THERE ARE TWO SEPARATE ENDINGS FOR THIS FIC
You can choose to read both of them or one or the other. This is the BITTERSWEET ENDING [as opposed to the HAPP(IER) ENDING].
.Only the final scene break differs between versions. For more about it, see my notes on the story.
Al balanced his wand under his nose, pursing his lips to keep it steady while he reclined in his wooden, wheeled chair. He was nearly past the point of no return and another scant few inches would undoubtedly topple him but the further back he went, the more the wand settled. He wiggled his top lip and the wand seesawed precariously from side to side.
Al lost his balance, flailed his arms, and the chair zoomed out from under him like a newly released Snitch. He fell hard on his arse, his wand tinkling onto the floor innocuously next to him. Al frowned at it. “Some help you were.”
He was still rubbing his backside and trying to gather the urge to stand when a folder was dropped into his lap. It didn’t land right, glancing off his knee, and the papers took that opportunity to belch out everywhere. Al scowled up at the hulking shape laughing at him.
He spread his hand out over the mess in an all-encompassing fashion. “What’s all this then?”
Oisín shrugged and casually sauntered over to his desk, whistling. Only Oisín couldn’t really whistle because the Irish were only good for bawdy drinking songs and creepy bedtime stories. “You’re educated, English. Read it for yourself.”
“Good for nothing, bog Irish.”
Oisín snorted but didn’t rise to the bait. He reclined back in his own wholly uncomfortable desk chair, though he didn’t try to test the limits of how far past ninety degrees it could go.
Al pushed the pages back into their folder, maybe a little purposefully (and childishly) crumpling some of them. He wheeled his chair back up to the desk and plopped down in it. He leafed through once he was properly settled and his eyes widened. “They’re finally letting us take down the blue unicorn?”
Oisín chuckled. “Thought you might enjoy that, Potter.”
“I’ve only been lobbying for it since, oh I don’t know, my infancy. I thought I’d have to pry it from the Ministry’s cold, dead hands.”
“Because of course you’d outlive the Ministry?”
Al ignored the heavy sarcasm in his partner’s voice. He was a crotchety old bastard and acknowledging his bad behaviour was tantamount to encouraging it. At least that was the new theory Al was operating under. “Naturally.”
Oisín nodded his head at the file Al was currently engrossed in. Al barely caught it from his periphery. “Minogue wants us in his office soon as you’re through the brief.”
Al looked up from the pages cataloguing what had already been carried out of Malfoy Manor, what had been destroyed and what was now residing below their feet in some back corner of the Department of Mysteries. He perked a dark eyebrow. “You’ll talk Irish at him and get us this, won’t you?”
Oisín rolled his eyes. “Sure, Potter. I’ll do that. I’ll ‘talk Irish at him.’”
“You can act like it’s ridiculous, but do we or do we not get the best jobs because you grew up a village away from the bl—lad and can sing the same horrendous, boastful Irish songs back at him through flagons of Ogden’s Old?”
There was an embarrassed throat clearing from the other side of the room. “That only happened once. Or twice.”
Al snorted but otherwise didn’t dignify that blatant lie with a response. He ran his fingers over the floor plan and the thing was even bigger than he’d suspected. The Manor really used every bit of magical space possible. Back when Al had been on the career path of Spellbinding and Design, he might have started salivating. Now he just wanted to tear it down, but not before he saw what beasties it had hiding in its cupboards. Because that was more than half the draw of the blue unicorn, that it was as dark as it was beautiful. Which meant Curse-breaking, regularly a minor aspect of their job, would be shoved to the forefront.
“Minogue’s gunna have words for you. Words like ‘cautious,’ ‘level-headed,’ ‘patient.’”
Al pursed his lips, running his tongue behind the topmost one. “All qualities I’ve got in spades.” He leaned over the files. The report from the night of the fire was there, his father’s name all over it. Narcissa and Lucius had been the first to go. Draco had been younger than Al was now, only nineteen, and murdered.
Al raised his lip in disgust. Who the hell was the same person they were at nineteen? Al was only a few years past it and he already barely resembled the Al of four years ago. Draco Malfoy had been killed for things he’d done when he was sixteen and nothing more than a scared kid. At least his murderers were still in Azkaban. His dad went every time the Ministry considered releasing them and lobbied against it.
Al didn’t like to think it but he was fairly certain that if the Dementors were still guarding the cells, his dad would’ve pushed for the Kiss for them.
Al glanced up at Oisín, the man’s haggard face pinched in distaste. His stomach roiled unpleasantly. “Don’t know what your lot was thinking.” He affected a shiver. “Your whole generation’s fucked.”
Oisín shrugged, staring at the inert snow globe on his desk that depicted the Barcelona Quidditch World Cup from two years ago. His voice stretched thin. “Scared. They were scared of their own shadows and they did unpleasant things riding the crest of that fear.”
Al didn’t care how it was justified, there was no excuse for what had happened to the Malfoys and the Parkinsons and the Rowles and too many others to name. He sneered. “Like burning people alive?”
Oisín shrugged again. “‘m not saying it’s right. I’m saying it was the mindset.”
Al leaned back in his seat carefully, folding his arms in and burying his cold fingers in the crevice between his biceps and nipples. “My dad never thought that way.” He lowered his voice even further. “And he had as much reason as anyone.”
“Your da’s a saint. He wouldn’t have sunk to lows like that. Better men never do.”
Al smirked up at Oisín as he stood. “You were one of the better men, weren’t you, Oisín?”
Oisín winked at him. “You have to be, to be a Ministry man, don’t cha?”
Al barked out a laugh while Oisín waggled his wiry brows. He swatted him with the folder when he got close enough. Al got to his feet with a stretch and looked pointedly in the direction of their office door. “Let’s get this over with then. Minogue can lecture us for the next hour or so and you can translate the gist soon as he’s finished.”
Minogue had a thick Irish accent. Like Oisín’s when he was ossified, only about six times heavier on a normal day. Al had gotten used to it for the most part and could understand him well enough apart from the odd Irish expressions. It gave him no small amount of joy watching the new recruits try to struggle through it to find recognisable words though. Or asking Minogue to wait for his translator when he was there for a telling off.
Minogue’s office was at the end of their hall, stuffed in the back corner as a not-so-subtle reminder that their boss would rather not be bothered if it could be avoided. Al liked that about him. He knew being Head of their Department meant having to deal with Ministry politics and small-minded prats that had risen higher than their brains should have allowed and he let the day-to-day business rely on his employee’s good judgment. After making sure they had it.
Oisín knocked while Al Scourgified a tea stain off his cuff.
“If I didn’t call you here, I’d head on if I were you.”
Even knowing Minogue was more bark than bite, the ominous tones in his voice still had Al taking a step back.
Oisín grabbed him by the elbow, annoyed, and dragged them both inside. “You’ve expressly invited us, thank Cliodna.”
Minogue glanced up from shuffling through the papers on his desk while half-standing, his big Irish grin in place that he reserved for Al’s big Irish partner. He shook his head, his thinning black hair slick with sweat and flopping back and forth over his forehead. He collapsed back in his seat and motioned for them to take the ones in front of his desk. “That dose going ‘round has killed my support staff, feel like I’m losing my head here.”
Oisín grunted. “Stiff shoulder of whisky ought to do you up right.”
Minogue pinched the bridge of his nose and dug through one of his bottom desk drawers before pulling up the whole of the Ministry’s folder on Malfoy Manor – every department’s report. He perked a brow, focussing more on Al now. “I trust you’ve looked through our folder on this?”
Al made a grabbing motion toward the file but Minogue pulled it out of reach. Al sat back and stoically did not pout. “I think you’ll remember that it was Oisín and I who compiled seventy-five percent of it. We’re the ones that relentlessly pored through trial transcripts for that information and fought the Ministry to get the permit for that damn preliminary inspection.”
Minogue stopped dangling the folder just out of range of Al’s arm span long enough to perk his brows at the both of them, face drawn and serious. “I did appreciate your work on that, Potter.” He turned to Oisín and Al leaned forward to watch his mouth under his thin moustache. Minogue nodded. “Ó Dathlaoich.”
Al swore under his breath and leaned back. It didn’t matter how many times he heard it. He still couldn’t seem to recreate the pronunciation or, Merlin forbid, the spelling. Oisín grinned at him like he knew he hadn’t gotten it this time either.
He was interrupted from his smugness when Minogue pointed behind him. “Wet the tea, would you, Ó Dathlaoich? It’s in the press there.”
Oisín rose accommodatingly while Al watched Minogue leaf through the accordion folder. He let out a sharp huff of air. “Least we don’t have to worry about the guards on this one. Not like with the Fitzgerald’s property.”
Oisín snorted at that. That was likely another well known case that had been completed long before Al’s time. It didn’t bother him when Oisín and Minogue reminisced like this, leaving him out even without meaning to. They’d been partners sometime back around the Palaeolithic age and they deserved to rhapsodise about the times when they were young and their knees didn’t creak.
Oisín glared at him as he handed Al his tea, light on the milk the way he liked, as if he knew what Al was thinking. Al shrugged. He probably did. Al had told him he was prehistoric enough times to his face.
He smiled obnoxiously wide and Oisín elbowed him in the back of the head under the guise of handing Minogue his cup.
Minogue reached for it, distracted. He rustled through another stack of papers and pulled out a pink slip victoriously. He smirked. “We’ve got the peacocks out of beyont so at least that’s one thing taken care of and the Creatures Department will get off my back.” His face paled a bit. “Swear, those lads took to stalking me about it. Put my heart crossways in me more than once.”
Al had once seen them pop up behind Minogue as soon as he stepped off the lift onto their floor and he’d started so badly that everything in his hands had broken loose. He’d given them the dressing down of a lifetime and Al had stood and sipped his coffee with a grin while he watched the whole thing play out. Of course, they hadn’t understood a word – Minogue’s Irish accent thickening even further when spitting mad – but the red colouring his furious face had given them enough of a scare. Those two hadn’t been back and reinforcements had been sent in their place.
Al hadn’t even realised he’d been inching forward until Minogue glowered at him and handed over the file with a huff. “I know you’re happy out with Malfoy Manor being released to us, Potter, but you’ve both got to be quare careful as any bit of forward-thinking for the Ministry is like hen’s teeth and we’re liable to have the rug pulled out from under us if this goes the slightest bit arseways.”
Al stared at him, blinked, and looked over at Oisín. “Translation?”
Oisín laughed outright.
Minogue threw the spoon for his tea at him. It hit Al in the elbow and he scrunched his face in a scowl as he rubbed at it. “Stuff it, Potter.” Minogue was still grinning as he said it. Both of them failed to realise how much Irish they had left in them until they used expressions Al had never heard, like ‘hen’s teeth?’ What in the bloody hell was that?
“This, right here,” Al gestured between the three of them, “is one of those moments I’m going to recall when you say your roots are disappearing and you’re ‘going English.’”
Oisín and Minogue shared an amused look and then Minogue was standing. He stuck his hand out for Al to shake first, which he did gratefully. “I’m giving you a week to familiarise yourself with everything in there before you’ll get the site approval.” He nodded his head towards the accordion folder held protectively under Al’s arm. “I expect you to know it back to front.” He shook hands with Oisín. “You’ve been given clearance for everything they’ve taken out of there and parcelled around the Ministry, from the DOM to the Detection and Confiscation Offices to those Curse-Breaking gobshites and every department in between. If any of them start twistin’ hay, send ‘em up to me.”
