they were doing and who they were and whether they ever thought about just slitting their wrists sometimes, and Jeremy and Ron had to drop it and run out of the vault again with her plaintively calling, “Come back, come back, I’m lonely,” after them. They stood in the study shaking violently until Hermione cast a Major Cleansing over them both, and followed it up with Intensely Cheering Charms.
“Right, straight outside you both go,” Elsine said after peering intently into their faces. “Fanshawe, Ludlow, take them back to Auror Headquarters and have the staff mediwizard look them over. Everyone else, we’re going to cast Deafening Charms on ourselves, a Silencing Spell on it, and also let’s put on full hoods.”
They put the portrait inside three separate containment units of wood that Hermione put reinforcing spells on, and then put the whole thing inside a larger metal one. “We’ll just burn the inner ones along with it, when we get it to the disposal site,” Elsine said, wiping her brow, after they’d finally shut it into the box. “Hammers all round, everyone, let’s have at these shelves,” and they spent the last half hour before sunset in a relieving orgy of simple destruction, smashing apart the cases and the shelves and the paneling, their heads fully covered against any particles, until the whole room was gutted to brick and mortar.
Then at last they went outside and summoned buckets of water out of the well to sluice themselves off completely, shivering in the early twilight. Harry didn’t even mind. The cold out here felt good on his skin, bracing and refreshing, and he was glad to be out of the house. “It does make one almost s-sorry for Malfoy,” Hermione said, her teeth chattering. “Surely they c-can’t have gone in there often, not with a child in the house? But even s-so…”
It didn’t make Harry feel sorry for Malfoy. It only made him angry again. Malfoy was part of this, just another one of the monstrous things in the Manor’s closet, only they couldn't shove him in a disposal unit and get rid of him. Harry had so hated having to testify at his trial—having that smirking, careful solicitor drag useful things out of him, as if Draco was any less guilty just because he hadn’t had the nerve to be as evil as he’d planned to be. He was just as bad as the rest of them, only he was a coward on top of it, and now he’d just gone on, squirming himself into St. Mungo’s—probably because the Healers had been nicer and more willing to give him a chance than other wizards would have been.
Harry was still running on a low simmer three days later when a very large box of invitations was dropped on his desk by a massive eagle owl, along with a note scrawled in Draco’s languidly elegant handwriting: By the way, Potter, it’s formal high wizarding attire required, and if you and yours don’t know what that is, go round to Malkin’s shop and she’ll kit you out.
Formal high wizarding attire turned out to mean an outfit with more parts than an Auror’s hazardous-duty gear, all of which had to be in carefully matched colors and patterns—but not one color and pattern, because that would’ve been far too simple—and most of them so elaborately laced you needed help to get into them. Madame Malkin was happy, at least. “I’m a sponsor,” she confided in Harry with glee. “I haven’t had business like this in years—it’s all been school robes and work robes and the odd half-formal, no one’s really been entertaining in the old ways.”
“Yeah, great,” Harry said sourly. He’d been feeling lousy since the disposal, too—enough he’d even gone back to the Auror mediwizard. But Finley had looked him over head to toe and hadn’t found a trace of a lingering curse fragment or anything else she could actually treat.
“Well, I’m sorry, Harry, but when you insist on going into what by all accounts was an absolutely brutal disposal mission, even though I’ve already told you that you’re suffering from overwork and fatigue, and you spend the entire day handling first and second order Dark artifacts and never bother to mention to anyone else on the team,” Finley was picking up heat as she went on, and Harry winced, “that I’ve strongly urged you to do only light work for at least six months, you may expect to suffer some consequences. Now it’s desk work for you until you go on holiday, and when you get back, I’ll do another full examination and consider whether you can go back into the field next year.”
“A year!” Harry said.
“We can make it two if you like,” she’d said, glaring.
And he’d had to call four dozen people to fill his tables, even though he’d urged them all to bring a couple of guests. Loads of people had already bought their own tickets. Even Katie Bell was going. “He saved my life a few years ago, actually,” she said, after Harry diffidently asked her if she’d want to go. “Weird, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, very,” Harry said. He was sure Malfoy had made it look like he’d saved her life.
But when he arrived for the party—as late as he could excuse himself being—the Manor felt completely different. The Vatican wizards clearly didn’t mess about: Harry hadn’t even quite realized just how thick and pervasive the cloud of Dark magic hanging over the place had been until he came back through the gates and found it was just—gone. The whole place had a scrubbed-clean feeling, from the wrought-iron gates to the towers shining warmly with sunset. The gardens looked completely different, too. Harry stared around as he walked down the lane: half the trees and flowers had been ripped out and replacements planted in their stead. There was even a whole new part of the house, a round stone tower with a crystal-domed top rising right up out of the middle.
“I went up and had a peek,” Elsine said, coming back to the table where all the Aurors were sitting together. “The vault’s gone, all right: it looks like he had the goblins rip the entire storeroom right out of the house, and put in that sky-viewing tower instead. That’s smart: sun and moon and starlight pouring down all the time, and nothing but a wrought-iron staircase in the space. I dare say in five years you won’t even be able to tell there was anything there. Must have cost a fortune, though!”
The party was already in full swing, and it had clearly cost a fortune, too. The tables were set up throughout the banquet hall and the Great Hall and the ballroom, and the walls had been persuaded to turn transparent for the occasion, so you could really see just how massive the place was. A small battalion of house elves in uniform were managing the service as though they had started out throwing a state dinner and then had decided it just wasn’t formal enough. Harry was looking for another chair to pull up to the Aurors’ table when one of the elves cornered him and marched him off to the head table instead, ignoring his faint protests and his looking back at Hermione and Ron and everyone in dismay.
At least he was seated on the opposite side of the table from Draco, between the Chief Mediwizard and the head of the trauma wards, a Leonora Weedstone. “It’s like stepping into a novel,” Weedstone was saying dreamily, gazing at Draco with an expression of intense satisfaction: he looked like one of the photographs Madame Malkin had up on her walls as an example, in white robes with silver gauntlets clasped around his wrists, grey hood tasseled with silver, a dark-blue under-robe with piping in white, grey boots patterned with the dark blue. Weedstone looked at Harry. “Can you imagine, he’s had this place shut up for thirteen years! It’s a crime against society.”
“Yeah, really horrible,” Harry said, dryly, thinking about the hideous secret vault.
“I’m glad you pushed him into opening the place up, Mirabilis,” Weedstone added, and the Chief Mediwizard turned and smiled.
“Well, I knew people would come just so they could see what it’s like,” she said. “Even at four hundred Galleons a head. Harry Potter, isn’t it? Mirabilis Vent, lovely to meet you. I understand Draco imposed on you shockingly: I’d say I’m sorry, but we’re very grateful, you know.”
“I was glad to do it,” he said, and he was, really, if St. Mungo’s had needed the work. “Are the operating theaters really that bad?”
“Oh, just a bit antiquated,” she said. “But we desperately needed another floor of wards, and moving the theaters up gets us the space. And our current ones aren’t really an appropriate setting for our particular diamond.” By that she apparently meant Draco; she waved a hand across towards him, although oddly enough her smile was affectionate. “It’s a bit embarrassing to have healers come from Shanghai or Milan or Los Angeles and stuff them into a cramped hatbox of an observation room, looking into a theater that hasn’t been renovated since before the second World War.”
The second course was coming, and the elves were pouring wine. Harry stopped one of them serving him and said, “Listen, could you ask Flikka if there’s any of that green lemonade stuff?”
They brought him a tall glass of it and kept it filled all the rest of dinner, which he didn’t make easy for them: it was the first thing that had made him feel really better since the disposal, and he’d forgotten how good it felt just to be able to take a full deep breath.
“What is that stuff you’ve been drinking?” Weedstone asked, interestedly, dropping back into her seat next to him flushed and happy with dancing: the tables had been cleared, except for the petit fours and coffee, and the music had begun. “Some sort of special cocktail?”
“It hasn’t got any alcohol,” Harry said, “I don’t know what it’s called, actually. Draco’s house elf made it for us, when we were clearing out his vault.” It belatedly occurred to him maybe Malfoy didn’t want people knowing he’d had a vault of Dark artifacts, but then it just as quickly occurred to him he didn’t care. “It’s some sort of Reviving Draught from Japan, she said.”
“What?” Weedstone stared at him, and then she reached out and took the glass from his hand, took a tiny sip, and blinked hard. “Good Lord, you’ve been guzzling Sawayakana Kyu like it’s water. You don’t feel uncomfortable?”
“Er, no,” Harry said. “We all drank a lot of it, the other day.”
“If you were actively being exposed to Dark artifacts, I suppose you might like a glass,” she said. “But you’ve just had four of them, sitting right here. Have you been hexed lately? Draco said there were some really nasty things in his vault, did you touch any of them with a bare hand or something?”
“No, we stuck to the disposal protocol the entire time,” Harry said. “I’ve just been tired lately—overwork.”
“This isn’t overwork,” Weedstone said, with flat authority. “Come on, stand up, let me have a look at you.”
Harry tried to say, “I’ve been checked out by—”
“Someone who hadn’t just seen you drink a liter of one of the strongest purifiers there is,” Weedstone said. “Up, Mr. Potter, I need more room,” and she chivvied him over to the fireplace and went all over him, a light from her wand glowing through his body. She straightened up still frowning. “Well, this makes no sense.”
“I was trying to say, I’ve had a full exam by the Auror mediwizard just last week,” Harry said. “There’s nothing wrong with me.”
“Yes, but there is,” she said, “because there’s not a trace of the Sawayakana, either, so unless you poured it into a jug under the table, it went into something. Malfoy!” she called, turning round, to Harry’s dismay. “Come over here.”
Draco had been dancing with Vent; he parted from her and glided over in his absurd robes. “Well, Potter, did you manage to get yourself cursed interestingly during the cheese course?” he drawled.
“He’s done something,” Weedstone said grimly. “He just drank four glasses of your Sawayakana Kyu, but there’s not a trace of it, and I can’t find anywhere it might have gone.”
Draco stared at her, then stared at Harry, and then pulled out his wand. “Look, is this really necessary,” Harry said, starting to wish he’d never asked for the stuff.
“Yes, Potter, alas it is; we’ve taken oaths,” Draco said. “Now shut up.” He did the same examination Weedstone had, straightened up and shook his head. “What’s been your worst symptom?” he said to Harry abruptly. “You won’t have been feeling well: what’s been the main problem, what did the drink help with?”
“I’m just fatigued a bit!” Harry said, but Draco was making an impatient gesture with his hand, yes yes come on already. “I’ve had a hard time catching my breath sometimes.”
“Take the pulmonary station,” Draco told Weedstone, who nodded and moved to stand in front of Harry, and she called up the light in her wand, training it directly over his chest. Draco went over him again, moving from the end of each limb towards Weedstone’s light, and then they both stopped and lowered their wands, looking equally frustrated.
