It was nothing like this when the Dark Lord marked me. When he challenged me to take my father’s place and make good his mistakes. I remember pushing back my chair and rising to my feet. There were murmurs and muttering all around me which I could only vaguely hear, like my ears were full of water. I caught a low sound from my mother, but I knew if I turned my head I might lose my balance and fall, so I walked past her without acknowledgement.
My heart was hammering high, like a fist in my throat, choking me and making me light-headed. He didn’t even get up from the table, just leaned back in his chair and gestured with one brittle, grey wrist for me to give him my arm. My fingers were shaking so I couldn’t undo my cuff. He laughed his high, snide laughter and with a flick of his eyes bade Aunt Bellatrix to help me, which she did, sharp nails digging in as punishment.
The brief stab of anger I felt at her - you bitch - helped to steady me. I managed to make no sound and no visible sign of revulsion when he clasped my bare wrist in his cold hand, but he could still feel the slightest tremor as my skin tried to crawl back up my arm and away from him. It was like being handled by a corpse. I’d never actually touched a dead body at that point, but I was later to learn that was indeed exactly what it was like. The immediate and visceral knowledge of death and the instinctive, primal urge to distance oneself from this wrongness.
“So, Draco … are you ready?” he asks. It isn’t a question. It’s a joke. In every sense.
All the muscles in my body are knotted tight, from my legs to hold me in place, my torso to hold me upright, to my throat holding up my head. It feels like I use the last spoonful of oxygen in my body to answer in the affirmative.
“My Lord.” My voice is slightly rough, but not strangled. I sound like my father.
He takes me by the arm, turning it to expose the pale flesh of my inner wrist. He places the tip of his wand where the veins gather beneath the skin. Unlike the dead touch of his hands, his wand feels terrifyingly alive. I make the mistake of looking up at him. His eyes spark with avaricious malevolence. It is a trap and I have walked straight into it, though it is a trap laid for wolves and I am at best a baby rabbit. Sixteen years old.
He sees the dawning realisation in my face, my urgent desire to back out, and it is that moment he unleashes the curse. Icy flames of curse-fire roar instantly up my arm, encasing it. Beneath the surface it scores up my veins, through my bones to the marrow within. I am frozen and burning. The curse is alight and my flesh aches with the pitiless cold of it. I have no defence against the onslaught of his will.
Everything I was is stripped from me and he will give me back only that which he sees fit to return. Reflexively, I reach for my magic, but he holds it beyond my reach without effort. I didn't understand it would be like this. I thought he bestowed power upon his inner circle, that they might grow great in his service, but all the power is his and remains his. I will be lucky to retain even such remnants of strength as were my own originally.
I twist and evade with all my might, but I've been a fish on a hook from the start. That he lets me struggle is merely his amusement in the sport. I may be screaming, I cannot tell.
It is only moments and I am caught, immobile, without magic or voice, a blood eagle or a moth pinned by his collector. The curse runs through every inch of my blood, bone and viscera and my heart is bare, alone and vulnerable. I hear his voice.
"Do you accept the honour I have bestowed on you?"
This is it. He cannot take my heart against my will. Even he cannot do that. There are laws that even the greatest wizard must abide by. I, myself, must gift him my heart, the last bastion of my will. I can refuse him now and my will, my magic and my voice will be returned to me. I will be whole again. For a single second. Before the curse tears me apart.
I take the mark and embrace my master.
“Do you have a problem, Potter? I don’t have a problem. So I really don’t see why you have to have a problem?”
I wrench off my robe and ball it up, lobbing it in the vague direction of my desk. It’s been a long day. I know I need to calm myself, so I stalk over to the charmed scene of rolling countryside that graces our office five floors below street level. None of my other partners got a window. They were all various flavours of fuck-ups, whose inevitable downward trajectory towards dismissal involved a windowless office and being partnered with me. It is well understood by everyone concerned that this is not my window. It is Potter’s window. But I get to look out of it too, so who the fuck cares?
I like having a window. Even though it’s just a charm, it's restful to see a bit of sky. Although you might not believe it, I can be a bit of a cranky bitch if I’m cooped up in a windowless room for days on end. Clouds scud across distant hills. A mug of tea, with the legend ‘PRAT’ inscribed upon it, gently nudges at my elbow. My mug.
“I don’t need tea and sympathy, Potter. I’m fine. Get a grip.”
Potter is looking at me silently. I can tell because I can see the reflection in the glass in front of me and feel the tell-tale itch between my shoulder blades. He does that. Just stares at people with his head slightly on one side when he is trying to figure them out or deciding what to say or who the fuck knows. Like an unnerving porcelain doll, with his pale face and eyes gleaming opaquely behind the glare of his lenses.
That’s why no one else likes working with Potter, despite the glamour that surrounds his name. He’s weirdly intense. If I didn’t know for a solid gold fact that Potter is shit at Legilimency, I’d be afraid I was being read. He glowers at me from beneath his brows, through the black sweep of his perpetually ridiculous hair. Everyone else makes the mistake of assuming it means Potter is possessed of some preternatural degree of acuity and perception. I know, however, that he is magically gifted but mostly a borderline imbecile. I can work with that and I do like having a window.
“It’s. Fine.” I try to spell it out for him.
“It’s. Shit.” Like a Niffler with a bauble, he won’t be put off.
Annoyingly, I can’t entirely disagree with him right now. It’s galling enough to have to agree with his correct assessments of the curses and portals we’re working on and quite another to go around agreeing with him off the clock. He has everyone else for that.
There is something particularly needling to me about the small retributions people try to extract from me. I should be used to it really. Potter gets a cup of tea on the job. I don’t. I speak and people answer to Potter. ‘I am virtuous and condemn the use of Dark Magic. I will let you in my house to fix the unfortunate Amalfi Portal that generated there, but no tea for you. So there!’
