Three years had passed since the Battle of Hogwarts. Three years to the day since his father had been murdered, awaiting trial for his own part in the war — three years since Draco's world had turned upside down the final measure, and he'd decided it was time to finally get his life together and make something of himself.
And three years since he'd started believing that maybe, just maybe, that sort of thing wasn't entirely possible, no matter how he tried.
He really needed a drink.
Scratch that. He needed several drinks.
He'd somehow managed to slog through work, not speaking to anyone, for fear he'd slip up and say something that others might judge him for. So he'd kept to himself, counting down the hours and then minutes until he could slip away, with the single purpose of finding a pub where no one would recognise him, and he could drink himself into a state where he could no longer remember who he was, or why his life was so awful. By the time he had the good sense to ease up, it was just after midnight, and Draco knew he should be heading home. He fervently hoped his mother was already asleep—not because he didn't want her to worry about him (which he didn't), but because he knew she was likely to cry herself to sleep. He also knew she'd try to hide it, but the walls of the manor had a way of amplifying loneliness in any form—and grief could not be hidden at all times, despite one's best efforts.
Draco made his way out of the pub carefully, managing not to weave much as he went. He had just stepped out into the late evening air, headed in the general direction of the nearest public Floo Network point, when he heard a familiar voice to his left, calling his name. He squinted, then saw the owner of said voice, though it took a few moments to truly wrap his brain around who he was seeing, even as he moved closer. "Nott?"
"Malfoy," Theo said again, also moving closer. There was a more pronounced wobble to his step, as if he'd had at least a few more drinks than Draco had this evening. "It's been a long time."
It had been, at that. The last time Draco had seen his housemate, they'd still been on the grounds of Hogwarts. In all honesty, Draco hadn't even thought about Theo Nott in...well, two years, he supposed. Perhaps even longer. "Yes, I suppose it has." Nott snorted at him, but Draco ignored it. "How've you been?"
There was no expected smile, or even a casual shrug. Instead, Nott's face clouded over, and there was something in his eyes that Draco felt he could place, if he weren't feeling slow and a little fuzzy from the alcohol. "How have I been? Oh, I've been bloody great." There was so much bitterness in his voice that Draco found himself taking an involuntary step back. Before he could open his mouth to say anything else, Nott moved closer. "But everything's better for you, isn't it?"
Draco paused, unsure how to answer. He didn't know much about Theo's situation, but Draco wouldn't describe his own life as ideal. "Well, I've spent the last few years trying to—"
"Trying to what? Get your name back up where it was before the war? Yeah, I've tried that. Of course, that's actually something you think you can accomplish. Let me tell you, Draco, the past never goes away. No matter where you hide, no matter how you deflect or what deeds you put between it and your present, the past always finds you. Do you have any idea how hard I've tried to step out of the shadow of my family's name? No one will hire me, because they all know my father's rotting in Azkaban, they know what he's done, and they think I'm no better. No one will touch me, because the Nott family name is poison." He looked Draco up and down, then sneered. "Yours should be, too, but you've got sparkling testimony from the Golden Boy on your side, don't you?"
"No, I—" Draco began, feeling worse than socially awkward as Theo went on. At Draco's first words of protest, Nott stepped closer and, even in his somewhat inebriated state, Draco caught something unsettlingly familiar in his eyes—the cold, dark glittering of madness. Draco took another step back, his hand going to his wand as subtly as he could manage.
"Don't even bother arguing the point, Malfoy. In the eyes of the world, we're what's wrong with pureblood society, aren't we? No matter how you think you've changed, you haven't. You're still the same little privileged brat everyone hated when your family name actually carried some weight and influence, only now no one's afraid to tell you so. Don't tell me you haven't been rejected for plummy positions. You have been, haven't you?"
Draco paused, taking comfort from the familiar weight of his wand in his hand, as he really gave Nott a good look. He was only twenty-one, a few months older than Draco himself was, but he looked older, and Draco didn't think it was a trick of the shadows in the alley or the little bit of moonlight that managed to filter down through the clouds. He looked more hunched and pale than he used to be, dressed in robes that were faded, discoloured, and in need of some mending, and his frame and even his hair were thinner than Draco ever recalled seeing. Draco remembered, with a sickening sort of drop, that this was one of the few people in school he'd ever really thought of as an equal. "I have," he said after a moment, unsure if it was wiser to agree with Nott than it was to argue. Because while he felt that, yes, Theo was correct in a few of his points, Draco actually had had some modicum of success in trying to raise his family's name out of the mud in the three years since the war had ended.
His mother's spin on his father's murder and all her contrite-sounding words had done some good on that front. And then, yes, Potter's testimony had helped a little further, Draco couldn't deny that.
"Of course you have. In fact, I bet you're working some shit job. Cleaning up after people. Labouring. Or even helping Muggles . Tell me, Malfoy, what degrading thing does society have you doing, because your family backed someone with their beliefs who couldn't win the war?"
"I'm an archivist." At Nott's blank look, he clarified: "For the Ministry." It wasn't exciting or influential or even satisfying, really, but it was respectable enough, and the best Draco could really have hoped for at the time, all things considered.
Nott's eyes went from empty and somewhat confused to stormy in a second. "You work for the bloody Ministry ?" he spat, closing in on Draco again. "You, whose father led a battle within its walls , destroyed valuable property kept hidden there, somehow managed to secure employment with the Ministry of Magic." Nott laughed, a bitter, jarring sound that bubbled up at the end in a way that made Draco think of his Aunt Bellatrix; a shudder went through him reflexively at the similarity. "Oh, of course . Harry fucking Potter puts in a good word for you, and some idiots think that actually changes anything. But you know what, Malfoy? It doesn't. No one will ever trust you, not really. And even worse, no one will ever really care for you. You may build up a number of acquaintances, people who tolerate you for one reason or another, but that's all you'll have. And I'll prove it to you."
Draco stepped back another two paces, felt the wall at his back, and made the decision to act. Whatever else Theodore Nott was—overworked, down on his luck, discouraged—he was also, obviously, not within his right mind. Draco had had enough interactions with people at different points on the madness scale to recognise when someone was living far enough over the line to be a threat, and Theo's behaviour sent up too many flags to ignore. He raised his wand, mouth open and just beginning to form around a stunning spell, something that would give him plenty of opportunity to get away, even if he wasn’t in any shape to be Apparating, but the words never came. Instead, Draco felt his own body lock up, his muscles absolutely resistant to any command he tried to give them, as he was pressed against the wall by a force he couldn’t see.
"You think your family's changed—you think you’ve changed—at all, Draco? Maybe you can fool yourself into thinking that, but you’ll never really convince anyone else."
No matter how he tried, Draco was unable to free himself from his spot up against the alley wall. No combination of will power, physical effort, or his limited skill at non-verbal spellwork got him anywhere. So when Theo moved close enough that Draco could get a good, solid look at the madness in his eyes, all he could do was stand there, even as the tip of Theo's wand pressed against his robes, hard enough to bruise the skin above where his heart sat in his chest.
Whatever words Nott uttered were in a language Draco could not place. They were more nonsensical sound than actual words, seeming to flow in a way that reminded Draco of something thick and sticky and sluggish, but the deep, biting pain that preceded a sudden coldness made Draco all too aware this was more than some idle, drunken threat. When he was done, Nott stepped back, nodded to himself in apparent satisfaction, grinning as if particularly pleased with himself. "That should do nicely," he murmured, patting Draco’s cheek, before he walked calmly away, exiting the alley while Draco was still stuck with his back pressed against the brick wall.
Pain continued to wind its way through Draco’s body, flaring through every muscle, every vein, before that odd cold took its place, chilling Draco as if his blood had been pumped full of ice water. But whatever else Theo had done, the way he had incapacitated Draco kept him standing up against the wall as surely as if he'd been stuck to it, unable to move, to blink, even to scream. He could still breathe, but only shallowly. It seemed to go on forever, and Draco was just starting to wonder if whatever spell Theo had cast was meant to kill him (and wouldn't that be the sort of thing the press would have a field day with—Draco being killed on the anniversary of his father's murder), when whatever was holding him up abruptly let go, and he fell to the alley floor, scraping both hands as he tried to keep his face from meeting the ground.
The deep chill faded gradually as Draco caught his breath, hoping air would dispel some of the dizzy, sick feeling that had been rising underneath the pain and coldness. Whether that was the aftereffect of the spell, shock at what had happened, or simply the evening's alcohol turning on him, he didn’t know. And really, he figured, trying to hold back the increasing urge to be sick, it didn’t matter much in the moment. He felt fuzzy and thick-headed, and all he really wanted to do was collapse into bed under a pile of warm blankets, where he wouldn’t have to move until morning. That sounded like the best thing ever, in as much as he could focus on anything.
Merlin, it was hard to think.
He made it around the corner from the Floo point he'd been headed for before the evening had taken its unexpected turn before he stumbled, bent over a flowerbed, and very nearly ruined someone’s careful horticultural work before getting hold of himself and holding off being sick for a little longer. He thought vaguely about heading for St Mungo's, but the idea pricked in a way he couldn’t define. Maybe tomorrow, when he could think more clearly. Right now, he just had to make it back to the manor.
The Floo point was empty when he reached it, just the smallest of flames burning over glowing embers, but it flared to life when Draco tossed in a small handful of powder and spoke his destination in a voice that sounded as raw to his ears as it felt to his throat. He half-fell out of the fireplace in his room a few moments later, managed to stand upright for a few moments as he tried to regain his sense of equilibrium, and then nearly sprinted for the toilet in his en-suite as a new wave of nausea hit him, intense in a way he had no hope of fighting.
Dazedly, Draco dragged himself into the shower when he was done, going through the motions of washing merely by muscle memory, caring only about the spray of hot water warming him from the outside in. When he felt he was both warm and clean enough to warrant being done, he managed to dry off and stumble into bed, concerned only with getting underneath as many blankets as he could manage, despite the relative warmth of the evening. Sleep washed over him like a tidal wave, pulling him down into the depths of blackness where there was no thought, no worry over what had happened to him this evening, and not even the faintest wisp of a dream.
= * = * = * =
Unlike those of his youth, Draco's twenty-first birthday passed without much fanfare. When he woke on the morning of the fifth of June, he felt odd and run-down, just as he had the day before, and the day before that. Sunday had been spent in a sort of daze, his body chilled and achy and his brain slow and muzzy and unclear in a way that reminded Draco of a bout of illness he'd had as a small child. He had no detectable fever, but had stayed in bed that day anyway, though he had dragged himself in to work on Monday, despite feeling only a little better. Whatever he had got up to on Saturday night—and Draco honestly couldn’t remember much about it, other than drinking perhaps too much in a pub in London that he'd been to once or twice before, though he wasn’t even completely sure on that point—he'd apparently also managed to pick up a bug of some sort. Which figured, really. Of course he'd be ill on his birthday.
Still, it wasn’t the worst birthday he’d ever had. True, it was quiet, consisting of a sedate breakfast with his mother at home, accepting her gift of fashionable new robes and a coat from her favourite seamstress in Paris, and then a typically quiet day at work. Even sitting alone in a half-empty bistro not far from the Ministry, slowly drinking a glass of a better-than-average white wine, and receiving a message from a very apologetic waitress stating that Pansy wouldn’t be making their dinner date tonight after all...well, it wasn’t as bad as it could have been.
Really, there was little to top 'planning your father's funeral and memorial services', as far as shitty birthdays went.
The last hours of his birthday found Draco sitting alone at home, perched near the fire as he read The Daily Prophet , head nodding in exhaustion as he scanned though articles that could only half hold his attention. After the fourth time he found himself blinking at the page in front of him, unable to recall the details of what he was supposedly reading, Draco gave it up as a lost cause and crawled into bed, folding the paper up neatly and Vanishing it out of the way before he went.
He never did see the report about the son of a convicted Death Eater having been missing for a week. And if he had, he really might not have thought much about it, other than a vague sort of guilt he hadn't kept up on the lives of some more of his classmates, and a relief that, as low as his life now sometimes made him feel, there was no doubt that he could certainly be worse off.
= * = * = * =
Most days, Draco managed to get some sort of...well, if not actual enjoyment or satisfaction, at least...general contentment, from his position within the Ministry. It wasn't exceptionally difficult work, but it was a bit challenging in the amount of attention to detail it required, and the judgement it required in knowing when one should be looking out for further details or missing pieces, versus working strictly with what is sitting in front of them.
Not to mention knowing when to shelve one's curiosity and keep one's fool mouth shut.
Draco was one of a handful of archivists who bounced around to different areas, working wherever manpower was needed. It was slow going, getting his supervisors to trust him enough for that, especially as he'd been all but forbidden from working on documents involving anything related to either of the Wizarding Wars when he'd started. But the last three years had given him enough opportunities to prove that one, a non-Ravenclaw could do the work perfectly adequately , thank you very much, and two, he wasn't very well going to go around altering records of people he had known, or might be related to, no matter how much he wanted to prove to the world that he wasn't as bad as some of them might assume from half-truths they had heard in the last decade or two.
Besides, this was the Ministry of Magic . And Draco had seen just enough of what went on in the Department of Mysteries — or at least, enough of their paperwork — to know that he didn't want to be subjected to anything the Unspeakables might unleash on anyone caught tampering with Ministry records. That, in fact, was the stuff of nightmares.
But all that considered, Draco also appreciated that, many days, his job could be done while remaining relatively still, without the need for anything too strenuous.
It was exceptionally appreciated as of late. It had been nearly two months since his twenty-first birthday, and Draco had to admit that he hadn't really been feeling all that well since then. He didn't think > his body had suddenly decided he wasn't young anymore (because, really, twenty-one was still quite youthful, even if the last several years had been more stressful than they ought to have been), but he was starting to wonder if the bug he had caught the weekend of his birthday had indeed been something a bit longer-lasting than he had generally assumed. He had little other explanation for the base level of tiredness he'd been feeling since then, or the way he sometimes caught the slightest of tremors in his hands towards the end of the evening, or even the short, seemingly random dizzy spells that came over him once a week or so.
"Ready to head for home, Malfoy?"
Draco raised his head from the parchment stretched across his desk—some impossibly-long thing detailing the legal relationship between the office of the Minister for Magic and the Muggle Prime Minister, including sections on appropriate gift-giving during Muggle holidays and unacceptable styles of dress when visiting the offices of Muggle government officials—and blinked. He'd been so focussed on his work, trying to pay attention to the documents in front of him while fighting through a dull pounding in his head, that he hadn't noticed the progression of time.
"Almost," he answered Haversham, who was looking at him expectantly. "I just want to get through this particular bit of work before I pack in for the day."
Haversham raised one thick eyebrow. He wasn't much older than Draco, and they'd built up a friendly-enough working relationship in the year since he'd transferred from the Wizengamot Admin Office. Draco had managed to forge something akin to friendships with three or four other Ministry employees in the last three years, though Haversham was the most recent of those. "You're going to overwork yourself, someday," he said, shaking his head. "Just...get out of here at a somewhat reasonable time, would you? You look...tired."
Draco mumbled something about being almost done, ignoring that last comment. After another moment, Haversham sighed and left Draco to his parchment, whistling softly as he headed for the lifts to the Atrium. Once his co-worker—the last left in the office, Draco noticed—was gone, Draco sat back in his chair and sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose, as if that could soothe the ache behind his eyes. If he looked anything like he felt, he had no doubt his fatigue was visible to those around him. He wondered if a short trip to a spa or speciality resort might not do him some good. Maybe he could arrange something, a weekend for both himself and his mother to get away. She'd always been protective of him, ever since he'd been a small boy, and he was aware that trait of hers had been what likely had saved his life—and, by proxy, the lives of many others—not terribly long ago. Really, he'd always wanted to prove to his parents that he could do well, and that drive really did extend to making sure his mother was taken care of, now that he was old enough to do such things.
After another few minutes of work, Draco gave up for the evening. It was getting fairly late; at this hour, the Ministry was likely to be nearly empty, which meant at least there would be little chance Draco would have to make small talk in the lifts and while waiting to use the Floo Network or any of the designated employee Apparition points. While the ability to make idle conversation had been trained into him long ago, Draco really didn't feel up to holding pointless, polite conversations just now. Honestly, he just wanted to get home, perhaps have some tea, and climb into bed.
The lift seemed to take even longer than usual today, rising so slowly that it felt like it was barely even moving. There was no one in the lift, at least, and even the Atrium was empty when Draco stepped out and towards the bank of Floo points. Thankful that at least it was quiet, Draco walked halfway to his destination before a wave of dizziness swept over him, causing him to stumble before he could get a hand on the wall at his left to hold himself up.
Perhaps he'd somehow taxed himself more than he'd thought, working this late.
He waited for the dizziness to pass after a few seconds, as it usually did, and barely heard another lift stop at this level before he resumed moving towards the Floos, trying to tell himself that he was fine, just in need of a good night's sleep.
It wasn't until his vision went grey around the edges that he realised that this might be more than the usual dizzy spell.
He was minimally aware of sliding against the wall until he was on his knees on the floor of the Atrium, the slow, heavy sound of his heartbeat in his ears nearly drowning out the sound of much quicker footfalls, leather slapping against the marble in a way that seemed to echo in the empty space. He only half heard someone calling out, at first "excuse me?" and then "hey!" and then, finally, "Malfoy?" Everything seemed to be underwater, and it took several seconds to be able to respond to what he eventually recognised as "are you okay?" with a mumbled "yes, no, I'm fine, just tired," that seemed to take the very last of his energy.
