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The Fear Is Just an Illusion

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# # #

Draco had always imagined the Dark Lord’s death would be an instant balm to his frayed nerves. He was certain the final destruction of the monster who had terrorized him and his family for so many years would bring about a new, golden age. In his mind’s eye, the dark clouds would clear and bright, pure sunlight would shine upon a new day; a glorious and fearless future.

Instead, the sky continues to be grey, threatening clouds hanging low and menacing over Hogwarts. The air is thick and cloying, and Draco struggles to breathe as the familiar fear claws at his chest. He’s safe, he’s alive, but there’s less comfort to be found in this than he originally envisaged. His mother clings to him, her fingers pressing almost painfully into his arms. His father shivers, half-supported by the wall behind him as his wide eyes nervously flicker around.

It’s clear they don’t belong here, amongst the crying and wounded, sitting hidden in a dark corner and watching with anxious eyes. Streaks of dirt and blood cling to the survivors, their faces full of sorrow. Their desperate words are lost in the muffled chaos as they frantically search for their loved ones.

“We can’t stay here,” Lucius finally rasps, his voice hoarse and broken. Draco agrees but they have few other options at this point.

“There’s nowhere to go, Father.”

“We can’t stay here,” Lucius repeats, lacing his fingers together to stop them from trembling.

Narcissa opens her mouth, her expression a delicate combination of determination and hopelessness. The words of comfort or solution die on her lips as her gaze falls upon a young woman, openly sobbing as she holds a lifeless body in her arms.

“We’re alive,” Draco says, as if this fact will somehow bring peace to their fragile existence. He regrets the words immediately, his vision blurring as he quickly looks down, away from destruction surrounding them.

“Not for long,” Lucius mutters, climbing to his feet. His eyes are red-rimmed and wild. “We have to go.”

“Where?” Draco asks, but his question lands on deaf ears as Lucius stumbles away towards an open, broken door. “Father!”

Narcissa inhales sharply, then quickly stands up and pulls Draco to his feet. Their steps are hurried and clumsy as they follow Lucius outside into the grey and dismal morning light. Ahead, Lucius has broken into a run. Draco’s lungs ache as he sprints after his father, and he can hear his mother, not far behind him, calling after them with a strained and defeated cry.

Draco’s stomach twists with fear as Lucius leads them to the edge of the Forbidden Forest. The shadows of the trees look more menacing than ever. Draco hesitates for a moment, nearly losing sight of the back of his father's head, until his mother catches up. She grabs Draco’s wrist with firm, cold fingers and pulls him into the darkness.

Draco is gasping for air by the time they stop, trembling from head to toe as he leans over with his hands on his knees and takes deep, gulping breaths. His father looks similarly winded, leaning heavily against a tall tree, mouth open and eyes bulging wide. They stand in silence for a few minutes, broken only by their heavy breathing and the rustling of leaves overhead.

“I can’t go back,” Lucius finally says, his eyes hard and full of fear. “I can’t return to Azkaban.” He steps forward and grabs Draco’s shoulders, squeezing tightly. “I won’t survive it, I won’t—”

“Lucius,” Narcissa says sharply. Lucius loosens his grip, letting his arms fall to his sides.

“So you’ve brought us into the woods?” Draco asks bitterly, his arms tender where his father’s fingers dug in so fiercely.

“You wouldn’t survive it either.” Lucius shakes his head frantically, matted strands of hair falling in front of his face. “They’ll take you, Draco. They’ll take us all, lock us up and never let us escape.”

“You don’t know that,” Draco protests, but his voice is unsteady and unsure.

“I helped the Potter boy,” Narcissa admits softly. Draco’s head snaps round to look at his mother. “In a sense, I did. He might…we might…”

“No,” Lucius insists. His voice rises, coloured by a tinge of hysteria as he continues. “It’s too late for all of that, now. The sins are too strong, too vivid. We can’t wash our hands of them.” He looks wildly between Narcissa and Draco. “We’re stained, you see?” He holds up his hands in defeat, showcasing the weathered flesh. “They’ll take us, all of us. We’ll be destroyed.”

“We already are,” Draco mutters. His head pounds and he swallows roughly against his parched throat. His mouth tastes of ash and defeat.

“Where can we go?” Narcissa finally asks, breaking the renewed and heavy silence.

Lucius begins to pace, his hands clenching and releasing at his sides. Several minutes pass before he stops in his tracks, eyes bright and feverish as they settle on Narcissa. “The Mulcibers! We’ll go to them.”

“Who?” Draco asks nervously. He vaguely recalls the name, but it takes a moment for him to place it as one of the Death Eaters they housed at the Manor not so long ago.

“Callum owes me.” Lucius nods his head, speaking more to himself than anyone else. “I defended him during a failed mission. The Dark Lord was so angry but I shouldered most of the blame. He’ll help us.”

“Are you certain?” Narcissa asks wearily. Her face is a picture of exhaustion.

“We don’t have a choice,” Lucius states firmly.

Draco is so tired of not having a choice, of being thrust into whatever form of survival he can scrape together, he could scream. He thinks about voicing this, about urging them to return to Hogwarts. Their fates can’t possibly be as grim as his father imagines. Draco pictures himself on his knees, begging the Wizengamot for mercy. He sees their cold, cutting glares, disdain and resentment rolling off their bodies in waves. He imagines his angry fellow classmates; his disappointed former professors; Dumbledore’s sorrowful ghost; and Potter’s bright eyes, vengeful and vivid, the same shade of green as the spell that will inevitably come hurtling towards him, his fate sealed by those he’s wronged.

“Draco?” Narcissa pleads, breaking Draco from his nightmarish fantasy. Her left hand is outstretched, the other firmly clasped with his father’s. Draco sighs heavily, steps forward and takes her hand.

He does his best to ignore the sinking in his stomach as their surroundings fade and they Apparate away.

# # #

“You shouldn’t have come here, Lucius,” Mulciber hisses under his breath. His voice carries easily across the quiet room, to the far side, where Narcissa and Draco are standing hesitantly, awaiting their fate.

The Mulciber Estate is cold and uninviting, not unlike the Manor. Despite the large, curved windows which line the expansive walls, little light filters into the room. The late morning sun has finally begun to peek out from behind the oppressive clouds, but the thick, fogged glass keeps the golden beams at bay.

“Please,” Lucius begs desperately. “We don’t have anywhere else to go. The Aurors will be searching for us—the Manor is sure to be crawling with them by now.”

“So you thought you’d bring them to my doorstep, instead?” Mulciber asks coldly.

“Your estate is isolated,” Lucius insists. “It’s unplottable, hidden away from wizards and Muggles alike. They’ll never think to look here.”

“You’d better hope you’re right,” Mulciber growls.

“Father?” calls a small voice. “What’s going on?”

“What are you doing down here?” Mulciber barks, glaring at the young boy who has appeared in the doorway. “Go back to bed.”

The boy looks frightened; his dark eyes are wide and fearful. A young girl appears behind him and places a protective hand on his shoulder.

“Sorry, Father,” she says softly. “We couldn’t sleep last night.”

Narcissa moves over to them, crouching down and leaning in close. “What are your names?”

“I’m Mary, ma’am,” the girl says, nodding her head in greeting, “and this is my younger brother, Henry.”

“Hello,” Narcissa says gently. Mary smiles timidly at her. “I’m Narcissa.”

“Good morning, dear.” A tall, thin woman sweeps into the room. Her eyes are glassy, her voice vacant. She’s wrapped in a delicate white robe, the silky fabric fluttering around her body; she looks more ghost than person. “I didn’t know we had guests.”

“Grace,” Narcissa says, “it’s been some time.”

Grace blinks blankly at Narcissa for a moment or two before her eyes flash with recognition. “Yes, Narcissa, it has. Hello.” Her gaze falls onto Draco. “Is this your son? He’s grown so much since I saw him last. Would you like some tea?”

“Take the kids back upstairs,” Mulciber interrupts roughly, his harsh tone making Grace flinch. “And keep them there, this time.”

“Come, children.” Grace gathers Mary and Henry, holding her arms steady and open wide. Her voice, however, trembles with fear. “Let’s not disturb your father any longer.”

The three of them shuffle from the room, closing the door behind them with a click. Mulciber groans and rubs his face, then turns his attention back to Lucius. He opens his mouth to speak, but any harsh dismissal is cut short by a rush of flames in the Floo. Mulciber immediately steps away, straightening his posture as a man comes through. Draco’s jaw clenches as he recognizes the figure standing before them. Augustus Rookwood was always the most charming of the Death Eaters, and the most dangerous.

“Sir.” Mulciber shakes Rookwood's hand and gestures towards Lucius. “I apologize for the unexpected company.”

“Not at all, Mulciber.” Rookwood smiles widely, all sharp teeth, but his eyes remain cold as he turns towards Lucius. “Lucius Malfoy. This is unexpected. I thought you’d be grovelling before the Ministry, feigning Imperius again.”

“No, never,” Lucius replies. He stiffens his shoulders and stands tall, looking, for a brief instant, like the proud man he once was. The illusion is shattered, however, when he quickly wilts under the weight of Rookwood’s unimpressed stare. “Sir,” he adds, quietly.

“Hmm,” Rookwood hums, appraising Lucius. “You might still be useful. Tell me, is the Malfoy Crypt still intact?”

“It should be,” Lucius responds, unable to conceal the slight tremor in his voice. “It is cloaked with numerous layers of protective spells: it is doubtful that the Ministry will ever discover it.”

“Good, very good.” Rookwood smirks deviously. “And the wards are all controlled by your blood, correct? The Dark Lord’s demise won’t have compromised them?”

“You mean Voldemort?” Draco sneers, unable to remain silent any more.

Rookwood’s eyes narrow but his lips curl into a faint smile when he turns his gaze towards Draco, as if he’s noticing him for the first time. He turns back towards Lucius and Mulciber, his voice colder than before. “Shall we continue this conversation somewhere more private?”

“Of course.” Mulciber gestures down the hall. “Let’s retreat to the study.”

Draco watches his father follow the two monstrous men, already falling into place a few steps behind them. His heart sinks as they disappear from view.

“Mother.” Draco turns to look imploringly at Narcissa. “We have to leave.”

“Draco—”

“This place isn’t safe. I don’t trust Mulciber or Rookwood. We have to go before we get caught up in an even bigger mess than before.”

“If you don’t trust them, at least place trust in your father.”

“Father?” Draco scoffs. “Look at where our trust in him has led us thus far.”

Narcissa's expression turns pained, the truth of Draco’s words clearly cutting into her. Her resolve, however, remains. “Our safety—your safety—is the most important thing right now. You won’t be safe in the Ministry’s hands. I just know it.”

Draco is less sure of that now. Standing in this foreboding house, with its marble floors and cold stone walls, Draco wonders how much safer he and his family will be in this ornate prison. His mother won’t be convinced though—of that Draco is certain—and Draco will never abandon his family.

The door to the study opens with a loud bang and Lucius stumbles out, looking ten years older than when he first entered. The door shuts behind him, leaving Mulciber and Rookwood inside.

“Father…”

“Let’s go.” Lucius’s face is pale and drawn. He walks over to the Floo at the other side of the room, his shoulders hunched close to his ears. “We’re going home.”

“To the Manor?” Draco asks incredulously. “We can’t go there, we’ll be caught right away.”

