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I know exactly why I walk and talk like a machine

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They're together when the Dark Lord falls.

Draco is barely aware of his own senses, half-blind and exhausted from months upon months of corrosive fear, and whatever shred of reality is still allotted to him is in his father’s urgent grip on his shoulder and his mother’s hands around his and the way he leans on both of them.

They aren't three. They're a single formless, mindless amalgam, spread thin and not-quite-sentient, hanging together, buffeted by noise and emotion.

“We ought to go,” Lucius says as the victory screams crescendo, “we ought,” and he falls silent. None of them move. Their allies have fled. The faces around them are maskless and unguarded, painful to look at. The amalgam flinches from them, pulls close and tidy to itself, draws three sets of robes like armor high around three pale throats.

Kind hands take Draco’s arm, and the amalgam ripples with small panic at the intrusion and allows Draco to look up.

“Come sit down,” says Luna Lovegood with the strange patient eyes. “There's room.”

Draco means to thank her. Narcissa does it for him, and Luna nods, with a beam as bright as if their gratitude is the only cause of happiness in the world. She releases Draco’s arm, and he lapses back into the amalgam, drops his individuality as attention drops from him.

The amalgam sits. Around it, the sea of human exuberance parts and flows.

There’s another trio a distance away, the epicenter of the celebration. They grip each others’ arms, lean red and brown and black heads towards each other and away again, separate and come back together, three creatures bound but strong enough to stand alone. They move like nomads, one or two or all, smile and laugh and curl themselves around different clumps of activity, come away and find each other again in a dance as inevitable and regular as the sea.

The amalgam has three hearts, three white heads, three sets of eyes, and any distance between itself and itself is a knife-wound that could kill. No one speaks to it, and it speaks to no one.

-

They stagger up the path to the Manor, and pretend to lean on each other out of affection rather than necessity. The nighttime wind bites Draco even deeper than it did when he was a child. There are no stars, or at least he can see none.

The face in the gate asks them no questions and they give it no instructions. The latch in its throat falls open with rusty finality.

Narcissa stumbles on the step and Lucius falls behind to take her arm. Draco is the first to the door, and the knob turns before he touches it. The bit of him that has always been glassy-eyed prey recoils in panic at the unexpected movement.

Far too much of him has been stripped away. He's vulnerable to the silence in the entryway, more than he was to the wind.

Narcissa sighs and gathers herself together to survey the damage to the hall. Draco follows her gaze listlessly. Paintings knocked off walls and furniture thrown aside, dust along the edges of the floor; nothing major, nothing that can't be put right in a matter of a few days.

The darkness, the silence, the mistrustful way the house settles in around them, as if they're strangers and intruders: that will take far more time to mend.

-

Draco tries to take the stairs two at a time as usual and reels, nearly falls, light-headed. He can't remember the last time he ate, or slept for longer than an hour at a time. The house frowns on the thunder of footsteps, anyway. The silence is no longer his to disturb.

The dizziness only gets worse inside his room. It's gotten too small for him, or too strange--the space between his bed and the wall is narrower than he remembers, the shelves on the wall start too far from the door, light falls in odd patterns across the floor and dusty sheets. The bed hadn't been made after the last time he slept in it, and the crumpled shadows under each fold draw his eyes. He could swear they move when he looks away. Little living things, cockroaches, scurry in his bedclothes in his peripheral vision, and a terrible high voice in his head says vermin, stamp them out, eradicate them.

Draco yanks back the sheets, throws them off the end of the bed and sits on the bare mattress. He wrings his hands together to keep them from shaking, hard enough that his knuckles pop and the tiny smooth bones creak together, and gulps noisy breaths to drown out everything but his own humanity. The silence is a physical presence that weighs on his shoulders, and it leaves too much room for the high voice in his memory and the slow creep and itch of healing in his left forearm.

He wants to shed his skin. He wants to take a rough wire brush to the insides of his ribs and scrub them viciously clean.

Sleep will not come easy or kind in this room. Draco throws two blankets and a pillow over his shoulder and shuts the door behind him.

Lucius and Narcissa are in the parlor already, arranging bedding for each other with distant, mechanical movements. When he enters, they glance at him and away again.

They sleep, Narcissa on the couch with Lucius and Draco on the floor at her head and feet. The grandfather clock by the fireplace gives a feeble tick now and then, its intestines clogged with dust.

-

Draco wakes in utter disorientation and blinks up at thousands of dust motes that glimmer like faraway Snitches in the midday sun. The grandfather clock ticks calm and constant. In another room, Narcissa says an indistinct spell, and the dust vanishes.

“Awake?” Lucius says from out of his field of vision.

Draco sits up and rubs his eyes. The parlor is in perfect order, every painting straight, every cushion in place, and Lucius is seated on the couch with a book. It could almost be three years ago, but for the deep shadows in Lucius’s eye sockets and under his cheekbones and the blankness in his gaze that Draco knows is mirrored in his own.

“What time is it?” His voice is rough from disuse.

“Eleven-thirty, and you still lying about,” Narcissa says briskly from the hall, amid the scrape of furniture on the floor, but the chide falls short. Draco’s limbs feel blurry, still half asleep, and Narcissa is faraway and not quite real. The silence settles into the space between them, packed thick.

“Eat,” says Lucius, gesturing at the end table. “Then dress and help your mother.” He sets aside the book and sweeps out to join Narcissa.

The slight unreality persists as Draco eats and dresses, in the disorder visible through the doorways of the perfect and familiar parlor, in the leftover smell of smoke and decay over the usual tasteful perfume, and in the eerie sense that Lucius had been keeping watch over him, for fear he might not wake.

Draco works with his parents all day to clear the halls and sitting room and dining room, with spare wands left by long-dead ancestors. Under their combined forces, dust clears, furniture straightens, upholstery mends with clockwork precision, and the great bloodstained table with its legion of chairs drawn close for a war council shrinks back down into a pleasant mahogany piece with just enough seats for polite company.

Lucius draws aside the chair at the head of the table and purges the red-eyed phantom from it with fire. No one moves to stop him. Narcissa Vanishes the blackened remains as Lucius Conjures a new chair to take its place, identical to the old one.

By unspoken agreement, they sleep in the parlor again.

-

Once the downstairs is in order, Narcissa proposes a small celebration with the first real sit-down dinner they've had. The house-elf is gone, of course, freed or killed, but even a lady like Narcissa without a single work-callous on her hands can set out apples and slice a cold ham, and the hint of forced normality puts some small life back in Lucius’s eyes. Draco is glad of the break in the monotony, and ventures down into the cellar to fetch some wine.

The first thing he notices is the smell of rot and venom, an awful mind-blurring putrid stench of secrets kept too long. Then he steps on something that gives under his foot, and the smell gets worse.

He casts Lumos and staggers back against the wall, bile scorching his throat. He can't stand to look, can't stand to look away, and his body compromises by blurring the sight of the piled corpses with tears.

Narcissa finds him there, he doesn't know how long after, and slides to the floor beside him, pale herself at the sight.

The stench clings to his robes long after he's gone back upstairs, and their lovely dinner is feeble defense against the unconsecrated dead beneath the floor.

-

Narcissa works upstairs to put bedrooms and bathrooms back in order. Lucius wanders the grounds and repairs protective wards and plants mangled and uprooted. For his part, Draco sorts through workrooms and galleries, mops up leftover magic from unfinished projects, collects cursed and enchanted heirlooms and picks at the spells on them to figure out what they're made of.

It's pleasurable work. Some are so old the separate curses have melded together, and it takes several equally melded countercurses to break them. He finds himself talking aloud to the artifacts, as he had to the Vanishing Cabinet so long ago, asking questions and suggesting cures.

He surveys his work at the end of each day, jewelry and cutlery and knickknacks sorted into neat rows on the workroom shelves, now mundane and ordinary, separated from magic they'd been imbued with for far longer than Draco has been alive.

It's the realest he's felt in months. Not a shadow in a house like a time capsule, but an explorer, an investigator, taking things with long and cruel histories and making blank slates of them.

Draco notices the symbolism of that, but refuses to acknowledge it on the grounds that he has no patience with that sort of moping.

He stops breaking the enchantments when Lucius tells him to, but he sorts them, curses by degree of complexity and viciousness, simple spells to make a ring fit any finger or a jewel match its wearer’s eyes by sophistication and effectiveness. He absorbs himself in his work. Lucius and Narcissa do the same. The makeshift beds are removed from the parlor, and they sleep in their proper bedrooms, cleansed and neatened.

No one goes near the cellar.

-

Athena returns after a while--she’d fled during the war and found someplace safe, the clever bird--and is fussed over by Narcissa and spoken to with great solemnity by Lucius and given far too many treats by Draco. They'd all missed her more than they'd like to admit. She's an intelligent beast, and good company for when one wants to be alone but not quite alone.

Draco rather feels that he'd like to send her somewhere with a letter, but without any idea of subject or recipient the urge is worse than useless. Still, he's got owls on the brain when one taps at his window the next morning and wakes him.

It's a Ministry owl, ruffled from navigating the wards but still professional, and it drops a rolled letter on his desk and shuffles its wings in a dignified sort of way.

The letter is sealed with red wax, Auror Office, and addressed to him in handwriting that is messy and vertical. When he breaks the seal and unrolls the letter, a wand falls out onto his bed.

It's his wand, the hawthorn one, and Draco knows without a single glance at the signature who the letter is from.

He reads it anyway.

-

The letter lacks a header, which is a pity, since Draco is curious how the writer would address him. It's casual, almost a memo.

This is yours. I don't know if it will still work for you, but I figure it's worth a shot. If it doesn't and you don't want it, send it back or something.

It's a good wand. It defeated Voldemort.

The war is over. I’m not interested in holding grudges. If you or your family need something I can help you get, I WILL help.

Harry Potter

That's it, then. Draco glances at the wand on the bed. It looks back at him, perfectly inoffensive.

It won't work for him. He's sure of that when he picks it up.

He twirls it, halfhearted. The wood warms under his fingers like the hand of an old friend, and silver sparks trail from the end and cast strange shadows that move across the dawn-dim room.

Draco catches his breath. “Lumos,” he says, hardly daring to hope, and the wand blazes for him, brighter than Narcissa’s or the borrowed one ever had, bright enough to dazzle him. He falls back on the bed and extinguishes the light, breathless and half laughing, and turns the wand over and over in his hands. There are fingerprints all over it (how must the bastard even hold his wands, to have his fingers in such a variety of places?) and some light scratches and caked dirt, marks of heavy use with little opportunity for care.

“He's taken bloody awful care of you, hasn't he?” Draco tells his wand, words falling over each other in giddy joy, and it hums agreement (though that's not quite true, his current one is nearly as bad). He fetches some wand polish and a soft cloth from a hall closet and uses the better part of an hour to return the wand to a perfect finish.

Meanwhile, the owl has helped itself to the water and pellets on Draco’s windowsill. It must have been told to expect a reply. Draco can't think of a single sentence that could even begin to communicate everything he wants Potter to know.

Being in rather a good mood at this point, Draco grabs a smaller, unopened container of wand polish, wraps it in brown paper, and adds the Malfoy seal in green wax to the top. He gives it to the owl, along with instructions on how to avoid the harshest wards, and hopes Potter has a previously undetected sense of humor.

-

Curiosity overtakes Draco while he works between the two raised rings that mark the start of the wand’s handle. He picks up his ancestor’s borrowed wand, too long and intricate for his hand, and places the point against the hawthorn wand’s tip.

He hesitates. This is a serious breach of Potter’s privacy.

He can't imagine a better motivation to do it.

Priori Incantatem,” he says, and draws from the hawthorn wand the ghost of a simple levitation charm, sweeping broken stone and rubble off to one side out of a walker’s path.

Priori,” he says again, and the levitation charm is displaced by a beam of red light, Expelliarmus, cut short where it collides with another, invisible spell.

He winces at that one and waves it aside in a hurry. “Priori.” A Shield Charm. The next two are Shield Charms too, followed by a creative array of jinxes and curses, none directed to kill, then another Shield Charm.

Draco winds the wand backwards through the Battle of Hogwarts. Nox and then Lumos, a levitation charm, Nox and Lumos, the stag Patronus flickering feebly, six Stunning Spells in succession.

Aguamenti is next, and Draco flinches again at the memory of live, snarling, predatory flames. Expelliarmus follows, then Finite, and now the wand is remembering things Draco never saw.

Crucio comes first. Draco almost drops the wand in shock. Another Patronus. Defodio, gouging chunks out of something unknown. Relashio, Stupefy, Liberacorpus, marks of an interesting struggle. Nox, Lumos. Three Imperius Curses in a row (Draco’s eyebrows go further up with each one), then two Confundos.

Then it seems the interesting part is over. The wand produces levitation charms, cleaning charms, more Lumos, tests of its ability and strength. Deep cuts as if in stone appear in midair, and overlap into words that spell out a memorial for Dobby, of all people. And the next spell the wand shows is Ariadne, the checkpoint charm, cast by Draco’s own hand hours before the wand was taken.

“No secrets between us,” he tells the hawthorn wand, his wand, in some satisfaction. “Every spell you cast is mine.”

It feels like victory, the same way cleaning out the house does. Taking his life back. Putting his fingerprints back where they belong, stepping back into his old skin and shaking off the dust.

-

“Mother, look,” Draco says as he comes downstairs, and holds the hawthorn wand up so she can see.

Narcissa looks at him in some surprise. “He sent it back? And it's yours?”

“Apparently,” Draco says as he sits at the table, unable to conceal his happiness.

Lucius wordlessly passes him butter for his toast, and Draco nods thanks. They eat breakfast in silence.

“Lucius, are the grounds in order?” Narcissa says after a few minutes.

Lucius nods, and Draco says, “So are the workrooms and galleries.”

“Then we ought to start on the cellar,” Narcissa says, and Draco’s good mood vanishes along with his appetite.

In the cellar, the smell is almost unbearable. Draco finds himself cowering behind his parents, so his view of the carnage is blocked by Lucius’s shoulder. His hands are shaking already.

Lumos Maxima,” Narcissa says, and the cellar blooms with light. She makes eye contact with Lucius, just for a second, and rolls up her sleeves.

Lucius levitates one of the bodies, and it rises, suspended by the spine like an awful puppet, head rolling back and around with the jaw gaped open. One arm, caught across its chest, comes dislodged and swings wildly as Lucius turns the corpse. Draco shudders.

Lucius lays the body down on a long table Narcissa conjures and arranges half-rotten limbs into some semblance of dignity, then covers the gore with a white sheet. He's expressionless.

Narcissa breathes deep, closes her eyes, and levitates the next one.

-

There are twenty-seven corpses in all, Muggles and Mudbloods and Ministry traitors, plus the odd Order member or supporter. Some bear few marks, victims of the Killing Curse, awarded quick and honorable deaths--brave rebels who showed little fear. Others have been practically shredded, torn apart by bloody revels or Greyback’s games or Nagini’s meals.