“Should we try the cardiac station?” she said.
Draco didn’t say anything, frowning hard right at Harry’s chest, and then he said abruptly, “No. We won’t find anything that way, either. Whatever this is, it’s hiding.” He turned and called, “I need a full circle, now!”
Heads turned, and a dozen mediwizards came off the dance floor at once in all their finery and started making a circle completely round him, joining hands like ring around the rosy or something. People all around had started craning their heads and peering over at them. Mortified, Harry said, “Right, Draco, this is far enough. I’m fine, thanks loads for the concern—”
“You’re not fine,” Draco said. “You’re ludicrously far from fine. Pick someone for the circle—wait, never mind,” he interrupted, as Ron and Hermione came off the floor to see what the hell was going on. “Granger, you’re for the head. Weasley, stand at the heart position—there, Finley’s showing you.” The other mediwizards were getting Ron and Hermione slotted into the circle among them. Weedstone had gone to stand at the foot; Draco was the only one inside the circle with him. “Incipio Incantatem,” Draco said. The Healers all narrowed their eyes, and glowing lights shone out in front of them.
“If you don’t know how to do a Healing Light wandless, just use Lumos,” Harry heard one of the mediwizards telling Ron, and Harry traded a helpless look with him before Ron gave a shrug and put up a bobbing light spell, too. Hermione had already cast her own Healing Light spell, her face worried.
“Stop fidgeting, face me,” Draco said, and Harry turned round to look at him. Draco swept up his wand, striking a showy pose like he was trying to get on the cover of a magazine or something, and then he said in a ringing voice, “Revelio!” and swept his wand down in a wave, a blaze of blue-white light rolling after.
Harry winced away from the light, and then he heard Hermione gasp, and several of the mediwizards, too. “Oh, Merlin,” someone said, on his left, and Harry looked down and saw—there was something inside his body, a thread-thin black line coiled in loops through his arms and legs, winding through his stomach, up through his chest—
“It’s trying to move!” Draco snapped. His jaw was clenched, his wand hand held wide.
“Hold on!” Weedstone said. She pulled together the hands of the two wizards to either side of her, overlapping them. She kept a grip on their wrists tightly until they’d clasped each other’s hands instead, then sprang forward to Draco’s side, whipping out her own wand. “Ready!”
“Now!” Draco said, and they touched wand-tips, for a moment—there was a flare of light, and for an instant Harry couldn’t breathe, couldn’t move, his whole body seized with sudden sharp agony, and then Weedstone was standing there with her whole face screwed up hard and tight, holding on to her wand with both hands, tears running down her face, her teeth clenched and bared. Draco raised both hands around Harry, drew a deep breath, then shouted out, “Teneostis fortissimus glacialis!” and whipped his wand down, through a sweeping arc, into a complicated casting twist that ended right over the middle of Harry’s chest with a flaring of blazing white light that sank straight into his body, raced up and down through him—Harry could actually see it travel over his eyeballs, a thin glowing filament line—and flared out.
Weedstone gasped and staggered; one of the other mediwizards caught her. Draco dropped his arm, his face hard. “What is that thing?” one of the other healers was saying, his face shocked. “That coiling pattern in the limbs, that looked like a Death Curse, but the size of it—and those folds in the noumenia—”
“It’s not a Death Curse,” Draco said flatly. “It’s three of them. Voldemort cursed him three times. Potter, did you get medical treatment after the war?”
“I felt fine,” Harry said. “Are you saying there was something—left over?”
“Oh, you felt fine,” Draco said, rolling his eyes. “Yes, what’s a little Death Curse now and then. You’ve even got some alien soul fragments in there, too. His?” he demanded, and didn’t wait for an answer. “Yes, of course—that’s why you’re a Parseltongue. And there’s more involved, too—I imagine it’s been picking up bits of every curse or hex you’ve ever taken since.” He dragged a hand across his forehead. “All right, let’s get you to the wards. Flikka! Have my carriage brought round at once. Vent, take over hosting for me, will you? Finley, Zalibar, you’ll come? Right.”
“Wait, what?” Harry said. “Didn’t you—stop it? I feel all right.”
“Just like you did after the war?” Draco said. “You’re about three millimeters from dropping dead. I’ve just put a hold on it to get you to the hospital, it won’t last more than an hour.”
“And then what?” Ron said loudly, taking a step forward.
“And then, since it’s been spotted, the curse is undoubtedly going to give up what’s clearly been a determined effort to find a way to take a load of other people out with Potter, and settle for just killing him straightaway,” Draco said. “You’re half lucky it was three, actually,” he added to Harry. “They’re all trying to reach completion, so they had to find a way to magnify your death.”
“You’re talking like they’ve got consciousness!” Hermione said. “It’s just curse fragments—”
“Curses are animated by the will of the caster, Granger, and this caster has left scraps of his soul scattered all over Potter’s,” Draco snapped. “I can’t believe you never got yourself cleansed of those, either.”
“I thought that was all gone after Voldemort cursed me the third time,” Harry said.
“Being blasted with Avada Kedavra isn’t actually a recognized therapeutic method, although it’s a natural mistake, really,” Draco drawled.
“Right,” Ron said tightly. “Then if Harry needs an operation, we’ll have another healer, thanks.”
Every Healer in range turned a stare on Ron, with identically blank expressions, like he’d said something that didn’t make any sense. Even Draco stared like he was surprised, and then he actually barked a laugh. “Anyone else want to give it a go?” he said, turning. “What do you think, Weedstone?”
“Draco,” the Chief Mediwizard said quietly. Draco wheeled on her. “He’s your patient.”
Draco stared at her, then he straightened and turned back to Harry. He looked abruptly different, the cold sneer gone straight out of his face like a mask taken off; like someone had scrubbed it clean, as clean as the stones of the Manor itself. Harry stared at him. “If I can’t save your life, there’s no one alive who can,” Draco said quietly, “and I mean to do it.”
Harry found he believed him, without in the least wanting to. Slowly, he nodded.
“Come,” Draco said. “The carriage will be ready.”
# # #
The operation lasted six days. Draco snatched three hours of sleep in the brightest hours of each day, and one more catnap when the moon was at its height, while teams of six mediwizards fought to keep the curse from growing back. He nearly lost Harry four separate times; the last time, the monstrous curse quietly filled up his lungs with liquid, and he started going blue on the table and Draco couldn’t figure out why, until Harry made a faint gurgle and Draco realized he was drowning, and then had to literally levitate him into the air upside down and drain the horrible black stuff out onto the floor while Harry writhed choking in mid-air, and then it was another two desperate hours struggling to keep the abused bone marrow of his legs from just dying: the curse had induced it to make the thickened sludge.
When he’d got him stable again, after that one, Draco called in the holding team and went to his office and shut the door and wept for ten minutes, shaking. It had been five days, by then. He was so tired he half wanted to die himself, only to have a rest.
Mirabilis knocked on the door quietly and came in, with the bottle out of Whisely’s old desk. She gave him a glass, and then she laid hands on his head and sang the chant for him until he was able to get hold of himself again. “If it can be done, you’ll do it,” she said. “If it can’t, you won’t.”
“I can’t lose him,” Draco said, his voice cracking. “Of all the people—I can’t lose him.”
“We lose all our patients in the end, Magister,” she said softly.
“I can’t lose him to this,” Draco said. “To—” He stopped. “I can’t.”
She nodded after a moment. “So then don’t,” she said, and he took three deep breaths, and nodded, and went back down to the theater.
He turned the tide at last three hours later, when he finally managed to separate off the third of the Death Curses and counter it. The other two fell in short order, and after that he was just chasing down every last scrap and shadow, every bit of jinx and hex and curse that had agglomerated onto the hideous whole, countering them clear. The Aurors had medical records with everything Harry had ever been hit with—the list was a long one—and after Draco worked through all of those, he found a handful of other things that hadn’t been in the records, and eradicated them, too.
He finally let the nursing team take Harry to recovery when he’d spent an hour hunting without finding anything else, and then he staggered up to the familiar old residents’ quarters and found an empty room and fell on the cot and slept solidly for sixteen hours.
He was used to his sleep getting turned upside down, but he still felt strange when he woke up, vaguely light-headed. He went down to the café, drank two cups of nearly petrified coffee, and ate his way through a heaped tray of atrocious food, staring at the newsletter without reading it just to give himself an excuse for not having to talk to anyone. He was annoyed when someone pulled the chair out across from him anyway, and looked up to glare them away only to blink instead: it was Luna Lovegood of all people, sitting down with a cup of tea and a bouquet.
“What on earth are you doing here?” he said blankly.
“I came to see Harry,” she said. “But visiting hours on his floor don’t start for another half hour.”
“No one really cares about the posted hours; those are only there in case we need an excuse to kick people out for some other reason,” Draco said.
“I don’t mind waiting,” Luna said, and smiled at him. “I’m so glad you did it after all.”
That, he had a recipe for handling without any thought required; he automatically waved a lordly, dismissive hand. “All in a day’s work.”
“No. Well, yes, but I meant all of it,” Luna said. “The course.”
Draco had almost completely forgotten, but as soon as she said it, he remembered the last time he’d seen her; at the bulletin board all those years ago, asking, Are you going for the course? I thought you might. She just sipped her tea and blinked at him serenely over the edge of her cup. “You’re a Seer,” he said flatly. Nothing else made any sense of it; not that it made sense anyway. “You knew.”
She didn’t say anything, and didn’t deny it either. He stared at her. “But,” he said after a moment, “but—why the hell did you care what happened to me? After—after what we—after what I did—”
“Oh, I didn’t,” Luna said simply. “Well, I didn’t blame you very much, because I didn’t think you really made that much difference, but I never liked you. But I did care what happened to Harry. It didn’t seem fair, really. So I tried to imagine something that might save him. I didn’t know if you’d do it, though. So, thank you.”
Draco hadn’t any idea what to do with it. It did actually make a bizarre sense: for all his panicky ranting at the party, it wouldn’t have helped if anyone had found the residue of the Death Curses lurking in Potter’s psyche after the war. Until quite recently there hadn’t been a healer, anywhere in the world, who could’ve lifted them. The only way to get a healer who could actually save him—was to start with a Dark wizard. If you could find one, perhaps a rather unenthusiastic and not-very-competent one, that you could nudge down a different path.
It didn’t seem particularly fair to Draco that Lovegood had actually managed to join forces with Voldemort to make his entire life about Harry Potter, but storming out of the hospital in rage declaring he’d never darken the door again was out, and he didn’t really see what other remotely appropriate reaction there was. Thankfully, she didn’t force him to produce one; she just smiled at him again and got up and wandered off. Draco sat with it another blank five minutes before deciding that he was going to aggressively forget the entire conversation had ever happened, and also never speak to Lovegood ever again and make sure to leave the room rapidly if he ever saw her coming.