He sagged down even further, feeling something catch him by the arm. He was just so tired , just wanted to be left alone to rest for a moment, so he could make his way home and sleep. He tried to say so, to lift his head and look up at whoever was asking him questions—probably Haversham, since he hadn't left all that long before Draco had and might have stopped for some errand or another—but couldn't quite do it. The last of his consciousness registered a voice calling out "St Mungo's" as green flames roared around him, and then everything was dark.
= * = * = * =
When Draco woke, it was to find himself situated in a bed with rough blankets, occupying a small room. There was a scratching sound to his right, and Draco turned his head—noticing that at least his headache was gone—to find a woman standing there in lime green robes, scribbling something onto a chart. This definitely was not where he remembered being last, and so he asked what he felt was a rather appropriate question. "Where am I?"
The woman standing beside the head of the bed looked at him for a moment before raising her eyebrows. "Where do you think you are?"
She had that clinical look to her, and Draco felt decidedly judged by the expression on her face, so he tried not to huff when he answered with, "Given the colour of your robes and the lack of comfort to the bed, I'll assume St Mungo's. Because if this is some sort of resort or spa, I certainly hope the cost was minimal."
The woman snorted a small laugh and jotted something quick into the chart in her arms. "Well, you're certainly more coherent than when you were brought in. So tell me: what do you remember that would have led to you being here?"
Draco hesitated. He...didn't actually remember getting himself here, and her use of the term 'brought in' certainly suggested he hadn't done it under his own power. "I was...at work. I've been feeling poorly for a little while, I suppose, and I think it got the better of me when I left to go home for the evening." He thought harder about it, but the last hour or so was a little blurry. "I think I must have collapsed, trying to get home."
The Healer nodded. "That you did. Thankfully, someone else noticed you fall, and they brought you in. Otherwise, you might have been unconscious for quite a while before anyone stumbled across you, from what we can tell." She looked at the clock on the wall, which Draco hadn't noticed. "Looks like most of the Ministry staff won't even be getting to work for another hour."
Another hour. But given the time Draco had been leaving the archives, that meant he had to have been here for...at least nine hours, maybe closer to ten. "I'll have to take Haversham out for a pint to thank him," Draco muttered, wondering if at least the man had thought to tell their supervisor that Draco might not be in that morning. Or, come to think of it, sent word to his mother, letting her know what had happened. She might have been in France, visiting old acquaintances, but Draco was positive someone should have known to get in touch with her.
"Isn't he the one who brought me in?" Maybe he hadn't actually given anyone on staff his name. But Draco was fairly certain the hospital staff was diligent enough in details like that.
The Healer—who still hadn't introduced herself, which was starting to grate on Draco's nerves—shook her head. "No. That would be..." she flipped a couple of pages on the chart she still held, "Right, as I thought: Auror Potter."
Draco shut his eyes and groaned. Even with that knowledge, he still couldn't pull up a firm memory of what had happened to get him here last night, couldn't see the face of the person who had helped him. But of course it was Harry Potter. "You've got to be joking."
"All here in your chart," the Healer said, an amused sort of look plain on her face when Draco reopened his eyes. The smile abruptly left her face. "Actually, speaking of your chart...when, exactly, were you going to mention that you've been cursed? Given it's a detail quite important to your treatment."
"I'm sorry, cursed ?" Draco asked after a long moment. "I haven't been cursed."
The Healer's eyes narrowed as she looked at Draco, and then her face softened. "You didn't know?" She shook her head. "But yours is the type that has to be done in person."
Draco blinked. "Would you kindly tell me what the hell you're on about? Because this whole 'curse' thing is honestly going right over my head. Look, I've been under the weather for a few weeks, but I just managed to catch something that's a little stubborn about going away, that's all."
"Mr Malfoy," the Healer said, turning to him and placing her hand on his shoulder. "Draco. I'm sorry to tell you this way, but the fact of the matter is, you actually have < been cursed. It's why you're here."
Draco's eyes went to the name on her chest, now visible from this angle: Healer Abigail Sharp, Spell Damage . His throat felt tight. "Oh. Well, at least I'm here for you to fix me up. Because if that's why I've been so tired and dizzy, I'm really rather looking forward to having that done with."
The look in Healer Sharp's eyes made it suddenly clear that, whatever else the issue was, it might not be something so quickly treatable. "I'm afraid it's...not quite that simple."
"Do you at least know what the curse is?" Draco managed to ask after another moment. If it wasn't simple, and she had mentioned the curse placed on him had to be done in person, then that seemed to indicate they'd at least found something , and knew what they were dealing with, and Draco was sure that whatever the treatment, he could take it. Hell, he'd do some fairly ridiculous things, if it meant not being so damned tired all the time. If there was one thing true about Malfoys, it was that they were resilient.
She nodded. "Really, I'd rather have this conversation in my office, with your loved ones there, but under the circumstances...."
Draco swallowed. That was certainly more ominous than he'd anticipated. "And I'd rather know what the hell is going on as soon as possible, if you don't mind me being so blunt about it."
Healer Sharp hesitated. "Are you sure you wouldn't prefer to wait until we reach your family, so they can be here?"
"No." Draco shook his head. As far as family went, the only person who would care would be his mother. And from the tone of Healer Sharp's voice and the look on her face, whatever information she had for him wasn't going to be good. The last few years had been harder on his mother than she typically let anyone see, and Draco would rather hear the news for himself so he could figure out how to break it to her without causing her any undue stress, than have a stranger lay it all out the wrong way. "Tell me." He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Please."
After a moment, Healer Sharp nodded and conjured a chair next to the bed, where she could sit. "It's a modified version of a very old curse, Mr Malfoy. The original version is known by some very...colourful...euphemisms and alternate names, but it is, in effect, a variant of the Solitarius Curse. It's been around for centuries, in a number of forms, and there have been some very famous cases, especially in France and the surrounding countries. It's typically cast by...well, by jilted lovers, to be frank, or by people who've otherwise been supposedly mistreated or wronged by those they're casting it upon. Can you think of anyone who might fit that bill?"
Draco tried not to laugh. He didn't have anyone in his life who might be an ex-lover who felt 'jilted' enough to go out of their way to curse him, but the number of people he'd ever encountered who might fit under the second category was...potentially significantly higher. "No, not really."
"I see. Well, the original curse was designed to lead to some sort of enlightenment, leading to it being neutralised. Usually, it was cast on someone who supposedly needed to be 'taught a lesson' about their own hubris. It actually mostly struck royalty of some sort." She paused, not commenting when Draco choked on a small huff. "This version, specifically, is not unlike a more famous case. There are some significant differences, but the gist of it is this: you're cursed until someone falls in love with you."
"To break the curse, you need to find someone to love you. It has to be actual, genuine love. And the love of family or friends doesn't count, unfortunately."
"Are you seriously telling me that I'll remained cursed until I locate my one true love?"
Healer Sharp shook her head. "No. Whether or not anyone has a single, 'true' love, that's not what this curse requires. It's not a needle in a haystack sort of issue. There just has to be someone who loves you, for you, honestly and with no tricks."
"But not as a friend, and not family."
"Okay," Draco said after another moment, trying to absorb this information. "So, what happens if I can't find someone? I'm just tired and dizzy forever? Or do I fall into some enchanted sleep?" That would make sense, given the way he'd been feeling lately, at least. Maybe at least an enchanted sleep would be restful.
"Oh, no," Healer Sharp said, her hand covering Draco's. "I'm afraid this has a more malicious intent. If you can't find someone to love you, Mr Malfoy, you'll waste away, until the point of death." She patted his hand comfortingly. "The point of this curse seems to be to spur you on to find someone to love you."
A ghost of a voice flitted through Draco's head, feeling like a memory he couldn't place: No one will ever really care for you...and I'll prove it to you . He shivered.
Draco shook his head, withdrawing his hand from hers. "No," he said softly. "It's to prove no one ever will."
= * = * = * =
"I've been thinking," Draco said into his teacup, waiting for his mother to put down the book she was reading.
She did so after a short moment, placing her fingertip over a spot on the page to hold her place. "About what?"
About a lot of things, if he was being honest. It had been almost a month since his visit to St Mungo's, and he'd made two more trips to see Healer Sharp in that time. Neither trip had yielded positive news—at least, not positive enough to really matter. All Draco had really learned, after sitting through multiple procedures and dozens of diagnostic spells, was that he'd better come to terms with what had happened to him, whether or not he ever remembered exactly what that was. There was a clock ticking down to his last moments, with only one way to stop its advancement.
And for that one thing, Draco didn't hold much hope.
But that didn't mean he wasn't going to at least give his best to it, anyway.
"I know we haven't talked about it much lately, but I was thinking it might be time I acquiesced to your suggestion that I think about finding a wife."
His mother tucked a bit of silk ribbon against the page and closed the book completely. She looked at him a long while before speaking. "And where has this thought come from, so suddenly? It seems an awfully big change of heart, since our last discussion." She raised her eyebrows. "After that, I was rather under the impression that finding a wife was...quite low on your list of priorities."
Draco cleared his throat. He'd found little reason to hide from his mother that he was at least as interested in finding company with someone of the same sex as the opposite sex on the occasions he went out looking for that sort of thing. But he'd had some time to think, and this was now about more than finding someone for an evening of pleasure, or a fling lasting a few fun weeks. "I've decided it matters more to find someone to share my life with than to sow some wild oats." While that didn't necessarily mean he couldn't find that sort of thing with another man, Draco knew that, in his position, with financial and other concerns like his, he had other, more likely, chances. "And you had mentioned you knew of other families who might not be opposed to merging with ours."
His mother considered him shrewdly. "I know of two who had previously expressed some interest in that regard. But Draco, are you certain this is the path you want to take? You are still young. Do you really want to settle down this early?"
"You and Father had your marriage arranged by the time you were my age," he pointed out. He knew there had been much more invested in the political side of their marriage, from both sides. Both the Blacks and the Malfoys, as long-respected families, had had quite clear feelings on who they would be willing to let their children marry, and what sort of mutually advantageous pairings might be feasible. At one time in his life, Draco would have been brought up along the same lines, likely already promised off to someone by this point in time. But the war had changed things, both for good and for bad, and that meant paths that had been clear in his youth were now too badly damaged to walk down.
"Your father and I were lucky, in that we loved each other." His mother's voice was soft, and Draco knew this was going to be the important part of both the case he wanted to make, and the one she felt compelled to make, from her own viewpoint. It was a new world, and there was more emphasis placed on notions like love than on financial stability or power. That didn't mean there weren't still holdouts, of course, but it did change a few things.
"And who says my wife won't love me?" The tone of defiance, of challenge, slipped out without Draco being able to bite it back. He hadn't told his mother about the curse, of course, because that wasn't something he could do to her, after everything else she'd lost. She didn't need that sort of strain and worry on her shoulders.
His mother hummed softly. "No one, darling. But will you love her back?"
Whether he did or not, Draco supposed it didn't matter. That was not, for all he or Healer Sharp were aware, part of the deal. And really, Draco felt that if he could find someone who could love him, despite everything in his past, all of his general personality flaws in addition to all the sins he'd ever committed, then he could do his best to make sure they had a life they found pleasant, full of comforts he was able to provide. At the very least, he could provide some affection—whether or not he was as emotionally invested as he probably should be—and do his duties as a husband.
Maybe it wasn't romantic, but Draco was nearing a point where romance wasn't precisely his highest priority.
"I suppose we'll have to find that out in time."
= * = * = * =
It took nearly two and a half months to bear anything resembling fruit, but never let it be said Narcissa Malfoy had lost her ability to move within certain circles. It was solely her work that had brought Astoria Greengrass to Draco as a potential wife.
Unfortunately, "potential" and "immanent" were two very different things.
They were out walking through the gardens one day, Astoria admiring some of the least common flowers Draco's mother had brought in, the ones that bloomed even this late in the year, with snow covering the grounds, when she looked up from the lavender-coloured blossoms and sighed. "So. Tell me, Draco. Why, exactly, are we doing this?"
Draco blinked. Up until now, they'd been discussing flowers, and sharing the odd childhood memory of times spent in gardens and parks and other places involving foliage. He'd even learned how Professor Sprout had gone out of her way to make certain the girls' dormitories always contained some of each girl's favourite flowers during birthdays or other important events, some personal little gift from a Head of House to her charges.
Severus Snape hadn't been much about flowers, from what Draco remembered, except when they were used as potions ingredients. He had definitely seemed more sour than usual the day Pansy had worn a lily behind her ear in a way that clashed horribly with her robes, asking her to please remove it or herself from his classroom.
Draco didn't think the female Slytherins would have been nearly so pleased to receive flowers from their own Head of House as Astoria said the Hufflepuffs were, in any case.
"Doing what? I thought you said a walk through the gardens would be nice, with the weather charms in place." He had a small, sinking feeling she was talking about something larger than the walk around the grounds. Draco hadn't really known Astoria long, but this was perhaps their eighth time in each other's company on their own, without either of their mothers. They'd been to the theatre, out for dinner, meandering through some of the nicer shops in London, and assorted other places within the last three months. Draco had even given in to her request and taken in a Muggle film, which was an entirely unexpected adventure (though not, he'd reluctantly admitted afterwards, a completely unenjoyable one). He hadn't known Daphne Greengrass exceptionally well back in school, despite them being in the same year and house, but Astoria seemed very little like her older sister, which was almost something of a relief.
"Let's not play at this any longer," she said with a sigh and a determined expression Draco did recognise from her sister. "Why are we still both going along with the prospect of a marriage between the two of us?"
"I..." Draco began, utterly at a loss for words. Astoria had never actually been any more demure than socially required, but this was perhaps a bit more direct than he expected, in any case.
And how was he supposed to answer that question, in his current situation? He couldn't very well say I need to find someone and make them fall in love with me, so I don't keel over and die in what looks to be around the next six months or so , now, could he?
Astoria moved closer. She was a perfectly nice girl, from a perfectly respectable family. She may not have been the type Draco would have chosen for himself, if left entirely to his own devices, true, but there was nothing actually wrong with her, unless you counted her having been Sorted Hufflepuff, which he supposed wasn't actually her fault.
(Okay, Draco may have counted that, at first. But really, he was beyond things like that being a disqualifier at this stage.)
"Draco. Let's be honest. We're not...we're not really cut out for each other, are we?"
"What do you mean by that?"
Astoria looked up at him, her expression clearly saying don't be stupid in a way Draco had actually sort of grown to admire over the past several weeks. "I won't pretend to know all of your reasons for agreeing to a potential arranged marriage. I don't even expect you to tell me what they are. I don't know how much of this, for you, is about rebuilding your family name, or either getting away from or closer to what you were brought up to expect or want, or just about producing an heir. I don't suppose most of those reasons really matter, in the end."
"Not all of them, no. I have my own reasons, Draco. I'm not against this as a way to find someone with whom to share my life. Maybe it's not the sort of thing I've daydreamed of, but it has its own merits. But for this to work, there are some basic things that need to happen. And they just...haven't."
Draco pursed his lips for a moment. That was okay. He might still be able to work with that. If Astoria had a list of requisites for a marriage, then he could certainly put in the effort to meet them. "What sort of things?"
She laughed a little, a soft, melodic sound. "I can already hear it in your voice, you attempting to make a checklist for this sort of thing. Just...we're not the right partner for each other, Draco. While I believe you actually would make an attempt at an amicable marriage between us, that's not quite what I'm looking for. I don't think there's anything that can be done to change the circumstances, and that's really what matters." She patted his arm. "Come on, walk me back inside. I think it's time I went home, and we both concede this experiment of ours is done."
Draco nodded, instructing his feet to move forward in a way that was smooth, like he wasn't feeling stiff and cold. This wasn't heartbreak he was feeling. It was more like...reluctant acceptance. He really had enjoyed a number of his dates with Astoria, but not necessarily significantly more than he would have enjoyed being set up with the daughters of any of his parents' society friends, back in the days when galas and balls had been a part of their lives. And as far as Draco could tell, Astoria hadn't had a bad time with him, either.
But, he was slowly realising, he also hadn't had any signs she might be falling in love with him, either. Her touches were always far more casual than lingering, and there was none of that electric sort of feel Draco knew from his more intimate encounters, the ones that fed his daydreams and fantasies, the ones that had him thinking back, hoping for more going forward. He didn't think there had been any of those feelings on her end, either. Perhaps that had been one of those things she needed.
"I'm sorry this couldn't work out," Astoria told him softly, as she stood on the threshold of the manor's main entrance. "You really do have the capacity to be good for someone, I think, no matter what anyone says."
Draco fought to keep his jaw unclenched. He didn't know—perhaps didn't really want to know—exactly what was said about him amongst the rest of society, and it was stupid to believe Astoria hadn't heard things about him, whether from her sister or anyone else who had ever known him, or at least known of him, the Malfoys in general, especially in the last decade. All he could really manage was a nod in response, before being able to articulate a mostly steady, "I've enjoyed our time together."