All have had time to decay and to marinate in filth. Their joints are soft and desperately fragile. Draco’s shaky hands dislodge what's left of a foot as he tries to levitate its body, and it falls back into the gore with an awful wet noise. Draco jerks and the whole body falls, yanking off more limbs. He has to stagger into the corner and vomit after that.

By the time all the corpses are lined up on the long table, Narcissa is ashy pale, and Lucius is wiping his forehead on his expensive sleeve. Draco hangs off to the side and focuses on breathing. He's trembling so much he’s afraid he'll drop his wand, and his face is hot and heavy under the blinding onslaught of tears he can't stop, throat so tight he chokes on the sourness on his tongue, stomach muscles sore and weak from retching. They stumble up the stairs after each other and don’t speak at all.

They sleep in the parlor again. Draco's dreams jerk him awake every twenty minutes until he can no longer tell the difference between strangled feverish nightmares and strangled feverish wakefulness.

-

Their court summons arrives the next morning at breakfast. Lucius takes the letter and reads it, his eyes going stonier with every line, and tosses it down on the table.

Narcissa picks it up and reads it while Draco lets the owl back out. She looks up at Lucius. “Today?”

“The audacity of it,” Lucius snaps.

“Today?” Draco echoes. Narcissa hands him the letter.

It's not as though they hadn't expected a trial. Narcissa has been in contact with the Notts, among others, and it's known that the Ministry is working its way through every Death Eater, every suspect, every family known for pureblood sentiments.

Lucius stalks out to the balcony. Draco rereads the summons.

The scheduling of the trial is a blatant power move. They won't have enough time to find the loopholes necessary to avoid a conviction or a loss of face, and they can't refuse to come or request more time without looking suspicious. On the other hand, the letter largely targets Lucius, despite being addressed to all of them. It's clear whom the Ministry is concerned about.

Draco sets the letter back down. At least it’s courteous, if somewhat passive-aggressive. They haven't fallen too far for politeness.

Narcissa sighs and presses her fingers to her temples. Draco watches her, then inspects his reflection in the surface of his lukewarm tea. They all look like death, marble-pale and sunken-eyed. That should work in their favor, especially if Lucius can swallow his pride and let his weakness show in his face and bearing.

“We’ll be all right, dear,” Narcissa says, more to herself than to him.

We will,” Draco mutters. Narcissa gives him a sharp look, and they both glance at the balcony door.

-

Draco keeps his head down as they approach the courtroom through the high bright halls of the Ministry. Might as well play up the obedient-child role; he hasn't the pride to object to it.

Lucius and Narcissa stay half a step in front of him on either side. Narcissa looks straight forward, expressionless, but Lucius has his chin up and a sneer on his face, and betrays weakness only in his uneven steps and the weight he puts on his now-wandless walking stick.

There's a small crowd around the entrance, reporters and curious outsiders. They draw apart as the Malfoys approach, muttering and nudging each other.

Lack of sleep spins Draco’s mind for a minute, and he stumbles, dizzy. Narcissa, recognizing opportunity, takes his arm and says, “Are you well, dear?” with overstated sweetness.

“Yes, fine,” Draco says, and lets the hollowness in his face and voice betray the lie.

There are more than a few sympathetic glances in his direction now. A victory, though few of these people will affect the outcome of the trial. Public opinion holds far more weight than any law.

Out of the corner of his eye, Draco recognizes messy black hair and glasses. He clenches his jaw and has to force himself to maintain his miserable posture.

Potter doesn't look sympathetic, which is good because what little pride Draco has left snarls at that idea, but he looks curious, and his eyes follow the three of them with a slight frown. He moves as if to catch Draco’s eye, and Draco takes vindictive pleasure in ignoring him.

-

Potter testifies for them. All of them, though he's got more to say for Draco and Narcissa, since he claims both of them saved his life. Draco refrains from mentioning that he has practically no memory of the past year beyond a blur of fear and desperation, as Potter seems so determined to make him look like a good person.

Draco watches him without listening to him. He seems about as well fed and rested as Draco, but somehow manages to look scrappy and intense instead of ill; a smaller figure without Weasley and Granger at his shoulders, but still capable of drawing attention when he needs to. The permanent exhausted look he wore for almost two years is gone, and his face is younger, enthusiastic. He's in his element. Draco envies that.

Envying Potter is so familiar it's almost reassuring.

Potter’s been political lately. The Prophet made much of his campaigns against Azkaban, though as far as Draco could tell from the article all he said was that the Ministry is far too quick to convict and more concerned with keeping the public happy than with dispensing justice. Which is true, and nobody would disagree who isn't either paid to or hopelessly naive.

The article also questioned Potter’s immediate and fervent dive into Auror training, suggesting that he might instead benefit from a nice vacation. Draco snorted out loud at that; he'd pay good money to see Potter run away from danger.

The verdict is predictable. Draco gets off easy, for being a minor half the time and arguably coerced the other half. The family as a whole is given heavy fines, which aren't a problem, and obligated to help with post-war cleanup efforts. Narcissa is restricted from leaving their property for a year, which she wouldn't have done anyway, and Lucius gets six months in Azkaban followed by a year property-bound and a pledge to help fund reconstruction.

In all justice, Lucius should have a life sentence, and Narcissa and Draco at least a few years. It's amazing how combined pressure from Potter’s testimony and the Malfoy name makes everyone scramble to find the loopholes for them.

Lucius stumbles as he stands, and Draco catches his arm and takes some of his weight. Potter nods at him as they pass. Draco returns the nod stiffly, and can't meet his eyes.

-

Draco and Narcissa work through the financial paperwork necessary to pay their fines and direct money to various charities and reconstruction efforts that need it. Lucius won't go near the business, and laughs coldly whenever they discuss it in front of him.

When two Aurors arrive at their door a week later, he accompanies them with dignity, chin high and sneer in place. Draco doesn't recognize either of the Aurors, and is surprised by how relieved that makes him.

As soon as the finances are in order, they return to the cellar. Narcissa siphons bloodstains from the floor and mends broken lights and cracks in the walls. Draco stiffens the corpses under their sheets and reattaches lost limbs so the white shrouds look proper. Then he paces out the ground in front of the Malfoy mausoleum and digs twenty-seven graves in three rows of nine, precisely spaced.

He levitates the dead out one by one until every grave has a white-wrapped bundle in it, then fills the graves with loose wet dirt. The corpses will do the rest of their rotting into earth that's already consecrated for burial.

It's laborious, obsessive work, and it takes a long time because he wants to make it his own. He talks out loud to the corpses, as he does to all his projects: narrates their journey up the stairs and out of the house and through the grounds, reassures them that they won't be disturbed anymore. Asks them who they were and who killed them. Asks which ones he'd had a hand in torturing. Narcissa gives him odd looks when he forgets and does it in front of her.

The graves are a neat grid of raw dirt mounds. Draco thinks of their bodies over time as they dissolve into earth and grass grows over top, as the land absorbs them as one of its many secrets, as if they'd never existed at all, and feels uneasy.

-

Narcissa begins the grim and arduous task of mending the Malfoy reputation with a dinner party. Draco is glad of the distraction, and greets Theo and Astoria with enthusiasm far beyond what their names and status earn them.

“I heard your parents approved the oath,” he whispers to Astoria. “Told you they would, didn't I?”

“I'll take that to mean ‘congratulations, I'm happy for you, first finalized celibacy oath in three centuries, wow, I'm impressed,’” Astoria says as Narcissa passes, murmuring with Mrs. Nott. She pulls Draco into a corner and out of earshot. “I'm so sorry, Draco--”

“For what? For getting what you want? That's an awfully un-Slytherin sentiment.”

“We agreed that--”

“We agreed if they didn't let you take the oath, which they did, so the whole thing’s off. You go on with your life and never marry anyone, just like you always wanted--”

“And you'll do what, exactly?”

“Don't worry about me, I'll figure something out,” Draco says, with more confidence than he feels. “I'll marry a nice lesbian pureblood girl and we’ll make an arrangement, that's all.”

“If you say so,” Astoria says with a sigh.

“Are you two well?” Mr. Greengrass inquires, coming up at Astoria’s shoulder without warning. “It would be a shame to quarrel.”

“It certainly would,” says Draco, with his father’s face of perfect neutrality. “We're well, sir. I hope your cousin is recovering?”

“Passed away last month, I'm afraid. Have you met my Daphne? She's your age, I believe?”

Draco has met Daphne, but he approaches her as if she's a stranger and she treats him the same way. The void caused by Lucius’s absence draws him in with frightening ease, and he finds himself pacing the rooms as a predator paces its territory, overseeing conversations and drawing attention and information from everyone he speaks to.

It's a slow, intricate dance of power and motivations, and one that can be pulled in anyone's favor. Lucius would be pleased to see how well Draco has learned the steps.

-

After dinner, the parents move to the front room and Draco, Theo, Astoria, and Daphne retreat to the sitting room over a bottle of wine Theo brought as a late birthday present. They sit and make small talk and pass the bottle around, while Draco watches over them lazily from his perch on the back of the couch.

“Get your feet off the upholstery, you animal,” Astoria says with affection.

Draco sticks his tongue out at her. “It's my house, and I'll put my feet where I please.”

Theo grabs one of Draco’s ankles and hauls on it. Draco topples off the couch and lands in an undignified heap on the floor, snickering.

“Are you honestly that drunk from a glass and a half of wine?” Daphne says, wrinkling her nose.

“No, just tired,” Draco says. He hasn’t drunk much at all this evening; the buzz is unpleasant to him now.

Astoria nods. “I can relate.”

You shouldn't be drinking at all,” Daphne snaps at her sister. “What are you, fifteen?”

“She was sixteen this past April,” Draco says, and sits up. “As you’d know if you took your nose out of Witch Weekly long enough to mind your own sister.”

Theo, who has taken Draco’s couch and is sitting on it properly, kicks Draco’s back. “Be nice.”

“Excuse me, have you forgotten who you're talking to?” Draco demands. “I think I've quite enough money to be as bratty as I like.”

“You're the man of the house, though,” Theo says, soft. “Got to grow up quick now.”

Draco tenses. “It’s not like Father’s dead. He'll be back in December.” He has to fight to keep an uninvited pleading tone out of his voice.

“He won't be able to do much of anything, mate.” Theo shrugs. “Azkaban ruins people. You know that.”

“And he looked like hell when he got out the first time,” Daphne puts in eagerly. “I bet he'll go nuts for real, if he hasn't already.”

“Shut up, Daph,” Astoria snaps, her eyes on Draco’s face.

Theo slaps Draco’s shoulder. “I'm only saying. You're on a bit of a schedule on the growing-up front.”

“He’ll come out of there dead, or good as,” Daphne says. “Be sure of that.”

Draco glares at her. Astoria slips off her chair and sits next to him on the floor.

“We're only saying,” Daphne says. Theo is silent.

Mrs. Greengrass knocks on the doorframe. “Girls? Time to go.”

“Thank you for inviting us,” Daphne says sweetly. Draco nods to her, curt, and more kindly to Astoria.

“I'd no idea she’d take to it like that,” Theo says once they're gone. “Wonder what's gotten into her?”

No apology, Draco notes, and pulls himself onto the couch next to Theo. “I expect she's upset about Astoria. Thought I'd go after her now Astoria’s taken her oath.”

“Bit stupid of you to get involved with the younger one, anyway.” Theo stretches, kicks up his feet on the coffee table and laces his fingers behind his head like he owns the place.

Theo looks lazy and at ease, eyes half-shut, and all the lust Draco’s been too exhausted to feel for months hits him double-strength in the gut and knocks the breath out of him. Theo’s filled out, his head’s not too big for his body anymore, and more important, Draco likes him, he can keep up with a conversation, and how long has it been since Draco had even a mediocre fuck?

“Theodore, it's high time we went,” Mrs. Nott calls from the other room.

“Your house is a disaster, stay the night.” Draco tries for flippancy to mask the desperation, but his voice hits a needy note all the same.

Theo smirks. “I'm not Zabini, and I have better things to do than you.” He gets up to leave. “I shan't bother putting away the wine, then, if you're in that sort of mood.”

“Yes, thanks, that's such a help,” Draco says, without whining nearly at all. Theo waves and is gone with his parents.

That night Draco has the sort of dreams that make him glad he's in his own room, not on the parlor floor with his parents two feet away.

-

They visit Lucius once. He's scruffy and sunken-eyed, but at the sound of Narcissa’s voice he pulls himself together enough to talk. Draco hangs back and lets them have some privacy, listening instead to the noises of Azkaban, quiet laughter and sobs and prisoners talking to themselves, muffled and warped by the proximity to dementors.

The chill and drain bothers Narcissa quite a bit, but it's only a variation of the numbness Draco is accustomed to, sharpened and less easy to ignore.

Draco recognizes some of the prisoners. Some of them recognize him, and glare or mutter or rattle the bars of their cells. A gaunt dark woman who babysat Draco once spits at him.

Draco’s parents’ conversation changes tone, and Narcissa hurries out past him, wiping her eyes. Prisoners hiss at her as she passes.

“Come here, boy,” Lucius says roughly.

Draco obeys, and sits on the floor by the bars.

Lucius inspects him. “You look well.”

“Yes.”

“They don't affect you much, do they.” Lucius gestures at the dementors.

“I guess not.”

Azkaban is no place for small talk. The cold eats up words from the air before they can coagulate into sentences. Draco and Lucius sit in silence.

Lucius’s sleeves are tattered and rolled up, and the lines of the Dark Mark have paled to the red-brown of a birthmark. It no longer moves as if it has life.

“Looking, are you,” Lucius rasps.

“Mine’s the same.”

Draco studies his father. Daphne is right; there's death and apathy in every shadow on his face.

“Why?” Draco says into the stillness.

Lucius quirks an eyebrow and jerks his head at his Mark. Draco nods.

“For purity,” Lucius says, matching Draco’s softness. “Purity and pride and the worth of our name. You must understand. The name is so important, what it means...we are chosen, we have power, we have a duty to defend it. To defend our honor. At all costs. At any cost.” He swallows with difficulty. “Is that the answer you were looking for?”

“No,” says Draco. “But it'll do.”

Silence falls again, with a different tone. Lucius looks half curious, and Draco steels himself for questions he has no answers to, but Lucius is self-centered at best and blind at worst and all he says is, “Take your mother and get out of here.”

Draco asks Narcissa the same question, as they sway in the aftershock of Apparation.

“To ensure my reputation in my circles,” she tells him. “To borrow some of the Dark Lord’s power, for my protection and the protection of my family. To keep you safe,” and it's not the answer he's looking for but it works.

-

There are other dinner parties, and other old friends, or allies at least, to greet. Draco matches compliment with compliment and inserts himself in every conversation, close enough that they don't question him when he asks them why.