It was just the least bit difficult to forget, however, because he had to go look in on Potter, who was now his patient, exactly according to Lovegood’s charming plan. Draco grimly knocked back the last of his coffee and went. He rather hoped Potter would be asleep, but no luck; he was working on the end of his own tray, with a slightly screwed up expression: the flan really was inedible unless you were starved. “The next fundraiser’s going to be for the kitchens,” Draco said in a determined drawl, sauntering in as insouciantly as he could manage.
Harry jumped a little, looking up, and eyed him sidelong. “Am I going to have to buy another four tables?” he said after a moment, a bit warily.
“You can’t say you didn’t get your money’s worth this time, can you?” Draco said coolly. “How’s the breathing?”
“Fine,” Harry said. “I feel a bit sore around the ribs, but Magister Aggardley said that was to be expected?”
“Yes, I had to break them on the third day,” Draco said. “Get your gown off, I’ll have a look.” Potter just stared at him. “The curse was about to burst your lungs, Potter. You needn’t look anxious, I fixed them afterwards. Come on, let’s see.”
“Right,” Harry said, and took off his gown and lay back eyeing Draco with an expression not unlike the way he’d been contemplating the flan. One might have considered it a refreshing change from the usual adulation and quivering hope directed one’s way, if one had been someone else. Draco repressed irritation and flicked a quick Revisionary Charm over Potter’s sides. The ribs were fine, healing well; Potter had nothing to complain about. Draco did a quick Bone-Binding Charm anyway to nudge them along, and Potter gave a muffled squawk. “What was that?” he demanded.
“Potter, you do realize that I’ve just spent six days saving your life?” Draco said. “If I actually wanted to do you any harm, all I’d have had to do was stay in the loo for five minutes too long. You’re the one who was whinging on about your ribs, which were perfectly fine, and now are still better. Take a deep breath and tell me if you still feel any soreness.”
Potter dragged in a breath so massive he should have felt uncomfortable if he were anything other than a full-time opera singer, and then let it out and said, “No,” grudgingly.
“Splendid,” Draco said. “You can put your sop to modesty back on now.”
Potter pulled the gown back up over his shoulders and then burst out, “Since when are you such a brilliant Healer, anyway?”
“For the last ten years,” Draco said coolly, which might be exaggerating, but not by much, and it made a nice round number. “Are you really incapable of imagining that people might have changed since school days?”
“It’s you that’s a bit of a stretch, Malfoy,” Harry said dryly.
Draco barely restrained himself from grinding his teeth. “Well, Potter, I’d hand your care off to someone who wouldn’t put you to the terrible strain on your mental faculties, but you’re going to need two more Healing Field sessions during your recovery, and then any time you ever take a hex or worse in the field, so I can’t inflict you on anyone else.”
“Wait, what?” Harry said, voice rising. “Every time I—but I’m a front-line Auror! I take a hex in the field every few months!”
“Yes, so I gathered from that horrific ledger your office gave us,” Draco said sourly. “And every time you do, you’re going to be straight back here, seeing me again. You’ll just have to imagine how the prospect fills me with delight.”
The door to the room opened and Weasley and Granger came in, carrying two trays full of food. They stared at him, and then Granger dropped her tray on the side table and came at him, making Draco jerk back in some alarm—the last time she’d come at him like that, he’d gone away with a broken nose—and then she caught him by the shoulders, and said, her voice cracking, “You were magnificent,” and kissed him on the cheek before bursting into sobs on his chest, which was still more horrifying. This sort of thing was why Draco made sure to have a manly nurse or house officer about when he spoke to grateful families, only it hadn’t occurred to him he’d need one in this case.
“Granger, I provide miracles, not comfort,” he hissed.
“No, of course,” she said, in a squeaky, sniffling way, letting him go and pulling out a handkerchief. She wiped her eyes and turned round to glare back at Weasley and Potter, both of whom were gaping in open-mouthed amazement. “You weren’t observing!” she snapped at them. “You didn’t see—” She stopped and gulped again, and finally Weasley got himself together to come and put his arm round her shoulders and Draco managed to eel away to the safety of the door.
“Right, nothing else bothering you, Potter?” Draco didn’t wait for an answer; Potter was still busy gawking at Granger in horror only slightly short of his own. “Good, you’re clear to be released once the nurses get around to you; be back in three weeks for the first Healing Field, ta,” Draco finished in a hurry, and made his escape, shuddering.
# # #
“There’s got to be someone else I can go to,” Harry said.
“No, there’s not,” Hermione said, with what was an alarming dismissiveness. “I wouldn’t trust your care to anyone else.”
“Er, what?” Ron said, still staring at Hermione, so at least there was someone else around Harry who hadn’t gone mental. More than a dozen mediwizards and nurses had popped in to have a look at him since he’d woken up, talking in hushed, respectful voices of how amazing the surgery had been and how lucky he was that the great and wonderful Draco Malfoy had deigned to save his life.
Hermione only sighed. “I’d tell you to go read his journal articles and his books, but you won’t, so you’ll just have to take my word for it.”
“His books,” Harry said flatly.
“Yes, he’s written two,” Hermione said. “I skimmed them and his four most recent journal articles in the waiting room while they were getting you ready for surgery, just to be sure he knew what he was about, and then I read them the rest of the way once you were in recovery. They’re really fascinating reading, actually: there’s some significant implications for the Theory of Mystical Consequence—”
“Hermione!” Ron groaned faintly. “If they’re any good, then someone else wrote them, and he stuck his name on them!”
“They’re original research, Ron! It’s not something you can get a ghost to write for you. Anyway, then I watched the surgery! Or do you also think that Draco somehow got a different brilliant Healer to Polyjuice into him for it? Not that Polyjuice could have lasted for six days, but if you’re not letting reason stand in your way, that shouldn’t be a problem,” she said, with awful sarcasm.
“He’s saying I’ve got to come in and see him again every time I get hexed!” Harry said.
“Then that’s exactly what you’re going to do,” Hermione said firmly.
Harry kept seething about it even after his release, all the more because he felt—fantastic. He could breathe again. He even looked better; he kept eyeing himself suspiciously in the mirror every morning because the difference looked like one of the charmed-up photos out of the Glamour section of the Daily Prophet. He went down to Finley just to get looked over by someone he trusted, and she nearly burst into tears asking him to forgive her for not spotting the curses. “I shouldn’t have written it off as overwork,” she said miserably. “The Magister is absolutely right, I should’ve consulted him sooner—”
“Wait—which Magister are we talking about?” Harry said, warily.
“Magister Malfoy!” Finley said.
Harry stared at her. “Are you saying Malfoy—lectured you about it?” he demanded indignantly.
“Of course he lectured me!” Finley said. “You’ve been my patient for four years now! I should’ve talked to him when I couldn’t get any improvement after two.”
“It’s not your fault I didn’t actually do…any…of the things you told me to,” Harry said. “And I don’t see what business Malfoy has lecturing you, anyway.”
She stared at him like he was a lunatic. “What—business—”
“You’re the Auror mediwizard, not him!” Harry said.
“He’s the Special Consultant for Spell Damage at St. Mungo’s,” she said, in bewildered tones. “He was my supervisor. He wrote my reference.”
“Malfoy wrote her a reference,” Ron said incredulously, when Harry told him and Hermione at lunch. “And we hired her?”
“Are you still on about Draco?” Hermione said. “I realize it’s really difficult, but you’d think that after he saved your life, you might be willing to entertain the idea that people change over the course of thirteen years!” Harry glared at her in irritation; it was bad enough to have Malfoy saying it.
“Not that much,” Ron said.
“Hermione, you saw that vault! Those horrible things he had!” Harry said.
“Which he threw out!”
“He wasn’t in a hurry about it, though, was he?” Ron said.
“We should go to the Records Division,” Harry said abruptly. “I want to have a look at what he said to get her the post.”
Hermione stood up, planting her hands on her hips. “All right, that’s enough,” she said, glaring. “When you’re at the point of accusing Finley, a Hufflepuff who I doubt has ever so much as been unkind to anyone in her life and takes in abandoned Muggle cats and heals them in her spare time—”
“I don’t mean she’s in on it with him!” Harry said. “She just—believes his story.”
“What story?” Hermione said. “He’s been a Healer for ten years! He nearly killed himself on your operation! He isn’t faking!”
“He’s faking something!” Harry yelled at her. “Don’t you think it’s the least bit odd that Malfoy’s got his protégé in as the Healer for the Auror Department? And just a little while later he gets a dozen senior Aurors to cart around his monstrous artifacts?”
“And right after that is when Harry suddenly comes down sick with this curse like no one’s ever seen before?” Ron put in. “That only Malfoy can fix?”
Hermione rolled her eyes and got up. “I’m done arguing. If the two of you want to waste your time, go right ahead. I’ve got actual work to do.”
At least Ron was still with him; they went up to the Records division together and hunted through personnel files until they got to Finley’s folder. But Malfoy's letter was all of one line long and only said, Healer Finley has worked under my supervision for three years and has demonstrated reasonable competence, with half the page taken up by the scrawled signature. “The Hiring Division’s gone loopy,” Ron said positively.
And when they finally found Hiring Director Canvase in the back of his nearly impenetrable office poking through one of the teetering towers of paperwork, he only beamed at them. “Yes, indeed,” he said. “Naturally we snatched her up at once. It’s not easy to get hold of a Spell Damage consultant of this caliber, you may be sure.”
“Er,” Harry said, “it says she’s reasonably competent.”
“Well, but it’s from Magister Malfoy,” Canvase said, as though that made everything obvious. When they made clear it didn’t, he said a little helplessly, “The Special Consultant at St. Mungos?” as if that was the most significant way to describe him, and added, “They’ve only ever named five, you know. He’s the finest living Healer in the world. Nearly miraculous, really.”
“A miraculous arsehole, maybe,” Harry muttered, after they’d left the office.
Ron nodded. “It’s enough to turn my stomach, hearing people go on like that about the rotter.”
“And they want me to go back to him!” Harry said. “In two weeks!”
“We’ve got to figure out what he’s up to,” Ron said.
It was raining, and the Concealing Charm that the Surveillance Division had set up on the corner was positioned right by a rain gutter that hadn’t been cleaned properly in too long and overflowed a gout of cold water on their heads at ten-minute intervals, of which there’d been a great many. Malfoy had been tucked in quietly since nine, in a palatial townhouse down the street that had once belonged to his family’s good old friends the Rosiers, at least until they’d all got themselves killed fighting for Voldemort. On the bright side, the property had been done over by the Ministry, so the Aurors had detailed plans of every possible route in and out, and Harry had put charms in place to alert him every time Draco poked out a nose.