Al snorted at the phraseology.
Minogue flicked his gaze up towards the ceiling and grumbled. “If any of them start any territorial pissing matches, send ‘em up to me. Better, Potter?”
Al cleared his throat, fighting down a tickle of laughter and nodded seriously. “Yes, sir. Perfect, sir.”
Oisín coughed, poorly disguising his own laughter.
Minogue gave him a considering look. “I was thinking Potter here would take the lead on this one,” Al’s jaw dropped but Minogue kept eye contact with Oisín, “only if you think he can handle it, of course, Ó Dathlaoich?”
Oisín gave Al an appraising look and Al puffed out his chest a little involuntarily. Oisín smiled and tapped him with a knuckle in his sternum and Al let out the breath with an embarrassed grimace. “Seems capable enough.” Oisín paused, assessing. “Mostly.”
Al glowered at him.
Minogue nodded and faced Al again. “I’m trusting you not to bungle this, Potter.”
Al swallowed. “I won’t let you down, sir.”
Minogue smirked but it smoothed into a genuine smile before he’d even opened his mouth. “I don’t doubt it.”
“Oy-sin.” Al was sure that even without the bellowing, the purposeful mispronunciation would get his partner there faster than anything else could. It might also get the attention of Liesel, the attractive curator working the Hall that day that Al had been flirting with on and off for the past two years. It worked on Oisín at least. Barely a few seconds later, he was smacking Al in the back of the head with the books he had between his fingers. Al removed his quill’s tip from his mouth and leaned across the table as soon as Oisín settled into the seat across from him.
Oisín cut him off before he could get to the meat of it. “One of these days, English, I’ll seriously lay you up for that.”
Al waved a bored hand at him. “Yeah, yeah, I’ll believe it when I see it. Besides, if you wanted people to know how to pronounce it you’d spell it proper-like. O-H-S-H-E-E-N.” Oisín frowned heavily at him and Al chuckled. “I’m not saying yours isn’t prettier-looking but there’d be less confusion.” Al still said it wrong, not like the culchies Oisín’s mum came from, which to him sounded like you’d forgot what you were going to say before trying to get it out: Uhsheen. He said it like a Southie, but that didn’t bother Oisín half as much as some of the more creative ways he’d heard his name pronounced.
‘Oysin’ was Al’s personal favourite, though not even the most ridiculous he’d heard while they’d been partnered.
He slid the large strip of parchment, the reason he’d called him over, across the table and Oisín glanced down at it curiously. “It’s got a hell of a history, doesn’t it? I mean, according to this, it goes back as far as a sanctuary Gifford bloody Ollerton used in the early fifteenth century.”
Oisín pulled back and flipped through his own findings that he’d dragged off random shelves in the Hall of Historical Fact. When he saw Al was still staring at him, he shrugged. “Home to murderers as far back as the eye can see then.”
Al frowned, wondering why Oisín was being so tetchy about this. “He'd killed giants that had decimated whole villages before they were put a stop to. I don’t know the whole history of the Malfoy family lineage, but I’m betting you don’t either.” Al leaned back, more worked up than he cared to admit. This was so much his father’s battle that it had somewhat become every Potters pet passion over the years. “It’s thinking like that that leads to vigilante groups going after people more innocent than they are. They didn’t know the Malfoys, they knew a reputation and now you’re thinking the same – calling them all murderers when, for all you know, there was a generation of Malfoys that were painters or labourers or Healers.”
Oisín shrugged, unconcerned.
Al stared down at the shine of the table and swallowed. “It’s not fair to write someone off because of who they’re related to.”
“Now, now.” Oisín frowned. “You and that brother and sister of yours have made a name for yourselves all your own. No one thinks you’re riding your father’s coattails, not anymore.”
Al’s eyes felt wet and he cleared his throat, hating that he’d been so transparent. Blood relation was never going to be easy subject matter for any Potter child. He reached into the accordion folder for something to distract himself, his hand going far deeper than the proportions should have allowed. He came up with another fistful of Expropriation Papers. “For fuck’s sake, is there anything they didn’t take?”
“Least they kept meticulous records.”
Al had thought Minogue giving them an entire week to play catch-up on what the Ministry had done with everything they’d stripped from the Manor was belabouring it a bit, but already he felt he could use more time with it. He hadn’t even gotten through the entire folder and he and Oisín had only been to the Curse-Breaking Department and the DOM to familiarise themselves with what type of dark artefacts might still be somewhere within the heart of the Manor.
Al couldn’t deny that it was a bit of a hoot. Half the stuff he’d only ever read about in books. A handful he’d never even heard of and the Unspeakables hovered around his shoulders like they’d rather’ve kept it that way.
He was tempted to ask Minogue for more time so they could get through all the extraneous information before storming the place itself with anything less than their best. Oisín seemed to guess his plan though. “Can’t do any more damage than already’s been done, English. We’re going in there to take it apart and we know how to do that.”
Al’s lips quirked up and he nodded. “I guess we do at that.”
This would be his biggest job yet. His and Oisín’s – which was something in and of itself because Oisín had been in Magical Demolition for over two decades. It would also be the first job where he would be taking point so the very last thing he wanted to do was walk in unprepared. It might have led to him getting the slightest bit exacting about the details. He wouldn’t be surprised if Oisín Hexed him soon.
“You’ve left your things all over the table again,” was the cool greeting he got when he opened the door to his flat.
Al shrugged out of his robes, dropping his pile of books off on the counter. He spun round, looking from the coffee table to the kitchen. “And what did you do with my things, Henrietta?”
She tipped up one of her shoulders, her head going with it and her straw-coloured ponytail brushing her back. “I Spelled them onto your bed. I’ve told you, anything outside your room is a shared space.” She rubbed at her nose, making it redder than it’d been. It was the only spot of colour on the pale girl aside from the freckles that looked like dirt more than anything else. “You’re the one who refuses to listen.”
Al manfully resisted throwing a Bat Bogey Hex at her horse face. She was truly the worst flatmate in history, anal and rude while still managing to be completely disrespectful about boundaries. Al had figured she couldn’t be that bad when they’d been paired up in Auror training, before he’d dropped it barely a week later. She looked like a bowtruckle – stick thin and with a head too big for the rest of her – so he wouldn’t have to put up with any annoying boyfriends and she seemed quiet enough to boot.
As soon as his lease was done, he would be moving as far away from Henrietta Midgeon as he could get.
He stalked off to his bedroom with a glower and felt murderous urges rise in him before he pushed them back down. Covering his bedspread was every bit of work he’d meticulously ordered and collated, in a mess of parchments and notebooks. It was like a miniaturised tornado had hit his bed. “Thank you so much for your help, Henrietta,” he ground out without unclenching his jaw as she walked past him to her own bedroom.
She nodded prissily, even though Al was sure that his tone had conveyed nothing but, ‘Your days are numbered, twat.’
Al Apparated outside the Manor’s gates the next morning at five to eight. Even with everything the Ministry had done to it, they still hadn’t been able to dismantle some of the most basic Charms on the place. Which was probably why they were finally getting their chance with it. He and Oisín were some of the best Curse-breakers in the entire Ministry. Better than those condescending prats who’d professionalised in it certainly.
Being demolition specialists meant you listened to the building rather than the curse, which those so-called ‘experts’ forgot to do on a regular basis. They let dark magic lead them around by the nose and often wound up in the Spell Damage Ward because of it.
It was chillier than he’d expected, the sky grey and dull, the trees bare and the bushes at the entrance rustling in a noticeably strong breeze. The blackened edifice of the Manor, the long, dark windows and the ash-stamped banisters worked in concert with the weather to send a shiver up his back. It was an ominous, foreboding feeling that crept along his spine, digging into the empty spaces and taking up residence.
“Fierce cold today.”
Al visibly startled, not having heard the punctuating pop of Oisín’s Apparition as he’d been lost in staring at the white-gone-grey Manor.
Oisín didn’t comment on his jumpiness. “Not such a pretty thing these days, eh?”
Al shook his head. “It’s beautiful.” Haunting and the slightest bit dangerous, but none of that made it any less alluring.
Oisín grinned at him, indulgent, like he’d passed some exam he hadn’t known he was taking. “Yeah, English. Yeah, it is.”
They walked up the long and sloping drive together, Al pulling his robes in tighter around his shoulders, trying to keep some of his warmth in. He noticed Oisín was fighting off a chill as well.
Oisín shot off a quick Warming Charm, including Al within its boundaries.
Al muttered his gratitude lowly and got a nod in return.
The doors leading inside were warped, bowing in and looking like a gaping wound with the char patterns cracking the paint and clawing across the wood. Al took the lead, pressing against the handle and feeling it press back as the wood was forced into a direction that fought its new design. The foyer was littered with debris, fire-scorched beams, curled leaves and the occasional cluster of dead spiders. Dust and cobwebs had claimed ever corner but even they couldn’t dampen the sense of awe Al felt gazing into the huge expanse between ceiling and floor.
He crossed the black and white chessboard tile, staring at the portrait-less and blackened frames on either side of the hall. The canvas was scarred, half-torn away and Al wondered what had happened to the subjects when they’d had no place left to run. A chill made the hairs on the back of his neck rise.
Oisín already had his nose buried in the floor plan. “We still planning to start at one end and make our way back to the centre?”
Al forcefully fought off the disquiet he felt. He was in charge of this one. Looking like he might be ill at any moment wasn’t exactly going to broadcast the cool confidence he was hoping to get across. Though Oisín buying that even if he could pull it off wasn’t all that likely. The man simply knew him too well. He nodded, reaching for the parchment.
Oisín handed it off without hesitation. “Minogue says we can pull Knight, Bartok, Durant and Fisher if we want them.”
“And share the blue unicorn?”
Oisín smirked at the defiance in his tone. “I’m fairly certain it’s why he felt comfortable offering his best men – and woman, knowing we wouldn’t take them.”
Al smiled. “You’re with me on that then?”
“You are the boss, English, who am I to argue?” He ruined the proclamation by winking but Al felt all the more calm in his own skin for it.
He rubbed his sweaty palms against the backs of his trousers, hiding the gesture under the billow of his robes. “I think, as of now, we should familiarise ourselves with the layout and not worry about de-jinxing or Vanishing rooms. We should get comfortable, confident in the environment.” He pulled in a sharp cut of air. “We should go back and study all we’ve got tonight, make sure we know what’s waiting for us, and then start tearing it down tomorrow.”
Oisín clapped him on the shoulder. “Sounds like a plan, boss.”
A huge wave of relief swept up inside him and Al fought not to go weak-kneed. It wasn’t the way they usually functioned but then this wasn’t their usual fare. He reinforced the main stairs with a Bracing Spell and watched the marble fall away under his feet as he rested his weight on them fully. On the first landing, between the east and west staircases, was a cavernous sinkhole in the floor. Something sparkled at one edge of it and Al thought he recognised a diamond, ostentatious and big as his hand, the kind you could find on a chandelier at a swanky Ministry gala.
He gazed down into the abyss expecting to see one collapsed at the bottom of it, but barely a foot into it and it was too dark to see. He started when a hand dropped onto his shoulder. Oisín dug his fingers in and pulled him forcibly away. Right, his partner had a thing about heights. Al smiled sheepishly at him and followed him up the stairs that led to the west wing.