Some answers are predictable, filthy Mudbloods and fierce pride. Some are surprisingly introspective (“I never had any power for myself,” says Goyle, “took it when he offered it, I did,”) or just boring (the ones that start with the trauma inherent in childbirth and work from there).

Fear of powerlessness. Hanging with the wrong crowd. Teenage rebellion gone too far.

“Loved the rush. Thought it was a bloody brilliant romp, what with the masks and nobody knowing who's who. Of course, once you're in there's no getting out.”

To make someone happy, to make someone sad. Revenge. Blackmail. Drugs, depression, helplessness.

“It just gave me back some control. The idea that no matter how low I sank, there would always be someone below me. And that I had the right to remind them of that.”

A deathwish. Love of power. A genuine desire to hurt.

Draco wonders if the Dark Lord had any idea what kind of chaos he captained, or if he'd never bothered to think of his followers as humans with wants and motivations. But he must have done, once, or how could he have won true loyalty?

Draco wonders if the boy Tom Riddle had had a clue what he was doing, really.

None of the answers he gets are what he's looking for, and fuck if he knows what he is looking for.

-

It's strange to have nowhere to go on the first of September. No trunk packed, no hurrying through breakfast, no Muggle station to scorn. That part of his life ended overnight, without his awareness.

Draco washes his hands, fifteen minutes after the Hogwarts Express has left the station, and scans himself in the bathroom mirror.

He looks older, he supposes, and lost. There are still circles under his eyes, but they aren't as dark as they used to be. The Mark on his arm is purplish pink, like a bad burn.

Why? his reflection’s expression asks.

Draco stares in his own eyes for a long minute.

“Because I was told to,” he says eventually.

He frowns and dries his hands. “Because I did as I was told, without question.”

He glances back once as he leaves the bathroom. His reflection looks startled by all the attention.

It's not an enjoyable answer, but it's the right one.

The unmarked cemetery hums in the back of his mind with the magnetism of an unfinished project.

-

Grass has sprouted over the grave mounds. Draco sits on the mausoleum steps, looks out over his handiwork, and talks to the dead.

“It isn't a sign of insanity unless I expect you to talk back,” he tells them.

They're better listeners than the living. They don't want anything from him.

Sometimes he wakes up cold all over from the memories of torture. Not the act itself, or the idea of the pain he inflicted, but the sense of terrible uncaring power commanding him and standing over him and flowing through him out of his wand, as if he had no will at all, as if he was an empty shell waiting to be filled with someone else’s intentions. He tells them that.

Some of the dinner guests had been sick with remorse, and had begged absolution from anyone who could offer it, sometimes even from Draco. They had wanted nothing but forgiveness.

“But I don't think I do,” Draco says to the graves. “Do I? Is that what I'm after, absolution? From you?”

Nothing he says can disturb their rest.

“Do I even have the right to ask for it?”

The dead sleep.

“I'm not my father’s mirror anymore. Trouble is, I don't know what else to be.”

Draco digs his fingers into the silent earth. “You need something from me, or I need something from you, or both. This is the test, isn't it? This is when I decide who I am.”

He stands, brushes dirt off his fingers and knees. The dead sleep.

Draco goes back inside.

-

The Malfoy family library makes the Hogwarts Restricted Section look like a collection of pop-up books. Draco finds what he's looking for easily enough, and spends his nights reading and taking notes.

The Dark Arts are not well-defined, and many fields of study lie in the gray area between permitted and forbidden.

Necromancy, of any kind, is not one of them. There is no leeway there, no ambiguity. No spell can raise the dead, and any spell to stir their rest is Dark.

Draco doesn't particularly care. Some things need doing, by Dark or by light.

One by one, he mutters incantations over the graves, and spills a bit of his own blood for payment. One by one, the dead murmur in their sleep.

Draco writes down everything they say, though his handwriting goes sloppy and crooked from the shivering force of the old, wicked magic he uses. After about five, his vision goes black around the edges. He has to go sit down with his head between his knees until the world is no longer warped and spinning.

Hours later, he glances in a mirror and discovers that a blood vessel in his left eye burst from the intensity of the casting. The blotch of irregular crimson looks black against the white of his sclera and the death-pale of the rest of him.

It's the work of almost two weeks. Necromancy functions, on the rare occasions that it functions at all, by bringing the spellcasters closer and closer to the dead to whom they speak, and Draco has to pace himself more than he'd like to prevent his spells from pushing him too far to come back.

His blood runs close to the surface in that fortnight of labor, in bruises across the palms of his hands and odd raw patches of flesh and stark blue veins that carve shadows in his skin. The place on the back of his hand where he takes blood for payment never scabs, but drains, sullen, day and night into its bandage.

Draco takes the pain grimly and doesn't complain, even when Narcissa notices and asks if he's well. It's his...not sacrifice, nothing so clumsy, but agreement. Exchange. A barter with Death.

Eight of them are too dead or too mangled or too nonmagical to talk to him. Three are Ministry rebels. One is a Death Eater traitor. Two are Muggles with enough magic hidden in their blood to answer. Three are members of the Order of the Phoenix. Four participated in some other resistance. Six had nothing to do with the war at all, guilty of the crime of being Muggle-born in front of the wrong people.

Draco writes it all down, names and loyalties, and at the bottom of the page writes a few sentences that aren't perfect. Every day he rereads them and changes them a bit, and they get a bit more passable.

When the parchment is full of words and all the graves have spoken, Draco wanders the property in search of a big rock.

He finds a decent one deep in the woods half-buried in a riverbed and levitates it out of the earth it's embedded in. He cleans it of the dirt and cuts one broad side flat, and then takes it back to the mausoleum, where he scoops a shallow trough out of the earth behind the graves to hold it sturdy and lowers it into place.

Careful, painstaking, over a few days, he carves names and loyalties into its surface.

Adam Masters, Order of the Phoenix
Felicity Griswold, Ministry of Magic
Robert Saffron
Liam Gray, Muggle
and so on, and one line for the eight unidentifiable.

The nearly-perfect words go along the top, words with no purpose but to tell the truth, as much of it as he knows, until wind and rain decide it no longer needs to be told and wear it away. And the truth he knows is not pretty and not fair, but it's the truth, and it doesn't have to be either of those things.

Along the bottom he carves a broken chain, like he's seen on so many pureblood graves: a family lineage cut short, the end of a dynasty.

Draco stands in front of his work--a proper graveyard now, one that can't be brushed off or explained away--and says more nearly-perfect words, the ones he's heard at funerals.

He asks mercy from the elements on the bones of the dead, and mercy from the ether on their souls, that they might give him mercy in turn, the mercy of joining them only when the time is right. He asks peace for the living and the promise of springtime from decay. He asks that the dead receive the only kind of immortality humans can bear: to be remembered, to last in the hearts and minds of others.

He doesn't know the right words for a Muggle funeral, but the magic ones seem more than enough. The dead sleep under fallen leaves, and their sleep is hallowed.

-

December comes and brings Lucius with it, restrained and supported by two Aurors. One of them is Weasley, who doesn't look Draco in the eyes and seems content to pretend they've never met. Draco pretends likewise, and guides what's left of his father back into the house.

Lucius spends his time “resting”--lying in bed and staring at the ceiling--or taking slow shuffling steps around the grounds with Draco or Narcissa beside him to clear his path. The weather is cold, but Lucius takes no notice.

They happen upon the clearing that houses the mausoleum once, and Lucius looks at the memorial for a long moment before hoarsely asking, “What is this?”

“They were in the cellar,” Draco says.

“The land was purer without it.”

“It needed doing.”

“No need to scar the grounds like this.”

“They were people,” Draco says, his patience waning. “And now they're dead. That's more important than the state of the land. We can't just pretend nothing happened.”

“We ought--”

“They were people, and they deserve to be remembered,” Draco snaps. “They died here and they'll be here forever. That doesn't stop being something that happened because you don't like it.”

Lucius shakes his head, and Draco swallows down anger.

Narcissa looks sad when he tells her. “You do acknowledge we have a responsibility to the land.”

“We have a responsibility to the dead,” Draco says. “Or when you die would you like everyone to pretend your corpse doesn't exist for aesthetic’s sake?”

Narcissa purses her lips and doesn't answer.

The ceiling feels low and oppressive on Draco’s shoulders, and all of a sudden he needs to get far away from his parents. He storms off to his room, locks the door, and owls the first person who comes to mind when he thinks of mercy.

-

Lovegood writes back quickly.

I'm so happy you asked, she says in small round handwriting. There's reconstruction going on all over, you really ought to go to the Ministry or to Harry to get any idea what's happening, but I think Hogwarts suits you best. They're still fixing walls and things, and setting up new wards, and they need as much help as can be spared. Maybe you don't want to do that, but I think you should go anyway, just to start where you left off.

I'd have talked to Professor McGonagall for you, but I haven't really talked to anyone lately. I've been studying up on magical creatures. Did you know there's a subspecies of pixie that can only be seen by starlight? They cause awful headaches if you disturb their nests. I think there's a clan near my house!

To be honest I'm a little surprised you wrote at all, since no one’s seen you except at the trials and you didn't seem to like me much at school. Thank you for giving me my shoes back eventually. And for treating us well when we were at your house, I know you were scared but you were kinder than the others.

Love Luna

Draco writes back and says that he didn't like anyone much at school, still doesn't if he's honest, and that there’s a variation of Lumos that's meant to imitate starlight for purposes rather like hers, and that he'd rather pry out his own fingernails with a rusty spoon than ask Harry Potter for help but he might just write McGonagall.

-

He never reads what she replies to that. Lucius gets to the letter before he does, and tells Draco with grim bluntness and Narcissa silent at his shoulder that he is to stop correspondence with her at once and to put away all notions of helping reconstruction.

“Father, I am eighteen,” Draco says, quite reasonably despite the fact that he's trembling with rage. “You can't forbid me from helping, you certainly can't keep me from sending letters, and you've no right to read my mail to begin with.”

“You're as good as a child still,” Lucius snaps, “and as long as you're under my roof you answer to me.”

“I'm a legal adult and I answer to no one. And by any decent metric you're unfit to maintain your authority.”

“You dare--”

“Listen to me,” Draco says, before he can lose his nerve. “The Dark Lord is dead and so is his idea of what good is. The world is cleaning up after the mess we made and they are moving on. I'm not going to stop you from sitting in your rut and pretending everything we are isn't pointless, if that's what helps you sleep at night, but I am not sitting there with you. Not while there are things that need doing.

“You're doing fuckall to mend our reputation right now, and you're making us look worse and worse the less you do. Maybe I'm just loyal to what our family is supposed to stand for. Do you think you made the right choice, crawling back to him instead of swallowing your pride and backing the Order? D’you think all your values were worth the shit he put us through? The Order treated war prisoners better than he treated his most loyal. You knew that, and you still went back, and now you're paying for it. Maybe I'm better at being a Malfoy than you.”

“Watch your mouth, child, before you say something you regret,” Lucius says, soft as a shadow.

“I say what I know is true,” Draco says, though his heartbeat is so hard he could swear it shakes his voice. “It's not my fault you forgot how to deal with truths you can't talk your way around. You believe your own rhetoric, that's all. You actually believe the bullshit you feed everyone else, and you fed it to me, too, and I believed it, and now I don't and you can't handle that.”

Lucius’s eyes are hard. “Get out of my house.”

Draco goes cold.

“Lucius,” Narcissa whispers, a hand on his sleeve.

Lucius ignores her. “Out.”

Draco looks at his mother. She drops her eyes and says nothing.

“All right, then,” he hears himself say grimly. “I'll just pack my things.”

Draco,” Narcissa says in desperation as he turns towards the stairs.

Draco doesn't look back. “Question everything,” he says to her. “Everything you hear and everything he tells you.”

His shoulder bag is charmed with more room than he needs. Clothes, wand, Gringotts key, soap, that's the essentials, as if he's packing for a vacation. Books, lots of them, information unavailable outside the Malfoy house. A silver goblet with the Malfoy crest and a creative set of curses he never figured out how to break.

He doesn't think about never having slept anywhere but here or Hogwarts. He doesn't think about the fear that creeps in his gut, or the desire to run back downstairs and throw himself on his father’s mercies.

He packs his bag and walks downstairs, past his silent parents, through the silent house, and closes the door behind him.

-

Gringotts first. Draco withdraws a decent amount of gold from the family vault, and then opens his own personal account and stashes more there. He doesn't expect Lucius to cut him off--he'd have to disown him for that, which would be a stupid thing to do to his only heir--but it feels good to have a fallback just in case.

He feels eyes on him everywhere. Every time he turns around, at least three people look away.

Leaky Cauldron second. Conversation stutters and softens when he walks in, and stops when he rents a room.

As Tom leads him upstairs, someone mutters something at Draco’s back and the bar explodes with laughter.

The room is decent, if musty. It has windows in two opposite walls, one side over Diagon Alley and the other over Muggle London. Draco moves the bed across to the wizarding side and the desk to the Muggle side.

At home, he would explore the house or the grounds or work his way through the library. Here, he tries to wander Diagon Alley and work his way through Flourish and Blotts, but Diagon Alley is small enough and familiar enough that he winds up walking laps, and there are eyes on him and whispers in his wake everywhere he goes.

He doesn't dare try Knockturn Alley. Being recognized there would be far more dangerous.

Around lunchtime every day he gives up and goes back to his room, where he watches the only thing unfamiliar enough to hold his interest: the Muggle world outside his desk window.

It occurs to him that if he intends to disprove everything Lucius taught him, he might as well start at the beginning.

One day, he nips into a shop first thing in the morning and buys a (pricey) purse that can convert between various forms of currency, including Muggle money. Then he goes back to his room and changes out of his robes, glancing now and then out the window for reference, and steps out into the unexplored world.

Anonymity embraces Draco and lifts the weight of eyes and rumors, and he feels better. He matches the speed of everyone else on the sidewalk and tries not to gawk.

Of course, no one is watching him to know if he's gawking or not. This is glorious.

He finds places, corners and benches, to hold still and watch surreptitiously and pick out unfamiliar objects and guess what they're for. He's right more often than he's wrong. Correctly identifying the use of a parking meter is a particular point of pride.

Draco figures out the money with little trouble--it's got the numbers right there--and buys himself lunch with minimal fumbling. He chats with the girl behind the counter in the sandwich shop and learns that Phyllis is a selfish brat who unloads all her work on other people and that Muggles don't typically wear jeans with button-downs but it looks all right on him.

He spends the whole day wandering and watching. Traffic lights, there’s something ingenious, and the whole concept of the Underground gives him a bit of a headache.

It’s possible Arthur Weasley had the right idea.

After almost a week of this, it becomes clear to him that the worst part of his day is returning to the wizarding world.