But so far Draco’d been going—well, not like clockwork exactly, because the hours were all over the place, but every day he went out and went straight to the hospital, then left the hospital and came straight home. Harry had entertained a moment of hope on Sunday night, when Draco had gone out and taken a right turn instead of a left turn, but he’d only gone to a wine shop to order a case of red, and it had been drunk by a small army of Healers who’d all shown up for dinner at his house the same evening. Maybe he was drugging them all somehow.
The only other thing of any note whatsoever that Malfoy had done was go out on Saturday with a broom. Harry had summoned his own and followed him—all the way out to the Cairngorms, where Malfoy had met three other members of the Cross-Country Careeners for a pub lunch before coming home and going early to bed, yet another unlikely bit of wholesomeness. It put Harry’s teeth on edge. But one of these nights Draco was going to—
“Oi,” Ron said, elbowing him, and Harry straightened as a light went on upstairs. A quick look at his Timekeeper: it was 3:11 in the morning. “Right, alert the other team,” Harry said, and Ron nodded and shook Pigwidgeon awake out of his inside pocket and sent him darting off with word.
None too quick: Draco came out the front door barely two minutes later and straight into his private carriage, which pulled up to the curb just as he reached it, so he ducked inside without even breaking stride. Harry had to throw on his cloak and jump on his broom to follow while everyone else scrambled after: you couldn’t have a flock of brooms just start after someone at three in the morning, it would be a bit conspicuous.
Malfoy’s carriage was bowling along at top speed, and Harry had a few blazing moments of fierce satisfaction chasing it through shrinking passageways and narrow alleys, only to pull up in sinking exasperation as it squeezed out between two buildings and pulled up in a halt right in front of the entrance to St. Mungo’s. There were three anxious Healers waiting almost on the stoop, and Harry was close enough to hear Draco saying, “Tell me as we go, and do try to be concise,” as he swept them with him back into the hospital.
“Ugh, for a moment there I was sure we were on to something,” Ron said, dropping down next to him. “He was one corner away from taking a turning that goes to Knockturn Alley. Right, you reckon we should just take the hospital surveillance posts?”
“No,” Harry said abruptly. “I mean, yes, tell the others to go to hospital posts. I’m going inside.”
“He’s been called in for something,” Harry said. “He’s going to have to a make a good show of whatever it is. Hermione said she got to observe the operation—so I’m going to go and watch this one.”
As soon as he asked about observing the operation, the receptionist said in bored tones, “Tickets to see Magister Malfoy operate are currently running a seven-month waiting list, please fill out an application and—” then she finished lifting her head and stopped, open-mouthed, and stammered, “Oh, I beg your pardon—Mr. Potter! Just a moment, I didn’t realize it was you,” and fifteen minutes later the Chief Mediwizard was coming into the hall, smiling.
Harry half-guiltily shook her hand as she said, “Nonsense, please don’t apologize. Any time at all. Are you feeling ill? Draco’s in with another patient—”
“No,” Harry said awkwardly. “No—I just—Hermione said that—it’s possible to observe the operations. I suppose I was just curious—”
Vent eyed him with faint puzzlement, which was fair enough given it was three in the morning. But she didn’t lose the smile, and all she said was, “Well, if anyone’s entitled to be, it’s you. Although I’m afraid I can’t promise you anything quite as dramatic as your operation.”
She took him up to the operating theaters and into a narrow observation area already crammed with Healers. Vent cheerfully shooed two juniors out of their seats up front next to the glass window, presently so pitch dark Harry couldn’t see anything on the other side but his own reflection. “Sorry for the crush: tickets for Malfoy’s scheduled operations are all snapped up months in advance by very important people, so when one of these unexpected ones comes along, all our ducklings come scurrying,” she said. “Once the new theaters have been built, we’ll have far more viewing capacity, and of course the sky dome will be in. We’re having to make do with side windows for now. At least it’s a nice big moon tonight.”
Even as she spoke, the darkness on the other side of the glass was suddenly flooded with blue light as a sliver of night sky opened up and then grew and grew as the heavy shutters pulled apart to let the moonlight in. Moments later, a crowd of mediwizards and nurses came bustling in with equipment and supplies, starting up three small cauldrons along the back wall and whisking two large operating tables into order. Draco strode into the middle of the room like an actor stealing the spotlight, in pale blue robes edged in bands of darker blue with the silver Magister’s stripes along the seam. He made an immense production of casting Aguamenti on the wall basin and washing his hands in the running stream three times, and then he turned round and declared, “All right, let’s have the patients,” as if they’d been kept waiting on his convenience.
Then the massive doors swung open all the way and a team of six Healers came in pushing two linked stretchers with—Harry actually had to swallow down a sudden sour taste of bile. The two people on the stretchers had been splinched so badly their arms and legs had got mixed up, and horribly, one of them was a pregnant woman. A tiny fetal arm was poking out of the man’s belly, and an impossibly small foot was joined to the woman’s elbow. The man’s arms—including the one currently sticking out of the woman’s back—were covered with small bubbling boils, and the woman had been hit with Densangueo and her front teeth were jutting out past her chin.
“How generous of the patients to provide us all with a remarkably vivid object lesson in why not to Apparate while having a violent marital argument,” Draco said. “All right; Copley, Jones, transfer the Sustaining Field to me on three. One, two—” and the two Healers on either side of the stretchers at the front both made a quick tossing gesture of their wands. Draco caught the spell neatly with his own wand, and swept it over to his other hand with a grandiose swish that he’d surely practiced in front of the mirror fifty times at least.
“Healer,” the woman whispered.
Draco made a face of irritation and stepped in. “What is it?”
“Save my baby,” she whispered. “That’s all I care about, don’t worry about me.”
“Very noble, but all things considered, I think I’ll just save you both, and then we won’t have to worry about where to put it for the last three months,” Draco said. “Is that quite enough of the dramatics?” he added snottily, which was pot calling kettle taken to new heights. “May I get on with it now? All right, Calderin, let’s begin that infusion of asphodel and ochre, and keep the flow perfectly steady.
“As I trust all of you can recognize,” he said, turning abruptly to face the observation gallery, “looking beyond the grotesque but quite straightforward splinching, the real challenge of this particular operation is the Densangueo hex, which was in progress at the same time as the parents Apparated and were splinched together, and as a result has crossed the normal protection of the placental barrier and fused the skull of the unborn child. The standard order of operations, first performing the disengagement and then lifting the spell damage, will not serve in the present case. Once the child is behind the placental barrier again, it will no longer be possible to reach her with the counter-hexing. However, as we know from the cautionary tale of Healer Liskey, which I hope you will all read in short order,” he noted pointedly, while all the junior Healers in the observation room instantly pulled out quills and wrote down Healer Liskey, “attempting to counter-hex a splinched body is fraught with danger and difficulty, and we cannot counter-hex the Densangueo for only one victim—or for that matter for only the mother and child, as if you look closely,” he leaned over and with the tip of his wand flicked apart the back of the man’s lips, to reveal a couple of swollen molars, “you will see the father—you are the father, I presume? Just as well—has also been caught with the hex due to the splinching, and with a rebounding effect,” he opened the man’s jaws and pointed to a second row of teeth sprouting out from behind the first.
“How difficult is it really?” Harry muttered to Vent.
“Oh, it’s impossible,” she murmured back. “To counter-hex a splinched body you have to counter-hex all the body parts separately but within the same magical act, which means either you need to say it all in a single breath, which you can’t when there’s fourteen different splinched body parts across them all, or you need to cast each additional one without actually completing the ones before it, which requires as many times the power as there are body-parts. The upper limit’s five.”
“So what d’you do?” Harry said.
“Unsplinch them, then induce labor to get the baby out and counter-hex it, and hope it survives. It probably wouldn’t, not after that kind of spell damage trauma, but there wouldn’t be anything else to do,” Vent said, sounding cheerfully prosaic about it. “And that’s why instead, we call Draco in at three in the morning.”
“Wait,” Harry said, “so what’s he going to do?”
“Well, the upper limit’s not five for him,” Vent said.
Inside the chamber, Draco moved to stand at the feet of the two beds, raised his wand hand into carefully cocked position, drew a breath, and closed his eyes. Everyone in the room leaned forward, holding their breath in anticipation and blind adulation; even the healers in the chamber were all standing tense and gathered. Harry clenched his jaw tight over it; all Malfoy had to do was make a massive production of the whole business and everyone started to believe—
“Reducidens,” Draco said, crisp and clear, sending a spark out that touched the fetal leg, but left an odd faint trail hanging in the air. “Reducidens.” Another spark darted out to the mother’s teeth, with another line.
Draco kept casting the spell, over and over, exactly the same pronunciation each time, his wand never wavering. The lines of light all kept hanging there in the air, attached to the very tip of his wand, threads pulsing faintly with continuing power. Draco started to show signs of strain around the thirteenth casting, and his jaw was clenched and tendons standing out from his neck when he finally threw the nineteenth spell. And then he stopped, panting for three breaths, blinking hard, and grated out, “Something’s not right.” He had to stop and take another three breaths, and then he said, “There’s another splinch somewhere. I need a Circle!”
Mirabilis Vent stood up from her seat. “We’re coming from observation, hold on,” she said, and turning quickly pointed to thirteen of the Healers. “All right, follow me,” she said, and led them out. A moment later they all trooped into the operating room. “Everyone, take positions, outside the operation. On three,” and they raised their wands and all summoned light, a light that leapt from one wand to another and kept brightening until it made a solid circle that then began to grow upward into a dome, shining that almost painful light down over the patients. It abruptly reminded Harry of something he’d almost forgotten, a vision of a train station and Dumbledore smiling that slipped away again too quickly to really remember. The dome closed at the top and then suddenly filled completely with light. Harry flinched back: suddenly in that overpowering glare he could see an entire grotesque writhing mass of Dark magic like some monstrous tentacled beast wrapped around the victims’ bodies.
Vent was on the inside, carrying one single ember of the light with her on the tip of her wand, going over every inch of the patients’ bodies, and then she said, “I found it! A toe from the baby, just a bit of it, right here—”
Instantly Draco said, “Reducidens,” and snapped his wand as one more thread launched out to connect to the toe Vent had found. All twenty shining threads sprang instantly to the other end of their trails with tiny spark-flashes, and each one ignited a separate one of those massive writhing Dark tentacles and took them all up together, incinerating the entire horrible bulk of it.
Draco dropped his wand, gasping. He was standing underneath the blazing, fierce light, and for that last moment before the other healers all said, “Finite Incantatem,” it was shining through him, and there wasn’t a mark on him. There wasn’t any Dark in him anywhere at all.