“No, to the Malfoy Crypt,” Lucius replies. He grabs his wand and casts a mild Lacero on his finger. Crimson drops of blood bead from the cut, stark against his skin. “We’ll be safe there for now. Only those of Malfoy blood can enter and exit.”

Draco watches in horror as Lucius flicks the blood onto the Floo, then dips his still-bleeding hand into the bowl of Floo powder beside it. Draco’s only ever been inside the Malfoy Crypt once or twice: when he was younger, his father brought him there to pay respect to his ancestors and Draco nearly suffocated from the cloying dark magic that pulsed through the air. The idea of staying there indefinitely makes his stomach turn violently.

“Father, we can’t go there,” Draco pleads. “Please.”

“It’s only for a little while,” Lucius mutters, tossing the Floo powder onto the fire. The grate sparks and smokes, acrid green clouds puffing from the embers. “They’ll protect us now…” Lucius’s voice fades, his next words barely audible over the blood pumping in Draco’s ears, “...for a price.”

# # #

Draco sleeps fitfully during his first night at the Crypt, unable to drift off for more than a few minutes at a time. He wakes frequently, soaked in cold sweat with his heart in his throat, gasping into the dense, clammy air. Each time, it takes a moment or two to recall his surroundings, to remember that Voldemort is dead and he, Draco, is still alive. The thought provides little comfort, nor do the four walls that close around him, dark, cold and foreboding.

He sits up and shifts uncomfortably against the stone wall, shuddering as the chill seeps through his thin shirt. The Crypt vibrates with dark magic, the far wall littered with ancient artifacts and forgotten family heirlooms. Draco’s eyes slowly adjust to the dark as he gingerly stands and casts a subtle Lumos. He steps quietly, following the soft glow emanating from the tip of his wand. His parents remain fast asleep, huddled on top of a slab of stone which has been poorly transfigured into a makeshift bed.

Tall stacks of musty tomes are piled high, particles of dust dancing along the rays of light emitted from his wand. A small locked cabinet catches his eye, full of various potions shimmering in their ornate vials. The most innocuous (and interesting) objects are a collection of antique brooms, all lined up together in the far corner. Normally Draco would sneer at their aged wood and outdated features, but tonight he’s pleased to discover something familiar.

He spends the rest of his sleepless night tidying their bristles and polishing the warped wood until they shine and glimmer.

# # #

The relief at departing the Crypt is soon diminished when he settles into the hard-wood chair in the Mulcibers’ study. Draco forces his face to remain blank, trying to nod at the right moments while doing his best to tune out the conversation that flows around him. Draco would rather be anywhere but here, surrounded by the surviving Death Eaters as they boast about their devious deeds in the last battle. His thoughts stray to the dank prison cells of Azkaban and he shifts uncomfortably; the chair suddenly feels a bit more welcoming.

Draco was initially surprised to see how quickly these renegade Death Eaters came together, but as it turns out, Rookwood is cleverer than he first seemed. He’d been forming the bare bones of this operation long before the Dark Lord’s death. Apparently he wasn’t blind to Voldemort’s growing madness and the way his personal vendettas increasingly derailed the cause of blood purity. When the time came, Rookwood had all of his allies lined up, ready to reform and renew their efforts. Early on, he referred to the new group as 'Purity Seekers', and the name has stuck. It makes Draco sick to his stomach.

There was a time when Draco felt incredibly proud of his lineage. He delighted in sneering at those beneath him and boasting about the generations of Pure-bloods his family stemmed from. That’s all in the past, now. The last year has taught him that blood purity means little in the real world. His blood status didn’t protect him or his family from Voldemort’s wrath; it didn’t make him stronger or braver in the face of tough decisions. Being a Pure-blood has done nothing for his family’s plight, a fact which is never so clear as at moments like this, where Lucius sits at the end of the table, flinching whenever the volume in the room increases. The Malfoys are mostly ignored by the other members as they jeer and compare death tolls. Draco is tempted to chime in and remind them that they lost the final battle, but he swallows the foolish words before they can escape his mouth.

Draco’s skin feels as if it’s on fire, a fierce heat spreading over his face. He’s being watched, carefully. Draco lifts his gaze and locks eyes with Theo Nott. The other boy smirks coldly and nods his head in greeting. Draco was surprised when Theo turned up at the meeting. His father was a Death Eater, of course, but Draco never saw Theo at the Manor during the war. Part of Draco had been hoping to see some of his school friends arrive today, and he was left with equal parts relief and disappointment when none of them showed up. Theo and Draco have never been close, and the nasty glint in Theo’s eye forces Draco to look away and turn his attention to Rhys Jugson.

“I watched him fall, gasping for mercy with his last breath.” Jugson grins cruelly, waving his wand around as he recounts the story. His small dark eyes shine with cold glee. “His Mudblood guts spilled onto the stone, right in front of his Muggle-loving wife.”

Draco cringes in disgust, his eyes drawn to Brandon Jugson, Rhys’s thirteen-year-old son, as he shivers next to his father. Brandon looks frightened, his face pale and drawn as he listens to the dreadful boasting of his father. He keeps his hands steady, though, clasping them so tightly together on the table that the whites of his knuckles show. Draco’s heart breaks for the young boy—he remembers all too clearly how brave he tried to act in the face of his own father.

“Yes, we’ve all sampled the sweet taste of victory from time to time.” Mulciber leans forward, capturing everyone’s attention. “But what’s soon to come will change the Wizarding World as we know it. The Purity Alliance will set things right.” Draco cringes, biting his tongue to keep from scoffing aloud. The name sounds more like a charity group than a band of renegade Death Eaters. Mulciber’s voice turns cold and menacing. “The despicable practice of mixed magical blood will cease to exist.”

A soft scuffling noise catches Draco’s attention. He twists his neck to look behind him, and finds Callum Mulciber’s son, Henry, standing at the door. He listens with wide-eyes and Draco’s stomach twists as he wonders how much the young boy has overheard.

“Your son seems to have joined the meeting,” Draco interupts, nodding his head towards the door.

“Good,” Jugson intervenes before Mulciber can reply, narrowing his beady little eyes. “It’s best to get an early education on the true order of the world.”

Draco turns to glare at Mulciber but the other man avoids his eye, waving his hand dismissively.
He ignores his son and continues his speech without missing a beat. “It’s time we began our plan to rid the Wizarding World of non-magical blood.”

A cheer of agreement fills the room, muffling the sharp sound of Draco’s chair as it scrapes across the floor. He hurries to the doorway, ignored by the rest of the members, rests his hand on Henry’s shoulder and steers him into the hallway.

“Henry!” Mary’s voice rings out loudly in the empty hallway. “I told you to not wander around the house at night.” Henry’s eyes water and his lower lip begins to tremble. “There, there.” Mary wraps her arms around his shaking body. “No need to cry.”

“Where’s your mother?” Draco asks, glancing up towards the staircase lit only by the occasional flickering sconce.

“She’s sleeping,” Mary replies, holding Henry close to her. “She sleeps all the time, lately.”

“Shouldn’t you both be asleep, too?” Draco asks, fidgeting awkwardly. They stare at him with wide eyes and suddenly Draco feels as if he’s towering over them. They’re so small, so delicate-looking. It makes Draco uncomfortable, as if they’ll break if he speaks too loudly.

“We have trouble sleeping,” Mary finally says, patting Henry’s hair as he nods in agreement. “We have these nightmares…”

“Don’t we all?” Draco mutters. Henry begins to pout, his lower lip shaking, and Draco suddenly regrets his words. He clears this throat softly, feeling terribly wrong-footed. “You should go back upstairs.” Draco glances back down the hall, reluctant to rejoin the meeting. “Do you have a chessboard, perhaps?”

“No.” Mary shakes her head, brightening as she adds, “But we do have Gobstones.”

“Fine.” Draco sighs in mock exasperation. “That’ll have to do.”

Mary grins shyly and grabs his hand. Draco flinches slightly, surprised by the gesture, but he forces his body to relax and allows himself to be pulled up the stairs.

# # #

A muffled roar of cruel laughter bounces against the closed door as Draco hurries past the next Purity Alliance gathering. Part of him should be alarmed that he wasn’t expressly invited to sit in on this meeting, but mostly he’s relieved to avoid the boastful bragging of the men inside and the new, devious plans they’re forming.

It’s become clearer to Draco that they don’t belong in this isolated Estate; they have no place amongst the arrogant and cruel men who have risen from the ashes of the Dark Lord’s defeat. He’s grateful when he finds his mother in the sitting room, alone.

“Mother?”

Narcissa looks up, her normally neatly pinned hair falling in front of her pale face. There is an untouched pot of tea on the table in front of her. Her hands tightly grasp the edges of a newspaper.

Draco sits down, close to her side and speaks softly. “We have to leave, we can’t stay here any longer.”

“Draco—” Narcissa's voice is equal parts warning and defeat.

“No, Mother,” Draco interrupts. “This is madness. We chose the wrong side, just like Father did last time. We can’t keep making the same mistakes.” He inhales sharply and leans forward. “We should take our chances with the Ministry.”

“It’s too late, far too late.” Narcissa’s hands tremble and Draco is surprised to see that her eyes are glassy and wild; it’s very rare for his mother to lose her composure.

“What’s going on? What happened?”

She shakily passes the newspaper to Draco and his breath catches in his throat at the headline: A Win For The Ministry: Treacherous Death Eaters Apprehended!

Draco frantically scans the article. It’s written in a fierce tone, extolling the brave efforts of the Auror task force which captured Mr Goyle and his son Gregory, and instilling fear in those who would have sympathy for them. The article pronounces Mr Goyle dead, and no longer a threat to society. It offers photographic proof, with a mild warning for the squeamish, of Mr Goyle’s body, torn apart by vicious spells. His bloody face is twisted into an anguished scream. Draco’s breakfast rolls unpleasantly in his stomach. How could the Daily Prophet include such a gruesome photograph in their paper? Is this really what the War has brought out of both sides—an unquenchable thirst for blood and vengeance?

Perhaps even worse than the brutal death of Mr Goyle is the final few lines which speak of his son’s fate. Greg, misguided but certainly not a Death Eater, has been captured and locked away in one of the worst cells of Azkaban. He’s been put into solitary confinement, in the same wing as the most dangerous criminals in the foreboding prison. His trial date has yet to be set and the author of the article snidely implies it may not come to pass at all. Gregory never even got the Mark, never set foot into one of the Death Eater meetings. Anything Greg did during the War was due to Draco’s commands. Guilt and fear twist in Draco’s stomach and he pushes the paper away.

Panic claws at Draco’s chest and his breathing becomes short and quick as he realises he is well and truly trapped. Draco has a Mark, he led Death Eaters into Hogwarts, nearly killed Merlin only knows how many of his fellow students—what terrible fate awaits him if he surrenders?

“Draco, dear.” Narcissa grabs his hands and strokes them soothingly. “Breathe.” Draco takes great, gulping breaths and forces his thundering heart to slow. “We must do what we can to survive.”

“Even if it destroys us?” Draco asks, his voice broken and desperate.

“I’ll protect you, love.” Narcissa squeezes his hands and releases them. “I won’t let you be harmed.”

The meeting next door has clearly concluded: boisterous voices spill into the hallway, sweeping away the quiet atmosphere. Draco looks through the open door and sees young Brandon Jugson stagger out of the meeting. His hands tremble, his face is green and he looks sick to his stomach.