-

There's a flat for rent within walking distance of the Leaky Cauldron. It's cramped and dim, but rent is tolerable and it’s at the top of the building with a glorious view out over the city. Draco takes it, feeling rather as if he's lost control of his life.

His next-door neighbor, a plump middle-aged woman with a particular easy-to-care-for haircut and a permanent look of exhaustion that tells him she's a single mother, accosts him in conversation once or twice. She must recognize something in his face, because at their third meeting she leans in and says, “Did your parents throw you out, hon?”

That hits him like a physical blow, and all he can do is nod.

She clucks her tongue and shakes her head. “Poor dear. It's just awful the way these parents think they can treat their children just for being different. I'm on your side, duck, and I hope you find a nice young man.”

Draco opens his mouth to correct her, decides she's close enough, and nods again. He does rather rankle at being called a child, though he supposes that in this world he's barely of age.

“Oh, and I don't think I've introduced myself! Lordy, I'm all over the place today. I'm Angela Baldwin, call me Angie, everyone does.” She holds out her purple-nailed hand.

“Draco Malfoy,” Draco says, shaking it, and is amused at her double-take. “My parents are a bit, er, eccentric.”

“Well, to each their own, I always say,” she says, and seems on the verge of a speech until Draco gently extracts himself and retreats into his apartment.

He wanders in the daytime and watches the city. Snow muffles London now, and Christmas decorations creep out of thin air, fake greenery strangling lampposts and storefronts. Sometimes he recognizes wizards and witches, but they don't notice him--he's invisible, part of the scenery, another wide-eyed Muggle who has nothing to do with them.

The unreality is back, but it suits him most of the time. It feels right to be not quite a person in this unfamiliar London, just an observer with no self of his own. Back in the tiny apartment, though, it chokes him with silence and turns him ghostlike in the poor lighting. He belongs to the city.

Every day he walks a little farther. It becomes easier and easier to imagine losing himself for good, picking a direction and just walking until he runs out of pavement, walking forever, wearing himself down to nothing.

Angie worries about him, and tells him so often. It's an annoyance to be reminded of that every morning as he tries to leave, and he takes to waking before dawn to avoid her concerned looks.

Maybe she's right to be worried. He doesn't even feel bored. He doesn't feel anything.

-

Angie accosts Draco as he returns one night, and he has an excuse for his schedule halfway to his tongue before he realizes she's inviting him to dinner.

Draco declines, stiff but polite as he usually is with her, but Angie insists.

“No, I will not allow you to eat dinner alone, it's Christmas,” she says in outrage.

He supposes it is. He's rather lost track of days. Either way, Angie won't be argued with, so Draco ducks his head and follows her across the hall into her apartment.

It's the same size as Draco’s, though nowhere near as bare. Half of the kitchen is taken up with a card table that functions as a dining table, surrounded by four folding chairs. Most of the living room consists of a television on a low cabinet and a large squishy green armchair with a small child on it.

“That's my Jessica,” Angie says. “Jessie, hon, say hi to Draco.”

Jessica turns large dark eyes on Draco and mumbles, “Hi,” around the enormous lollipop in her mouth.

Angie is immersed in cooking. The room is full of the smell of pot roast, and hunger hits Draco for the first time in weeks. He stands in the doorway while his mouth waters, and tries not to look too awkward.

He's inspecting the photographs on the shelves (he will never get used to photos that don't move, their fixed stares are creepy) when there's a tug on his sleeve. Jessica has decided Draco needs to be somewhere else.

She tows him into the living room and down onto the chair, where she reaches into the basket beneath the end table and produces several bottles of cheap nail polish. Then she reaches for Draco’s hand.

Really now,” Draco says. “Well, at least make it green.”

-

“Dinner’s ready,” Angie says finally. “Oh, that's just darling.”

Draco leaves off wiggling his right hand to dry the polish and considers his nails. They're a quite attractive emerald green. So is most of his hand. Jessica's aim is good for a six-year-old.

Jessica has insisted on doing his other hand red, for Christmas, and has her tongue between her lips in concentration as she grips Draco’s hand between her small damp ones. It really is adorable.

She won’t let Draco’s hand go until she’s finished it, and Angie says, “I'm sorry to have you wash them off right now while they're still wet, maybe she can redo them after dinner?”

“They're dry already,” says Draco, who has his wand up his sleeve. He washes his hands as Angie remarks on the wonders of cheap nail polish. Jessica proudly shows him the small step-stool she uses to reach the sink.

Angie says grace (Draco watches Jessica for cues), and they eat. It's no award-winning pot roast, but it warms Draco up from the inside and relaxes the knots in his stomach.

Angie is curious about Draco, and conversation turns to his schedule soon enough.

“But don't you work?” she says, incredulous. “How can you pay rent?”

Draco tries not to look like the connection between labor and money is one whose existence he has to remind himself about. “I have savings.”

“Enough not to need to work, is that right,” says Angie with a “gotcha” sort of tone.

Well, yes. If he's honest with himself, working had never occurred to him, but there's a certain appeal in the idea of waking up for a purpose every day. He tells Angie that, and she nods with enthusiasm.

“People need something to do all day,” she tells him, and then tells him about her favorite of the two jobs she works, how you wouldn't think waiting tables could ever be enjoyable but it often is.

It's a decent way to spend an evening. Now and then Jessica pokes Draco and shows him how she can draw in the sauce with her spoon.

-

Angie presses leftovers on him and wishes him about seven season’s worth of greetings, and when Draco shuts the door of his dim little apartment it doesn't feel quite as dead as it had before.

While he's getting ready for bed, there's a tap on his window. He opens it, and Athena hops in with a duck of her head to fit through the small frame. She has a package.

Inside is a short note from Narcissa, wishing him a happy Christmas and hoping he's well, along with two of her blackberry tarts that he's loved since he was a child.

Draco sits on the bed and has a good long cry, while snowflakes spiral in through the open window and melt on the sheets. Athena perches on the headboard and nibbles his ear reassuringly.

Once he's gotten himself together, Athena hops to the windowsill. “Wait,” he says. “Are you up for a trip to Hogwarts?”

Athena hoots in indignation, as if she can't believe he even needed to ask. “Right.” He sniffles. “Hang on, then.”

He doesn't bother rereading the letter after it’s drafted. He knows it makes no sense, knows it carries all his confusion and irrationality, and he doesn't care. He addresses it to Headmistress McGonagall and twists the Malfoy seal in the wax so it's unrecognizable.

Athena ruffles her feathers at him and springs out into the night. Draco closes the window and eats one of the tarts.

McGonagall’s response arrives the next morning. It’s short and impersonal, and invites him up to Hogwarts as soon as he's available to talk to her in person. Her office password, she says, is sherbet lemon.

Draco scratches Athena under the chin, lets her back out, and has the other tart for breakfast, this time without crying. Then he puts on a jumper, puts a set of robes in his bag to change into, and leaves.

He arrives at King’s Cross with barely time to spare, but when he nips onto the platform it's almost deserted. All that's being loaded onto the train are supplies for teachers--potion ingredients, teapots for Transfiguration, and several armfuls of House ties for everyone who’s in the process of losing them over break. Draco is quite pleased to see that Gryffindors seem to lose about twice as many ties as everyone else.

He picks a prefect’s compartment, since he's the only passenger, and changes. The robes feel odd, as if he's stepping back in time. They're also in need of an ironing charm.

Draco sighs and settles into his seat as the Hogwarts Express hauls its immense metal bulk out of the station.

-

Almost all the students are on break, and the emptiness adds to the surreality of everything. Draco has grown since the last time he was here, and the ceilings seem low. The stairs are odd to navigate. They're too low for him, but he still skips the trick steps on reflex.

Most of the students who are still here have a similar look about them. They duck their heads as Draco passes, ghost sideways away from any adult they see, and apologize for everything from stepping on Draco’s foot to walking too fast.

Draco can't help but think of Potter as a child, his quick awkward politeness and the learned mistrust it must have hidden. Draco must not have noticed at the time, not really noticed, or more likely not cared.

The Headmistress’s office is easy to find, and McGonagall is there when he comes up. She pulls herself upright while greeting him and folds her capable hands in front of her, and Draco has a moment of oh thank god an adult who will fix things.

He trusts her judgement. That's the main reason he's here. If she helps him, that means he's worth helping. If she thinks he's a lost cause, he might as well crawl back home and beg his father for forgiveness.

McGonagall frowns over her glasses at him. Draco gulps and tries to look mature and discerning.

“Those involved in Hogwarts reconstruction both have earned their N.E.W.T. and are thoroughly familiar with all aspects of the building, especially the wards. As you fit neither of those requirements, Mr. Malfoy, I cannot in good conscience recommend you to the program.”

Draco nods. He'd expected that. The Hogwarts enchantments are powerful and deliciously complex, and though he'd love to see what they're made of, he's certain he can't handle them.

“As for a job,” McGonagall says in a tone of some disbelief, “I’ve no idea what kind of help you're after, or how useful I could be to you. Or should be, for that matter.”

She doesn't trust him. Draco’s stomach clenches.

“Professor, please,” he says, unable to keep the desperate edge from his voice. “I need to do something, I don't care what. Just anything that means something.”

McGonagall’s face doesn't change.

Draco takes a deep breath and swallows his pride. “I'm losing myself,” he admits, quieter. “I don't know who I am anymore. I'm not sure I ever did. I need something to do, I can't handle being alone with myself all the time.”

McGonagall sighs, and gives him a searching look. Draco can't meet her eyes. A well-placed truth works far better than a lie, but people who value emotional transparency require exhausting truths.

“I will explain your situation to Kingsley,” she tells him. “He will have no trouble finding you an entry-level job at the Ministry.”

Draco lets out his breath in relief--he hadn't even realized he was holding it--and McGonagall gives him a sharp look. “That means errand boy. You lack experience and relevant education. You'll need to work your way up like everyone else.”

“Of course,” says Draco, stung.

McGonagall gives him another searching look and bends over her desk with a quill. “I will send this to the Ministry,” she says while the quill scratches against the paper. “Kingsley Shacklebolt will contact you.” She folds the parchment, seals it with Hogwarts purple, and sets it aside. “Now go on about your life.”

“Thank you, Professor,” Draco says, and turns to leave.

“Mr. Malfoy,” McGonagall calls. Draco turns.

She's watching him thoughtfully. “Good luck.”

-

Shacklebolt’s eyes are dark and clever, and hit the back of Draco’s skull straight through his brain whenever Draco looks at him.

“Misuse of Muggle Artifacts needs the most manpower,” Shacklebolt says in his slow calm voice. “I’m going to assign you to help them out.”

Draco nods.

“You’ll be working under Arthur Weasley.” Shacklebolt watches him closely.

“Yes.” Draco’s face betrays no reaction, and Shacklebolt is satisfied. Draco’s not sure he had a reaction. “Is that all, sir?”

Shacklebolt shifts in his seat and folds his hands in front of him. “People may not be...completely welcoming, to find you working here.”

“I wouldn’t expect anything else.”

“The Ministry’s harassment policy is reliable. If you’re being prevented from doing your work, or hurt in any way, you’re within your rights to report it as high as you need to get a response.”

And get a reputation as a tattle-tale getting special treatment, sure. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

Shacklebolt nods with a slight frown and dismisses him.

-

Arthur Weasley is friendly, polite, and unbearably awkward, and seems to have more trouble with the concept of giving Draco mundane orders than Draco has with the concept of following them.

The first time he hems and haws his way around asking Draco to go get on the Aurors’ nerves until they answer his memo, Draco is patient with him. The second and third times, when he's out of ink and Draco gently reminds him that it's Draco's bloody job to fetch things like that, his patience is on the wane.

The fourth time, once the man has hit fifteen straight seconds of er’s, Draco somewhat loses his temper.

“Honestly, spit it out,” he says before his brain can catch up with his mouth and suggest that perhaps he ought to have a bit more respect for his boss. “I am here exclusively to make your job easier, and I would quite appreciate it if you'd stop wasting my time before I'm forced to report you for sabotaging my ability to work.”

He half expects to get shouted at, or make the stammering worse, but instead Mr. Weasley looks surprised, laughs, and stops wasting his time.

-

For about a week and a half, all Draco gets is mutters and stares and the occasional nervous greeting, and he almost starts to let his guard down. Then they get bolder.

Someone runs into Draco while he’s out for spare quills, slams their shoulder into him hard, knocking him off balance, and is gone before he can turn around. On the way back, he jumps a foot stuck into his path and doesn’t bother to look for its owner.

Draco is determined not to retaliate, or talk back, or give anyone the satisfaction of starting a fight. The Ministry is far from a blank slate. All the hard-won power and reputation his father earned for the Malfoy name is working against him now, and he has no choice but to play the good little pawn until they get bored and leave him alone.

“I imagine it’ll escalate before that happens,” Mr. Weasley says, frowning, when Draco tells him that.

“Of course it will,” says Draco. “And I’ll handle it when it does.”

But when it does, Draco is unprepared to do any sort of handling.

Some utter idiot starts a fire on a pile of yet-to-be-filed Auror reports while Draco is running messages, and suspicion falls on him before most of the department knows it’s happened. The fact that the reports included more than one on Lucius’s imprisonment only clinches his apparent guilt.

Draco is in the middle of helping Mr. Weasley add passive-aggression to his memos when a junior Auror with a face like an heirloom tomato barges in without even a polite gesture towards a knock and informs him that he’s to come in for questioning.

Draco spends several seconds looking for words that convey the depths of his outrage without compromising his non-retaliation pledge, and by the time he’s given up and decided to say what he’s thinking and fuck the pledge, Mr. Weasley has whipped up an impressively sophisticated Tempus charm and proven that everything from Draco’s wand to his boots was out of the Auror office before the fire was set.

“It might be prudent to start keeping a more detailed record of where you are at any given moment,” Mr. Weasley says, as tomato-face exits in great disappointment. “To make sure you’ve got an alibi. Just until all this...blows over.”

“Just until the entire Ministry of Magic has convinced itself I’m morally up to snuff, you mean,” says Draco, seething. Mr. Weasley gives him a disconcertingly sympathetic look.

Inverting his entire worldview and rebuilding himself from the ground up is bad enough. Having to prove it to a horde of strangers who think they’ve got a right to his whole life story crosses the line into fucking unfair.

-

“I've got an odd question,” Draco tells Mr. Weasley, to divert him from his coos over the photograph of fourteen-year-old Potter, Granger, and Weasley-the-younger that they’ve just excavated from an ancient pile of junk. “You've had kids. Is someone likely to accurately remember something they saw when they were, say, six?”

“No, not at all,” Mr. Weasley says, straightening the photo for the eighth time. “Percy’s always been quite sure we took him to the beach once and he nearly drowned, but that was actually when Bill swore up and down he could cast Aguamenti with my wand, and--why do you ask?”