Potter is still regarding me. At least he has the decency not to look pitying, which I cannot abide, or faintly reproachful in that, ‘well, if you hadn’t been such a naughty boy’ way that the more sympathetic of my instructors used to affect whenever they came across evidence of the antipathy of my fellow students. He knows people are shits to me and seems to believe as I, my mother and approximately no one else alive believes that this is not entirely my just deserts. It is, in its own way, rather endearing.
I am tired of being slapped across the wrists. Punch me in the face if you are angry with me or suck it up, but do not express your righteous rage by giving me the cat chair to sit on so that my robes end up covered in white fur and then smirk at me while pointedly passing Potter the one cup of tea you have brought.
I know what revenge looks like. Revenge is living a lie of a life for seventeen years, serving people you hate, just for the outside chance to bring down the man who took everything from you. Potter thinks Severus sought redemption. That’s bollocks. He knew he was beyond redemption. He just took the only path that grief and anger left open to him.
I’m tired of those little My Cousin Was Taken By Death Eaters shitbags. If they don’t want me in the house they can call for another team.
Potter breaks in on my internal rant. “It would be better if Brenner would warn us when we are going to get one of those cases.”
“If Brenner wasn’t a giant shit-cunt it would make my life easier, but you can’t get everything you want.”
“And if you stopped calling him shit-cunt to his face it would make my life easier.”
I shrug. “I use all my reserves of politeness on the job. My resources on this front are not limitless and there are many calls upon them.”
“You could try being less of an arse in the office.”
“But why would I do that? People would still treat me like shit. This way it feels personal. Like Brenner really hates me for who I am.”
Potter just shakes his head at me. I don’t know what he’s after. Does he want me to sit down with him and discuss my feelings in depth?
“I still can’t believe you drank that freak’s tea. You could see he practically came in his pants when you stepped through the Floo. I bet he put his dick in the cup.”
“I’m not talking to you when you’re like this.” And Potter turns round and walks out of our office.
“Fuck you, Potter,” I yell after him. I contemplate flinging my mug at the closing door, but I do like this mug.
I like working with Potter. Admittedly the three years of Unspeakable Training and five years of professional practice after that went a long way to drastically lowering the bar on that score. The options seemed to be to terrify my partners into basic acquiescence or enrage them sufficiently so that they succeeded in lobbying for a transfer or they leave the service entirely. At least the terrified ones were quiet, but none of them lasted very long.
Not that we talk much when we’re working, Potter and I. Not in a ‘withholding vital information way’ - thank you, Pucey, for my lovely scar. I hope your nose never grows back - it just isn’t necessary. The long and the short of it is that Potter is basically a shit team-player and I don’t need to be told what to do. I hated those years of having to explain to the slow-of-thinking what they should already know and I hated it even more when they tried to explain what I already knew back to me.
Potter does not stop to explain. As far as I can see, he rarely stops to think. If it is possible, he is even more hopelessly drawn to obscure magical phenomena than I am. Years of working with shoddy partners who hate me means I’ve developed a knack of watching and inferring to avoid nasty magical surprises. Add in another six or so years of watching Potter at school and, let’s be fair, him watching me, means we slot together pretty well. If he does pause and I see a little frown of concentration, I know to duck and reinforce the safety wards. If he lets out a little sigh and looks particularly enchanted by the magical configuration unfolding before him, I know to do pretty much the same, only if possible tackle him to the ground first. I am, after all, well aware of how very limited my own life expectancy would prove to be, should I allow the Chosen One to finally fall foul of his quest to experience all the things that kill normal people.
That’s the other reason Potter got partnered with me in the end. He doesn’t really talk to other people, and his judgement, when it comes to acceptable risk, is what one might expect of a man who has died at least once already. We mostly work the best cases now. And by best cases, I mean the ones with the forms so obscure no one else would touch them. I think Chief Proctor, Unspeakable Methuen, is ninety nine per cent convinced Potter can’t die at this point. And I know that, should the unthinkable happen and Potter get killed on a job, my inevitable demise would significantly sweeten the ordeal for him.
But I need to keep my wits about me; our client for the day has led us down to the potting shed about two hundred yards from her house. It is an old structure, crumbling brick, one window with grimed squared panes and a moss-covered tile roof. It is partially enveloped by ivy and a hugely overgrown holly hedge, which appears to be trying to consume it entirely. As we draw nearer, it becomes apparent that it is also humming to itself. The shed, not the holly. In fact, the holly may be trying to muffle it. Interesting. The hum has a metallic whine to it that is intrinsically discomforting.
Potter, being Potter, is drawn inexorably towards the shed, while I gesture to Mrs Whoeversheis to return to the house and cast the usual series of personal wards and a retrieval line round Potter. Potter’s idea of safety precautions is to position his specs a little more firmly on his nose. Wait for it.
There, he’s done it, just before opening the door of the shed without so much as a Fluxus Revelio. And I follow him, because it is my job and because it has just occurred to me that the whine could be described as singing and the faint odour of almonds on the air, coupled with the holly, reminds me of something I’ve read. That and there is something mesmerizing about Potter when he is alight with the thrill of wild magic.
“It’s a bugger, you know” I say, striding back into our office. “I would have liked to get a proper look at a Corvallis Nexus.” I finish wiping my face and throw the spit-soiled handkerchief into the waste paper basket. “Sorry about that, Potter. I should have thought.”
I apologise because it really was a stupid thing to do on a job, roll up my sleeve. The Nexus was sparking off Varia flares and I didn’t want to singe a hole while I cast over it. I do like to dress well. It is one of life’s few real pleasures: the feel of silk, the perfect grey on grey, the authentic heft of real diamond.
Potter is just staring at me again. He’s been doing that a lot lately.
“Look, maybe you can go back with Frazer, without me? I know you wanted to work on a Corvallis too. Frazer is borderline competent.”
“I’m sorry.” Potter is looking steadily at me. Staring isn’t the right word. He looks at me intently, with his hooded green eyes and his mobile mouth pursed. He looks like he understands, but what I do not know.
