Who Will Guard the Door
by Musamihi

Pairing: Draco Malfoy/Harry Potter
Non-con/Rape (non-graphic), Violence
Word Count: 36,800
Dark, Drama, Romance

Canon: Through OOtP and DH, minor AU
Other characters
: Thorfinn Rowle, Narcissa Malfoy, Lucius Malfoy, Severus Snape, Lord Voldemort, Ron Weasley Artist: dirty_darella

The day his father is sentenced, Draco takes the Mark and is given his impossible task. Thorfinn Rowle, assigned to be his mentor, is less interested in assisting him than in satisfying his own appetites. As Draco sinks further into failure and watches the war sweep his parents away from him, he takes refuge in the Manor - a member of the family he never knew he had. But the Manor suffers its own wounds during Lord Voldemort's residency, and the Chosen One may be the only force that can heal them.

Author's Notes
: Many, many thanks to dirty_darella for the fantastic artwork, and to literaryspell for marvellous observations, suggestions, encouragement and all-around beta-ing! Any remaining mistakes are my own.

Disclaimer: This story is based on characters and situations created and owned by JK Rowling, various publishers including but not limited to Bloomsbury Books, Scholastic Books and Raincoast Books, and Warner Bros., Inc. No money is being made and no copyright or trademark infringement is intended.

June 27, 1996.

Draco hadn't known what to expect inside the blackened ruin, but the ancient rusting sconces and sooty, broken columns took him by surprise. Nothing at all had been done to make the place in any way hospitable grass and weeds and tree roots made the stone floors as uneven and treacherous as the heaving deck of a ship, and the air inside was damp and cold and stagnant. The stars shone through in more than one place where the roof or some portion of a wall had fallen away. The Dark Lord's lair was decidedly unimpressive. Draco sat beside his mother on a long stone bench that ran the length of the dim antechamber, resting his elbows on his knees. They had been here for going on an hour, and he was tired, hungry, and cold. He didn't see why he should be made to wait. They were here on the Dark Lord's invitation; it wasn't as though they'd just popped in unannounced.
His mother shifted nervously. "Sit up," she murmured. Two shadowed figures had appeared on the opposite side of the room but they passed by without a word and were soon gone. A rush of warmth carried in the scent of the dry fields outside as they left through the rotting wooden door.

Draco straightened with a small, exasperated sigh. He planted his palms flat on the bench on either side of him and leaned backward to stare out one of the wider cracks in the ceiling. His astronomy charts were still fresh in his mind from a week of cramming. He sought out Mars, recalling the etching of its moons that had been the frontispiece of the fifth year text Phobos and Deimos, small, battered and misshapen, one slipping behind the great red planet and one bursting out into the sunlight as though trying to escape its orbit. He began a silent recitation of Jupiter's satellites, and then Saturn's, and his fingers began to drum against the stone.

He had just realized that he had forgotten Iapetus when he heard footsteps. Another robed man was crossing from the door to the Dark Lord's inner chamber, and he had a familiar stoop to his shoulders. He stopped before them and pulled back his hood. "You may go inside," Snape said, crossing his arms over his chest. "Narcissa, if you "

She stood at once. "I'm going with him."

Draco stood as well, brushing his hands off on his trousers. They were all three of a height, this summer. He would pass them by Christmas. He squared his shoulders and tightened his hand around his wand.

Snape shrugged. "I was going to suggest as much. Follow me."

Draco broke out ahead of both of them, eager to be the first into the room. He didn't need to be hovered over, and he didn't want his mother here; she was only making him nervous. The door was heavy, however, and by the time he'd swung it open far enough to slip through, they had both caught up with him. His mother took hold of his arm as they stepped across the threshold. He let her, but thrust his chin out a little.

It was brighter here: there was a large fire burning in a pit where one of the thick, heavy flags had been lifted out of the floor. The walls and ceiling were intact, but there was no smoke only the smell of singed earth. The Dark Lord sat in a simple wooden chair, his legs stretched lazily towards the flames. One foot rested on the body of a snake that lay in great thick curves on the warm stones. Draco stared at it, his legs going momentarily rigid. He had never seen one that long, it must have been... ten feet, maybe even twelve...

"My Lord." Snape's voice was quiet, but closer than expected. Draco jumped. His mother's fingers tightened into his sleeve.

The Dark Lord raised his hand to beckon them closer. His sleeve fell away from his arm to show bare skin, pronounced bones and flesh that looked grey in the red light. "Stay outside, Severus."

"My Lord." The door open and shut again.

With one abrupt, lurching step, Draco broke through his hesitation and started forward, practically dragging his mother to the edge of the fire's circle of light. He waited, steadying his breath and staring at the back of the chair, the flames, anything but the snake's eyes. After a moment the Dark Lord shifted in his seat and smiled thinly at them. Draco's mouth was dry.

"Narcissa. Draco. The verdict was unfortunate, was it not?" His long fingers curled around the arm of his chair. "But expected, to be sure. Now I find myself short several servants."

Draco's arm felt suddenly cool; his mother had released it. She stepped in front of him, so close that the hem of her robes fell across his shoes. "My Lord," she said, her voice low and urgent. "Lucius is as eager to serve you now as he ever has been. You could spare him Azkaban you could spare them all, if you wanted. No prison could stand in your "

"I do not wish to spare him." The Dark Lord waved her entreaties carelessly away. Draco saw his mother stiffen. "Lucius failed all of us the very least he's earned is some time to sit and think on it. But when next you write him, you may tell him I've decided to give him a second chance. Obviously he is in no position to avail himself of it, but I know he would be proud to see his son take up the mantle."

"I'm ready," Draco said immediately, pushing gently past his mother. He looked straight ahead into the Dark Lord's eyes even as she clutched at his hand.

The Dark Lord's slit of a mouth spread into a smile. "I expected nothing less," he said, rising slowly from his chair. He was taller than Draco had expected taller than his father, but more brittle, skeletal. The snake began to stir. "You are the last remaining hope of the decimated House of Black, the last of the Malfoys. Such a great lineage could produce nothing else. You should be very pleased with your son, Narcissa."

"No mother could be more proud," she said, looking up at the Dark Lord with a face that was hard and grave. Her nails were biting into Draco's skin. He gave her a little sidelong glare.

The Dark Lord's eyes flickered down to where their hands were joined between them. "I know Lucius will be very proud as well," he said smoothly. "I hope you'll tell him straightaway."

Draco swallowed back an unexpected flare of anger. His mother's face was reddening. He had never had cause to feel ashamed of his father, not until five years in Azkaban had rung out through the courtroom, and Lucius Malfoy had looked to his wife with fear plain on his face. Draco had been too shocked to do anything but stare at the jury, but soon afterwards he had remembered to be outraged. His father was in prison, and if that wasn't bad enough, his father was afraid, without even the decency to be strong for his own wife, who had had no choice but to cling to her child for support.

Shame and pride alike stayed within the family, though, and if anyone was going to replace his father, it had to be him. Not Snape, whose presence he could still feel lurking as though he were standing too close behind him.
"If we could only wait a year," his mother said, an unfamiliar tremor in her voice. "Just until he comes of age he has so much to learn, and this young "

"I don't want to wait." Draco pulled his arm away. He scowled at her hand, stung. "I want to do it now." What else was there to learn? It wasn't as though another year at school would do him any good. If he had his way, he'd skip out like the Weasley twins had, and good riddance to everyone. There were more important things to do.

The Dark Lord drew his head back, as if to regard them from afar. His eyes narrowed in satisfaction. "He knows himself very well, Narcissa. It's only natural that a mother should see her son as an eternal child, but boys become men very quickly when the need arises. In any case," he continued as his snake meandered slowly towards his ankles, "the task I have for Draco cannot wait a year. It is of the utmost importance to be kept a very close secret. I can entrust it only to the most devoted, the most capable of my servants. And I need someone who can remain at Hogwarts without suspicion."

The corner of Draco's mouth twitched upward slightly as his pride swelled in his throat. He knew exactly what the Dark Lord meant to say. He already had one servant at the school, but Snape wasn't fit to replace Lucius Malfoy.

"I can think of no one better suited than Draco." The Dark Lord's wand appeared from inside his robes, and he began to weave it idly between his fingers. "Albus Dumbledore must die as soon as possible." His dark, reddened eyes studied Draco's face. "Can you do me this service?"

"Just give me the chance." Draco's voice was perhaps a little overloud, but it drowned out the whisper of doubt and shock that had risen up in the back of his mind. Albus Dumbledore was the most powerful the second most powerful wizard there was, the only man who had ever run up against his father and won time and again and who had already won one war before Draco had even been born

But he's old, and not so smart as he likes to think he is. He's smitten half to death with all the Mudbloods and traitors he has for pets he's weak. Dumbledore bore almost as much blame as Potter for the fact that Draco had never been given his due at Hogwarts. After this, no one would deny him his desserts. It would be worth it more than worth it.

"Good." The flat, reptilian face turned sharply to Narcissa. "You may go."

"My Lord, please "

"Go home, Narcissa. This will take some time. I will send Draco along when we're finished."

"He isn't old enough," she said. Draco had never heard her this way, grasping at excuses. "He's sixteen, he's never Apparated "

"Then Severus will see him home." The Dark Lord's voice was clipped and cold. Narcissa's hands twitched as though they wanted to wring together.

"Mother," Draco whispered.

She turned her eyes to him, openly furious. Draco glared back at her, though his face flushed. Then she lifted her cold hand to his cheek and turned in a whirl of robes to leave the room. Draco knew she was marching straight up to Snape to ensure he knew to have him home safely, and it grated on him. After tonight, how could she still think he needed her to fuss over a chaperon?

When the echo of the slamming door had faded and the snake had stopped its startled jerking, the Dark Lord stepped closer to the fire, waving him along. "Your mother is to be forgiven," he said. He held his wand out purposefully. "All she has ever known is the upkeep and protection of her family, the bringing up of a proper son, a man she could be proud of. Good mothers cling to their task too long rather than letting go too early. No doubt she's been a very good mother to you."
"Yes," Draco said, glad for the chance to speak well of her. He stopped a couple of paces away from him. "Yes, my Lord."
"Come closer," the Dark Lord said patiently, tapping the stones in front of himself with his foot. "Here. On your knees."
Draco knelt where he was told, shifting awkwardly. The floor was rough and hard, and his robes provided no cushioning to speak of between the stone and his bony knees. He glanced apprehensively at the snake, which seemed to be watching him from just behind the edge of the Dark Lord's robes.
"You needn't fear Nagini. She never harms those loyal to me. Now, pull back your sleeve and give me your arm. The left," he said, even as Draco was holding it out to him, baring the pale skin of his forearm. The Dark Lord put his hand into the fire, where the flames split and licked around his fingers as though repulsed. A few small embers rose from the pit to land in his palm; he crushed them into a thick, black, smoking ash. Draco held his breath, afraid he might smell burning flesh.
The Dark Lord reached down to smear the cinders along the flat of Draco's arm. Draco flinched but they were perfectly cool. He needed to breathe but didn't dare, lest he scatter them. The Dark Lord gripped his wrist tightly and placed the tip of his wand in the middle of the blanket of ash. "You already know what this means," he said as a faint itch began to creep and curl its way along Draco's skin. He had expected pain. He didn't know why. "You've already seen what I require of my servants. You have been raised with it. I don't need to explain to you. But your mother spoke the truth when she said you still had much to learn." The itching turned to numbness, and then a fleeting heat. "Ideally, your father would show you the way but we shall have to find someone else. Thorfinn Rowle has proven himself an able servant a hundred times over and was indeed one of the few who managed not to disappoint me at the Ministry. But then, Severus, of course surely you would prefer him. He's taught you well for years." The wand lifted; the Dark Lord brushed his hand along Draco's arm, and the ash dropped to the floor, caked like mud.

Draco stared at his arm. His skin was clean and white as ever, but the coal-black snake and skull stood out so sharply it might have been about to lunge at him. He was almost disappointed. It had been so easy, so quick. It hardly felt serious. The Dark Lord waved him up, and he stood.
"Not Snape, my Lord," he said, shaking his sleeve back down after a brief hesitation. He was going to be the Dark Lord's man at Hogwarts, and he wasn't going to have it said that he'd had his hand held the whole time by a professor. "I mean if you think Rowle would be better. That's all right."

"Rowle, then. Severus," he called, barely raising his voice.
The door open and Snape slipped in, his eyes immediately fixing upon Draco. "My Lord."
"We are finished." The Dark Lord tucked his wand into his robes. "Send in Rowle. You may leave; be back tomorrow morning."
"My Lord, I understood from Narcissa "
"Our plans have changed."

Snape was inscrutable, as always, but he seemed to waver in the door. "Rowle," he said at last, with a nod of his head and one last look to Draco the sort that usually came moments before Draco was told he would have been assigned detention, had Snape not had something more pressing to attend to. "Yes, my Lord." He left, and the room was quiet again not a sound but the whisper of scales on stone. When Draco turned once again to the Dark Lord, he had resumed his seat and was gazing into the fire as though he were alone.

- - -

"It's a little late, isn't it?"

Draco sat in Rowle's cramped, somewhat grimy kitchen, his elbows propped on the table, chin in his hands. He didn't want to stay here. He didn't know why he couldn't just go home. He watched with growing irritation as Rowle lit the stove with his wand and the kettle went to fill itself at the sink.

Rowle kept his back to him as he opened a cupboard, drew something out and stuffed it in his mouth. "Past your bedtime?"

Draco's lip curled, and he sneered down at the lightly stained flowers on the tablecloth. The whole place looked as though an old lady had decorated it and then never returned. "It's just that most people don't start making tea at midnight." It certainly felt like it was past his bedtime, not that he would ever say so. My mother will be worried, that's all, was hardly a better response, however. He doubted he'd be able to sleep anyway, even if he could go to bed. His eyes kept drifting back to the very tip of the Dark Mark that extended past the edge of his sleeve. He needed new robes.

"Most people don't have work to do this early in the morning." Rowle turned and took a seat himself. He barely had room to manoeuvre in this kitchen, and his legs were too long to be cramped up under the table. Draco felt Rowle's shoes bumping against him, and he tucked his feet back under his chair. His family was tall, but this man was huge he had half a head on the Dark Lord, massive shoulders, and hands that made his wand look almost ridiculously small. He had been quite an impressive figure, striding into the shadowy room in his black robes and deep hood, and Draco hadn't doubted that he'd made the right decision. Everything about Rowle spoke of brute power.

Now, tired and restless and increasingly disillusioned by the way the man chose to live, Draco was well, if not second-guessing himself, then at least wishing he'd had other options from which to choose. "It can wait until tomorrow," he said, trying not to sound snappish. "It's not like a day's going to make any "

"I'm busy tomorrow." Rowle crossed his arms on the table. "Not all of us are on our summer holidays."

Draco glared at him. "If it's such a chore, then, don't bother." What sort of help was he going to get, anyway, from someone too stupid to see the opportunity that had just been dropped in his lap? Quite aside from performing a personal favour for the Dark Lord which Draco would have tripped over his own two feet to do, just at the moment Rowle could easily put himself into Lucius Malfoy's good graces by looking out for his son. Draco could not imagine his father would spend his full sentence in Azkaban. When he was released, he would still be a man of formidable influence, with gold and power to spare, his prestige among his brethren only heightened by the time he'd spent in prison in the service of his cause. "Just take me home, and you can get back to whatever it is that's so important."
"No, you see the Dark Lord gives it to me to help you, then I've got to help you." Rowle slouched back in his chair, and Draco was sure he heard it creak. "You can have that for your first lesson, Malfoy. Don't go disregarding orders just because you'd rather fuck off." He scratched at the side of his face, digging his fingernails through the beard he didn't seem to have trimmed in a week. Without warning he stood and disappeared into the hall and made his way noisily up the stairs.

Draco watched his own sullen reflection in the half-curtained window over the sink. He wished he knew where he was, if only so he could nick a broom and leave but they had Apparated onto the front step, and he had been ushered inside before he could get his bearings. The darkness outside was too thick to allow him to make out his surroundings from here.

The kettle whistled and the tea began to make itself. Rowle was still thumping around upstairs, his weight rattling the chimes of the carriage clock that sat on a shelf in the foyer. Draco laid his head on his arms, bonfires and great serpents and strange red eyes dancing through his mind. His arm itched.
Rowle came thundering down the staircase soon enough. Draco sat up and flattened out his hair as his host came back into the kitchen and threw a small package, haphazardly wrapped in brown paper, onto the table. Draco reached out and began to unwrap it, not in the mood for mysteries. But Rowle leaned down and grabbed it back from him, depositing it once again in the centre of the table. "Don't touch it." He fell into his chair and looked over his shoulder to where the teacups were clattering onto their saucers.
"And what is it?" Draco asked waspishly. The idea of Rowle playing at riddles struck him as utterly ridiculous, like a troll trying to stack china.

"You're meant to do someone in, aren't you?" He shrugged and gave the package a heavy pat. Something inside clinked dully.

Draco gave a guarded nod. That much, he was allowed to say. He hoped everyone thought it was Potter.

"So you give this to your whoever-it-is, and they won't stand a chance. Better to make sure it's someone else who does the handing off, of course. Wouldn't want those lily-white hands to get dirty."

"I don't think it's going to be that easy, you can't just walk up to someone and "

"Why not? Just have some owl drop it off in their lap. Easiest thing in the world. They rip in, and one touch, that's it."

Draco stared. "Right," he said, grabbing the corner of the package and tugging it over to his side of the table, where he let it rest. "I guess. No need to overthink it." Not that you're at any risk of that. Rowle probably was half troll, now that he came to think of it. Why had the Dark Lord given him an idiot for a tutor? Was there some other quality Draco was supposed to be learning from him? Not an hour ago, Rowle had inspired awe; now ... now, Draco was confused and disappointed. Rowle was vulgar, dim; a brute between his ears as well as in body. He only made Draco feel uncomfortable. Draco didn't know how to conduct himself around him, had never been forced to keep company with anyone like him.

Well, that wasn't entirely true. But he could always tell Crabbe and Goyle to shut up when they started getting on his nerves.

One of the teacups settled by his elbow. He looked up and saw Rowle's hand engulfing the other, his sleeve draping over half the milk-splattered saucer. Draco ducked his head to hide the curl of his lip and turned his own cup delicately around to drink from the side that wasn't discoloured and dusty. He was desperately thirsty or he wouldn't have lowered himself to it at all; it was hot enough, at least, that the slightly greasy taste of the milk wasn't too oppressive. He set the cup down silently and floundered about for a napkin for a moment, out of habit. "Haven't you got any ?"

Rowle laughed. It was a loud, heavy wheezing sound, and it shook his shoulders. "Lucius never told us he had a daughter," he said, heaving himself to his feet with a thick chuckle. "Hard to tell in some families, I guess."

Draco clamped his mouth shut. Everything he could think to say would have sounded stupid, juvenile. He wanted to rip back his sleeve and show him what kind of respect he was owed that they were equals, age and experience aside, that Rowle couldn't make him sit around in his horrid kitchen drinking out of his filthy dishes, that he had to give him more than some half-baked plan that wouldn't have done for a second-year student, never mind a wizard who had all the strength of his school to draw on. By the time Draco collected himself enough to shove away from the table and jump up from his chair, he felt clumsy in his anger and knew he looked it.

"Take me home," he said, enunciating fiercely as his hands clenched at his sides. "Now."

"Go to bed, Malfoy." Rowle was already lumbering out of the room, looking pleased with himself. "Tomorrow before breakfast, even. We'll have you back to your mum."

He left Draco seething silently beside the kitchen table. Why was he even here? Rowle had been so intent on helping him, and then as though this stupid package was going to make any difference had declared himself done with it all, never mind that it wouldn't have taken him a minute to see Draco home. What the hell was he supposed to do here?

When the ceiling had stopped creaking and moaning, Draco took the package up under his arm and ventured into the hall to peer up the stairs. A battered runner much the colour of his sour, milky tea poured down from the landing, anchored by blackened brackets buried in dust. At the top there was a hanging lamp. It gave off enough light that he decided to risk climbing the steps, flinching every time the wood sank noisily under him. He stopped in the centre of the lamp's pool of yellow, his hand clinging still to the banister.