“Don't worry about it,” says Draco, and when he goes home at the end of the day he tells Angie that, yes, he'd be delighted to babysit Jessica in his apartment while she's out for dinner.

“Because I have no intention of making food without magic, you hear,” he tells Jessica, who nods at him solemnly and watches him light his wand with the mildest of interest.

“What do kids even eat?” he asks her. She contributes several suggestions, none of which are edible and some of which are nonexistent even in the Wizarding world. (He's almost sure unicorns don't produce wing meat, and even if they did, he doubts it would taste like chicken wings.)

Jessica nods with more vehemence when Draco suggests pasta, and he lets her wander the flat while he starts the water.

“Why’s it moving?” Jessica mumbles from the bedroom. She's looking at the photos Draco halfheartedly placed on the dresser, the ones that make his insides go all weak and achy when he forgets to ignore them.

“Because of magic,” he tells her, and she nods.

“Mommy says magic isn't real,” she tells him over dinner. They're eating in the living room because Draco hasn’t got a dining table, just the couch that came with the apartment.

“Mommy’s got a lot on her mind,” says Draco. “She's probably too distracted to notice it.”

Jessica nods and bangs her heels against the couch thoughtfully.

When Angie comes back, Jessica runs to her and starts telling her all about the magic pictures, and Draco’s magic wand, and how he made the pot stir itself.

“She's got such an imagination,” Angie says to Draco, beaming. “Maybe she'll make movies when she grows up!”

He smiles back at her and waves to Jessica as they leave. Jessica grins at him, displaying a missing lower tooth, and waves back.

-

Draco spends a lot of time in the Auror office, because the Aurors are all in such chaos that Mr. Weasley’s memos always get lost and Draco is sent to persuade their recipients to reevaluate their priorities at least twice a week.

The gossip he overhears is delicious. Draco spends far more time listening than talking. He comes away every time with more knowledge of who's having an affair with whom, who talks too loud and won't do their work, who is hated by the entire office and doesn't know it. And he hears the Auror’s quiet conversations go from “Can you believe Harry bloody Potter’s on my team?” to an affectionate “Stubborn little shit, isn't he?”

Once he passes a meeting room while fetching coffee and pauses outside the door to listen.

Look,” Potter is saying, with a level of irritation that suggests he's been at this for quite some time. “I'm telling you it's pointless to try and establish a punishment middle ground. Either people are criminals or they're not. You can't halfway-punish people who haven't done anything wrong just to make it look like we're doing more than we are.”

There's a response Draco can't hear, overlaid with a lecturing sort of murmur that sounds like Granger.

“Well, of course we need to do something about the actual murderers, but that’s not what you’re talking about here, you’re talking about people you don’t like--”

A rather impassioned interruption.

“You lot really don't see anything wrong with arresting people who haven't broken the law, do you,” Potter says wearily. “Fine. You're not listening. We’re done here.”

Draco goes back to the coffee, and ignores the prick who jostles his elbow and nearly makes him spill it. Potter storms out and back to his cubicle, trailed at a distance by Weasley and Granger, who look resigned. None of them notice Draco.

-

Draco is engrossed in annotating the raid reports Mr. Weasley sent him to file as he walks, and doesn’t notice until too late that Potter is a few feet away from the filing cabinet, talking with Ernie Macmillan. They don’t react to his presence, so Draco returns the favor and tries not to overhear their conversation.

Merlin, he hates paperwork. These belong under “Animal Involvement,” maybe, or “Unidentified Hex.” He’s strongly tempted to throw everything under B for “Boring,” but that’s the sort of thing that would reflect poorly on Mr. Weasley.

“--letter from Freya Montbleu?” Macmillan says in hushed awe, and Draco pricks up his ears despite himself.

“Yeah, it talked in circles a lot, but she basically wanted me to go to a party and push some legislation that would help her with her property in exchange for funding for the department.” Draco blows out a breath, impressed, and almost misses Potter adding, “I turned her down, of course.”

Draco drops his quill. “You what?”

Too late, he remembers he was eavesdropping. The look Macmillan gives him is not encouraging. Potter just frowns. “Turned her down,” he says, a little louder.

Draco had entertained somewhat positive ideas of Potter’s intelligence. More fool him. “You gave up reliable funding and an alliance with the only powerful Ravenclaw family in England, who by the way have cousins in almost every position at Gringotts and all over the International Cooperation Department besides, not to mention unapologetic pro-Muggle sympathies in addition to respect in pureblood circles...because…”

“She doesn’t want to help us,” Potter says, slowly as if he wants to be sure Draco can keep up. “If she did, she’d just donate the money and leave it at that. She wants to use whatever influence the war gave me to her advantage. I don’t deal in political favors.”

“You don’t deal in…” Draco closes his eyes briefly and tries not to laugh. “Potter, you are a political favor. Of all the degrees of self-sabotage--”

“I don’t need to play games to get support. I’m not about to use people, or get used by people.”

Macmillan’s eyes flick back and forth between Draco and Potter like they’re opposing Chasers in a Quidditch match.

“People who think like that get used without even realizing it. Keep it up and you’ll always be a pawn.”

“Maybe in your world. I’m not a Slytherin, and I’m not going to take support that isn’t genuine. If someone’s on my side, it’s going to be because they agree with me, not because they owe me.”

“Pledging public support isn’t enough, they have to be pure of heart and intention too?” Draco curls his lip. “And you think I’m entitled.”

“It’s not entitlement to want to be sure people don’t want things you aren’t willing to give!”

“It’s entitlement to expect everyone to think like you before you make agreements with them. Grow up. In the real world, sometimes you have to play nice with people who aren’t your bosom friends.”

“How about you see how far playing nice got all your allies in Azkaban, before you tell me to grow up,” Potter says, in a calm, measured voice that communicates pure fury. “Your power politics never earned you anything. All you won from playing that game is a Mark that won’t come off.”

Draco’s hand twitches toward his wand, but Macmillan’s eyes are wide and hopeful, and he isn’t about to give them the satisfaction. Instead, he turns on his heel and stalks off, and leaves the filing unfinished.

-

The second time Draco babysits Jessica, she makes a beeline for the pictures and spends the next two hours poking every face and asking, “Who’s that?”

“That's my mother and my aunts when they were my age,” Draco says. “Lord, Aunt Bella was a beauty.”

Jessica nods and picks another one.

“Me and my parents,” Draco says, and swallows the lump in his throat. “When I was--ten, maybe?” In the picture, the younger Draco looks haughty and bored, occasionally glancing up at Lucius to better mirror his expression.

“Mm-hmm.” Jessica says. “I’m six.”

“I know you are, big-eyes. Almost seven, right? Oh, that's the group Quidditch picture from third year. Er--a flying game.” The teams are split into quarters of color, with the four Seekers in the center. Younger-Draco looks smug, and the three other Seekers, especially Potter, are glaring at him. He appears to be kicking people in the shins.

Draco grins at that one, and it takes him a second to realize that Jessica is looking at him in awe. “You can fly?”

“Yeah, with a broom.” Draco shrugs. “It's not that impressive. Anyone can do it.” He remembers Longbottom. “Well, most people.”

Jessica doesn’t remove her stare. Draco can't help sitting up a little straighter and running a hand through his hair at the attention. He's missed how it feels to have an audience.

He tells her stories from Hogwarts with more enthusiasm than he thought he could muster, even the stories that don’t make him look smart, or athletically gifted, or good in any way. Exaggerating his own pretentious mannerisms makes her laugh, so he does it, and mimics Granger’s insufferability and Weasley’s constant bafflement, too. Mocking everyone, himself included, is bizarrely nice.

“Who’s that?” Jessica asks again.

“Me and my parents after I finished seventh year. Good God, we look like shit,” Draco adds in some surprise--all three of them are skinny and subdued, with eyes like blank stone, doing nothing but grasp at each other’s shoulders as if desperate to be grounded. He glances at Jessica. “Don't repeat that.”

“‘Kay,” says Jessica, unconcerned. “Who's that?”

“Everyone in my dorm--all the Slytherin boys in my year,” Draco says, and inspects it closer. Fifth year, must be: they’re all weedy and awkward with their limbs. The Draco in the picture is flopped sideways across his bed, and to judge by the movement of his hands is talking animatedly. Crabbe sits cross-legged on his bed with Goyle on the floor by his knee, both staring at Draco with their mouths half open. Blaise is slouched against a wall, smirking at the camera. Theo must have taken the picture--his hand occasionally waves into frame or makes rude gestures at the other four.

“That’s your friends?” Jessica asks.

“Yeah,” Draco says, sobered. Fifth year was before Lucius had gone to Azkaban, before the Dark Lord’s return had been anything but an abstract victory. Before it all went to shit, he summarizes to himself.

“They don't look very nice,” says Jessica.

“We weren't,” Draco says. “We were awful. God, I miss it.”

“My friends are really nice,” Jessica tells him. “And Beth got me a toy horse for my birthday, but don't tell anyone, because it's a secret and I'm not s’posed to know…”

She drags him back to the kitchen, chattering all the way, and Draco shakes off the incredible tiredness that envelops him, as if he's aged five years for every minute looking at the past.

-

Draco is halfway back from Maintenance when the curse slaps him in the shoulderblade, hard enough to bruise. Immediately, it shoots tendrils up around his throat and yanks.

Draco doubles over, gasping, and loses his grip on his papers as his hands instinctively claw at his neck, but there's nothing to grab--the pressure on his windpipe just increases, bites into his flesh with a sharpness that will leave marks. He can feel the curse deep in his core, too, a horrible twist and ache, pulling oxygen out of his lungs, sucking it out of his bloodstream...

He has maybe a matter of seconds until he passes out. Draco wrenches his hand away from his neck and grasps for his pocket, his wand, frantic. His diaphragm burns as his entire core tries to invert, to throw itself out of him and get air, and his face is growing heavier every second, swollen with trapped blood. He can hear as if from a distance the commotion in the sunlit hall around him, drowned out by the thunder rush of his heartbeat.

Finally, when his vision has started to go black, his hand closes over his wand, and he digs the point into his own throat and thinks FINITE as loud and clear as he can.

The curse goes slack, and Draco gulps air desperately, eyes streaming, and coughs on the rush of cool air through his battered throat. He's on the floor on hands and knees, he realizes, with a murmuring crowd around him, and as his heartbeat stops blocking his ears he hears the dulcet tones of one of the very last people he wants to see him like this.

Granger is fucking angry. She's got a tiny skinny witch by the ear and is half-lecturing, half-shouting, with gestures at the witch’s wand, from which Priori Incantatem has drawn a ghostly shadow of the strangling curse.

“--attempted murder,” Granger is saying in fury, “thought better of a Ministry employee--take problems to your department head, don’t throw curses in the halls, for goodness sake, were you raised in a zoo?”

“Granger,” Draco rasps, sitting back on his heels. Someone tentatively hands him his papers.

She ignores him. “I hope you realize how lucky you are that Malfoy reacts fast, I hope you know that if you'd actually killed him there would have been hell to pay--”

Granger,” Draco says, louder. “This is not your problem.”

“Go report to Arthur Weasley right this second,” Granger snaps, with a look strongly reminiscent of Professor McGonagall. “I'm delighted you're not dead, Malfoy, now go away and let me handle it.”

“It's none of your damn business!” Draco says, louder than he means to. He knows that Granger and her meddling will solve this far better than he can, with expert and professional thoroughness, and that is infuriating.

“Go talk to Arthur!” Granger says, and turns her wand on him. “Now!”

Draco goes.

-

“Are you sure you’re all right?” Arthur asks for the fifth time.

Draco rolls his eyes. “No, I actually died. You caught me. I’m a ghost trying to trick you into thinking I’m still alive. Granger pitched my corpse in a fireplace and it came out in the living room of one of the idiots in Magical Cooperation, the kids are kicking up a right fuss and there’s ash and flesh bits all over the rug--”

“Yes, well,” Arthur interrupts before Draco can pick up momentum. “If you pass out in an hour and need medical attention, as your supervisor I’ll be held legally responsible, and this whole situation is complicated enough without a lawsuit threat involving every relevant party including me.”

“Who’s threatening a lawsuit?”

“Your parents would, if word got out.” Arthur sighs. “In which case, your attacker, Miss Bellwright--”

“--could do anything she wanted to me and call it self-defense. Assuming my parents would overreact, which is like assuming fish can swim.”

“Exactly. So please be very sure you’re all right, there’s already been a reporter nosing around, quill out and everything.”

“Tell them they can take their quill and shove it up their--”

“Dad?” Weasley the younger pokes his head into the office. He looks, as usual, mildly bemused. He also has a spectacular bruise across one cheek. “Hermione said to check on him,” he jerks his chin in Draco’s direction, “and, uh, make sure he’s still not dead. Her words, not mine. He’s all right, then?”

“Yes, he's fine. He says so, at least,” Arthur says.

“Did Granger tell you that Strangling Curses prevent people from talking for themselves, or did you come to that conclusion on your own?” asks Draco acidly. “Who punched you in the face, so I can buy them dinner?”

“You’ve probably done already, he’s one of your dad’s old Death Eater pals,” Weasley says, with a dirty look at Draco. “Anyway, bye, Dad,” he adds with unconvincing cheerfulness, and leaves before Draco can get his wand out.

“Fucking bumbling smug moron,” Draco says to the room at large, then glances at Arthur. “Sorry.”

Arthur shakes his head. “I wouldn’t expect either of you to welcome the other with open arms, after--well, quite a bit of animosity, which might have been unintentionally encouraged on my part--” He breaks off and coughs, looking supremely awkward.

“I always meant to compliment you on that punch you gave Father in Flourish and Blotts once,” Draco says, partly because it’s true and partly to watch Arthur’s increased embarrassment. “Mother couldn’t get the bruise off with half the potions in the house, he had to put a Dazzling Charm on it before he went to work.”

“Well, that’s gratifying,” Arthur says, and then catches himself. “I don’t mean--I’m sure it was a real hassle--”

“Don’t try to sympathize with my father, you’ll burst a blood vessel,” Draco advises.

-

“Thank you,” Draco says, as Angie fills his bowl with soup. “You really don't have to do this.” His voice is still hoarse from the Strangling Curse.

She clicks her tongue. “Nonsense. Everyone needs a good strong family recipe, and this one’s strong as they come--goes back three generations at least. It'll never let you down when you're hungry, pumpkin, best believe that, and it'll have that sore throat out of you in a jiffy. My gran taught my mum to cook on this one.”

“And she taught you, I expect,” says Draco, with amusement and an odd sense of loss. He's got no such visceral ties to his ancestors, who had house-elves to pass along the traditional recipes, Blacks and Malfoys both. None of them could have imagined a son of theirs dirtying his hands to cook for survival, so all the family secrets he knows are cold, sterile, dead things, nothing that can grow and spread and be made a living ritual. Nothing that can give him some sense of belonging, of carrying dead ancestors with him in the work of his hands, out here so far from where they're buried.