“Don’t worry, Potter. I don’t mind if you go with Frazer. But look, could you Pensieve the memories afterwards? I don’t know when I’ll next get a chance to look at a Corvallis in such a marked state of fluxus.”
“I’m not going back. I’m sorry she said those things to you.”
“What?” Oh, he means that. “Look, you know it doesn’t matter what she said. You should go back.”
I’m still in that faintly euphoric space my head seems to go to when things like that happen. I think it might be something as mundane as oxygen deprivation. There’s a moment, when you know it’s going to be one of the interminably long screeching ones, someone who knew my father, when you breath in, your face freezes shut as your lungs fill one last time and then the whole thing just rolls over you and doesn’t touch you. Potter doesn’t understand. Or perhaps he does?
“I don’t want to go.” He steps towards me. I’m not that good at reading people’s expressions when I’m like this. I smile at him brilliantly and he appears to find it disconcerting. The wrong response.
“They’re only angry. They’re allowed to be angry.” It’s sort of like being drunk, this feeling and, like the drink, it gives you a shitty headache when you snap out of it. I should make sure I’m alone when that happens, Potter will only get all concerned. He’s looking all concerned now. I wish he’d just go back. I aim for some emotional honesty; he tends to lap that up, even when he himself is about as sharey as a Sphinx. “It is a pity she got so upset, though,” I hear myself say. “It’s always like that with kids. Brenner shouldn’t have sent us there. Sent me there. But anyway, you should go back. If they send Keating and Depo they’ll only fuck it up.”
Potter is … upset. His pale face is even paler than usual and his lips red from where he bit them trying not to speak. He used to try to intervene at encounters like this but I’ve at least persuaded him to stop that. Grief is not subject to reason and it only prolongs the whole thing.
It upsets him though, more even than the other kind. The grateful ones who want to show him pictures of their dead and thank him for ending the war. They are the ones who sometimes even take my hand and tell me that they don’t hold grudges. I don’t like those ones either. Gives me the willies. I don’t like to imagine having so much taken from you, you don’t even have anger left.
“You’re not your father.”
Potter's words make no sense. I don’t know what he’s trying to say. At the same time, they perfectly sum up the situation I find myself in. My father, who is the demon in the nightmares of many, who was the hero of my childhood. A game set up that I can never win. I will never be the man my father was and no one will ever forget I am his son. The beginning and the end of it.
Potter doesn’t think of me as Lucius Malfoy’s son. I like that. But even Potter’s eyes shutter when he sees the mark on my arm. He slips into what I think of as his Soldier’s Face. The face of a man who has been asked too many times to take one for the team, so that he can reflexively distance himself at a blink. He wasn’t always like this. I can remember. But they just kept on asking.
He gets that face on at award ceremonies, at memorials, at section meetings whenever the discussion turns to suggestions of Dark conspiracy and everyone turns to look at him. Everyone who isn’t glaring at me, that is. Perhaps it is because I can remember the boy whose every impulse of outrage was writ large upon his face that it strikes me as so wrong.
I can’t blame him his disgust at my mark. Morsmordre has functioned as a call to battle for him since he was fourteen. I hate that face though. Potter isn’t a born soldier really. He’s too slapdash and too curious by nature. I don’t know why, but it makes me angry every time I see him slip away into that role. He should have been an absent-minded professor, someone like Flitwick, not the Saviour, the soldier.
If we’re at a public event I usually find a way of sidling up to him and whispering the most offensive slurs I can think of in his ear. That snaps him out of it. If we’re in a meeting I can just kick him under the table. I do have long legs and very pointy shoes. If I sometimes get someone else by mistake it works just as well. He knows it was meant for him, when someone else doubles over and spills their coffee. “Fuck’s sake, Malfoy. Grow up.” It warms the cockles of my black little heart. Anger is the only thing that keeps me alive most days. And it’s also the only thing I know of that pulls him back from losing himself in duty on the one side or disappearing into a vortex of his own magical explorations on the other. Fortunately for everyone, I have the most perfectly honed ability to piss him off.
But I still hate it when it’s my mark that does it. Only briefly, and he never says anything, but in that moment I’m not there anymore. Just one more piece of evidence of the world’s evil that he was taught to destroy. But then I hate most things, most of the time, so it’s not like I’m losing sleep over it.
I tend to keep my mark covered as much as possible. Though I am not averse to arousing wrath, disgust and fear in the average passerby, colleague, archivist, whatever, there comes a point when you just need to get on with your day. Without being spat on.
It’s funny when you realise other people have forgotten about it. When they can’t see it and they’ve simply forgotten it’s there. It doesn’t happen often, Malfoy hair and all, but I can tell when it has slipped from people’s mind.
I can never forget about it. It isn’t just a mark on my skin. It’s still woven into my bones and into the magic there. Every time I cast a spell I can feel the taint, the drag of it. That’s what it did, being marked, it broke the surface, to reach into our magic and bind it to him. When he cast a Crucio upon the marked it was our own magic scything up our skin and shredding each nerve. Even now he’s gone the distortion remains. We are rigged for winds that no longer blow, but it all sits uneasily like a wreck just beneath the surface.
I hate it myself, to be honest. Not in the sense of being ashamed of my actions. I didn’t have a choice. I’d rather be alive than dead and there is no point feeling ashamed of that. Except that, unlike being held down and branded by a hot iron, there was that element of choice in taking the mark. That is the beautiful cruelty of the curse: the victim must himself acquiesce to his subordination.
When my father claimed he was suffering from the Imperius curse in the aftermath of the first fall of the Dark Lord, he was only embroidering the truth. It is not that he drains you dry of magic; he has enough followers that he has no need to do so. It is not that he paws through every hidden desire and dream you have cherished in your secret heart; he would hardly have the time or inclination for so much attention to another. It is not even that he can, with only the barest thought, pin your attention to him and his demands, no matter how far from him you might be. It is that he could do all these things, should he be seized by the whim to do so, and you could offer no resistance. When you take the mark you open yourself so completely to him you may as well have no will at all.