There were four doors; three were closed. He leaned cautiously inside the open room, gripping the doorframe. There was a candle on the bedside table that illuminated the pillow, the head of the narrow bed, and half a shuttered window. The rest was lost in darkness.

"Lumos," he whispered, drawing his wand. And though the plain white light showed nothing but a small table and a reed chair shoved up into the corner, he was reluctant to enter. It took a slow, protracted groaning sound from somewhere else in the house to convince him to take his bedroom for the night. It was stupid to be afraid, of course. It was just the wind, or old complaining wood there was nothing to be frightened of here. Rowle's pathetic excuse for assistance, clutched up against his ribs, was proof enough of that. The man didn't have the brains to make trouble. Draco closed the door behind him as far as it would go it wouldn't quite latch, but he didn't mind the extra sliver of light the gap let in, in any case.
He took a seat at the table, dumping the package to the side. There were a few old rolls of parchment stacked neatly behind a box of frayed looking quills. Draco smoothed a page awkwardly out across the table, one-handed. He needed better light; his fatigue was fast catching up with him, and staring into the dark made his eyes sting. He sat back to make the twisting, jabbing motion with his wand he had often seen his parents and professors use to conjure a free-floating, crackling light, but nothing happened. After a few more unsuccessful attempts, and one that seemed to tinge his parchment pink, he gave up.

"Wingardium Leviosa," he muttered irritably. The parchment sailed unsteadily up into the air. "Incendio."

The fire's light was enough for now. He straightened another piece of parchment and dipped a quill into the half-dry well of lumpy ink. He wanted to write to his father.

Could you send an owl to Azkaban? Was he even there yet? It didn't seem quite right that prisoners could get letters, never mind send them back. What would he even say to him?

Don't worry, he thought. And then, I don't need you anymore.

He didn't want his father to be afraid. He wanted him to be proud, to know that his son had risen up to take his place and to be ashamed, to see how wrong, how stupid, how backwards it was that his son should have to fill his shoes. Draco wanted to comfort him, and mortify him. He wanted to know that his father was brave, and that his father was sorry.

The Dark Lord's words crawled around like maggots in his head, chewing through the rest of his slow thoughts. You have been raised with it. I don't need to explain to you. But it wasn't true he had never seen the Mark on his father's arm that he could remember. He had never been allowed to hear the conversations that might have given him some idea of what it meant to serve the Dark Lord. Since the Dark Lord had returned to his body, Draco had been shut out even more surely, sent to his room or called away by his mother any time one of his father's associates came for a visit. He knew nothing, had never known anything but the scraps he had been thrown at the dinner table during Christmas or summer holidays, little more than his father's musings about the old days. Sometimes there were tidbits about Potter and his family, or some little item about Weasley's father. He had cherished them all, turning them over in his head until they were the biggest things in the world, until he had been about to burst with the anticipated joy of trotting them out to his House once he was back at school. He had always prized every word his father had said to him, and still he knew nothing.
His quill hovered over the parchment, spotting it with black. Please, he almost wrote, please tell me what I'm supposed to do.
But the last of the burning paper spilled onto the desk in a shower of soot before he could write anything at all. Draco lay down the quill and went to open one of the inner shutters so he wouldn't sleep too late. He tried to look outside, but saw only darkness and his reflected face. He sat hesitantly on the bed and lay back with his hands folded over his chest, still gripping his wand. He was sure his mind was too busy to allow him any rest, but he had hardly extinguished the candle before he was asleep.

- - -

Draco woke to a weak, grey light filtering in through the half-covered window. He shut his eyes against it and made to sink again into sleep, but sleep wouldn't come the coarse, musty pillowcase made him want to hold his breath and the mattress sagged under his hips. He turned away from the window and shoved the pillow aside, but the sheets smelled no better, and the hollow in the centre of the bed kept sucking him in. He opened his eyes to glare blearily at nothing in particular and caught sight of a winding, washed-out stain stretching its way over the corner of the mattress. He sat up and pushed the thin coverlet off; he had already kicked it down to his knees during the night. He could not sleep here, couldn't imagine how he ever had fallen asleep in the first place. This bed made him itch.

He straightened his shirt and trousers, which had twisted up uncomfortably around him, and went to the window, avoiding the edges of the dark carpet and the grey clouds of dust collecting in its tattered tassels. He pulled both the shutters open and was surprised to see a brick wall no more than two feet away. A dark alley sank between the houses. He could have been anywhere.

He glanced about his bare, colourless room, and felt a bit lost. What was he meant to do now? The house was silent, which he supposed meant Rowle was still asleep. Draco decided he would have a bath: the air was clammy, if not overly cold, and he felt like he had been lying in his own sweat all night. He grabbed his wand from where it lay on the bedside table and went into the hall, walking as close to the wall as possible to avoid any creaking floorboards.

The bathroom sat just past the landing. The light from the foggy window tilting along the ceiling was barely enough to see by, but as he entered, a pair of dark torches stationed on either side of the door came to life.

A large porcelain tub filled half of the small room, pressed up against a tiled sink and a battered wooden cupboard. A square mirror spattered over with soapy white residue hung over the basin. Draco eyed the towels sceptically they hung askew from a bar whose loose screws threatened to pull out of the plaster altogether. One was damp. It was a depressing scene, but the bathtub seemed clean enough and filled quickly when he turned the tap, making the pipes clank behind the walls. He shut himself in, left his clothes in a pile to one side of the bathmat, and slipped into the water.

He had hardly finished drenching his hair before he heard Rowle in the hallway and the doorknob rattled. Draco's back straightened. He pushed his dripping hair away from his eyes and could not think of what to say.

"I'm "

The door sprang open, and Rowle plodded to the sink without sparing Draco so much as a glance. He was naked. He had clearly only just rolled out of bed his hair was dishevelled, there were faint, wrinkled lines along his skin where he had slept on creases in the sheets, and his erection jutted out in front of him. Draco stared, affronted. The rest of his objection was lost in shock. Could Rowle not see him? Did he even realize he wasn't alone? How dare he ?

Lucius never told us he had a daughter.

Draco ducked his head under the water to hide his reddening face. They were both men; why shouldn't he walk into his own bathroom undressed? Boys at school did the same and no one batted an eye. He realized he had never seen a man that age completely nude before. Who would he have seen? When he rose out of the water he rubbed a piece of soap into his palms and peered warily at the man standing before the mirror. There was, perhaps, no reason to think it wasn't normal no reason he should feel the need to hunch his shoulders and crouch closer to the thin layer of bubbles capping his bath.

Rowle was soaping his face, the cream-coloured bar dwarfed in his hand. The hard tendon in his neck strung down into his hulking shoulders, too wide for the cramped vanity. The muscles that arced over his hips made Draco feel skinny. The size of his cock, which was partly obscured by the shadow his massive body threw against the walls, drew Draco's attention for longer than he thought it probably should have. But he had never seen a man's before not like this, anyway and Rowle was the one who had walked in without any clothes on. It wasn't like he had room to complain.

Draco made himself turn away and finish washing. It gave him a small, hot thrill to step out of the bath as casually as anything; to walk across the chilly space to pull a towel from the wall and dry himself, all the while intently focused on seeming quite unconscious of the other man's presence. It felt good, it fed something that he hadn't even realized had been missing it made him feel curiously confident.

He glanced up at a sharp clink. Rowle had set his razor back into the glass tray at the side of the basin. Their eyes met in the mirror, and Draco realized Rowle was staring at him, motionless. His blue eyes leaped out of the dim and dragged down from Draco's face to his chest, along the length of him and back again. He leaned heavily on the sink as though he were observing something that hung in his parlour, completely at leisure. Draco's face and throat and chest were hot and flushed as he turned his back, feeling very stupid and very small. He cinched the towel around his waist, fumbled for his clothes, and left to hurry through the hall, his wet feet collecting grit along the way.

He pushed the bedroom door closed behind him so quickly that it jolted against the frame and bounced once again ajar. He dressed in a stumbling rush, his mind at once blank and racing. All the sneering superiority he had felt the night before had abandoned him while he slept he was nothing but a child shuffling around in too-large shoes, and even Rowle knew it.

He dropped the towel on the floor before his hair was quite dry enough and rushed down the stairs and out the front door to wait on the step. For perhaps ten minutes he sat there, clutching the package under his arm, now quite certain it felt too light to be of any use. The houses crowded in along the narrow, deserted street were all lifeless, blinded windows and greenish mortar. Maybe no one lived here at all.

When Rowle came outside, Draco didn't look at him, but took his hand when it was offered. He could think of nothing to say, so merely began to breathe in deeply to guard against the suffocating feeling of Apparition. Rowle's hot dry grip filled his mind. It tightened almost unbearably as, with a quick turn on the spot, they were engulfed in grey compression and stretched towards the gates of the Manor, where Rowle caught Draco by the shoulder as he tripped out of his spin. The fine white gravel that covered the drive crunched comfortingly under his shoes.

Draco pulled his hand from Rowle's without a word and half ran to the gate. As soon as he touched the winding iron bars, they furled away with a high, metallic groan. The last of the Apparition's squeeze released his ribs as he stepped through, and he realized he was clinging so tightly to the package that its contents had almost dug through the paper. He walked briskly along the pristine pathway, shaded by the high yew hedges that had already faded into a deep, dull summer green. He fixed his eyes forward to the house, where the familiar pair of dark stone wyvern wings made a solid arch above the great wood and iron door. The creature's head was the pointed, jutting keystone, guarding the manor house with black sockets for eyes. Draco began to feel calm again.

The door swung open and his mother came out onto the broad landing, her white morning dress a sudden flare against the darkness of the entrance hall. She only looked at him for a moment, and then her gaze flat, empty and cold shifted over his shoulder to Rowle, who was following close behind. She started towards them, slamming the door in her wake with a sharp wave of her hand.

"You should have brought him home last night," she said when they came face-to-face. Draco thought it was strange that she wouldn't meet his eyes. But Rowle was the sort you had to stare down, after all. Dumb lout, he thought, with a little weak satisfaction. He turned to face him, planting himself beside his mother.

"Weren't my orders." Rowle's voice was rough with sleep. He met Narcissa's stare without hesitation. "He's home now, anyway. I brought him when I could."

The look that passed between the two of them made Draco remember how very empty the house was at his back. He was home, yes, but for the first time he could remember, a piece of it was missing.

... A fact that had not escaped Rowle, he thought. With a nauseating jolt, Draco realized that Rowle was looking at his mother with that same crude intensity that had chased him out of the bathroom with his heart in his throat. Draco shivered, as cold as if the bathwater were still evaporating from his skin. He cast a nervous glance over his shoulder. How could he have been so stupid? Of course this was why Rowle had accepted this mission, which he seemed to find so bothersome. A favour for the son was sure to win appreciation from the mother, wasn't it? And if not, at least he had a reason to call on her, and no man of the house would stand in his way.

It would have been laughable if it hadn't been so horrifically disgusting. Draco nudged the toe of one of his shoes into the gravel, imagining the stone monster rising up behind him and seizing Rowle by the throat to cast him out over the pikes of the fence.

Narcissa's eyes narrowed. "Thank you," she said, smooth and dry and low in the register of insincerity. "I believe I can see him inside from here."

Rowle shrugged. He turned without a word and went back down the path to the gate, running his hand into the gaps in the hedges along the way and littering the ground with dark needles. Draco began to turn to the door, but stopped when his mother failed to follow she watched, unmoving, until the gate had hardened behind Rowle. Then she took Draco's arm and let him show her inside.

His eyes were still fighting through the clouds that the sun and brilliant drive had left on his vision when she pulled him to a stop in the middle of the dark entrance hall. "Why didn't you make him bring you home last night?" Her face was a grey blank to him, but he knew the tone of voice. He didn't know why she should be angry at him.

"I told him to," Draco said. "He wouldn't listen to me." One of the portraits scoffed. Draco gave a sidelong glare to his great aunt Valeria, whom he was perfectly happy never to have met.

His mother's voice was startlingly tight. "Draco, you cannot allow these men to disrespect you. Even without "

"I didn't let him!" He didn't want to hear any more. Why was he the only one who knew how important it was not to be afraid? "So what if I stayed the night? The Dark Lord told Rowle he had to help me so I made him help me. It's not like I wanted to sleep in that disgusting shack he lives in, but it got me what I needed, didn't it?"

"What is that?" Her eyes had fallen to the package in his hands. "If Rowle has orders to assist you, Draco, we must hold him to them." She reached out to take it from him. "He'll want as little to do with it as possible, in case you should Draco, give it to me."

He spun around and marched towards the staircase. "I don't need his help anymore I've got plenty. And I don't need you to watch me every step of the way."

"We'll write to your father," she said, her shoes clicking on marble as she followed him, not to be deterred. "He'll know whether we can trust "

"I trust him!" It was an awful lie, but that didn't matter. He stopped, dropped the package on the stair, and turned to face her; she pulled up short a step below him. "I'd know just as well, wouldn't I?" He tugged at his rumpled sleeve until the cuff came undone and pushed it back. He was almost surprised to see the Mark was still there, as plain in the day as it had been in the middle of the night, like some object he had carried from a dream into the waking world. His mother seized the banister, and he knew that the sign he shared with his father couldn't help but convince her. "If He trusts me, I think I can manage an idiot like Rowle. Believe me, he's too thick to be anything but honest."

She was staring at his arm with a hatred he had never imagined she would direct at him. His breath caught in his chest. It took all of his self-control not to climb another step back. He swallowed. "Mum ..."

The shadow of her fury faded, remaining only in the darkness that clung under her eyes. "You'll let him help you," she said, after a moment. Her fingers curled through his. "Idiot or not. It's very important, Draco, that you're able to say he's helped you. Do you understand?"

He stared back at her, his mouth set and stubborn. He understood she didn't think he could manage it and wanted him to have someone to blame. She thought him incapable.

"Answer me."

"I don't want him coming here," he blurted out, jerking his hand out of hers. "I don't like him, and you wouldn't either if you spent half a minute with him. He's no more use to us than "

"There is nothing about this that I like. But there's no choice we'll tolerate it until it's finished." She urged him up the stairs, softening. "And we will see that it's finished, my dear, you and I. I know it won't be pleasant, and I know it'll be an awful bore to put up with him. But we must do everything correctly. And if that means suffering terrible company, we've done as much before."

"If you want," he muttered, stooping to collect the package before trailing after her. She was right about that they had always managed, and it wasn't going to be Rowle who did them in. "Can I write to father?" he asked, suddenly confident that he would know precisely what to say.

She smiled at him, but he could see that she was a little pained. He shouldn't have brought it up. The wound of losing him was no doubt still too fresh. "Why don't you let me do it, my love? I have some other things to tell him." She kissed him just above the ear, hiding her face in his damp hair. "You go put on something fresh, I'll get dressed, and we'll have breakfast. You look fiercely hungry."

"I could eat about a dozen eggs," he confessed, parting from her where the stairway split and spread to their separate wings of the house. The doorway to the spacious, sunny parlour where they had so often started the day stood wide open before them, displaying windows full of the gentle pink and yellow of the back gardens.

"You're going to shoot up this year, I know it," she said lightly as she turned from him. Draco began to breathe easier as he made his way through the familiar twisting corridors, taking in the scent of his house until he could imagine himself steeped in it again, as much a part of it as the ancient foundations that sank into the ground below.

- - -

June 30, 1996.

A couple of quiet, sunny days with his mother restored Draco's confidence in short order. It was easier to think rationally when he was surrounded by all the comforts to which he was accustomed; home made the difference. For hours at a time, he would let himself forget his assignment, and his summer would seem almost normal. It was only at meals that the reality of that extra empty chair became impossible to ignore, a constant reminder of the very good reasons why he could not let his task fall by the wayside.

After his third pleasant but subdued breakfast spent chatting with his mother about nothing of importance, he was ready determined to make real progress and positive that he knew where to begin. They hadn't heard back from his father, but Draco knew what he would have done, at least at first: the heart of his operations had always, of course, been his study, and it would have been a waste of time to start anyplace else. And so he finished his tea, told his mother he would see her over dinner, and went to begin his work in earnest where his father had begun so many successful ventures.
The room was little wider than a hallway, but high and usually deep in shadow. To the left towered shelf after endless shelf of bistre-coloured leather file boxes to the right, case after case of books. Draco had never seen his father concerned with anything on the right side of the room, and he suspected that had the house-elves been a little less conscientious it might have been very dusty indeed. At the far end of the study, stationed before a low fireplace and between the tall bundles of lancet windows rising up on either side of the chimney, there sat a large ebony desk. The hearth was cold today, but the morning sun threw two columns of colourless light along the floor, shot through with the muddled shadows of the tracery.

The way his father kept his correspondence arranged perfectly in crisply folded, dated sequence reminded Draco of his own school trunk at the beginning of a term. Everything had its place, everything lay just so and so long as he put something back in its spot when he was finished with it, the order would continue until he boarded the train to London once again. Except he inevitably spent the night before his holidays stuffing quills and socks into every last square inch he could find and then struggling to strap the damned thing shut. After only a few months his efforts were well and truly defeated, whereas his father, it seemed, had not been in too much of a hurry to put a letter in its proper spot since nineteen-eighty-two.

That was where the boxes started, in any case. Draco had a feeling there were others somewhere in the house bearing earlier dates and just as impeccably organized.

He stood on his toes and took the box labelled June, 1991 from its place on the shelf. It was as good a date as any to start searching for letters concerning Albus Dumbledore. He hardly knew what to look for, but felt there must have been some clue hidden among the miles of parchment accumulated here. He tucked it under his arm, grabbed July, 1991 for good measure, and went to settle into his work.

Draco had stood before this desk countless times, his hands stuck sullenly in his pockets or playing nervously at his sides to ask favours, to explain himself, to listen with a private scowl to any number of brief, stern speeches. He was tall enough now that he had to bend to set the boxes on the writing mat, but he remembered very clearly having to reach up to take the letter his father had handed him on his eleventh birthday the first addressed to him, and presented on one of the few occasions on which he had seen his father smiling at him here.

He hovered briefly by the side of the desk and then lowered himself into the chair, keeping to the edge of the seat. There was light enough to read by without bothering with the iron candelabra that stood at his elbow, so he left it dark. He opened the first box and, with great care, pulled out the top few pages. He quickly learned to recognize Dumbledore's looping hand and was pleased to see that there was indeed quite a lot of it.

... While I understand entirely your renewed concern surrounding the curriculum in certain areas my hearty congratulations on Draco's admission, by the way I fear the board has relatively little control over Professor Binns' choice of texts ...

... Your interpretation, Lucius, of the long-term effects of the Edicts of Grimsby impressive as it is in its sheer creativity is hardly standard, and as such I believe I shall defer to our distinguished faculty, whose account is (though somewhat less entertaining) based on a few centuries of combined research ...

... As you are aware, no student is required to enrol in Muggle Studies. I fail to see how the very presence of such an option could have any negative effect on your son's education. I had rather hoped you would encourage him to pursue it, I confess, as it is well known that your family has had a close interest in the subject ever since poor Victor Gnaius Maurice Malfoy was discovered to have married not a witch, but a Muggle woman he had cleverly outfitted with a wand and a pointed hat ...

... Thank you ever so much for the fruit basket. The pomegranates were delicious, and I was interested to learn that there is such a thing as an Italian Fire-apple which (aside from its astounding toxicity) bears an uncanny resemblance to a peach, one of my very favourite snacks ...

Draco gave a frustrated sigh. He could add poison to the ranks of things that had already failed once. He pulled out another sheaf.

The study's door swung open and Draco leapt up as though he had been burnt. His mother entered, Rowle towering behind her. Seeing them together made his stomach tighten, making him wish he had put his foot down about keeping the man well out of his business. He should have told her something, at least, of his suspicions. If he had, Rowle would never have been allowed within a mile of the house but he could think of nothing to tell that didn't sound ridiculous. He looked at you wrong. There's something the matter with him. He isn't right. Draco doubted she would have understood, anyway. He couldn't articulate just what that look had meant to him when he'd been on the receiving end, and he wasn't sure he'd have done so to his mother even if he had been able.