Inside the operating room, Vent started suggesting to Draco that another Healer ought to finish the operation now that he had done the impossible part, and left only the excruciatingly difficult. “That’s a joke, is it?” Draco began yelling back at her in wild indignation, like he was a two year old and she was offering to take away his dummy. “They’re my patients, and they’re still Splinched halfway to Coventry, I’m not leaving them like this, much less putting a twenty-week-old fetus through another Sustaining Field transfer.”
Harry got up and left while they were still arguing. He rode the lift down and went out of the hospital and found Ron at the post covering the front doors. “Find anything?” Ron said, hopefully.
“No,” Harry said. “Tell everyone to go home.”
Two days later, Harry went back in for his own treatment. They didn’t take him to an operating theater, just a room on an upper floor that got a lot of sunlight in. Draco came in trailed by three young mediwizards in green. “You don’t mind being put on display, I trust, Potter,” he said, with a wave towards them. “This is a teaching hospital, of course.”
“No,” Harry said, sullenly. He did mind, mostly that he couldn't justify saying no, even though he wanted to just on the grounds it was Draco asking him.
Draco swung round to the students. “Ordinarily, I’d show you the intermediate stages: the safest way to raise a Healing Field is to raise the Sustaining Field first, then elevate it to the Rejuvenating Field, and only then make the final push. Dropping a patient out of a half-formed Healing Field like a rock has undesirable consequences, so we do try to avoid it. However, moving through the progression places pressure on the connection between the noumenia and the flesh that I don’t want to risk in this case, as I’ve already spent more than enough time patching Potter here back together.”
“Sorry to have given any trouble!” Harry said.
“Don’t whinge, it’s unattractive,” Draco said dismissively. “You’re about to get put straight into a Healing Field, you don’t need more coddling than that.”
His tone was almost exactly the same as the very first time Harry had met him, sneering and superior; his hair was brushed in a careful smooth wave over his forehead, his elegant pale blue-grey robes with their delicate silver embroidery completely pristine, his chin lifted just the right fraction to convey the impression of looking down his nose at the world. If Harry had ever bothered to imagine what Draco would look like, ten years out, he would’ve gotten everything right. Draco hadn’t changed, it was maddening; he hadn’t changed at all, except apparently he’d changed completely, and it didn’t make the least sense.
As Draco stepped to the side of the bed, another Healer in the grey robes of a consultant put his head in. “Are you doing it all in one, Malfoy?” he asked. “Mind if my lot watch, too?”
“Yes, all right,” Draco said, and the consultant ushered in another three mediwizards. Harry was beginning to feel a bit like a goose before the carving, with an audience of six assembled round his bed. Draco was obviously enjoying himself, shaking his loose over-sleeves back showily, taking a pose. “Lie back,” he said, and Harry had a clear view as Draco swept his wand down over his body, then back up through a complicated curving pattern, and then, exactly as the wand tip passed over the center of his forehead, Draco put the power into the spell.
It was like having Victoria Falls come down on your head, if Victoria Falls were weightless, made of something more like light than water. A wash of blue poured down over Harry, taking his breath away and giving it back threefold, surging beneath and lifting him up on a gasp. “Oh,” he said strangled, staring up through the waterfall at the shining radiance in Draco’s face, his whole body illuminated like a lamp.
“The real challenge is in sustaining the Field for an extended length of time,” Draco said to the students in a steady distant way, as calmly as if he didn’t realize he was glowing. “I prefer to link it to the patient’s need, so the Field dies away naturally when the patient has passed the point of active benefit. But of course, you must be sure you can keep the thing going to that point.”
The other consultant stuck his head back in through the door. “In other words, don’t do that,” he put in. “Or, much of anything that you see Magister Malfoy do.”
“Thank you, Magister Zalibar, that’s remarkably helpful,” Draco said, snippy. “You can all go on and get yourselves some lunch: this will be at least a few hours—once you get the Field up, you can generally get a sense of the pull on the other side.”
The students went off, and Draco gave a little sigh and seemed to settle in: his eyes were distant and looking far-away, his wand poised mid-air. It should have been impossible to hold in that position for long, but Draco did it anyway. He didn’t speak, didn’t even twitch; the Healing Field kept shining through him, impossibly, endlessly.
Draco gave him another dose of the Healing Field a few weeks later, and afterwards literally put Harry on a pedestal, stark naked, and examined him in the round for five hours. Twenty-odd junior mediwizards trooped through at one point or another. At least the room was warm. And after that really special experience, Draco called in another dozen mediwizards and they raised a Circle round him again for one last examination, light blazing everywhere until Draco decided he was satisfied. Harry glared down at him: in the shining light he could see tiny fragments of spells clinging here and there even to the other Healers, little crumbs of everyday hexes and jinxes—but not to Draco, not even a single one.
Finally Draco backed off and grudgingly let him climb down. “Remember: if you take a hex in the field, you’re here the same day. And for that matter, if you take any other spell in the field, you go to Finley, and let her decide. I don’t care if it’s a Cheering Charm,” Draco said, eyes narrow.
“Yes, fine,” Harry said. It was really adding insult to injury, having to take orders about his health from Draco Malfoy. “Can I please put on my pants now?”
He tried to console himself by going back to work, which he was allowed to do right away, because apparently Draco had fixed him so thoroughly that even Finley, who’d been yelling at him to take a holiday literally since the day she’d been hired, didn’t say he needed time off. “Of course you should, but it’s not medically necessary; not after Magister Malfoy’s had you in a Healing Field three times in six weeks. But I’m still not letting you back into the field for six months, on principle,” she said firmly. “Desk work.”
But the odd truth was, he sort of did want to take a holiday, for the first time in—well, in thirteen years. Harry a bit uneasily found he needed an alarm or else he overslept once in a while, and in the evenings he was inclined to knock off early enough that it was actually still light out—and not because the sun had come up, either. One weekend he didn’t go in at all. He didn’t have anything else to do; he just ended up sort of puttering about his flat reading books, having a quiet time. He cautiously tried to sound Hermione out about it, but all she said was, “I didn’t know you could be cured of being a mad workaholic,” which took some cheek coming from her, and Finley didn’t think there was the least thing odd about it either.
“But you should go see Magister Malfoy anyway,” she added. “He’ll want to see you for anything that seems unusual.”
“That’s all right, I’m sure it’s fine,” Harry said hastily.
“In fact, I’ll make you an appointment for this afternoon,” Finley said, ignoring him.
“No, look, I’m really busy, actually,” Harry said, backing out of the office, but ten minutes later the staff owl found him and shoved a slip of paper in his hand with 3pm today written on it. Harry glared at it, then wrote a note to Draco saying False alarm, I won’t be coming in, and sent it off. Ten minutes later he got back a note from the Spell Damage ward secretary at St. Mungo’s informing him that Magister Malfoy expected him at three, no excuses—that bit was in quotation marks, as though the secretary had wanted to be sure Harry knew it was straight from Draco, because he needed that important bit of intelligence. Harry glared at it and chucked the note in the bin and worked straight through until twenty-two past three, at which point he heard a drawling voice in the corridor outside his office saying, “All right, where’s the Chief Auror hiding?”
Draco swept in a few moments later. If he hadn’t dressed for the occasion, he’d dressed for some occasion; his robes were a faint silvery-grey today, trimmed at the sleeves with dark blue satin stitched with gold, and he’d thrown a matching cloak of dark blue satin over it all, along with thin satin gloves like the kind a woman would wear to the opera with a ballgown. “Potter, you do realize that in the twenty minutes I’m wasting coming back and forth from the hospital, I could have saved two people’s lives?” he said icily, flinging the cloak off with a flourish onto the wall hook. He carefully peeled the gloves off his hands, then swept his wand out of his sleeve and flicked it at the couch. “Dinficere!” A massive cloud of dust and faint greyish-pink smoke burst out of the cushions, along with a scattering of coins, a broken quill, one stray and dingy sock, and a candy wrapper. The couch looked significantly brighter, and a strong unpleasantly antiseptic smell wafted off it.
“I sent a note saying I wasn’t coming!” Harry said.
“You sent a note saying you were ignoring medical advice, which I am ignoring, since I didn’t spend six days saving your life just so you could fling it pointlessly away for no good reason,” Draco said. “Now come lie down or else I’ll send for Granger and have her stun you for me.”
Harry had the strong suspicion that Hermione would lay him out without the slightest hesitation. He grudgingly got up and pulled his robes and his shirt over his head and lay down on the couch. Draco started a wave of pink-violet light washing back and forth over him with a swish of his wand. “Now, exactly what changes have you been finding in your routine?”
Harry heaved an annoyed breath. “It’s not any one thing,” he said. “I just—don’t want to work as much.”
“As much as what?” Draco said.
“I’d usually—get in by seven, leave around nine; earlier on the weekends…” Harry trailed off; actually, it sounded completely mad when he said it out loud.
Draco only nodded without even looking away from the pink light; it was glowing about halfway down Harry’s stomach now. “Mm. And you’ve only taken holidays when forced? Volunteering for every Christmas and New Year’s, that sort of thing? And you’d sneak work with you when you did take off, I imagine.”
“You’re perfectly fine.” Draco flicked his wand, and the wave of light rolled itself up and vanished. “The overwork is why you lasted as long as you did—keeping your mind focused on altruism instead of selfish desires held back the curses. Not bad, as self-medication attempts go.” His tone managed to convey the impression of patting Harry on the head like a surprisingly clever dog. “However, it would be remarkably unhealthy now that you’re no longer fending off a massive overload of curse magic, so it’s just as well you’re giving it up. Take your holiday and go lie on a beach somewhere for a month. And the next time Finley makes you an appointment with me, come.”
“I don’t want to go lie on a beach for a month!” Harry said.
Draco looked down at him narrow-eyed. “Think about it: a month lying in the sun, someplace beautiful, with no work to do. Are you sure you don’t want to?”
“Yes, I’m—sure!” Harry said, except halfway to getting it out he stumbled, because actually it sounded sort of amazing when he did think about it.
But it annoyed him so much that Draco had made him want it that he spent another week determinedly trying to work the way he always had, only he kept getting tired and crabby. And by the end of the week he realized that he’d been getting tired and crabby before, too; it was only that not-working had felt worse. He’d had a ticking clock somewhere in the back of his head, a sense that he was running out of time. That he couldn’t give himself to anything else but work.
He thought abruptly about the dream he’d had—him and Ginny and three kids; the dream he’d let slip away because work was more important; only that was absolute bollocks. When had he ever thought, before, that work was more important than living? It hadn’t been more important; it had just been the only thing he could do. And now all of a sudden he felt like he could live again. Exactly as if he’d had a massive weight of Dark on his back all these years, and he had been holding it off with work, and now someone—someone— had lifted it right off him.