And I hate that I could do that. Even now when he is long gone and the mark can exercise no power over me, I hate the reminder. It’s a constant snag, like debris in the currents of my own magic. And it reminds me again and again how tenuous my hold on my own will, my own self is. I gave it away once and Potter gifted it back to me.
That’s why I can’t baulk when Potter asks to use my mark.
He needs it sometimes because a not inconsiderable portion of the Old Magic we stumble upon is responsive to Parseltongue. I don’t know whether Parselmouths were more common back a few centuries or whether there was simply a far greater chance of Parselmouths being the sort of devious, bloody-minded fuckers who’d leave blood activated Praestringo curses for their descendants. But Potter needs to use my mark and my delightfully pure blood on these occasions.
I know he gets his knickers in a twist when he has to, because of ethics, but when we’re freezing our bollocks off in the teeth of an eternal blizzard someone has unleashed in a semi-detached family home in Brocklehurst, he’s a man who prioritises getting the job done.
Merlin, it makes me sick though. Even though I know the mark is dead at the root, the sound of Parseltongue causes it to temporarily animate, just as an Ennervate will cause a dead rat to start twitching again. I mean literally sick, as in inelegantly heaving up my insides while Potter oversees the Healers as they work on the thawing process of the unfortunate family within.
All it takes is the sibilance of Potter’s voice and I can feel the magic of the mark roll under my skin. It always feels alien there, but in these brief minutes I recall what it felt like when it was not simply alien matter, but an alien will. It roils through my blood and I feel my own resources tumble like skittles as it resumes its hold over me. The thing that makes me vomit is the small treacherous sensation of relief I feel. The cretinous part of myself that would welcome a rest from being me.
When we finally do encounter a Corvallis Nexus, Potter and I, it is really not what I expected. Haversham and the Fernlea Manuscript had referred to guardians, it’s true, but for some reason it had not occurred to either author to go into specifics.
“Don’t move,” Potter orders. His suggestion is entirely redundant. The blue fire of the fluxus has resolved into two giant serpents that are currently swaying gently before us. I have no intention of moving so much as an eyelash.
Oscillating its head from side to side, the larger of the two rears up and pokes out its liver-blue tongue. The harsh and prolonged hiss echoes weirdly around the stone vaults of the cellar. This is why, if you occupy the house of an ancient Pureblood dynasty, you should never attempt to install a games room in the basement.
What is also weird is the absence of so much as a flicker from my mark. I had assumed that it responded generically to Parseltongue. It always has in the past. Potter hisses back and still the mark remains inert. My arm feels cold and numb, almost foreign to me. The air in the cellar is damp and heavy, stultifying, and despite the evident peril of the situation my heart starts to beat more slowly. I can’t seem to find the fear that was there a moment ago.
The blue flames of the Nexus surge towards me. My wand is in my hand, I focus myself for a warding cast. Nothing happens. I focus again, but an impenetrable wall of ice has sprung up between me and the power I call mine, trapping me. As l flail in panic I see the Nexus swell, buoyant on the magic it has leached from me. It is feeding through the mark, keyed in somehow to the curse there.
There was no pain this time; the paths to my power are still beaten flat and smooth from the Dark Lord’s had and the mark keeps them open. But I am not a child anymore. I throw myself at the ice barrier formed by the Nexus. I will not lie down and let this happen again. It is not as solid and final as it first felt. There are still anchor points that bind my magic and me and I take a grip and thrust my will back at the Nexus. It is powerful and old as buggery but I'm damned if I'm letting go.
At a certain point there is stalemate. I could dash myself against this indefinitely and make no progress. I am hamstrung by the mark which unreels my strength as fast as I can gather it to me. But it that or surrender to it and there is no way I’m doing that again. Who will tire first? I finally become aware of Potter beside me. He is incanting and it is the division of the Nexus' focus that has given me the toehold I precariously maintain.
Wrapped as I am in the coils of the curse, my magic twining back and forth within its folds, I can understand the meaning of their Parseltongue-born exchange. The guardians are set on taking me, the servant, as the wergild for Potter's breaking of the seal. Potter refuses the exchange, but the serpent insists.
Potter is implacable and the cascade of breathy syllables he utters catches at my attention in a most peculiar way. My focus swings back to him and I falter momentarily in my tug of war. He is a slight figure before the towering serpent, but the power he is investing in his speech is shocking in its immensity. As my grip slips, he responds without so much as turning his head, extending his magic to shore me up.
Without the boiling nausea of my mark to distract me, I can finally hear Parseltongue for what it is, not just another language like mermish, but the essence of mastery within it. All magical practitioners understand the power of words. The vocal component of casting, alongside our wands, is what allows us to tap, guide and focus the latent force of our magic. Of course you can cast non-verbally, but the words are still there, sub-vocal. Parseltongue takes you beyond speech, I realise, to the essence of craft of wielding magic. It is to the common speech what the core is to the wand. And Potter is wielding it now like his mother tongue.
The sound slips like silver down my spine and I can feel the remaining magic in my own body bend towards it. It is not like the twist and wrench of the Dark Lord’s commands. I want this. I want it so badly. And in the midst of it, or because of it, I want Potter too.
Despite seeing a hundred witches and wizards melt before him, seeing the tell-tale pink cheeks, glassy eyes and rapid breathing they display when, however briefly, the quiet focus of his attention is directed towards them, I have never seen him this way. He is on the small side (I like them big) and he is socially awkward and ill-groomed (I like a man who can make an entrance). Most pertinently, I have hated him since I was eleven and have seen no reason to stop resenting the fact that every failure and humiliation I have suffered in my life can be traced back to him somehow. This is not fertile ground for a crush.