Some three feet inside the door, Rowle stooped to speak quietly to her. She glanced in Draco's direction, questioning.

Draco nodded to her as his throat constricted. He wanted to shake his head and wave her over, to call her back as she turned and left the study but no matter how peculiar and out of place Draco began to feel as Rowle advanced on him alone, the little rush of relief he felt as the door slammed to behind his mother was very real.

"Your dad's things, there?" Rowle stopped in front of the desk, picking up a bone-handled letter-opener from its tray and inspecting it closely. It glinted in the sunlight, all but one tarnished thumbprint close to the hilt. He didn't seem to have found a chance to shave since the last time they had met; there was a red-gold shadow creeping along his jaw and bristling against his high but crumpled collar.

Draco kept his place behind the desk, pushing the letters back into their box, his posture cautious. He couldn't decide whether to snatch the letter-opener away from him or move out of arm's reach. "Letters, yes," he said.

Rowle stared down at him across the dull blade. "Anything useful?"

"They're not for it's nothing about that." Draco set his hands down on the file boxes. Even if Rowle read through them, Draco doubted he would be able to guess what he was about. All the same, he was extremely reluctant to let anyone intrude on them. He shrugged, picking at one of the corners where the leather's seam had begun to fray. "I've taken care of that, anyhow. I've got a plan."

"Really." Rowle's eyebrows shot up, but his face seemed just as heavy and empty as it had been before, as though no expression ever could sink any deeper than the first layer of his weathered skin. He set the letter-opener down and moved past the side of the desk Draco nearly tripped back into the chair to peer out the window into the courtyard where the fountain bubbled merrily in the sun, its four stone herons splashing at one another. "What's that, then?"

"I can't tell you." Rowle wouldn't be satisfied with that, of course, and Draco was tempted to say anything that would get the man out of his house. No amount of help was worth the uneasy feeling that enveloped him when Rowle was in the same room. "You know the Dark Lord said I wasn't allowed "

"So don't tell me who." Rowle's fingers began to beat quietly on the windowsill. "What's your plan?"

Draco straightened, tilting his chin upward and looking Rowle in the eye as steadily as he could. "I'm sorry," he said, imagining the ice that his father always seemed to call into his voice so easily. "I can't tell you. It would reveal too much."

"The Dark Lord sent you to me for help." Rowle leaned back against the sill and Draco imagined the glass shattering around him, the heavy framing falling away from the wall to let him tumble out onto the ground below. "If your plan's shit, Malfoy, I'll be in for it same as you. I'll bet you know that."

"You have helped," Draco said, eager to let him off the hook, no matter what his mother said. "I'll be using what you gave me. Your part's been done. He'll know that much." Rowle's mouth pulled up at the corner, and Draco's heart sank. Just go, he thought. Please.

"And how will you deliver it?"

Draco rolled his eyes, letting his gaze linger nervously on the topmost shelf of books. "I've already told you, it would give too much away." He barely had time to spin on his heel before Rowle was beside him, his hand circling Draco's upper arm.

"You're not much of a liar, are you, Malfoy? If you need help, you should ask for it." He was staring down at Draco with a highly superficial impatience, a mask held over some other face. "Once you're back to school, you're on your own."

"Take your hands off me," Draco breathed. When Rowle only kept staring down at him like he hadn't heard a word of it, Draco's insides tangled up. He jerked back, his hand rushing to his pocket for his wand. "I said "

Rowle's fist slammed into his stomach with such force that Draco doubled before the pain could explode through his middle. A white nothingness ate into his vision as he pulled with a desperate lack of direction against the hand clenched around his arm and he forgot how to breathe.

Rowle released him. A single step away was all Draco could manage he grabbed at the arm of the chair for support as warm blood rushed up into the stinging place where Rowle's thick fingers had been digging into his arm. Rowle seized his shoulders and spun him about. The second blow landed in the same spot and Draco let out a weak, strangled cough as he fell against the desk, hands scrabbling over the writing mat, his clawing fingers upsetting one of the file boxes and sending its top spinning out onto the floor. His knees trembled; his legs barely held him upright as he fought for air, bent sharply over the desk.

The singing sound of metal against metal made him turn his head. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Rowle drawing the iron fire-poker out of its scrolling stand. Draco's fear burst inside of him, but the new strength it gave him was too little and too slow: the flat of Rowle's giant hand slammed down against his back, pinning him to the desk and crushing his ribs as he gasped for air and blinked back the tears he knew he couldn't shed, not here.

"You don't pull your wand on me." Rowle didn't sound the least bit out of breath. The force of his hand was like a steel pile.

Draco squeezed his eyes shut and clenched his jaw. He sucked in a breath, planted his hands against the desktop and heaved but it was useless, and the wrinkled pages of his father's letters rasped against his cheek where it was pressed flat to the writing-mat. The poker whistled through the air and landed with an echoing crunch on the desktop, inches from his nose, and Draco's eyes snapped open, wide and wild. He flinched away with a yelp that burned like a sob. His tears spilled over.

The poker clattered to the floor, its hammered handle landing with a dead thud on the carpet. Draco held his breath, quivering with the effort, and waited to be released.

Nothing happened. He started thrashing in panic, shoving at the desk, pulling at the mat and the candelabra and the boxes, upending everything he could get his hands on. He grabbed for the letter opener, but it was out of reach. There was something wrong about the stillness that hung over him in Rowle's black shadow.

"How dare you," he shouted, his voice cracking. "Don't touch me, you stupid sick take your hands off me!" The words were on his tongue My father will hear about this! when Rowle moved. For a moment, his breath fell down into the space between Draco's collar and his neck, making him shudder.

Then the pressure on his back was gone and Rowle had moved aside, was walking calmly down the length of the room and towards the door. Draco shoved himself halfway upright, his arms shaking but the sharp, twisting pain in his stomach brought him tumbling to the floor. He dragged his sleeve across his face, seized his wand out of his robes, and grabbed the arm of the chair to heave himself to his feet and level his wand at Rowle's back.

"Confringo!" He felt the anger at his core rushing out of him in a way it never had before, as though it were flowing from the floor and through his feet, through all of him. But his aim was unsteady, and already he was collapsing to the desk again, folding in two over the knotted place where Rowle had hit him. The spell glanced off a filing shelf, sending a year's worth of boxes thundering to the floor in an explosive avalanche of parchment. Rowle ducked past the falling pages and left the room, leaving the paper to settle into messy piles on the floor.

Draco shoved his hand into his hair and pulled, biting down on his tongue and waiting for the pain to drain away. How was he ever going to put all this back to rights? He slammed his hand down onto the splintered dent Rowle had left in the wood. "Niffy!"

The elf arrived before him with a clap. Her eyes widened in horror and she ran jerkily to the side of the room, plastering herself up against the bookcases in an effort not to step on any of the letters. "Master "

"Clean it up!" He tried again to straighten and step back, but fell to his knees. Niffy was scurrying towards him, her useless little arms outstretched. Draco saw the poker lying beside him, snatched it up, and flung it at her. "The paper, you filthy idiot! Clean it up!" She fell under the weight of the iron, pushed it haltingly aside, and limped back to the mess of files, out of sight. Draco clung to the arm of the chair, burying his face for one steadying moment into the rough silken upholstery. Then he took in a slow breath, braced himself for the pain, and stood to flee, stumbling, to his bedroom. He couldn't let his mother see him, and he knew she wouldn't be very far away.

That night he gave her a perfunctory and entirely false account of his meeting with Rowle over a tense and largely silent meal. He knew she didn't believe a word of it, but comforted himself that she was probably used to it, by now; she would understand the need for lies and wouldn't hold his against him. He hadn't failed to notice how she had been kept almost as completely apart from his father's affairs as he had and was only too happy to continue the tradition, even if it meant spending the rest of his holidays racking his brains alone.

And when he shut himself into his room after dinner with a few more recent volumes of his father's letters, it was somehow easier to think. He was alone and there was no sound to call him from his task but the occasional gentle sigh from his headboard, where the carved dragon had slept, curled into a protective ring for as long as he could remember. There was no mist of dread waiting for him at the end of every thought, no wondering what he would say, no frantic concoction of excuses. He was by himself with the one person who stood any chance of helping him at all, and until he could find a time to visit Azkaban, he would entertain no further inquiries or offers. He burned his candles deep into the morning, engrossed in a cache of his own letters that he had discovered preserved just as meticulously as all the rest. He couldn't help but smile as he imagined his father at his great imposing desk reading about outstanding Charms essays, cancelled Quidditch practices, Potter's remedial potions lessons, and the possibility that the Slytherin team just might need a new captain, seeing as Montague had gone and gotten himself shoved into a vanishing cabinet.

- - -

December 24, 1996.

The best part of coming home for the holidays had always been spending the first solid week doing nothing. Every year, Draco slept for as long as he wanted, bed curtains shut tightly against the mid-December mornings, his final dream-filled hours undisturbed by snoring or staggering roommates. His mother sometimes came to chide him if he was still hidden away at noon, but she knew to let in as little light as possible and would only try to coax him out with promises of visitors or shopping trips or hot breakfast still waiting. Her hand would ruffle his hair before lying across his forehead, and he would bat it away, annoyed. His father might come by to pound on the door and tell him to stop being such a slug, but Draco could tell by his voice that he was almost always half-smiling. And when Draco sat down to lunch and ate two meals' worth before announcing that he was going for a very long fly, he would leave his parents smirking gently at one another over their teacups. Sometimes when he came back inside, they hadn't even come back from their Christmas shopping.

This year, he might not have known it was Christmas if not for the decorations. He woke too early and only kept to his bed to stare up at the canopy, unable to face the day or fall asleep again. His mother came into his room too often, with hands that were still soft, but thinner and always tense. At breakfast his father's chair was empty, and to his mother's right sat, more often than not, his aunt. Her smiles were rare and not to be wished for. She flatly forbade him to do anything like waste his time on a broom, and the days when he didn't defy her were spent shut up underground in the hot, noisy kitchens where she tried to break into his mind. When he dared to disobey her, storming out of the breakfast room and leaving her to argue with his mother, he paid for his disobedience by missing sleep or supper. There would be five hours of shutting her out of his thoughts every day, no matter whether he came home at three in the afternoon or eleven at night.

Today he was in no mood for the sweaty, edgy work of Occlumency. It was Christmas Eve, which should have been the day he could devote to nothing but lying in, fussing over his clothes and making a good showing at someone's get-together. Last year the first time he'd accompanied his parents to a proper party he'd spent two hours being dragged around to various fawning acquaintances before being allowed to escape and lurk about with Daphne and Pansy. They'd spent the night drinking nog and red and silver peppermint fizz that came in fine ice goblets as ephemeral as the sweet bite of the liquor. There would be none of that this year; he wasn't old enough to take his mother in his father's place, and he wouldn't have wanted to. But still, the day belonged to him. He would use it to order his mind, to think, which he never could do when Bellatrix was lashing at the walls of his consciousness like an angry storm.

He needed to think. His plan was failing badly enough that he had resorted to Rowle's stupid, clumsy tactics, to no avail. If he couldn't figure out in time how to repair the cabinet, he didn't even have another last-ditch, desperately dangerous scheme waiting in the wings. He had nothing. For a week now he had kept back from the edge of panic largely because he knew that he would be spending Christmas morning in the visiting hall at Azkaban. Remembering his father's easy mannerisms and the closed, knowing glint in his eye always helped him slip out from underneath the growing weight of worry for a little while. But now, so close to the actual event, it had begun to seem too real he had begun to consider the details a little too closely. Would they be listened to? How could they speak of this kind of business without privacy? His father would know what to do, but would he be able to execute it?

What would he think when Draco showed up, half the year gone, with nothing to say but tell me what to do?

When he had risen, dressed, and made his way out onto the landing of the great staircase, he considered simply walking past the doors that led into the breakfast room and descending to the gardens alone. He was wondering if he could manage to sneak unseen to the equipment cupboard where his broom hung ready for him when one of the doors swept open, and his aunt nearly knocked him into the banister in her rush.

"Draco," she said without looking at him. She marched down the stairs in a flurry of robes and dark, dishevelled hair without another word.

Breakfast, all of a sudden, seemed like a much more pleasant prospect. Draco watched until the front door closed behind Bellatrix and then pulled the doors open with a cheerful little tug.

His good spirits were short-lived. The chair at his mother's right was empty, but across the table, his arms crossed over his napkin and his sleeve dangerously close to an open dish of jelly, was Snape. Draco halted and glared openly at him.

Snape's eyes locked on his. "Will you be joining us?" he asked. "Or have you simply come to look "

"Sit, Draco." Narcissa lifted her teacup, her back impossibly straight.

Draco took the chair beside her. He slouched away from the table as he waited for his tea, glowering at the mountain of ruffled peonies, white and red, floating serenely in their silver bowl over the centre of the table. There was a grim drizzle smearing itself across the windows, dulling everything. "Pass the toast, then," he snapped, when the silence had stretched on for too long. He raised his eyes again to Snape, who stared back at him, unblinking. Draco lifted his eyebrows. "The toast. That's the tray you're about to put your elbow in, with all the bits of "

"Draco." His mother's voice brought him up short.

Snape drew his wand and gave it a gentle flick; the toast rack floated slowly across the width of the table. Draco steadfastly ignored it and took up a platter of eggs, instead. Whatever Snape was here for, he didn't need him. He had told him as much not four days ago in an empty classroom, and yet here he was, as intent upon taking the credit for Draco's mission as his mother was to foist it off on Rowle. Well, they could try all they liked.

The toast rack collapsed across his plate with a crash and a shower of crumbs. Draco jumped up from his chair, upsetting his tea and his heaping plate. He cursed and threw his spoon to the floor. Snape tucked his wand calmly back into his robes and sipped at his tea. Draco jabbed his finger at him, ignoring the sudden cluster of house-elves that had developed around his knees. "If you think you can just "

"The Dark Lord has decided to call all of His servants together on the thirty-first," Snape cut in, speaking as though he were noting a particularly dry item in the Prophet. "For a progress report, no doubt. I thought you might want to discuss your lack of progress with me before He gets wind of it. I assure you, I will be much more understanding."

"It isn't any of your business." Draco turned his glare at his mother. How could she sit by and just watch while her home, her own son was disrespected by a man who was set on taking the reputation his father had earned over a lifetime? "Get out."

"Sit down, Draco." His mother reached for his arm, but he tore it away.

"I won't. I don't need to talk to him. We're seeing Father tomorrow."

"Lucius has been in prison for the past six months," Snape said, a hint of irritation creeping into his voice. "What is it you expect him to do for you?"

"I don't have to tell you anything!" Draco grabbed one of the few pieces of toast that had been spared the floor and started heaping eggs and bacon on it. He didn't have to sit here to take his breakfast, either. Seeing Snape taking up a place at his table like he had a right to it would kill his appetite. "I'm going out."

"Be back by five o'clock," Snape replied. "I've called a meeting; we could all use some time to prepare for New Year's Eve. Everyone will be here, and I would hate for the host to be late."

"You can't just invite anyone you like into my house," Draco snarled, topping the lot off with another slice of bread.

"That would be exceedingly rude. Thankfully, your mother has consented, so I don't have to trouble you with the decision. It seems the last time you were taken away from home for business, you failed to come home on time. Curfew will be much easier to meet this way, I should think."

Draco's face burned. He didn't want any of them here in his house, and if his mother did, she simply didn't understand but when he turned to make his case to her, he shut his mouth without speaking. She was looking at him as stonily as she ever had, her jaw clenched and her eyes so focused they might have been seeing something behind him. "Five o'clock," she said.

Draco turned on his heel and stalked out. He ate almost without noticing, pushing the last bit of crust into his mouth at the bottom of the stairs. He hurried through the entrance hall, past the drawing room and dining room and the warren of smaller parlours that occupied the middle of the house. The closet where his broom was kept and his cloak hung was situated just beside the conservatory, and he took that route out to the gardens, almost glad for the opportunity to wrest the tail of his broom away from an overly-friendly potted strangler. He kicked off the ground just outside the door, shot up to the level of the breakfast room's windows, and flew away into the rain.

The velocity threw the hood of his cloak back but after a minute or two he was as soaked as he was going to be, and he tried not to mind. When he reached the densest part of the woods that covered the family land, he dipped below the tree-line. He had gotten more practice in agility this week than ever before in his life, and he was rapidly improving. The first day he'd run smack into five or six branches; since then he had learned how to shut everything else out of his mind. Today he only bashed his shoulder up against the trunk of one crooked tree, and he didn't even fall off.

He hated more than anything the pain in his lungs that told him it was time to stop. He went on ignoring it as long as he could, but it built until he could hardly breathe, until he felt that if he took another steep turn he might well fall to the forest floor, and he had to break off. The moment before his chest felt it might actually rip apart he went careening upward through a gap in the canopy and upward still, stopping only when the cold wind threatened to blind him. He dragged the broom into a hover, stalling with a jolt, and gasped for breath for what seemed like an eternity as his hands struggled to keep their shaky grip on the handle.

When his ribs had stopped heaving, he stretched out along the length of the broom, very carefully; he locked his ankles around the tail and folded his hands under his chin where the handle widened and the still-perfect golden script spelled out Nimbus 2001. Even in the drab of a dying winter afternoon (was it afternoon? He had lost track, as always, and the clouds made it hard to guess) it was a colour that took him back to August, to a day in London that still brought a fluttering hint of a smile to his lips, no matter what had happened in between. A new broom, a spot on the team all but assured, and best of all his grades and other shortcomings forgotten in favour of a lengthy polemic on how associations with Muggles and too little respect for the traditions being ripped away by every last Ministry department led one to such a weakness of character that it seemed acceptable to go about throwing punches in respectable shops as though they were back-alley pubs.

From here he could see the back of the house, streaked dark grey in places where the rain collected and ran down the stone. Even in the distance it was huge to him. The high fences sweeping out around the gardens and the drive, the giant bare shade trees interrupting the lawns, the perfect topiaries and fountains and hedges and bushes like mazes that disappeared abruptly into wild woods and hills, the pond and creek and the invisible lines in the forest where he knew the wards soared up to infinity ... it was all of it his, and it made him wish that he knew in which direction the prison lay, so he could turn and seek it out.

But he hadn't come out here to think on that. He sat up and lifted his face to the sky for a moment to look for a break in the clouds. Finding none, he swept back down among the trees for a second session.

The sun had certainly gone down by the time he made his hurtling return to the house. He landed hard, leaving two long furrows in the gravel path that ran along one side of the grand parterre. He pushed his hair back away from his face as the sting and blur the wind had left in his eyes slowly faded and then slid carefully to the ground, his hands numb. Called to speed by the warm light behind the conservatory's glass enclosure, he started for the doors and clenched his stiff fingers briefly around the handle of his broom when he saw shadows flickering past in the adjacent windows, the unmistakable shapes of men. He didn't slow down. As soon as he had stepped into the hall, he unwound his scarf to let in the warm, dry, wood-scented air. He nearly smashed a tray of glasses that appeared suddenly from around the corner. "Careful," he snapped at the elf tottering underneath it before thrusting his broom in its direction. "Put this away." A bony hand shot out to catch it, and then glasses, elf, broom and all wobbled towards the stairs down to the kitchen, the tail of the broom wagging erratically at the ceiling.

Draco hurried toward the entrance hall. He turned on his heel so fast he nearly upset a vase when Snape appeared from the little-used parlour that took up the windowless space beneath the staircase, looking grim as ever; but Snape's long, spindly fingers closed around his elbow before he could escape, and Draco allowed himself to be led, scowling, out of the hall. The deep amaranth silk that lined the parlour's blind walls made the room uncomfortably small after the great darkening expanse outside.

"Where's my mother?" he asked, crossing his arms under his cloak. He hadn't immediately recognized any of the figures milling about, which meant Rowle might have been anywhere. And if he was going to be in the house, Draco wanted him where he could see him.