Draco can’t help but think it might be a little too late for that.

# # #

The air is too thick.

Every inhale takes tremendous effort, but Draco can’t seem to get enough air in his lungs. The walls must be on the verge of collapsing, the structure already damaged as dark lines spread across the stone.

Draco thought, at first, that they were merely vines, overgrown plantlife taking over the ancient Malfoy Crypt. On closer inspection it became clear to see that these are deep cracks, forged by the dark magic which surrounds and protects the Crypt. It feels little like protection and more like a prison as he tosses and turns at night. There is no sleep and no peace to be found within these walls—not when the air is so toxic and heavy. Draco has no hope of finding rest when he’s choking on tainted magic.

The Mulciber Estate is little better, but at least it’s devoid of his ancestors’ tombs and dark artefacts. Draco’s days are often spent watching over Henry and Mary whenever he can sneak away from the uncomfortable and draining Purity Alliance meetings. He hasn’t been invited to attend an attack yet, but he knows his luck is likely to run out soon. There is a tiny, terrible part of him that almost looks forward to it—at the very least he will be able to go outside.

Despite the Mulciber Estate’s remote location, far from any Muggle or magical dwelling, Draco has been urged to stay inside at all times. The place is tightly locked down, the wards so strong they almost shimmer in the air surrounding the house. Draco is only cleared to Floo directly from the Malfoy Crypt to the Estate. The only Apparition point is in the Entrance Hall, where a portrait of a dour-faced man keeps a close watch, ever ready to report back to Callum Mulciber.

It’s a sunny day when Draco’s skin begins to itch so much with the need for escape that his flesh becomes raw beneath his angry fingers. It seems cruel to have several brooms (ancient as they may be) at his disposal but nowhere to fly them.

His mind strays to the conversation he had with Mary the night before. She had leaned forward, the dark curtain of her hair falling over her face, a secretive smile painted on her lips. She’d whispered excitedly to Draco about a weakness in the wards, right outside the old servant chambers. She told him about a side door which she often sneaked through to play at the edge of the woods surrounding the Estate. Her mumbled confession concluded with a self-satisfied grin; Draco’s heart had clenched at the sweet expression. In that moment she’d reminded him so much of how Pansy used to be, back when they were children, before fear and cruelty changed them both and strained their friendship beyond repair.

He shakes his head to push away the turbulent memories and glances at the line of brooms resting against the wall. He brought them over to the Estate last week, feigning a generous gesture of providing additional transport for the family. The truth is that Draco didn’t like the idea of these collectible brooms being trapped in the Crypt, becoming even more weighed down with the dark magic that saturates the air. Callum Mulciber, however, took one look at the outdated brooms and scoffed with disgust, leaving them here to continue collecting dust.

Draco fidgets anxiously. He can think of a handful of reasons why he shouldn’t even consider this foolish excursion. A soft chirping rings outside and a flock of birds flutter across the sky—that’s all it takes. Draco’s resolve snaps and his misgivings fade away. He needs freedom, even an hour of it, regardless of the repercussions. He grabs the nearest broom and, before second thoughts can creep in, hurries off in the direction of the old servant quarters.

The fresh air on his skin is like a sweet, soothing balm after the constant griminess of the Malfoy Crypt. He stays safe, flying high into the sky, so high the atmosphere thins and his lungs begin to burn. It’s a most welcome pain and Draco delights in the distracting effort of every deep inhale. His caution is hardly necessary, though: there’s nothing around for miles other than dense woods and barren fields.

Eventually his thighs begin to ache, and he slowly descends, spotting a clearing between the tall trees. The wind rustles his hair, gentle and comforting, like fingers threading lightly through his fine locks. Draco is overcome with a feeling of peace as his feet touch the ground. He’s struck by the beauty of the golden sunlight as it filters through the treetops. It’s a perfect day: fallen pine needles crunch lightly beneath his feet, and the only other sound is the gentle babbling of a nearby creek. Draco smiles and stretches, allowing the broom to slip from his fingers and fall to the ground with a clatter. He wonders if he should go for a walk or perhaps take a short nap against a wide tree trunk—the possibilities seem endless. He turns in a slow circle as he weighs up his options, only to freeze when his eyes land on another broom, resting against a tree.

Draco’s pleased grin falls from his face. He’s not alone.

Draco’s heart pounds against his ribcage, adrenaline pumping through his veins as he reaches for his wand. A figure steps out from behind the tree, his frame cast in shadows as he raises his own wand high. A stunning spell forms on Draco’s lips, but before the words can escape his mouth, his wand is quickly snatched away from him.

The wizard steps forward into a stream of sunlight shining from between the trees. Intense green eyes flash angrily, wild hair rustles in the breeze, and a dark brow furrows with caution and determination. Recognition floods Draco and his stomach turns violently.

Of course it’s Harry Potter.

For the briefest moment, they both stand still and silent, the summer air heavy between them. The fingers of Potter’s right hand curl tightly around his wand as he holds Draco’s wand secure in his left. His eyes harden behind his ridiculously outdated glasses, his stance menacing even as his lips part slightly in surprise.

“What are you doing here, Malfoy?” Potter demands. Draco’s following silence is clearly not appreciated and Potter storms closer until the tip of his wand is pressed against Draco’s chest. “Did you follow me? Who else knows I’m here?”

“Get over yourself, Potter,” Draco spits, hiding the tremor of fear in his voice. “I had no idea you’d be here.”

“Then why are you here?” Potter leans forward, his expression dark and threatening.

“I was just getting away—getting some air.” Draco shifts nervously but keeps his chin held high.

“Away from where?” Potter’s eyes narrow suspiciously. “Where have you been hiding?”

“None of your business,” Draco replies lightly, even as his heart thuds anxiously against his chest.

Potter grabs Draco’s shoulders and shoves him against a tree. The rough bark digs into Draco’s back. “Don’t play games with me, Malfoy. I won’t hesitate in taking care of you.”

“Do you mean turning me in?” Draco growls, feeling his face flush with anger and fear. “Or perhaps you’ll finish me off right here, cast some of those nasty spells you used to rip Mr Goyle apart.” Potter flinches slightly but his wand stays pressed against Draco’s chest as Draco continues. “No, that’s too gruesome for the Golden Boy, isn’t it? You’d rather throw me in a dark cell and let me rot away like Greg.” Potter’s jaw clenches and his wand lowers a fraction. “What’s the matter, Potter? Don’t you like to pretend your side is so very pure and honest?”

“Shut up,” Potter barks, his face burning with rage. “I have nothing to do with the Death Hunters.”

“The Death Hunters?” Draco’s mouth becomes terribly dry. The mere name sends a renewed wave of fear through his body.

“The special Auror task force assigned to round you lot up,” Potter explains bitterly. He looks at Draco again, taking in the fear that Draco is unable to hide. Potter sighs in frustration and lowers his wand all the way. “Where have you been?”

Draco opens his mouth to give a scathing reply but the words die on his lips. Potter’s expression is still firm, but the hatred in his eyes has softened, guarded curiosity taking its place. Draco merely shakes his head and averts his gaze.

“Malfoy,” Potter warns, his tone becoming impatient. “If you’re in danger I might be able to help.”

“Please,” Draco scoffs. “As if the Ministry would have my best interests at heart.”

“Why should they?” Potter bites back, his expression turning hard again. “After everything you’ve done? You were and still are a Death Eater for all we know.”

“You don’t know anything,” Draco hisses. “You have no idea what’s at stake. I would never risk the safety of those I care about for a flimsy promise from you.”

“What’s at stake?” Potter asks. He rolls his eyes in the face of Draco’s silence, his fingers tightening on both of their wands, which remain firmly clasped in his hands. Potter glares at Draco but his eyes become clear and searching. He takes a deep breath, exhales and when he speaks again, his tone is softer. “Why didn’t you name me at the Manor?”

“What?” Draco almost laughs at the absurdity of the question and how quickly Potter has changed the subject. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Just answer the question.” Draco starts slightly as Potter raises his wand again.

“I wasn’t sure it was you. I didn’t want to take the chance of being wrong.”

“You’re lying.”

Of course he is. Draco would recognize his school nemesis in a sea of wizards. He spent six years staring and planning, meticulously plotting the boy hero’s demise—or at the very least trying to get under his skin. Potter waves his wand impatiently and Draco swallows roughly in reply.

“I just wanted it to be over,” Draco sullenly admits. “I wanted it all to end.”

“Wouldn't my capture and death bring a quick end to everything?”

Draco lowers his gaze and grits his teeth. “That’s not the kind of ending I wanted.”

The resulting silence is deafening in the expanse of the empty forest. The babbling of the nearby creek pounds against Draco’s ears, filling his head with a steady buzz. The sun is slowly creeping lower, turning the light golden as it filters through the trees. Draco is startled when his wand his thrust back into his hands.

“You should go,” Potter says softly. Draco stares dumbly at his wand and then up at Potter’s face. He frowns at Draco’s hesitation. “Go, before I change my mind.”

Draco opens his mouth to ask why, suspicious that this could all be a trap but the look on Potter’s face changes his mind. He presses his lips together, snatches his broom and flies off without looking back.

# # #

Tick, tick, tick.

The seconds ring out loudly in the empty room, filling Draco’s ears with their incessant sound. He’s tempted to march over to the grandfather clock, smash the ornate glass and stop the hands from moving, but he remains seated. There’s no need to draw unnecessary attention to himself—he already catches the suspicious eye of Rookwood more often than he’d like.

Instead, Draco waits patiently on the sofa, sipping a cup of tepid tea and tapping his fingers against the patterned cushion. His mother was supposed to meet him in the sitting room but she got swept away in calming Henry Mulciber when his screams travelled down the stairs. The poor boy has more nightmares than even Draco—a feat Draco didn’t know was possible.

Lately, Draco’s dreams aren’t filled with the terror of the Dark Lord or being eaten alive by Nagini while his mother watches in horror. Rather, his nights are spoiled with images of torture. Most frequently, he’s locked away in a dark cell as a Dementor creeps closer, ravaging the last dregs of his sanity. Yet, in reality he’s still somehow here, sitting idly at the Mulciber Estate, caught in some of kind of uncomfortable limbo.

Draco wonders, for the umpteenth time, why Potter didn’t capture him and turn him in when they met in the forest. He certainly had the opportunity to—he could have easily overpowered Draco—but he let him go, instead. Draco still isn’t positive that it wasn’t a trap, that he didn’t accidently fall into an elaborate scheme. Draco carefully checked himself when he arrived back at the Malfoy Crypt but despite finding himself clear of any tracking charm or other spell, his unease did not abate.

He’s so tired of being afraid all the time, lost and frightened without a real ally. He suspects his mother shares his feelings, but she, too, is far too cautious to speak these doubts aloud. Draco’s trapped, unable to shake off the fear that clouds his judgment. He wants to be brave, wants to be strong for his family, but he isn’t certain he’s making the right choice. It seems to Draco that he always manages to choose the wrong path.

“Another success.” Travers’s voice travels down the hall, growing ever louder, breaking Draco free from his thoughts. “You did well, Avery.”

“Of course I did,” Avery boasts, ignoring Draco and slapping Travers on the back as they enter the room. “Don’t sound so surprised.”