He really didn’t want to feel grateful to Draco Malfoy. But on Saturday, as he tried to march himself to the office, he decided on the spur of the moment to stop into Diagon Alley on his way, and ended up wandering past the shops until he came to Oculus Travel Agency, with a dozen glossy and magnificent posters in the window full of smiling wizards and witches doing things like surfing over improbably blue waves and raising a toast to him from their tables in nighttime Rome and waving at him from hiking trails in lush green-covered mountains. He stopped and just stood there a while looking at them, and then abruptly he went inside and booked himself a month on the beach in Tenerife.
He came back tanned, rested, and still vaguely resentful. He’d spent half the trip just sleeping late, lying around all day on the beach completely blank, ordering all his meals to his room; the second half he’d livened things up by swimming in the mornings, and then lying around on the beach completely blank, ordering all his meals to his room. And it had been amazing; every single day brought the fresh miracle of feeling well, of being out from under a shadow that had crept over him so slowly and thoroughly he’d never even known it was there. A shadow whose leading edge had been there ever since he was one year old.
There was a truly monstrous pile of work waiting for him when he got back, since he’d established a ridiculous baseline, and now he suddenly had to learn how to delegate properly. It took him several months to finally get things back under control. The only reason he didn’t mind was that it gave him a bit of an excuse for not figuring out the rest of his life yet.
Everyone else he knew had moved on while his own life had been standing still. Ron and Hermione were more than happy for him to come to dinner whenever he turned up, but it was all nappies and small toys underfoot and a kind of warm chaotic noise that only reminded him a bit painfully of what he’d missed along the way. Most of his friends had settled down the same way, eager for stability after the war, and the ones who hadn’t were the ones who didn’t want to at all. But he didn’t want nightclubs and excitement, and he didn’t have any passionate hobbies anymore, and he didn’t want to settle into a quiet solitary life either, so he was going to have to go out to nightclubs and pubs and take up activities and meet new people, loads of whom were going to be a decade younger than him. It just didn’t seem fair that he’d lost yet another massive chunk of his life to Voldemort.
He finally cleared off his desk and managed to wheedle a month off his sentence from Finley and went back into the field. It was a massive relief to be out there again; at least he felt as though he was moving, except naturally he’d only been out a week before he went on a raid—against a bookseller with a basement full of Dark texts—and managed to get hit with the edge of a Jelly-Legs Jinx. He didn’t even fall down as a result, but Finley instantly ordered him off to St. Mungo’s, where Draco made him get up on the pedestal naked for another hour-long examination and then insisted on giving him a prescription for Anti-bile, a really foul-tasting potion, which Harry was supposed to drink twice a day for a week. Harry went down to the Potions department to get it filled and stared glumly as they handed over the large flask, the pungent stink already leaking out around the cork.
He carried it out into the lobby and paused next to a very large planter that someone had left to one side of the stairs, a towering woody plant with enormous purple-red flowers moving restlessly from side to side. He really wished that he hadn’t seen Draco doing that operation on the Splinched patients after all; he’d have dumped the flask without the slightest hesitation. Even as things were, he was still considering it when Luna said, “I don’t think you should do that, Harry,” and he flinched a bit guiltily and looked over at her; she was carrying a basket of flowers tucked inside rolled-up copies of Cryptozoology, the journal she’d founded with Rolf Scamander.
“You reckon I should listen to the great Magister, too?” he said, a bit betrayed.
“Oh, no,” Luna said. “I just meant, if you pour the potion into the Vermilion Snapdragon, it’ll die. But you don’t need to drink it. I think Draco’s overanxious about your health.”
“Er, right,” Harry said after a moment dismally. The idea that Draco was overanxious about his health was so obviously wrong that clearly he did need to drink the potion. He sighed.
“Are you coming to the party?” Luna asked.
“What party?” Harry said. She nodded towards a big poster on the wall announcing the grand opening of the new operating theaters that night; he realized that people were carting in other plants and putting up decorations all round the lobby. “What? No.”
“Oh, I thought you might,” Luna said. “Well, bye, Harry.”
He took his repulsive potion home and choked down the first dose. He felt vaguely nauseated for the next half hour, and not remotely better, which he hadn’t even needed to feel, since the Jelly-Legs Jinx had barely hit him in the first place. The nausea was worse standing up or walking around, so he gave up trying to do anything until it wore off and sat down on the sofa with his backlog of personal mail. He neglected it because none of it actually was personal; it was all impersonal charity solicitations and catalogues and advertisements, and never a personal note. Anyone who actually knew him had got into the habit of writing to him at work.
But this time he paused near the bottom of the pile at a thick envelope of creamy vellum, nothing like the rest of the junk: it was an invitation to the grand opening of the operating theaters, with a handwritten note on it from Mirabilis Vent: Dear Harry, I know you’re very busy, but I hope you’ll consider stopping by! We owe quite a lot of it to you!
It was only a little less impersonal than the usual, and he normally would’ve chucked it, only he remembered Luna asking him, and the poster hanging in the lobby. The reception wouldn’t just be people who’d given enormous amounts of money, it was open to everyone. Loads of people would probably stop in; he might actually end up talking to someone. He’d met a bunch of the doctors already; they might introduce him round…He wouldn’t get started on it any sooner, or any easier. The nausea had cleared, and he took a deep breath and pushed himself up to go and change into reasonably nice robes.
Harry arrived early and stepped out of the new glass lift into a small crowd of wizards milling around in the main room of the top floor: the reception area, with lots of smaller waiting areas tucked off into nooks around it. It was really nice, lots of windows showing the night skyline all round, and gentle lighting. The operating theaters were down a wide corridor, all the doors open. He had set himself a challenge: to come out of the night with plans for the weekend. He got a drink and went poking through the rooms one after another, trying to work himself up to talking to someone, until he came into the central theater and got stopped short by the beauty of it, a vast crystalline dome overhead that caught the moonlight and blazed with it, filling the room with a kind of scintillating light almost like the magic of one of those Circles.
He walked dreamily into the middle of the room and stood there breathing in deep as if he could draw that light into him, and then Draco swept in with a gaggle of hangers-on, saying in deeply superior tones, “Naturally there’s a case to be made for the sole use of natural materials, but in my opinion there’s more to be gained by the framework provided by forged metal, when considered in conjunction with the various appropriate forms of natural light.”
Harry heaved an annoyed sigh. And the exit was now blocked by the crowd eagerly hanging on Draco’s every word, so he had to just take himself off to the side of the room and wait, arms crossed, while Draco peacocked about demonstrating casting maneuvers and lecturing imperiously and making faintly condescending remarks about other hospitals’ inferior facilities. It was—maddening. The one wizard in the world Harry could cheerfully have shoved into a mud puddle—great reformed Healer or not—standing there going on and on, and all the while the focused radiance was pouring over him like a waterfall and catching in his silver-blond hair and his pale eyes and illuminating him from inside; Draco’s teeth were practically glowing as he spoke, like some impossible vision of Light.
Draco just stayed right there holding court the whole rest of the evening. And the crowd didn’t actually leave, either; they came and went in waves, one group arriving as another left. Harry was stuck in the back of the room watching him, unless he wanted to go and shove his way out through the entire crowd, which Draco would notice, and probably smirk over. Although as it turned out, that would’ve been the better choice; because after an hour, there was a brief lull where Draco turned and saw him standing there for absolutely no good reason.
Before Harry could escape, Draco came sauntering over and waved round the theater. “Well, Potter, do you approve of the use of your funds? You should, you know. Considering how likely you are to need it yourself, really you ought to be thanking me for having prodded you.”
“Yeah, I’m really grateful,” Harry said through his teeth.
“I’ve already inaugurated the place,” Draco went on, waving a hand around. “We had a tricky case yesterday: four children tossing jinxes at each other, except by accident they managed to intertwine the castings and create a single rather nasty curse out of it, on all of them, and none of them could end it, either. I had them brought up here for the surgery. Naturally it went off perfectly.”
He smirked, so insufferably pleased with himself that Harry couldn’t stand it; he burst out, “How did you do it?”
“Nothing to it really,” Draco said airily. “Merely a tripartite casting of the—”
“No!” Harry said. “Not the surgery! How did you—” He gestured at Draco in frustration, up and down. Draco only eyed him in bafflement, and Harry all but snarled, “What did you do? You were—you were the worst rotter in our entire year, you signed on with Voldemort. And now you’re the greatest Healer alive, and there’s not even—” Harry waved a frustrated hand up towards the shining ceiling, “—there’s no Dark in you! Not even a scrap—”
Even before he’d finished, Draco had drawn back, his face changing: the easy smugness faded out of it. For a moment his face was still and remote, scrubbed clean and bare of feeling, and then he shook it off and said coolly, “Really, Potter, one would think you didn’t know the elementary principles of inimical magic. I’m under an interdiction, of course. I could hardly have become a Healer without it.”
“An interdiction?” Harry said, baffled.
Draco rolled his eyes and ticked off his fingers. “No curses. No hexes. No jinxes. None of the Dubious Charms, either—and in case you were curious, Engorgio and Reductio are very dubious indeed unless cast with explicitly therapeutic intent, despite what the classification texts might say, and Expelliarmus is similarly suspect—and no brewing of potions above the quarter-mark on the Malicious Scale.”
“What, none?” Harry said, snorting. “What if you get grindylows in your pipes?”
“Don’t insult my house-elf,” Draco said. “My pipes are Scourgified twice a month and rinsed with lavender-water, and before you ask, no, Riddikulus is not acceptable, it causes harm to a living being, but as boggarts avoid healers’ homes of their own volition, it’s hardly an issue.”
Refusing to cast Riddikulus because it would hurt a boggart— Harry eyed him. “You really haven’t cast so much as a Hot-Up Hex on your tea in thirteen years?”
Draco folded his arms. “Exactly what part of interdiction is it that you’re failing to comprehend?”
Harry stared at him. It didn’t make any sense at all, except for how it explained everything else that didn’t make any sense. “But then—if you’re—then—then why are you still so—so—rude!”
Draco sniffed. “What are you after, Potter, coddling and drippy bedside manner? I haven’t changed that much.”
A laugh squawked out of Harry’s nose completely unexpectedly and then came bursting out of his mouth, too. Draco glared at him and swept round and back to the fresh audience coming in, his back stiff. When Harry at last managed to stop laughing, he leaned back into his corner and went on watching Draco, only now he let himself enjoy it, taking permission from Draco’s scowls whenever he noticed Harry still grinning at him. It was wildly funny, actually: Draco went right on being—himself, endless showing off and smirks and imperious lecturing, only he was shining as clear as a glass of water the whole time, and it came off suddenly as some sort of performance, like he was doing it just to pretend he wasn’t—whatever he’d become. This was what he was faking.