"She's retired for the evening. Draco, this is "

"It isn't even five o'clock." Draco looked ever so slightly down into Snape's face. The dread that was beginning to roil in his stomach made it difficult to focus, but he pulled a black screen across his thoughts.

"She knows her part in all of this. She shut herself away before everyone started to arrive. Now "

"Her part!" Draco leapt on the little spark of pleasure that came from interrupting. "You can't just open her house up to your meetings and shove her off to the "


Draco glared at him and reached up to give his cloak a shake. A spatter of rain darkened the rosy fabric of a chaise.

"Your mother has opened her house to us because she realizes that it's best to keep you close," Snape continued. His mouth thinned and his eyes narrowed it was a familiar expression, impatient and resentful. "And she's correct. These people may be your fellows in some ways, Draco, but they are not your friends. A great many of them have always envied your father his position, especially given the fact that he has avoided imprisonment until now, yes, I know. If they can get you to stumble, they will do so, if only to cast shame on him. I've brought everyone together so that you can show them they will have no opportunity you must tell them that you have a very important mission, and that you are well on your way to success. Your aunt and I will vouch for you, but for us to be able to do any more than that you must tell us what it is you've planned. If not me, then at least your aunt "

Draco laughed. How transparent he was, this old bat who thought himself so very closed and cunning. "That's what you want, is it? I wouldn't tell you what I meant to do, so now I'm to tell her? Not a chance." He folded his cloak over his arm and shook out his hair. "I know they're a bunch of jackals, and she's one of the worst. I'm not telling anyone a damned thing. They can cast as much shame as they like if they've got even one brain between the lot of them, they know my father's coming home sooner than anyone thinks. I hope they do try to get the better of him or me. We'll show them whose house they're in."

"I have told you before, I have no interest in completing your task for you. I am trying to help you. So is Bellatrix, in her way." Snape planted his hand firmly on the door when Draco reached for the handle. "If the trouble is that you don't have a plan, you must tell me. Both our lives depend on it, as I've told you before."

"Good luck to you, then." Draco jerked the door open with a smirk and went into the hall. "About five, isn't it? Wouldn't want the host to be late." He left Snape looking like a vein might well explode in his forehead. Let them think he didn't know what he was doing; he didn't care. His plan would come to him tomorrow morning.

He followed the sound of conversation into the long, high dining room without looking to see whether he had been followed. There were men grouped in the corners, leaning against the buffets and gathering under the torches set into the walls. His aunt and another woman he had only seen a few times were speaking urgently together. Rowle was seated near the head of the table, his chair turned to let his legs jut out. He was listening to a short, heavyset man with very little hair, but when Draco entered the room his gaze shifted to capture him. Draco realized he was still damp. It was chilly; he moved towards the fire to begin, at least, to dry his shoes.

Before he could reach the hearth, however, the door opened and shut again, and everyone stopped talking. Snape took a seat near the foot and said into the silence, "If you're all quite finished gossiping, then."

Draco sat at the corner, as far down from Rowle as he could possibly be but on the same side, not wishing to have to look at him from across the table. Almost directly beside him was the rear door that the servants used to access the house's back stairway. As soon as this charade was finished, he would go straight up to his mother's rooms and stay with her until everyone had gone. He didn't like the thought of leaving them to their own devices in his home, but he knew what needed the most protection. She wouldn't turn him away, even if he had to stay the night.

The meeting commenced. Snape's familiar, droning voice filled the room for some ten or fifteen minutes before sharpening into a series of probing questions about everyone's business which, vague as they were, were almost always met with closed-lipped resentment. The few who answered him seemed like stammering weaklings. When his turn came, Draco said what he had said before he had his orders, it was none of anyone's concern what they were, and none but a traitor would ask him to reveal them. That brought a smile even from Bellatrix, but it seemed to Draco as though no one else cared one way or the other what he had to say.

But for such a reticent group, they certainly knew how to argue. The evening stretched out longer than Draco had thought possible, a desert of bickering and petty squabbles. Supper came and went, with no information of any great importance that he could discern. Another hour, another two, flew away and left behind nothing but the impression that the Carrows would probably have liked to slit everyone's throats and that the feeling was more or less mutual. A few plans were made, mostly insignificant, involving things like bank vaults and safe-houses. Whenever they spoke of murder, Draco tried to pay attention but they never said so much as a name, never mind how the deed was to be accomplished. It was clear that no one trusted anyone else. If Snape was truly worried for him, he was stupider than Draco had imagined.

Finally, someone stood and Draco was about to push his chair out and leap up in relief when the man proposed a toast instead of adjournment. He couldn't quite help but roll his eyes. What sort of stupid show was this, with no one to watch it? Who did they think they were fooling? But he seemed to be the only one with any objection it was, apparently, quite a normal affair to end a long night of sniping with a solemn drink because everyone stood almost immediately. Rowle loomed above the rest, easily visible even from Draco's distant position. Only Yaxley, murmuring sourly in Snape's ear as the elves began passing glasses one by one down from the head of the table, approached him in height.

A slender cordials glass eventually found its way down the line from Rowle, Dolohov, Jugson, tremulous old Nott, Rosier and Avery and finally into Draco's hands, already full of something viscous and violet. A few words were said, to which he paid no attention. He raised his glass when the others did and drank on cue. When he was finished, he thought surely he would be allowed to leave but then everyone sat again, and he had to fall into his chair wondering what on earth they could mean by staying in his house so bloody long on the strength of Snape's invitation.

He glowered down into the little lily-shaped glass, watching the sticky film of purple sink slowly towards the bottom. The sweet, medicinal taste evaporated into bitterness on the back of his tongue, and he swallowed again to clear it from his mouth. How much longer would he have to sit here? He heard a low whirring sound from out in the service hall and then a hurried sequence of small, dull bells, twelve in a row: midnight. He had always found that clock eerie, less for its sound than its clumsy-looking wooden owl that emerged to tell the hour with frantically flapping wings and strange yellow eyes. When he was a boy he had been afraid that it might come alive. That was the sort of thing that happened after dark on Christmas Eve, or so he had always been led to believe

A chair scraped beside him, startling him, and he realized that everyone seemed to be getting up again. About damned time, too. Whatever Snape had said to conclude the meeting, he had missed; but he found it hard to care. He had until the New Year to think of something to say, and he would see his father tomorrow. He stood, leaning heavily on the padded arm of the chair until he could be sure that Snape, who had been cornered by his aunt immediately upon rising from his seat, would not see him, and then he slipped out the rear door as Rowle turned his back to pour himself another dram of that vile liquor.

The door shut silently behind him. He breathed more easily in the low, dark hall that began the long and twisted path to the kitchens; this had never been a place for gathering. He was alone with the slightly unsettling clock. Everything was so very still he could only barely hear the voices from the dining room, as though the walls were padded with cotton. He remembered sitting in front of the Christmas tree as a boy, taking in the towering column of dark green and glowing candles, and listening in awe to the utter silence around him.

... But he had to go and find his mother; if he stood here very long someone would find him. He turned and made his way to the back stairs untraveled by guests that emptied into the lesser-used wing of the house. It was a longer walk to her bedroom than through the main hall, but there was less chance of being stopped. He lurched a little as he mounted the first step and gripped the banister tightly before he could sway backwards. He shook his head and climbed on. He hadn't had more than a sip of wine he was just tired, exhausted after hours of listening to all the little things Snape seemed to think were very serious. He reached the landing without further incident and paused in the blackness to listen for footsteps. Nothing. His heart made an uneasy rhythm in his chest. He moved on.

It was a strange journey to make, tonight. This, the second door he passed on his left, had been his room until he was eight years old: his nursery, brighter and plainer than the other rooms, with little furniture and a great thick carpet spread out in front of wide bay windows that looked into the back gardens. He'd spent many nights with his elbows propped up on the sill, standing on his toes and staring intently into the winding paths and hedges where his parents' cheerful guests had mingled.

The door creaked as he passed it by, and he drifted off balance again, catching himself on the handle. He did feel drunk, he realized and pleasantly but unshakably tired, as though he'd eaten far too much. His attempt to right himself only pushed the door further open, and suddenly he was standing in the middle of his old bedroom, staring at the rocking chair that had always lived in the corner. He could sit and rest a little it felt like a fantastic idea, really cosy, warm, safe he swung the door shut behind him

The click of the latch brought him back to his senses. No. He had to go to his mother; and in any case, he would sleep miserably if he spent the night in a rocking chair. He turned back to the door and grabbed the handle fought with it a minute, his frustration growing sluggishly inside him as his hand seemed to slip off, time and time again. When finally he took hold of it, the door seemed too heavy to move at all. He felt sapped. His brow furrowed. I have to go to her I have to sleep. I have to get up early. We both do. I have to find my mother

He heaved at the door once more, and with a deep, shuddering groan of protest, it opened. The sound made the hair on the back of his neck stand up. The tranquil atmosphere of childhood memory was gone, and he forced himself out into the hallway again, his blood thudding in his ears. He felt frightened, but slow, maddeningly slow. His legs refused to cooperate, paralyzed as in a dream. He turned and ran straight into a man and seized onto him for balance. He knew instantly that it was Rowle, even in the dark. His body was like a wall.

"There you are." Rowle's voice was too loud and echoed too easily around the close, quiet hallway. His arm curled around Draco's ribs, all too ready to support him.

"What do you " Draco snapped his mouth shut. His words were coming out wrong and slurred. His body broke out all over into a cold tremor. "... Go home." With his last reserve of strength, he dug his elbow into Rowle's side and pushed away from him.

It was all the force he could muster, but it was barely enough to put an inch between them. Rowle readjusted his arm and moved on; Draco tripped along beside him towards the wedge of yellow light spilling out onto the floor at the end of the hall his bedroom. Soon Rowle was shutting the door silently behind them. Draco's breath was slowing even as he struggled frantically, or tried his body wouldn't obey him and barely squirmed in response to his efforts. Rowle lifted him and sat him on the edge of the low dresser that stood beneath his mirror. Draco clutched at the sides of it, slumped nearly double, terrified that he would tumble off and fall the three feet to the floor. The dark, swirling grain of the floorboards began to sway. He shut his eyes tightly and tried to steady himself, wishing he could draw a full breath, form a full thought, or scream. A low, gurgling groan slipped out of his mouth, and he fixated on the one coherent idea that he could latch on to: I am going to die. His wand was buried in his pocket. Without magic he was powerless against Rowle, couldn't have stood against him even if he hadn't been poisoned. The man was heavy as iron, half a giant. I can't fight. I am going to die. And he's going to have her or

Draco's body straightened, his chin tilted up. Rowle's hands were swallowing up his jaw, and they were dry and calloused and warm. Draco's eyes fought to open as blunt fingertips pushed into his hair. Rowle's mouth was there in front of him, pale lips and the day's growth on his chin burning a wicked red in the candlelight. The hands shifted, Draco's mouth fell open, and Rowle's chin and cheek scraped against his face, his mouth was moving over Draco's, lapping at his lips like waves, the strong, soft muscle pushing further and further past Draco's own struggling tongue. His knees were pushed open and then Rowle's body was closer to him, hot and shadowed. Draco dragged his gaze away from the unfocused mess of bearded face and looked into the mirror that hung beside him. He could see almost nothing of himself Rowle's hand, Rowle's nose smashing against his cheek, Rowle's hair hiding his forehead. The windows on the opposite side of the room were reflected behind them, glinting opaquely black and white and fire-coloured. The rippling crown glass panels at their edges slithered steadily downward, lower and lower, creeping over the casement and the sill and onto the floor, snakes winding slowly towards him, infinitely long. Draco lifted his hands and tried to force them against Rowle's chest. They slid clumsily down his abdomen. But Rowle stopped he drew away and his breath was crashing past Draco's face, full of that purple liquor.

"Nn..." Draco's eyes were fixed on the reflection of the growing mass of writhing, glass-blue snakes on the floor. The room lengthened with them. His mind was a blank of fear. "No."

"You're all right." A thick finger settled over his lips. Rowle's hands poured down his neck and chest to work at the silver clasps that fastened Draco's robes, and soon the dresser was covered in black woollen fabric. Everything was dark for a moment. When Draco could see again, the boy in the mirror was bare to the waist with a bright flush seeping from his cheeks into his neck and down the front of his white chest. His ribs were moving so slowly the breath that passed through his loosely parted lips left very little fog on the mirror, his hair was a tousled mess, his eyes were glazed and too wide. There was a large hand resting just below his throat; it ended before the elbow, hanging disembodied in the mirror. Draco's eyes began to sting. Everything blurred.

He was dizzy. All of the blending colours were moving. He was on his bed; he raised his arm haltingly to his face and when it fell back to the mattress he saw Rowle standing just to the side, shrugging his robes off his shoulders. No. Draco's heart was twitching in his chest as though it had forgotten what it was supposed to do, all caught up in panic like the rest of him. No. He had to go. He fought against the blankets underneath him, dragged himself onto his side, onto his stomach. He stopped short of pulling himself off the bed the floor was nothing but an impenetrable nest of bubbling, hollow snakes. They would consume him, shatter around him and tear him to pieces the moment he tried to escape. They would burn through his skin and meld with him until he was one of them. Gentle hands slid under his body and pulled his trousers away from his hips and patiently tugged at his shoes until everything had disappeared and he was unprotected. Draco lurched forward to cling to his pillow. He raised his eyes to the bed frame as the end of the mattress sagged away from his knees under a great sinking weight. The dragon carved into the headboard was there, as always, sleeping. Its tail twitched back and forth, back and forth, impeccably rendered scales shimmering in the candlelight.

Wake up. The hands at his hips were impossibly careful, almost soft. They were touching him everywhere and lingered on his skin even where they had already gone. They were on his shoulder blades, on his neck, on the backs of his knees, all around his waist, at the very insides of his thighs. They moved him onto his back. Draco felt an involuntary jolt push through him, painfully strong, but the resulting sob was a weak, breathy whimper. Rowle was naked, towering over him, settling between a pair of legs that were splayed awkwardly to either side of his hips.

His arm stretched down to Draco's face with fingers curved like fangs. "Good boy." They ran along his cheek, hard and frigid and threatening. Draco wanted to scream, but if he moved, if he even breathed, those teeth would sink into his flesh and poison him; he would be killed and eaten. He rolled his eyes back, desperate to find the dragon again, but all he saw was the white emptiness of the ceiling. Wake up, please wake up, wake up. Wake up. The windows gleamed in the distance, sinister, flashing eyes and gaping mouths. The deadly hand crept between his legs. Draco went mad trying to claw out of his own body, and his brain filled up with animal shrieking.

His mind cleared with a single crack and was silent. The light dancing over the glass died; the windows glowed a dim, chilly cobalt. Darkness spread through the room, quick as the lunge of a snake, and Rowle vanished, leaving the blankets piled down at the foot of the bed, leaving the mattress cold. Draco was shivering. He looked to the door, to the ceiling, to the side of the bed, too frightened to move anything but his eyes. What spell was this? He was painfully cold. He looked to the windows

Morning. The eerie, faded blue was the sky, caught in the first stain of morning twilight. Nausea congealed in his stomach like a stone. He struggled to dig his arms under himself, to lift himself to sitting but his arms were exhausted and powerless, as though he had been hanging from a cliff for hours. Slowly, he propped himself up against the headboard. The top of his skull was trying to twist itself off. How many hours had he lost? How had it happened? He hadn't fallen asleep, couldn't remember falling asleep. When he craned his neck to see the clock on the dresser, the sharp ridge of the dragon's crest bit into his shoulder. He gasped and scrambled off the bed. One foot found the floor, blessedly solid.

Pain erupted the moment he made to launch himself off the mattress, a tearing fire that began between his legs and bit into his gut, pulled the muscles in his back to a quaking, gnarled tangle. He landed on his hands and knees and froze, holding his breath and fighting down the sickness that was searing his throat. Slowly, unbearably slowly, the pain loosened its grip on him. He shut his eyes and lowered his forehead to the floor. For an instant he saw himself in the mirror, crushed up against Rowle's bare chest, his jaw lost in the palm of the man's hand. He could still taste him in his mouth. The smell of his sweat was everywhere. Draco sucked in a breath and stopped thinking.

He began the slow, faltering trip around the bed, a dead, mechanical crawl aided very little by his legs. The savage burn brought him to a stop several times, try as he might to keep that part of his body locked and still. He had to reach his wardrobe. When he arrived at the foot of it, he reached up to seize the handle, jerked the door open with a thick whimper, and grabbed at the hem of his charcoal dressing gown. It tumbled off its peg and spilled onto his shoulder. He tugged it around himself gratefully, bound the sash at his waist, and sat against the wall. This time, the cramping feeling refused to subside. Draco shifted his concentration to his next objective, blocking the pain with the same impenetrable thoughts he used to keep intruders at bay.

"Niffy." His voice was hoarse and dry. The disturbance she made in the air as she Apparated put his teeth on edge. "I want a draught for pain. And a bath. Now." He heard her muttering to herself, though his eyes were locked on his own fist, clenched around the wardrobe's clawed wooden foot.

"Master is ill," she said, "Of course, and Niffy shall fetch the Mistress "

"Breathe a word to my mother and you'll be frying your own ears for breakfast," Draco snapped, squeezing his eyes closed again as his forehead threatened to rip open. "A draught and a bath. And bring me my wand."

She did as she was told. Draco grabbed blindly for the wand and clutched it to his chest, waiting to feel safe. But everything in the room was steeped in fear it formed a fog around him, and no spell he could think of would make it disperse. There was nothing to tell him how to begin to lift himself out of it. There was only Rowle's hand slipping along the inside of his thigh, and then Christmas morning with a shameful panic threatening to arrive with the sunrise. There was nothing in between, not even an emptiness into which he could place his speculation. He was terrified of inspecting his injuries.

The murky green shadow of the gloaming light melting through the crown glass lay beside his foot. He shivered, stood, and staggered to the bathroom, afraid that if he stayed any longer the windows might begin to move.

He rushed through the bathroom door, stumbling across the cold tiled floor until he ran headlong into the vanity. He clenched his eyes shut and leaned over the sink, smooth-worn marble sapping the heat from his skin. He groped for the faucet taps and clung to them. He felt like he should wretch but something in his body was holding everything tightly in place, warning him that a heave of his stomach would split him in half with pain. He opened one eye and lashed out for the glass with the sticky, bright golden syrup; he brought it over the sink and tried to drink it without straightening. Some of it spilled down his chin, and he smeared it away from his skin and sucked it off his fingers, desperate for every last sugary thread of it. He planted his hands on the counter and waited, shifting his weight standing on the balls of his feet, on his heels to find which one felt better. Nothing felt good.

After five minutes, his arms were shaking and he felt his knees would give out from under him, but the pain had dulled to nothing more than a bad sting. He drew a shuddering gasp and unbent himself. He meant to turn on his heel and go straight into the tub, but his reflection - the boy in the mirror - struck him and made him freeze. His lips and one side of his jaw were stained chamomile yellow by the potion; his hair stuck to his temples and his forehead, dark with perspiration; his face was ashen, and grey fatigue hung under his eyes. He swallowed. He didn't want to look.

His stiff, weakened fingers pulled back the lapels of his dressing gown, further and further until he had exposed his chest, his shoulders, until the robe hung from his waist and the sweat slipping down his back was chilling in the open air.

Not a bruise not a scratch. Not a single mark, except the snake that seemed always about to climb up his arm. Draco turned sharply on his heel and went to the bathtub, dropping the robe and lifting one leg clumsily over the side. He slipped and fell, sending a soaking wave splattering across the room. He pulled his other leg into the tub and drew his knees against his chest. There was nothing in his mind but his reddening, scalding skin and the rooting burn that was still inside of him, though it was fading. He didn't want to look, and he wouldn't look, not there. He pushed his forearm tightly up against his leg so the Mark would stay hidden. The snake terrified him. He wanted it off his body and yet would have been frightened not to know exactly where it was at all times. He lowered his forehead to his knees. The water had begun to cool before he could bring himself to reach for the bar of soap, and by the time he lifted himself out of the tub, he was shivering.