Though I have seen him work a thousand spells, I have never seen him like this before. He could not be more intimidating if he were a hundred feet tall. He has not even drawn his wand, but he is cloaked in power that crackles around him and he is bringing his gimlet will to bear on the manifestation of the ancient spell that holds me, much as I fight it, in a grip I cannot break.
He commands and the snake hisses back at him, feinting in anger, as if to strike him. He does not quail in the slightest, but his lip curls derisively as he snaps his response. I have seen him angry before and seen clients, colleagues, ministers and warlocks stumble to assuage him, but it had only ever looked like temper tantrums to me. Now he is arrayed in his wrath, pitting his will against a centuries-old magical barrier and he hasn’t got even the slightest shred of doubt that he will prevail.
As the serpents begin to fall back, I feel Potter’s magic extend towards me further and flow seamlessly into the void left by the receding tide of the curse. And he hasn’t looked at me once. It seems to take not the slightest effort on his part to simultaneously beat back the magic of the Nexus and weave a web of protection around me.
He is still speaking and the sounds I cannot understand as anything other than pure power contrive to make me light-headed. Light-headed and hard. As the curse weakens I feel my heart rate picking up, my breath start to pant shallowly, and I can feel my body again and it is a punch to the gut how much I want him.
His chin is up and his black hair and cloak billow around him as the magical energy of the portal buffets him. As his cloak is lifted, I catch a glimpse of the coiled serpent he has tattooed onto his chest. I've seen it before and I've tried to ignore how much I would like to see it in full on his naked chest. The mark of the Parceltongue, the Ouroboros, the infinity of the power he owns. He has not even broken a sweat. He is concentrating though, and not with the absent-minded absorption he usually brings to bear when he is playing with magic. He is not playing now. He is fighting and he is beautiful at it and I was wrong about him not being a soldier. He was born for battle. His will is adamantine and if I could move, my knees would buckle from how that will draws me.
The Nexus is crumbling now, folding in on itself and buckling. I have a moment to think what a shame it is, because I would have liked to study its structure a little better, but Potter is clearly going to annihilate it entirely. My second thought is to observe that he is also likely to bring the entire system of stone vaulting down on us.
I shrug out of the grip of Potter’s magic and it is like slipping out of a silk robe into an ice bath. I feel raw and naked, but I can hear the trickle of decimated mortar around us and the grind of stone on stone and I begin to cast.
I would like to think it is the force of my glare, my eyes red-rimmed from the irritation of pulverized stone-dust that stops Geddes in her tracks when she comes to ask for a full report on our mission. It is probably, more realistically, the sight of Potter, covered head to toe in the same grey dust and still crackling with magical static, that sends her scuttling back into her office. It was certainly that which prevented the Carstairs from jibing at my instruction that their magical problem was taken care of, but that the underpinnings of their home needed immediate professional attention.
I take a moment to pull myself together. Now the adrenalin has receded I'm feeling not a little shaky. But it is not everyday that one is partially consumed by a semi-sentient curse manifestation, so I suppose I should cut myself some slack.
I take off my outer robe, trying not to loosen too much of the dust trapped in its folds. I think about hanging it up, but taking a look at it I just Banish it instead. A few careful cleansing charms clear the main part of the grit and grime clinging to my person. It is only then that I risk a look at Potter.
He looks fine. Bastard. Bastard, I hate him. He could at least look a little drawn. But no, apart from the general filth, he is not showing any sign of magical fatigue. I draw myself upright. The results are unconvincing, even to me. I probably look like I've been chewed and spat back out, which is in effect what happened. With the caveat that, as if it wasn’t humiliating enough, it was Potter's command that freed me from the Nexus, like a wayward Crup being ordered to drop some dubious matter it is gleefully consuming.
Anyone would feel a bit wretched after what I went through today. But, if the snake is to be believed, 'anyone' would not necessarily have been so readily digestible. Because I am marked, it said. I am marked as a servant and the innate treachery of the mark will hand me over, hood and buckle, to any it recognises as superior. I feel the familiar anger well up inside me, indistinguishable from determination, indistinguishable from pride. Because the only ‘fuck you’ I can realistically wield at this point is the open offence of going on living and taking up as much space as I can. Fuck you, I’m not dead yet.
“You’re covered in shit,” I snap at Potter. When he just draws his sleeve across his face, smearing the dust still further, I relent and cast a few rough cleansing charms his way. He did, after all, save my life. I probably saved both of us, holding the roof up, but I’m going to be the bigger man about it. I take a clean hanky from my desk draw and hold it out to him. He hesitates, like he has never seen such a thing before.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake.” I stride back over to him and ease his spectacles off his face and set to work polishing the lenses that are matt with filth. “There you are.” I set the specs back on his nose, but cannot avoid the glimpse of his eyes, free from their customary shield of glass. His eyes are red-rimmed like mine, but for just a moment I see the pale green infinity of his irises and the fire of the power that burns there. I don’t like to be intimidated by such things, so I slowly take my index finger and place it on the bridge of his glasses to nudge them into position and see him turn cross-eyed for a moment watching me.
“Don’t say I don’t ever do anything nice for you.”
He opens his mouth to say something, but the dust must have caught at the back of his throat and he doubles over coughing. I still can’t understand how someone with the magical strength he possesses can be such a total dork. A not unattractive dork though. I remember how he looked with an aureole of fluxus patterns dancing around him and the total control and commitment of his imposition of will on the rogue magic before him.
I conjure a couple of mugs of tea. Conjured tea isn’t as good as regular brewed tea, but I don’t want to go down to the canteen. Not just now. I pass him one and he takes a few sips, clearing his throat.
“I want to take it off,” he eventually rasps.
“Take what off?” Unbidden, my mind immediately leaps to the prospect of him taking his clothes off. It’s hot in here. I unslip my tie and hang it over the back of my chair and pop a few buttons from my collar. I never take off my tie at work, but well, did I mention I nearly got magically absorbed by a Nexus manifestation today?
Potter appears distracted. “I want to take it off,” he repeats, his eyes following the movement of my hands.