"It was actually nice," she said, a small and wistful smile on her face. She reached up on her tiptoes and kissed him on the cheek. He responded in kind, acutely aware there was nothing beyond polite, somewhat friendly affection behind either of their actions. "Maybe neither of us is actually ready for marriage quite yet. But if you ever want to spend some time together without that pressure lingering over us, please do feel free to send an owl. Maybe I can even convince you to see another Muggle film?"
Even Draco couldn't help but smile a little at the suggestion. It wouldn't be the worst way to spend an afternoon or evening, surprisingly enough. And perhaps she was right in that marriage simply didn't suit either of them at this point, not really. There was something about her that said she was looking for something quietly fun, something fulfilling in her life, and Draco just hadn't been able to tap into that, for whatever reason. She was only eighteen, after all, and had her whole life ahead of her.
Draco, unfortunately, did not. Or, rather, he did, strictly speaking, but was significantly more limited on time than she was.
"I might just take you up on that," he said, and he almost surprised himself with how sincerely he meant it. She was a very nice girl, and pleasant to be around, even if she never felt more love towards him than she might for a brother or cousin.
"I'll hold you to it," she said, some measure of friendly affection finally reaching her eyes. "Take care of yourself, Draco."
Draco kissed the back of her hand one last time, murmuring an assurance that he would, simply to be polite, and reciprocated the sentiment. He waited until she Disapparated near the end of the drive before leaning back against the front door, letting his head hit the solid wood. He had known from the start that any attempt to find someone to marry him wouldn't necessarily result in someone falling in love with him, but that didn't mean he wasn't upset at another chance lost. And the Greengrasses had been the only family open to the possibility, anyhow, though they hadn't exactly jumped for joy at the prospect.
"Maybe it's time to give up and accept my fate," Draco whispered to himself after several moments. The thought terrified him on some level, but not nearly like he felt it ought to. He stood up straight and took a few slow breaths, turning it over in his mind. It was awful, but it felt like something he could handle. He'd had time to come to terms with it. And deciding to meet it head on, instead of running from it, felt just the slightest bit freeing.
Besides, at least knowing how much of his life was left in front of him meant one thing: he could choose exactly what he wanted to do with the rest of it.
= * = * = * =
Draco stood on the doorstep of an unfamiliar house in Lyme Regis, trying to marshal some sense of calm, despite the fact that he felt nervous and sick. He probably should have Owled first, before deciding to show up unannounced. It would have been the polite thing to do, and Merlin knew he would have appreciated it, were he the other party involved.
In the end, he'd decided against it for the simple fact that he wasn't certain what he'd do if the proposal was rejected, and he thought it more likely he'd at least get somewhat further in person than he might once his name was spotted at the bottom of any potential letter.
Taking a deep breath, Draco lifted his hand to the door and knocked. He could do this. At the very least, he could make this first move, and deal with whatever came of it.
There were footsteps on the other side of the door within ten seconds, and then the door swung open, coming to an abrupt halt, when the person on the other side of it saw who was standing on their doorstep. "Draco?"
They stared at each other for a few moments, Andromeda wide-eyed and shocked and Draco terrified the door was going to be slammed in his face, until the older woman seemed to shake herself and move back from the door. "Please, Draco, come in. Tell me, what has you here? Is it my—is it your mother? Has something—?"
"No, nothing like that," he assured her, attempting to smile. She had invited him in instead of demanding he leave, and that was a definite positive step. "She's well, I promise. She just doesn't know I'm here. I wanted, if I may, to discuss some things with you. On my own, without her knowledge."
She hesitated another moment, and Draco could see the uneasiness in her eyes. But there was a general kindness about her face, a soft openness that was so unlike his mother's usual expression and, in the end, that side of her seemed to win out. "Of course." She took his cloak and gestured him farther into the house. "I was just about to sit down with some tea, while it's quiet. Won't you join me in the kitchen? We'll have some privacy there."
"That would be lovely, thank you." At the very least, sharing tea would give him something to do with his hands. Draco couldn't see this being the easiest of conversations. Though he did wonder about her mention of privacy. So far as he knew, there was only one other resident of this house.
He waited until they both had cups of tea in front of them, a small plate of homemade biscuits on the table between them, before he left general social pleasantries and innocuous conversation for the real reason he'd come. "I'm sure you heard what happened to my father."
It wasn't the smoothest way to break into the subject, but his aunt recovered from the surprise quickly. "Of course. I was sorry to hear it." Draco bit back a small snort; he was fairly certain his father had despised Andromeda's husband, at the very least, and certainly had held very little respect for his aunt herself, for turning against so many Black family ideals and marrying as she had. It seemed unlikely his aunt had felt any sort of extreme warmth or affection for her brother-in-law, either. "It must have been difficult for you and your mother, after everything else." She gave him a sad sort of smile. "I did try to reach your mother, afterwards, to send my condolences. I don't know if she ever received my messages. But I know what it's like to be suddenly widowed."
Draco tried not to wince at that. He knew his uncle had been killed in the war not terribly long before its end. "My mother stopped reading any post we got for a while afterwards. The majority of what came to us was...not sympathetic." He cleared his throat. "But that's not precisely what I wanted to discuss. The reason I'm here is...." He paused. There was so much he didn't want to answer, avenues of reasoning he didn't want to go down, but he needed to get his point across in a way his aunt might accept. "I've been thinking about how, when something unexpected happens, some things get pushed aside, or forgotten, and priorities change. I've had a chance to evaluate some of my own priorities, and there are two I've come to see you about." Andromeda made a small, inquiring noise over her teacup, and Draco chose to take that as encouragement. "One thing I feel very strongly is that family is important."
Andromeda made another small hum. "Yes, I have actually heard that about you."
Draco blinked, not expecting that at all. He'd never actually met his aunt—at least, not since he'd been old enough to remember anything, if at all—and he had no idea who might have told her this about him, who might have not only known it in the first place, but also who might think it the sort of thing to share. "...And I'd like to do right by them," he added after getting his surprise under control. "Which means that I thought I should—I mean, I'd like to be a part of..." He trailed off, unsure as to how he could actually put this.
Thankfully, his aunt stepped in, putting a hand over his. "Draco. You've always been a part of my family. You're my sister's son."
That was not exactly what he'd expected, but it gave him some reassurance. "I know there may have been some issues in the past, but I'd like to move forward," he said, unable to look directly at his aunt. "I'd like to get to know you, to actually be family. You and my cousin."
Andromeda's face registered surprise, but it wasn't hostile or derisive. "Teddy?"
"Yes. Teddy. I know he's young, and has no idea who I am. I've never even seen his photograph. But I'd like to be at least a small part of his life, if I may."
Andromeda eyed him for a moment. "You would?"
"He's family. And that should never go away. I'd like to at least help him in some way. That's part of why I'm here."
"And the other part?"
Draco took a deep breath. "I was wondering if you'd at least consider speaking to my mother."
Andromeda inhaled a little sharply. She didn't look at Draco for a long while, and Draco was supremely glad he had a cup in his hands to hold, to hide the smallest of tremors in his fingers. "I've told you, I tried reaching out to her. Maybe you were right about her simply not getting my letter. But things have been complicated for us for a very long time, Draco. Longer than you've been alive. What makes you think she would even consider speaking to me ?"
And here, Draco had to admit he might be wrong. "I don't know that she will, honestly. But I do know she isn't happy to have her sister out of her life." And he did know that. His mother was a very proud person, and she'd instilled much of that in him, as well. It had done them both at least as much harm as good, he was certain. Lessons were hard to learn, but some had been taught and accepted anyway, especially within the last few years. But he'd caught enough over the years to know his mother also had strong thoughts on family and love and devotion, and he knew she wasn't without regret over the way some things had gone. She'd mentioned Andromeda by name more over the last three years more than she had the entirety of Draco's life before that. And he'd caught her looking at old photographs last year, in an album he'd never seen before, one that was full and had obviously been put away with care. "I'm not expecting miracles, in any case." Miracles, his life was showing him again and again, were not really a thing he deserved. "I'm just hoping you might be open to...something."
Andromeda didn't say anything for a moment. After a while, she nodded. "I'm willing to try. I do miss my sister, Draco, despite all the hurtful things we may have said and done over the years. We were very close, as children." She sighed. "And please know that even if whatever you're hoping for doesn't happen, I would still like to have you in my life, as my nephew. You were right about family being important. I don't suppose there's any time like the present for trying to improve whatever we deem necessary or possible."
Draco nodded, smiling a little gratefully. If his aunt was at least willing to try some sort of reconciliation with his mother, that was good enough for him. He couldn't force either of them to get along, but he could at least try to forge some small bridge there.
He had the feeling his mother might need more family in her life, less than a year from now.
"Thank you for letting me speak with you," he said, finishing the last of his tea and standing. Really, it had been more than he'd expected, and likely more than he deserved, all things told. "It was nice to finally meet you, Aunt Andromeda."
She startled him by coming around the table quickly and giving him a tight hug that he returned after a moment to recover. "Thank you for coming, Draco." When she saw him move for his cloak to leave, she put a hand on his arm. "I really do mean that."
He smiled at her, something that was hard not to do with the look of complete sincerity on her face. "I just wish I'd picked a better time. It would have been nice to meet my cousin, as well. Is that at all possible?"
Andromeda glanced up the stairs before looking back at him. "He..." She shook her head as if dispelling some thought. "Follow me." She led him up the stairs, gestured for him to wait outside what must be his cousin's door, and ducked her head inside, murmuring something about just checking with someone. "He's sleeping," she whispered, stepping fully back out of the room. "And so is his godfather, as it happens. But you can still take a peek, if you'd like. Next time, we can plan a time where he'll be awake."
"I'll be quiet, I promise."
Andromeda nodded and held the door open for him. "I'll be back in a moment. I...I have something for you to take back to your mother, when you leave here."
Draco stepped quietly through the door to the small nursery. It was a nice room, painted in bright colours, with a number of toys haphazardly strewn here and there. Draco's eyes went to the small bed in the corner on instinct, and he very nearly missed the figure in the rocking chair in the other corner, the one tucked a bit further into the shadows.
Potter, with a small child curled up on his chest, while they both slept.
Draco hesitated. His aunt had mentioned Teddy's godfather, but Draco had had no idea said godfather was Potter. But it was the only conclusion to draw, under the circumstances.
Though he had made no sound, it seemed Draco's presence had been noticed. Potter's eyes snapped open, likely some sort of Auror instinct, as Draco took in the sight of him holding Teddy, and both men locked eyes and froze for a moment. "Sorry, I—" Draco tried to whisper, feeling flustered. "Andromeda said it would be okay to step in and see him for a moment, but—"
Potter's protective hold on the boy seemed to ease up just a little bit, and his eyes flicked up to the clock on the side wall. "Just. Shh, hold on. Let's not wake him. Took me forever to get him down for his nap." With what looked like practised ease, Potter got both himself and Teddy out of the chair, moved across the room amongst the handful of toys scattered across the floor, and set Teddy down on the small bed. He tucked a small plush animal—a purple dog of some sort—in alongside the boy, pulled a blanket up over his back, and gestured for Draco to follow him out of the room.
Draco did so, after taking just a quick moment to glance down at the sleeping child before vacating the nursery. He didn't get a good look—he saw round, pink cheeks and brown hair with a blue streak—but he left the room quickly anyway, not wanting to wake the boy the same way he'd woken Potter.
Who, it appeared, was waiting for him out in the hall.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to wake you," Draco tried again, once the door was shut behind them both and they'd made it downstairs, where they were less likely to wake his cousin. "I just—"
Potter stopped him with a wave of his hand. "It's fine. He's still asleep. I...didn't expect to see you, that's all." He paused. "I forgot Andromeda and Teddy are your family. I didn't realise you came for visits."
"I haven't, before. But I will be, in the future." This was odd and awkward. It wasn't as if he and Potter were strangers. Actually, this might be less uncomfortable if they were. They had seen each other in passing over the last few years, of course—there had been the trial, for one thing, with Potter's unexpected testimony. And they'd caught sight of each other here and there around the Ministry since Draco had been hired, though they'd never actually exchanged words. The most they'd ever managed had been a somewhat civil nod while in line for the Floo Network points or while pressed into crowded lifts.
Although, come to think of it...
"I never did thank you," Draco said after another awkward moment of silence. "I heard you might have been the one who got me to St Mungo's a few months ago. Is that right?"
Potter shrugged one shoulder. "You needed help."
Yes, of course Potter would have been driven to provide assistance. Hell, he'd probably still been clad in Auror's robes. It wouldn't have looked good at all to just leave a semi-conscious person on the ground, no matter their personal history, or that Potter had once put him in a similar—though bloodier—state.
Draco had more or less forgiven him for that, though. No matter what others said about him, Draco recognised the stresses of war and the things you found yourself doing out of desperation. Besides, Potter very easily could have left him to die in the Room of Hidden Things, and he'd chosen to rescue him instead. Even without his later testimony on Draco's and his mother's behalves, that act said quite a lot about the sort of person Potter was.
Draco may have sneered about 'Saint Potter' at one point in his life, but he couldn't deny Potter actually was a better person than Draco himself would ever be. Clinging to the boy who was actively rescuing you from a fiery death put things into fairly sharp relief, in a very short period of time.
"Still. Thank you. I owe you for that. And a host of other things, if I'm being honest."
Potter made a face. "Could we not drag all of that up? Honestly, Malfoy, I'd like to move on with my life. Wouldn't you?"
Draco couldn't quite hold back his snort. "If you only knew."
"Then let's drop it. Look, if you're going to make a habit out of coming around, of seeing Andromeda and Teddy, then let's just forget it all, seriously. I spend a lot of time here. It's quiet and comfortable, and I love every moment I have in this place. I don't want to have to do some stupid little social dance every time we're both here, or have you acting odd, because you can't get over the tally sheet of what you think you owe me. Hasn't life taught you that most disagreements and problems are petty and mostly in our own heads?"
It appeared Draco wasn't the only one who'd done thinking on life and its greater questions. He supposed Potter had at least as much cause as anyone to examine his life in a post-war world. "I suppose you're right." He could think of plenty of examples of things that were not petty, but he also knew what Potter was driving at. "Fine. If you truly don't want me to, I'll not bring it up again."
"I really, really don't."
"Okay." That seemed finalised and settled, at least. Before they could move back into awkward silence, Andromeda appeared, holding a small wooden box tightly in her hands.
"This is for your mother," she said, pushing it into Draco's hands. "She'll know what it is. At least, I hope she will. Please don't forget to give it to her."
Draco shook his head. "I won't. I promise." He had no idea what was inside, but neither did he feel it was his place to ask, or even look later, once he was out of sight of anyone else. "I'll give it to her as soon as I get back home," he assured his aunt, gathering up his cloak and heading for the door.
"I'd better be off, too," Potter said, sounding as if he were uncomfortable with being in their way, even though Draco was already on his way to leaving. "I'll see you this weekend, Andromeda."
"Of course, Harry." They exchanged quick, easy hugs before Potter stepped outside, leaving Draco and his aunt just inside the door. "And I'll see you soon, too, I hope." It was said as a statement, but Draco heard the slight rise at the end of it, betraying the way it was more question than anything else.
"You will," Draco assured her. "I'll even send an owl, so as not to just drop in on you."
Andromeda chuckled, and it was almost odd how much the sound put Draco at ease. "I'm fairly certain just barging in is a sign you're family, after all." She reached out to embrace him once more before Draco stepped through the front door, surprised to see Potter standing just a few steps up the walk, waiting for him.
"Yes?" Draco asked, perplexed, when Potter didn't immediately say something.
Potter just looked at him shrewdly for a moment. "You're really planning on coming here, visiting Andromeda and Teddy, aren't you?"
"I told you as much just a few minutes ago. Why? Does that bother you?" Draco tried to tamp down on the small bit of his younger self who still lingered and enjoyed things like getting a rise out of Potter, simply for the sake of doing so. He wondered if he'd ever be fully divested from that part of himself.
"No," Potter said after another moment. He shook his head. "They're your family, Draco. And they're good people. You should get to know them. I think Andromeda really is looking forward to seeing you again." He didn't say for some reason I can't understand , but Draco figured that was clear enough.
"And my cousin?"
Potter snorted. "He's three, Malfoy. Take him to the park, or read him his favourite story, and you should be just fine."
Draco would have to hope Potter knew what he was talking about in that regard. He himself had virtually no experience with small children, and Potter had seemed...comfortable, at the very least, in dealing with Teddy. "I hope so."
"I've got to go," Potter said, looking both amused and a little exasperated by Draco's apprehensive tone. "It looks like I'll see you around, Malfoy."
Draco didn't respond right away. Potter had his right hand outstretched, waiting for Draco to reach out himself and complete the handshake. Draco remembered quite vividly when he'd offered something similar so many years ago, only to be rebuffed with attitude. That childish part of him wondered what Potter would do if, this time, Draco were the one to refuse the gesture.
He pushed the thought from his mind and clasped hands with Potter, hoping the response seemed appropriately casual. "Yes, perhaps."
In an even more surprising move, Potter wished him a good evening, then Disapparated from the end of the drive. Draco stood alone, feeling slightly off-kilter, before he shook his head and reminded himself that he ought to get home, as well. He had something to deliver to his mother, after all.
= * = * = * =
Draco was not exactly a natural, when it came to handling small children.
That was abundantly clear when it came to Teddy. Teddy knew it. Andromeda knew it. Draco was certain anyone with even the slightest bit of brain function knew it.