He couldn't return to his room. He dried, put on his dressing gown, and stepped out into the hall and nearly crashed into Niffy, who stood there wringing her hands and looking very worried.

"Tea," he said, hardly sparing her a glance. He went stiffly through the shadowed hall and stopped at the door to his old bedroom someone had closed it during the night. Now it opened for him without complaint, inviting him toward the white wooden rocker. The chair's soft finish made it glow more than shine in the first wash of the dull morning. He sat, though his stomach rebelled at the thought of the constant slow back-and-forth; his bare feet braced against the floor and he sat motionless, turning only to seek out the red-spangled hawthorn that marked the entrance to the courtyard. It was just visible in the corner of the window, as it always had been. If he stood and went to the very leftmost edge of the cushioned bench positioned in the bay window and looked straight down, he would see that it was still the same dense, sprawling thing it always had been, more wild than the neatly trimmed boxwoods or the structured columns of yew, and yet innocent, quiet and simple against the backdrop of the black, uncultivated woods. He had heard it called all sorts of things when he was a boy: the may blossom, the fairy tree, the guardian.

It had always been his favourite he had played at exploring among its branches when the forest had still made him turn away in fear, had taken fruit and flowers on many occasions, had always seen it as the shield that kept his home safe from whatever was out beyond the tree-line. The day his wand had chosen him he had been overcome with absolute correctness of it hawthorn, his guardian, the guardian.

How stupid he had been.

This house was not protected by stone monsters or wooden dragons, not by trees, no matter how magical, and not by the distant wards that cut off the land. The guardian was everywhere, in everything. It watched and cared for its own, perhaps even for itself. And if he had only heard it when it had spoken to him, if he had only stayed here and kept quiet as he had been told to do ...

He remembered the sick, shaken feeling that had fixed him to the pavement one afternoon in Salisbury after he had narrowly missed being bowled over by a huge, floating cart rushing down the street behind an invisible team of horses. He hadn't cried (unlike the cart's owner, whose blustering had turned out to be no match for Lucius Malfoy's cold fury), at least not until his father had threatened to carry him if he couldn't learn to hold his hand as they were crossing the road. He was six years old; he didn't want to be carried.

Sixteen years old, now, and still he hadn't learned. And here he was, run down and crushed because he wouldn't listen, wouldn't be carried.

Niffy came in with a tray of tea and dry toast, a blanket, his slippers and a muffler. Draco wrapped his throat against the cold and stuffed the tails of the scarf gratefully inside his dressing gown. She wouldn't raise her eyes to him. As she left the room he thought he heard a distinctly apologetic murmur, and then his mother was standing in the doorway, still wrapping the sash of her robe over her nightgown. Draco shoved his feet into his slippers with a cold stab of guilt.

"Darling." She hurried over to him, resting one hand on the arm of the chair and the other on the side of his face. He resisted the urge to look away. "What's happened?"

"Nothing's happened. I told her not to wake you," he said, shooting a dangerous glare towards the door but the elf had already gone. "I'm not feeling well, that's all."

She tipped his face up to her. After less than a second, he tugged his chin out of her grip and went back to staring out the window.

"But you look awful," she said, pushing her hand up into his hair. "Have you slept at all?"

"A little." He didn't know if he had or not. He felt like he'd had only a few minutes. "It's just my stomach, Mum, it's nothing. I just need to keep still a while." It was much easier than he had expected to put on a calm front. He found he could speak without difficulty, as though it hadn't happened. Talking with her it was like it hadn't happened; she was so far removed from it they might have been in another world where such a thing was simply impossible.

"I'll get you something to soothe it," she said, nudging his plate of toast closer to him. "And you can have a bit of a nap, and when we come home from seeing your father, we'll have Christmas."

Draco froze. His stomach tried to fight its way up into his throat. "I can't go, Mum," he said, his toes curling inside his slippers. "I'll just be sick. You should go, I'll be all right here."

"Don't be silly." She was tucking his blanket snugly over his shoulder. "We'll get you pepped right up, my love, and you'll be "

"I know when I'm ill," he cut in, shrugging her hand away. He thought it very likely that he would be sick, if he came face to face with his father. He would know, somehow. He would know his son didn't have the first hint of a plan, and he would know about this, and it would only make him more afraid, and more ashamed. "I can't go."

His mother's voice, when she spoke, was delicate in that brittle way that meant he was being given a chance to stop being a child. He winced. "But he so wants to see you, darling. You read his last letter. Don't you think you could go for just a little while?"

Draco shook his head. "I'll go I'll visit him some other time. I'm on holiday for another two weeks. There isn't any hurry."

Then she hardened, as he knew she would. "Draco." He focused again on the hawthorn, just for something to look at. He wouldn't look at her. "I understand you're frightened. Azkaban is a miserable place, and I know it will be difficult for you to see it. But you owe your father at least an hour of bravery, and I will not "

"I'm not scared!" He stood, leaving the chair rocking rapidly behind him. The movement was too quick; all the pain that was left in him gathered in his thighs and arse, and he tried to disguise a stumbling step towards the window bench as an angry leap. "I'm just sick, and I'm not going!" He clenched his jaw, digging his fingers into the cushions. He shrank away from her when she came to sit beside him.

"Listen to me. I'll be with you. I know you must be worried, but I promise you you will never go there for anything more than a visit. We would never allow it." She pried one of his hands loose from the bench. "Show everyone that you're not afraid. You need to get a hold of yourself. You're coming with me."

Draco tore his hand away from her. He was shocked, so much so that he nearly forgot his pain. He had never so much as imagined that he might end up in Azkaban himself. Why not? How could he have failed to see it? Half the men with the Mark had spent most of his lifespan in prison; his own father had been locked away for failing at a task far less difficult, and far less serious, than the one that he was up against. He began to feel actually nauseous.

He hauled his legs up onto the bench and leaned against the wall, his nose a fraction of an inch from the window. "I'm not going," he said. His breath left a blur on the glass and on a whim he grabbed the cabled rope that hung beside him and pulled. He sat back to let the thick, silvery blue curtains pour over the window, closing the room into darkness. Free of his mother's gaze, he shut his eyes. "I can't go."

Draco could feel her sitting there for several long minutes. She shifted, and when her robe brushed against his sleeve he thought she might put her arm around him. He stiffened, not sure he could have kept from collapsing against her. His throat was already too tight to speak. But a moment later the door opened and closed, and he was alone again. He sucked in a deep breath and held it, wishing time still as he pulled the drapes around his shoulders to guard against the chill radiating from the windowpanes. His rush of disordered thoughts paralyzed him. He was still there when his mother came to call him for supper, tea ice cold and toast fit only for the birds.

- - -

December 31, 1996.

In some ways it felt he still hadn't moved when, a week later, trapped in the unrelenting, escalating buzz of his own mind, he stumbled out of the conservatory and into the courtyard to sit heavily on the edge of the fountain's basin. The pool let off a shallow haze of steam in the deep cold of the night. The graceful stone water birds rising tall out of the centre shed water down their backs all twelve months of the year, their long, sharp beaks crossed like swords in the air. One gave its wings a shake, spraying the back of Draco's robes. He didn't move.

As of tonight, his home was no longer his own. The other Death Eaters had returned in force not an hour ago and had already finished rearranging the two rooms that flanked the entrance hall. Everything in the drawing room had been swept to the edges; chairs, tables, urns, even portraits crowded against the walls and pulled long scratches into the silk lining. The dining table had been shoved in among the wreckage, its wide, stately chairs pushed as far under as their arms would allow. Why they had seen fit to cram two rooms into one had been a mystery to him until he had stormed over to the dining room, flung open the high, heavy doors to demand an explanation and found his aunt alone in a space suddenly as full of echoes as a cathedral, positioning a single, high-backed armchair just before the fireplace. It was to be His room, she'd said, for whenever He chose to stay. Draco wasn't to go inside.

Don't worry, he'd wanted to say. Nothing could have been further from his mind. He had passed by his mother, whom Snape was still attempting to pacify, and half-run for the nearest door.

It wasn't fair. This was his house. He should have been able to put a stop to this. What else did he have? He had never gone to see his father, and he was as lost as he had ever been in his quest to do away with Dumbledore. Tonight he would have to explain himself, and all he could think to say was that he was working on the cabinet. When would it be finished? He didn't know. How would it be fixed? He had no idea. Why hadn't he done it already? He'd tried. Did he know what would happen if he failed? Yes, yes. He knew. Please, no.

Draco wondered if he would know when the Dark Lord arrived. Would they make him say something? He was the host, after all, but how could he welcome the man into his house? How could he offer him his roof when his own mother slept under it? He hadn't even arrived, and already everything was being destroyed ... How would he explain it to his father, when he came home to find his house unrecognizable?

The conservatory's glass doors clattered, and Draco shot to his feet, turning to face the glowing glass enclosure. Rowle's silhouette hulked between the courtyard's slender columns.

"Go back inside," Draco said, pleased with the way his voice carried over the singing of the fountain. His wand was already in his hand. "Don't even come near me."

Rowle took a step forward, and Draco darted around to the opposite side of the fountain. The pool stretched between them, but it hardly seemed wide enough for comfort.

"Just wanted to make certain," Rowle began, one hand sunk in his robes, "that you hadn't forgotten just how hard I tried to help you."

"You did nothing for me." Draco couldn't believe the man's nerve. "How dare you come speak to me, how dare you even look at me "

"What are you going to do about it, Malfoy? Nothing, as I recall or whine a lot, I guess." Even though his face was obscured, it was easy to hear that he was leering.

"My father will hear about this," Draco replied automatically. The words were dead with fear, and he was trying not to listen. "Everyone knows he's getting out sooner or later, and I'll tell him, and I swear on every ancestor I've got he'll have your head mounted on the fucking wall." He couldn't be out here alone with Rowle any longer; he made a feint to one side and then dashed for the conservatory doors.

Rowle was faster. Draco's robes bit roughly into his throat and his feet seemed to shoot out from under him. Rowle slammed him back against one of the columns, his arm bearing down on Draco's breastbone. "What are you going to tell him?" Rowle rasped, digging under Draco's robes and pinching cruelly at the flesh of his side. "That I fucked you while you cried like a little girl? Right proud of you, he'll be. Tell me what you're going to say to him, I'm all ears." His lips split over his teeth into a smile.

Draco grabbed Rowle's immovable wrist and tried to pry himself free. His wand arm was trapped behind his back, crushing against the column; he tried to use it to shove himself forward. The edges of the column's fluting bit into his wrist. "Don't touch me," he growled, when he found the breath. "Get out of here."

"How about this," Rowle continued, shifting closer to him. "You make good and sure to tell the Dark Lord what a great help I've been to you, and I'll keep to my own house instead of taking you up on your hospitality like He is. I don't think you'd like that, would you? Me waiting in the next room while you try to fall asleep?" His hand slipped down from Draco's side to his hip, and for a moment his fingers threatened to dig into him again. But then they began to wander down his leg, and Draco could feel the hard flats of Rowle's fingernails through his trousers. "But I reckon we could change that."

Draco jerked sharply backwards, clenching his eyes shut. His palm was suddenly slick and warm, pressed too tightly against the sharp stone.

"You need a man around the house, anyway." Rowle's voice was as alive as Draco had ever heard it full of jeering pleasure, no longer empty. "I think "

There was a soft, wet noise. Rowle stumbled off balance, and his words dropped away into a strange gasp, a hollow sound like wind going through a rotted tree. Draco's eyes flew open. Rowle's mouth was hanging slack and his lips were twitching and pulling as a rim of blood began to form around his lower teeth. He lurched backwards, oddly rigid, clawing at the centre of his chest and leaving Draco clinging to the column, terrified, not daring to look around for who had done this if it meant taking his eyes off Rowle and then Rowle flung his own body to the ground with a sickening crack, and Draco wondered if he had been put under the Imperius, because no one could do that to himself.

One of the herons' long, sharp beaks was half-buried in Rowle's back. The bird slowly lifted its head, pulling smoothly out of the lifeless body on the ground. Draco stopped breathing. If it didn't hear him, perhaps it wouldn't know

But the bird knew he was there. Its graceful neck extended slowly towards him until its stony bill, black with gore, hung just inches from his face. It cocked its head at him, swivelling to take him in with each crested, wide-set eye. There was something kind in its grey, unblinking face.

The conservatory doors opened, and he heard footsteps as if from a great distance. They stopped abruptly.

"Draco." Snape's voice was careful.

The bird drew back. It dipped its beak into the rippling pool, sending a thin plane of red blossoming across the surface. Dark ropes of water stained its throat as it returned to its fellows, raising its bill in triumph and going still.

The sound of his wand clicking rapidly against the column made Draco realize he was shaking. He took a short, hesitant step towards the body, but Snape waved him away as he crouched down beside it, casting a wary look up at the birds.

Draco swallowed. "I didn't I don't know how "

"I'll clean it up," Snape muttered, drawing his wand. He stood again. "Meanwhile, the Dark Lord has arrived. He wishes to see you."

"But I can't," Draco said, panic leaping through him at last. "I don't know what I'm going to "

"I have spoken with Him." Snape's face was as unreadable as ever, but there was something that might have been pity tightening his mouth. "He won't kill you."

Draco stepped back. "He won't kill me?"

"It won't last very long. I am sorry, Draco," he said, raising his voice to stifle any protest. "But you do have to go inside. Now."

For several seconds Draco stayed where he was, numb. Only when a sharp burning sensation shot across his arm and he could feel the lines of the Mark rising under his skin did he turn to the door even then, he stopped and looked over his shoulder at the water birds. They stood tranquil and motionless. As he disappeared into the house he let himself imagine that their small, blank eyes were following him and could somehow see through walls.

+ + +

May 3, 1998.

The splinters lying in the corner of this abandoned broom cupboard prompted Draco's first lucid realization of the change the end of the battle had brought the day before. They were wandless now, all three of them. His father's had been destroyed by some strange magic Draco didn't really understand, blasted to nothing but useless twigs. His mother's had been burnt to ashes in the fire that he thought might still be raging in the room that had been a hell for him long before Crabbe had met his end there. And his ... It hadn't been his for a month, and he could sense the broken bond even without trying the thing and feeling it rebel in his hands. It was Potter's now. But the fact remained that it had chosen him when he was a boy his wand, from his perfect guardian tree and that today it had sent Lord Voldemort to his final rest, had stricken him dead, really dead, at long last. Draco felt as though a promise made long ago had finally been honoured. That more than anything made him want his wand back, but he didn't know whether he would have one at all, ever again. He was sitting in one of Filch's ubiquitous closets, an overturned bucket for his chair, waiting for someone to tell him where he would go next. He tried to imagine what it would be like in Azkaban would it be like this? Windowless, slightly musty, quiet as the grave and covered in chalky mop water stains? He didn't know where they had taken the other Marked men and women, or the lesser henchmen who had fought for the Dark Lord's cause. His youth and his mother's pleading, which now carried weight that he didn't understand, had earned him a space of his own, such as it was. He had overheard someone saying that Potter had put in a word for him, and he didn't want to think on why that might be. Draco had tried not to look at him on his way out of the Great Hall, but he had seen the other boy's gaze following him through the doors. He expected he would have a visit, soon. Potter was the last person he wanted to see, but he knew a lot would depend on that conversation. For once, he was ready simply to say whatever was required of him. He didn't have it in him to sneer or scoff. Whatever he needed to be, he would be. He was too tired to do anything else. Nothing mattered but going home. When the closet door finally creaked open, however, it wasn't Potter who came to give him the news. It was his father. He had been allowed to wash his battered face, and looked half himself. He was standing almost straight, and though Draco could see someone else hovering about the door, no one was restraining him. Draco stood. He didn't realize he had been holding his breath until it came out in a jarring rush when his father laid his hands on his shoulders. "All right?" His father's grip tightened carefully, and his eyes began yet another wandering inspection, scanning for injuries. "Still all right," Draco replied, shifting from one foot to the other and reaching up to tug awkwardly at the ripped seam at his shoulder. He didn't know why he wouldn't be all right. Both of his parents had spent the better part of an hour grilling him about it just this morning, and all he had done in the meantime was sit in a corner. "Good boy. Now, listen to me. You're to go with this gentleman," he said, nodding to the door and pulling the word out without so much as a hint of hesitation despite the fact that Draco was quite certain, after closer inspection, that the gentleman was Arthur Weasley. "Go down to your dormitory, get whatever of yours you can carry, and he'll show you back to the west gate your mother and I will be waiting for you. Better hurry."

"We're going home?" If they were going together, they couldn't be off to prison they wouldn't send his mother without a trial, at least. He straightened, watching his father's grey, unblinking eyes for any sign of dismay, and saw none. "There's nothing here I need to take. I've got plenty at the house, I won't miss any of it."

"We're leaving the country. You'll need clothes, and any "

"But where are we going?" Draco cut in, shocked.
His father's eyes flickered briefly back to the man in the door. "We can discuss that later. Wherever you like, I'm sure. Now, be quick."

Draco didn't move. They were running away and that he didn't mind so much, because it seemed quite the sensible thing to do but they couldn't do it like this, packed off in a flash and leaving so much behind. "But what about the house?"

Lucius' lips thinned a little, making him look very tired. He turned to Weasley. "One moment, if you please," he muttered icily, and shut the door. He slipped his arm around Draco's shoulders, less an embrace than a confidential huddle. Draco almost smiled.

"I don't like leaving any more than you do," his father said, in that low, even voice that had always been impossible to hear from the next room. "I know it seems like too much to lose and we will lose it, when the vultures start descending. But we don't have any choice. Now we're free to leave; tomorrow, I promise you, someone will have changed his mind. We may only have a few hours. The dust will settle more quickly than you think. If we don't act immediately, we'll have lost our opportunity. Now, go and get your things."

Draco imagined himself somewhere very far away, full of sand and sun and flying carpets and tried to think of it as home, his family whole again, finally free of the yoke and at liberty to make something of themselves in some corner of the world where their name meant nothing to anyone. Wandless, perhaps or with some shoddy foreign replacement for the one he'd lost to Harry Potter but all together.

It frightened him. The thought of plunging himself into the unknown now, of hoping always that he had been forgotten at home but never quite knowing whether someone would be sent for him, for any of them, made him tired. Part of him wanted to fall into that escape the way he'd collapsed into his father's arms the night he had come home from prison, to drift into the deep, dark water of security. But the relief then had been short-lived, and the sense of safety quite unjustified. His father had protected him as best he could, the way his mother had in his absence but neither of them could be relied upon, when they were just as weak as he was. None of them could truly protect each other. He had spent two years feeding himself on false faith and would wither away if he went any longer.

He had one hope against constant fear and a life full of running. It wouldn't do for his father, he supposed, who had too much to pay for if he stayed in England. But he knew, somehow, that if someone didn't stay, that refuge would be lost forever, all of its power turned to nothing. It needed him as much as he needed it.

"Someone has to stay with the house," he said slowly. "I can do it. I did it before."

"That isn't important now." His father was beginning to look worried. "I know it will be difficult for a little while, but we have friends and reserves in all sorts of places, and we won't be without for long. The important thing is to preserve the family. We've been too long "

"But it is family I mean, it has been for hundreds of years, hasn't it?" How could he say it wasn't important? It was everything he knew, carefully collected over centuries and formed into a living monument to everything his family had ever been. To abandon that, even under duress, would have been to cut everything down to the bone. He was sure his father felt the same way. "We can't just leave, or we'll we'll lose all that time, for nothing. Someone has to stay. The family's not just three of us."

Draco had seen his father consumed with fear, flooded with desperate, anxious hope, full of hate and bitterly resigned to pain. Over the past year he had forgotten there was anything else to him, anything more than a stripped-down will to survive. But now he looked so very sad, and so very proud, that Draco could see where the man his father had been was joined with the man his father was. His throat tightened a little.

"You're a very good boy," his father said quietly, his hand curling over the top of Draco's shoulder. "But sometimes you simply have to look forward, I'm afraid. You'll understand when you have children, my dear, I'm sure of it. We were lucky enough once to save everything, and we're lucky now to escape with anything at all. If your mother wasn't such a brilliant ..."