“What are you talking about?” I’ve undone one cuff before I come to my senses. What am I thinking? Rolling back my sleeves here, in the middle of the office. The one sure-fire way to kill off the pleasant buzz of post-crisis camaraderie we’ve got going on.
As soon as I admit to myself that I would be sorry to lose Potter’s goodwill, I am seized by the perverse necessity of continuing. He needs to be reminded who I am, lest either of us forget.
So I continue to unbutton and carefully roll up each sleeve before looking back at him. “It’s warm in here, don’t you think?” Just as I suspected, as always, his eyes fly to my mark and he grimaces. The reality of me and who I am disgusts him.
“That’s,” Potter swallows. “I want to. I want to take off your mark.”
I don’t know what he’s talking about. “Yeah, well, you can’t.”
“You won’t let me or you think I can’t do it?” he asks.
I really don’t know what he’s talking about. “I know you can’t do it. It’s not a lick and stick tattoo. It’s a part of me. That’s how it works.”
Potter takes another swig of his tea, staring at me over the rim of the mug. I have the uneasy feeling he’s trying to decide what angle to take. As if this were an argument he could win.
“I know how it works,” he says quietly. “I’ve cast with it before and I can feel it, alongside your own magic, when you cast. All the time really. It’s not part of you. If it was part of you … it wouldn’t stick out, it wouldn’t stink the way it does.”
That stings and I have to still myself against the reflexive urge to cover the mark with my other hand.
“You saw what happened today. It’s a liability.”
I draw my head up. “I’ve got by with it this long.”
“If I hadn’t been there today…”
I interrupt. “I’ll just have to be more careful.”
“You work around it, but you’ve got to know it’s wrong. You’ve got to feel it. It’s … I can feel it when you cast. It trips the flow of your magic. You’re always casting against it.”
Its uncanny. I’m used to the drag of it, always there, after all this time, but it is disconcerting to think that it’s noticeable to him in that way, the same terms I use myself. I don’t like that he has seen that. Yet more evidence that I don't have his strength, his invulnerability, any more than I have his judgement or moral compass. All I have is what I’ve learnt these past ten years and my own infinite supply of bloody-mindedness.
“I’m marked. There’s nothing you can do. I took the mark and there are no spells to reverse that curse.”
“I know how to do it.” He is stubborn. “You can’t like it there. You can’t like always feeling it there like an open wound. It makes you too vulnerable. I know you hate that. That’s what the Nexus homed in on today. It’s like leaving the keys in the ignition.”
“Like leaving a window unwarded, then. It doesn’t matter how strong your house is, if all it takes is for people to find this one weakness. Do you know how little it would take to draw the skeins of the spell together again? To bind you to a new master?”
The threat, the implied threat in his words has my wand in my hand in a moment. It is suddenly apparent to me that he could do it. If anyone could. My heart is racing again and my eyes ache from the accusing stare I give him.
“I wouldn’t do it,” he says hoarsely. “But if I can do it, someone else, something else could or will be able to one day. And even if it was no one else, there’s me and you couldn’t just take my word for it, could you?”
I stare at him. Bastard. Bastard. But he is right. From what I saw today, he could do it. The knowledge of his forbearance is not sweet to me.
“How long?” I ask. “How long have you known you could do this to me?” He doesn’t answer. “How long?” His eyes dart momentarily away and I have a sudden flash of understanding. He is not ashamed simply of having this power over me. He has been tempted to use it.
I stride over to him and clap his hand over the exposed mark on my arm. “You’ve wanted to, haven’t you?”
The mark awakens under his hand, hungry for power as it always is and I falter momentarily with the sickening lurch of it. But I am too angry to stop. “You think you can just pluck up my reins with the merest extension of your will? Well, fuck you, Potter. I know how the mark works. It’s one thing I do know. It doesn’t matter how powerful you are, you can’t take this unless I let you and I will never let that happen ...again.”
I’m in his face now, crowding him and I am incandescent with rage.
“You let him,” Potter mutters.
“And you think this suggests I have poor taste in masters?” I don’t think it is physiologically possible to get more angry without passing out.
“You wanted to live. I get that,” he says quietly. “You didn’t think you had a choice.” He pauses, but because he never knows when to stop he goes on. “I’m afraid, if it came down to it, you’d make that choice again.”
I punch him. My fist catches him across the cheekbone, sending a shockwave of pain up my arm. I do not go for the nose or the glasses out of deference for the fact that he is probably right.
He staggers back and I withdraw to regroup by my desk, nursing my knuckles.
“This conversation isn’t going very well,” he observes.
“How did you fucking imagine it would go?”
“I didn’t … I was going to work out a way to talk to you, but today, I just…” Potter take off his glasses and pinches the bridge of his nose. With a wandless gesture he eases the swelling in his cheek. “When you cast, when you use your magic, I can feel the mark and it reaches out to me.”
Well, that’s a fucking horrible idea. Potter must see something of this sentiment written on my face, because he hastens to explain.
“It’s not much, but it catches at my attention. I think because I carried the Horcrux and because me and Voldemort, well, you know, there’s something naggingly familiar about it.
“And because it was always there, it started to bug me, and the more I thought about it the more I could tune into it, alongside, but distinct from your own magic. It’s Voldemort’s magic and, you know, that’s kind of familiar to me, only wrong. It’s always been wrong and so I started to think and I’m pretty sure I’ve figured out a way to deal with it.”
There is something equal parts fascinating and hateful in the thought of being studied like this. “Pretty sure? How do you know this isn’t just the power of the mark working on you, tricking you into engaging with it so it can get what it wants?”
“Do you know what it wants?”
“Oh, I know. It’s been hungry for ten years. Since you killed him and left it ... left me without a master.”