He doesn't like to borrow it from Angie, no kin of his by blood or class or talent. He's got no right to benefit from her family fruits, but still, he can't help wanting. Outside the Manor, he might as well have no family.

“Oh, no, far from it, I wouldn't hear of it,” Angie says, and laughs ruefully. “I was a bit of a moper when I was young. Drove Mum absolutely up the wall, refused to do anything useful. Lucky me I grew out of it, but I didn't find this recipe until after she died. I had to learn it all by myself.”

Draco thinks of Myrtle, misery seeking company and lowering her standards over decades until anyone would do, and wonders who she might have grown up into. Angie, maybe, alone in the kitchen, working with faith and love and diligence to bring back a piece of her mother and make it her own. Angie passing it along, to Jessica someday and Draco now, like it's some treasure that becomes more precious the more it's spent, like a flame that splits a thousand times and never grows smaller.

“Thank you,” he says, and drinks the soup and writes down the recipe, and it's some kind of magic so old it stopped being magic and became human nature--he’s her son now, in every way that matters, and it doesn't feel like a betrayal of Narcissa, not like an exchange of one allegiance for another, but like splitting the candle to double the light.

-

“Draco, I’d like a word with you,” Arthur says one morning, when March has wound on and Draco’s daily complaints have shifted in subject from the winter cold and wind to the springtime mud and rain.

“I've already told you, the wrath of all the mother hens in the world couldn't persuade me to come to dinner at your house,” Draco says as he hangs up his coat. “I'm up to my ears in invitations already with the Muggles I live by.”

“Not about that, though don't go thinking that Molly’s over her desire to shower you with food and force you into a proper night’s sleep in a warm bed. No, I’d like to discuss your career.”

“My what?” asks Draco, off-put.

“Have a seat,” Arthur says. Draco sits across from him with some trepidation.

Arthur rests his elbows on his desk and looks at Draco with alarming focus. “I don't imagine you want to be running errands for the rest of your life, and I gather that you've tried the kind of lifelong retirement you were raised to expect and found it--well, unfulfilling.”

Draco is silent. He's never been sure how much Arthur knows or suspects about Draco’s motivations for taking a job.

“Given that while you were at school, you weren't preparing to work, it's likely you need a little help now figuring out how to assess your skills and turn them into a career. Am I right about that?”

“If you're that desperate to get rid of me, just say so,” Draco says, with a rather snippier edge than he means.

Arthur frowns at him. “If you don't want my help, I won't bother you.”

“No, I do,” Draco mutters as he slides down in his seat so his eyes are level with Arthur’s desk. He isn't sure why he's reacting so badly to the subject, except that it's about the future, which he's successfully ignored for months. “Walk me through it. Whatever.”

“Hmm,” Arthur says, inscrutable. “What are you good at?”

“Alienating nice people and moping,” Draco says.

“I'm afraid the position of morally ambiguous Witch Weekly love interest is considerably over-filled,” says Arthur.

Draco grins despite himself. “I'm only good at being rich.”

“Hmm,” Arthur says again. “Sometimes it's easier to think of a story. Something you did that caught your interest, that you'd like to do again?”

Draco stares at the edge of the table in silence for nearly thirty seconds. Arthur shifts in slight discomfort.

“I fixed the Vanishing Cabinet,” Draco says at last. He throws Arthur a defiant look, but the man’s expression hasn't changed. “It was my idea, too. I figured it out and I figured out how to fix it. Nobody expected it to work, they laughed at me, but I did it. I had to patch the enchantments on it, all different kinds of spells, and it was all about loopholes in wards and the wood recognizing itself and how Banishing and Summoning are the same thing when you get down to it, all these things nobody ever taught me and I figured out for myself. All year that was the most fun I had. That's the proudest I've ever been.”

If Arthur is thinking about the aftermath of that mended cabinet, if he's disgusted with Draco for claiming it as a victory, he doesn't show it. Instead, he sits back and purses his lips, apparently lost in thought.

“You may not know this,” Arthur says at length, “but Curse-Breakers are largely freelancers. Gringotts likes them to be loyal, of course, in exchange for the really exciting traveling jobs. The Ministry employs them occasionally too, to help Aurors on missions and such. But right now, most Curse-Breakers are being hired by individuals to clean out old pureblood houses.”

Draco sits up straight again, all his attention on Arthur.

Arthur smiles faintly. “Lots of surviving heirs of pureblood families want nothing to do with property left to them by family members who are in Azkaban or dead. They’re looking for experts on the kinds of enchantments that usually come with furniture or heirlooms or the houses themselves, to remove or mend them where necessary and prepare the property for sale. I'd hazard a guess,” he adds, “that you know more about that right now than half the professionals.”

Draco stares at him, excitement rising. “So that means working through other families’ history?”

“Sometimes,” Arthur says. “Sometimes accompanying Aurors on a mission that might involve warded lands or cursed objects. Sometimes dealing with enchanted Muggle artifacts that have been confiscated. Maybe checking over estate sales if the deceased is suspected to have had magical ancestry. I assume that has some appeal?” he says, because Draco is practically vibrating now.

“Oh, you know, just a bit, nothing major.” Draco bounces in his seat. He's completely awake now, more alert than he's been in weeks, and full of energy. “Thanks,” he adds as an afterthought.

“Pay me back by coming to dinner,” Arthur suggests.

Draco snorts. “I’m not that grateful.”

-

The distraction of a new project is so strong that Draco finds himself halfway to the Department of Mysteries at three in the afternoon with no clear awareness of how he got there. He takes the long way back up to MagLaw (there are stairs at the Ministry, if someone wants them badly enough) while reviewing the same train of thought he's been on all day.

He’s qualified, miraculously, for the two-year program at M.W. Shelley University: passed the O.W.L.S he needs for it, though fuck if he remembers how, and of course there's no trouble with money, and the six months of experience with a Ministry worker in a curse-related position will be done in July, and if Arthur shows the slightest hesitation to write a letter of recommendation Draco will eat, not his hat, which is far too expensive for the purpose, but a hat. Even the idea of tracking down the record of his naming charm and his first and last Hogwarts letters, which would require contacting his parents for the first time since Christmas, can't put much of a damper on his mood.

Getting “Death Eater,” hissed at his back as he passes, however, can. Especially the second time. And the third time, his mood is well and truly ruined when the hiss is followed by “Sorry, didn't quite catch that, could you say it again louder?” from someone else whose voice Draco, damn it, would know anywhere.

Potter has his arms folded and his eyebrows raised, and is looking with aggressive innocence at the hound-faced wizard beside Draco.

“Didn't catch that,” Potter repeats.

Hound-face stares at his feet in deep resentment. “Called him a Death Eater.”

“Right,” Potter says cheerfully. “Why?”

Draco and hound-face both stare at him.

“The Ministry’s cleared him of all charges,” Potter says, still maddeningly cheerful. “If you've got evidence to the contrary, you might want to go to the courts with that. Or, y’know, if he does snap and start throwing curses, you could be accused of withholding information.” He shrugs.

“His father,” hound-face snaps, “is the reason I don't have a sister anymore.”

“I know, Andy,” Potter says, kinder. “But that isn't Draco’s fault.”

Draco waits until hound-face leaves before he snarls, “Could your lot possibly be persuaded to leave me the hell alone?”

“Sorry?” Potter says, and has the audacity to look confused. “I thought we were being supportive. You know, like we'd do for any coworker at a disadvantage. Doesn’t really matter whether I like you personally, you still deserve an equal shot.”

“I am not your fucking pity case, Potter,” Draco says, low and fierce. “I don't need you to take me under your noble wing and guide me back to the land of self-respect. I don't want your bloody support, I don't want any kind of peace offering, I want you out of my way. Don't fool yourself into thinking anything else.”

Potter’s expression has gone stony cold. “Fine. I'll just stop trying to help, then.”

“What, learn to mind your own business at long last?” Draco sneers. “Wouldn't that be a miracle? I wouldn't dare hope.” He sets off up the stairs at top speed.

“You know, some people have grown up a little in the past two years,” Potter calls after him.

“Oh, brilliant, another way I’m inadequate! Add it to the pile!” Draco shouts back, aiming for sardonic and missing by an octave and the tremor of looming tears.

Potter’s sigh of irritation is faint, but it hits Draco like a punch to the gut as he flees.

-

After Shelley sends back their acceptance with a hyperactive gray screech owl, the summer passes swiftly with barely a blip for Draco’s nineteenth birthday. The Baldwins are gone most of the time, visiting family and friends, and Draco’s apartment lapses further into dim unreality with every week of no Jessica asking questions.

Draco’s always been one for talking to himself, and it only gets worse the longer he’s alone. He finds himself talking to the walls, the ceiling, the doors, anything, as if they can understand him, or getting into arguments with people who aren’t there, most often his father or Potter or Snape or even the Dark Lord. Occasionally he gets so upset with the subjects of the argument that he loses.

And then there are the trains of thought that are alarming in how little they disturb him.

But just say I were to die. People die all the time, I'm not immune, it could happen…how long would it take for someone to notice?

“I am not going over all this for the fifth time,” he tells himself firmly.

Angie's away. My parents don't expect me to write. Arthur might notice, but he might just think I'm taking an impromptu day off, I've done that before. And he doesn't know where I live. How long would it take him to figure it out?

“Weeks, yes, we've talked it over before.”

Rotting away in the dim light, finally a dreamless sleep…

“No. Bad thoughts. Stop it.”

All in all, he's glad when the summer begins to wind down.

Shelley likes its students to have owls of their own, so on the twenty-third of August Draco braves Diagon Alley for the first time in months. The witch behind the counter at Eeylop’s gives him five straight seconds of an open-mouthed stare before she rallies and regains her professionalism, and he walks out with a barn owl in a cage under his arm.

The owl, whom Draco names Odysseus, does not approve of Draco’s apartment in the least. He’s as gangly as owls can get, and extraordinarily opinionated, and likes to stand on Draco’s headboard in the night so the first thing Draco sees every morning is the ghost-white heart-shaped face staring down at him. Odysseus also seems to feel that Draco needs to be fed, and tends to dangle dead mice tantalizingly in front of Draco until his beak severs their tails.

It’s unnerving, but talking to Odd is a step up from talking to the walls, and he’s a better conversationalist than half the humans Draco knows.

“So just say I died,” Draco says, again now that he’s got someone to talk to.

Odd hoots and fluffs his feathers.

“You’d go tell someone. Or eat me. Or both.”

Odd turns his back on Draco and rotates his head all the way around to maintain eye contact.

“Quit showing off, love,” Draco says, and ruffles the feathers on Odd’s back.

-

On the first day of classes, Draco keeps his head down all morning and speaks when spoken to. He's nearly resigned himself to several more months of letting his old reputation run itself dry when lunch presents him with a welcome and unexpected diversion.

“Oi, Draco,” someone shouts across the hall. Draco bristles, expecting harassment, but then his brain helpfully informs him why that voice sounds familiar and he spins around so fast he nearly falls.

Blaise Zabini leans against the wall at the end of one of the long benches, grinning at him. Across from him is a tall, long-limbed Slytherin man a few years older and a plump young woman with an undercut whom Draco recognizes as a Ravenclaw from their year.

Draco joins them, and learns that the Ravenclaw is Rowena Willis, the half-blood heir of the wealthy old Montbleu family, and seems physically incapable of shutting up, and the Slytherin is awkward and teasable and has had the misfortune of being named Eugene Van Hassel.

“And yes, his wand is hazel, and so’s his father’s, so that family legend’s true,” Willis tells Draco.

They don't require anything from Draco, though Blaise casts him curious glances every time he has a chance to brag and doesn't. It's pleasant to be ignored. He's got no energy to spare on winning allies.

At Hogwarts, he'd been on top of the hierarchy, for his money and his name and the prestige of being personally loathed by Harry Potter (and, much later, personally noticed by the Dark Lord). The dormitories had been full of clumsy machinations and small pettiness, children playing house and mimicking their parents’ careful movements.

They must have run out of fucks to give, somewhere along the line. This table is three-quarters Slytherin and all families with political power, but the only division drawn is between the four of them and everyone else. No point fighting amongst themselves, nothing to be gained in reaching the top if the struggle to get there turns allies against them.

All the Slytherins and most of the purebloods are suffering from the fallout of the war. Best to default to friendship and equal footing. Most beneficial to the most people.

Draco’s spent far too much time with Gryffindors, where everything is close and loud and important and free of any possibility of ulterior motives. This is so much simpler.

-

Schoolwork is both interesting and relentless. Draco spends his days at school and his nights at work, and has a few hours in between to pass out on his bed. The advantage to this schedule is that his sleep is, finally, dreamless.

Arthur lets Draco do homework at the Ministry, and is more insistent than ever on inviting him home for dinner.

“If Molly could see you, she'd scold me thoroughly for letting you go around unfed and unslept,” he says.

“I am not unfed, I had a bagel when I came in,” says Draco, affronted.

“That was four hours ago,” Arthur points out, and when Draco gets winded from writing a memo Arthur ushers him firmly into a conference room over his protests and locks him in with a blanket and pillow.

Angie is just as bad, and keeps inviting Draco over to keep an eye on Jessica while Angie makes dinner, which always results in Draco staying for the dinner. He can't bring himself to protest much, since that's now his most reliable meal of the day.

Draco hardly spends ten minutes a day both in his flat and awake, which he's glad of. Odd has figured out how to unlatch the window and spends most of his time out on important owl business, so the place is as empty as ever. Draco can't bring himself to think of it as home, even after so long.

He gets a letter from Pansy Parkinson, and it sits on his bedside table, unopened, waiting for that fantastical day when he'll have both the time and the energy to read it.

His parents don't write at all.

-

“You've grown up,” Blaise tells him at lunch, midway through October.

“That does happen as people get older,” Draco says.

Blaise snorts. “If anyone was going to be the exception, it'd be you.”

“Is that why you're always watching me? I thought it was my staggering good looks.”

“As if I can't get my fill of staggering good looks with a mirror.”

There's a pause, then Blaise says, “You're not at the Manor anymore, are you?”

“No,” says Draco. “I've got a flat…”

“Nice place? Like home?”

“Not at all,” Draco admits.

Blaise gives him a sharp look. “Draco, you need a proper home. I've never met someone with deeper roots, you can't wander around with them cut off like this and expect to do more than just survive.”

“As if I don't have enough mothering already,” Draco snaps.

Blaise nods and lets Draco have some silence to sulk in.

“I heard about your parents,” Draco says eventually.

Blaise shrugs. “Everyone lost something. Nothing's all that permanent, really.”

“Going to tell me to appreciate what I have before it's gone?”

“I try to avoid giving advice I'd be better off hearing,” Blaise says.