He trailed off. Something in his eyes darkened. "She won't leave without you, you know," he said, suddenly hoarse. "She would never agree to it. She's in as much danger here as I am, or worse, and will be for years to come. She betrayed the Dark Lord; everyone knows it. And I assure you, we are not the only ones leaving unaccounted for."

"I'm not going." The words sounded weak even in his own ears. Guilt began creeping up the back of his neck, a hot tingling. "She'll be safe, at home I mean, she's not in trouble "

"She will not be safe. The ones that haven't died will be bent on revenge, and they won't stop until they've had it. You've seen what they can endure, Draco: fifteen years in Azkaban, doing nothing but waiting, and no less bloodthirsty when they finally emerge one way or another. Your mother needs to be hidden. Don't keep her here."

Draco looked away, uncertain. He knew she would insist on staying with him, and also that the band of Death Eaters held now in the dungeons hadn't been reduced to its current size by death alone. If she were to stay with him, the fear would linger, too

His father pulled him to his chest, silencing his mind for just a moment. The warm, solid peace pushed everything else clear of him. Draco forgot how to speak; his hands hung uselessly at his sides.

"Come along, now." His father's voice was a familiar thrum in his ears, the same low, soft sound that had turned so quickly to barely restrained begging and terrible screaming the last time he had heard it so close. Draco shivered and pushed gently away.

"Take her with you," he said. "Tell her what you have to. I'm sure you can persuade her." His father could talk a goblin out of its purse.

"Draco "

"I'm not going." He sat on the bucket again, rested his chin in his hands, and tried not to feel the stare beating down on him. He braced himself. "And you can't make me."

The eruption was about what he'd predicted and exactly what he needed. "I certainly can stop this foolishness at once. Get up." Lucius leaned down to grab his hand. Draco let him pull him to his feet, but then turned away. He could practically hear his father bristling, and the sharp, silvery bite in his voice had survived entirely untarnished. "I don't know what it is that's gotten into you, but we don't have time to entertain any more childishness. I might be safe enough locked away in prison you might, and don't make the mistake of thinking you're in the clear, either but that will be poor comfort for your mother, left alone to defend herself. Go and get your things. Now."

"Leave me alone." Draco's heart was racing. The thought of being packed off to Azkaban had started a slow terror unfolding inside of him, the way it had been meant to. But he knew, he knew that if he could only go home, he would be safe. He spoke loudly enough to be heard in the hall. "I'm staying here. I'm not going with you. I'm " He lowered his voice. "I'm better off here without you without her. She'll understand."

The door opened. Weasley wore an openly pitying expression. Draco wasn't sure who it was he felt sorry for. "Lucius ..."

Draco stared at the floor, waiting. Several silent moments passed. He was beginning to worry that he had miscalculated the last thing he wanted was for his father to stay and face his arrest or for his mother to risk retribution on his account. He fought the urge to turn and look at him again, though it grew stronger with every moment.

His father's hand landed on his shoulder again, squeezing tightly but he didn't try to turn him. After a while, the grip subsided. His hand settled in the centre of Draco's back for just a moment, and then it was gone.

- - -

July 6, 1998.

It was seven in the morning and already the breakfast room was full of light. Everything that remained was in its proper place. But so little was left the glass cabinet in the corner had been emptied of all the silver that had sat on quiet display for as long as he could remember; the buffet had been swept clean of its ancient tea service. The table was bare except for the silver vessel that floated over the middle, and even that was for the first time, Draco was sure devoid of flowers. Two of the chairs had been removed. There were no curtains. One of the windows had been smashed, and he had fixed that himself, but there was only so much he could do.

The paintings that hadn't been stolen had been left lying here and there where anyone might have stepped on them. He was almost finished hanging them up again, now. The last was a small landscape, dwarfed in its frame, with a flock of little red-roofed houses gathered at the foot of grey cliffs. Dark, scraggly olive trees rustled in the foreground as the wind swept through the pass. He could feel it on his face; he had been there before. When the Examiner for the Wizengamot had stared down at him in that cavernous courtroom and asked him if he had any knowledge of the whereabouts of Lucius Malfoy, fugitive, or Narcissa Malfoy, person of interest, Draco had said that he didn't and had buried this painting deep, deep in the dark centre of his mind. He straightened it into its proper place on the wall and turned away to survey his accomplishment.

This room was better than most. In the week he had spent under supervision at the Ministry waiting for his hearing, a lot had happened that he knew he could have prevented, had he been at home. Someone had demolished the gate and broken great gaps in the wards and left the Mark hanging over the roof. That hadn't been enough to scare away the looters, unfortunately, who had come through and carted off everything that couldn't defend itself. (The bodies of those who had set their sights too high two in the cellar and one in the study had recently been cleared away.) The Ministry seals pasted up on almost every door showed where the Aurors had made the final pass and enumerated all of the objects that had been removed for violating any number of dense regulations. The list on his father's study ran the length of the door and halfway down the hall in a tangle of parchment. Draco couldn't be bothered to read any of it. It was theft, no matter how many laws they cited.

He had his wand again, at least. He had been surprised when the bailiff had handed it to him as the panel of judges had filed out and the chains pulled away from his arms but it wasn't hard to piece together what had happened. The long, reproachful speech that had preceded their decision to release him had made reference to his refusal to identify Potter when the boy had shown up on his doorstep over Easter, to his mother's betrayal of the Dark Lord, to testimony on his behalf that could only have come from Potter. No one else stupid enough to speak up for him had any pull with the Wizengamot at all.

And then he had come home to this. If it had only been burglary, it might not have been so bad. He could have set about tracking down everything that had been taken from him. It would have been something to do, and he thought he might even have enjoyed it. But there were things that had been left behind that he knew were beyond his capacity to repair, beyond the power of the elves; there had been magic done here that had left marks. The dining room felt evil. There were places in the drawing room and the entrance hall that, though probably harmless, bore chilly memories like liquid shadows of curses that had been cast there. All through the house there were corners where terrible things had been done and lived on. His bedroom, befouled not by magic but by something just as deep, was empty now. He had moved all of his things to his father's suite and slept there. It didn't even feel strange, now that it looked so very different, so empty.

So, as loath as he was to allow any more strangers past his doors, he had gone in search of someone with a little more experience in putting things to rights. The Aurors might have done it if he had asked, but they could go to hell. He had money. He could afford people who wouldn't ask questions, people who wouldn't treat him like a criminal. He had done his research and found that Alaric Rawstorne had the most marks against his name with the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, dating back to well before Draco was born, and that he cost the most. Draco had brought him on the job after one curt interview. He rather thought Rawstorne saw Lord Voldemort's residue as a welcome challenge. The man was downstairs right now, barking orders at his team this was their first morning on site.

Draco was eager to leave them to their work. It was too early to be out and about, in his opinion, but he felt it could only be an unpleasant, messy process, and he was a little afraid that the house might rebel against it if everything had sunk in too deeply. He didn't want to be there to see the house rebel. He would go for another fly and make a quick study of the rest of the property.

He opened the door and nearly ran straight into Harry Potter, who stood on the landing squinting through his battered glasses at the list the Aurors had left behind.

Draco's face went hot. He snapped the doors shut again immediately.

What? He turned and leaned against the doors, as though barricading them with his body; his hands tightened around the handles and he stared down at his shoes. He already had to suffer being haunted by Lord Voldemort surely that was bad enough, even after all he'd done

There was a solid knock at the door. "Malfoy "

Draco whirled about and swung the doors open, advancing a step beyond the threshold. Potter was no apparition and, much to Draco's disappointment, he held his ground. Still, a good shove would probably see him bouncing down the stairs. "What the hell are you doing in my house?"

"Mr. Weasley told me what you were doing," Potter said, clearly ready for a fight. His face was set and stubborn. "He told me you hired a real bilker, by the way."

"Fine words from a Ministry hack they haven't left much to swindle away." Someone over there was keeping tabs on everything he did, then. Not surprising. The thought that it was Arthur Weasley made him exceedingly uncomfortable. "I don't see what business it is of yours. Who even let you in?"

"I'm with them."

"With who?"

"Rawstorne." Potter reached down to tug at the hem of his shirt.

Draco burst past him onto the staircase with a curse. "Does he have any help that doesn't faint at the first sign of trouble?" This was absurd.

"You need all the help you can get, Malfoy." Potter was coming down the stairs behind him, the rubber soles of his awful shoes squeaking on the stone.

"I don't need some... some dropout waving his wand all over the place. I've seen you in class you're more likely to burn the place down than anything."

Potter snorted. "Criminals are more up your alley, I guess as long as they've graduated? You must be used to them lurking around by now "

Draco stopped at the foot of the staircase and turned on him, gripping the banister and blocking the way with his arm. "You listen," he growled, glaring up at Potter, who stood with his hands shoved in his pockets and his brow furrowed stupidly. "I don't need your help, and I don't want your help. Now, you're probably wanted at a parade somewhere, so why don't you just bugger "

"I'm not here to help you," Potter snapped. He looked skinny on the wide, empty stretch of marble. His hair was all pushed up on one side and he did not inspire confidence. "I'm only here because I don't think there should be anything left of him, not anywhere not even in this evil, ugly hulk you call a house."

"The walls have ears, you know," Draco said, heat flooding his face for no reason. "So I'd watch your tongue, if I were you." He should have taken a swing at him, but instead he pivoted on his heel and marched away, dead set on finding Rawstorne and sending him packing at once.

- - -

July 21, 1998.

Rawstorne, as Draco quickly learned, was not the sort of man one ordered around. He was infuriatingly hard of hearing, for one thing; he seemed completely unimpressed by red-faced shouting, likely because it was the form of address to which he was most accustomed. He was also all too aware of his own worth. Draco's insistence that he leave immediately had been met with outright dismissal, and his complaints about the way Harry Potter had waltzed in unannounced elicited little more than a shrug. He killed You-Know-Who, you know, he had said, his attention mostly occupied with a loose floorboard. He can hang around if he wants.

And Potter had hung around, apparently as eager to avoid Draco as Draco was to steer clear of him. In the two weeks since the clean-up had begun, however, they had run into each other at least once or twice a day, despite Draco's great effort to spend as much time as he could in the rooms that had already been cleared, or else in town hounding around second hand shops. The encounters never lasted any longer than it took for one of them to turn and leave the room, but they seemed to hang over the remainder of the day like a fog.

Draco's best distraction was his shopping. He'd had more success in repatriating his belongings than he had expected today he'd had the pleasure of bringing home a pair of sconces that had always hung on either side of the cellar door, unmistakable for their iron claws that clicked quietly but threateningly against the wall, and a box containing a number of pendants he was sure he recognized. He had spent the three hours after dinner untangling one golden chain from a knot of other, less worthy pieces of jewellery it had fallen in with. It tried his patience terribly, and his attempts at sorting out some spell to separate them had only made things worse. He fell asleep with a great mess of tarnished silver lying at the foot of the bed.

He woke too early to a room still dark and to a deep throb spreading through his mattress. It was slow, huge, and all but silent as it dissipated against his bare chest and legs. He felt it like he felt his own pulse, lying still and listening for it more with his skin and bones than with his ears. It was irregular. This wasn't the first time he had felt it, but it was the first time that it had ever woken him. He had always assumed it was some spell that his hired help used to drive out the magical stains and shadows or to replace something that the house had lost in its deepest structure. But now it was half past two in the morning and he was alone, and the distant primal beat persisted.

He stood, pulling his robe down from where he had hung it on the bedpost. (His parents might have gone, but there were still plenty of portraits he imagined were all too ready to make a fuss over the young master walking the halls in nothing but a pair of shorts.) He stood in the doorway, looking out into the hall, waiting. Another pulse slid through the floor, and it was only through the tiniest of cues that he could sense from whence it came. He started forward slowly, padding towards the centre of the house, pausing in every breathless silence, praying he hadn't missed his chance or somehow frightened it away. His wand was clutched tightly in his hand, though he was certain, somehow, that he was in no danger. After perhaps ten minutes, he found himself in the centre of the house: the top of the great staircase that flowed down into the entrance hall. He waited on the landing, gazing across to the opposite wing, towards his two bedrooms, both unvisited for months.

The house throbbed again. He started down, almost convinced he had heard a window rattling gently in its frame. He was getting closer.

As soon as he stepped onto the cold marble floor, he saw it: coming through the crack beneath the high doors to the dining room there was a cool, white light growing strong and sharp in time with the pulse. The vibrations ceased, and the light disappeared. Draco didn't hesitate to cross the hall, to place his hand flat against the door, waiting his sleeve fell to gather at his elbow, and he pressed his pale, scarred forearm against the dark wood. He waited.

He felt it all through his body this time and watched in wonder as the light, wonderfully thick and alive, washed out over his feet and seemed to curl around them, searching for something. Carefully, almost painfully keen not to stop whatever this was, he opened the door. It swung silently on its hinges, and he stepped inside. For a moment, it seemed there was nothing out of place the table, the chairs, the dark fireplace, the two low torches painting everything in a reddish shadow. The silver chandelier gleamed faintly, and the candelabras made a perfect line down the middle of the table.

Then the whole room was glowing ghostly white the wave of light rippled out over the floor, flew up the walls and washed over Draco's body, cool and soft and strengthening before disappearing into the ceiling with an audible thrum. It had undeniably begun under the table, a few feet below the head, where a year and a half ago his aunt had set a single, simple chair.

Draco shivered. Perhaps he wasn't meant to see this powerful attempt at healing but he was sure the house knew he was here, as always. Very slowly, he knelt at the side of the table and pulled out a chair to see the spot he knew must have been the most difficult to make clean. It was too dark now to see, but if he only waited

A small ring of white appeared, illuminating the floor and, among the forest of chair legs, a man crouched with his wand, his eyes shut behind his shimmering glasses.

Draco blinked. He sagged a little under the weight of his cold disappointment. "Hey! Four-eyes!"

Potter gasped and sat up too quickly, cracking his head on the underside of the table. He bent over, clutching at the crown of his head with a curse, and the white light disappeared.

Draco crawled further under the table and pointed his wand at Potter's face. "Lumos." Draco thought he looked a little sheepish, but it was hard to tell, the way Potter was holding his hand in front of his eyes. "Well? What do you think you're doing? Haven't got your own place to sleep?"

"I was working." Potter brought his own wand to bear, and Draco clenched his eyes shut before grudgingly adjusting his aim. "You're welcome."

"Work ended eight hours ago, Potter. People sleep here, you know." Now that the last memory of the pulsing light had faded from his retinas, he could feel the clammy weight that hung in the air over the spot that lay between them.

"Sorry," Potter muttered, not very graciously. The light from his wand drifted back to the perfectly innocent cluster of woven lilies that marked the cold place on the carpet. "But some of this mess is never going to get cleaned up if you only go at it in eight hour shifts."

"Some of it's always going to be here, no matter what. I'll still be able to sleep at night so long as you're not making a racket fit to wake the dead."

Potter's eyes flashed up to him, paler than usual above his lit wand. "It isn't always going to be here, if you let "

"Yes, it is." Draco pointed his wand at Potter's chest. He'd had enough of that sunny nonsense from Rawstorne, whose promises were always full of puffery Draco supposed he thought necessary to justify his fee. He didn't want to hear it from Potter, who had already achieved what should have been impossible.

"No, it isn't," Potter said hotly, sitting back on his heels and glaring. "I think I'd know a little better than you, thanks. None of it has to be permanent, but if you keep sticking your nose in, I reckon it could take another year."

Sticking his nose in, as though it wasn't all his to begin with. Draco scowled. No one who thought something like that could ever disappear had seen what he had; anyone who said you could simply wipe it all up and move on was an idiot or a liar. "Do you know what happened there?" he asked. He settled onto his knees, tilting his chin up a little.

"Yeah," Potter said, too quickly. He looked away, his expression still defiant but he seemed embarrassed. "I do."

Draco's jaw tightened. He glared at the side of Potter's face where his hair made a long, jagged shadow over his cheek. He wondered what, exactly, Potter knew, and whether part of it was the hour he had spent writhing on the floorboards, blind with tears and clawing tracks into the polished wood. He hadn't been the only one. Perhaps the floor only remembered so many. "Then you know," he said, "that it's part of the house. That it won't go away."

Potter was quiet for a while, rubbing slowly at the back of his head. "Just because you won't forget doesn't mean it can't be cleaned up," he said at last. "He wasn't so powerful that ordinary magic can't "

"Don't patronize me," Draco snapped at him. His face was burning. "I'm not one of those idiots who has to go around pretending nothing's happened." But the image of Harry Potter standing over Lord Voldemort's twisted corpse hung at the back of his mind, a distant hopeful banner. If anyone could do it ...

"We're not pretending! There's nothing wrong with people trying to put their lives right when they've been through something like that, and it's a hell of a lot better than letting yourself wallow around in it and saying it can't be fixed, so why bother."

"Wallowing." Draco straightened as much as he could, lurching forward and grabbing a chair's arm to steady himself. He jabbed his wand in Potter's direction. "If people had had to put up with what I went through, they'd know it's not something you can scrub off with Mrs. Scour's. If people had seen what I saw "

"Oh, yeah," Potter said, his voice hot with angry sarcasm. "Yeah, we should all feel really bad for "

He stopped. His eyes had fallen to Draco's arm and fixed on the lower half of the remains of the Mark that showed where his sleeve had ridden up. Draco snatched his arm in close to his chest, covering the faded, greyish scar. He extinguished his wand and shoved the chair out to make himself an exit. "Go home," he muttered.

Potter grabbed the tail of his robe. "Let me see your arm."

"No." Draco twisted around to tug the fabric out of his hand, snarling at him. "Are you daft? I said go home."

"Have you ever tried to take it off, though? Let me see." He grabbed Draco's right elbow, pulling him off balance and back under the table. "Malfoy "

Draco yelped as his head knocked against the lip of the table. He tore Potter's hand from his arm and launched himself at him just as Potter was bringing his wand up. Potter landed hard on his back, and Draco felt the wind go out of him, a rush of air that swept past his throat, too cold by far. Draco shut his eyes and shuddered violently; the space that had been ripped apart by Dark magic was slithering against him like so many dead hands. Potter started struggling desperately, and Draco knew he had felt it, too. He shoved himself up to his knees, climbed over Potter, and burst out from under the table as though from under water, gasping. He stormed out of the room and into the darkened hall, still holding his left hand to his chest as he ran up the stairs to his silent wing of the house.

- - -

July 31, 1998.

It didn't take long to realize that Potter had finally taken his cue to leave. Draco had been quite prepared to tell him to get the hell out and not come back the next time he saw him but the opportunity never presented itself. He was nowhere to be found. However, Draco's smug satisfaction at having chased him off lasted only until the next time he walked past the dining room, its doors standing open to the entrance hall, its silver candelabras glinting even in the darkness. He shut the doors as quickly as he could without slamming them and hurried away.

The room remained closed for days. Draco never saw anyone disturbing it and couldn't bring himself to ask why. His own increasingly uneasy thoughts provided the only answer that could be, try as he might to stifle them Rawstorne had left that room to Potter because he was the only one who could manage it. A hard-boiled, curse-scarred veteran with decades of experience had handed off the worst of the worst to an eighteen year-old boy and now meant to leave it half-finished rather than try his own hand at it. At first it angered him but before the week was out, it had grown into a fear he couldn't ignore. It become impossible to deny that he had, once again, pushed away his only chance for deliverance. To think that Potter was the only one who could restore his house to him made him feel like tearing out his hair, but the room that waited behind those quiet, closed doors would admit of no other truth. Draco needed him.

Well. The house needed him, at any rate. And he had already sacrificed so much for it what did it matter to him if he had to drag Potter back by the hair? He was up to the task. Or he would have been, rather, had he had any idea where to find him.

He resigned himself to the loss for a couple of days, harbouring a secret relief every time he thought of what a meeting with Potter would entail. He knew the heavy, ominous feeling that came with putting off a dreaded but essential task all too well and had learned to live under its weight. He had almost forgotten it was there at all when he overheard a pair of Rawstorne's men outside the breakfast room.

"... Said they'd be at the Harpies' Table 'til around midnight."