“So how sure are you that your oh-so-altruistic desire to play around with my mark is not simply the endgame? You are probably the most powerful living wizard. Quite the logical candidate for my next master as far as this curse is concerned. Or perhaps it could even be said I’m over-reaching myself?” I push because I am not afraid. Because the last thing Harry Potter would ever do is to bind another to him against his will.
“I don’t want to be your master.”
I hear the lie in his words and catch his eye sharply. He bites his lip. “I wouldn’t do that,” he says in a low voice and that I believe. There is still the lie somewhere. He is tempted in some way by the leash that the Dark Lord left dangling at my wrist, but perhaps it is enough that I know he will never take it. He sees something of the understanding in my eyes and goes on.
“I can … I can. It’s hard to explain. But I really think I can unweave most of the mark. I understand how it works, the shape of it. It’s been growing in my mind over the last months. I can’t just destroy it, but I can reshape it. So that it loops back to you. So that it doesn’t leave a vacuum. So it is closed and complete. It’d be much stronger that way. Safer.”
“The idea being I would be master of my own mark?”
There is a fractional hesitation. Something he isn’t telling me. “Potter?”
He grimaces and looks to the side. “I can’t change its nature entirely. Well, I can, but not in that way. It’s a chaining curse. It has to make links. One link doesn’t make a chain, but …”
“What, Potter?” I’m intrigued despite myself. I’ve studied my mark, but I’ve never spoken of it with anyone. Most of those who took it are now dead or not people I care or ever cared to converse with. Those who never took it would regard any attempt to bring it up in idle chat as perverse in the extreme. That’s if they are prepared to talk to me at all, which most of them aren’t. Potter has studied it. He has spent months, it seems, considering its nature and how to tame it. Or, if you look at it another way, considering my nature and how to tame me. He is looking shifty now, though. I raise my eyebrow interrogatively.
“To achieve stability and coherence, it will need to link to, to pass through at least one other person.”
“Meaning you?” Ah.
“But it won’t be the same. I mean, I won’t be master of the mark. You will be. I can pass it back to you. It will be satisfied then. No loose ends. It wouldn’t be grasping like it is now.”
I stare at him, trying to assess what he is saying. I know what the hunger of my mark feels like. The emptiness and gnawing ache of it since the Dark Lord fell. The prospect of resolving that nagging tension, or not stumbling over it every time I cast, is certainly tempting. But the trust Potter is asking me to put in him is, quite frankly, breath-taking.
But then again, from what he has said, I have little choice but to trust him. Trust him to re-form my mark into a structure I can myself control or trust him to keep resisting the temptation it represents to him, the call the Dark Magic makes to his strength. There is the added danger that I will not be able to unsee what I saw today: my own vulnerability and Potter’s ineffable strength, the ease with which he wields power and the attraction of that mastery. If I leave it, it may not be only his resistance to temptation that is tested.
I rub my hand absently over the marked skin. The snake writhes beneath the surface. It is awake, as if it scents the enormous reservoir of Potter’s power standing so close.
I am sick of it. I do not know if all that he has told me is true or if he has told me all he knows, but against my natural inclinations I do trust him, perhaps more than I trust myself. With relatively good reason. I have worked with him for two years and though we have fought a great deal of the time, much of the time, actually, he has never given any indication he considers me expendable.
Still, I hesitate. He is looking at me, urgently, but without speaking any more. It is like he wants me to understand something.
“And if it doesn’t work?” I ask. His eyes flare with satisfaction. He thought I was just going to say no. I try to resist the lure of his excitement. This is by no means a done deal.
“The sticking point will be you letting me in to open up the curse. If you resist that too strongly, I’ll have to give up and pull back or risk hurting you.” We tacitly agree not to dwell on the fact that he could force the issue if he wishes.
“You don’t have to decide at once.” Potter is hasty in his eagerness. “You’re … it’s been a hell of a day.”
That he catches himself from alluding to my weakness, my more or less obvious state of fatigue compared to his own, irks me. As usual, the irritation spurs me to act. Yet more evidence that it is a fucking miracle my nose is still as straight and perfect as nature intended.
“Go on then, do it.” I thrust my mark out at him.
His mouth falls open a bit. He is not sure. His uncertainty isn’t based on his abilities but on whether it’s ‘right’ for him to take me at my word. That pisses me off still further.
“You think you can do it. Prove it. You’re right, it’s a liability. And even if this is a huge fucking mistake, I’ll have traded up, right. The Boy Who Lived as the master of my mark.”
He grimaces slightly at this, but reaches for my arm. The gentleness with which he takes it is unnerving. It has been a long time since I was touched this way. Potter and I do not touch. I think we shook hands when we started working together. And we’ve punched one another a few times, but that’s it.
He runs the pad of his thumb over the surface of the mark. Even if I were able to otherwise conceal my reaction to this, I can do nothing about the goose bumps that immediately erupt along my arm. The contrast to the cadaver’s grip of the Dark Lord could not be starker.
“Sorry,” he says absently. He is peering at the mark, his head tipping to one side as it does when he studies arithmantic algorithms. He raises his wand and I swallow as he brings it to bear over my mark. Too late to back out now and why do I always have to be so fucking stupid?
The sibilant hiss of his incantation washes over me and at the same instant the mark rears into life. Not like the uneasy rumbles beneath the surface of when he casts near it or even the fevered writhing when he uses it as a reference point. It has sprung into life more fully than I have experienced before.
I stare in the horror as it erupts into movement, serpents rearing jubilantly towards him. Potter ignores or expected this and goes on steadily casting. It is worse than when he simply used the mark as a reference and worse than the mark-instigated engagement with the Nexus, because Potter has taken up the mark in explicit challenge. Nausea boils within me as my own magic recoils and yet is dragged into the mix. Beneath the nausea is the insistent tug of Harry’s casting. He is not bargaining or pleading. I don’t think he has ever done either in his life. He is laying down his will, bluntly and implacably and the mark is fighting him.
I am fighting him. Only I am not. My wand is in my hand and I try and use it as the focus, the lodestone for the magic that is mine, that is not part of this transaction. But the edges are blurred by twelve years of cursed enmeshment.