They were currently sitting on the floor of Teddy's room, eyeballing each other. From downstairs came the light sound of women conversing. It had taken a few letters exchanged over the course of a month, and one long firecall after those, but eventually Draco's mother and aunt had got to a point where they felt comfortable trying to reconnect—or at least be in each other's presence, with the goal of being civil towards each other, at the barest of minimums.
Given the increasingly frequent occurrence of laughter drifting up the stairs, Draco thought it seemed to be going well.
His own attempts to connect with his cousin, however....
"Would you like me to read you a story?" Draco tried, feeling like he'd already exhausted every other possible option within the last hour. "You could pick your favourite book for me, if you'd like."
Teddy continued to stare at him. Were all children so unnerving? "I don't want a story."
"Well, then, what do you want?"
Draco tried not to make a face. His cousin had an odd mix of both Wizard and Muggle toys, and seemed to favour them indiscriminately. But of course he'd pick something Draco hadn't played with as a child. Dragons, yes, he'd played plenty with those. But even those had been nice toys, charmed to breathe fire that wasn't actually hot, or to roar their anger or general displeasure.
Teddy's dinosaurs, on the other hand, were lumps of rubbery plastic that did not make a sound, or move at all on their own. Draco rather thought they were boring.
Still. He did want to actually get his cousin to like him.
"All right. Dinosaurs it is."
'Playing dinosaurs' apparently consisted of Teddy keeping the most deadly-looking reptiles for himself, making them pounce upon the handful of herbivores Draco had been given, while he made noises that Draco assumed were supposed to be gnashing of teeth, with frequent growling. For his part, Draco was supposed to make terrified noises back, and let his dinosaurs die in truly violent ways. After a while, Teddy seemed to decide Draco was worthy of an upgrade of some sort, because he handed over one of the predators he'd been running over the floor, eyeing Draco seriously. "Here. We have to fight."
Draco wondered how much longer the two women downstairs were going to be reminiscing or catching up or whatever it was they were doing, or if Teddy perhaps had a naptime coming up.
"No!" Teddy shouted nearly three minutes later. "That's not right! That's not what that dinosaur sounds like!"
Fighting the urge to bury his face in his hands (or worse, argue that three-year-olds couldn't possibly know whether Draco's noises—which were his best attempt at mimicking from memory the sounds his own toy dragons had made—were historically accurate or not), Draco gave up. "Okay then. What does this dinosaur sound like?"
"Like this!" And with that self-assured proclamation Teddy sat up a little straighter and let out a screech that chilled Draco's blood. No three-year-old should be capable of making that sort of noise. "Now you do it!"
Which is how Draco found himself sprawled on the floor of a child's room, trying like hell to make the appropriate snarling scream without also tearing his throat to pieces.
And of course, someone chose just that moment to intrude.
"Oh my God ," someone wheezed from the doorway to Teddy's room. "Malfoy, what are you doing ?"
Draco's head snapped up to meet the very disbelieving gaze of Harry Potter. He huffed, trying like hell to maintain some sense of dignity, though he was rather afraid it was far, far too late for such a thing. "Playing dinosaurs. What does it look like?"
"I...I have no idea . But—"
Whatever else Potter had to say was interrupted when Teddy essentially launched himself at his godfather, shouting Harry's name in a way Draco tried not to be jealous of. "Harry! You're here! Come and play dinosaurs!"
"You want me to play dinosaurs with you?" Potter glanced at Draco, who shrugged back. If Potter wanted to take over, especially if that's what Teddy wanted, Draco wasn't going to argue and risk a temper tantrum.
"Uh-huh! Show Draco how to do it right!" Teddy looked at Draco, a perfect mix of excited and reverent. "Harry knows everything about dinosaurs!"
"Is that so?" Draco asked, looking up at Potter with his eyebrows raised. "A dinosaur expert. Fancy that."
Potter blushed. "Shut up, Malfoy," he muttered over Teddy's head, now the embarrassed party here.
"Oh, no, Potter. Please." Draco smirked. "Show me how it's done."
Potter's even redder face was absolutely worth this whole situation, Draco decided.
Half an hour later, Draco had apparently even mastered his dinosaur roar well enough to appease his cousin, who smiled sleepily at him before nearly falling asleep face-first on a pile of toys. Potter gathered the boy up carefully, laid him in his bed, and grinned crookedly at Draco. "Was this your first playdate?" Potter murmured as they closed the door softly behind them.
"Third, actually. But the first where he didn't basically just eye me distrustfully," he admitted. "I feel like I've passed some sort of test."
Potter scoffed, but it was a friendly, amused sound. "He let you play with the velociraptor. You've passed his tests, all right." A gale of laughter drifted up the stairs, and both men reflexively turned to follow the sound. Draco tried to ignore the way his chest felt at the noise. He hadn't heard his mother truly laugh in far too long. "I should get going," Potter said after a moment, looking wistful about something. "I just came to drop something off with Andromeda, and say hi to Teddy while I was here. I'll see you around, I guess." He turned and went down the stairs, offering a small wave and a slightly larger smile, which Draco found himself returning without realising it.
"You seem to have had a good time with Teddy," Draco's mother noted later that evening. "Even with Harry Potter there."
"I did. And Potter's...not bad, it turns out," Draco said, wondering a bit at the sincerity with which he meant it. "He's good with Teddy. It's a little odd to see, actually. I know he's not related to them by blood, like we are, but it's obvious he considers Teddy and Andromeda family, and he seems quite involved in their lives. Devoted, really." He shrugged and changed the subject a bit. "You seem to have had a nice time this evening, as well."
His mother smiled softly. "It was good to see Andromeda again, after all these years. So much about her is different since the last time we spent time together. But there's much that is the same, too."
"I'm glad you're getting along," Draco said, meaning it deeply.
His mother chuckled. "Of course you are. Don't think I can't hear that bit of smug satisfaction in your voice. Just like your father, when he was right about something."
The briefest of sad expressions flitted over her face, and Draco shared in that moment. His relationship with his father had always been complicated, but he had loved the man, and still missed things about him. Who knew how their family would have grown, had he not been murdered so soon after the war's end?
"I've no idea what you mean," he said loftily, trying for some levity. "I'm always right about things."
His mother didn't even attempt to keep from rolling her eyes. "Of course, darling." She stood and kissed his cheek. "I'm headed to bed. You should get some sleep, yourself. You've been looking a little worn out lately. Fair features such as ours show it too easily, sometimes. Good night, Draco."
Draco echoed her good night, watching her leave the room entirely before he leaned forward and rested his head in his hands. He'd been trying to keep the way he'd been feeling physically from everyone, and he thought he'd been doing better at it. But then someone would mention that he looked tired or run-down, and he realised he wasn't quite as successful as he'd hoped. And if even his mother was commenting on it, it was a problem. He couldn't let her know what was wrong.
Especially not now, when she was something that might even be approaching happy.
= * = * = * =
It was a week before Christmas when Draco woke to find an unrecognised black owl tapping impatiently at his bedroom window.
At seven in the morning.
He groaned and rolled over, burrowing back underneath his blankets. He just wanted to sleep . Not get up and let some stupid bird in, with whatever unwanted note it was carrying.
The owl tapped harder.
Draco shoved his head under a pillow.
The owl started hooting, in addition to the tapping.
"Fucking fine , I'll get up and take your stupid letter!" Draco finally snapped, realising the thing wasn't going to go away until he did so. He flung open the window, hoping at least to startle it. Instead, it gave him a rather judgmental look, then gave Draco the envelope it had been clutching. Draco grumbled something, gave it a small treat anyway, and opened it up, wondering who he was going to have to yell at later for disturbing his sleep.
I know it's short notice, but I was wondering if you'd be up for joining me and Teddy in Diagon Alley this afternoon. I'm taking him off Andromeda's hands so she can finish the last of her Christmas shopping. He's been talking about you this morning, and I thought it might be fun for him to see you while we're out. If you can't make it, that's fine, as I haven't mentioned I'm inviting you along. I just thought I'd float the idea, in case you weren't busy and wanted to see Teddy.
PS— You needn't reply by owl. If you feel like meeting up, we'll be in Diagon Alley around eleven. I've got my own shopping to do, so we should be there for a while.
Draco blinked, running the contents of the letter through his head. Potter had sent him an owl. Potter was extending an invitation to Draco to join him and Teddy for the afternoon. Potter had sought him out, specifically.
"Well, at least that explains one thing," Draco muttered. "No wonder you're so stubborn. You're Potter's owl."
The owl hooted in agreement, then flew off.
Draco sighed. It was still early, and he was exhausted. But Potter wasn't planning on taking Teddy out for another few hours, and that meant he had plenty of time to figure out if he actually wanted to join them. On one hand, it would mean spending time with Potter. And just because Draco had recently admitted to his mother that time with Potter wasn't quite as unbearable as he might have supposed, that didn't mean he was exactly jumping at the chance to do it as often as possible.
On the other hand, though, Potter had mentioned that Teddy had been talking about him, and that made Draco feel warm and pleased in a way he didn't want to admit to anyone.
Climbing back under the covers, Draco told himself he'd make the decision after another hour or so of sleep. If he were going to go out after all, he'd need the rest. One thing he was learning was that small children could be exhausting .
Eleven-thirty found Draco dressed in warm robes and bundled in his favourite winter cloak, walking through Diagon Alley in a leisurely manner. He had no idea where, exactly, Potter and his cousin might be, or how he might go about finding them, and he didn't want to be conspicuous about the whole thing.
He needn't have worried. Draco was standing outside a sweetshop, eying their display of Christmas offerings, when he heard someone shriek his name, just before a small body hurled itself at Draco's shins, wrapping itself around them. Draco staggered a little, finally regaining his balance, and looked down into Teddy Lupin's beaming face. "Hello, there."
"Harry! I found Draco!"
Potter grinned down at the boy. "So you did." He looked up at Draco, and his smile was much more hesitant. "I wasn't sure we'd see you," he said, softly enough that Teddy wouldn't hear.
Draco shrugged. "I wanted to see Teddy. Besides, it gives me a chance to do a bit of last-minute shopping myself." There were gifts he still hadn't figured out—especially when it came to his newly-reunited family. Although, with Potter here, Draco might just have an informative resource at hand. He tousled Teddy's hair—today, it was reddish-brown, with a few streaks of purple. "Where should we go first?"
Teddy turned to look at the sweetshop, then up at both adults with wide-eyes. "Oooh, no," Potter said, evidently knowing exactly what the boy was thinking. "We're not going in there before we eat. But I'll tell you what, Teddy. If you're good while Draco and I get what we need, we can stop here last, and I'll let you pick a few things for yourself and your grandmother. Deal?"
Teddy looked a little upset at being told no, but appeared to think it over. "Can I get something for Victoire?"
Potter hesitated. "She's just a baby, Teddy. I don't think she's allowed sweets just yet."
"Well, I can eat it for her."
Draco snorted. There was something in the boy's face that said his offer may not have been completely altruistic, despite his young age. It was probably the Black family in him.
Potter raised his eyebrows and sighed. Draco wondered just how many times he'd seen moments like this from the boy, and how many he'd fallen victim to. He snickered quietly to himself. Perhaps he should advise Potter to speak to his mother about that—from her stories, it only got worse from this age on. Potter might need all the help he could get. "We'll see."
Teddy apparently hadn't yet learned that "we'll see" was adult for "absolutely not", but Draco was not going to take him aside to teach him that point. For now, at least, it worked to appease him.
After making the Potter-approved decision to start at Quality Quidditch Supplies, where Teddy wanted to look at all the "grown-up brooms", the three of them headed off, Potter and Teddy in the lead. Draco trailed behind a step or two, still close enough to listen to Teddy tell them of his adventures with one of his new friends, and he was distracted enough with the story that it took him a few moments to notice something odd. Once they were inside the shop and Teddy had come to a halt in front of the display of team-specific apparel, Draco spoke. "What happened to you?"
"Hm?" Potter looked up from the magazine he'd picked up.
"The limp. You weren't walking like that the last time I saw you at Andromeda's."
"Oh. That." Potter made a face. "It's nothing. It'll be fine. The Healers say it'll take a few weeks and I'll be good as new."
Potter shrugged. "I apprehended a suspect."
"Apparently not easily."
"Auror work is never easy, Malfoy."
"No, I don't suppose it is." He paused. "You find it fulfilling, though, don't you?"
"Of course I do. Do you like what you do, down in the archives?"
Draco paused in his examination of one of the newer Nimbus offerings. He and Potter both worked for the Ministry, but he'd had absolutely no idea Potter had even the slightest inkling of what he actually did there. "I've never mentioned the archives, have I?"
"Then how do you know that's my department?"
Potter blinked at him. "It's not a secret, Malfoy. Besides, I'd just heard it around, somewhere. People talk. I heard about you getting hired, and I heard about your promotion last year. Besides, some of the requests for records I've got approved and sent have had your initials on them."
That was probably fair enough. Still, it threw Draco somewhat to know that Potter was aware of him on some level, even before they'd run into each other at Andromeda's. He wondered what else Potter knew about him. For his part, he knew very little about Potter. He was an Auror, of course, but past that, Draco couldn't come up with any significant details. He shrugged and said something non-committal, spared the rest of that conversation when Teddy came up between them to tug at Potter's sleeve.
"Harry, they have robes like Genie's!"
"Ginny," Potter corrected gently. "You mean the ones for the Harpies?"
"Uh-huh! The green ones!"
Ah, yes, Holyhead's team. Astoria had mentioned something in some off-hand comment about one of their schoolmates being signed to one of the all-female professional Quidditch teams, but Draco either hadn't paid much attention, or she'd neglected to mention the name of the player in question.
"Can we get some?"
Potter shook his head. "Not today, Teddy. Remember, we're not buying for ourselves today, because Christmas is almost here. But that doesn't mean we can't at least look at the starter brooms, if you want."
Teddy's face went from a near-pout to lit up in a space of less than a second at the suggestion, and he was off, both Draco and Potter following as closely behind as they could in the crowd. With so little time left before Christmas, it seemed the whole of Diagon Alley was full up.
It was nearing three o'clock when Teddy looked like he might be starting to droop, and Draco was right there along with him. Potter looked at Draco for a moment as they stood outside Slug & Jiggers Apothecary. "I've got to run in and get something in there, but why don't you rest here for a moment? I'll be quick."
Draco wasn't sure if Potter had something to retrieve in the shop that he didn't want anyone else seeing — like Teddy, for instance — or if he'd simply noticed how much more Draco was dragging himself along than he'd been even an hour ago. Either way, he was a little grateful for the excuse to sit. He nodded his agreement, then managed to get Teddy to agree to share a bench with him while they watched people walk by.
Potter reappeared not ten minutes later, his limp more pronounced now than it had been when Draco had caught it upon meeting up with them this morning, and Draco thought they might all be about ready to head home and get off their feet. He was about to mention so when Potter tucked a small package into his robes and looked down at Teddy. "Ready to go and see George and Ron?"
It was amazing how quickly the child could go from looking half-asleep on his feet to utterly rested and energetic.
"I really don't think I need anything in there—" Draco started to say, trailing hesitantly after Potter as they approached the front of Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes. He hadn't been in here since sixth year, and wasn't exceptionally fond of the memories involved with that particular visit.
Potter just looked at him as if he knew Draco's protestations had little to do with not being in the market for joke items or whatever else the surviving Weasley twin might be selling in his shop, and more to do with wanting to avoid said shop owner. "Just come in, Malfoy," he said after a moment, looking slightly exasperated. "I promise you, no one's going to toss you out of the shop, or create a scene."
"I don't know if that's something you can promise," Draco muttered, but relented to being pulled along by Teddy, who had a solid grip on Draco's index finger.
This shop was perhaps even more packed than most of the others had been. Children milled about everywhere , from kids Teddy's age to those who were probably home from Hogwarts for the Christmas holidays. Most of them were looking around excitedly, and not a few parents looked harried. The only people who looked more so were the employees Draco spotted flitting here and there, trying to help as many people at once as they could.
"Maybe I really should go—" Draco started to say, wondering if he could extricate himself from Teddy's hold, but he was drowned out by a boisterous, "Harry!" from somewhere behind them all.
Potter turned around and broke into a wide grin. The shop's owner had spotted them, it seemed, giving Potter a hearty hug, and tousling Teddy's hair at the same time. He only paused for a moment when he spotted Draco, before giving a much more sedate "Hello, Malfoy", along with just the slightest of acknowledging nods.
"Weasley," Draco said back, trying to sound civil. He wished he could remember which twin this was. George, Harry had said, hadn't he? Although, Potter had also mentioned—
"Ron! Get over here and say hello!" George bellowed across the store, causing five separate people to look over, startled by the sudden shout. "Merlin, he's slow," George told Potter, rolling his eyes. "Terrible at getting new stock out on the floor. But he's family, you know, so I keep him around."
Potter laughed as Ron approached, elbowing his brother in the ribs. "Whatever," he grumbled. "I'm the best employee you've got."
"No, Verity's the best employee I've got. You're just the most fun to boss around. Here, take care of Teddy and Harry, would you? I've got to go help up at the front. And if I see you trying to charge Harry for anything, I'll remind you I still need product testers for the new line coming out in the spring."
Ron made a face. "As if I would."