Rhys Jugson scoffs at them both, pushing past them to search the liquor cabinet for a bottle of whisky. His son trails a few feet behind them, looking wide-eyed and stunned. Jugson locates the bottle and pours himself a generous measure before passing the bottle to Travers. Brandon stumbles, catching the back of the sofa for support. The other three men ignore him, clinking their glasses together before chasing the liquor down.

“Are you alright?” Draco asks softly. Brandon trembles, his face ashen and withdrawn. Streaks of dirt are smeared along his cheek, vivid against his pale skin. “Brandon?”

“So much smoke,” Brandon finally says, his voice small and timid. “And screaming. I didn’t think it’d be so loud.”

“It’s okay,” Draco says, placing his hand on top of Brandon’s shaking one. It seems a cruel thing to say when nothing is okay about the situation, but giving comfort has never been one of Draco’s strong points. “You don’t have to talk about it.”

Brandon looks directly at Draco, his hazel eyes wide and haunted. They’re warm and innocent—so different from his father’s: Rhys Jugson’s eyes are dark, beady and cold. Brandon’s mouth moves soundlessly, his eyelashes becoming wet as words fail him. Draco gently squeezes his hand.

“Brandon,” Jugson barks, shooting Draco a suspicious look. Brandon quickly pulls his hand away. “Don’t just stand around. Go to the meeting room, we’ll need to be debriefed.”

Brandon shudders at his father’s harsh tone but he doesn’t move. Jugson huffs impatiently and marches over to his son.

“Come on,” he commands gruffly, grabbing Brandon by the shoulder and dragging him from the room.

Draco watches in silent despair as Brandon looks over his shoulder and locks eyes with Draco, his expression desperate and pleading.

I’m sorry.

The words never leave Draco’s mouth. How can he possibly help this poor boy when he can’t even manage to save himself?

# # #

“We’ll start at Epsom station and work our way out from there.” Rookwood stands at the head of the table, his voice echoing loudly throughout the room. Draco listens with half an ear, choosing to focus on a nick on the wooden table. “We’ll convene at Oak Square once the fire has spread sufficiently.”

“Sir,” Mulciber interrupts, “wouldn’t our efforts be better spent closer to London itself? Why bother with Epsom?”

“Are you doubting my tactics, Callum?” Rookwood smiles warmly but his eyes are cold as ice.

“No, I just—”

“No town is too small or insignificant for our gains. We aren’t just taking back London and the Ministry; we want to expand our territory.” Mulciber nods in agreement, and bows his head, looking properly chastised. “Now, I’ll want four men on this job. Avery, Mulciber, Nott and…” Rookwood looks around, his gaze landing on Brandon. The young boy cowers in his seat, his hands clenched into tight fists on the table.

“I’d like to go,” Draco intercedes. Rookwood snaps his head towards Draco, raising a surprised brow. “Sir,” Draco adds as an afterthought.

“Are you sure you’re up to it?” Theo asks with a snide smirk.

“Quite sure,” Draco replies tightly. In fact the idea makes his stomach turn, but at least Brandon will be able to sit this one out.

“Fine.” Rookwood waves his hand dismissively. “Travers is scouting the area right now. We’ll meet again in a few hours to assign the specific duties.”

Draco is the first to rise, his stomach twisting unpleasantly as he pushes his way through the door. He’s surprised to find Grace Mulciber standing in the hallway, the delicate chiffon of her nightgown falling from one shoulder.

“Mrs Mulciber?”

“Oaks Square,” she says dreamily. “I know that area. My uncle had a bakery on that road. I wonder if it’s still there.”

“Shouldn’t you check?” Draco asks quietly, looking over his shoulder. “Maybe you can warn him before the attack.”

“We don’t talk to that side of the family.” Grace turns to Draco suddenly, her eyes wide and fearful. “Father forbade Mother to ever speak to them again—they’re Muggles.” Grace’s face pinches in disgust but her eyes shimmer with sadness. “It was bad enough that my father married a Mudblood—a lapse in judgement he came to regret.” Draco opens his mouth to reply, though words completely fail him, but Grace quickly cuts him off. Her tone turns hard and angry, and she glares at Draco accusingly, as if it’s somehow all his fault. “We don’t speak of it.”

Draco watches in dismay as Grace stumbles back, her expression becoming placid and blank once more. The rest of the members filter out of the meeting room, brushing past her as she continues to move away, fading into the background like a ghost.

# # #

Bright flames lick at the buildings and dark, pluming smoke fills the air. Draco’s pulse thuds, his heart beating so erratically he’s sure it will burst from his chest. Fear swells in his veins but he quickly pushes it away, focusing his wand on the collapsing structure.

There is nothing so terrifying as Fiendfyre and memories of his last encounter with the cursed fire flood, unbidden, into his mind. Draco recalls choking on the acrid air as daunting creatures formed from fierce flames rushed towards him. He was certain he would die, that the fire would swallow him whole.

There’s no time for such haunting memories and, with some difficulty, Draco re-focuses on his task, casting yet another Protego Horribilis on the Muggle buildings. It offers little protection from the enchanted flames, but it does slow the burning, hopefully for long enough to allow the screaming Muggles to escape. He looks around but finds no other Purity Seekers near, no one to catch him in the act. Draco rushes to the next building and redoubles his efforts.

The Muggles pay him no mind as he pushes through the frantic crowd, his dark hood pulled low over his face. Even so, he wishes he had a mask like the others, something to hide behind as he does his best to reduce the damage inflicted all around him.

He nearly runs straight into Mr Nott, the heavy-set wizard laughing cruelly as flames erupt from the tip of his wand. Draco’s stomach twists in disgust and he discretely casts an Oppugno at Nott. Newspapers littered across the street swirl into the air, surrounding Nott and blocking his view. Nott grunts in frustration, stumbling away as the papers continue to attack him.

“Let’s go,” Mulciber shouts from across the road, barely waiting a moment longer before Apparating away.

Draco looks around and sees Aurors popping into view. They surround the area and quickly approach the rest of the Purity Seekers. Draco readies himself to Apparate when a strong hand grips his forearm and drags him down a side street.

“What—” Draco’s surprised shout dies on his lips as Potter shimmers into existence in front him, looking grim and determined. “Changed your mind then, Potter? Finally going to turn me in?”

“Shut up,” Potter hisses, tossing a battered-looking cloak over Draco’s body.

“What are you doing—”

“Just be quiet,” Potter commands, pulling him quickly along several more roads and into a dark, secluded alley.

Sirens sounds in the distance, the shouts of Muggles and Aurors alike fading and muffled between the tall brick walls. Potter pulls the cloak off Draco, the fine material sliding away like liquid.

“Is that a…?” Draco’s words fade into disbelief. Of course Harry Potter has an invisibility cloak.

“What were you doing?”

“What did it look like?” Draco scoffs.

“It looked as if you were casting protective charms,” Potter says, crossing his arms. “So what were you doing if not participating in the attack?”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I’m not an idiot, Malfoy.” Draco raises a disbelieving eyebrow and Potter narrows his eyes. “I know what I saw.”

“Just mind your own business, Potter,” Draco says hotly, flustered at having been caught.

“This is my business,” Potter retorts. “Renegade Death Eaters causing mass havoc and destruction is something I’m concerned about.” Potter sighs heavily and tugs at his hair, making it even messier than before. “I don’t understand, Malfoy. If you’re not working with them, why don’t you turn them all in? It’d make both of our lives much easier. I’m sure you’d be cleared of your charges if you handed that lot over to the Ministry.”

“It’s not that simple!” Draco thinks of Brandon, rotting away in a cell like Greg. “I can’t do that, you don’t understand.”

“No, I clearly don’t,” Potter replies bitterly. He looks angry and confused but most of all disappointed. Draco detests the way Potter’s expression makes his stomach clench with misgivings.

“Cheshunt,” Draco mumbles quietly.

“What?”

“That’s where they’re planning the next attack.”

Draco exhales heavily and turns, ready to Apparate away, but Potter’s fingers curl around his wrist.

“Wait.” Draco turns back towards Potter, his heart thudding against his chest. “I won’t turn you in, but only if you continue to help in this way. Give us information, insider intel, and I’ll let you go.”

“I’m not working for the Ministry,” Draco scoffs, trying to shake free of Potter’s tight grip.

“Not the Ministry, not the Death Hunters.” Potter’s jaw tightens. “Just me. You’ll only report to me.”

“It’s impossible. How would I even contact you?”

Potter looks conflicted, his eyes swimming with indecision before he releases Draco’s hand and reaches into his pocket. He pulls out a small, gold coin.

“Here.” Potter pulls out his wand and mutters an incantation, some kind of adjusted Protean charm. He holds out the coin towards Draco. “Take this. It will warm up when you’re being summoned. The date and time will appear on the coin when—”

“I know how it works,” Draco cuts Potter off. He unwillingly thinks of Madam Rosmerta and a flash of remorse briefly crosses his face. Potter catches it and frowns at him, eyes accusing. Draco promptly pushes down the guilt. “Where would we even meet?”

Potter considers a moment before replying. “The clearing in the woods, where we met last time.”

Draco sighs in defeat, hesitating even though he already knows he’s going to agree. Potter's hand is still outstretched, a ray of light shining through the alleyway and glinting off the coin held between his fingers. Draco reaches out and snatches the coin. He stares at it for a moment, then at Potter before he steps back and Apparates away.

# # #

The meeting is nearly over by the time Draco quietly enters through the open door. He moves discreetly to the back of the room but Theo looks directly at him, his mouth spreading into a devious smirk.

“Why, Draco,” Theo exclaims loudly, “so nice of you to join us. Did you just arrive?”

Rookwood turns sharply towards Draco, pausing in his speech. “Where were you, Malfoy?” His voice drips with suspicion.

“I went to the Crypt after we were overrun with Aurors,” Draco says calmly, taking a seat and willing his racing heart to slow down. “I didn’t realise we were supposed to report back here.”

“Is that so?” Rookwood asks coldly.

“It’s true.” Narcissa sweeps into the room. “I was with him and we Flooed here together a moment ago.”

Rookwood glances at Narcissa, and a long pause follows before he finally nods his head, satisfied. “In the future, Malfoy, be sure to always report directly here for debriefing.”

“Understood,” Draco replies, finally allowing a shaky exhale to escape as Rookwood continues speaking to the room.

Theo watches him closely, clearly unconvinced. Draco wants nothing more than to reach across the table and wipe that smug smile off his face. Narcissa takes a seat beside Draco and glances briefly over at him. Her face is cold and impassive but there are unasked questions in her eyes. Draco turns his gaze away and gives Rookwood his full attention.

Potter’s coin feels unbearably heavy in his pocket.

# # #

Draco activates the coin a few days later.

When he arrives at the clearing in the woods, Potter is already there, waiting. He’s barely off his broom when Potter charges forward.

“Well, do you have information for me?”

“You don’t waste any time do you?” Draco remarks as he rests his broom against a tree.

“Malfoy,” Potter warns.

Draco sighs. “I don’t really have much of a choice, do I?”

“There’s always a choice,” Potter says fiercely. “You don’t always have to take the easy way out.”

“Honestly, the easy route would be turning myself in,” Draco says, shifting uncomfortably under the weight of Potter’s disbelieving stare. “It’s true,” he protests.

Draco’s thoughts have often been filled with the idea of just going to the Ministry and being done with it all. He might be locked in a cell, or worse, but at least his fate would be taken out of his hands for good.