They walked the length of it, Oisín stomping down burned rafters, until they fell to ashes beneath the heel of his boot so they could pass unbothered. The carpeting beneath their feet was torn and singed and the edges of it were curling up. The walls were bleeding colourless wallpaper; some of it flopping over into the hall but most of it ripped away from the greying plaster and piled up in strips at the baseboard.
Oisín cleared his throat uneasily. “Muggles have an expression for places like this.”
Al glanced over at him curiously.
Al let out a huff of air that was not quite a chuckle. He turned around, taking in the death that was everywhere he looked. “Can’t say it’s not fitting.”
Oisín gestured to the room across from the one Al was standing in front of and Al nodded. Oisín disappeared behind the squeak of hinges, the door waving about an inch back and forth. Al felt cold air hit him and he spun on his heel but there was nothing but the huge hall-end window. He leaned closer and realised some of the sealant had melted away and it was letting in a breeze.
He let out a shaky breath and cast a Detection Charm but there were no latent spells nearby. He patched the window – no need for them to be shivering throughout the demolition – and went off into his own room. It was covered in ash and only had the barest hint of furniture, a sloping couch and two squat chairs and an armoire along the back wall that were all heavily fire-damaged.
He kicked up dust and debris with his feet, creating a cloud of it at ankle height that was slowly growing larger. He pulled open the doors to the armoire and coughed as ash was released. It was empty, cleared out of anything that could be considered valuable. He pressed a hand to the back panel and felt it thrum against his skin.
He took a step back and kept going until he was out of the room entirely. He felt something large bump into him from behind and he whirled around only to find Oisín backing out of his own room. Al waited for his heartbeat to ease back into an, ‘I’m not about to die,’ rhythm. He was still catching his breath and blinking at Oisín.
Oisín swallowed. “You thinking what I’m thinking here, boss?”
The look on Oisín’s face said he’d found exactly what Al had. “These tossers had no idea how big this thing actually is.” He laughed outright, glee making him shaky. He shook out the floor plan. “This thing’s pretty useless then.”
Oisín nodded at it. “Like a sketch compared to a masterpiece.” He sounded as joyful as Al, which came as no surprise. There was a reason they called this the blue unicorn, a reason that Al had lobbied for it almost nonstop since he became an MDE. It was the ultimate in magical construction, hiding only Merlin knew what beneath its foundations. This was as close as real life came to a wild adventure. Anything could be waiting for them around any corner and Al couldn’t wait to find out what that anything was.
He buried his shaking fingers in the pockets of his robe and grinned. “All right, here’s how we’ll do it. Any rooms with as yet unidentified spellwork, mark an ‘X’ on the door. That way we know which ones probably contain three or four more rooms that haven’t been stepped foot inside since the fire. We’ll do this floor, see how long that takes, and then move to the other two above us before heading back down to the main and the dungeons. We’re doing a quick run through without lingering or getting distracted.”
Oisín agreed with a dip of his chin and Al dismissed him so he could tear into the next room, a skip to his step, like a kid trying – and failing – to restrain himself in a broom shop. Al could relate. He felt exactly the same.
It took ages and they’d been there fourteen hours by the time they were finally coughing their way out of the dungeons. This would easily be their most exhaustive project yet and Al felt the quote of a month to the Ministry goons was a massive underestimate. Though that could be blamed on the fact that nearly twenty-five percent of the Manor’s rooms had gone previously unreported.
They spread out the map on the floor of the foyer and they each took turns filling in their ‘X’s on it.
Oisín shifted his weight so it settled more heavily while he uncrossed his legs. Al followed his lead. He didn’t think he’d ever been this sore or this bone-deep tired. Oisín grunted. “Didn’t get to the attic.”
Al fought off a groan. He’d forgotten all about the attic. He waved him off. “We’ll get to it tomorrow. We’ve got a month with it before we’ve got to beg for more time.” He stretched out, planting his palms behind him, and stared up at the cinders gently falling down from the ceiling. “I think we should take down the Anti-Apparition wards and leave the rest for another day.”
Oisín nodded. “Sounds like a plan, boss.”
It took him and Oisín six different attempts and a whole hell of a lot of brute force and magical might to break the bloody spellwork. Al was panting by the time it was finished and he knew Oisín was thinking the same as him: They had severely underestimated this place.
But at least tomorrow they’d be able to Apparate right outside the front door. He gave Oisín a half-hearted wave and a weary nod and got the same in return. He could still see the flare of excitement in the man’s hazel eyes and he knew his own mirrored it.
He Apparated just outside his flat, ready for nothing but collapsing into his bed.
He’d barely been asleep two hours before his anticipation was forcing his eyes open and his body out of bed. His plans for how to tackle the Manor were dancing in his head and he was grabbing the accordion folder and all his notes and spreading them out over the coffee table before he’d even officially decided to give up on sleep. Thankfully, Henrietta wasn’t awake, her door firmly closed. The girl hardly ever settled down for the night, always curled up with tea and a stack of parchments in the corner armchair where she could happily judge the rest of the room.
He split the Manor up into blocks of four rooms. He and Oisín would never move more than two blocks away from one another due to the potential for injury, either from stepping on dry rot or burnt beams and falling through a floor or getting caught in a nasty hex. He sifted through his notes while he Spelled the coffee pot on. He scrubbed the scruff on his chin with a yawn.
None of the previous blueprints came anywhere close to the size of it, not even the floor plan drawn up by the Unspeakables. This was a whole new beast and he couldn’t wait to go back and tame it.
He showed up twenty minutes early to find Oisín already waiting at the front doors, propped up against a fire-damaged banister and smoking one of those clove cigarettes he’d been trying to lay off for the past year. He stubbed the short out beneath his heel and neither of them commented on the poorly hidden grins the other was sporting.
Al led Oisín into the foyer and launched into a quick explanation of his block idea. Oisín readily agreed. Al wasn’t sure if it was because he thought it was a good suggestion or if he was just eager to get down to it. Either way, Al was for it.
“I figure we start on the third floor and work our way down.”
Oisín shrugged. “I’ll take the attic then.”
Al grinned widely. “Sounds good.” It would keep them more than two blocks apart but the attic was still unexplored territory so Al understood the draw.
They parted at the staircase for it and Al sent Oisín off with a salute. “A Sonorous or red sparks or both if you get into trouble.”
Oisín nodded. “Same goes for you, English.”
Al turned on his heel and walked the length of the west wing until he reached the end of the hall. He would consider today a success if he could get through a single block.
He got through half of one, but to be fair he finished six rooms that only happened to look like two. The wards for unlocking the expansions were hell to get through and different, powerful enchantments kept them barricaded from the lay wizard. Al had never been so frustrated and exhilarated in the same moment. He Banished everything he found to the foyer while he carefully deconstructed the rooms brick by brick, unravelling the spellwork with the patience and skill of an artist.
He and Oisín sat around the pile of portraits, bound books, memorabilia, large items of furniture and a hundred other things he didn’t pretend to recognise and discussed how they’d started taking apart the magic holding the Manor together. Oisín had run into just as much trouble as Al had when it came to dismantling the protections around it but, when they left that evening, it was to a gaping hole in the attic roof and a shaving off of rooms on the western end.
He and Oisín grinned at each other, more pleased than they cared to admit that they could see the fruits of their labour.
That was how they spent the next four days, stripping the Manor of its hidden Charms and Hexes and disassembling the stone holding it together. Afterwards, Al would go back to his flat and spread everything out over his small desk and try to identify what they’d found by sifting through the lists of rumoured dark artefacts hidden in the Manor’s depths.
He still hadn’t made it through all the information Minogue had given them and he was beginning to think that the accordion folder was bottomless and Minogue had given it to them with the sole purpose of driving Al mad. He scowled at it, snatched it up and held it under his arm as he tore off to the kitchen to grab a whisky from the cupboard.
He sank down on the couch, absently casting a Cooling Charm on his bottle and flipped the folder over the coffee table, holding it by its bottom and letting everything spill out. He was sure he would regret it in the morning that none of the information would be organised by group or page number but right now he was too annoyed that he hadn’t reached the end of the file.
A cascade of papers burst out, covering the coffee table and the floor all around it in a smooth motion, like watching a poorly contained waterfall. Something smacked into the wood with a pinging noise and Al frowned as the folder’s stream of information finally slowed to a stop. He shuffled through the papers on the table, being careful not to be too hasty with them in case whatever heavy object had fallen out was caught between the pages. He made it through all of them, pressing them flat and looking for something that would stand out and lifting them all up to see the smooth ash wood underneath.
He got down on his knees and searched through the papers surrounding the table before leaning back on his shins with a defeated sigh. Minogue was going to drop his body in a lake somewhere for losing whatever the hell he’d lost. And it probably wasn’t great that he couldn’t even identify what it was. He rubbed at his eyes. He had to be back at the site in five hours. Whatever it was, he could look for it tomorrow.
He leaned back to leverage himself up on his feet when something glinted at him from under one of the armchairs. He threw himself forward onto his stomach eagerly and reached for it. He pulled his hand back to find his fingers had closed around a small ornate key. The teeth stuck out from the bottom in a confusing pattern of mountains and grooves that looked too intricate to actually open anything. The head had some kind of design that was hard to see under the tarnish and Al made his way over to the sink, wiping at the key with his thumb.
He was glad his nan had insisted on stocking up his Scouring Solutions now as he had a full, unused bottle of Madame Glossy’s Silver Polish in his kitchen. He grabbed a flannel and held it over the top of the bottle before turning it on its end. He used the small circle of cleaning solution to get into the cracks and wipe away the black residue that was obscuring the design.
When he finally got it all cleaned, it was to find a mess of curving, roiling silver, which was folded over and onto itself to create unique cut outs while the lines of it shifted, moved, and rearranged themselves. The attention seemed to have woken it somehow and it shook off its lifelessness as its movements got smoother and swifter. Al watched in awe as the whole design twitched and twisted and there was something in the way it moved, something that reminded him of the way a snake would slither. And Al realised that was exactly what it was, a snake. It was using its coils to hide something in the centre of the key’s design. It was almost too intricate to make out but eventually Al recognised a large, elaborate ‘M’ in its centre.
He placed it on the edge of the counter once it had finally fallen still, dragging a hand down his face before shifting his gaze to stare at the muddle of papers littering the middle of the living room. He cast a quick Sorting Spell at them so they picked themselves up and sat themselves in a pile at the edge of the table. Hopefully having them there wouldn’t be grounds for Henrietta having a conniption.
He worried his lower lip between his teeth, staring down at the key before deciding he couldn’t leave it in so public a place. He stuck it in the pocket of his robe, popped the top on his quickly warming whisky and took a swig. He went through about thirty pages on the Manor’s history, relics and construction before he was drinking down the last dregs from his bottle.
He dug his palms into his eyes and took off for his bedroom, suddenly feeling for the key in his pocket with a painful thump of his heart. He let out a breath of relief when he felt the hard edges through the fabric. He set the key on his dresser and collapsed into bed without managing to do more than pull off his socks and trainers.
He woke up no less than three times with a sharp certainty making his heart flutter in his chest that the key was gone. Each time he checked, however, it was lying exactly where he’d left it on his dresser.
In the morning, after he’d dressed, he placed the key in his pocket. He ran around the flat in his general state of complete disarray, finding his wand in the sink and one of his trainers under his bed, his travel mug for coffee was in the pantry and his wallet was on top of Henrietta’s aquarium. He stopped no less than sixteen times, absolutely certain the key had fallen through a nonexistent hole in his pocket and that he’d lost it somewhere in the minutia of his flat.