"And you'll be going, of course."

"I don't know what you mean, of course "

"Just that you've been sniffing around for a chance to buy him a drink since he started. It's shameful. He's about half your age."

"He's Harry Potter anyone who wouldn't buy him a drink any damned day of the year's a bloody ingrate, and you're an utter lech ..."

And as suddenly as that, it was out of his control. If he had learned how to go through the motions as though there wasn't a sword dangling over his head, he had just as much practice forcing himself to walk in a mindless calm towards some deeply unpleasant inevitability. After prodding at a late supper (and nervously watching the clock approach eleven), he went to the fireplace, stepped inside, and proclaimed, "The Harpies' Table," with less bravado than he could have wished as he threw down the fistful of glittering powder. He braced himself for a close crowd and the undoubtedly awful smells that would attend a pub with such a hideous name.

But when he tumbled into his destination and hopped out onto its hearth, brushing powder and soot from his cloak, he found himself in a room that was quite sparsely populated; the pub wasn't so full that many people had seen the need to flow over into the arrival room. Only one or two small groups stood at the scuffed rail of shelving that had been put up around the walls roughly at beer-level. No one gave Draco a second glance as he pushed through the swinging door into the bar proper.

He nearly froze, one foot inside. There were quite a few more bodies here, gathered around the bar and seated at the tables around the edges of the room, and he was quite certain that he recognized all of them. The large, rather obnoxiously drunk party standing just inside the door seemed to be comprised of the entire starting line-up of the Gryffindor Quidditch team as it had existed in his sixth year. There were two very recognizable redheads seated at the bar. He turned quickly to avoid making eye contact and found himself pushing past one of the Patils and a rather scrawny young woman whose face was entirely obscured under a massive hat that looked rather like a mushroom. Across the room a familiar tottering oaf of a man was rocking on a creaking barstool beside the werewolf Weasley. The room was positively swimming with faces he had no desire to see again, full of people he certainly didn't want to see him. He knew he should leave, had just about made his mind up to do so

But there, at a table for two shoved into the corner, was Potter. He sat across from Ron Weasley and both of them appeared to be more or less upright, although they were having trouble keeping the uneven table from sloshing their drinks every time one of them laid an elbow where it didn't belong. Draco was seized with the desire to go home and change his shoes, but instead steered bravely through the crowd until he was within spilling distance of Potter's beer. Weasley, whose big foot was sticking out as though he was waiting for someone to trip on it, saw him first and though his face sank into a distinct lack of enthusiasm, he didn't seem to be surprised. Draco rested one hand very carefully on the tabletop, ignoring him.

"Potter I need you. Come outside and have a word."

Weasley leaned back in his chair, his arms folded over his chest. "What, it isn't enough he's " But he broke off with a wince and a sharp glance under the table.

"What is it you want?" Potter asked him, speaking too deliberately and focusing too steadily on Draco's face to be anywhere near sober.

"I've just said: I want to speak with you. Are your ears going, too?" He could see the slight wavering in Potter's posture, now, and wondered how many of those dark, wet rings on the table had come from different glasses. Oh, wonderful. "What the hell's going on in here, anyway?"

"Nothing," Potter said in a rush. "No need to be a prat about it." He stood, using the poor table for balance, ill-suited to the task though it was. He tugged his jacket off the back of his chair. "Or to hunt me down, for that matter "

Weasley reached out and grabbed Potter's wrist. His expression was grim and full of a private warning. "Harry ..."

"It's all right," Potter murmured back to him, unconvincingly chipper.

Draco rolled his eyes. "When you've got permission, then." He pointed to the shadowed exit in the back. "I'll be in the alley. Leave him here."

He went out into the narrow, empty road that fed into the main street. From what he could see, even that was deserted. There was one window lit in the uneven brick wall that stood opposite the pub's back door; the light shining through its cheap white curtains was the only illumination save the spillover from the streetlamps around the corner. It would be enough to talk by, though. Draco left his wand in his robes. The damp, cooling pavement gave a slightly metallic tinge to the air. It had rained recently, very recently; there was a small stream of runoff still flowing down the middle of the alley, and water dripped from the awnings and cornices. It didn't smell bad, really.

Potter stepped out a minute later, bringing a little of the pub's echoed chatter with him. He was pulling his hand through his hair, as though that had ever made a lick of difference. "Look," he said immediately, before the door had even latched behind him. He was staring at a pile of wasted cigarette pieces that had been left by a grating. "I'm really "

"You can have your job back." Draco had no interest at all in hearing what Potter had to say about what had passed between them. "As long as you just leave me alone. You can come back. I know why you left, but I think the least you could do is stay and see it through."

Potter blinked at him. His hand worked its way down from his hair to his collar, and he opened his mouth and closed it again. Draco couldn't tell if he was pleased. "I sorry?"

"You come work for me," Draco said quite slowly, irritated further by the strong scent of beer that had suddenly joined him in the alleyway. "And I will pay you. Yes? As long as you don't come staggering in drunk, that is." This was really quite reprehensible behaviour.
Potter's eyes narrowed, but confusion overtook the annoyance on his face. "I know what a job is," he complained. "But I haven't I mean I've still got mine." He began picking at a chipping brick in the wall, but his eyes were on Draco. "I didn't leave."

Draco stared at him. His face pinched in embarrassed exasperation. "What?"

"I never stopped working. I was there today." Potter seemed relieved. "I've just moved outside."

"To the gardens? Why, what's ?"

"To the woods, mostly. Some in the gardens." He had the nerve to smile, too, clumsily adjusting his glasses and kicking a cigarette butt down into the sewer. "I found an old Snitch where we were digging, actually really beat up. I hadn't seen one like it before, some older model, I guess, and I thought it must have been yours "

"What are you doing in my woods, Potter?" Draco's hands were clenching in his pockets. He had seen people moving through the courtyard and the gardens, of course, but he hadn't realized they were going so deep into the grounds. He didn't like to think there was more to fear than when he'd begun.

"There are ... bodies," Potter began. He leaned carefully back against the wall, as though he would rather not have started down that road. "Parts of them. When you Vanish something, it doesn't really disappear completely, you know. It just breaks up, into really small pieces, I think that is, into stuff you can't see, and then it moves to somewhere where it can come back together. A lot of ... Well, they couldn't move past the wards, so when you Vanished them they got trapped up against "

"I didn't Vanish anything," Draco said as haughtily as he could manage. He took a step towards Potter, paying no heed to the muddy little runnel flowing over the tip of his shoe.

Potter looked strangely pained. "I didn't mean you did," he said, after stumbling a moment over his tongue. "Just someone."

Draco's anger was burning without fuel, now he hated the feeling and began to resent Potter for being so agreeable. It must have been because he was drunk. They should have been arguing, possibly casting hexes at one another and ducking behind bins, not having stilted conversations about the laws of matter.

"Anyway," Draco drawled, determined to put it all behind him, "I want you back in the house. I know there's plenty of work to be done there, and I don't see why they should waste you outside trawling around for things that will only decompose on their own, anyway. You're the one who killed him, and if anyone's going to clean his mess, it might as well be you."

Potter's voice sharpened. "I suppose their families can just go on wondering, while they're decomposing," he said. "No big deal. I mean, I'm sure they won't mind waiting while we get the blood stains out of your carpets. They don't match, after all."

"Oh, stop preaching." Draco gave Potter's shoulder a little push; it obliterated the fragile balance Potter was maintaining and sent him tipping back against the wall with a shout of protest. "You know it isn't blood stains I'm after. You're the one who sat up all night pounding away at it, you know what's left and how stubborn it is. I need you in the house."

"I'm not going back in your house," Potter growled. He pushed himself to standing again and shot Draco a venomous glare, though his eyes quickly began to wander down to his chest, his middle, and his shoes, anywhere but his face. "I'm working outside now."

"You're not. You're back inside."

"I'm outside. Leave it."

"You're inside," Draco said, gritting his teeth. "Or I'll have you sacked."

"Malfoy, you idiot, you just said I wasn't sacked."

"Well, I'm the one who pays your fucking fee! I can do what I want!" He jabbed his finger into Potter's chest, but this time Potter was ready for him with one heavy step forward and a shove to his chest, he sent Draco tripping back against the opposite wall. Draco caught himself easily enough, both hands planted flat against the bricks behind him, but Potter was too impaired to rein in his own momentum. He went bowling up against Draco's ribs, grunting as he knocked his knee against the wall.

Draco expected him to right himself, but Potter stayed where he was, apparently content to lecture at close range. "What makes you think it's any easier for me?" Potter shouted. His words ran freely into one another. "You don't want to live with it, why is it you think I want to have my hands in it all day long? I'm done with that! I thought " He broke off and took a step backwards, breathing hard. His face was flushed. "I wanted to help you," he said, once again under control. "But I can't do it there. I've done enough. I don't want to see it anymore."

"You're afraid," Draco said accusingly. The cold of the wall was seeping quickly into his ribcage, but he stayed where he was, letting it pull through him with every breath. "I don't believe it. You're the one who killed "

"I'm not afraid." Potter wasn't nearly angry enough. That drunken amiability seemed to have found him again. "It's just enough. And there's no reason I should have to be the one banging away at some stain Voldemort left behind when he's already gone."

"Because you're the one who can." Draco stepped up close beside him, doing his best to loom. But Potter didn't notice, or wouldn't cooperate; his gaze was travelling everywhere again, avoiding his eyes.

When Potter finally looked up at him, he started rubbing nervously at the back of his head, as though he had just hit it sitting up too quickly beneath the table. "Well maybe not," he said. He sounded oddly detached. "There's nothing special about me. I don't have some spell no one else knows. You said yourself, maybe some of it's meant to stay there."

"Meant to? What to punish me?" Draco sneered, driving down his fear. Of course there was something special about Potter. Everyone had always said so.

Potter struggled with the idea. There was something hard in his eyes that said yes, but his answer sounded sincere, if grudging. "No. I just meant that ... that he was powerful, and he liked to leave his mark, didn't he? He'd have made everything of his hard to wash away. He didn't want any part of him to die."

"And you killed him," Draco pointed out. He felt that a drunk Potter was someone he could best in an argument, if he just stuck it out.

But the look he received in return wasn't at all daunted and showed no sign of concession. Potter softened a little, but he only looked sorry for him. "Not because I had some kind of special weapon." He sounded as though he'd explained it a hundred times before, as though he were speaking to a child. "Because he made a mistake. That's over."

"You could give it a try," Draco growled, abandoning his brief attempt at reasoning with the drunkard. "Seeing as I'm paying your way."

"I'm not going to. It isn't anything to be afraid of "

"I'm not afraid!" Draco's quick advance was thwarted by the grating, slick in the light rain; he slipped and barely caught himself on the lip of a garbage bin. He gave Potter a smouldering glare, quite certain he had heard a snicker. "Anyway, you're the one too tied up about it to so much as come in the house stop that!" He twisted away from the hands that had landed on his shoulders. He didn't need any help righting himself from someone who could barely see straight.

"You should get some more time outside, too," Potter said. He was clearly doing his damnedest not to break into a smile. How frustrating. "You're looking awfully stringy."

Draco wiped his wet hand gingerly on the hem of his cloak and glared. "Stringy."

"Yeah." Potter was grinning, now. Really, the least he could do was make sense. "Stringy."

Draco rolled his eyes. There was clearly no point in continuing this interview. "Stringy, right," he muttered, heading for the door. "Well, I'll leave you to pickle with Weasley. Perhaps next time we see one another, you'll be in some condition to have a sensible conversation."

Potter grabbed his wrist like it was nothing at all to do it. Damned touchy-feely drunk. Draco shook it off, annoyed that he couldn't bring himself to do more. Somewhere in his past, a twelve year-old boy was screaming that this was their chance to leave Saint Potter arse-up in a dumpster. But when the man was smiling at him like that ... It was equally baffling and vexing, like trying to swat away a sudden cloud of gnats.

"You really should spend some time outdoors. It isn't as bad that is, it makes everything look ... bigger. One room's not so important when you've got that many acres, is it?"

"Sleep it off by Monday," Draco replied, shoving the door open. He wouldn't dignify that with an answer. He left Potter in the alley and headed for the Floo, stopping only to meet Weasley's glare. "Your friend needs to learn to keep his hands to himself," he said, and pushed through the growing crowd.

- - -

August 29, 1998. Draco had always known that Potter was a hard-headed idiot. Everyone catered to him, after all Potter's hunches and whims were given the utmost deference, and always had been. Of course it would never occur to him to change his mind, and Draco resented it more with every day that passed. There was no sign that Potter had so much as set foot inside the house since their conversation. The dining room sat untended. The worst of it was that Draco found himself falling into the same behaviour that had produced such a stubborn, cosseted hero; he did nothing at all to counter him. Potter came and went without any confrontation. He worked outside, as he had said he would, and wasn't sacked, wasn't scolded, wasn't looked at askance. And now, nearly a month later, Draco hardly felt he had the footing on which to order him to do anything. He had caved before Harry Potter the way that everyone did.

He understood why, though. He knew now why everyone had always made sure to give him the best of everything, why everyone had treated him as a favourite. He remembered his father telling him, a very long time ago, that it wasn't prudent to do otherwise. They had all needed him. Potter was the only one who could do away with the Dark Lord, and while Draco wasn't sure who had known about that and when, he thought he could look back and pick out a few key players. Dumbledore had been the worst offender, and had always seemed to know just about everything. Most of the other professors had probably been in on it, too. Almost certainly Snape, though he had been better about hiding it Snape, whose motivations had come as so much of a shock that Draco hadn't even snickered to discover it was all about some girl, and had instead spent the afternoon feeling sick to his stomach thinking of all that might have happened.

Now he needed Potter, and couldn't stand up to him while there was still the chance that he might get something from him. While Potter was here, he might still be convinced. Draco took a little comfort in having him nearby, like some sort of magical token that worked simply by existing. He hadn't been doing much more than existing for the past month, unfortunately. Every morning Draco ate facing the windows, watching the men come and go, and Potter never showed any sign of giving in when Draco caught sight of him at all. He hovered around the edge of the gardens, grimy and far too busy to spare a glance for the house.

Coming down from breakfast today, Draco met Rawstorne himself in the entrance hall he stood alone, a pitch-black, faceless shape against the blinding late-morning light pouring in from the open doors. His shadow cast a deep cavern over the sprawling carpet, its glinting gold and faded cream spreading out behind him. He turned, slowly unrolling a long stretch of parchment, scanning carefully as he went.

"Hello," Draco offered, not really expecting a reply. He had become accustomed to the man's constant, rude silence.

"We'll be out by tomorrow, I should think," he said, letting the parchment roll itself up sharply into his palm.

Draco stopped. "What you're calling it quits?"

"Finished." Rawstorne gave him a challenging look. "You haven't noticed?"

"Well, it's changed, yes, but I hardly think you could call it finished." The dining room was still no place he'd care to entertain. He should have said so, but didn't want to hear the explanation.

"Finished as it's going to be. We'll clean the place up a bit and leave you to it. You can have a day or two," he said magnanimously, "to check it over. I'll leave you the bill."

Draco had wanted them to leave for ages, of course. He'd had too many intruders in his house for too long, and had thought he was eager to have it to himself again. But it was an awful lot to take care of on one's own, and he had opened his mouth to tell Rawstorne as much when a pair of his workers came up to him with what seemed to be an urgent question. Draco left them and went to the broom closet, trying to shake the feeling of foreboding.

Maybe the place was as good as it was going to get. He could do a survey of the interior later; for now, he wanted to see what all of Potter's tireless efforts had made of the grounds. It looked set to be one of the last really wonderful days of the summer, almost hot out but without the stagnant haze that sometimes lingered at the edge of the horizon when it was oppressively warm. The sky was inky blue, perfect for flying. He kicked off beside a row of rosebushes with overblown flowers about to drop. It was easy to put the house behind him on a day like this.

He was almost to the edge of the property, about to bank sharply to avoid running through the wards, when he saw a flash of red below the canopy. He swooped and circled, lower and lower, until he could see clearly the four men busying themselves with something on the forest floor. Potter was there, wearing a bright green T-shirt and smeared with mud. There was a shovel at his feet. Draco landed hard behind him; there wasn't much room here to level out for a gentle landing.

"Your boss says you'll be packing up soon," he said. They looked to be doing so already, indeed; three of them were fitting filthy tools into an impossibly small box.

Potter, who had clearly been working himself rather hard, flushed even further when he met Draco's eyes. He turned away, picked up his shovel, and went to stow it. "Yeah," he said carelessly, though his shoulders were stiff and his posture awkward as he went about picking up his tools. "Job's about done. There's someone else out here, we think, but we can't find "

"You think," someone called over. Potter paused for a moment, then bent to collect another trowel.

"And you're not going to keep looking?" Draco asked. The day wasn't even half over.

"Lunch time," Potter said, a dry edge just audible in his voice. The other three were already on their way towards the house. Draco had the impression that the Chosen One hadn't made himself overly popular with his work ethic. He warmed to him, just for a moment. The dirty T-shirt that pulled a little too tight at his shoulders, the sweat at his temples and the thin layer of black earth that gathered in the creases in his hands seemed less disgusting when they were proof of worthy work. It made Draco feel just slightly sheepish for having come straight from his eggs and bacon.

"Well. They have the rest of the afternoon, then." Draco laid his hand on one of the larger oaks that surrounded the little clearing, brushing his fingers against the twisting ridge in the bark that marked where the wards split it in half. He had always wondered what would happen if one of these trees fell.

"Yeah. Anyway. I'm going to have a bite."

Draco watched Potter's back. Why was he so tense now, when they were about to part ways for good? He should have been bubbling over, considering how very reluctant he'd been to stick around in the first place. "Stay a minute. I want to talk to you."

Potter's attention was entirely devoted to shrinking his shovel very, very carefully. "Look, we don't really have anything to talk about."

"I should say that we do "

"I was really drunk," Potter said, turning to give him a rather strained glare. "I don't even really remember, so it's not like it was anything you need to get bent out of shape about. You're the one who dragged me out there when I could hardly stand on my own two feet."

"So what?" Draco raised his eyebrows at him. He leaned against the tree and his heel dug into the soft ground where the dirt had only just been replaced. "You meant it, obviously. You're still here." He hadn't come into the house, true to his word; he had kept outside, preferring to hunt for bodies than to work at spell damage. Draco truly did not understand.

"I really didn't." Potter put his wand away and straightened before reaching up to pull his hand through his wild hair. "You should just go. I'll be gone tomorrow, anyway. There's no sense in dragging it all up."

"Dragging what up? You clearly don't have anything better to do, I don't see why "

"Sod off, Malfoy," Potter barked at him. He started towards the house, stalking through a thicket of brambles in his rush to leave.

Draco followed, bemused, nearly stumbling into a trench. "Look, you were a bit of an idiot, but it wasn't that bad "

"No, it was bad." Potter picked up the pace he was much faster, unencumbered by a broom and not seeming to care whether his shoes were covered in mud and his trousers caught in all the various sharp edges a forest floor could offer. "Definitely bad."

"I don't see why you should slow down." Draco scowled at Potter's retreating back, and then jumped onto his broom and sped up beside him. It was a bit of a challenge staying level this low, and this slowly, and he had to dodge around the odd sapling, but it was manageable. He took his eyes off the plane of obstacles before him just long enough to smirk heavily at Potter, who was still trooping through the thicket. "Want a ride?"

Potter looked over at him and something weakened in his face. "Not on that," he said, not quite as gruffly as before. "Still got that thing, have you? I'm surprised it's not firewood yet. You must be going pretty easy on it. Of course, you always did " He stumbled to the side when Draco bumped against his shoulder.

"Sorry," Draco said, tipping up his chin. "Now, shut up for a minute. We need to talk I want you to stay. I know the lot of you are getting ready to leave tomorrow, but it's not like there isn't work left. You're the only one I really need, anyhow. It shouldn't have to be for too long, and I'd make it worth your while, you know."

Potter relaxed a little, but didn't relent. "I won't. I've already told them I'd help with another assignment, anyway next week. We can't all just stop what we're doing and cater to you. You'll be fine. Your house is fine. There isn't anything dangerous left."