Draco tried to slink back a bit and hide amongst the crowd. Weasley had Potter and Teddy occupied, talking to the former while helping the latter work some toy Draco couldn't really see. He couldn't easily make it up to the door to leave, so he ended up browsing some of the displays as he tried to make his way out.
Actually, this place had some things that weren't all that terrible.
Draco was waiting to pay for some Dragon Dust ( "make your fire really roar" ) and a few other small things he thought would be appropriate for the small, silly gift exchange his co-workers had devised, when George stepped up behind the girl at the counter and nudged her gently out of the way, instructing her to take her break. "So, Malfoy," George said conversationally, beginning to ring him through, "I heard you've been spending some time with Teddy and Harry today."
"I, uh, yes," Draco managed, not ready at all to be having a conversation with any of the Weasleys.
"Teddy's a great kid, isn't he?"
"Yes, he is," Draco said, relieved to at least have the right answer to that question.
"He really seems to like you. No idea why."
It took Draco a moment to realise that George was joking, and he blinked for a moment before George chuckled at him. "Relax, Malfoy. What, did you think I kicked Esmerelda off the till just so I could yell at you about something?"
"I..." He cleared his throat. "Maybe something like that."
George rolled his eyes. "Look. You're a paying customer. I'm not going to harass you. Besides, Harry's mentioned you're not a total tosser anymore, so I'm willing to be generous and see if he's right about that. Plus, like I said, Teddy seems to like you. You might not win Ron over so easily, but he's a little thick-headed sometimes." He totalled up Draco's items and put them in a brightly-coloured bag, handing back his change. "Just don't make me have to change my mind back to its previous way of thinking, all right?"
Draco furrowed his brow. "All right?" He had no real idea what George was on about, and didn't think he could figure it out even if he sat and thought about it for a bit.
"Good. Enjoy your products, Malfoy." And with that, he was on to helping the next customer in line, leaving Draco confused as to what in Merlin's name had actually just happened.
He was still confused when Potter and Teddy stepped out of the joke shop ten minutes later, Teddy jabbering on about something Ron had shown him. "See?" Potter said, eyebrows raised. "Told you there wouldn't be a scene."
Draco just looked at him for a moment. "Did you really tell George Weasley I 'wasn't a total tosser' these days?"
Potter blushed. "Uh. Not in those exact words?"
"I see. Well, thank you for the endorsement." He shook his head, unwittingly amused by the whole thing, seeing the look on Potter's face. "Is there anywhere else we need to stop? Because if you and Teddy still plan on being out for a while, I'm afraid I might have to leave you to yourselves."
Potter shook his head. "Just the sweet shop, if you think Teddy's been good enough today."
The wide-eyed, pleading look Teddy shot Draco made him laugh. He looked so desperately earnest. "I think he's earned it," he said after a moment, earning him a wide, beaming smile.
Even Potter grinned. "All right, then. Let's go."
Twenty minutes later, Draco was finally bidding his cousin and Potter goodbye. He Apparated back home, collapsing gratefully onto his bed. After a while, he got up and put his purchases away, resolving to wrap them up and send them off tomorrow. As he was setting aside the joke items to bring to work, something Draco didn't remember buying fell out of the bag. Curious, he picked it up.
It was a small hand mirror, framed in pink. It looked very much like it belonged to the WonderWitch line. Draco was positive he hadn't bought anything from one of those displays. He held it up, looking into its surface, wondering what this particular item was supposed to do.
He saw only his own reflection. Making a small hum of general puzzlement, he was about to set it down, perhaps to return it to the shop at a later date to fix whatever accident had left him with it in his bag, when words appeared at the bottom of the glass, under his face. Draco squinted to read them, bright pink and glowing text making it just a little difficult to read, and finally made them out:
Not a total tosser
Draco laughed harder than he had in a long time.
= * = * = * =
Christmas morning dawned cold and snowy, and Draco was grateful he and his mother were travelling by Floo to Andromeda's. They headed out early, both holding onto wrapped gifts in a way that made them resemble peace offerings. Draco knew that was a bit how he felt about his own gifts, and his mother looked even more grimly determined than Draco thought he himself did. It was only the third time she'd made it to her sister's home, and she still seemed a bit apprehensive over some things, but Draco thought their attempt to reconnect was going fairly well, all things considered.
Still, he understood the pressures of Christmas gift-giving. And it seemed even more important this year.
Teddy was already up and watching something Andromeda referred to as 'car-tunes' when Draco and his mother arrived, and she sent Draco into the living room to go and keep him company as she finished up the last of the breakfast cooking. His mother stayed behind to help, looking a little lost in Andromeda's small kitchen, but even she shooed him away. "Hey, Teddy," Draco said, lowering himself onto the sofa. "Happy Christmas."
Teddy turned away from the television, where a group of trains were discussing some important trip they needed to make, and smiled. "Draco! Do you like Thomas?"
Teddy gave him a look like he thought Draco was more than a little dim. "Thomas the Tank Engine! Him!" He pointed at the blue engine with a face that was currently saying something about all the snow.
"I've never seen this, actually," Draco told him, wondering if this programme was a typical Muggle sort of thing. How odd.
The appropriate response to that statement, Draco soon found, was to climb up in Draco's lap and tell him every feasible fact a three-and-a-half year old boy could retain on the programme, as if trying to make Draco an expert on the subject. And once Thomas and his friends gave way to someone called 'Postman Pat', the process started all over again.
And again, when some creatures called 'teletubbies' made an appearance. Draco was fairly sure he'd never encountered anything quite so unsettling before, even including some of the unusual lessons foisted upon the students by the groundskeeper at Hogwarts.
It was the first time Draco found himself wishing he knew more about Muggle culture, if only because his head was swimming by the time his aunt and mother came to gather them for breakfast.
The meal was delicious and generally pleasant, with both Andromeda and Draco's mother reminiscing a bit about Christmases from their childhood, even when talk turned to more recent years and Draco had to sit through stories about his own Christmases as a child, including one rather embarrassing one that involved his coercing a house-elf to wrap him up in as much ribbon as could be found, because he'd reasoned he was the best gift his parents could possibly get. He didn't remember most of the details his mother shared, but did have a lingering memory of being tethered to said house-elf by a dearth of thick, sparkling gold ribbon, jingling bells wrapped around them both, and having to have his grandmother release them before his parents saw what had become of some of the manor's decorations.
He was more than a little mortified when his mother somehow produced an old family photo album, showing her sister a photograph of that particular event, in which Draco was perhaps a few months younger than Teddy was now.
There was a knock on the door, and Draco was supremely grateful when the album disappeared, because it was Potter who trailed in after Andromeda, wishing them all a happy Christmas, a small pile of gifts in his arms.
" Now can we do presents?" Teddy asked his grandmother, even as he went to hug Potter, and everyone laughed.
"Yes, Teddy. Now we can open gifts."
They situated themselves around the living room after an awkward few moments of Potter and Draco and his mother trying to figure out where to settle themselves, accounting for their lack of familiarity with each other, and situating Potter's injured leg. As Andromeda started passing out gifts, Draco was startled to find that not only had Potter brought ones intended for him and his mother, but that his mother had even brought one meant for Potter. She caught his surprised expression and gave him a cool look that managed to convey something along the lines of "don't worry, it's from both of us."
Draco loved his mother, he really did. Especially because, for whatever reason, he hadn't thought about the possibility of spending Christmas together, since he figured Potter would be enveloped into the Weasley family celebrations, like he'd always seemed to be during the school holidays. How in Merlin's name she knew Potter would be here, Draco could only chalk up to her discussing the day's plans with her sister.
He definitely didn't like being out of the loop, however, and he fervently hoped whatever his mother had bought for Potter, it was something that wouldn't be weird, with his name attached.
They all let Teddy go first with the gifts, rightly figuring there was only so much a child that young could take as far as waiting went, and Draco was struck with how fun it was to watch the boy get so worked up over his gifts. He looked thrilled with absolutely everything he opened, even the slightly lumpy jumper Potter had apparently brought with him from the Weasleys. He tried to wear both that and the Holyhead Harpies robes Ginny Weasley had sent, and had to be delicately talked out of that particular fashion decision. He looked like his face would split when he saw the gifts from Draco and his mother—toy dragons much like the ones Draco had had as a child, complete with non-burning fire-breathing charms—and even got up without complaint to give both Draco and his mother hugs and thank-yous, before plopping back down to open the rest of his gifts. He was unexpectedly polite about everything, and Draco could practically feel his mother's approval at the behaviour.
Draco unwrapped his own things after Teddy was done, leaving two in particular for last. One was a small box, labelled as being from Teddy, and the other was a flat envelope of thick golden paper, marked from Potter. What either of them could have thought to give him, he hadn't the foggiest idea. But it was at Teddy's urging that he opened the box first, setting the ribbon aside and lifting off the top and peering inside. He blinked, sort of surprised by what he saw.
Muggle toys. A set of dinosaurs, to be exact. They were somewhat smaller than the ones Teddy had, and were somewhat less rubbery, but they were definitely a set of dinosaurs, herbivore and carnivore both.
"It's so you can practise!" Teddy said, practically bouncing as he sat. "Do you like them?"
"I like them very much," Draco told him, reaching out to tousle the boy's hair, which today was dark green with a few bright red streaks. "Thank you, Teddy."
"Harry helped me pick them out! I told you he knew everything about dinosaurs!"
"Yes, well, you were right about that." Draco looked up at Potter, who was fiddling with the ribbon on the remaining gift on his lap. "Thank you, Potter."
Potter blushed. "It was his idea. I just took him shopping with me in Muggle London."
"Still, thank you both. They're very nice." He couldn't exactly see himself playing with them on his own, but he thought he could bring them over during visits with Teddy, at the very least. He set the box aside and picked up the envelope from Potter. His name was written in Potter's somewhat messy hand, and Draco was still more than a little embarrassed that he'd not thought he ought to get Potter anything. Not that he knew what in Merlin's name he'd have come up with, even if he had. He simply didn't know Potter well—though that was changing, slowly but steadily—and he didn't generally like giving gifts that said he hadn't put in any effort. There was a lot to be said for choosing just the right gift.
Out of the golden envelope slid two slips of paper. "Quidditch tickets," Draco said with a surprised smile. "Thank you, Potter."
"They're for the opening match of next season, between the Falcons and Cannons," Potter said, shrugging a little. "Sorry if you're not a fan of either team, and that they're not for this season, but..."
"No, I enjoy the Falcons quite a lot." He hadn't been to a professional Quidditch match since the World Cup. When he was a child, he'd gone fairly frequently with his father. And while this might generally be the sort of gift he enjoyed, he wouldn't be around for the start of next season to put the tickets to good use. But Potter didn't know that, and Draco wasn't going to inform him—or anyone else—of that particular point. "Again, thank you."
Potter mumbled something else, then cleared his throat and looked down at the gift still sitting on his thigh. After a moment, he undid the wrapping and revealed a thin album with black leather binding and silver filigree. He looked confused, an expression that only intensified when he opened it and saw a number of very old photographs and hand-written notes. He looked up, glancing at both Draco and his mother, as if hoping for some sort of explanation.
"My son has been focussed on family a lot lately," Draco's mother said, catching the question on Potter's face. "And it's come to my attention that you may not have a lot of mementos of yours. My great-aunt Dorea married into the Potter family. It turns out we have some things that you might appreciate more. They're not recent, I'm afraid, but I thought you might like some record of your family's history, going back several generations."
Potter flipped slowly through a few of the pages, which Draco could see now contained things like old letters, some family tree diagrams, and a few newspaper clippings that might be marriage announcements. He looked as surprised as Draco felt. After a moment, he closed the book and looked up. "Thank you," he managed. His voice was thick, and both Draco and his mother pretended not to notice when he reached up to scrub at his eyes with the back of one hand. Andromeda reached over and gave him a comforting little pat.
Draco was surprised Potter could get so choked up over some bits of genealogy and old photographs of people who'd been dead generations before Potter had even been born, but then, he'd always had that sort of thing available to him, or even thrust upon him. He supposed he might, however, know a bit about desiring something others took for granted.
Looking at the date printed on the Quidditch tickets in his lap, Draco thought he knew quite a bit about that after all.
= * = * = * =
Intellectually, Draco knew he and Potter worked in the same place. They'd passed each other in the Atrium, in the small employee canteen on the rare occasions either of them seemed to utilise it, and they'd even made small talk in the lifts. Said small talk was a lot less tortured than it had been before, and Draco was fairly certain they'd startled or confused a small handful of other Ministry employees the other week, when Potter had asked him out of the blue if he was coming over that evening.
The way one of the witches in the lift with them had eyed them both, it was clear she'd got entirely the wrong idea from that question. While Draco had almost wanted to play to her misconception, just for the hell of it, Potter had remained oblivious.
So, yes, on a basic level, Draco knew he and Potter were often in the same building. But that didn't mean Draco wasn't still quite surprised to look up from his work to find Potter striding across the floor with the remnant of his injury only just barely visible, holding a small box in his hands.
Haversham, Bolton, and Smith looked almost as surprised as Draco felt. Perhaps more so, once Potter called out his name and headed straight for his desk.
"How can I help you?" Draco asked, once Potter was beside him. "Usually, you just send your requests via interdepartmental memo. Something a bit more urgent needed?"
"What? No. I brought you something." He held out the small, square wooden box. "You mentioned that you weren't sleeping well, and you've been looking really tired lately, and I thought..." He trailed off, then rubbed the back of his neck. "Sorry, that's probably impolite to say, but I'm awful with tact, or so Hermione tells me. Anyway, I, uh, know what it's like to not sleep well, and this really helped me, so I thought I could share it with you, in case it does you any good."
Draco took the proffered box, lifted the lid, and peered inside. "Tea?"
Potter nodded. "It's a special blend. It's not quite as potent as Dreamless Sleep Potion, but I've found it's helpful in dealing with nightmares. I mean, I don't know if that's why you're not sleeping or anything, but it's also quite calming and knocks me out pretty quickly, in any case."
Draco paused. He had said he hadn't been sleeping well just the other evening, but it had become his default excuse whenever anyone mentioned he looked tired, or commented when he had to make excuses for staying out too late, whether for the occasional get together with Haversham and the others, or even staying at Andromeda's. It wasn't even a lie, really. Whether a direct result of whatever he'd been cursed with, or simply a by-product of his psyche's attempts to deal with what it all meant, Draco's sleep quality had been utter shit. And yes, that had meant a lot of nightmares. It also meant there were nights where he just lay there, feeling some sense of panic even over the exhaustion, feeling as if he were wasting the remaining time he had left by sleeping. And even when he did manage to sleep, he still woke feeling run-down. "Well, I've tried a few different things—" and he had, some of them prescribed by Healer Sharp in an effort to boost his energy level and his mood, "—but this couldn't hurt. Thank you."
Potter smiled at him then, just a simple, easy sort of thing, and it hit Draco how odd that was, in that it was a thing that was happening more and more often. Their interactions had gone from slightly strained and stiff to something Draco considered comfortable, within just the space of two months. Granted, they saw each other three times a week or so, and it was with increasing frequency that either he or Potter stayed later than originally planned to catch dinner with Andromeda and Teddy, or just sprawl on the floor of Teddy's room to play games or read to him. Instead of trying to schedule time so that they could avoid running into one another, it had become more habit to see if they could share it, instead. Logically, Draco could brush it off as being glad for the distraction someone else provided on evenings where he felt the most drained, and Potter could attribute it to it being nice to have someone else who could crouch on the floor and do things with the boy that his still-healing injury wouldn't quite allow, but those were just easy excuses, and Draco knew that when he thought about it for more than a moment. And he thought Potter did, too.
He actually enjoyed Potter's company.
Merlin help him.
"You're welcome. Let me know if it works for you, and I can get you the name of the shop that sells it."
Draco nodded and deliberately did not say that Potter could simply have done that in the first place, rather than make a special trip down to the archives just to deliver a supply of it, himself. But this was Harry Potter, and Draco supposed he wasn't really the sort to do a lot of things halfway (homework in certain classes notwithstanding), especially not once he'd made some sort of decision.
"I will." He didn't hold much hope for the tea actually doing anything noticeable, but hell, it was worth a try.
"Great. I'm working late tonight, but I'll be at Andromeda's tomorrow evening, after work. Maybe I'll see you then."
"Yeah, maybe." Draco had already been debating popping in that night or the next, but he mentally adjusted his plans to include tomorrow night as a certainty before he realised he was doing it. He gave Potter a wave as he headed back out of the archives, tucking the wooden box into one of the drawers of his desk. When he looked back up, Haversham and Bolton were staring at him. Smith, at least, had gone back to getting actual work done. "What?"
"Didn't you and Potter used to loathe each other, back in school?" Bolton asked, squinting. He was a year younger than Potter or Draco, a Ravenclaw Draco hadn't really known at all. Their only direct interaction back at Hogwarts was when Bolton had asked to borrow a spare quill one afternoon in the library. But Draco supposed he and Potter hadn't exactly been subtle about things.
"Something like that."
"And now he's bringing you gifts." Haversham sounded just as sceptical as Bolton. He'd been drinking with Draco more often, which meant he'd heard a few more details of his and Potter's history. Draco hadn't shared some of the bigger things—the incident in the boy's toilets during sixth year was not one he liked to discuss with anyone, thank you very much—but he knew enough to be surprised by what had just happened.