Each time, it was exactly where he’d left it, resting innocuously in his pocket. That didn’t change the surge of fear he felt between the seconds where he was sure he’d lost it before he closed his fist around it. He found a length of twine in the odds and ends drawer in the kitchen and tied it into a loop after threading it through one of the key’s cut outs and slipped it over his neck. Feeling the cool metal rest just beneath his sternum left him able to breathe freely for the first time since he found the damned thing.
He was a few minutes later than he’d wanted to be when he arrived at the Manor, having left his travel mug at home for the third consecutive day in a row, but still a good fifteen minutes early. He internally berated himself, untangling himself from his own robes, when he glanced up to find Oisín holding out a steaming cup of coffee for him while sipping from his own.
“How’s it, boss?”
Al let out an exasperated breath. “I love you, I don’t tell you that enough.”
“See, and I would say you tell me that too much.” Oisín grinned, kicking off the pillar he was leaning on. “Ready to get back to it?”
Al nodded. “That I am.” They parted ways at the stairs to the attic again. It was half-pulled down now and Al thought it would only be another two days before Oisín cleared it entirely. He had made it through seven proper rooms himself, which came out to more like fifteen. Minogue and Bartok had come to take away their findings the day before so they could start anew piling artefacts in the foyer.
Minogue was keeping him consistently updated on what they’d identified too, which Al appreciated more than words could say. It really was his project, the one he’d fought for and made a reality, and everyone was treating it as such. He’d never been more certain of his career path and his co-workers than he was in that moment, and there had been more than a few false starts to finding it and them.
He whistled to himself as he strolled down to the end of the hall – to his workspace, the key barely bouncing under his shirt. There was no longer a window at the end of the hall but instead open space that looked out over the grassy, sloping grounds of the Manor and the grey autumnal day. A protective barrier of Al’s magic thrummed over the gaping hole, keeping it from being a danger. The floor stretched out a bit farther than the rooms now, making it look like a pirate’s plank and Al smiled at the thought. Back when he was still young enough for bedtime stories, that had been one of his and his dad’s favourites.
He went to turn off into the nearest room when he caught movement in his peripheral vision, nothing more than a dark shape but enough to give him a swooping sensation in his gut. He turned on his heel as quickly as he could but whatever had been there had passed by. Al was sure it hadn’t been a trick of the light. He’d finally gotten comfortable in the Manor’s cavernous hallways, in the fire-charred rooms, with the creeping feeling of dread that came from knowing he was standing where someone had literally burned to death and he’d been expecting to feel the shiver up his spine like something was waiting to devour him around the next corner from the moment he’d stepped foot inside.
But it hadn’t come.
Now that it was here, he knew there was a reason for it. He caught his breath and retraced his steps, trying to go in the general direction the movement had come from. He peeked into the room he thought the shape had been in front of, but there was nothing there but ash and burnt furniture. He let out the breath he hadn’t known he’d been holding only to see a flicker on the very edges of his vision. He spun around but, again, there was nothing.
He fought down the urge to join Oisín in the attic so he wouldn’t be on his own. He wasn’t going to let the place rattle him. He took a deep breath, shaking out his arms, and made his way to the room at the end of his hall – he was going right back to tearing the whole thing down. He was the one with the power here. This was nothing but old magic and disintegrating remnants of elegance.
The feeling of being watched, of catching something from just out of the corners of his eye lingered through the destruction of two more rooms. The hair on the back of his neck seemed to be permanently set to standing on end. It was almost a relief – even if it did still make him jump out of his skin – when a voice drawled crisp and clear, British, from behind him.
“My Great Aunt stayed in this room. Nasty old woman, neck like a cockatrice’s wattle. She shot me with an Anteculatia Hex when I was seven for scuffing her bag.” Whoever belonged to the voice snorted. Al was too frozen with terror to look. “I don’t think I’ll be sad to see this one go, nothing but wicked memories here. Not like I was with the records room.” A wistful sigh followed the proclamation.
Al swallowed, unmoving, bent over an old trunk that was full of nothing but cobwebs and disintegrating parchments. He turned around slowly, his eyes landing on loafers crossed at the ankles that belonged to the legs of someone who was leaning against the doorframe of the room. Robes spilled around them on the floor and, even for someone who didn’t know much about fashion, Al knew they’d set the wearer back a handful of Galleons.
The dark robes – maybe a deep green in colour – were open over perfectly creased charcoal grey slacks and a smooth cream button-down was tucked into those. The man’s arms were folded, hands hiding in the crease of his elbows. He had a long neck, sharp chin and smirking thin pink lips. He was pale but not sallow or pasty, more like porcelain and soft. His nose was aquiline, elegant, and his eyes were grey, made greyer by the lighter flecks in his slacks, and they were shining with mischief, like he’d gotten some sort of thrill from skirting the edges of Al’s vision all day. His white-blond hair brushed the hinge of his jaw and he liberated a long-fingered hand to push it back from his forehead with his pinky and thumb. It was a careless gesture that made Al’s throat go dry. Because he knew that face.
He’d only ever seen hair that shade and eyes that grey and expression that permanently smug in one place – and more times in this past week than he had his whole life previously. It was in the report about the fire.
Because it was Draco Malfoy’s face.
Draco Malfoy actually let out a snort. He waved a lackadaisical hand in front of his face, his lips widening into a full-out grin. Everything about him was effortlessly regal, the way Al had always heard proper purebloods were. “Of course I’m dead. Given you’re the spit of Harry Potter and I still have the body of a nineteen-year-old, I would hope I would’ve been able to figure that one on my own should I have needed to.”
“But you didn’t?” Al could hear his voice shaking but he couldn’t seem to draw it level.
Draco kicked off the door gracefully and strolled into the room. The trunk hit the backs of Al’s knees as he stepped away involuntarily. Draco tipped his head to the side like he found the whole thing uproariously entertaining. He stared down at his nails while he picked at them with his thumb and his smile went the slightest bit sad. “Death has nothing on the Malfoys.” He laughed but it didn’t sound amused. “I’m the last tie.” He looked around the room, grey eyes flashing, but Al had a feeling he was taking in the whole of the Manor rather than just those four walls. “The last of my line and history like this, it doesn’t give up easily.”
Al licked his lower lip. “I don’t understand.”
“I’m dead, Potter.” He stopped and his head tilted to the side again. “You are, aren’t you? A Potter?”
Al nodded stupidly.
Draco smirked and it was the first thing he’d done that made him truly look his age – maybe even a bit younger at that. “I thought so. You look just like that overexposed hero.”
Al puffed out his chest, hands clenching into fists at his sides. “Harry Potter is my father and he’s a great man.”
Draco shot him an icy look, his lip raising in a defensive sneer. “I never said he wasn’t.” He blinked and waved his hand again. “That’s of no matter.” He stopped. “Now, where were we? Ah, yes. My death.” He pinned Al with his sharp gaze, eyes flashing flint. “I’m properly buried in our family’s crypt, passed on in every way, not a ghost, not a vision. I’m the Manor, you see, in Draco Malfoy flesh. I’m everything he was, an amalgamation of memory, personality, behaviours, his every living moment while he was within these walls.”
Al bit into the lip he’d been absently licking. “Why?”
“The Malfoy family needed someone to pass along its traditions, its records, when there was no one else left who could.” He splayed his palms out against his own chest, his wrists fine and his hands strong. “I’m quite literally the last person to have existed with a drop of Malfoy blood in them so I’m the one elected to keep the Manor alive, so to speak.”
Al’s brows furrowed. “But we’ve been tearing it down.”
Draco smiled, a private, pleased smile. “Certainly you have. See, that’s where the centuries of planning falls to pieces.” He spread out his arms. “I don’t particularly want to see the place survive.”
“You mean Draco Malfoy doesn’t?” Al shook his head, confused. “But you’re not him?”
Draco’s smile widened. “Au contraire. I would argue I’m just as much him as the real Draco was. I almost think there were times when I knew him better than he knew himself.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
Draco’s lips quirked up further, his eyes shining with a strange light. “What stories they could tell, if your walls could talk.” He paused thoughtfully. “I’m as much a slave to his whims as he was. I don’t choose who represents the last of the line or what they would seek to do with ‘me.’” He walked over to the settee with a frown. There was a hole in its middle, springs and cushioning sticking up from it, and one of the legs was broken and the rest looked like they couldn’t bear weight. Draco’s long fingers closed over the back, curling around the frame and instantly colour and life started to bleed out from his fingertips.
A powder blue flowered out and down, the wood of the back board became red, rich, and no longer scorched, the hole in its middle healed and the split in the wood righted itself. Draco sat down, crossing one leg over the other and picking at his robes as he settled them over his knee. He stretched out his arm across the back of the settee but Al was hardly paying attention, his gaze caught by the spreading influence of Draco’s touch, because it hadn’t stopped at the settee.
It was spreading out over the floorboards, making them slick and glossy rather than ash-strewn and rotted. There were portraits on the light green walls as the paint ate the charred black marks burned into them, the bit that the wood panelling stuck halfway up it hadn’t already gotten to at least. A desk and armoire appeared from nowhere, a carpet sprouted from under Al’s feet and he jumped aside, not running into the trunk behind him as it had moved to the back of the, now open, closet – the hangers of which were mostly empty but for two robes and a jacket. A light flickered into life above them and Al gaped up at the fixture.
“What is this?”
Draco glanced up, as if he’d forgot Al was there entirely. “A memory augmented with magic. I told you, my purpose is to pass along a history, hard to do that if I can’t show you it.”
Al blinked at him, trying hard to understand. “But you’ve lost full rooms of it now and, Merlin, the attic. Oisín’s nearly destroyed it.”
Draco rolled his eyes. “As I’ve already explained, I’m not looking to save it.”
Al looked around the room, it was opulent, magnificent even and no one would ever know it. It didn’t seem right. “I don’t understand.”
Draco’s shoulders drooped and his eyes went hooded, shaded, like he was feeling some kind of remorse. “The Malfoys have reached their end,” grey eyes fixed on Al’s face, “maybe we should let their history die with them.” Al opened his mouth, lost for words, when Draco pursed his lips and smirked. “Though you and your partner are fairly terrible at this so perhaps it’ll live on regardless of my machinations. You’re not the worst demolition experts by far but that’s hardly saying much, your profession is ninety-five percent filled with Spellbinding and Design rejects.”
Al could feel his cheeks burn hot, surprised at how quickly Draco had managed to enrage him. That was a feat normally reserved for his brother. “I’ll have you know that we’re the best team in our department.”
Draco watched him with bored eyes. “Again, in a department full of dunderheads and failures it’s not hard to rise to the top.”
Al’s fists trembled at his sides. “This’ll be torn down in a month’s time and you’ll be a homeless non-ghost whatever-the-hell-you-are.”
Draco’s lips curved into a cool smile. “Or…” He clicked his tongue and jerked his head towards the wall behind him.
Al’s brows formed a deep ‘V.’ Draco only let his eyebrows jump once and Al ducked his head out the door. His jaw dropped in pure astonishment. Where there had been nearly a week’s worth of work, there was now nothing but the same fire-ravaged rooms he’d dismantled previously. His jaw yo-yoed. “How?”
Draco made a smug, popping noise with his mouth. It was an effort not to Hex him. “You unravelled the charms expanding the rooms but not the ones protecting them. Better men than you have tried to take this place down.”