“Then why don’t you?” Potter asks wryly. He has such a smug expression on his face Draco is tempted to hit him. He breathes deeply instead and forces himself to relax.

“I can’t stand the Purity Alliance, I won’t deny that,” Draco admits. “My skin crawls around those people, but there are others there too. Those who are innocent and need to be protected.”

“Your family?” Potter asks.

“Yes,” Draco agrees. He hesitates, wondering how much he should actually reveal to Potter. The need to protect himself wars with the desire to finally have a confidant, someone to safely share his conflicting thoughts with. Potter stares at him, blinking owlishly as he waits for Draco to continue. It has to be trap, luring Draco in with an innocent expression, but the words spill from Draco’s lips all the same. “But there are also children, young children who could easily be caught in the middle. What choice do they have?”

“So you’re protecting them?” Potter asks incredulously. His disbelief is palpable and Draco bites the inside of his cheek to prevent himself from saying something he’ll regret.

“Don’t sound so shocked, Potter.”

“I’m not—okay, maybe a little bit.”

“Is it such a strange notion that I might put the welfare of others before my own? Who else is going to look out for them? They need someone to keep them safe.”

“You make it sound like you’re some kind of hero. Saviour of the dark side.” Potter’s voice drips sarcasm but oddly enough Draco’s doesn’t feel slighted. He almost likes the sound of the mock title Potter has given him; if anything, it’s lightened the tension between them just a bit.

“Maybe I am.” Draco shrugs, his lips quirking up despite himself. “You don’t own the market on saviours, you know.”

Draco is startled when Potter laughs loudly at his comment, the skin crinkling at the corners of his eyes. It’s an unexpected noise, filling the quiet of the woods and echoing off the tall tree trunks. Potter shakes his head with mirth, those messy curls falling in front of his face. He looks so different when he laughs, younger somehow. Draco realises he’s staring and quickly averts his gaze.

Potter eventually sobers up, gingerly sits on the ground and begins to pick at the blades of grass. Draco stands awkwardly, a tense silence growing between them before he takes a seat as well. He only notices how close he’s sitting to Potter once he’s already on the ground: it’s too late to move without it being conspicuous.

“So, here we are…” Potter mumbles, trailing off as he continues to pluck at overgrown weeds. Draco watches the dirt collect under Potter’s fingernails as he digs.

“I thought it would be over by now,” Draco admits softly, tearing his gaze away and glancing up at the sky. “Harry Potter kills You Know Who—”

“Voldemort,” Potter interrupts.

Draco resists the urge to roll his eyes, even as the name sends a chill down his spine. “Harry Potter kills Voldemort and we all live happily ever after.”

“Wishful thinking,” Potter scoffs. “Besides, I didn’t really kill him—he sort of destroyed himself.”

Draco is tempted to ask Potter for details, morbid as that would be, but he can’t seem to summon the courage. His thoughts stray to his own misdeeds and he finds himself speaking before he can stop himself. “I couldn’t kill Dumbledore. I thought I would do anything to save my family, but—”

“Not killing doesn’t make you weak,” Potter interjects.

“Maybe not,” Draco agrees. “But I sealed my family’s fate in that moment. I failed them. I felt so weak. Dumbledore was pleading with me, telling me I wasn’t a killer, that it wasn’t too late for me. My resolve weakened, the salvation he offered felt surreal.”

“And you lowered your wand…” Draco snaps his head round to look at Potter, who sheepishly continues, “I was there, I saw the whole thing.”

“Of course you were,” Draco scoffs, but with no real venom. He’s sitting in a beautiful clearing in a dense forest with Harry bloody Potter, spilling his innermost thoughts as if they cost him nothing. At this rate nothing could really surprise him. “You somehow manage to be everywhere, Potter.”

Draco’s mind travels back to that day in the bathroom, sobbing over a sink and despairing over his impossible task. He recalls the anger and shame he felt as Potter appeared, followed by the shock and pain as he lay in a pool of his own blood. Potter’s face turns ashen and Draco wonders if he’s thinking of the same thing.

“The Ministry’s a mess,” Potter says suddenly, breaking the tense silence. “Kingsley is trying to keep it all together but new factions keep dividing everyone up. I barely lasted a day with the Death Hunters…their bloodthirsty hunger for vengeance made me sick.”

“I’m sure you can understand why I’m a bit reluctant to hand myself over,” Draco remarks bitterly. “Your side has turned into rabid beasts.”

“People are angry and scared,” Potter retorts fiercely. “I don’t condone the Death Hunters but I understand where their pain comes from.”

“And that makes it right?” Draco counters. Self-righteous anger climbs up his throat. “What about Brandon Jugson? He’s only thirteen, you know. He’s been dragged into this by his father, with no choice or say in the matter. What will happen to him? He’s only a child.”

Potter shrugs. “Some might say you and I are only children.”

“It’s been a long time since I’ve felt like a child.” Draco laughs humorlessly.

“I know what you mean,” Potter mumbles softly.

A few leaves tumble past as a gentle wind blows through the open area. Draco inhales the earthy scent it brings: the air smells like damp wood and moss. There’s something oddly soothing about sitting here in silence, the soft sound of creaking trees filling the empty space between them. Potter sits close, not quite touching, but Draco can feel the heat of Potter’s body coming off him in waves. He mulls their conversation over in his head, and he’s unaware of how much time has passed when he finally turns to face Potter.

Potter is already looking at him, his eyes bright and vivid as he examines Draco closely. Draco isn’t used to seeing Potter this close up when they aren’t snarling in each other’s faces. He’s taken aback by how green Potter’s eyes are, how big they appear behind his round glasses.

“So, will you help?” Potter’s intense gaze makes something in Draco’s chest tighten. The information for the next attack spills from him so quickly, Draco half wonders if Potter has cast some kind of spell to loosen his lips. “Thank you,” Potter says solemnly when Draco has told him everything he knows.

Potter uncrosses his legs and gets to his feet, offering his hand to Draco. Draco’s mind flashes back to when they first met, to that thwarted handshake so many years ago. He hesitates for only one moment before he reaches out and allows Potter to pull him up. Potter’s palm is rough and calloused, and his skin is impossibly warm. Their hands stay clasped a moment too long and Draco clears his throat uncomfortably. Potter blinks once and then hastily releases Draco’s hand.

“I’ll be in touch,” Potter says firmly before stepping away.

For some reason it sounds less like a threat and more like a promise.

# # #

Draco watches from the doorway as Nott gulps from an overflowing mug of beer, the pale foam clinging to the sides of his mouth. He laughs roughly and collapses into a chair besides Draco’s father, spilling lager onto the table.

“You should have seem them, Lucius,” Nott slurs. “Begging for mercy, crying useless tears.” Nott nudges his arm but Lucius flinches away from the touch. Nott narrows his watery red eyes. “And why weren’t you there, old friend?” Lucius remains silent, timidly sipping from a goblet. “Ah, better you stay at home. Look at you,” Nott jeers, “you’d be useless out there.”

Nott laughs again, a loud and boisterous bark, and takes another large swig of beer. Draco sighs and turns to walk away, only to bump into a familiar figure.

“What a distasteful pair,” Theo drawls, blocking Draco’s path.

“Move,” Draco commands coldly.

“Who do you think is more pathetic?” Theo asks. “My father or yours?” Draco remains silent, looking over Theo’s shoulder, as he continues. “I suppose yours is far more pitiful. My father, drunkard that he is, is at least more use to the cause than that shell of yours.”

“Fuck off, Theo.” Draco goes to push past, but Theo grabs him by the shoulders and shoves him against the wall.

“What did you say?”

“Let me go,” Draco seethes.

“Don’t you know who you’re talking to?” Theo hisses. “We aren’t at Hogwarts anymore. You aren’t the sweet prince of Slytherin with your goons to fawn over you. Crabbe’s dead, Goyle’s locked away and Parkinson and Zabini have run off and left you high and dry.”

Draco deflates slightly in Theo’s grasp, slumping against the wall. He hates that Theo is right: he’s never felt more alone.

Theo’s eyes darken and his voice turns smoky, “If you need someone to look after you, I might consider it.” Theo cups Draco’s jaw roughly. “I always thought you were rather pretty.”

“I think I’ll pass on your generous offer,” Draco spits.

Theo’s hand slides from Draco’s jaw to rest around his throat. He squeezes tightly as he leans in, so close his lips brush against Draco’s ear. “A new world order is coming,” Theo hisses. “You’d better learn your place.”

“Nott, you’re needed.” Avery seems to appear out of nowhere, though he doesn’t even spare Draco a second look.

Theo releases his hold on Draco, eyes flashing dangerously before he turns and follows Avery down the hall. Draco’s shaking hands touch his throat, tracing the tender spot where Theo held his neck so tightly. His heart pounds with furious fear as he watches Theo walk away.

# # #

“You have no idea of the date or time of the attack?”

“I already told you Potter, all I have is the location.”

“Well, that’s not much use,” Potter huffs in frustration. “We don’t have the numbers to station Aurors around there indefinitely.”

Draco clenches his jaw in anger and curls his fists so tightly his fingernails dig into his palms. He’d foolishly been looking forward to meeting Potter today; he was excited to get away from the Estate and the looming, searching stares of Theo and the others. He felt light and almost giddy as the wind whipped around him and sunlight warmed his face on the flight over. Now he’s grinding his teeth in an effort to hold back a nasty remark. He should have known Potter would be insufferably ungrateful.

“They’re becoming more secretive with their information. It’s difficult to get all the details.”

“Try harder then,” Potter bites out.

“Of course!” Draco throws his hands in the air. “Next time I’ll just burst into a private meeting and insist they tell me everything. I’m sure that’ll go over well.”

“Don’t get cheeky with me,” Potter growls, his face flushing. “Don’t forget I could hand you over in a heartbeat.”

“How could I forget?” Draco retorts. “You love to remind me how I’m at your mercy. Tell me, do you get off on holding this power over me?”

“Shut up, Malfoy.”

“No, really.” Draco sneers, crossing his arms. “I’d love to know if you get the same kind of thrill from this as you did back at Hogwarts. Does it excite you just like it did to have everyone fawning over you back then?”

“You’re so full of shit,” Potter scoffs. “You have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Don’t I?” Draco asks cruelly. “Doesn’t your adoring public still worship you? Or do they blame you for these new attacks?”

“I said, shut it!” Potter roars, leaning close and grabbing Draco by the shoulders.

“Let go,” Draco hisses, shoving at Potter’s chest.

Potter growls low in this throat, stepping closer and pushing back at Draco. Draco stumbles but charges forward, shoving Potter harder than before. He nearly trips over a raised root, only managing to catch his balance at the last moment. His face is flushed with fury and his mouth hangs open as he pants breathlessly. Draco has barely a moment’s warning before Potter rushes forward, tackling him to the ground.

The pine needles are sharp against Draco’s back as he lands on the ground with Potter’s weight pressing him down. Draco flinches, expecting a punch, but it doesn’t come. Instead, Potter growls and shoves ineffectively at Draco, his pinched face looming close. Draco presses back, digging his fingers into Potter’s biceps as he turns them over. They tussle on the ground for a few moments, fighting for dominance as they push and shove at each other without doing any actual damage.

Draco feels heat pool into his stomach and his breath catches when he realises he’s becoming aroused. He rolls over, ready to push himself away from Potter and stumble away when he feels an unmistakable hardness against his thigh.

Fuck, Potter’s turned on too.