In fact it was vastly more satisfying than discovering some hidden evil. Harry had finally caught Draco out at something, which he’d more or less spent seven years of his life trying to do on a regular basis, but it was something he didn’t have to do anything unpleasant about; he could just stand here and enjoy Draco glaring at him, exposed, as long as he liked.
Harry didn’t actually get round to talking to anybody else at the party, but he didn’t mind. Draco lingered until the bitter end, obviously hoping Harry would give up and go away, but after it was just the two of them and the cleaning crew left, he finally sulkily swept on his cloak—dark grey velvet trimmed with blue-tinged fur, this time—and headed for the lift, doing his best to ignore Harry loftily. Harry sailed along with him gleefully, realizing that Draco clearly hadn’t taken his carriage to work that morning, or else he’d have escaped that way already.
“Well, goodnight, Potter,” Draco said pointedly, in the lobby.
“It’s a nice night,” Harry said, beaming at him. “Which way are you headed? I’ll walk with you a bit.”
Draco just stopped and glared at him. “What are you doing? It’s not as though you want my company.”
“Why not?” Harry said blandly. “You’re reformed now, aren’t you? Come on, Malfoy, surely you’ll do your part to to court one of the hospital’s most generous donors.”
“Oh, certainly,” Draco said, eyes narrowing. “We can discuss the next fundraiser on the way. What do you think, six tables this time?”
Harry did pause to consider whether it was actually worth sixty thousand Galleons just to keep annoying Malfoy, but after a moment he decided the answer was absolutely yes. He’d accumulated quite a lot in his bank account after thirteen years never spending any money. “Have you got a date in mind?” Harry said, opening the door for him. Draco ground his jaw and swept past him into the street. “At the Manor again, I suppose?”
It was a nice night, quiet, with the first crisp bite of fall in the air. The narrow streets were mostly empty: it was only a Wednesday. “Why did you take so long to get rid of those artifacts?” Harry asked Draco idly, as they walked. “I’d think they’d have violated your interdiction pretty thoroughly.”
Draco cast him a cold, dissatisfied look. “They would have, if I’d set foot in the Manor anytime before it was cleansed.”
“What? Where’d you live, then?” Harry said, puzzled; he remembered the surveillance records clearly, and there weren’t any other addresses in Draco’s records but the house on Matery Alley, which he’d only bought a couple years ago.
“At St. Mungo’s,” Draco said, very grudgingly.
“What, in a hospital room?”
“More or less,” Draco said even more coldly, not looking anywhere at him, his thin-nosed profile pale and outlined clear against the dark stone walls of the buildings.
Harry looked at him, almost helpless with wonder again: he couldn’t believe he’d fallen for it, except of course he’d had every reason to fall for it. If it had been up to him, back at the time, he’d gladly have sentenced Draco to ten-to-fifteen years of his life doing penance. He’d never have imagined that Draco would choose to do it on his own, though.
“Thanks, by the way,” he said.
Draco frowned at him warily. “For what?”
“Well, I hear you saved my life,” Harry said. “Someone’s mentioned it to me once or twice, I think.”
Draco rolled his eyes. “Don’t overwhelm me with the violence of your gratitude, Potter.”
“Oh, I won’t,” Harry said cheerfully. “Just, thanks.”
Draco snorted, but he also stopped radiating hedgehog-prickly irritation. They even started talking a bit, after they passed a newsstand with the Daily Prophet howling Dark Wizards Lurking In Plain Sight about the case where Harry had got hit, with the strong implication in the associated article that the Aurors were falling down on the job not to have been more suspicious of a meek little bookseller with a completely innocuous shop, and it was probably the Chief Auror’s fault for having taken a vacation this year.
“Actually that reporter showed up at the crime scene and started demanding to know why we were persecuting an innocent man and getting the neighbors to give him testimony about how kind and ordinary Whipplethorne was,” Harry said. “He only shut up after we started carting the stuff out of the basement past everyone. The crates of books were the least of it.”
Draco said, “The first of it, I’d imagine, actually.” When Harry frowned a question at him, Draco waved a languid hand. “Collecting the texts for their rarity, deliberately ignoring the Dark that he could recognize, and hoarding them in secret—that opened the door to their influence seeping into his magical aura. From there, he’d have started to want to look at them, to read them. The first impulse to use them wouldn't have hit his conscious mind for years, but the rot would have been a long way advanced by then. A classic progression of noumenia corruption through extended exposure.”
“Those artifacts you had at the Manor,” Harry said.
Draco didn’t visibly flinch, but his thin shoulders tightened. After a moment, he said, “No. That wasn’t a classic case at all. Very unusual instead. You see, they weren’t being held in secret. Mother and my grandmother Caledonia cared too much about keeping up appearances. They wouldn’t go along with hiding them. So everything was properly and legally arranged, at great expense and effort. And appearances really means, still being a part of human society. It was a countervailing pressure. And then there was the Manor itself. It doesn’t care about Light and Dark, that doesn’t mean anything to houses, but it cares about the family line, because the line preserves the house. It has quite enormous protective power. Otherwise we’d all have marched straight into the maw of that portrait in a week, forget the rest of the collection. When I was a child, the Manor wouldn't let me set foot in the study unless my father was with me, and it wouldn't open the doors for him while I was there until I was fifteen.” Draco fell silent, and then low he added, mostly to himself, “The rot still took him in the end, though. That’s what really killed him, not Azkaban. Azkaban just—pierced the shell.” He made a quick darting movement with his hand, like the head of a stabbing spear. “All the old families we knew, all the ones who flirted with the Dark…it’s got them. I’m living in the Rosiers’ old townhouse now. Crabbe’s whole family, the Blacks, the Crouch line, all gone. And the Gaunts—well, we all know how they ended up.” He let out a harsh laugh. “The poor wretch.”
He didn’t say Voldemort’s name out loud, but Harry remembered involuntarily the small horrible mewling bare creature under the bench in the pure brilliance of the train station, the shriveled lump Voldemort had made of himself. He didn't remember feeling sorry for Voldemort in a long time. There hadn’t been room in him for pity, as if that had been squeezed out along with everything else. As he hadn’t felt sorry for Draco either. But now it occurred to him that they’d both been trying to survive the same damage: Voldemort—the Dark—had nearly devoured both their lives. He wondered wryly if Draco might like to go in on a loud wail of protest with him; they couldn’t get back the lost years, but at least they could feel heartily sorry for themselves together.
Draco sniffed when Harry more or less said so, though. “You’re whole in body, and I’m whole in spirit, in both cases far in contravention of all reasonable expectations. It’s pathetic to waste it on sulking after some fantasy of what your life might have been. Find something you want now, and be grateful you’re alive to enjoy it.”
“Like cross-country flights and dinner parties with your friends,” Harry said, in instant clarity, understanding in a burst all those baffling surveillance reports: Draco was prescribing him the same medicine he was taking himself.
Draco eyed him sidelong. “Have you been watching me?” he demanded, in a rising indignation.
“Four full teams on a twenty-four hour rotation, for nearly two entire weeks,” Harry said, not repentant in the least, despite Draco glaring at him. “If it makes you feel better, Hermione told us we were solid wood the whole time.”
For the rest of the way to his house, Draco made clear, in detail and at top volume, that it didn’t make him feel better, and also that Harry was an ungrateful sod and totally undeserving of Draco’s brilliance and toil on his behalf. Harry grinned the whole way through the harangue, which infuriated Draco to even more eloquent heights, and when they got to his house, he didn’t even pause to send Harry on his way, and Harry didn’t break off himself, too entertained to notice he was following Draco up the steps and inside until Flikka was appearing to take their cloaks and informing them that they would be served in the west sitting room, in tones that didn’t allow of any alternatives.
Harry didn’t want one after she provided them with a tray of petits fours and coffee better than anything he’d ever had from any expensive café, along with tiny silver cups filled with a dark golden liqueur that tasted of autumn and smoke. Draco had finally stopped trying to bite his head off, and Harry asked him about his odd glut of broom purchases, the only mildly suspicious thing they’d turned up in his financial records: Draco had bought six separate Nimbus X200 models over the last three years.
“I have to Apparate back sometimes,” Draco said peevishly, and Harry saw a return to the lecture up ahead.
“But why always the same model?” he said quickly, heading it off, and they got on the action of the new X line instead, and from there to England’s last Quidditch match, and then it turned out Draco had treated one of the players for an injury and now had special passes for the next Saturday, and without exactly meaning to, Harry ended up prodding Draco into offering him one, and so when he finally went home, it was with plans for the next weekend after all.
Five other wizards joined them in the box—all mediwizards, all of whom greeted him with tactless enthusiasm about his near-fatal illness and Draco’s healing that would have annoyed him a few days ago and now only amused him instead—and afterwards they trooped back to Draco’s house for a magnificent tea and spent several pleasant hours arguing about the gameplay and strategy, about things that didn’t matter at all, and one after another the other Healers peeled themselves away until it was only him, too hungry for anything that felt unlike work to give it up until he absolutely had to. And maybe Draco felt the same way, because he didn’t nudge Harry out the door, either, just went on talking and squabbling ridiculously, until Flikka swept in and informed them that dinner was served.
Harry spent an ecstatic two hours eating it and more or less collapsed on one of Draco’s sofas afterwards. “How aren’t you three times your size?” he said without opening his eyes.
“Flikka restrains herself unless I have guests,” Draco said, not much less faint. “Also I can’t eat at the hospital anymore. The contrast is too painful.”
Harry understood profoundly, to his own surprise. For years he’d eaten nothing but takeaway, and most of that cold after he’d forgotten about it for an hour. And he lived in a small one-bedroom flat he’d taken near the office. He’d given Grimmauld Place to Ron and Hermione, who had filled it with Weasleys large and small and made it into a warm cheerful oasis that Harry never quite spent as much time in as he meant to, even though he still had a bedroom of his own there. But until now, he’d never noticed anything missing.
It was rather a wrench to leave, actually. Draco didn’t make it any easier; just when Harry was finally about to heave himself out the door, he revived and offered him a game of chess, and Harry accepted with possibly very little prodding at all. They played best of three, and then Flikka reappeared with nightcaps, and Harry only took himself off after the clock struck midnight, and was able to pour himself into his bed and fall asleep without having to spend any real time with his own depressing flat. He wondered over a dismal breakfast the next morning if Draco would recommend him his house agent.
He did try to take the prescribed treatment: he arranged with Ron and Hermione to take the twins for an outing one day, and the three girls another—the entire brood at once was more than he trusted himself to manage, since Fred was trying his very best to live up to his namesake and Remus was trying to outdo him, and Gwen was worse than both of them put together. He tried joining the departmental Quidditch league, but he could fly again, after years when he’d got out of breath or been unable to pay attention to anything as unimportant as where the Snitch was, and now suddenly he felt like—well, not quite like a boy of sixteen again, but closer to it than any time in recent memory. He kept getting the Snitch the instant it appeared and ending the games too soon for everyone’s enjoyment, but he couldn’t bear to just amble along, pretending.