Al fell back against the door, feeling drained. He glanced over at Draco, who was still sitting down demurely, looking utterly self-contained. “If this place is so protected then how come you couldn’t get out?” He didn’t bother clarifying further, he truthfully wasn’t sure he could.
Draco’s expression soured like he was remembering someone else’s misfortunes before a pained, sorrowful look passed over his features. “They turned the protections inward, trapped us with them and set up a nullification field for active magic. There was no way out, not with the Manor locked down with us inside it.” He stared at his fingers, holding them out in front of his face, flexing them slightly. “My parents died first, gasping for air, their lungs burning for it,” he moved his hand out to hover above the wall and Al felt sick.
“Don’t.” Draco stared at him, wide-eyed. “Don’t show me that. Please, don’t ever show me that.”
Draco nodded once and settled his hand back in his lap. “Back to the point then, Potter. You’re a spectacular failure at all this.”
Al felt like pouting. But he wasn’t a child, he was older than Draco in fact – sort of, and he wasn’t about to give in to the impulse. He forcefully kept his hands from crossing themselves over his chest. “None of our sources mentioned anything about protection charms to this extent.”
Draco watched him, unimpressed, and there was a smooth tilt to his lips like he knew how annoyed Al actually was. It was that same teasing look James would get when he knew and was purposefully being infuriating. “Well, we wouldn’t exactly want to go spreading that around, would we? If the Manor’s enemies knew its protections then they would be one step closer to disassembling them.”
“Which is what you want me to do?”
Something flickered briefly in Draco’s eyes. Al couldn’t tell if it was doubt or despair. He dipped his chin in a solemn bow. “I do.”
“Thought I heard you, boss.”
Al nearly jumped out of his skin a second time and turned to find Oisín lounging against the door much like Draco had been when he first appeared.
Oisín perked a bushy brow but there was real concern in the lines around his wide-set mouth. “Going a bit barmy by yourself down here, English?”
Al snorted, jerking his chin towards the place where Draco was still sitting on the settee. “This git restored all the rooms I’d previously destroyed. He’s here to tell us how to do the job since,” Al pulled a face, “we’re all apparently only ‘Spellbinding and Design rejects.’”
Oisín took a step into the room and paused, swaying. “Who are you talking about, Albus?”
Oisín was approaching him like an injured animal, wary and cautious and keeping eye contact. And Oisín hadn’t called him by his given name almost from the moment they’d met. Al tested the words in his head, tonguing the inside of his lower lip. “You.” He stopped, gauging how to say it. “You can’t see him. You don’t see anything other than fire-charred wood and decay.”
“How come those feel more like questions, boss?”
Al let out a long, slow breath. At least Oisín was back to calling him ‘boss.’ “What do you see when you look at the settee?”
Oisín looked in the settee’s direction, staring at it hard like he was trying to see more than the settee. Al almost grinned, seeing the dedication Oisín was willing to give this even when he clearly thought Al had gone utterly daft. “Er, it’s got a hole in the middle of it. Am I meant to be seeing something there? Maybe I’m not close enough for it, boss.”
Al swallowed. “Do me a favour, Irish? Walk out into the hall and tell me if there’s a big, gaping hole at the end of it or if the rooms are all still there.”
Oisín seemed to have to physically force himself to stop staring at Al and take a cautious step into the hall. He was out of the room for a few seconds before stepping back inside. He seemed to be weighing his words. “What exactly have you been doing down here, boss?” He flicked his eyes up to the ceiling. “I’ve been slaving away in the attic like a twit and here you are lounging around a floor lower and hallucinating company.”
Al ran a hand through his hair with a laugh. “I think you should step back into the attic, Irish. You’re about to be horribly disappointed if I’m right about this and haven’t gone completely ‘round the bend.” Oisín’s brows furrowed while Al manfully resisted locking eyes with Draco, who was apparently not actually sitting on a light blue settee and watching him with a smug tilt to his lips. Oisín stared at him all the way out of the room, backing away.
He came stomping back down the stairs barely ten minutes later. “What the hell, English?”
Al smiled tightly. “Apparently we’ve been taking apart the expansion charms but not the protection ones. The Manor has its own defences against its destruction that are so latent we couldn’t even detect them.”
“And you know this because… you’re seeing someone else here? And the restored rooms?”
Al huffed, wondering at the brilliance of telling Oisín any of this. He looked up at the burly, middle-aged Irishman and decided he trusted him with this. He’d trusted him with things a lot more important than his sanity in the past and Oisín had always proved himself worthy of it. “I’m seeing Draco Malfoy.” Al took in a heavy breath. “Not a ghostly Draco either. He says it’s the Manor projecting itself through Draco’s personality and memories, as he’s the last in the Malfoy line. He’s meant to preserve its history, only he doesn’t feel it’s necessary anymore.”
Al shrugged, trying to show he was as confused about the stance as Oisín seemed to be. “He thinks it’s right that the Malfoy history end.”
Oisín rubbed at his craggy forehead. “That’s a bit depressing.”
Al frowned, realising it was. “Yeah. It is.” He glanced back at Draco, who had been staring down at his own robes, utterly uninterested in their conversation. “Are you sure you want it destroyed?”
Draco stood up, looking almost amused. He took a step closer to Al, so close that Al couldn’t fight off the shiver he felt at having him there even though there was no dip or rise in the temperature of the room. “Are you sure you’re the demolition expert, fighting so hard to keep this shambles of a mansion standing?”
“I—I’m not. It just seems a shame it has no one defending it is all.”
A frown twisted Draco’s lips. “It wasn’t a shame only yesterday. Yesterday it was a job, your dream job if I recall correctly.”
It was easy to forget that Draco would’ve seen everything that happened within the Manor’s walls, heard every conversation he and Oisín had inside it. “How come you didn’t show up until today if you’ve been here all this time?”
Draco’s eyes glittered. “Today you have the conduit to the revenant.”
Draco smirked. “Exactly. So what Spellbinding and Design programme did you drop out of again?”
Al’s magic acted of its own accord, lashing out and sinking into the cushion Draco’s back had been resting against, passing right through him. His secretive little smirk expanded impossibly wide while smoke curled up from the fluff of the settee where Al’s Stinging Hex had burned into it. His stomach rolled over, making him feel ill as he stared at the singe marks. The man was just so bloody infuriating – picking at the one thing Al was prouder of than anything else.
“I take it he’s as obnoxious a bloke as I’ve always heard the Malfoys were?” Oisín sighed and sunk his teeth into his lower lip without waiting for Al to answer. “Got to tell you, English, even with the possible evidence that you’re not completely barking,” his eyes shot up to the ceiling in the direction of the attic, “it’s still hard to find you sane when you’re having, apparent, one-sided conversations.”
Al dropped his shoulders sheepishly. “Right, sorry. The point is he’s willing to help us take apart all the protections so we can properly demolish the Manor. Er, I think?” He glanced over at Draco who exaggeratedly nodded his head, looking exasperated. Al mirrored his nod, although with much less condescension. “Hopefully it’ll go a bit quicker even, now that we’ve got inside information on how to take down the magic protecting it and where the extra rooms are.”
Oisín nodded, but more like he was trying to believe in the words than that he actually agreed with them.
“I’m not mad.”
Oisín’s lips quirked. “We’ll see.”
Al let them break early for the day, at only half-six. Oisín still looked a little uneasy, like he was considering calling in Mind Healers, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as Al knew it could’ve been. Draco followed his every step around the Manor and he stood on the porch as Oisín Disapparted, leaning against the same banister Oisín always smoked his clove cigarettes at.
He hitched his shoulder up against the marble with nonchalance. “I’ll admit I was a bit impressed that you managed to take down the wards preventing Apparition onto the grounds. It was a feat that had yet to be accomplished.”
Al could feel himself start to grin despite himself. “Good enough for a Spellbinding and Design programme then?”
Draco didn’t bother to stay his own grin. “Getting a bit ahead of yourself there.”
Al squinted at the very solid-looking form of Draco Malfoy. “You’re hateful, you know that?”
Draco smirked, like it was one of the greatest compliments he’d ever received. Al didn’t doubt that that was the way he thought of it. He stepped back awkwardly, quirking his hand in an odd wave that he regretted immediately. Draco didn’t bother to offer any departing gesture in return, likely just to rub Al’s humiliation in his face further. That seemed like the sort of thing he would do. He debated Apparating back to his flat for half a second before changing his mind and landing himself outside the Ministry.
He took the elevator down to the Hall of Historical Fact and had his nose buried in shelves that dealt with the fourteenth century when Liesel appeared at his side. She had her auburn hair down today, curled in loose ringlets. Al smiled when he caught the scent of her perfume, pomegranate and baneberry. “Back again, MDE Potter?”
“I can’t stay away when the scenery’s this appealing, Liesel.” He flicked his gaze over her, lingering on the fullness of her hips, before focussing firmly on the wall of bound books.
She blushed; pink filling her cheeks in a light, attractive rouge. Al loved making her blush, if only because she seemed to viciously hate that he had the ability to make her do so. “I’ve never known you to be so academic.”
Al smiled toothily at her. “I’ve simply never had the proper motivation.”
Liesel was interrupted from her, undoubtedly, fierce rejoinder – as the more flustered Al got her, the more incisive and sharp her comments got – by someone calling for a checkout from the front desk. Al liked that about her, that she could so easily abandon the social construct of ‘femininity’ and get mean. Too many girls these days were too afraid to show the slightest bit of negativity for fear someone would call them a bitch, but Al liked someone who would fight back. And he'd come to not only expect it but demand it, with a sister like Lils.
She stormed away, cheeks hot, and threw looks back over her shoulder at him. Al met each one of them with a smirk, which only got her hotter. It’d been a while since he’d dated anyone seriously but he thought Liesel might be the next in line for it. He liked her and she felt like a good match. He sighed to himself, thinking maybe he was rationalising it too much. He wanted to just have to have someone but he’d never felt that sort of passion before, though he had two long-term relationships with women and one with a bloke in his past. He thought maybe he was just bound up wrong but at least it kept him from losing his head. He was always the one able to walk away and the one able to argue without getting lost in it.
That wasn’t nothing.
It took him a bit, but eventually he pulled down the research he’d been after – what he’d skimmed half-heartedly before when he’d been with Oisín – still not even close to everything the Hall had on the Manor’s history. The more he read, the less he understood why Draco wanted it torn down. Every account throughout the centuries had some fascinating element to it and yet Draco didn’t seem concerned with losing that. It simply made no sense. He was meant to be the Manor’s champion and yet he was the one calling for its destruction? Why?
It was driving him a bit mad. Well, more mad.
“I don’t understand.” Al’s eyes were bleary from reading text that was just this side of too small. It was long past the time when he should’ve been back to his flat to fall into bed, especially if he was going to keep to his and Oisín’s early schedule, but the inherent contradiction in Draco’s behaviour wouldn’t stop nagging at him. “It has a rich history, it’s gorgeous and apparently you can restore it. Or at least show a restorer how it should be restored. Why don’t you want to save it?”
Draco smiled, his grey eyes shining eerily in the dark. “Aren’t you a demolition expert? Are you really so poor at your job that you can argue for the exact opposite of it?”