Potter’s eyes widen and his cheeks turn pink but he doesn’t pull away. Rather he arches up, rocking his growing erection against Draco and sliding his leg towards Draco’s groin. Draco surpresses a moan of surprise when Potter’s muscled thigh pushes against his straining cock. Potter growls again, the sound vibrating deep in his throat, and they roll over so Potter’s straddling Draco’s hips. Draco’s trapped prick throbs with need and he pushes up, gasping as he’s rewarded with the firm pressure of Potter’s clothed arse against it. Potter’s palms press into Draco’s shoulders, keeping him firmly pinned to the ground. Draco is helpless as Potter sets the pace, rocking back and forth, rubbing the long line of his erection along Draco’s. Potter’s face is still twisted with anger, but his eyes swim with pleasure. He throws his head back, looking up towards the sky.

The friction is intense as their cocks rub roughly together through the layers of cotton and denim, but Draco gives in to the burning sensation. His bollocks draw in tight; his mouth falls open and he squeezes his eyes shut. He reaches out, gripping Potter’s hips and ruts upwards once, twice, and then he’s coming hard. His prick pulses in his pants, spurting his release against the damp cotton.

Potter lets out a little whine, frantically rocking against Draco’s thigh until he gasps loudly and stills. Draco is certain he can feel the incessant throbbing of Potter’s cock, even through their clothes.

An awkward silence falls over them in the aftermath. Potter rolls off Draco and collapses at his side, breathing heavily through clenched teeth. Soon the cooling stickiness in Draco’s pants becomes uncomfortable and he grabs his wand to cast a cleaning spell over himself. He sits up slowly and glances at Potter, who is still lying there with his eyes tightly shut, and spells him clean as well.

Potter’s eyes snap open, looking startled and anxious as they meet Draco’s. It’s as if the charm has woken Potter from his daze and he scrambles hastily to his feet. He races towards his broom and flies off without giving Draco a second glance.

# # #

Draco feels terribly off-center when he stumbles back into the long hallway of the Mulciber Estate. His body is sated and relaxed in a way it hasn’t been in months, but his mind is unsettled and jumpy. His skin feels too tight, stretched over his bones and his clothing is suddenly far too constrictive. The cleaning charm has left his jeans stiff and he longingly thinks of the shower in the guest bathroom. There might be little hot water to spare—the old pipes of the Estate are stubbornly resistant to heating charms—but even standing under a lukewarm spray would be utterly satisfying.

He places the broom with the others, his eyes darting around to check for any onlookers before heading towards the Guest Wing. His breath leaves him in a surprised woosh as a firm hand grabs his shoulder and pulls his into an empty room.

“Where were you?”

Draco exhales a shaky breath when he recognises his mother’s voice. Her eyes are narrowed, her expression pinched. He tries to pull away from her tense grip but she only tightens her hold on him.

“Nowhere,” Draco huffs out, refusing to meet her eyes.

“Draco,” she warns, her voice full of reproach.

“I was—I just—” Draco stutters over his words, swallowing thickly over the lump forming in his throat. He hates lying to this mother. “I just went out. I needed some fresh air, that’s all.”

She peers searchingly into his eyes for a long moment before her expression finally softens. She’s always been able to see right through Draco. Narcissa lets out a tired sigh before releasing her hold on Draco’s shoulder.

“Be careful, dear.” Narcissa’s face is resigned and weary. “It’s a dangerous game you’re playing.”

Draco nods solemnly before turning away and rushing out of the room.

# # #

The sky is purple, littered with wispy clouds as the sun dips below the horizon. The last of the sunlight illuminates the treetops, making them appear more gold than green. Draco uses the dying light to guide him as he flies towards the clearing, squinting as the low rays shine into his eyes.

When Draco lands he finds Potter already waiting for him, shifting nervously as he paces back and forth. He startles when he notices Draco’s presence. Potter’s discomfort is contagious; anxiety floods Draco’s veins and he pushes down the rising dread in this throat.

“I don’t have any new information,” Draco reports, gripping his broom too tightly in his hand. The old wood digs into his palm, rubbing roughly against his callouses. “You should have waited for me to summon you, I’m afraid you’ve wasted your time—”

“That’s fine,” Potter interrupts, speaking just a bit too loud. A disgruntled bird squawks in protest at the disturbance, fleeing a tall branch above them. Potter laughs nervously and Draco tries to smile, but his face feels stiff and his skin too tight. Potter looks at the ground, kicking at some loose pebbles. His voice sounds strained and embarrassed when he finally speaks again. “I just wanted to get away, that’s all.”

“Couldn’t you have done that on your own?” Draco asks with a hint of smugness. Potter shrugs. His unease, despite Draco’s previous anxieties, is beginning to calm Draco’s own nerves. He can feel his confidence slowly creeping back in. “What was the purpose of summoning me?”

Potter’s looks up sharply, his jaw clenched but his eyes burning bright. His cheeks slowly heat, his flushed complexion clear to see in the soft light filtering through the trees.

“I...” Potter begins, before frowning and trailing off. “I don’t know, Malfoy.” He sighs heavily and kicks at the ground, taking out his frustration on a tuft of grass.

“I think you do know.” Draco is playing with fire, only this is much more dangerous than the terrifying flames of Fiendfyre. He’s likely to be scorched, burned alive, and yet he steps forward all the same. “What is it that you really want, Potter?”

Potter glares at Draco and it’s the barely restrained anger—more likely for himself than directed at Draco—that fuels Draco’s confidence, making him feel bold. Draco drops his broom and closes the distance in three long strides, pressing Potter firmly against a tree trunk.

“Malfoy,” Potter warns, but his voice is low and husky. “What are you doing?”

“Giving you what you want,” Draco says roughly in his ear before cupping the straining erection in Potter’s jeans.

Potter’s resulting gasp is music to Draco’s ears. He makes quick work of Potter’s fly, slipping his hand past the waistband of Potter’s pants and into the inviting heat within. Potter lets out a needy whine as Draco’s fingers wrap around his stiff cock, and he lets his head fall back against the tree.

It’s messy and quick but Draco absorbs every glorious moment. Potter is open-mouthed, panting heavily. His eyes are squeezed shut and his hands clenched into tight fists at his sides. He bucks forward into the circle of Draco’s fingers, rocking into Draco’s sure and steady strokes. Strands of pre-come run down Draco’s knuckles, sticky and hot.

“Please, I—” Potter’s thighs tighten and his eyes snap wide open. “Ohhhh, yes!”

Potter shudders through his orgasm and Draco continues to pump his prick until the last tremors subside. He leans bonelessly against the tree when Draco removes his hand and wipes the excess come on his palm against the coarse bark.

“Should I…” Potter trails off, glancing over at the bulge in Draco’s own jeans. “Do you want me to—”

“Come here,” Draco mumbles, unfastening his jeans and pulling them down his thighs. He grabs Potter’s hand and guides it towards his straining cock. Potter’s touch is unsure and that thrills Draco all the more. He strokes Draco’s cock clumsily, his grip too loose and the pace too slow. “Have you ever even done this before, Potter?” Draco asks.

“What do you think?” Potter mutters through clenched teeth. His cheeks are burning; he refuses to meet Draco’s searching stare.

“Never messed around in the Quidditch locker rooms?” Draco bucks his hips as Potter increases the pace. “What about your ginger weasel of a girlfriend? Didn’t you ever fool around with her? Or was she missing the proper equipment?”

“Don’t call her that,” Potter growls, tightly squeezing Draco’s cock.

“What? Your girlfriend?” Draco says on a moan, the firmer pressure sending sparks of pleasure along his spine.

“Shut up,” Potter hisses, moving his hand faster and harder.

Draco finds himself unable to speak any more, not with Potter fiercely tugging at his aching cock. His toes curl and he tilts his head back as white-hot pleasure shoots through him. Moments later, he spills himself all over Potter’s still-moving hand.

Draco slowly regains his breath and it’s Potter this time who grabs his wand first, casting a cleaning charm on himself. Draco raises an eyebrow at him and Potter sighs heavily before relenting and casting one on Draco as well.

The resulting silence is less awkward this time, but still tense, and Draco finds himself at a loss for what to say. What’s the proper etiquette after wanking off your former school nemesis? It certainly isn't something Draco’s mother taught him when instructing him on social conduct.

Potter shifts restlessly next to him before speaking suddenly, as if as an afterthought. “We broke up.”

“What?” Draco’s brow furrows in confusion.

“Me and Ginny,” Potter admits sullenly. “It wasn’t working. I wanted to be there for her, to protect her, but it turns out she didn’t need my protection. Once all the had smoke cleared, it was like we didn’t even know each other.” Potter presses his lips together and frowns, as if he didn’t actually mean to share that information.

“I see,” Draco replies, unsure of how he’s expected to respond. Apparently Potter gets rather chatty after coming.

“It’s been tense with the Weasleys,” Potter continues though he keeps his gaze averted. “Ever since…”

Since Fred died, Draco finishes silently in his head. He fights back the waves of guilt that crash against him as his own actions in the final battle flood into his mind like the sea at high tide.

“I did what I had to do,” Draco says sternly, regretting the words as soon as they spill from his mouth.

“What?” Potter turns to face him, his expression incredulous and angry.

“I—I was afraid,” Draco adds, upset at himself for speaking, frustrated for feeling the need to justify himself.

“You could have asked for help,” Potter grumbles bitterly.

“No, I couldn’t,” Draco retorts, becoming indignant himself. “He would have killed my family. I had to do it and I had to do it alone.”

“And allow countless others to be harmed as a result?” Potter barks. “You nearly killed Ron. And what about Katie Bell, and—?”

“I didn’t mean for that to happen,” Draco protests, rage and guilt swirling in his stomach.

“Is that so?” Potter asks coldly.

“You wouldn’t understand,” Draco sneers. “You don’t have a family to protect.”

Shit.

All the colour drains from Potter’s face. He takes a step back. Then another. “Fuck you, Malfoy.”

Draco hadn’t meant to say that, the words just spilled from his lips. Who does Potter think he is anyway, prodding Draco and pushing him to angrily lash out? Frustration swells in Draco’s chest: the brief moment of afterglow from before has been entirely ruined. Potter glares at Draco as he grabs his broom, scowling at him fiercely before taking to the sky.

Draco stays in the clearing, alone, as dusk settles around him. Eventually he sighs heavily and walks towards his own broom. He isn’t sure why he should give a damn about any of it.

Still, as he takes off, he can’t seem to shake the image of Potter’s wounded, hurt eyes.

# # #

“You smell like sex.”

Theo looms in, smirking. He presses his hands against the wall, horribly close to each side of Draco’s face. His light eyes are icy, dancing with mischief and cruelty.

“Fuck off, Theo.” Draco feigns boredom but his heart is pounding in his chest. Theo always seemed so slight at school. Draco isn’t sure when he bulked up so much, but his strong figure is chillingly threatening as he looms over Draco.

“So, where have you been sneaking off to?” Theo leans forward and whispers harshly in his ear. “What exactly have you been doing on these little excursions?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Draco swallows roughly, keeping his voice as steady as possible.

“Don’t play stupid with me,” Theo hisses. “I’ve been watching you carefully, Draco.”

“Let me go.” Draco pushes away from the wall only to be shoved back against it.

“If you’re so desperate for it, you know I’ll help you out.” Theo presses his body against Draco’s. “For a price, of course. But I bet it’s cheaper than whatever hovel you’re running off to to get your cock sucked.”