Draco shrugged and turned back to his work. "Things change," he said simply, not looking up again until he heard both men return back to their own work. It was all the explanation he was willing to give.
= * = * = * =
Some things changed a lot .
It had been a totally shit day. The weather was bitter cold, not completely unexpected for an early February day. Draco's supervisor had been in a foul mood (Haversham had reluctantly taken the blame for that one; something about a misplaced document) the entire day, barking at absolutely everyone. And Andromeda had sent word, just before Draco was leaving work, that the day's plans for a visit had to be scrapped, as both she and Teddy were under the weather. That helped to explain Teddy's general crankiness the night before, but really didn't do anything to make Draco feel any better about the way his day was going.
And waiting for him when he got home was the thing that capped it all off—the post had come and, with it, an invitation.
A wedding invitation. For Astoria Greengrass.
Draco stared at it dumbly for a good hour before he felt anything other than numb.
He'd seen her only once since they'd broken off their never-officialised attempt at engagement, though there had been two simple, quick letters in addition. They had had a simple lunch date, a random Saturday they'd both had free, and it had been perhaps more enjoyable than any of their previous dates, without the pressure of a potential arranged marriage hanging over them. It had also made Draco absolutely certain that giving up on that plan had been in both their best interests. Astoria had seemed much lighter than she had before, and he'd known she would probably never be that way with him within a marriage. He'd thought she'd been right when she'd said perhaps neither of them were currently cut out for marriage.
Apparently, it was just that she wasn't ready for marriage to Draco, specifically.
The wedding wasn't until late June, and Draco sent a response back saying he would be in attendance automatically, not even realising until he'd sealed the envelope that he wouldn't be around at that time. Healer Sharp may not have been able to reverse any of the curse that had been laid upon him, but she had at least been able to give him some answers. And in some way, knowing that there was a definite expiration date to his life—June the third or fourth; even with a Pensieve, Draco still couldn't remember enough details of what had actually happened to be able to help her pin it down perfectly—was better than some more nebulous time frame.
Well, he reasoned, at least that meant he wouldn't have to put himself through actually attending her wedding. Because, while he now considered her a friend, and he was genuinely glad she was happy, Draco still didn't think he could put the other details behind him enough to thoroughly enjoy watching Astoria marry someone else. Someone she presumably actually loved.
As if Draco needed more proof he'd never find someone who felt that way about him.
Still, as awful as the day had been, he tried to put it behind him for at least half an hour. Though he hadn't seen her in person in over two years, Draco always made a point to get hold of Pansy on her birthday, no matter where they both were. It was a bit of a twist on a lesson his father had taught him—make all dismissals deliberate, and make sure others know you haven't forgotten them. This wasn't quite the same as keeping political relationships, but Draco did still value a friend or two from his youth.
Even if they didn't appear to value him the same way.
"Draco, dear, I didn't think I'd hear from you this year," Pansy said when Draco had finally managed to get through. Chatting by firecall wasn't nearly the same as doing it in person but, as Pansy was currently in Switzerland, it was as good as Draco was going to get. "I've been so busy, it's lucky you caught me."
"Yes, well, I wasn't going to let your birthday pass without at least sending my regards."
"That's sweet of you. You know I—" she broke off, looking over her shoulder at someone who stood outside of Draco's view, and laughed, saying something in French that Draco couldn't make out over the background noise. There was apparently quite the party going on. "Draco, I'm sorry, but I've got to go. I did get your gift, by the way—it was perfectly lovely, as always. Sorry to run, but please, call again later, would you? I'll talk to you soon." Draco barely had time to reply before she disconnected the call, music and her laughter and that of her guests mingling until the moment they cut off, leaving only the soft sound of flames crackling behind.
If that didn't say everything about Draco's life right now, he didn't know what did.
He didn't even know if he could bring himself to call her again later. She always claimed to be busy—and maybe she was—but Draco increasingly believed she was trying to be busy, trying to find an excuse for not remembering what used to go on, what her life used to be like, in the last part of the war and just beyond that, the people she used to spend time with, the choices she'd made. Somehow, some way, she'd managed to get away from it. Pansy's was a life full of new things, things that were light where back here at home they might have been dark, and Draco....
Simply didn't belong there at all.
Draco really didn't blame her, if he thought about it from the outside, separated from emotions like he'd always tried so hard to be. She might once have dropped everything, come running to his side, if he'd told her what had happened, what he was going through. Hell, she might even have once been the answer to his problem.
Those days, Draco knew, were long since over. She had her own life now, far away from the place she grew up, and people like Draco—who reminded her of that past, her mistakes and those they shared—didn't have much of a place in it any more.
He didn't have much of a place in anyone's life any more. Not in any way that really changed anything.
Climbing into bed, Draco pulled the covers over his head and tried not to think. He wished he had Dreamless Sleep on hand for nights like this. Potter's tea—while actually seeming to help a bit—was still not up to this sort of task.
Draco wasn't even sure how up to anything he himself was, any more.
= * = * = * =
There was a pounding in his head, and Draco hurt everywhere.
It was a bone-deep sort of weariness where everything ached, and Draco just wanted to sleep until it wore off. It took a little longer each time for it to actually do so, and he knew it was likely just a matter of time before it stopped wearing off at all. He knew it was the curse, and also knew he wasn't helping matters in failing to do things like eat properly (cooking took far too much work; some days, just making it through work in the archives, or visiting Teddy just to read to him or watch Muggle television programmes took nearly everything out of him), but it was just so damned hard to care when he felt like this, exhausted and disoriented and just wanting some bit of comfort.
"Malfoy! Draco! I'm giving you to the count of three, and then I'm opening this door."
Maybe the pounding wasn't just in Draco's head.
He was still processing what was going on—Potter had apparently made it into the manor somehow, and had been banging on Draco's door for what he presumed was a while until this point—when Potter reached three, and then Draco's bedroom door flew open.
"What the hell's going on?" Draco asked, still trying to get his bearings. Potter looked good and angry. His face was red and his expression was tight. It seemed to get tighter when he caught sight of Draco, who had finally managed to sit up, at least, verifying that the pounding in his head was at least part headache, and not just Potter's banging on his bedroom door.
"What's going—Where have you been? You missed dinner at Andromeda's. You didn't even send an owl. Teddy's upset that you said you'd play with him, but still hadn't shown up by the time he went to bed. It took forever to calm him down. So what the hell was so important that you let Teddy down and worried your aunt, huh?"
Draco blinked. "Missed dinner?"
"Yeah, Malfoy, missed dinner. Andromeda said that's not like you, and I want to believe her after everything I've seen in the last few months, but you weren't the one who had to help calm Teddy, because you didn't show up."
Draco looked at the clock on his bedside table. It was nearly ten o'clock. He'd meant to only lie down for thirty minutes, an hour at most, before getting back up and heading to Andromeda's. But that had been nearly four hours ago, if the clock was correct. "I didn't skip it on purpose," he said, rubbing at his face. "I only meant to nap for an hour. I have no idea what happened."
Potter seemed to finally actually look at him, eyes scanning Draco from head to toe, taking in his standard work robes and everything else that gave evidence to the fact that Draco hadn't done much with himself since getting off work for the evening. "Where's Narcissa?" he asked, finally.
"France. Something with extended family." Extended Malfoy family, specifically, and Draco really should have been the one to go deal with it, but he hadn't been up to travelling and then dealing with the details, and his mother had told him not to worry, she'd been looking for an excuse to see friends near Paris again, anyway, and gone instead. Draco rubbed at his face again. "Look, I'm sorry I wasn't there tonight. I didn't mean to stand anyone up. I just couldn't stay awake."
Stepping closer to the bed, Potter frowned. "You look like shit, Malfoy. You've been looking...fuck, okay, I'm just going to ask it, and fuck Auror questioning protocols. You haven't been fucking around with Dark magic, have you?"
Draco blinked. "Seriously?"
"Yeah, Malfoy, seriously. I've seen a lot of things in my life, okay, even before I became an Auror. And you're ringing all sorts of alarm bells right now. You look like something's sucking the energy right out of you, and—"
"I'm not playing around with Dark magic, Potter. Calm down."
"Well, then, what's wrong? Something obviously is. Andromeda's mentioned that she and your mother have been worried about you, that you're overworking yourself or something. What's going on?"
This was not the conversation Draco wanted to be having right now. He didn't want to tell anyone what was going on, because he was having a hard enough time dealing with it, without having to take pity from anyone else, or put up with their badgering him about details he couldn't give, or didn't want to think about. But he also knew Potter, and knew he wasn't going to just drop this until he was satisfied with whatever Draco had to say.
"I'm dying." Nothing like the blunt approach.
"That's not funny."
"Am I laughing?"
Potter's face went from annoyed and angry to considering, and then quickly to sort of pale and wide-eyed. "You're not joking."
"I'm not. If you really want, I can get you a note from a Healer to prove to you I'm not just messing around with Dark magic or anything else like that. I've learned that lesson, Potter. As I'm sure you've learned some of your own. This is all very real."
"A curse. Do you remember that night you helped me to St Mungo's, from the Ministry?"
"Someone cursed you that night?"
"No. Roughly a month before then. That's just when I found out."
Draco sighed. He really didn't have the energy for this, not if Potter was going to interrupt every few words and badger him with questions. Draco knew Aurors—the ones who lived more than a few months into the job, that was—were sort of bent on getting answers to questions, but Merlin, it was tiresome. "I don't know. But to answer whatever else you're probably going to ask: yes, I'm certain. No, I don't know who cursed me, but it wouldn't matter in any case, because what was done to me is not the sort of thing that can be reversed with another spell, nor does it go away if the person who cast it is dead or incapacitated or anything else. Yes, I've seen specialists. No, I don't want to discuss details. And no, there's nothing anyone can do. So if I look tired, or seem reluctant to make plans for some unspecified future, or can't get quite so worked up about events I've no hope of seeing on my own, you'll just have to forgive me."
Potter just stared at him. "Fuck," he finally whispered. "I'm sorry. I mean, I know that's a stupid, meaningless thing to say, but..."
Draco shrugged. "There's nothing to say. Just do what I've done and accept it. But, for the love of Merlin, don't fucking tell anyone else. Not Andromeda, not Teddy, and especially not my mother. I don't want to burden them with this."
" Burden them? Don't you think they'd want to know ?"
"I'm sorry, but didn't you neglect to tell your two best friends—the ones who were risking their lives to help you—that you'd figured out you were going to have to die in order to defeat Voldemort for good?"
Potter visibly sagged. "How did you even know about that?"
"Does it matter? It's true, isn't it? So why can't you understand why I don't want anyone else to know?"
Potter was quiet for a long time. "I guess it's hard to see from the other side, and I don't necessarily agree with your decision, but I do understand."
"Thank you. Now, not to be rude, but I don't have the energy for anything right now. Given the hour, I'm going to go to bed."
"Yeah, sure, Malfoy. I'm sorry to barge in and accuse you of things, I guess. It is sort of my job."
"Interrogating people, tracking down Dark wizards, or accusing me, specifically?"
Potter seemed to get that the last had been some attempt at a joke, because he grinned just the slightest bit, a lopsided upwards tilt of one side of his mouth. "Well, old habits and all."
Once at Draco's bedroom door, Potter turned. "I am sorry, you know. But I'll let Andromeda know that...I mean, I'll tell her you're..."
"Tell her not to worry, Potter. You can even tell her I wasn't feeling well and accidentally slept through dinner, if the half-truth makes you feel better. I'll come around tomorrow and apologise, myself."
"All right. Good night, Malfoy." And with that, he shut the door with a soft click, Apparating away just outside in the hall only a moment later.
Draco sighed. In some small way, it felt better that someone else knew. But it didn't feel better enough that he wanted to tell anyone else what was going on.
Especially because the look on Potter's face, just before he left, had been one that looked an awful lot like pity.
= * = * = * =
Standing in the back yard of the Weasleys' cottage, Draco was definitely feeling out of place.
If it weren't for the fact that he'd been essentially cornered in the canteen the week before by Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley and told that his presence was more or less expected (Draco wasn't entirely sure about "welcome", which was the word Granger had used) at Teddy's fourth birthday party, with Potter there to witness the exchange, he probably wouldn't be anywhere near the place. He could have just told Teddy he'd take him out for their own private celebration the day before or the day after.
But no. Here he was, standing out in the thankfully mild weather, drinking a butterbeer and trying to make small talk with one of the older Weasleys, the one with the scarred face who'd married the Delacour girl.
He was a nice enough bloke, actually. Far more pleasant than Draco had suspected any Weasley could be.
They were interrupted in their conversation about what it was they did for work—which was not as painful as half the conversations Draco had endured on such a subject in the past—when Fleur breezed up to them and dumped a small child into her husband's arms, saying something about going to help with the cake before disappearing again.
Weasley—Bill—just laughed and adjusted his squirming daughter so she was perched on his hip, looking out at everyone. Her hair was silvery, like her mother's, and she regarded Draco with wide eyes. He waved at her, hesitantly, and she smiled just a little. "You ever think of having kids of your own, Draco?"
The question seemed a little forward, but he supposed procreation was a thing the Weasleys excelled at, and probably expected everyone to do. Merlin knew they did their share. "I don't know." It wasn't precisely true. He'd always sort of intended to have children, and not just to provide an heir to everything Malfoy. But that sort of thing was definitely no longer on the table.
"You seem to be good with Teddy," Bill said, still smiling. "He adores you. I can't tell you how often his hair goes blond when he talks about spending time with you."
Huh. That was interesting. No one had ever mentioned that before. It was a little like the time when Teddy had let Draco play with his favourite dinosaur toy—like some measure of acceptance and, well, love. "I really do enjoy getting to see him. I just don't know if children are on the cards for me."
Bill nodded. "Harry said something about that, once, too. But I think he's been considering adoption, when he's not an Auror anymore."
Draco almost opened his mouth to say something about how he'd assumed Potter would just have loads of his own children, but stopped himself. It made some sort of sense. Draco had, over the past few months, gathered that Potter was not exactly...well, no more tied to the idea of settling down with a woman than Draco had been, himself. That is, not opposed, but also not set upon it. And it was painfully clear that he and the lone Weasley girl had broken things off quite a while ago, for whatever reasons. They appeared friendly enough, but there was definitely no remaining longing in any of their interactions or touches that Draco could see. In fact, they acted slightly less comfortable together than he and Astoria did.
Plus, given that Potter was himself an orphan, adoption did seem to make a lot of sense, no matter who he settled down with eventually.
"I could see that," he said, nodding.
"Yeah. Kids would be good for him. He's got a lot of love to give. And you know Harry. He sort of goes all or nothing."
"Yes, I have had that impression." He wondered if this sort of topic of conversation was normal amongst people like the Weasleys, or even people who hadn't been attending balls and galas and other society gatherings since they were young. This was far more intimate than Draco would ever feel discussing on his own, without being led into it. Even now, it seemed slightly inappropriate.
Or maybe this was just the sort of thing people talked about with those close to them and their families, and Draco had simply never fallen into that sort of category before.
The rest of the day was just as casual, and Draco gradually felt more comfortable as the afternoon went on. Most of the Weasleys seemed to be making an actual effort at including Draco, and even his mother, along with the other guests. Draco managed to have a civil conversation with Neville Longbottom, of all people, and he made it through one with Luna Lovegood, though that one left him a little dazed. He did get the feeling, however, that that reaction was common to those she spoke with. Even George came up and clapped him on the shoulder, before asking Draco if he'd spent any more time in front of any hand mirrors lately.
Draco thought it said a lot about his ability to mature that he laughed instead of hexing George for the "not a total tosser" message.
It had been a good joke, funnier even for the way it had surprised him.
There was cake and ice cream and presents before the party wound down, and Draco even mustered the energy to help Potter watch Teddy on his brand-new training broom while others began cleaning up the premises. He was still far more tired than he'd like, but it seemed he'd caught a bit of luck over the last week or two, in that he hadn't had that bone-deep exhaustion and feeling of general illness he'd had in the last couple of months. It had been growing steadily worse, until Draco felt like he might break from it. And then, just the other night, he'd been sitting on the sofa with Potter, Teddy between them as he told them all about his favourite character in some book series Hermione sometimes read to him, when he realised his head didn't ache like it usually did by that point in the evening.
It didn't hurt now, either. Perhaps it was a result of the weather being surprisingly pleasant during this bit of early spring.
"Okay, I think that's enough flying for today," Potter said with a surprisingly graceful catch when Teddy tumbled off his broom for the third time. Thank Merlin the thing couldn't get more than about a foot off the ground. Draco wondered how many heart attacks he'd given his mother when he'd started riding his own training broom. The first time, Teddy had been too startled to cry for nearly fifteen seconds. The second time, there had been only the briefest of sniffles (he had landed good and hard, scraping up the palm of one hand, Draco could testify, but a quick healing charm had done its work). "Time to put your broom away for the night."
"He's a little accident-prone, isn't he?" Draco asked Potter, after they'd shuffled the boy off to wash up a bit. "Or is that normal for kids his age?"
Potter shrugged. "It's probably normal. But I wouldn't be surprised if he took after Tonks. She was a bit clumsy."
"Yes, well, not everyone has the natural athleticism of a born Quidditch Seeker."
"...I'm not sure if that was a compliment directed at me, sarcasm at my expense, or you giving yourself a compliment."