Draco grins at him, and silence falls again. “I'd like to pay my respects,” he says.

“I'll be visiting them at first snowfall, Mama loved snow,” says Blaise. “Come with if you like.”

“Will if I have time.”

“You never have time,” Blaise says serenely. “Nobody ever does. I figure you have to spend time you don't have, and make it up later somehow with whatever you've got.”

He only laughs when Draco tells him he sounds like Lovegood, and suggests he ought to spend some time on getting his head checked.

-

It seems like an unbearably Granger-like thing to do, but the four of them find it necessary to start a study group. Since Blaise’s house is overrun with lawyers and the like, and Van Hassel lives at home with several generations of cousins, and Willis shares her flat with three rowdy and drunken frenemies, which sounds fun but not conducive to higher education, they decide on Draco’s flat.

“Draco, you have got to do something about the lighting in here, I feel like there's gonna be a pink spotlight and a stripper in a minute,” Willis says as she cranes over her notes.

“If only,” Blaise mutters. “That'd be considerably more fun.”

“This is fun,” Draco says. Everyone else gives him exhausted looks. “I'm serious!” he adds.

“We know you are,” Blaise says wearily.

Draco ignores him. “All that about if-clauses in spells! A verb conjugation can be an if-clause, when it addresses a group or uses a gendered form--”

“Yes, we know, we're in the class with you, now help me with this practical,” Willis snaps.

Lucius tried to educate Draco on the basics of magic theory, but his Latin lessons had been rudely interrupted by a war, and Draco has no real head start on anyone else.

Willis’s practical is an inversion, from a universal attractor charm to a universal repulsor charm; simple in theory, but in practice comparable to playing cat’s-cradle alone with one eye closed. Draco would rather Splinch off his fingers one by one than help her, and he tells her so.

“Yeah, you're so clever,” Willis says, and slams her wand down on the couch with a sigh. “I can't see shit.”

“It's not that bad,” Van Hassel says, with his usual uncertainty.

“Maybe the light’s better up where you are,” Blaise suggests. Van Hassel, who has to duck to go through doorways, grins sheepishly.

“If I help you, will you stop fussing?” Draco demands, and slides down off the couch to sit next to Willis.

She throws her fists up in victory. “Knew you'd come through!”

“Yes, yes, settle down,” Draco says.

Working together on the practical is like playing cat’s-cradle properly with one eye closed. The study session goes much faster after they figure that out.

“Think about what I said,” Blaise tells Draco under his breath, just before he leaves. “Put down roots.” Then he's gone, before Draco can respond.

-

Draco does think about it. Blaise isn't stupid, and he knows Draco well enough that any advice he gives is likely excellent. And it's true Draco misses his home and his parents with a constant and aching sharpness, maybe more than is healthy.

When Christmas comes that year, and brings with it a letter from Narcissa that Draco can't look at without getting a lump in his throat, let alone read, he decides he'd better do something.

A week or so later, Draco gathers up the rough sketches he's come up with and the information on the number of Muggles in the building and the Muggle contract that proves he's renting the place and heads off to the Improper Use of Magic Office.

Mr. Leblanc is already talking to someone when Draco arrives. Or rather, having a glaring match. With Potter, of course, because Draco’s luck is utter shit.

Draco clears his throat. Leblanc beckons him up to the desk. Potter, who is square in the center of the floor, doesn't budge, and Draco is forced to edge around him and give him dirty looks he isn't paying attention to.

“I'm only trying to compromise, Auror,” Leblanc tells Potter.

“Compromising with people who'd really like to see Azkaban crammed full of everyone who had so much as a fourth cousin fight on Voldemort’s side” (both Leblanc and Draco wince, Potter ignores them) “is an immense waste of department resources.”

“I recognize that you have personal ties to this particular case. However--”

“The war is over,” Potter snaps. “Andromeda was in the Order! She married a Muggle-born, the Blacks disowned her, going after her for who her sisters are is just--”

“Unfair and idiotic, yes, you've said,” says Leblanc wearily, and flips through Draco’s first few papers.

“Believe me, sir, if any other words applied I'd have branched out by now.”

Draco chokes back a laugh, and Potter gives him an odd look.

“Are you quite finished?” Leblanc asks without looking up.

“Yes,” Potter says sourly, “sir,” and leaves with a flounce worthy of a Malfoy.

“Andromeda Tonks?” Draco says. He hadn't been born yet when Aunt Andromeda had been disowned, but he's seen her in pictures, smiling between Narcissa and Aunt Bella.

“Yes, well, covering all possible leads, you understand,” Leblanc says. “I'm sorry you had to hear all that. Potter’s always been one for dramatics. But people are scared, you know, they want to see something being done--I'm sure you can see my side, Mr. Malfoy, you're no fool.”

Draco realizes all of a sudden that he does not see Leblanc’s side; in fact, he agrees wholeheartedly with Potter. “Mm,” he says, to cover his shock.

“Well, all this looks in order,” Leblanc says. He pulls out a quill and signs the application with a flourish. “I do wish everyone who was involved with--well, you know--kept as decent a head on their shoulders about all this as you. Keeping out of trouble, you know. It's not that hard.”

And you'd know, would you, Draco thinks, biting down on fury. “Yes, sir.”

“Well, have a nice day, and such, Mr. Malfoy,” Leblanc says vaguely, and Draco leaves, giving the Auror Office a wide berth on his way.

-

“Much better,” Willis says, looking around at Draco’s adapted flat.

“Naturally I went out of my way to make you happy,” says Draco, and kicks her in the shin, but he's flattered nevertheless. She grins at him and flicks her wand with uncharacteristic professionalism.

They've been working on the Patronus Charm for a few weeks, as an example of a spell in which the nonverbal bit is far more important than the actual incantation. Blaise and Willis have reliably corporeal ones already (his eagle and her duck are already dancing around the room), and Van Hassel’s immense and brittle heron has made several appearances in practice sessions. Draco is still stuck with silver vapor, though it looks more alive now than it had at the start. Sometimes he thinks he sees the edge of a wing.

It's all for pure theory, no hint of combat training or question of power. That makes it more tolerable, and less bitterly reminiscent of Potter.

The flat is going much better. He's added a significant amount of space to the public areas, though the bedroom and bathroom still need work, and the whole place keeps pushing at his mind, a project to be finished and finished well.

Blaise gives him a look. Draco rolls his eyes, but permits the unspoken I-told-you-so.

“Why so many windows, though?” Willis asks. She swings her feet up on the window seat and throws her arms out to encompass the broad hemisphere of glass panes at the far end of the living room, against which feathery snow is drifting in the twilight.

“I like windows,” Draco says, because so my owl will stay in and stop leaving me alone all the time sounds just a tad too pitiful.

Odd, on the arm of the couch by Blaise’s feet, hoots as if he can read Draco’s mind and fluffs up all his feathers until he resembles a soft egg with a face.

Willis’s duck goes bottom-up, rooting for invisible fish, and she whoops. “Yeah, baby, shake it!”

Draco laughs, and instead of vapor, a crested bird with mottled spots and a long, keen beak claws out of his wand and leaps into the air.

“Well, that was anticlimactic,” Blaise drawls.

“Shut up,” says Draco. “What is it?”

Van Hassel, who’s turned out to be a bit of a birdwatcher, says, “A blue jay. They're native to North America, they're kind of…known for being rowdy arseholes…”

“Perfect,” Draco says happily, watching the jay. It's making an immense and inaudible racket, and dive-bombs Odd or Blaise’s dignified eagle now and then.

“So all of us are birds? What're the chances of that,” Willis says.

Blaise snaps his fingers and raises an eyebrow when they all look at him. “Got a name for this place yet, Draco?”

“I'd like to think I'm above that particular brand of pretension,” says Draco. “Why?”

“The Eyrie.” Blaise grins. “Eh?”

“You self-absorbed bastard, you're the only bird-of-prey of the lot of us,” Draco says with fond exasperation. “And if that's a subtle hint that you want to move in, the answer is fuck no, I dealt with your crusty old socks all over my stuff for seven years and I wouldn't do it again if you paid me--”

“Oh, get married already,” Willis says, and Van Hassel mutters “Hear, hear,” quiet enough that he can deny it later.

“I'll consider it if I'm ever in need of a murder-suicide,” Blaise tells her.

“Hear, hear to that,” Draco says.

But from then on it is the Eyrie, no matter how hard Draco tries to stop it, and eventually he gives up.

-

“Draco,” Blaise says patiently.

“No,” says Draco.

“Idiot,” says Blaise.

“Look, just--how about this?” Draco turns on the spot and feels his way through the void, carefully, to the other end of the room. He looks back at Blaise.

“No,” Blaise says, kicking his feet up on the couch. “Still loud. How the hell I got roped into this, instead of Eugene…”

Draco ignores Blaise’s complaints as well as he can--Apparation is hard enough in dead silence, and Blaise’s whining-voice has this reedy edge that burrows straight through Draco’s eardrums--and closes his eyes, turns towards nothing again, focusing every fiber on the concept of silence and stillness and peace.

“--obsessive, needy friends and their obsessive, needy demands,” Blaise finishes, from Draco’s left this time. “That was better. Scratch that, you'll be at this all night if I encourage you--”

“I'll suck your cock if you shut up and be helpful,” Draco says in desperation.

“No, you won't,” says Blaise peevishly. “You'll just wear me down to the bones with your absurdities until both of us collapse from exhaustion.”

“Oh, shut up. It's not that much work, you just have to listen. I'm the one making myself dizzy from spinning so much.”

“No, that's because you skipped dinner.”

“Oh, right, dinner.” Draco Apparates back across the room. “How was that?”

“Good God, it's like fourth year all over again,” Blaise says, appalled. “Draco, my friend, it is one in the morning and I have no plans to stay and force-feed you breakfast. No more roping me into your compulsion of the week. I am leaving. Try to go to sleep at some point, perhaps?” Blaise blows him a sarcastic kiss and Disapparates, with the tiniest imaginable breath of a pop.

“Insult to injury,” Draco says to thin air.

It's the work of a few minutes to enchant the first thing he picks up (an enormous eagle-feather quill Blaise left, he’s got to be so on-brand, the arse) with a simple sound-based pedal trigger with scaling light output. As a test, he Apparates so sloppily he can hear the echo of the crack, and whirls in time to see the quill flash like lightning in response.

The quill is far more helpful than Blaise, and once Draco gets a rhythm going, testing variations in his posture and focus, he can feel himself improving. That’s what spurs him to shake off his weariness and push onward, though time slips by and his eyelids and limbs go heavy. One more try. Just a little further…

When the quill’s glow barely casts a shadow no matter how many times he repeats the motion, Draco runs a hand through his hair and blows out an exhausted breath.

“Happy, Blaise? Look at me going to sleep,” he mutters to himself as he turns towards the great window, and is struck silent at the sight of the first pale touches of sunlight over London.

-

The summer Draco turns twenty-one is also the summer he finishes the two-year degree in Enchantment Theory and registers himself with the Ministry as a freelance Curse-Breaker, and suddenly there's time again.

He puts himself back on a normal human schedule, the kind that has him asleep at night and awake in the day and going out with Blaise and Rowena and Eugene some evenings. Blaise is with Gringotts, and therefore away more often than not, doing and seeing things that make for the most improbable stories when he comes back. Ro has an internship in Experimental Charms, with an eye towards marketable enchanted household wares. And Eugene is after a four-year degree and beyond, the back-breaking slog of schooling necessary to become an Unspeakable. (“Fits, really,” Blaise says, “as he never fucking speaks.”)

Draco has finished the Eyrie at long last--gone through everything he brought from home, set up all the old pictures in frames on his mantel. It still aches a little if he looks at them too long, but in a healing sort of way.

He's turned up the silver goblet he brought from the Manor, too, and undone its snarl of curses with little trouble. It was only a proximity-triggered bodily-unease snare trigger, anyway, with paranoia and sleep deprivation modifiers added on later and a sloppy bit of dazzling done to hide it. Amateur stuff.

He’s got a small office at the Ministry, with a mail slot for work requests and double-reinforced Ministry-standard protective charms on the walls, so he can throw spells at things without anything but him getting broken. He does the walls green and silver and hand-paints the Malfoy crest on the letterbox out of pure spite.

Pansy's letter, now far too old to reply to, contains simple greetings and well-wishes. It sounds stilted. Scripted, probably, and sent to many old schoolmates, with different names filled in. Draco doesn't write to her, but he doesn't resent her, either.

It’s almost been four years, Draco realizes. Four years since he had boarded the Hogwarts Express for seventh year with a fervent nameless desperation, and learned that Potter and Weasley and Granger weren't on the train, and known all at once that nothing would ever be the same again and that he had run out of options.

The thought makes him want to write to his parents.

Narcissa writes back immediately, and tells him about the green out on the lawns and the wonderful dinner she’d had with the Selwyns last week, and she’d heard about his work and wasn't she proud, and how is his flat and how are his friends, and Lucius hasn't been well but he's been better, and he sends his goodwill and wonders if Draco might visit for Christmas…

Draco reads it, and responds a friendly few days later, and uses the right words and questions to build an alliance with his own parents, and it's not painful, exactly, just breathlessly strange.

-

“Draco, come in and have some tea, you’ve been avoiding me,” Angie says cheerfully, with a firm and inexorable grip on his sleeve. Draco abandons his vague thoughts of a nice evening alone with deep regret. “And do introduce me to your friend, we’ve been chatting all afternoon…”

“My what,” Draco says, alarmed, then, “Tori!”

Astoria waves at him from the couch, where she’s deep in conversation with Jessica. Her hair has grown, and spills in perfect mahogany curls over her shoulders. She isn’t in robes, just a long-sleeved dress with shifting blue and purple layers that completely fails to make her look non-magical. Jessica looks awestruck, and can’t make direct eye contact.

Draco sits next to her, and says, “You look well. I’d tell you it’s good to see you, but I haven’t decided yet.”

Astoria rolls her eyes. “I will tell you it’s good to see you, because I’m a kind person who enjoys being nice to my friends. Where on Earth have you been for the past few--years?”

“Right here. Not my fault you don’t look hard enough.”

“Hmm,” says Astoria, squinting at him. “Angie, dear, would you excuse us? I’d like a word with my friend.”

“Of course, sweetie,” Angie says, and shares an alarming look of solidarity with her. “And you’re welcome back anytime, just drop in…”

Draco threads his arm through Astoria’s and hauls her into his flat, rapping her unnecessarily hard with his wand so the wards let her in.

“Nice place,” she says, unruffled. “Shame I’ve never seen it before, as you vanished off the face of the earth and became utterly impossible to find through anyone I'm on speaking terms with.”

“About that. How did you find me? I ought to know so I don’t get tracked down by any other uninvited guests, you understand.”