Al felt his magic twitching under his skin, wanting to lash out all over again, while his blood boiled. There was no one who had ever enraged him more or managed to get under his skin as fast. At least Jamie’s obnoxiousness was always tempered with the base line love of family but Draco? Al kind of just wanted to Hex him into submission. What a bloody maddening pillock. “Fine, we’ll rip it down for all I care.” He stomped off, hating that he’d given into the childish impulse but still a bit pleased at getting to act out his fury. He hoped Draco knew well enough to stay the hell out of his way tomorrow.
Because if Al ever saw him again it would be too soon.
Draco didn’t know well enough. He sniped at him and his techniques for an entire day, haunting Al’s every step from the second he stepped foot onto the Manor’s property to the second he left it.
“You’re going to use the Miner practice for that when the Gestaldt is so much more effective?
“You’re really the best the Ministry has to offer when you’re making the amateur mistake of working against the Manor’s protections rather than with them?
“This isn’t a game of Gobstones, Potter. It shouldn’t take you this long to line up your next move.”
“Enough.” Al advanced on Draco, pointing a shaky forefinger at him. He had been trying to ignore the chirping, judgmental voice that had been in his ear and over his shoulder for hours but his patience was limited and Draco had reached the end of it a few comments back. “You—You have been nothing but a maddeningly unhelpful presence since you showed up here and I’m finished with it. You hear me? Finished.”
Draco jutted his hip out so it rested on the edge of a table that wasn’t really in the room. “Or,” he paused for effect, “you could simply ask for my help.”
Al deflated. “That’s what you’ve been after this whole time? You want me to ask you for help?”
Draco shrugged. “Didn’t you tell your oafish Irishman that I had ‘inside information?’ That I’d be useful?”
Al preened a bit and fought the urge to tell Draco that Oisín most definitely was his Irishman and it was only right that he’d recognised that. He shoved it down because he and Draco weren’t mates – as far from it as it was possible to be in fact – and they didn’t joke about with one another. Al rolled his eyes and gritted his teeth. It was a small thing to swallow his pride if it meant Draco would settle some. “Fine, Draco, I would appreciate your help.”
Draco brightened instantly, the ends of his white-blond hair brushing his jaw as he distractedly pushed it behind his ear. It was messy, as though it had gone a while without a cut, but one of those stylish approaches to it that looked effortlessly tousled and swish. Al blinked, drawing his gaze away from Draco’s hair to get caught on his brilliantly white teeth. “Excellent.” He smacked his lips. “Because you’ve been doing this all wrong from jump, Potter.”
Al rolled his eyes. So Draco settling was a pipe dream then. Sure enough, he was just as much of an annoying know-it-all as ever, and still just as tactless about it. Al resisted strangling him, he liked to say it was because he had self-control but truthfully it was knowing that his fingers would close around nothing but thin air.
That was how the next few days went, Draco infuriating him while he and Oisín started genuinely, more effectively, and much more rapidly tearing the thing apart. There were a few rooms that Draco would back out of, that he wouldn’t restore so Al could see what they’d looked like before the flames had gobbled them up, that he would stand outside or sit outside the door of and yell heckling comments into. Al gave him a pass on those rooms and didn’t yell anything insulting back.
If he could have, he would have gripped Draco’s shoulder to show he understood. In lieu of that, he’d stand with him on the other side in silent solidarity. Sometimes Draco would look up at him from where he was sat on the floor, or glance at him from his side, like he appreciated the gesture, but more often than not he wouldn’t acknowledge Al at all until he moved on to the next room.
Al understood that too.
Afterwards, Al would go home and generally dream of punching Draco in the face since he knew he’d never get to do the real thing and Draco deserved it as much as – if not more than – the times he’d hit Jamie. He walked down to the Resource annals that were only a few offices away from his and Oisín’s headquarters and pulled everything he could on the Gestaldt practice and about a half dozen other techniques Draco had mentioned (read: used to smugly contradict whatever he’d been doing at the time) that he’d never heard of.
He wasn’t going to let that prat upstage his knowledge in his own profession. He tapped his wand against certain passages to highlight them and imagined Draco’s pinched, Jarveyish expression when Al was the one rubbing things in his face.
Draco spent the rest of the week as his persistent, belittling shadow. Al was a bundle of knots and tension every day he showed up at the Manor but, strangely, by the time he left he was loose and relaxed. He hated Draco but he also couldn’t deny that he got something out of their interactions. He couldn’t quite pinpoint it – an outlet maybe? Only it felt like more than that.
“You’re talking to yourself constantly now.”
Al blinked at Oisín as they ate their sandwiches together in the foyer. His chewing slowed while Draco grinned madly next to him, clearly more than pleased with himself. They were sitting close enough that Draco’s knee would have been touching his if he were capable of that. Al looked over at him properly. His legs were propped open, one knee mirroring Al’s, while he leaned back on his palms, his head tilted slightly back.
Al didn’t think it was how a proper pureblood sat, but it might be how a nineteen-year-old did.
“Not myself.” He tapped a finger against his thigh, pulling the skin of his lower lip in between his teeth. “Draco’s a twat. I can’t let him have the last word even if I’m the only one who can hear it.”
Draco’s grin widened and Al wouldn’t have even thought that was possible. If ‘smug bastard’ ever needed a poster child though, Al knew whom to put up for it.
Oisín set his sandwich down and paused for a long moment. “Just want you keeping in mind that he’s not properly real, English.”
Al froze, blinking at Draco without realising he’d immediately looked over in his direction. He was real. No figment of his imagination could goad him as well as Draco could, that was purely outside his own mind.
“Even if he is the Manor’s spokesperson, he’s still not really here, you understand? When the last brick’s taken down, he will be too.”
Al stared hard at Draco. He’d said repeatedly that he was there to keep the Manor ‘alive’ so when it’d breathed its last breath, it only made sense that Draco would do the same. For some reason that made something in Al’s gut sour. It made even less sense than before that he wanted it torn down. He waited until Oisín had gone off back to his own block of rooms before cornering Draco, wishing he could dig his fingers into his arms, leave his mark on him.
“Is it keeping some part of the real Draco tethered here? Is that why you want rid of it?”
Draco smirked, shaking his head. “He’s dead.” He didn’t soften it any and for some unknown reason it made Al flinch. “It deserves to be finished and done with. Why are you so reluctant to see it go, Potter?” Draco stepped forward, close enough that Al could see the barest hints of blue in the grey of his iris, and Al stupidly held his breath. “Sometimes clinging to the past is only a way to keep from stepping into the future.”
Al didn’t breathe properly again until Draco had stepped away and gone into the room he was tackling next, humming under his breath. He spent the rest of the day strung up tight and the feeling followed him all the way into bed that night.
Al rubbed the back of his neck, taking the steaming coffee that Oisín offered him with a sheepish grimace. Oisín stubbed the kretek out beneath his heel and perked his brows towards the door. Al nodded, stopping at the grand staircase, able to see the condensing of the Manor if he craned his neck to the left and right. The fresh, unobstructed views of the Manor grounds where once-solid walls had stood didn’t fill him with glee however, and it was with a lead stomach that he climbed up the next two flights. The attic and the third floor were already permanently Vanished.
Draco wasn’t waiting to insult and deride him, as he always was, in the block of rooms he was to start next. Al wandered down the hall back the way he’d come, peeking his head into rooms, but Draco didn’t appear to be anywhere on the floor. Theoretically, this meant he might get through a day without anyone haranguing him about his sub-par demolition skills.
The thought didn’t occur to him as he sought out Draco with a single-minded determination.
He wandered down to the first floor and then to the main. He was roaming through piles of debris and ash and decay when he walked into a room that literally took his breath away. The wall across from him was made up of full windows that poured light and warmth onto the clean marble floor. Plants, trees and blossoming bushes that looked as if they were sprouting from the very foundations, lined most of the walls and stretched out under the length of the windows were large, white, segmented couches.
Towards the far end was Draco, his bare feet curled up beneath him and toes spilling out from under his own thighs. He had a book pressed flat with one hand curved over the spine from underneath and the other was resting under his chin, his folded-up fingers propping it up. His robe was lying on the arm of the couch his book was held down against. He was wearing a simple blue-grey button-down that was undoubtedly doing wonders for his eyes and light slacks that could be white or beige. The cuffs were rolled up, which was not something Al ever thought he’d see on a pureblood.
His socks and loafers were placed carefully in front of his seat and his hair was slightly curtaining the pensive look on his face. Al forced his eyes away, realising far too late that he was staring. Only he’d never seen Draco like this, soft and drenched in light.
He stepped into the room and Draco’s eyes instantly flashed up to meet him.
“There’s a distinct lack of yammering in my block of rooms today.”
Draco’s coral pink lips curved into a smile before twitching away. Al frowned when he saw how poorly it stuck. “You seem to’ve gotten the hang of it.” The words had been spoken mostly against his own fingers and had come out muffled, as though he was trying to obscure the compliment he was giving. “I thought I’d let you get on with it.”
Al took a few tentative steps forward, until he was standing so he was nearly brushing Draco’s knee with his hand. “Did you change your mind about destroying it?”
Draco rolled his eyes so hard it looked painful. “No, Potter. Honestly, how many times will I have to say it before you believe it?”
Al could only shrug. Draco was staring at him as though waiting for a better answer than that, so he jerked his chin towards the open book in Draco’s hand. “What’s a house embodying a dead bloke read then?”
Draco grinned, something private and amused. “Not a house, a generation’s worth of magic laid into the foundations of a Manor embodying a revenant through a conduit.”
Al eased into the seat next to Draco, the two arms of their couches separating them. He let out a slow exhale, shooting a mock glare at Draco for being purposefully esoteric. And not answering the question besides. “The protections on this place – I don’t think we’ve seen anything like it.” Draco preened a bit at that and Al drew his gaze back to stare down at his own trainers. “What I still don’t understand is why it couldn’t protect you.”
Draco snorted softly. “The magic wasn’t laid in to protect the inhabitants of the Manor. It was laid in to protect the Manor.” Draco’s eyes danced around the whole of the solarium with an easy smile. “And it did exactly what it was meant to.” He pinned Al with his stare. “Do you have any idea how long the fire burned before they could lower the nullification field to stop it? Do you have any idea what should be left? But every room remains – in its barest structure – because that was worth defending.”
Al’s lip raised derisively. “But your lives weren’t?”
“Our lives were ours to defend and, one day, sooner or later, it would have been a battle we lost. We simply lost it a little sooner than most.”
Al stared harder at the curve at the tops of his trainers, flexing his toes and blinking away the standing water in his eyes. “And you’re all right with that?”
Draco shrugged carefully. “What would be the point in raging against it, Potter? What could I hope to gain from that?”
“Maybe it’d just be nice to know you cared.” Al hunched up his shoulders, wondering when he’d let things get so heavy or when he’d started to resent Draco for being dead and being at peace with it. He clenched his jaw and looked away, towards the doorway. “About more than the inferior Gestaldt technique when the Proulx practice is far and away the better method for dealing with potentially unstable charms.”
From his periphery, he could see the pleased smirk on Draco’s face. “Someone’s been doing his homework. For once you actually know more about your chosen field than I do.”
“Once?” Al jutted out his chin. “I bet you I could name all the Counter-Curses you’re likely to use in a typical, flat-sized De-jinxing faster than you.”
Draco snorted. “Some accomplishment, Potter.”
“You’ve just gone all long in the face because you know I could trounce you.”
Al didn’t even get back to his block of rooms before the day was out and he couldn’t meet Oisín’s eyes when they parted ways with a nod, guilt making his stomach uneasy. He’d spent the entire day snarking back and forth in a room that didn’t really exist with a bloke who didn’t really exist and grinning more than he had in ages.