Draco huffed a small laugh. "Perhaps a mix of all three."
"Yeah, that sounds about right. Come on, Malfoy, let's see if Molly needs any help cleaning up." And with that, he slung an arm around Draco's shoulders and directed him into the cottage, with Draco recovering from his surprise early enough that he only stumbled once.
= * = * = * =
When Draco's mother had sat him down at tea and told him she and her sister were going out of town to stay with one of their cousins, Draco was both somewhat surprised, and glad she and Andromeda were getting along so well. He was even more surprised when she said they would be taking Teddy with them, to meet more of the Black side of his family.
But when she told him he might use the extra freedom to spend time with Harry Potter, without Teddy around, he was more or less floored.
There was gaping involved. It wasn't dignified.
"I'm sorry, I don't know that I heard that correctly," he said, once he'd regained the ability to put thoughts into words. "Did you honestly just suggest Potter and I spend time together, alone? I have to warn you, this makes me wonder exactly when you've been replaced by someone using Polyjuice."
His mother rolled her eyes. "Don't be dramatic, dear. Potter's nearly family at this point. He did do us a lot of good, as a family, immediately after the war, and you know that. You two have proven you can be in each other's presence without resorting to childish hexing or tantrums. In fact, I'd go as far as to say you appear to enjoy each other's company. I know Potter enjoys yours."
"And how in Merlin's name would you know that?"
"He told Andromeda, darling. And don't be daft. It's obvious to see, when you two are together."
Draco had no proper response for that. No dignified one, at least.
So three nights later, he found himself on the steps of the house on Grimmauld Place, wondering exactly how his life had led him here, awaiting an evening in with Potter, doing some activity the other man had said he'd planned, but wouldn't reveal to Draco until the time came.
It all sounded very suspicious, but Draco actually trusted Potter, which perhaps was even more suspicious.
"Do you like Thai food?" Potter asked shortly after greeting Draco and showing him inside. He still had his cloak on.
"I can't say I've had it before."
"Willing to give it a try, then?"
Draco shrugged, using the movement to remove his cloak as well. "Why not?" Potter took the cloak and sent it to hang in the hall cupboard alongside his own collection. "Is that the grand surprise plan you've got in store for the evening? New cuisine?"
Potter snorted a laugh. "No. That's the entertainment. I figured we could eat and watch the telly for a bit, and then move onto that."
Draco raised his eyebrows. Muggle television was still an odd thing for him, but that might be because most children's programming seemed to be utterly surreal. He was certain Potter would pick something less demented than those Teletubby creatures Teddy was fond of. He didn't seem especially fond of them, either.
They didn't end up watching much as they ate, in the end. Instead, they began discussing the current Quidditch season, culminating in an argument about the absolutely appalling methods players for the Appleby Arrows had used to win in their last match against the Caerphilly Catapults, and whether or not that made them worse to root for than the French Quiberon Quafflepunchers (whom, thanks to a drunken Haversham, Draco had started to think of as the Quiberon Kidney-Punchers, instead), in which Potter argued so vehemently that he nearly spilled a plate of Pad Thai all over the sofa and himself.
"So, are you ready for the thing I actually had planned on for tonight?" Potter asked eventually, once the leftover food was put away.
"I'm afraid to say yes."
Potter grinned crookedly and produced a rectangular plastic case the size of a thin book. "We're watching this."
Draco squinted. "Watching...is that a Muggle film?"
"Oh." Draco smirked a little. "I've already seen one."
The look on Potter's face said he clearly didn't believe him. "You. You've seen a Muggle film before."
"I'm having the hardest time envisioning Draco Malfoy walking into a cinema on his own. And an even harder time believing you own a television and DVD player, considering the way you treat the remote control at Andromeda's."
"Well, it wasn't on my own," Draco admitted. "I went while on a date. Astoria selected the evening's entertainment."
Potter blinked. "I didn't realise you were seeing anyone."
Draco couldn't even help the grimace he felt cross his face. "I'm not. I've sort of...given that up." After the whole failed attempt with Astoria, and the few times he'd gone out to a club or anywhere else, looking for someone to share an evening with, it had become clear to him that whoever had cursed him had done so knowing exactly how the results would go. He'd been able to find someone to share a bed with, in the beginning, but half of those had clearly been other people looking only for a one-off. The other half had balked at a second occurrence once they'd realised Draco's name. It had been an issue even before the curse, but it brought a whole new level of depression and realisation with it now.
"You've given up dating?"
"Don't you think that makes sense, given my current situation?" It was still early April. But barring some sort of miracle, where Draco met someone and the clouds parted and singing came down from the heavens with a stream of sunlight, two months was simply not enough time to get rid of the curse. Why spend his last days in a panic, trying to figure out how to make someone fall in love with him, when he hadn't been able to do it the rest of his life, instead of using the time for something better? He could at least spend time with his mother, and aunt and cousin, and even try to drag himself out with Haversham and the others once or twice for some camaraderie.
Or even spend a random night with Potter, doing something as strange as watching a Muggle film.
Potter's face did something pinched and complicated. "No, I guess...no, you're right. I can see why you might decide that." He visibly shook himself. "What the hell did you watch, the last time?"
Draco struggled to remember. "There was an awful lot about sweets. And a French count. And something about an invisible kangaroo?" He'd really spent half the time sort of marvelling at the novelty of seeing a Muggle film, in the cinema, which wasn't actually terrible, and had lost the thread of the plot more than once. "Oh, and sex with vagrants."
Potter burst out laughing. "I'm fairly certain there are some key elements missing there, Malfoy, but I'll leave that for another time. The plot of this one shouldn't be quite so complicated."
Looking at the cover of the case Potter had laid on the coffee table while he put the contents into one of his Muggle appliances, Draco shrugged. " Jurassic Park ?"
"I thought you might get a kick out of it," Potter said, coming back to settle on the sofa alongside Draco. "Teddy would approve, you know."
"Hm. Well, all right." He got comfortable while Potter spelled the lights off.
Two hours later, Draco couldn't even begin to describe what he had just seen.
"That," he said flatly, when he finally managed to process it all, "was nothing like the other Muggle film."
Potter laughed for quite a while at that. "No, I don't imagine it was," he said, bringing the lights up again.
"And you let Teddy watch that? With all the killing?" Merlin, parts of that film had scared him half to death. He'd sort of slowly curled up on the sofa without realising it during some of the tenser parts, and he'd nearly leapt into Potter's lap when one of the dinosaurs—Teddy's favourite kind—had burst onto the screen. Potter had been good enough not to really mock him for it at the time, at least, just grinning a little, but Draco was just waiting for it. Merlin knew he'd harass Potter endlessly for it, if their roles were reversed. In a much friendlier manner than he had about the whole Dementor thing (because, Draco could admit, he'd been considerably more of an ass about...well, nearly everything, when they'd been in school), at least, but still.
"Are you mad? Teddy's much too young for that one. He's begged to see it, but neither Andromeda nor I are stupid enough to cave and deal with him having nightmares for ages."
"If he hasn't seen it, how does he seem to know which roars and screams to mimic?"
"Well, he's seen clips , and the film is nearly ten years old. It's just a general part of pop culture by now."
"I'm sorry, you'll have to translate that from Muggle for me."
Potter shook his head, but he was grinning. "If I have to explain pop culture to you, Malfoy, we're going to be here all night. Scratch that. All month. Possibly all year ."
Draco huffed. "Fine. Be that way."
Somehow, Draco's response must have been more convincing than he'd realised, because Potter just sighed and began speaking, using a host of foreign words. And, as interesting as some of it was (and as stupid as some of it was), Draco nodded off at some point while Potter was still trying to explain the "internet". When he woke some time later (free of nightmares of rampaging dinosaurs, no thanks to Potter), all the appliances were off and Potter was no longer seated next to him. But there was a pillow under his head and a blanket draped over the rest of him, which Draco didn't care to examine too closely, mostly just thankful Potter had decided to let him sleep when actual rest was hard to come by these days.
= * = * = * =
If there was one thing Draco knew, it was that, sometimes, being in your own head was the absolute worst place you could be.
And from what he could tell, that was exactly Potter's problem.
He and Potter had been spending the occasional bit of time together outside of their shared time at Andromeda's for dinner or tea or playing with Teddy and, during the last week of April, Draco could see Potter getting tenser and more weighed down. Draco was going to blame the fact that he was tired and his brain was sometimes foggy and that he had quite pressing matters of his own to worry about that he missed the obvious cause until the calendar in the archive office changed over to the new month and spelled it out for him in black and white:
Battle of Hogwarts; 4th anniversary
It really shouldn't have surprised him. Draco, like the rest of those deemed 'non-essential personnel' working for the Ministry, had the day off. There was going to be a brief service in the largest of the memorial parks in Wizarding London early that morning, and Draco realised belatedly that Potter was going to be speaking at that, as he had done the three previous years. For most of the Wizarding world, the day was cause for great celebration, a reminder of good triumphing over evil and an end to the fear everyone had lived under.
For Potter, however, it was likely going to be a day where he was reminded again and again how many people he'd lost. He seemed the sort to dwell on it.
Draco found Potter at home early on the afternoon of the second, surprised he'd actually been able to locate him. He knew Potter had indeed made his designated speech that morning, the news relayed via the radio Draco had turned on for background noise. He knew, too, Potter had spent some time alone in at least one cemetery, as there had been some fuss made about that as well, before it had gone on to mention a number of people who'd given their lives to the war and which honours they'd posthumously received, at which point Draco had turned off the broadcast, because it was starting to make him feel sick.
Potter looked even more surprised to see him than Draco was to find him. "Malfoy?" he asked, once he'd opened the door. Draco didn't know why he said it as a question. He knew full well that Potter had the place warded up, between his own past experiences and his general Auror training instructions. He knew who was at his door before he opened it. Which meant he'd been willing to see Draco in the first place. "What are you doing here?"
"I thought I'd check in to see if you wouldn't mind some company."
Potter hesitated. "I'm not exactly good company today, Malfoy."
Draco sighed. "I don't expect you to be. I just thought you might not mind spending the day doing something low-key and private. Or would you rather spend the rest of the day alone?"
Potter visibly winced at that. Draco counted that as affirmation he'd been correct about Potter being the sort to torture himself and drive himself more than a little mad if left alone on a day like today.
Draco knew quite a lot about that sort of thing. It was what he had done the last three years, only on the third of June. This year, however, he might have other things taking up space in his mind.
"So does that mean you'll put up with my presence for a while?" Draco asked after another few moments where Potter didn't say anything. "I promise to make it worthwhile."
Potter's eyebrows went up and his ears went a little pink before he seemed to dispel whatever thoughts he'd had before his face went back to normal. "Worthwhile how?"
Having come prepared with an answer, Draco smiled. "Your pick, Potter. You can accompany me back to the manor and we can fly and play a Seekers' challenge, or we can go out to Muggle London and get a bite to eat."
Potter blinked at him. "You'd go out to Muggle London? Voluntarily?"
Draco scoffed. "It wouldn't be my first time, Potter. Where else do you think I saw a film for the first time?" It wasn't like it was a common pastime of his, but Draco could bluff his way through whatever he needed to. Because it was painfully obvious that Potter needed distraction of some sort. He had dark circles around his eyes that rivalled Draco's own, and he had that sort of beaten, hunched posture of someone who felt defeated down to their core. Draco was also familiar with that particular look.
After a moment of apparent consideration, Potter sighed. "While watching you navigate amongst Muggles would probably be highly entertaining, I have to admit I might be up for getting on a broom again. It's been a while."
"Then it's settled. Change your robes, get whatever equipment you need, and we'll be off."
Potter nodded and held the door open for Draco to actually enter the house, then left him in the sitting room for a few moments while he gathered his things. When he came back downstairs, he already looked better than he had when he'd opened the door. Draco thought he might be the type of person who worked better with a directive or goal in mind, and this seemed to be evidence for his case. Without much talk, they Apparated to the manor and made their way to the small shed where Draco kept his broom and Quidditch equipment. Most of it hadn't been used in quite a while, but Potter's appeared in the same condition. It would do.
"Seekers' challenge?" Potter asked, watching Draco open a small wooden box with a training snitch nestled inside. "Standard rules?"
Draco nodded. "Standard rules. No tricks."
Potter snorted. "Who are you and what have you done with Draco Malfoy?"
"Haha, very funny, Potter. Why don't you let your flying do your talking for you, instead?"
"You're on, Malfoy." And there it was, some of that old spirit Draco remembered, admittedly without all the anger and animosity he was used to in this sort of situation. Then again, until fairly recently, the thought of Potter willingly accepting Draco's invitation to spend any sort of time together in any activity was nothing less than absurd.
Draco knew he was a bit rusty, and Potter showed some of the same signs, but they both warmed up quickly. Unfortunately, it didn't take long for fatigue to start setting in for Draco, causing him to miss catches that should have been almost easy. It was disappointing and more than a little depressing. And worse, Potter seemed to notice.
"Feeling tired, Malfoy?" Potter asked at one point, coming to hover near where Draco was perched, scanning for the glint of gold that had just evaded his grasp. It was odd that the phrase, which Draco might have expected to be taunting and gleeful at any other point in their acquaintanceship, was uttered with something that sounded unmistakably like concern.
"Maybe a bit," he allowed after a moment, swallowing down a small lump of pride that said he shouldn't give in and admit such things. "It happens a lot, lately." It was the unfortunate truth of his situation. And while it had been drastically worse only a few months ago, it was still a fact he would be living with until he....well, until he wasn't .
He tried not to think of that too much. He'd had enough nights of anxiety and near panic attacks, enough pleading with some higher power to undo what had been done, enough worrying over so many details. He'd come to accept it months ago.
But that didn't make it easy, nor did it make the truth of it pleasant.
"Let's wrap this up," Potter said softly, and Draco couldn't turn his head to meet his eyes. He didn't know what expression he'd see to go with that tone, but he was afraid he couldn't quite deal with it, whatever it was. It unnerved him a little, that Potter actually seemed to care . And perhaps that was hypocritical, since Draco had to admit—at least to himself—that he cared for Potter as well, in ways he couldn't quite specify. This wasn't being pleased that someone as important as Harry Potter, The Boy Who Lived, desired his friendship. But what it was, Draco wasn't certain.
Draco nodded, once again on the lookout for the Snitch. Potter spotted it at the same time Draco did and perhaps a bit of their earlier competitive ways couldn't help but resurface, because they both sped up to catch it. Draco reached it first, his fingers closing around the ball as its wings tried to beat against his palm for a few moments, but Potter was already on the approach, primed to catch it on his own, and his hand wrapped the same space, fingers covering Draco's.
Draco had a moment of sudden clarity as his body went warm, fingertips so very aware of Potter's skin against his, and his breath hitched for just a second. Potter seemed not to notice, letting go after what might have been just a beat too long, starting his decent down to the ground while Draco was still hovering in the air, Snitch in hand.
Of course he would start to feel something for Harry Potter. Of all people in the world, and of all times. It was almost like the ultimate slap in the face, one last way for the universe to laugh at him.
Taking a deep breath, Draco directed his broom down to meet Potter on the ground, resolving to ignore it as best he could. He had a month left, and there was no point in saying anything, especially not about something so misguided he hadn't even seen it creeping upon him.
"I know you mentioned dinner earlier," Potter said, already stripping off the light layer of Quidditch padding he'd been wearing, when Draco dismounted his broom. "But we don't have to go out, especially if you're tired."
Draco wanted to protest, but the thought of actually going out and strolling around in London—especially through crowds of Muggles—made him feel even more exhausted. Still, he had made the proposal. "No, I think I might be—"
"Cut the bullshit, Malfoy," Potter said, but there wasn't much bite to it. "You're tired. And I appreciate that you've tried to distract me from myself and the awful day this normally is, but you don't need to bring yourself to the point of collapse, and especially not for me. But ," he said, holding up one hand, before Draco could get another word of argument out, "if you really want to keep me distracted, I can think of another option. And maybe you'll hate it, and maybe you won't, but I think it'll be just as good as when you watched that film with me last month."
"Oh? What's that?"
"Video games. Come back to my place. I'll teach you how to play. And you don't even have to move around to do it. You just sit there."
Draco hesitated. Potter had a small smirk on his face, which made Draco feel just a little apprehensive, but there wasn't any maliciousness that he could detect. Besides, he had heard Teddy mention something about video games before—watching Potter and Weasley play them, if Draco remembered correctly. And if Teddy liked them, and Weasley had learnt them, then Draco could absolutely do it, too. "All right. Teach me video games."
Two hours later, Draco was thoroughly frustrated with everything Muggle, but especially video games. How Weasley had mastered the practice, Draco had no idea. "I bloody hate you, Potter," he muttered, sinking into the sofa as the little man that was supposed to be Draco fell down yet another bottomless hole to his death.
Potter laughed at him. It was a legitimate laugh, something Draco hadn't heard from him much in the last week. "You'll get the hang of it. It takes practice." He settled into the cushions himself, his shoulder resting up against Draco's after he gave Draco a nudge. "But we can switch over to watching something, if you'd prefer."
"If I have to hear this cheerful music one minute longer, I might have to strangle you, and then myself."
"Telly it is, then," Potter said with a snort, changing the image on the screen with a few clicks on his remote control device. His arm did not move from where it was pressed against Draco's, and Draco could not bring himself to move away. Part of that was exhaustion, but part of it was simply enjoying the contact. And if that meant he was weak, so be it. At least Potter wasn't shoving him away.