I am breathing heavily. Dragging in the oxygen to fight the welling nausea and sense that I have, yet again, doomed myself. I hear my mother’s voice inside my head: “Why don’t you ever think things through, Draco?” Fond and disappointed. Harry casts on and on and the mark is burning like the night it was laid on me. The snakes rear and hiss and the curse-light they radiate reflects off the lenses of Harry’s glasses. There is smoke too and a stench of burning flesh. I don’t know if I am burning. It feels like it, but then it felt like it before and when I came round, there I was, whole, and my skin completely unmarred but for the mark.
My breathing is speeding up. I try to control it, but this feels so wrong, this feels like losing, and the sensations awake memories I’d buried deep of another voice incanting in Parseltongue and my own tears and cries and vomit.
“Hold still. Don’t look.” Harry snaps at me and letting go of my arm he thrusts my head aside.
Even through the turbulent misery the term ‘wanker’ swims into my consciousness. I will truly be dead when I can’t muster an invective for someone who pisses me off. I am anchored by the familiar irritation with his dismissal even as I am by the warmth of his hand on the thin skin of the back of my scalp.
My head is bowed and I sink into myself. Here it is easier to find my own magic. With Harry’s human hand upon me it is easier to distinguish between the dead man’s voice of the curse and his own re-casting. He is not casting a counter-curse, but relaying the old one, picking it up piece by piece, even where it is scabbed and grafted onto the core of my own magic, and replacing it subtly altered as his.
When the Dark Lord marked me, I bent to his will like grass before the wind. I had not the least understanding of what was happening beyond the instinctive resistance of my body to this gross invasion. A resistance at least as futile as that of grass. But this time I have to accept each notch in the spell, each moment of its making. I have grown. I have grown stronger since I was sixteen. Strong enough to resist wizards like the Dark Lord and like Harry.
It is hard though. With each capitulation I have to wrestle with the fear that I am letting go and that I will be lost. There will be no coming back from this and I will never find myself again if I let go this one time, and yet I let go and Harry asks again and again and each time I yield, with my heart hammering in my chest and my breath dry and shallow. I have to trust him and I have to give way if I am to seize the chance he offers me. The chance to be whole again.
At some point Harry’s fingers shift imperceptibly from cupping the back of my head to scritching gently through the fine hair there. The shivers of sensation this produces are comforting, even while I resent the implication I need comfort. I am trying, but I hate that he sees that and seeks to reward me even while I curl my head into his touch.
I am pathetic, even when I am the strongest I have ever been. Whatever is left, when this is over, will be diamonds. I let go.
The nausea is distant now and I focus on Harry’s voice as he remakes the curse, so that it is the same, only different. He has the reins of it now and his touch is light like I could never have imagined. His mastery is will alone, without violence, without the rapine vindictive clawing of the Dark Lord.
I can feel awe in his touch. He knows the price I have paid and instead of despising me for it he values it. Our connection now is beyond speech and I feel the shape and tenor of his regard. He could not take me so gently if he did not want me very, very much. He handles me as if I were precious and he wrenches out at the root the curse-ties of the mark.
I can reach back along the connection and touch him too. It is an intimacy I had not expected. Beneath a crust of familiarity, he is raw power in a way that is utterly alien. I am a gifted wizard and I am knowledgeable in my craft but Harry contains within him a reservoir of power whose extent is unimaginable. He is a Merlin and I never knew.
Well I sort of knew, knew he was gifted, but this is beyond comprehension. With this power there are no limits to what he could do. He spoke of the suggestion that he could take up my mark if he wanted to and I can see now that he could have done so with a thought. With half a thought. If he has mastery of even half of this power … I cannot conceive.
And this is what he has shared with me. A vulnerability equal and opposite to my own. He is afraid of the extent of his power, of what he might do with it, and I am afraid of my limits and my weakness.
“Take it back now,” Harry says.
I don’t understand what he is saying. I feel like I am floating in the cup of his hands. The nausea and unwelcome tang of the mark is entirely gone. His touch is a caress and I can see that he would, at least in part, like to keep me here. He thinks I am beautiful and I am. He thinks I am valuable beyond diamonds and he is right. He thinks I could destroy him and perhaps I could, now that I am here, a rat in the granary, a worm in the heart of the apple.
“Take it back.”
He is offering me back the link in the chain. The offer he originally made me, to be my own master again. He never said I would have to give up all this. He never said he would be fighting temptation, but that I would be also. To be even a servant to a power like this is a temptation to me. Could he not know that?
“Take it, Draco.”
But he knows me, like I know him. I knew he would not impose himself upon me, whatever the fears that haunted him, and he knows that I cannot stomach being mastered for long. The wavering brings its own kind of terror though. The moments I chose to remain like this, held, prized, total subject to another’s will are more than moments of weakness. It is everything I fear. An old, familiar fear that means I was never going to fail at this juncture and Harry knew this even while I hesitated.
I feel the grip of my wand in my hand and I reach for my magic and the link Harry proffers for me. I grope for it and catch it. It is familiar and unfamiliar. It is my own magic, but also Harry’s. There is none of the Dark Lord left. I tighten my grip, bearing down on the link. I have my own stores of will to draw on. I bring my wand hand round and seal the mark.
The curse-light dissipates and we both stand there, staring at one another breathing unevenly. Harry at least has the decency to look a little rough around the edges this time. He has taken an enormous risk, letting me in, clasping the serpent to his bosom. Did he even know what he was doing? Does he ever? He still has brick dust in his hair.
I look at my arm. The mark is gone. In place of the dark stain of Morsmordre, white lines stand beneath the surface. The death’s head is gone and the snake alone wraps round and round my wrist until it consumes its tail in its own mouth. Ouroboros. Eternity, the beginning and the end, the end and the beginning.
I sheath my wand and with my two hands I take Harry's face and kiss him.