When he dragged himself back to his flat, his chest itched and his mum’s owl was waiting for him, perched on the kitchen counter and nibbling on the edge of an unopened envelope. It hooted when it saw him. It was a larger, grey saw-whet that was at least five-years-old now. Its chest was speckled and it liked to nip at everything in sight. Al hissed as it attached itself to his ring finger while he’d been reaching for the letter tied to its leg.
“Ow, you fuck. Chill out, Guilhem. Merlin.”
He distracted Guilhem with an Accio’d owl treat while he untied the letter with his free hand. He uncurled the parchment, pressing it flat with his hand and grabbed a whisky from the cupboard. He didn’t even bother with a Cooling Charm and instead drank it warm and straight.
It’s been the obligatory two weeks since I’ve last seen you, which we’ve agreed means I get to natter. You and your brother are expected for family dinner on Sunday – no excuses will be deemed valid. Your sister’s snagged up the last of those, off Merlin knows where in Socotra looking for bottle-trees for Ollivander’s now – and we still hear from her more often than the both of you combined. I will send your father to drag you here by your scruff so it’s best for all of us if you pretend to be thrilled about the opportunity to catch up with your family.
Looking forward to seeing you tomorrow night.
All my love,
Sunday evening came too bloody soon and he was already in a shit mood from Draco being hard to track down for the second day in a row. Al sighed. It wasn’t that he didn’t love his parents, because he did, it was just that he unconsciously dreaded seeing them until he was actually with them. As soon as he was in the moment, he was completely at ease. It was strange and something he’d only done since he aged out of living with them. It wasn’t a new phenomenon however. It was the way he’d used to be about baths when he was a kid and about work as an adult, leading up to it he was a ball of anxiety and ‘don’t want’ but as soon as he was there he couldn’t imagine anywhere else he’d rather be.
He dragged his feet all the way to the door but then his mum was sitting him down for shepherd’s pie and his dad was clapping him and Jamie on their shoulders and all the ‘don’t want’ fell away as it always did. He and Jamie sat on the fat ends of the table while their parents took the opposite heads. Jamie kicked him in the shin as soon as they were settled, aiming for his crotch, and Al scowled and threw a saltshaker at his head while his parents were distracted.
James caught it, Seeker that he was.
“Minogue’s been talking to anyone who’ll listen about you clinching Malfoy Manor,” his dad said about halfway through the meal, which James had dominated with Quidditch talk. Al had been happy to let him.
He swallowed down a mouthful of mash and couldn’t help his grin. “They finally let us after it. Oisín and I are already through the attic, the dungeons, and the third floor, more than half the second too. Can’t tell you some of the items we’ve found in the hidden expansions the rooms were hiding.” And by that, Al meant that he literally couldn’t tell them. The Ministry would have his head if he did.
His dad frowned, the lines around his mouth growing more pronounced as they fought their natural direction. “Shame it’s getting demolished. It was,” he paused, “It had some fairly horrific memories to its name but it was still a rather magnificent bit of architecture.” He looked away, eyes sad, and Al missed the shrewd look his mum shot him.
Jamie quickly brought the conversation back around to him and his exploits. Al wasn’t sure if that was due to the sudden tension in the air or his inherent big-headedness. You never could tell with Jamie but he often surprised you.
Al was drafted into helping clean the dishes in the kitchen. The water was still running and it was drifting towards warm rather than ‘just not-hot enough to keep his hand under' while Jamie purposefully dragged his feet with his plate, meaning Al’d have to keep pushing it hotter so he could never get comfortable with it. Al narrowed his eyes at him, more amused than truly angry. “Bloody hell, Jamie, I swear if you were moving any slower, you’d be going backwards.”
Next to him, his dad stiffened like he’d been hit with a Full-Body Bind. He completely froze in pulling down the mug he’d been reaching for. Jamie gave a loud guffaw and handed off his plate with a wink, practically skipping off to join their mum in the next room.
His dad’s callused fingers closed around his wrist with a sense of urgency before he could wet it under the stream. “Where did you hear that?”
Al had never heard him sound like that, desperate and fierce. “What?”
“The comment, the ‘any slower and you’d be going backwards’ comment, where did you hear that?”
Al swallowed as the realisation of where he’d heard the words came to him. They were Draco’s and, from the look on his dad’s face, he’d recognised them. Al licked his lip, searching desperately for an out. He wasn’t entirely sure why he didn’t want to share Draco but there was the genuine concern that his dad would think him barmy for seeing someone no one else could. “Why do you want to know?”
“I—” his dad swallowed forcefully. He looked pained, ragged around the edges and… Oh. Holy. Fuck. His dad had been in love with Draco Malfoy, Al could read it all over his face. He blinked away the sheen over eyes that looked so much like Al’s own. Al could see his dad struggle against it, the part of him that had to know – if it was Draco, if there was some piece of him, even if it was only a journal, that had survived – and the part that didn’t want to give himself away and knew the best thing would be to let it drop. But he couldn’t. “Just tell me where you heard it, Al. I’ll explain as soon as you answer me, I promise.”
Al dropped his father’s gaze. “I don’t remember exactly.”
His dad’s nostrils flared and the desperation grew in him tenfold. “Al, please, tell me.”
Al looked up at him, plaintive, apologetic. “I honestly can’t remember. Why is it so important?”
His dad just… deflated and he backed away, dropping Al’s wrist. He leaned back against the counter, shoulders hunched, and rubbed a hand over his eyes, pushing up his glasses so he could get at them. He shook his head. “It’s not. It isn’t. I—Sorry.”
Al couldn’t get it out of his head and he spent the rest of the night with the newfound revelation swirling around his brain. His dad and Draco. Had they been lovers before he died? Had his dad even realised his feelings before that happened? Now Al knew why his father had lobbied so hard against the vigilantes’ release from Azkaban, why he’d worked night and day to capture those responsible – according to his mum, it’d been for Draco. Draco, the snarky shit who’d been making Al’s life consistently harder since the day he’d popped up in it. His dad had fallen in love with him?
He tried to think back to every time he and Draco had talked about his dad but it had only been that first day, when Draco had said that Al looked just like him. But there hadn’t been any longing or affection in his gaze. Al concentrated, trying to draw up the memory. He could remember saying something about his dad being a great man and Draco firing back, ‘I never said he wasn’t.’ But that hadn’t been… Al tried to bring back the emotion in his eyes. Respect, maybe even a smidge of loyalty – and that alone didn’t really make sense – but not love.
At least it was good to know that Draco wasn’t using him as some kind of Potter-replacement system. Though maybe it might’ve been nice if he was, perhaps he’d treat Al to more than insults and sneers then.
When Al returned to the Manor on Monday, it was to find Draco waiting at the door for him, undoubtedly ready to natter the hell out of him.
“Finally a right smile out of you.”
Al turned wide eyes on Oisín.
His lips quirked knowingly. “Your own personal Malfoy must be here then?”
Something warm and prickling itched at his chest and Al scratched it absentmindedly. His lips pursed and he didn’t quite meet Oisín’s eyes. “I have no idea what you’re referring to.”
Oisín nudged him with his shoulder, his amusement dampened by a slight frown. “Remember what I said, English.”
Al rubbed harder at his chest. “I remember.” When he took off in the opposite direction, after giving Oisín a mock salute, Draco fell into step behind him. Al couldn’t help but watch him a little closer, note the rigid posture and sure stride and wonder again how? His father was probably the person he related most strongly to and he’d fallen in love with a spoilt, superior prat with his head stuck firmly up his own arse.
Draco made a faux thoughtful sound next to him. “You should try the Amber-Higgins method on the ballroom, don’t you think?”
Al ignored the comment. For a three full minutes, he ignored it. He was the one who could always keep a calm head in his family, even against the likes of Jamie at his most obnoxious, but he broke so quickly here. “I saw what book you were reading the other day, jackarse. Advanced Theories on Deconstruction and Demolition? All that just so you can have the upper hand? You are a petty, spiteful prick, you know that?”
Draco’s face lit up, his expression positively gleeful. “And you have no idea what the Amber-Higgins method is. Oh, you delightful oaf, it’s a ground-breaking corner-stone of your profession.”
“I hate you. I bloody well hate you.” He backed Draco into the peeling wall, teeth bared in his face. Draco’s shoulders pressed flush against the torn wallpaper and Al couldn’t help but try to shove him even further into it. Only his hand didn’t meet thin air. But neither did it meet anything solid. It was a spark, a pressure that pushed back against his skin. Nothing human, more like magic contained and constricted, bound right in front of him. Something burned hot against his skin and he hunched over himself. He dug at his chest with the heel of his palm, hitting the key that was still looped around his neck. The twine was a little slimy from the times when he’d forgotten to take it off before he showered because, other than those times when he did remember, the key hadn’t left him since he’d found it. “What is it?”
Draco grinned, pointed at it through his robes. “The conduit,” he pointed to himself, “to the revenant.”
Al gasped in surprise. “You didn’t show up until I found the key. Why’s it doing this?” The key was starting to lose some of its heat, now just a calmer warmth against his skin.
“The closer you get to the revenant, the more expressive the conduit.”
“Closer?” Al backed away from Draco in distaste. Though he got the feeling he hadn’t meant ‘close’ as it related to physical space. “I’ve only just told you how much I hate you.” And Al did. Draco had his hooks in deeper than anyone else had ever got them, so much so that Al couldn’t ignore him, couldn’t not get the last word, couldn’t even see reason in favour of making his point, couldn’t not know where he was without wanting to vibrate out of his skin because not seeing Draco had to be just as bad as seeing him. Draco was a constant challenge and a constant frustration and that kind of irritation meant he was always on Al’s mind, lest he forget about him for a few seconds and Draco got the edge somehow.
Draco’s eyes twinkled with soundless laughter. “Funny, that.”
Al stopped by Flourish & Blotts on his way back to his flat, his own newly purchased copy of Advanced Theories on Deconstruction and Demolition under his arm. He was planning to flip straight to the section on the Amber-Higgins method just as soon as he was sat down.
Henrietta was hosting some sort of ‘Women on the Force, Let’s Gripe About Wearing a Bra While Chasing Criminals’ session in the living room. She sniffed at him, flicking up her nose and the high, simpering voices had him turning on his heel barely a few minutes after he’d entered.
He considered for half a second before Apparating back to the Ministry. Minogue would make him go home if he went to his office after Oisín’s report that he was ‘obsessing,’ which his partner had been kind enough to give him a heads up about after submitting, but the Hall of Historical Fact was open twenty-four hours. Al took the lift down and smiled distractedly at Liesel, whose eyes were half-lidded as she stood behind the welcome desk, running her finger over some whirring, metal bauble on the counter.
Al noticed her quick glance at the clock followed by a small frown that creased her brow in rather cute fashion. “You do know it’s half-ten, DME Potter? Are you sure you’ve gotten off at the right floor?”
Al rolled his eyes as he strolled past. “Ha bloody ha.” He tucked the book up under his arm further and ducked off to a back table so he wouldn’t be disturbed. He had no idea what kinds of people showed up at half-ten to the Hall of Historical Fact in the basement of the Ministry and he was pretty sure he didn’t want to know.
The Amber-Higgins theory was six chapters in and Al bit his lip, wondering if he could get through nearly all two hundred and thirty pages tonight or if he should just skip ahead to it. Fuck it. Draco would get him with the rest of it sooner or later so he might as well start at the beginning.