Although, given that he was snoring practically into Draco's ear not five minutes later, that might simply be because he was just as exhausted after an afternoon of flying as Draco was.
Draco shrugged to himself and settled in for a nap of his own. At least Potter's sofa was comfortable.
Potter wasn't so bad, either.
= * = * = * =
The rest of May passed far too quickly, a blur of meetings with people to make certain all estate paperwork was handled correctly and that every financial and practical detail Draco could think of to make certain his mother was taken care of was in line. And interspersed amongst those meetings was the usual work in the archives and dinners with Andromeda and Teddy. His mother came to a handful of those, and sometimes she and her sister went out on their own, with Potter, Draco, or the two of them watching Teddy to allow for their time together.
The most frustrating thing about it all was that Draco finally felt like his life was coming together, for the first time ever, and it wasn't even going to matter. The clock was still ticking his time away, every moment drawing him closer to his last. And all he could do, really, was make sure that those he loved and cared about were taken care of to the best of his ability, and knew they were important to him.
He spent the day of the third with his mother and aunt and cousin, sitting out in one of the manor's gardens and listening to them reminisce while Teddy played nearby with toy Muggle vehicles. He and his mother had gone to where his father was entombed early in the morning, but his mother seemed more at peace during this visit than she ever had, and Draco was glad to see she was able to heal from something like this. It reassured him that she might recover from what was going to happen to him, after the shock wore off. He couldn't assume to know what a mother felt towards her child, but he knew his mother had always loved him, perhaps even too much at times. If she hadn't, the world might even be a very different place. But she would move on, and she had other family now to help with that. He could be content with that.
The one person he didn't see on the anniversary of his father's murder was Potter. Draco knew he was working, back to his usual schedule and duties, now that his leg had been proclaimed fully healed by the Healers at St Mungo's. He knew that if he'd told Potter tonight might be his last, Potter would insist on...on...well, at least saying goodbye, or some other misguided thing. And Draco very much didn't want that. He didn't want to deal with some forced show of sympathy or whatever else Potter might think was appropriate. And so he simply hadn't told Potter there was a definite last day in store for him, never elaborating on the fact past that one conversation where Draco had admitted he was dying. Potter wouldn't have to deal with the burden of keeping that secret, and Draco would be spared wanting to do something stupid like tell Potter he might actually be developing feelings for him, when it mattered not at all, in the grand scheme of things. Given much more time, Draco might consider exploring how he felt on the matter in more depth. But there was no more time, and thus no reason to dig at what might be something deeper and could only be painful.
It was easier on everyone this way.
When he woke on the morning of the fourth, Draco was mildly surprised. He knew Healer Sharp had been unable to narrow down his exact last hours without Draco's memory to help her, but he'd still been fairly certain he wouldn't see the fourth of June. So he tried not to get worked up about it and considered the extra day simply a gift, one last chance to hug his mother, play with his cousin, and talk with his aunt. If they noticed anything was out of the ordinary in the way he acted, they didn't say during supper.
That ended just before bed.
He had just announced his intention to go to bed around nine, standing to give his mother one last good night kiss on the cheek while he tried not to let her see any of the swirling emotions he was feeling. He wondered how Potter had felt, walking to what he'd believed to be his death. Perhaps he should have asked. He was just about to escape when his mother held onto his wrist, keeping him in place for a moment longer, and looked up at him for so long it made him afraid she'd discovered his secret after all. "What is it?"
She continued to look at him for another moment more, then shook her head. "Nothing, darling. I was just thinking that you've seemed so much more at peace lately. Happy, even. It's so good to see you that way. I don't know why it's happened, but it says a lot about the man you'll be, I think. It's even more apparent when we're at Andromeda's. There's just something about you now." She patted his hand. "But maybe yesterday just has me thinking about certain things too long. Go on up to bed, Draco. I'll see you in the morning." She pulled him in for a hug.
Draco fought back tears, willing his voice to be steady as he wished her good night for the final time and hugged her back. He almost wished he'd told her what had happened to him, what would be happening tonight, but couldn't bear the thought of what that would do to her right now. So instead he climbed the stairs, made certain some final things were in place, and tried to relax enough to sleep. One of the few things Potter had told him was that dying itself didn't hurt, and that it wasn't something to be feared. That bit of knowledge relaxed him enough, and he drifted off without being aware of it.
= * = * = * =
Draco opened his eyes not to some place filled with white, as he'd heard Potter describe years ago, a bit of overheard conversation in the damaged halls of their school, but to the view of his own bedroom, sunlight just beginning to filter in as the birds who had always made a home outside his window began to trill. After a moment of deep breathing, he took stock of his surroundings, came to the only conclusion to be reached, and said the only thing on his mind:
"What the fuck ?"
= * = * = * =
Nine o'clock that morning found Draco at perhaps his most impatient, standing outside Healer Sharp's office, waiting for her to arrive for work. He'd been assured by one of the Welcome Witches that she was prompt and scheduled to be in at that time, and Draco thought that if she'd been scheduled a later shift—or worse, off for the day—he'd simply have imploded. Instead, he tried to keep his nervous energy to a minimum, waiting for her to appear.
When she did, the look of utter shock on her face at seeing him was at least assurance that Draco wasn't losing his bloody mind. "Mr Malfoy?"
"You look as surprised to see me as I am to be here," Draco said dryly. "Which is why I've popped in. I'm fairly certain I shouldn't be here. Or, at least, that's what I was told." He was keeping himself from a rant and losing his temper or just losing the last bit of his composure in general and hitting his knees, sobbing, but only just. He knew for a fact that Healer Sharp was competent. He'd accepted her diagnosis at first, a bit numb to everything, but he'd gone for second and third opinions, and both other Healers had come to the same conclusion she had—and they'd also assured him she was the absolute top of her field, in any case, and that he would be lucky to have her take his case. "So, if you have any amendments to your earlier diagnosis, I'd love to hear them."
Healer Sharp visibly shook herself. "We can use examination room five. Please, follow me." Draco followed close at her heels, vaguely afraid he was on a very limited amount of borrowed time, and that her calculations had simply not taken into account something simple like the phase of the moon, or whatever the bloody hell factored into curses of this nature, and he'd just drop dead mid-sentence or in mid-activity.
He sat on the table as instructed and followed all of her directions precisely. It was painless, physically, to sit there as she ran diagnostic spells, checked his vital signs, and murmured incantations over him. An hour later, she stepped back, her mouth twitching. "I've figured out the situation," she said slowly, looking at Draco in a way he couldn't read. "It's the simple explanation that's the true one. So, if you were looking for some sort of confirmation that the person you're dating is truly in love with you, this would be it."
Draco sat there for a moment before he caught what she was getting at. "I'm sorry, are you implying someone's actually in love with me ?"
"With one hundred percent certainty. I can't nail down a specific time as to when it happened, Mr Malfoy, but happen it did."
"Then why do I still feel so tired, if the curse has been broken?"
She looked at him like he should know better. "It's magic, Mr Malfoy, but it works on a physiological level. The curse was designed so that you'd wither and die within a particular time frame. The physical effects started when the curse was cast, and only began to reverse themselves after the criteria to break the spell were met. It takes time for the body to heal from something so malicious. It's not an overnight fix. Given your physical state now, and your state the last time I saw you for an actual examination, I'd say you can expect to feel back to normal within another month, perhaps two. Expect some fatigue and aches and generalised weakness until then, but they should fade at a noticeable pace. They should have been doing so already, actually. Has that been the case?"
Draco didn't even have to think about it. He'd assumed either the tea Potter had given him was doing more good than he'd expected, or the palliative potions he'd been taking as prescribed were actually working better than they had before, once he'd been using them for a while. "It has." He rarely had headaches any more, and he did tire more easily than he'd like, and sometimes his hands still shook, but it was nothing like it had been. Although when, exactly, that had started to change, he couldn't quite pinpoint.
"Good. Now, if you don't need anything else from me just this moment, I have an appointment with a patient in ten minutes, and I'd like to get to that. If you'd like to come in at another time, for whatever reason, please do make an appointment. But I really don't know if you'll find it necessary."
"Yes, of course."
She paused at the door, and Draco could see she was eager to get to the patient who actually had taken the time to make an appointment, instead of ambushing her outside her office first thing in the morning. "Are you okay, Mr Malfoy?"
Truth be told, he was too dazed to know exactly if he was or not. He had been so prepared to accept his own death, and hearing that it wasn't going to happen on the timeline he'd been given—that he now had no idea when it might occur, just as most people didn't—was more than a little bit of a shock. "Yes, I'm fine."
Healer Sharp looked a bit sceptical, but she paused at Draco's side before leaving the room, putting a hand on his shoulder. "Take a little while to yourself, if you need. You'll have privacy in here for at least another half-hour. But if you want my advice, Mr Malfoy, I'd go and see the person you're dating and let them know you'll be sticking around for quite a while longer."
"I'm not even dating anyone," he snorted, trying to keep the hysterical laugh that was bubbling up within him tamped down.
"Well, then, you might want to start with figuring out who's inadvertently saved your life, and how you feel about them in return, whomever it is. Because this isn't your average secret admirer, Mr Malfoy. Someone out there loves you, fully and truly." And with that, she patted his shoulder and left the room, closing the door gently behind her.
With her gone, Draco allowed himself a few moments to do the falling apart he'd been trying not to do since he woke up this morning. He was alive, and he was going to be, for the foreseeable future. There was no axe hanging over his head, no rope about to be cut, no floor that was simply going to drop out from under him. He could go about, living his life as if none of this had never happened.
But it had happened, he thought a little wildly, his breath coming too fast and too ragged. He'd made arrangements for his mother, so that she would be fine without him. He'd forged a relationship with family he'd never seen before this last year, come to know them and even love them. He'd helped his mother and his aunt reconnect; even if they'd done all the actual work, he'd helped to facilitate it, and it made him so glad to see them both laugh together, or even argue in a way that he thought might be particular to siblings. He'd even put up with Weasleys and other people he'd never have thought of spending time with, simply because they were in Teddy's life, and in Potter's. Hell, he'd even spent a lot of time with Potter, with whom he used to have a mutual loathing.
Oh, fuck. It couldn't be. Could it?
Taking a few deep breaths to calm himself and allow clear thinking, Draco went over the facts he had at hand. He'd made a few new acquaintances over the last year, but spent relatively little time with anyone else. It wasn't Astoria who loved him, he was certain. She was engaged to someone else, and she'd been quite clear she didn't feel Draco was someone she could marry. They'd remained friends, yes, but that was a far cry from what would have been needed to break the curse. This couldn't be the love of a friend, and it was recent enough that Draco knew it was incredibly unlikely Pansy or someone else he knew or even worked with had suddenly started to think differently of him. The love of family didn't count towards lifting the curse, so he couldn't count his relationship with his aunt or cousin as the cause. He didn't know anyone else well enough for them to legitimately, truly, know him and love him. But Potter....
Potter didn't act any differently than he had, really. Yes, they got along, but Draco hardly believed Potter had gone from a point where he didn't want to fight or be awkward with Draco while they were at Andromeda's to being suddenly in love with him simply because they weren't arguing for politeness' sake. He couldn't think of a single event or interaction which might have made Potter love him. He'd had no clear clues. And if it was Potter—and Draco honestly couldn't come up with any viable alternatives—then he seemed unwilling to actually do anything about it, which didn't seem like him at all.
There was only one thing Draco could think to do: he had to see Potter, to find out if he was absolutely mad for considering this theory, or if it was just an odd, hopeful wish, now that Draco had started to think he might be feeling something for the man himself.
He took a moment to wash his face, fix the hair he had mussed while running his hands through it in his distress, and steel himself for the confrontation. He didn't know what he'd do if he was wrong about this, and it wasn't Potter who loved him. But he had even less idea what he might do if he was actually right .
= * = * = * =
He caught Potter just about to leave his home for a later shift at the Ministry. Draco had looked at the time before he'd left St Mungo's and made the hasty decision to try to head Potter off at home instead of tracking him down within the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. Because no matter how this particular interaction was going to go, Draco did not want to have an audience.
"Malfoy!" Potter greeted him as he opened the front door, already clad in his Auror's robes. The surprise on his face gave way to a smile almost immediately. "I'd planned on trying to find you later. I have something for you. Happy birthday, by the way." The smile slowly slid off his face. "Malfoy? Are you all right?"
Draco wasn't all right. He didn't know what he was, but there was something in the way Potter had just smiled at him that made him think he may not be completely insane in believing it was Potter who loved him, and that made him feel a little short of breath. "I don't know. I think I..." He couldn't figure out how to finish that sentence. I think I may be starting to love you, or something like it, and I think you love me, too seemed like utter madness.
"Malfoy?" Potter asked again, now looking clearly worried. "Hey. What's wrong?"
"I think I may have lost my mind a little," Draco finally said, trying to ignore the way he felt light-headed. "So I need you to tell me if I'm wrong about this, and not hold it against me if I am, all right?"
"Do you love me?"
Potter's eyes went incredibly wide behind his glasses. "What?"
"I'm only asking because I know it's unlikely and possibly stupid, and you've never actually given any indication that you do, or acted on it, if it's true, and that seems completely unlike you, but I can't help but think—or hope , I suppose is more true, at this point—that you might actually feel that way about me, and I don't know how—"
He didn't get to finish rambling at Potter, probably proving he had lost his mind after all, because Potter was suddenly in his space, one hand reaching out and up to touch Draco's jaw, shutting him up just as effectively as if he'd used a silencing spell. Draco scarcely had time to catch his breath before Potter leaned forward, pressing close to Draco, and kissed him.
It was just a gentle kiss, soft and cautious, but it was the sign Draco needed. This wasn't some desperate thing, all lust and lack of inhibition. It was quiet and tender, and that broke Draco apart in a way he hadn't seen coming. He kissed back, trying to ignore the way he was trembling, and sighed softly when Potter pulled back a few moments later. "You wanted an indication? Does that work for you?"
"It's perhaps a little clearer, yes," Draco said, feeling betrayed at the way his voice wavered. "You love me." And now it was a statement, not a question, and the very concept of it made his head spin.
"But why haven't you said anything?"
Potter shook his head a little. "I was going to, at one point. I mean, not just flat-out tell you I had started to like you as more than a friend or whatever, but maybe see if I was stupid in thinking we could see if we had something. But then you said you'd given up on dating, given your circumstances, and that made sense, in a way."
Draco remembered that conversation. It had been the night Potter had made him watch that terrifying Muggle film with all the dinosaurs. "But you didn't stop liking me."
"Stop liking you?" Potter snorted. "I thought I was losing my mind for falling for you in the first place. But you're not the same spoiled brat you used to be, and I found I couldn't help it. It just got worse. So I resigned myself to not saying anything, because I didn't want to make you feel guilty, especially if you didn't feel the same. And you're already dealing with enough, with the curse and everything that goes along with it." He flinched when Draco barked a startled laugh at that. "Look, okay, I know you're dying and that isn't going to change, but I'm not going to regret feeling this way for you, all right? After everything I've been through, I've learned to appreciate what I have, even if it's not as much as I want. So, yeah, fine, I can accept that I'll lose you. I just thought it might be easier if I kept this one secret."
Draco laughed again, feeling a little delirious. "The secrets we keep..." he said, unable to finish the thought as he laughed some more. "I never told you exactly what the curse was," he finally said, getting himself under control. "I didn't tell anyone. Not only would it probably thwart any chance I would have had—which I'd thought was none at all, until this morning—but who in Merlin's name would believe me if I said that the only way to break the curse I was under was through love?"
Potter stared at him for a moment. "Oh my God, Malfoy," he said, rolling his eyes and laughing in a way Draco could only describe as exasperated. "Of all fucking people, I'd probably be the most likely to believe you about it. The only fucking reason I survived the Killing Curse the first time was because of love. Literally. Are you seriously telling me you've been under some Beauty and the Beast scenario?"
"Never mind. It's just some Muggle fairy tale." Potter started suddenly, and Draco could see awareness dawn over his features. "Wait. Back up. Did you refer to your curse in the past tense?"
"That's sort of why I'm here, Potter. As sad as the fact is, I don't think I would have put together how you feel about me on my own without being utterly surprised by the fact that I woke up this morning. I wasn't supposed to."
Potter gaped. "I don't know whether to kiss you again or strangle you. You weren't even going to tell me you knew you wouldn't be alive past the last time I saw you? You weren't even going to say goodbye?"
Draco could only shrug. "It seemed easier."
Potter shook his head. "So we've both been taking the easy way out on this. You know what? I'm tired of it. From now on, we don't hide."
"That," Draco said, leaning in, utterly gratified when Potter moved closer once more and rested his hands at Draco's hips, "sounds perfect to me."
"Good to hear." Potter cast a quick tempus charm and swore under his breath, then shrugged. "No, you know what, fuck it. I can be five minutes late to work." He closed the rest of the gap between them, kissing Draco with much more surety, as if he really had been wanting to do this for a while.
"Only five minutes?" Draco mumbled against his mouth.
Potter laughed. "Well, ten. And you had better bet I'm taking you out tonight, Malfoy."
Draco grinned. "I'd say I've got an awful lot to celebrate this year, after all."