He took Draco’s example instead and joined the cross-country league instead, which he realized belatedly might not have been an entirely random choice after he ran into Draco himself on a group flight to Jura, and got himself invited back to Matery Alley for dinner.
Five days later he got singed by a Blood-Boil curse and had to go to the hospital and be inspected again after work, and he didn’t even require reminding. Draco cast four separate major cleansing spells that all felt unnecessary and also drew audiences of respectful students wanting to observe the unusual events, and finally after the last batch trooped out, Harry said, “Wait a minute, are you over-anxious about my health?” a bit incredulously.
Draco went a bit flushed and said coldly, “When I start giving you advice on criminal investigations, Potter, I’ll start taking your medical opinion into account,” which meant he was.
Harry grinned at him, pleased to have caught him out again. “You could always have me over to dinner again. I’d trade you half a dozen inspections for more of Flikka’s cooking.”
Draco sniffed. “As though I’d let you compromise my quality of care just because you were impatient. But you needn’t go angling for an invitation that obviously, Potter. Dinner is at half eight; come any evening you like. Flikka appreciates the chance to rise to the occasion, and I appreciate the results.”
Harry managed to have dinner at Draco’s four times in the next two weeks before it occurred to him that he wasn’t doing it for the cooking, mostly because halfway through the fourth night, an emergency summons came in and Draco had to abandon him and his other guests—Magistra Weedstone and Magister Zalibar had come along as well that night—and the whole evening went flat like a fizzy drink left out too long. Harry tried to carry his share of the conversation, but he didn’t do very well. Fortunately he didn’t need to: Weedstone and Zalibar got into a heated quarrel about some new journal article that had just come out, on grounds so esoteric Harry doubted that even Hermione would have been able to offer a meaningful opinion, and that carried them along until Zalibar finally took himself away. At which point Weedstone turned on Harry instantly and demanded, “All right, Potter, look here, are you trifling with our peacock or what?”
Harry goggled at her, mostly in confusion at his own instinctive reaction, which was to indignantly deny the trifling, rather than ask what she was talking about.
Weedstone frowned when he’d didn’t have a ready answer. “Well, you'd best work it out on your own time, and don’t come back until you have.”
“Er, sorry, are you—warning me off Draco?” Harry said bemusedly, trying to decide what was more odd: that or the possibility of some cause.
“He puts on a good show, but he’s got noumenia-scarring that makes specialists quake to look at, and it’s taken the combined efforts of two of the greatest Chief Mediwizards we’ve ever had in a row to get him stable,” Weedstone said bluntly. “It’s not safe for Dark wizards to go in for Healing. He did it anyway, and he’s chosen it over again every time he’s had the chance to back away, but he’s still walking along a cliff. I’d just as soon not see you shove him over.”
Harry listened to her with a rising sense of indignation. “Right, I see,” he said grimly. “There mustn’t be any risk of losing the great Healer, and so what if he’d like to have a bit of an ordinary life for himself on the side?”
Weedstone immediately said in gleeful tones, “Oh, if it’s like that, then never mind, carry on! Flikka, I’ll be on my way, thanks,” and then she stood up and beamed at Harry with slightly alarming approval as she swept her cloak over her shoulders and Apparated away with a bang, leaving Harry to sit alone blankly staring at Draco's empty chair and wondering what exactly he was doing.
He did actually stay away to work it out on his own time, because Weedstone’s words lingered unpleasantly in his head: noumenia scarring to make specialists quake, and he’d already realized that himself, hadn’t he; she’d just put it into clean, clinical words. Voldemort and the Dark, working through Draco's own father, his whole family, hacking away at his spirit from birth, trying to make a child into the kind of person who would commit murder when they wanted him to. It was the mirror image of what Voldemort had done to Harry, damage to the soul instead of the body. Of course it went as deep, and Harry wasn’t going to be the one to shove Draco off the high-wire balance he’d found.
So he stayed away for a few days, in which he left work early and had dinner with Ron and Hermione at Grimmauld Place, and at a nice restaurant with Luna, who ended the night by telling him seriously and with enormous intensity that he oughtn’t go to Barcelona for his next vacation, and on Saturday flew to Hogwarts to spend the weekend with Hagrid.
And it was inescapably clear to him that he didn’t want to do any of it, even though he should have, and did, only he couldn't because he wanted too badly to be doing something else: he wanted to be out flying with Draco, or at dinner with him, prodding him and teasing him, and this wasn’t just grabbing at the first thing he’d come across, it was—the longing to catch the Snitch: he’d caught sight of something gleaming, the shining golden prize out there ahead of him, and he wanted to get his hand around it before anyone else did.
The longing got more bright and sharp with every hour of the flight home. He meant to go home and go to bed; it was half past eleven when he finally reached London that Sunday night, and Draco was probably in bed, and also hadn’t any idea what was going through Harry’s head and would likely take a lot of talking to be convinced to go on a date with him. It seemed clearly like a conversation to have during waking hours. But he couldn't manage to be patient. He’d lost so much time already, and so much else he would never get back—years of possibilities and choices. And now he had the prize in sight, he couldn't bear not to fly as fast and high as he could after it, so instead he turned towards Matery Alley, and ten minutes later he was banging on Draco’s door.
Flikka scowled at him dramatically and then showed him into the sitting room where Draco was alone in a chair with a snifter of brandy in his hand and a tired, heavy look in his eyes that took a few blinks to clear when he looked up at Harry. “Did you manage to get yourself hexed again, Potter?” he said, with an air of tremendous long-suffering, putting the glass aside.
“In a manner of speaking,” Harry said, and reached out and took Draco’s hands and pulled him up; he did mean to say something, but Draco looked at him puzzled, and instead Harry just kissed him.
Draco made noises under his mouth that started as surprise, went on to outrage, and when Harry started to pull back, even more outrage. Draco grabbed his head with both hands and kissed him back in total ferocity, and with something between happiness and relief, Harry started clawing madly at their clothing. They didn’t even get out a word before they had sex for the first time, on the rug before the fireplace and only halfway naked, clumsy and awkward. It didn’t stop either of them from getting off, but afterwards, even still panting, Draco said thickly, “That was appalling. We have to learn how to do this properly.”
“It might take a while,” Harry said. He was feeling perfectly satisfied with their efforts, himself, and inclined to just keep on lying right here curled up round Draco on the rug, possibly for the rest of the week.
But Draco prodded him insistently. “We're going upstairs,” he said, in tones that brooked no alternatives.
“Doctor’s orders?” Harry said, but he let himself be chivvied along. Draco all but dragged him the whole way, and spread him out on his enormous bed with a narrow, focused determination that Harry thought was funny until Draco began relentlessly trying one thing after another as though he meant to unlock every secret of their bodies and how they might move together, even when Harry couldn't breathe anymore.
He reached out finally after the third round and grabbed Draco’s hands and rolled them over to pin him down in the featherbed and kissed him again until he stopped trying to get loose. “We have time,” he said. “Draco, we’ve both got time.”
Harry fell asleep beside him afterwards, smiling. Draco lay on his back next to him, the starlight shining blue down into the room, and slowly, unable to help himself, he drew his arm out from under the covers and put it into the light, the edges of the Dark Mark still as clear and sharp against his skin as the day they’d put it on him. The day he’d taken it.
Children who were terribly ill came into the hospital sometimes with a blank look on their faces, as though they couldn’t make sense of what was happening to them. He always recognized the expression, with a twist in his stomach. He’d been a child himself, a frightened boy; he could look back on himself from a decade’s distance and recognize now how terrified he’d been, in a state of careening panic. His father, his infinitely powerful, graceful, commanding father, who’d always known exactly what to do and exactly how the world worked and how to achieve all his desires, had been broken to pieces in front of him, snapped like the brittle length of a wand. It had been like watching the whole world break. He just hadn’t known what to do at all.
So he’d held out his arm and he’d sworn himself body and soul to a Dark Lord’s service, and he’d let Voldemort put that monstrous writhing symbol on him, into him, the empty hollowed-out eyes and the devouring snake spilling out through the teeth, a hunger for life twisted into spreading death. He’d stood with his teeth clenched and tears standing in his eyes, tears for all the wrong reasons; he’d only been crying for a little bit of pain, the sharp needle-prick burning as the skull took shape on his skin, even though he’d known that it was only the first step, the first and the least of the monstrous things he’d be asked to do, and why Harry Potter of all people would ever want someone who’d—
Draco swallowed. He’d escaped; somehow he’d slipped out of the noose that had been put round his neck. He’d found his way to the work, and then there had been—comfort, and pleasure, and even friends. He’d been happy, he’d thought. He’d even been allowed to go back home: he’d stood in his Great Hall with all the doors and windows open and a clean breeze blowing through, and if everything had been a little cold and bare, at least the shadow had been gone.
He’d been grateful, so desperately grateful. It was so much more than he’d thought he was allowed, more than he’d imagined he could ever safely have. He’d worked so hard not to let himself want anything more. Even if he had, he wouldn’t have been idiotic enough to let himself want Harry Potter. Or, well, he’d wanted Harry almost from the moment they’d met, in some sense—his father had sent him off to school with instructions to go get Harry.
And now apparently he’d got Harry; he’d fulfilled at least that one parental instruction, although his father probably hadn’t envisioned him taking a detour of twenty years and through the halls of St. Mungo’s. Draco had a momentary wavering burst of panic: was he allowed? He hadn’t felt any sense of danger, not from the moment he’d let Harry into his house or even from the bewildering moment when Harry had kissed him, but what if that was only because he’d been surprised; what if this were—a mistake, the mistake he wasn’t allowed to make, because he’d piled up too many bad ones so early on, and he was opening the door to the Dark again, and soon he’d start wanting—
Harry turned sleepily over next to him and slid his arm round his waist. “Can’t the brooding wait ’til morning?” he murmured.
“I’ve got an operation in the morning,” Draco said automatically, and he was looking forward to it actually, a complicated case he was quite sure he’d be able to fix, he’d developed the countercurses already—and afterwards he’d come home and maybe Harry would be here, and on Sunday, Lydia and all his wretched gossiping colleagues would smirk at him over the table, and—and what else was there to want; he realized he couldn’t imagine wanting anything else at all.
“How long has it been since you’ve gone on holiday?” Harry said, as if to answer his thought. “Maybe you should take a week or two yourself. Lie on the beach, as a brilliant Healer once told me. I’ve still got ages of time off in lieu saved up,” he added, meaning that he’d come along, and all right, yes; Draco could imagine wanting that.
“I do have a house in Barcelona,” Draco said, rather blankly, still trying to make any sense of it all.
“I’ve been warned off Barcelona,” Harry said. “How about Santorini instead?”