Astoria waves her wand and the radio flicks on. Soft music trails through the room. “I was in the Improper Use of Magic Office to be interviewed about some Muggle in our town whose hamster sprouted antlers, and happened to see a file with your name on it, which I nicked as a matter of course and looked through. Had your address in it.”

“Figures,” Draco mutters. “I’ll have to go whine at Leblanc now, I think I’ve earned a bit more discretion than that.”

“If it’s any consolation, your wards are absolutely flawless. I had no idea I was in the right place until Angie asked if I was looking for you.” She takes his hand and pulls him three steps forward into a waltz they’d both learned before they could walk.

“Have to have a chat with her, too, then,” Draco says. The celibacy oath on her left hand looks like a spreading ring of shimmery black lace on her left ring finger, and prickles when it touches him. It matches her dress well. He wonders if she’s done that on purpose. “I’m sorry I didn’t go to the party for your N.E.W.T.s.”

“I figured you had something deeply important to do instead.” She twirls under his arm and misses a step. Draco trips over her skirt and pinches her in punishment. “Merlin knows what I’ll do with them. Mum’s been darkly hinting I need a job.”

“Should’ve married me, then you wouldn’t’ve needed one,” Draco says, restarting the dance. “Focus this time,” he adds.

Astoria sticks her tongue out at him and performs the entire dance perfectly.

“What are you even doing out here?” she says. “Surrounded by Muggles and apparently not planning genocide. I’m proud of you.”

“Maybe all your lectures eventually sank in.”

“I wouldn’t dare hope,” Astoria says dryly. “In fact, I’ve been planning a new one. It’s good practice for the rest of my pureblood life, talking too much while other people pretend to care.”

“Go on, then,” Draco says, stepping back away from her and lifting their clasped hands to finish the dance. “Maybe I’ll listen this time.”

Astoria gives him a surprised, then calculating look, and trips over her own skirt this time.

-

Draco doesn't like to make a habit of involving himself in the Ministry’s internal politics--it makes him look too suspicious, too much like his father--but the temptation to meddle is omnipresent, and every now and then he indulges it.

The council room is a vast, repurposed courtroom, with a luminous ceiling that casts an early-morning dimness over the proceedings. Draco takes his seat, high at the back with the other specialists contract-bound to the Ministry, and looks around.

Ro had offered to gate-crash to give him some company, since Draco’s got few friends in MagLaw, and he's starting to wish he'd accepted. The knot of Aurors across the floor from him keeps three or four eyes on him at a time, and Potter and Weasley give each other meaning glances every few seconds.

Arthur Weasley, down near the floor on Draco’s left, catches his eye and smiles subtly. Draco returns the smile, reserved, and feels a bit better.

“Department Head Cambers, calling this meeting of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement to order,” Brooke Cambers yells from her seat on the floor at one end of the oval room, and the chatter dies down.

“I second that motion,” someone shouts, and there’s a ripple of laughter.

Cambers shakes her close-shaven head and clears her throat. “The purpose of this meeting is to discuss the drafted law 375, which proposes a legalization of the death penalty in cases of crimes the wizarding community is not otherwise equipped to punish appropriately, with immediate relevance to war criminals of the Second Wizarding War. If approved, the draft will then move to full Ministry discussion and possible implementation. If rejected, no further discussion will occur. Those of you who are not in this department, or have no input on the issue, or are lost, may leave now.”

Quiet laughter. A few people trail out.

“The floor is open. Anyone wishing to state a position may do so.”

A tall man in poorly-tailored robes to Cambers’s right stands, and Draco recognizes Leblanc with a start.

“The Ministry recognizes Mr. Gareth Leblanc, head of the Improper Use of Magic Office and Auror retiree. State your position and defend it.”

“I support introducing the death penalty with due limits,” Leblanc calls. His voice is thinner than Cambers’s immense boom, and several people shout, “Speak up!”

Leblanc waves his wand at his throat. “Better for you lot?” he asks, now bolstered by an Amplifying Charm.

There are whoops and thumbs up. Leblanc snaps his fingers and starts over. “I support limited implementation of the death penalty, in the case of, for example, criminals who’ve earned a life sentence in Azkaban, or war criminals who took advantage of the war to cause all sorts of mischief we don't have laws or a punishment system to deal with. We need a tool to handle these folks, a catch-all, if you will. Historically, the Wizarding community took pride in suiting the punishment to the crime, a practice that has not received as much attention since the Statute of Secrecy was implemented and started taking up so many resources. Now, it's Azkaban and very little else, and even Azkaban has proven itself unreliable with the dementors’ change in allegiance. I argue for more creativity in the justice system, and I believe instituting a death penalty would create awareness of this need and spur on future lawmakers.” As he speaks, mutters flow through the room, analyzing and questioning.

“I'll play devil’s advocate, here,” Cambers says. “It could be argued, Mr. Leblanc, that you're suggesting some real recklessness with regards to human life, to call the death penalty a ‘catch-all’ and rely on its benefits as an abstract statement of need.”

“True, if its use were too widespread,” says Leblanc. “Which is why I recommend such a limited application--only for those who would otherwise be facing a lifetime in Azkaban. Plenty of people would prefer a quick death, to be frank.”

“And plenty more would prefer not to die,” Weasley yells. “Should we just let ‘em all choose?”

“That's a possibility, for limitation,” says Leblanc. “Equating a life sentence with a death sentence and giving the criminal a choice. Look, I know a lot of people don't like the idea of a death penalty because it seems so extreme, but morally speaking, is it really that different from a life sentence? Either way, a life is lost.”

“There are ways of getting out of Azkaban, though, with a pardon or reparations promises,” Potter shouts. “Shouldn't we give people a chance, instead of just cutting them off?”

“Some don't deserve a chance.” There's a great swell of mutters, and Leblanc holds up a hand. “Mr. Potter, you should know that better than anyone.”

Potter’s mouth twists, but he doesn't argue.

“That's about all I've got,” Leblanc says, with a nod to Cambers, and sits.

Draco stops listening to the second speaker, who's arguing against the penalty on religious grounds and being cross-examined by Cambers for it, and watches Potter. He doesn’t seem convinced by Leblanc, nor by the current speaker, and occasionally asks questions or makes comments like he isn't aware of the whole room hanging on his every word. If Potter were swayed, how many more would follow him?

“Is that all? Thank you. Next?” Cambers yells.

Draco stands, and clasps his hands behind him.

“The Ministry recognizes Mr. Draco Malfoy, Curse-Breaker,” Cambers says, with an edge of curiosity--he's the first specialist to speak. The ever-present mutters go hushed and excited.

“I oppose the institution of the death penalty, in any case and under any circumstances,” Draco says, and pauses to let the sudden noise die down. Across the room, Potter is watching him intently.

“Clearly this is not the position you were expected to take,” Cambers says with amusement. “Defend your stance.”

Draco half smiles at her and addresses the room. “I do appreciate my apparent reputation for bloodthirstiness, but the opportunity for abuse is too great. The Ministry is not infallible and its judgements are not guaranteed to lack bias. In the event of undeserved punishment, fines can be rescinded, inmates can be released, reputations can be mended, but an unjust death sentence cannot be made right. A government should not have the power to perform acts that cannot be undone.”

“One might argue that such a perspective displays undue paranoia and mistrust of the Ministry,” says Cambers.

“Paranoia it may be, but with respect, I don't believe it's undue. The Ministry has proven itself prone to corruption in the past.” He pauses, watches a few people nod agreement. “I’m not going to argue whether or not a person can deserve death, but dealing it out is not the job of a governing body. I've lived under a power that gave itself the right to decide life and death for its people. I will do anything I can to ensure I never live under a power like that again.”

The murmurs rise. Draco nods to Cambers and to the room, and takes his seat.

“Anyone else?” Cambers calls.

A few more people stand and give their stances. Eyes dart back to Draco now and then, more curious than suspicious. Potter gives him a long, thoughtful look, then ignores him.

“All in favor of upholding the draft and passing it along?” Cambers barks finally.

Hands rise. It'll be a near vote; Draco isn't sure who has the majority yet.

“Thank you. All in favor of rejecting the draft and closing the issue?”

Draco raises his hand, and others, including Arthur, do the same. They may need a re-count, Draco thinks--then, through the forest of arms, Potter raises his hand, and a dozen more leap into the air to join him.

“The department moves to reject,” says Cambers. “Thank you, and have a nice day.”

In the tumult of sudden movement and conversation, Potter catches Draco’s eye and shrugs a little, purses his lips. You’ll do until someone suggests something better, Draco reads.

Draco nods to him curtly, to communicate not everything is about you and your need to explain yourself, could we please act like adults, and some of that must come across because Potter narrows his eyes and walks out without another word, Weasley bobbing in his wake.

-

Draco gets his mail from the office himself, rather than send Odd to get it for him, as motivation to get up. It's a foggy, dim, frozen November day, the kind that sends you back to bed with a hot drink as soon as you look out the window.

Draco turns up his collar against the damp cold and feels saintly and self-sacrificing--Odd would have hated to have his feathers clogged with moisture.

Tom greets Draco, cordial if not quite friendly, at the Leaky Cauldron, and Longbottom, who’s been civil since Draco helped his grandmother with a pair of bloodthirsty sugar tongs, smiles awkwardly at Draco from the bar. Next to him, Lovegood, whose hair is precariously vertical and has acorns stuck in it, waves and points to a seat beside her. Draco shakes his head, not unkindly, and ducks through the fire.

On the other side of the fireplace, Draco earns and returns greetings and nods with various degrees of stiffness. He can't help but be smug about it, Slytherin-style--he’s got a reputation, one that's both all his own and almost good.

There are three letters in his mailbox. One is a flyer for a MagLaw department bake sale, one is the Ministry-wide newsletter from last month that Draco never bothered to look at, and one is a work assignment via Arthur Weasley.

That's promising. Draco leans against the wall by his door and pages through it.

Assignments through Arthur are typically friend-of-a friend affairs, and all the more interesting for it. Arthur had suggested the job with old Mrs. Longbottom, with the warning that she had never done business with the same Ministry official twice since most were terrified of her. Draco had gained substantial respect for Neville after that, and the rest of the department had been quite impressed with him for handing her so well.

The request is typical. It’s internal, from a Ministry worker begging favors, planning to sell an old family house that needs to be cleaned out and have wards lowered first.

The details get Draco’s attention, and he pulls out a quill, annotating against his hand for lack of a desk. The owner wants to preserve, if possible, the hiding spell that has traditionally been tied to a Fidelius Charm; the house is old, with a reputation for nasty curses and a history of wizards who take pride in dabbling in the Dark; it’s big enough and grand enough to have had a house-elf; and it was the main property of the now-extinct Black family.

Draco blinks at that. All the family’s assets should rest on Narcissa, the last Black who's neither dead nor disowned, and from her be passed to him. Of course, it’s not unheard-of for property to fall through the cracks and be forgotten, when the male line is extinct and the daughters have all married off. It’s not like he wants it, and he’s sure Narcissa wouldn’t either--she’s got enough on her mind, and the Eyrie is all he needs.

It looks like a long job--two weeks at least by these notes, and more than that if he knows his mother’s family. Draco flips back to the front page and scans for the requester’s name.

In the lower-left corner, three names are cramped into a box meant for one.

Potter, H., Auror, Dept. Mag Law
Weasley, R., Auror, Dept. Mag Law
Granger, H., Being Div., Dept. Mag Creat

-

Draco knocks on Arthur’s office door before he storms in, which may lessen the dramatic effect a bit, but he’d feel bad if he didn’t. Arthur pushes his glasses up his nose and blinks. “Morning, Draco. This is a surprise.”

Draco tosses the assignment packet on Arthur’s desk and says, without preamble, “Are you fucking kidding me?”

“Er,” Arthur says, clearly lost.

“There are three people,” Draco says, breathing hard through his nose. “Three fucking people, in the entire Ministry of bleeding Magic--no, scratch that, in all of fucking London, that I will not work with. And you,” he glares at Arthur, who is now trying not to laugh, “send me an assignment with all three of them.”

Arthur sits back, resigned and amused. “Are you declining the assignment?”

Draco looks at the desk, where the pages of the packet are spread just far enough apart that he can see the notes he’s made in the margins, the details he’s underlined, the places where the parchment has crumpled a little between his quill and his hand, his own messy, excited handwriting. “...No.”

Arthur spreads his hands in a “well-what-can-I-say” gesture. “It’s been a long time. You’ve all grown up a bit. Don’t you think it’s about time to make peace with your skeletons?”

“My skeletons,” Draco says through gritted teeth, “consist far more of actual fucking skeletons and far less of insufferable, stuck-up, do-gooder fucking Gryffindors that couldn’t possibly be a smaller bloody part of my FUCKING LIFE--” He’s shouting, he notices. With difficulty, he takes a deep, shuddery breath and shuts his eyes.

He can feel Arthur’s fatherly what-did-I-tell-you look, even through his eyelids.

“Fine,” Draco says tightly, lip curling. “Fine. But if you’re expecting us all to be bloody bosom friends after a couple of weeks, you’re out of damn luck.”

He gathers up the papers with shaky hands and storms out of Arthur’s office, half-slamming the door before he catches himself and closes it quietly.

-

...

“‘Mione wants me to tell you that if you flake out on us again tonight, she’s tracking you down and giving you a piece of her mind,” Ron says.

“It’s hardly my fault you lot like shit bars,” says Draco. “Wasn’t that old bat with the Muggle-born Registration Committee at the last one?” They’re walking through the Auror Office to the break room, on a rumor of mint-flavored coffee creamer. Ron attempts to steal a pen from an unoccupied Auror cubicle and trips over his feet. “You utter bumbling moron,” Draco adds, with more affection than he’ll ever admit.

Ron ignores that. “Yeah, that’s why you’ll have to be there, it’ll take at least all three of us to keep Harry sitting down and quiet.” He leans into another cubicle as they pass and swats its occupant in a friendly sort of way.

“If he wants to squabble himself to death, I vote we let him,” Draco says. “At least he’ll die happy. And don’t make me suffer through watching you drink your precious drain-swill of a beer, people do insist on giving me wine for my birthday and if I’m not drinking it somebody needs to--afternoon, Arthur, how’s the creamer?”

“Terrible, actually,” says Arthur, smiling at the pair of them over the rim of a nauseating orange mug. “Doesn't go well with coffee.”

“Well, Draco was just going to drink it plain, anyway,” Ron says, and dodges Draco’s slap. “Right, sorry, no straight cream for you anymore, you’re watching your figure--”

Draco elbows Ron in the ribs as he snorts. Arthur is giving him a knowing look.

“Oh, go on then,” Draco says to him. “You told me so.”

“I’m sure I’ve no idea what you’re talking about,” Arthur says, with the barest trace of smugness. “Still want help finding records for the Fawley property? I know the office is in a bit of chaos.”

“Nothing left to look for,” says Draco, and lets himself smile back a little. “Nothing at all.”