“Fuck you,” Draco spits angrily.

“Did I guess correctly?” Theo smirks. “I really hope you don’t pay for it. You’re a wizard, for Merlin’s sake. Just go to some Muggle club, cast Imperio and then Obliviate them afterwards. Muggles do have their uses from time to time.”

“You’re disgusting.” Draco pushes, hard, and Theo finally stumbles back, giving way to him.

Draco storms off, ignoring Theo’s cruel laughter as it echoes through the hall.

# # #

The earth is soft beneath Draco’s feet and dew clings to blades of grass, glittering in the early morning sun. The air smells like fresh rain and moss, serene and invigorating at the same time. Draco inhales deeply, closing his eyes and allowing the gentle rays of sunshine to warm his upturned face. A twig snaps behind him and his eyes quickly open. He turns around to find Potter approaching him.

Potter’s face is carefully blank but his eyes are full of warring emotions—hesitation, frustration, and a hint of something else, something Draco can’t quite discern.

“Potter,” Draco says.

“You have some information?” Potter asks in a clipped voice, his arms held stiffly at his sides.

“Yes,” Draco sighs, stepping closer. Potter flinches, looking as if he wants to move away, but he holds his ground. “They’re planning a massive attack in Oxford tomorrow afternoon. Almost all of the members will be present—”

“You included?” Potter interrupts.

“Yes,” Draco replies, bristling when Potter narrows his eyes. “I’ll need to be there to limit the damage.”

“Right,” Potter replies. He suddenly looks terribly tired and Draco notices the dark bags under his eyes. “What else?”

“They’ll be using Fiendfyre again, in combination with basic Reductor Curses in order to maximise the damage to Muggle property.”

“Alright.” Potter nods his head, his brow furrowed as he takes in the information.

Draco shifts nervously in the silence that follows. He collects his courage and pushes aside his pride as he steps forward. “I’m sorry.”

“What?” Potter lifts his gaze, confusion and surprise spreading across his face.

“About what I said, last time.” Draco grits his teeth, the apology almost painful as it leaves his lips. “I—I shouldn't have said what I did. It was...unnecessary.”

“Oh.” Now Potter looks uncomfortable, fidgeting restlessly and awkwardly clenching his hands into fists. “It’s fine. Well, it’s not fine but…let’s just not speak about those things in the future.”

“Okay,” Draco agrees. He wonders if he should offer his hand and shake on it. The notion is so ridiculous Draco is hopelessly unable to stifle the laugh that escapes his mouth.

“What’s so funny?” Potter asks, narrowing his eyes suspiciously.

“Nothing.” Draco shakes his head, feeling lighter than he has in days. “So, if we aren’t talking, what should we do instead?”

“Instead?” Potter’s cheeks stain pink and he ruffles the back of his hair, making it messier than ever.

“Well,” Draco begins, stepping closer to Potter and growing more bold. “How are you going to repay me for sharing this important information with you?”

“By not handing you in,” Potter huffs, though his pupils dilate slightly as Draco draws nearer. “That’s your reward: your freedom.”

“I’d rather have something else,” Draco purrs, closing the distance between them.

“Yeah?” Potter asks, his voice turning nearly shy. “What do you want, then?”

“I want you to suck me,” Draco whispers hotly in Potter’s ear.

Potter shivers against the rush of warm air on his neck. His voice is tight when he replies. “I’ve—I’ve never—”

“I know,” Draco responds. His hands are already reaching down to undo his jeans, his prick filling and thickening in his pants. “Don’t worry, I’ll guide you.”

Potter’s eyes are wide and he swallows thickly, looking at Draco as if he’s mad. Draco has a sharp, aching fear that Potter might back down, might walk away and refuse. He doesn’t. He nods slowly and lowers to his knees, his hands shaking as he pulls Draco’s hard cock out.

“Well?” Potter’s lips brush against the leaking tip and Draco twitches at the contact.

“Now you put it in your mouth, Potter.” Draco tries for nonchalance but his voice is far too shaky for that.

“Prat,” Potter mutters but he opens his mouth and presses forward.

Merlin.

Nothing in the world could have prepared Draco for the wet, velvety heat of Potter’s mouth. Potter tentatively traces his tongue along the shaft of his prick and Draco’s knees nearly buckle. It’s the timidity of it all that arouses Draco the most. He tangles his hair into Potter’s impossibly messy locks and guides his head, setting a slow but steady pace. Potter gags slightly but readjusts, opening his mouth wider and enthusiastically wrapping his lips around the swollen flesh. He’s messy and inexperienced—spit drips from the corners of his mouth—but Draco hardly cares. He makes the mistake of looking down and groans loudly before he can stop himself. The sight of Potter’s vibrant green eyes, large and intense; the rosy hue of his cheeks; the shiny swelling of his plump lips wrapped around Draco’s prick...it sends Draco over the edge. He cries out a warning, so late that Potter barely has a chance to pull back, before he comes undone. Draco’s release pulses out in great spurts, hitting Potter’s swollen lips, running down his chin and falling to the ground.

“How was that?” Potter asks cockily, though the effect is ruined by his hoarse voice. He wipes Draco’s come from his mouth with the back of his hand and adjusts his own cock in his jeans. Draco’s eyes fall to the tented fabric, and with barely a moment’s hesitation he pushes Potter down so he’s lying on his back, straddling his legs in turn. “You don’t have to—”

“Shut up, Potter,” Draco growls, unzipping Potter’s fly to expose his rigid cock to the warm summer air.

Potter’s lips are sealed after that, only parting to emit the occasional strained groan or desperate whimper. Draco sucks eagerly, swirling his tongue around Potter’s swollen head. He doesn’t last very long; in no time at all he’s digging his nails into the earth and arching his hips up towards the sky. He tries to warn Draco, tugging roughly at his arm and stuttering his name, but Draco just continues to suck, swallowing Potter’s bitter release as it fills his mouth.

When Draco has licked Potter clean, he collapses beside him. His pulse flutters madly but his mind feels exceptionally clear. Wispy clouds are visible through the dense treetops and Draco idly watches them pass by. The silence is less awkward than usual. Instead, Draco delights in the gentle babbling of the nearby creek and the soft chirps of restless birds.

“That was pretty good,” Potter says, finally breaking the silence.

Draco turns his head to face Potter, a sarcastic retort on the tip of his tongue, but it quickly dies on his lips. Potter’s eyes are closed, the lines on his face smooth and barely visible.

“Admit it, Potter,” Draco says, returning his gaze to the sky. “That was the best experience of your life.”

“Hardly,” Potter scoffs. “But it’s not a bad way to release tension.”

“Much better than Gobstones,” Draco agrees.

Potter snorts. “What?”

“Never mind.” Draco chuckles himself. He slowly tucks himself back into his pants, but he makes no effort to move. His gaze is drawn to a small black bird with a vibrant orange belly, and he watches as it flits from tree to tree. “Did you know the redstarts only come here in the summer?”

“What?” Potter’s voice is full of incredulous surprise.

“Those birds in the trees up there.” Draco lazily lifts a hand to the sky. “They migrate here during the summer and come autumn they return to Africa.”

“That’s…an interesting piece of information.”

“Don’t be an arse,” Draco rebukes, though his tone is light. “We used get lots of them every summer in the gardens at home. Mother loves birds—she had a huge book about them, and she would read me passages every night before bed when I was younger.”

“Really?” Draco sees Potter from the corner of his eye as he turns his head to glance at Draco. Draco resists the urge to turn and face him fully, instead keeping his gaze fixed on the sky. “Your mother doesn’t seem like the type.”

“The type to enjoy bird watching? What qualifies a person to be the type to have a hobby?”

“I don’t know,” Potter mumbles. “I guess it makes sense. You did have all those peacocks.”

“Ugh, not the peacocks,” Draco groans. “I hated those things, they were terribly mean.”

“Did they insult your hair? It was pretty awful when you used to slick it back.”

“Oh shut it, Potter.” Draco can’t help the small smile that creeps across his face. “Actually, one of those horrid beasts tried to bite my finger off when I went to pet it.”

“Maybe you provoked it,” Potter offers. “I remember you giving Buckbeak good reason to attack.”

The mention of that Hippogriff darkens the mood and Draco sobers up, rolling over onto his side and sitting up. Potter follows his lead, re-zipping his jeans as he gets to his feet.

“I should get back,” Draco says, awkwardly shifting from one foot to the other and standing far too close to Potter.

“Yeah, same here,” Potter agrees, blinking slowly. His lashes are incredibly dark and so very thick. How has Draco never noticed that before?

He’s suddenly tempted to lean forward and kiss Potter goodbye. It’s absurd, absolutely ludicrous, and Draco pushes away the urge. This isn’t the conclusion of some romantic date in the woods; there’s no need to kiss tenderly beneath the swaying pine trees.

Draco nods his head brusquely and snatches his broom from the forest floor. He leaves quickly without saying goodbye.

# # #

Great plumes of smoke rise from piles of rubble, turning the air thick and acrid. Draco can taste the destruction on his tongue. He chokes on the harsh clouds, his lungs burning as he hurries past another collapsing building. The Purity Seekers are out in full force and his protective spells are doing precious little to prevent the catastrophic damage they’re inflicting. Luckily, all the screaming and chaos provide a welcome distraction, enabling him to be bolder with his casting; he quickly sheds his fear of being caught out.

He stumbles across Brandon whilst dashing to the next burning building. The young boy trembles violently as he watches Muggles rushing out, the enchanted flames growing taller by the second. Brandon raises his wand, mumbling half-hearted curses, but his hands shake and no magic spills from his wand. His heart is clearly not in it—in fact, his pale face is consumed by remorse, his eyes wide with horror at the destruction which surrounds him.

The sharp cracks of Apparition fill the air, then fierce wizards in red cloaks come into focus, scattered around the streets. Finally. Draco permits himself a small sigh of relief. It took the damn Aurors long enough to arrive. He rushes towards Brandon but a large piece of falling debris cuts off his path.

“There are too many of them,” Rookwood snarls, appearing suddenly at Draco’s side. He angrily casts a blasting curse towards an approaching Auror. “We’ll have to retreat.”

Rookwood quickly moves away, issuing orders and informing the others of the change in strategy. The Purity Seekers begin to Apparate away, one after another.

“What about Brandon?” Draco yells over the chaos, but his words fall on deaf and disappearing ears. Draco knows that Brandon is too young to Apparate on his own; he’s never been taught and always relies on other members to side-along with him. “Fuck.”

Draco races towards Brandon, dodging falling debris and twisting flames of Fiendfyre. His heart stops in his chest when he catches sight of the boy, terrified and trapped against a brick wall. A tall Auror with light brown hair and hard, determined blue eyes has him cornered. The Auror’s face is contorted with rage, his wand raised high as Brandon trembles before him.

“Please,” Brandon pleads. His hood is pulled down low but Draco can see the tears in his eyes from here, see the desperation on his face. “Don’t—”

“No mercy for Death Eaters,” the Auror sneers, before the fatal curse slips past his lips: “Avada Kedavra!”