"I don't give a damn whether it's dangerous. I want it fixed, and you're the only one who can do it. So get your head out of your arse for a minute, stop swimming around in all that false modesty, and hear me out. ... Either stop or get on the fucking broom, Potter."

"Leave me alone."

Draco reached out and shoved at his shoulder. "This would be a lot easier if you'd be reasonable. Get on back, I'll take you to the house."

Potter glared at the tail of the broom; his eyes lingered on Draco's waist. "I am not stop it!" He tried to lunge out of the way, but wasn't quick enough. Draco pushed him again, knocking him into a tree. Potter righted himself, but once again Draco's arm shot out to connect with his shoulder

Potter grabbed his wrist and jerked. Draco's broom spun under him and he tumbled to the ground, grabbing a handful of Potter's shirt along the way, pulling him down as they struggled and rolled over a knotty system of tree roots. The sudden shock of wet mud seeping through his clothes froze him for a moment, long enough for Potter to pin him on his back. A root jutted painfully into his ribs. Draco hissed and lay there glaring, waiting for Potter to start lecturing or drag him to his feet but nothing happened; they stayed where they were, panting. Draco felt something wriggle under his back, and gasped. Potter looked uncomfortable. He reached up to straighten his glasses, which had been knocked askew, and Draco seized his chance: he scooped up a handful of wet leaves and shoved them into Potter's face. Suddenly he was free, and he wasted no time he burst out from under Potter, threw him over, and landed heavily on top of him, pinning him down on a stretch of flowering yellow moss. He straddled him, sat on his thighs, and drew his wand.

It was in the quiet that followed, broken only by their laboured breathing and Potter's sputtering as he tried to wipe the last of the earthy grime away from his face and off of his lenses, that Draco felt the bulge in Potter's trousers - by no means hugely prominent, but there, and pressing into the side of his leg when their breathing passed in sequence and their bodies shifted together. Draco was looking straight into Potter's eyes when he finally opened them, a deeper green in the tattered summer shade than he had remembered. Potter's cock twitched under him. Draco let out a sharp breath, his mind blank with shock.

"Get that out of my face," Potter growled, inching his chin away from Draco's wand. His cheeks were red. His breathing hadn't settled at all.

"No." Draco needed time to think of what to do. Part of him wanted to leap back onto his broom, seized with an irrational terror that snakes would come sliding out of their holes in the brush; part of him wanted to stay where he was, because he couldn't let Potter up, could not let him move. If Potter was here on the ground, there was nothing he could do to him.

The very small, detached, rational bit of him, buried under less of the past, parsed their conversation of moments ago and drew back to the words they'd exchanged at the pub. Potter didn't remember, had been drunk, hadn't meant anything by it. It had been bad, embarrassing, nothing to get bent out of shape over. If Potter didn't remember, how would he know what it had been? How would he know to be embarrassed? No one had seen them, and the only thing he'd said to Weasley had been

Your friend needs to learn to keep his hands to himself.

Merlin. Weasley really was a blockhead, wasn't he.

A calm settled over him, more peaceful than anything he should have felt alone in the woods with someone who wanted him. Potter had wanted him then, or wanted something. Weasley's warning, the little touches, the odd smiles and drunken cheer all made sense to him now, and reassured him. Potter had wanted him but he hadn't done anything; Potter wanted him now, but was trying as hard as he could to run away. It was nothing he had to be afraid of. He wasn't afraid.

Here he was far from the watchful windows and the living walls, alone with Potter, more Draco and less Malfoy. It had been quite a long time since he had been truly alone with anyone. The shame that poured through him when he felt his own slowly heating body working its way closer to Potter, longing to feel him in places he knew he shouldn't feel anyone, left less of a lasting stain than it might have had they been inside. There, it must have become a part of the walls and stayed forever, one more memory locked up with centuries of others. Here ... it swam in his stomach and made him perhaps a little queasy, but it had nowhere to go but into the air or into the ground where the creeping moss and towering trees would soon outgrow it. The forest would be different today than it was tomorrow. How much could it possibly remember?

Draco lowered himself haltingly and pressed his lips to Potter's, though there was still a little mud clinging to his jaw. Potter's mouth kept tightly shut, but his arousal leaped. Draco let him push him off onto the ground and sat with his hands combing absently through the leaves. Potter sat up, spent a moment at a loss for what to do with his wand, and then lowered it. He ran his tongue rapidly between his lips.

"We can't do that," Potter said. "I don't want to."

"Potter, you "

"Not with you."

Draco's face burned. He tried to sneer, but his mouth would do nothing but press into a line. He wanted to ask Why not? but knew there were so many reasons that it would have been a waste of breath. He shouldn't have wanted to do it, either; not with Potter, not with anyone, not ever again. Maybe Rowle had left something in him that made his body forget how little he wanted this.

Potter stared down at his muddy shoes. "Go back inside," he said quietly. "And leave me alone."

"I don't want to go inside." Draco hadn't meant to sound frightened, but his voice came out too high, almost desperate. He couldn't go inside with this. "I'm staying here."

Potter's face was full of more sympathy and understanding than Draco could bear to see. He didn't want Potter to feel sorry for him. He was finished with that, he had had enough of being something pitiful. He seized Potter's arm and pulled him close and kissed him, telling himself he didn't give a damn what Potter wanted. But when he felt Potter sag against him and grope for his waist, he was overtaken by an immense and proud relief.

It carried him through the little tendril of fear that began to unwind when he lost his balance, sliding too eagerly into Potter's arm and landing hard on the heel of his hand in the moss. Potter leaned into him, steadying him for a moment before they both toppled over; Draco could feel Potter's heart pounding against his shoulder, and tried to take a moment to orient himself, to work past the hands dragging at his shirt and the breath on his neck. It was no use. Every time he found his footing in reason, Potter's teeth would scrape across his lip or his knee would nudge at his thigh or his fingers would catch in his clothes and Draco would lose himself again in the sound of leaves and the occasional low thrum of Potter's voice in the back of his throat. He was on his side, struggling for purchase somewhere in that damned T-shirt, face down sliding down a slick incline that ended in a wall of winding roots, and on his back hooking his leg around Potter's thigh because the idiot kept trying to get up.

He arched his back, straining to meet Potter's body just out of range now that Potter was up on his knees, cursing quietly and fumbling around with his belt like he didn't have anything better to do. Draco's patience ran out before he'd managed the buckle. Another sharp twist of his leg, a grab for Potter's trousers and a sharp tug and he had Potter on the ground beside him. He thrust one leg between his.

Potter's mouth was wet and warm, and left a coolness on his face that made him shudder when it pulled away. "Fuck. Malfoy," he sputtered, reaching between them in a clumsy rush. There was a wide streak of drying mud all the way up his arm. "Let go for just a fucking "

"No." Draco sucked in a breath when the back of Potter's hand pressed against his arousal, still trapped in the suddenly unbearable heat of his trousers. He dug his hand into Potter's hair and kissed him again but not before a flash of skin told him the belt had finally lost the battle. Potter's thigh was so hot under his fingers that Draco supposed his hands must be extremely cold, but Potter didn't seem to mind it. He just let out a rushing sigh and set to work when Draco thrust his hips at him again, pulling at his belt and shirttails. Draco kicked his trousers down past his knees the moment he was able. He grit his teeth against a moan when his cock finally slid against the skin of Potter's leg, buried his face in his throat and his shoulder and, with only a flicker of hesitation, curled his fingers around Potter's cock to the sound of a gasp.

A very faint nausea twisted at Draco's stomach when Potter's hand found his erection and began stroking in an urgent rhythm and without delay. But this was different. He opened his eyes and threw his head back to be sure; the branches above him moved just as they should, as naturally as ever. Nothing was out of place, and he could see and feel everything so clearly that he knew he wouldn't forget it by morning. When his mind and body weren't erupting in fitful, desperate shocks of heat and pleasure, he committed as much of it as he could to memory in small, detailed pieces: Potter's fingers slipped gently in and out of his disheveled hair at the back of his neck as they kissed easy to remember. Distracting, in a way. Relaxing.

The muscle under Potter's shirt felt thin and hard, lying close to the bone. The word stringy presented itself, but was lost in a whimper and another storm of need.

A patch of sunlight in the shape of a ragged crescent hovered over the ground just below Potter's shoe, and remained even when the leaves and twigs beneath were scattered in a hundred different directions as Potter's body tightened, his hips made a savage jolt and the smooth skin in Draco's hand was suddenly wet, burning. Potter's teeth made a pattern on his shoulder that he imagined was quite similar in shape.

Draco struggled to catch the words that were floating over his ear where Potter's lips had settled, but those he had to do without. Everything but Potter's hand, the leg thrown over his hip and the smell of earth and sweat and muddied cotton was released, and Draco came with a cry that dissolved momentarily into a rigid inability to breathe.

It passed. The world knitted itself back together again. The memories remained, strangely detached from this reality in which things like leaves and shadows, fingers and skin, words and silence existed all at once but they were there, and they were his.

Draco drew in great gasps without looking at anything, and could feel Potter shaking beside him. Potter moved away, taking all the heat with him, and the light but Draco kept his eyes closed a minute longer, listening to the leaves under Potter's shifting body and counting unsteadily, reminding himself that he wasn't alone. A moment later sunlight swept down onto his skin and bled through his eyelids. When Draco looked up Potter was standing, wand out, eyeing a fresh stain on the front of his shirt. He glanced at Draco but averted his eyes immediately when he saw that he was watching. It was hard to tell whether he was about to smile or grimace, or simply walk away.

"You know, I'm thinking of staying with them the team," Potter said with what must have been forced levity. "It's good work they do, and I think it'd be better than going in with the Ministry. I mean I don't exactly have the best record making friends there, and you never know when the next real nutter will get appointed. Rawstorne's already told me I can come along if I want for the next one. You should have a look it's in London, in Regent's Park, so it'll have to be undercover, and that's always a laugh, isn't it? My uncle used to get so ..." There was a rather long silence before Potter abruptly removed his glasses and began to polish them with his soiled shirt.

Draco didn't know what to say any more than Potter did. There was only one good explanation for what he'd done, and he leaped upon it rather than contemplate Potter's invitation. He didn't care if Potter thought he was a shut-in. He didn't need someone to hold his hand and take him to the park. "Why don't you just stay a little while longer?" he asked. He pushed himself to his feet in the shadow of the tree. "You can join up with them again soon. It won't take you long if you just put a little effort into it it's only one room." He looked to where his broom was hovering patiently nearby, and saw Potter's face turn up in surprise out of the corner of his eye. "It'll be better practice than whatever's going on in that park."

Potter shoved his glasses back on. "Well, I'm not going to," he muttered, colouring again. He shrank into himself a little, pushing one hand into his hair and the other into his pocket. "I'm not going to hang around here banging away at some lost cause just because you "

"It isn't a lost cause. Stop being so dramatic. You could fix it if you stayed "

"It just doesn't matter!" Potter shouted, turning on him and kicking aside a pile of leaves. "Maybe I could fix it, but I won't! Why should I? Why should you spend your time obsessing over something that's not even worth saving? How long are you planning to "

"Oh, of course," Draco sneered. "Spoken like a boy who thinks magic started on his eleventh birthday. That house has more to say in one corner than you've managed in your career, no matter how many newspapers you've headlined. It's seen centuries of stuff you can't even think of, and you want to write it off because of some raving megalomaniac who couldn't even manage a hundred years, the seat of the Malfoy family for "

"Some family." Potter's voice was hard and awkward, like a blunt weapon he hadn't learned to handle properly. "Even they didn't think there was anything here worth sticking around for."

Draco glared at him. Who the hell did he think he was all high and mighty, just because not everyone thought it was a grand idea to go martyring themselves on principle thinking he knew a damned thing about what was important when he didn't have anything worth losing

The accusations faded away in his throat, though, when Potter flinched as though someone had actually hit him.

"Sorry," Potter breathed, staring down at his shoes, then at the trunk of the tree just past Draco's head. "I didn't mean that is, they're your parents, I'm sure they ... I didn't mean it," he finished weakly, before pursing his lips and looking furious. He did sound sorry, if not sincere.

It took Draco a moment to realize what Potter hadn't meant. He scoffed, looking up into the canopy. "You don't know what you're talking about," he said. He marched to his broom without another word, jumped on, and flew up over the forest to return to the house.

- - -

The words not worth saving followed him through the halls all afternoon as he inspected the work Rawstorne and his men had done. He had seen it progressing over the past couple of months, so slowly that it had been hard to appreciate any difference until one day the job was simply finished. Now the walls were straight that had been eerily crooked, the carpets were clean that had been stained with blood and other dark things, the rooms were full of light and air that had been dark and heavy in ways the eye couldn't see. The Dark Lord had bled out of everything, or almost everything. The dining room was still shut. Keeping the stain out of sight was no use, of course. It was a black mark on the map in Draco's head that he had built and embellished over the course of eighteen years.

Of course it was worth saving. The breakfast room that still felt like his mother, the dusty nursery with its gentle view, the study that made him feel like no other place could, that told him, even with its now-empty shelves, everything about why he owed this place his loyalty they were very nearly the world to him. He leaned on the windowsill a while beside his father's old desk and watched the fountain in the courtyard, where the house had risen up to punish his bloodshed. It had thought him worth saving, after all.

Working his way through the other wing, he admitted to himself that Potter might have been right about some things; it couldn't all be fixed, whether it was worth it or not. But if there were parts that were doomed, it was because he had ruined them himself, not the Dark Lord or any of his minions. His old bedroom stood open and unharmed, but he passed it by; he would never go inside again. It was strange to think that the only place he knew he would never even try to repair hadn't known any of the real evil that had lived here. Not even the Dark Lord's presence had sunk as deeply into the physical material of the house as had Draco's own fear and disgust. Perhaps it couldn't. The house was so much of him and he was so much of the house that no one else almost no one else could change it as he could. What he put into it would stay and shape its future just like the touch of his hand reshaped the high iron gate that blocked out the adjacent road. He was the only one left, now that his parents had gone, who really could touch it.

And so who else would think it was worth saving? The men he had paid to care had done all they could do, and now it was his alone. His father had gone to where he couldn't answer questions or set things right, and even if he had returned Draco wasn't at all sure that he would have wanted to hand it over again, to let anyone take the reins after all he had accomplished. And Potter, try as he might to strike out the last vestiges of Lord Voldemort, might as well have been holed up with Draco's parents on Elba for all the good he would do. He was working for the wrong reasons; that was why it was so easy for him to stop. What did it matter to him if there was a house somewhere that wasn't all it could have been?

The realization should have made him feel alone; he should have been scared. For the first time in two years, though, he felt truly at home. He was not a breathless admirer or a desperate would-be guardian, hopelessly overwhelmed and small. He was an owner, with all the weight and liberty that came with the name. He was dwarfed by it, to be sure, but that was all right. He was a piece of a whole, no more diminished by the size of the duty than a stone in the foundation might be by the structure it supported.
The sun had set by the time he reached the entrance hall and the end of his examination. He had hardly noticed the hours passing by. He was a little hungry, but he pulled open the front doors and went out onto the step to have a quick look at the front of the grounds. He sat, leaning his elbows on his knees. The white path lay flat and unblemished between the undamaged hedges, which made stiff rustling noises in the wind or perhaps it was only his exhalation, loud and a little too rough in his ears. He watched the blackness fading up from the horizon behind the tree line, and counted stars as they appeared for just a little while. When he'd had enough, he stood and turned, brushing his hand against the warm, time-smoothed wyvern's wing that flanked the entryway, and went inside. The doors shut behind him.

- - -

September 12, 1998.

Draco's high rubber boots pinched at the base of his knees where his trousers bunched awkwardly. It was a damned uncomfortable way of confronting puddles. His feet were cold from trekking through the fine mud that lined the long, empty pathway through the grey gardens; a thin layer of bright orange rubber and even thinner socks made poor protection against the wet and chilly afternoon. The shirt one of the elves had dug up for him was equally useless hardly any sleeves at all so he had hidden it under a red pullover with a rather silly hood and a hideously rough-looking blazer with patches at the elbows. It was a little hard to remember not to be embarrassed to be seen in public in such a get-up. Not that there were many people here to see him, Muggle or not. This wasn't the sort of day anyone chose to come to the park.

Walking along this deserted stretch of fountains and clipped hedges felt much more familiar than he had expected. It was calming, though not quite enough to soothe his jumping nerves, and he paused for a long moment between the beds meant for flowers, full now of colourful greenery that could be relied upon to last into the winter. Just in front of him the path ended, the hedge parted, and thick white stripes stretched across the black road towards the other gate.

He had come too far to stop now. He waited for a car to pass (it stopped, he waved it through impatiently, the driver waved at him impatiently, and he was nearly killed, very nearly killed, in the ensuing misunderstanding), and then hurried into the tree-lined road where the park began again. Potter was meant to be in a field somewhere, doing he didn't know what. There was some open space beyond the trees that he could see, and so he walked on.

It soon became clear that he was in for a longer hunt than he had expected. There were rather more fields than he had thought there would be, and the entire expanse looked markedly uninviting, with no paths and plenty of sagging gaps in the grass where the rain had left deep swaths of impassable mud. Draco looked hopelessly around, entirely certain that he would soon be lost.
He was halfway across the widest stretch of grass when he saw Potter, waving something that looked like a long, hooked broom around in a small group of trees. His short wool coat was hanging open, revealing the same acid green shirt he'd worn the last time Draco had seen him working outside. He was largely drenched, and there was mud splattered all the way up his trousers, well past the mouths of his boots. He caught sight of Draco when they were some twenty feet apart. The look on his face, if not particularly encouraging, was comforting in its familiarity: he seemed annoyed, a little surprised, and wary. He stopped his work and leveled the broom between them.

"You're not busy, are you?" Draco drawled, pleased to find he felt much bolder than he had before.

"Yes." Potter thought highly enough of him to turn his back, at least. He started stabbing up among the branches again. "As a matter of fact, I am busy."

Draco forged onward, bravely attempting politeness. "Well how's it going, then? Work?" He didn't want to come out and say he was sorry without so much as a request. "You're still with that deaf wanker?"

"Yes." Potter gave a particularly violent jab, and something in the tree began to emit a quiet hum.

Draco waited, but nothing more was forthcoming. He frowned, feeling awkward and out of place with nothing to do with his hands. "You look ridiculous, you know," he said, looking with disapproval on Potter's slovenly coat and muddy clothes.

Potter snickered without turning around.


"Me?" Potter glanced over his shoulder with what looked like half a smile, which he quickly buried. "Right. Well you know Muggle clothes," he said, sounding as though he had something in his throat. He paused, gave a mild cough, and leaned the tool against the tree. "Why are you here, anyway?"

"I was going to have you out for a drink," Draco growled, tugging self-consciously at his blazer, "but you're in no state to go anywhere, so I'll leave you to your business or whatever it is you're "

"A drink?" Potter took on that stupid look he so often had, like an elf realizing something had slipped its mind.

"Yes." Draco stood glaring at him, defying him to ask for an explanation.

"Oh. But ..." Potter shrugged very carefully, after a long beat of silence. "Well where?"

"I don't know I don't come out to this horrid city. Where is there that'll let you in looking like that?" He would rather have gone home and had a proper meal, but that was no place for what he wanted to say. Well, not wanted to say. Anyway, it wouldn't have been right. And he hadn't eaten out in ages.

"I don't think they're going to be looking at me, Malfoy."

Draco ignored him. "It doesn't really matter. Someplace close. I'm freezing, let's just go inside."

Potter rested his hand against the trunk of the tree, tentatively releasing the handle of his broom, and then nodded. "All right." He seemed to be waiting for something he looked at Draco with an uncertain expression, his boots still rooted to their spots in the mud.

Draco raised his eyebrows at him. He could wait all afternoon.

"All right," Potter said again, with a little more finality. He left his work behind and turned to the field Draco had crossed to reach him. "Just that way, then. Come on." He started across the grass and Draco followed close behind, his elbow catching against Potter's arm as he fell in beside him.

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