Draco tries to scream but his voice deserts him; he barely makes a sound. His legs feel like lead as he pushes past the escaping Muggles to get closer to Brandon’s falling body. The Auror looks pleased until he steps closer, his expression turning slack as he pulls back Brandon’s hood. There is no deadly renegade Death Eater there, no criminal escaped from Azkaban. Beneath the dark robe is a thirteen-year-old boy, scared and helpless, his face twisted with terror. The Auror looks around quickly and Draco has the sense, through the incessant haze of blood rushing through his veins, to dive behind a pillar. The wizard looks satisfied enough, finding only scrambling Muggles nearby, and he stumbles backwards, disappearing into the crowd.

Draco’s vision blurs. His mouth is dry and his head is pounding as he finally makes it over to Brandon’s body. There are no Purity Seekers to be found, and even the frantic Muggles seem to be thinning in numbers. He falls to his knees, barely noticing the shards of broken glass that litter the ground. Rage and shock boil in his veins. The sounds of crumbling bricks and plaster fade into the background as he lifts Brandon’s body to his chest. He’s so light; he feels almost weightless when Draco cradles him close and rises to his feet.

Draco uses his free hand to gently close Brandon’s eyelids and swallows a silent sob as he Apparates them both away.

# # #

The woods look so different at night.

Dark trunks stand tall, black and foreboding as they paint the forest floor in shadows. Their gnarled branches twist upwards, reaching towards the inky sky—black velvet scattered with stars that shine like diamonds.

In any other circumstance, Draco might find it all terribly beautiful. He might lie back and enjoy the glow of the moonlight, perhaps take a moment to appreciate how it illuminates the edges of the fluttering leaves. Tonight, he merely feels hollow and numb.

Potter lands softly beneath the trees. The light of the moon reflects off the lenses of his glasses, obscuring his eyes. Draco’s icy shell begins to melt, a fiery rage beginning to burn in his stomach. He’s not sure why Potter’s arrival makes him so angry—Draco summoned him, after all—but watching Potter stand awkwardly in the clearing, shifting from foot to foot, fills Draco with indignant frustration.

Years of malice and envy settle through Draco’s bones and when Potter offers a small, tentative smile, Draco is overwhelmed by the urge to wipe the friendly expression from his face. There’s a part of Draco, somewhere deep inside and locked away, that knows it’s not Potter’s fault; he didn’t fire the spell that killed Brandon. In fact, Draco isn’t really sure whether Potter was present at all. The Death Hunters were, though—in full force and with a blinding need for bloody vengeance spilling from their pores. Draco thought his disgust was purely reserved for the Purity Seekers and their flawed ideologies, but now a fresh rage burns for the newly formed Ministry and its minions.

“Malfoy?” Potter steps closer. The shine of his glasses diminishes, revealing his searching eyes. They’re so bright, even in the limited light of the moon, and they glow with concern and confusion.

The flames of Draco’s fury rise higher, settling at the back of his throat. He hates Potter, hates the corrupt Ministry, hates the cowardly Purity Seekers, hates himself. He growls low in this throat, stalking towards Potter who, despite looking mildly alarmed, holds his ground.

Potter’s breath escapes him in a surprised exhale and his eyes widen as Draco pushes him against a tree. He’s like supple prey in Draco’s arms, shuddering and silent, his pupils fat with arousal. There’s a flicker of uncertainty in his eyes but he lifts his chin to meet the challenge. Draco pauses, centimeters from Potter’s face, watching his expression shift from alarm to confusion to anticipation.

When Potter opens his mouth, an unasked question forming on his lips, Draco leans in. The kiss is brutal and biting, more teeth than tongues, but Potter returns it with the same ferocity. Potter’s wind-chapped lips press firmly against Draco’s, his light stubble scratching Draco’s chin. Potter groans shamelessly into Draco’s mouth; their tongues duel for dominance as Potter begins to rut against Draco’s leg. Draco slides his thigh between Potter’s legs, increasing the pressure to Potter’s growing erection.

Draco pulls away abruptly, breaking the kiss and panting into the cool night air. Potter looks utterly debauched—lips swollen, dark hair messy, cheeks flushed with arousal. He whines at the loss of contact, swooning forward to capture Draco’s lips in another intense kiss. Much to Potter’s displeasure, Draco leans away, releasing his firm grip on Potter’s arms. He moves back towards the center of the clearing, settling on the soft patch of grass growing there. He doesn’t bother looking over his shoulder to see if Potter’s following him.

Draco barely manages to pull off his shirt before Potter’s hands are on him, hot and searching. His rough, calloused fingertips trace patterns on Draco’s exposed chest and stomach, tentatively exploring the raised scars which litter his skin—the scars Potter gave him. His soft touches feel like an apology and Draco’s bitterness from earlier threatens to spill over and ruin everything. It’s all too gentle, too intimate. Draco retaliates with angry teeth, sucking at Potter’s neck and leaving biting bruises on the tender flesh as he quickly undresses him. Potter returns the favor with shaking hands, clumsily removing each article of Draco’s clothing.

Potter looks magnificent: utterly bare and naked to the world. His tanned skin glows in the moonlight and he looks almost ethereal under the scattering of stars which light the night sky. Draco shakes the image loose from his mind, focusing instead on cupping Potter’s growing erection and watching the pinched expression of pleasure spreading across his face. Draco lowers Potter completely to the ground and shifts until he’s kneeling between his thighs, hovering over him before taking Potter’s leaking prick into his mouth. His own cock twitches, leaving a sticky trail of pre-come on Potter’s thigh as he sucks Potter down. Potter is gasping; his legs tense as he arches his hips off the ground.

Draco’s fingers skate over Potter’s dry arsehole, feeling the puckered skin as it twitches beneath his fingertips. Potter fidgets nervously but doesn’t pull away. A swift spell makes Draco’s fingers slick and wet, and he doubles his efforts of pushing and prodding at Potter’s tight hole. Potter’s low moan fills the empty clearing when Draco’s finger finally presses inside, surrounded by tight, brilliant heat. Draco is careful at first, but by the time his second finger joins the first he’s increasing his speed, an urgent pace taking over. Draco pushes his anger and grief away, keeping the turbulent emotions at bay and his attention fixed on Potter’s controlled gasps and clenching muscles.

Draco lifts his head to ask Potter if he’s ready, but before he can speak Potter is nodding his head. His eyes are dark and piercing.

“Go on, do it.”

Draco’s hand feels clumsy as he spreads more conjured lube over his aching cock. Potter’s legs spread readily and with a muttered curse Draco presses in. It’s overwhelming: so hot and so very tight, Draco isn’t sure how he’ll fit inside. Potter is clenching in pain, his face twisted in discomfort. The expression breaks through the haze of lust and anger clouding Draco, and he stops moving, ready to pull out.

“Don’t stop,” Potter says through gritted teeth. “Just give me a second.”

Draco inhales deeply, doing his best to still his trembling body. A few moments later Potter is nodding and Draco continues to push forward, sinking all the way into him. It’s glorious, too much and yet not enough at the same time. He rocks his hips forward experimentally and is rewarded with a sharp cry from Potter. His face is a mixture of pleasure and pain, his eyes wild and determined.

Draco shuts his own eyes, convinced that the sight of Potter spread out beneath him will have him coming within seconds. He picks up his pace, surrendering to the sweet, tight heat of Potter’s body. He’s pushing into Potter now, thrust after fierce thrust, pressing Potter firmly into the damp earth. Potter, however, gives as good as he gets. He growls almost angrily, and raises his hips to meet Draco’s urgent thrusts. His fingers dig sharply into Draco’s sweat-soaked back, the burning pain of their marks welcome against his heated skin.

Draco feels his orgasm approaching, surging through his body like a steam train, ready to derail at any moment. He has the sense to wrap his fingers around Potter’s stiff cock, letting Potter fuck himself into the tight circle of his fist. When Potter groans loudly, spilling himself over Draco’s knuckles, his body clenches around Draco, squeezing his prick unbearably tight. Draco moans with deep satisfaction as Potter milks his orgasm from him, his cock pulsing deep inside Potter’s body.

As the aftershocks fade, Draco rests his damp forehead against Potter’s shoulder, regaining his breath and willing his thrumming heartbeat to slow. Potter winces when Draco finally pulls out, more quickly than he should have, and settles on the ground beside him.

Draco’s startled to find his vision blurring, the corners of his eyes becoming wet. The events of the last few days come rushing back and his stomach tightens unpleasantly. He’s overwhelmed, ready to fall apart and shatter into a million pieces.

“Malfoy?” Potter’s voice is soft and concerned. It makes Draco feel even worse.

“He’s dead.” Draco’s words come out as a broken murmur. “Brandon’s dead. I tried to protect him but I failed.”

“He was the young one?” Potter asks.

“Yes,” Draco hisses, the familiar anger rising in his throat again. “He was only thirteen, just a boy. I had to bring his body back and his father barely flinched, the bastard.” Draco wipes an angry tear from the corner of his eye. “And you know what Rookwood did? He congratulated me. Said it was clever and quick thinking to take his body away so the Ministry couldn’t find it—so that Brandon’s lifeless, innocent body wouldn’t lead the Aurors to us.”

“Fuck,” Potter mutters, his expression sympathetic. Draco doesn’t want his sympathy. He wants to scream, to punch Potter in the face, to be hit back and bleed all over the forest floor. He wants to run away, run further into the woods and never turn back. “I’m so sorry, Malfoy.”

“Don’t,” Draco says tiredly, his heart aching and his throat closing tight.

“You have to come with me.” Potter turns onto his side and tugs at Draco’s shoulder. “Come back with me and we’ll fix this. We can end this once and for all if you join us.”

“I always knew you were a fool, Potter,” Draco snorts unkindly, sitting up and facing away from him. “I won’t hand myself over to the Ministry. I won’t go with you.”

Potter sits up, furiously re-dressing as he glares at Draco from the corner of his eye. “You’re the one being stupid, Malfoy. We could protect you, make sure this kind of shit doesn’t happen again.”

“Protect me?” Draco scoffs, throwing on his pants and scowling at Potter. “Just like you protected Brandon? That Auror killed him as he pleaded for his life, didn’t even blink before the killing curse rushed from his wand. I guess it’s not unforgivable if it comes from the light side, though, is it?”

Potter’s face turns white but his eyes remain angry. He shoves his shirt back on, knocking his stupid glasses crooked in the process. “You need to come with me. I don’t have to ask nicely, Malfoy. I can just take you in if I want. I don’t need your permission or your consent.”

“Are we back to this, then?” Draco sneers. “Don’t make empty threats you can’t carry out, Potter. You won’t take me in, against my will or otherwise. You know what they’ll do to me once you bring me in. You can’t take that risk: you need me too much.”

Draco regrets the words as soon as they spill from his mouth. He meant to say that Potter needs his intel, his insider information, but the expression on Potter’s face speaks volumes. Despite their venomous words, something dangerous and powerful looms beneath the fury and frustration.

Potter chews his bottom lip, uncertainty and pain flickering in the deep green of his eyes. Draco clenches his jaw, afraid of what might be reflected in his own.

“Just go,” Potter finally says, his voice soft and defeated.

Draco doesn’t bother replying—he wouldn’t trust his voice to remain steady even if he had the words to respond. He feels Potter’s gaze burning into him as he finishes pulling on his clothes. When he’s ready, he keeps his head down and quickly snatches his broom from the edge of the clearing. Draco’s self-control doesn’t hold out, though: he can’t resist turning around to take one last look at Potter’s face.

His stomach sinks when he’s met with only empty air and the dark expanse of night.

# # #