“You’ve been here almost nine hours and my shift’s over in only a few minutes.”
Al blinked bleary eyes up at her. Nine hours? That couldn’t be right. He cast a fumbling Tempus and saw that Liesel was right on target. He flexed against the building cramps in his fingers as, only a few pages in, he’d Conjured a quill and parchment to take notes. Which he’d been doing more diligently than he ever had in school, but he’d gotten far past the Amber-Higgins chapter. He grinned to himself, he bet he knew the thing better than Draco ever could now.
Liesel leaned in with her elbows on the table across from him, her shoulders pulling in towards her sternum and emphasising the not-unimpressive heft of her breasts. Al dragged his eyes away from the round curve of them to meet her smirking, blue eyes. “So you should take me out, to a diner, on a date.”
Al’s mouth opened even though no words had formulated themselves in his brain. He should have accepted instantly, he should have been thrilled by this development of Liesel unexpectedly asking him out. He loved when his partners were so forward but, for some reason, this time it didn’t excite him in the slightest. He stared at the girl he’d previously never gone more than three or four days without thinking about, the girl who regularly appeared in his fantasies, and realised he hadn’t thought of her in weeks, since shortly after he’d gotten the Manor actually.
He’d been devoting himself to research, even after he’d given up on ever getting through Minogue’s evil accordion folder. After that it was Malfoy who’d kept him digging for more, anything to understand him and, now, to get the better of him.
He watched Liesel lick her lower lip, creating a shine over the wet skin and he felt nothing for her.
Truthfully, he was annoyed with her for interrupting Draco’s soon-to-be comeuppance, for drawing his attention to the time and making it near impossible for him to continue now that his rational mind had a hold of it. He couldn’t let Draco get that self-satisfied, superior look on his face a second day in a row. He couldn’t let him win. He couldn’t not fight back.
Oh fuck. Oh Merlin. Oh no.
He couldn’t not… Draco. It was all Draco. From the moment he showed up, as much as Al tried to steer his mind away from him, he’d somehow become… everything. The only thing he thought of, from the moment he hopped out of bed in the morning, was how would Draco try to one up him that day, how could Al get him back, to the moment he slid back under his covers – fuming over the latest stunt pulled, analysing every single moment they’d spent together because they did spend every single moment of his day together and even when Draco had stepped back from that… Al went chasing headlong after him.
He couldn’t even see Liesel as a potential… anything anymore. Not with his head full of Draco.
Bloody hell. What had he done to himself? He dug his palms into his eyes, uncaring of the way Liesel’s face fell at his continued silence. He’d let a—a nonentity, a nothing become his everything. Fuck. He knew he was a damaged individual when it came to relationships – never able to do them properly, or passionately – but this had to win the whole ‘utterly fucked in all matters of the heart’ shmorgishborg. Falling in love with a ghost of a ghost.
Merlin’s saggy, wrinkled balls, Potter. What a cock-up of epic proportions.
He went back to his flat, took a cold shower to kill the hard-on he’d gotten from remembering the way Draco chewed on his thumbnail before turning a page and Apparated straight to the Manor, coffee cup in hand and key burning just this side of uncomfortable against his chest. Al lifted it up so it rested against his t-shirt rather than his bare skin. That softened the ache some.
Oisín was already there, chin tilted up as he released smoke in a tight coil. He blinked when he saw Al and smiled as he held out his regular coffee cup.
Al grinned slightly and held up the travel mug that was mostly hidden by his robes.
Oisín stared unapologetically.
Al scoffed. “Shut up, I can take care of myself, old timer.”
Oisín snorted. “This is the first I’ve seen of it.”
Al unceremoniously unscrewed the lid and dumped his own cup into the dirt. He snatched Oisín’s from his still outstretched hand and poured it into his mug. He could hear Oisín sniggering and he couldn’t quite stop the tips of his ears from burning red.
“You made your own cuppa wrong.”
“We’re not discussing it, Oisín.”
Oisín cleared his throat. “Of course not.”
Al took a step inside the house, dumbly holding his breath, and Draco was there in all his long and lengthy glory, propped up against a pillar and looking like he didn’t have a care in the world. Al felt his mouth go dry. So he really hadn’t misinterpreted his feelings there then. He was bum over noggin for this complete plonker. Brilliant.
Draco was studying his nails nonchalantly and he didn’t even look up at Al as he addressed him. “I was thinking the Myers methodology might be helpful when we get to the library.”
“Or we could bypass that simpler technique in favour of the Wareheim approach, which will be more effective if slightly more difficult to control.”
Draco’s grin was blinding and Al felt the bottom drop out of his stomach. “You’ve been studying.”
Al swallowed, forcing a shrug. “Maybe a bit.” He couldn’t seem to find even footing in the same room as Draco now and he could see Oisín staring at him with a frown from his periphery and shame welled up in him. He finally understood what the man had been trying to tell him, and what he’d been too stupid to heed. Oisín had seen it, probably from the beginning, and he’d tried to watch his back like a good partner but Al didn’t think he could’ve avoided it no matter how many times or how early on he’d been cautioned. Draco felt too… inevitable.
He tried to find his equilibrium but he felt nothing short of completely and utterly off balance while Draco teased him about finally growing a brain from very far away and Al absentmindedly followed wherever he led. He knew he was acting differently, biting back with retorts that were a few beats too late and missing insults entirely, but he didn’t know how he’d missed it for so long now that it was there.
Draco engaged him in a way no one and nothing else had ever managed. Even this job paled in comparison and it had, previously, been the one decision Al had been certain of in his life. And now Draco had surpassed it.
Draco stopped and blinked at him. “I’ve been ignoring it but I can’t any longer.”
Al froze. “What, huh?”
“You’ve been staring. Gazing, actually. And not the way you normally do, all murderous and glinty-eyed.” He sounded pleased with those adjectives. “It’s something else.” He stared into Al’s eyes, as though trying to give him a taste of his own medicine. “It’s long, meaningful, warm and…” He stopped dead and backed up a step.
“Tell me you’re not that much of a fool.” His voice was ice, cold and unflinching.
Draco laughed, breathless. “You are.” He backed away further, his shoulders pressing up flush against the wall and then he was sinking back and into it and, in the blink of an eye, he was gone.
Al squeezed his eyes shut and breathed deeply for a long moment. He couldn’t say it was unexpected. It didn’t mean it didn’t hurt like a bitch. He fisted the key next to his heart and held on so tightly that the edges of it dug in painfully.
He couldn’t even bring himself to stay the full day without the constant noise at his back and he barely got out an excuse to Oisín before he was grabbing up his cloak and Apparating himself straight into his bedroom, digging his palms into his eyes. His cloak dropped to the floor, slipping easily from his nerveless fingers while he paced.
Al knew he probably wouldn’t see Draco again, not if Draco got his way, and so he let himself indulge in replaying that last image of him, pressed up against the wall, legs splayed slightly, hips ever so subtly pushed forward in an unintentionally erotic pose. He tossed up a Silencio at his walls and bit his lip, his breaths already coming rougher as he threw himself down on his bed.
He wondered what it would have felt like if he could’ve skimmed his fingers down the front of Draco’s slightly heaving chest, to be able to touch his undoubtedly slip-soft skin. He shrugged out of his own robes gracelessly, recreating the fantasy as best he could by dragging his limp fingertips down his own chest, gasping when they slid over his t-shirt covered nipple. He arched into it, trying to see Draco in his mind’s eye, trying to imagine how he would react if Al could touch him that way.
He wondered if Draco’s hair would be as light as he suspected, if his jaw would be stubbled or smooth. He wondered if Draco would kiss, or bite, or lick, or suck. He groaned, shifting his legs apart and let his hand smooth down the trail of wiry hair beneath his navel.
He imagined sliding his hand around Draco’s waist, his arm fitting easily around it as Draco’s hips tilted towards him. He would tease Draco’s mouth, holding his own just slightly out of reach before slipping it to the side so he could leave his mark on the unblemished expanse of his throat, biting as much as he sucked, tonguing as much as he kissed, all the while feeling Draco thrust into him, against him.
He would glide his lips up the underside of his jaw, slip his hands up his torso after roughly untucking his button-down and easing under it. The feel of being able to curve his hands around Draco’s hips, proprietary and controlling as he pulled Draco flush, feeling the throb of Draco’s prick against his thigh, knowing he wanted it as bad as Al did. Even locked in his imagination as it was, it still left him squirming.
Al pushed down his trousers and rucked up his t-shirt with a groan. He sucked his thumb and forefinger into the wet heat of his mouth before he rubbed at a dusky nipple with them while his hips thrust into the hand curling around the base of his dick. His back arched wantonly as he writhed in his sheets, hand pumping himself slowly. He moaned loudly as his fingers skittered up the length of his cock before forming a tight fist and enclosing himself. He bit his lip, panting hard, imagining Draco’s long fingers dipping into his trousers and pulling him out, watching himself pump Al’s prick with those mischievous grey eyes.
Al squeezed tight around the head of his cock, precome leaking copiously as he was able to see that expression so clearly before him. Draco’s hand dropped lower, palming his sac, pushing back even further to skim a finger over his hole. He felt it flutter in response and his hips jerked up sharply. He wanted Draco. Wanted him to tongue him and fuck him and wanted to bury himself inside that seductive skin and see if Draco would scream for him.
His thumb brushed his slit as he buried a finger slick with nothing but his own precome inside himself and he came with a rough whimper that scraped his throat raw. He lay on his bed, chest heaving as he gasped for breath and the scenario skittering away to the recesses of his mind. Regret and disappointment cleaved at him as it settled in his gut how truly unattainable that fantasy was.
At least he wouldn’t have to face Draco only a few hours after wanking to the slope of his body and the press of his cock. He had no doubt he’d spend the rest of the deconstruction being avoided like a bad case of Dragon Pox.
So far his prediction had proven true and Draco hadn’t even skirted the edges of his vision.
“He figured it out?”
He shouldn’t have been surprised that Oisín had realised how poorly it’d gone, and how quickly it’d gone so poorly. He was sure he looked like death warmed up after barely a few days without sniping back and forth with Draco. He glanced up, somewhat amazed to find genuine concern in Oisín’s face. “Hell, if you did, Irish, it was only a matter of time, right?”
Oisín gripped his shoulder, squeezing tightly. “It’s for the best, lad. I know it doesn’t seem like it right in this moment, but you’ll be glad for it one day. You couldn’t have him, no matter how badly you wanted him.”
Al felt a lump rise in his throat and he swallowed it down painfully. He nodded his head, more to stop the flow of conversation than to indicate his agreement.
“I’m taking you out for a Blishen’s, and you can listen to Minogue and I ‘talk Irish at each other’ until even you can’t understand us, all right? That way all you’ll have to do is sit and look pretty.”
Al sniffed hard and drew his shoulders back. “Yeah, all right.”
The key burned, even through his shirt.
It had barely taken a full day absent from the constant, nagging presence before he was going over every minute detail of his time with Draco, despite his fervent efforts to shift his brain’s focus to anything else. It was like being told not to think about a glittery Bundimun. That was clearly the only thing you were going to be focussing on for the next hour. As soon as he’d sat with it a second, it hit him with the force of a stampede of Nundus and he felt like the world’s worst prat for not realising it sooner.
He knew exactly why Draco wanted to see the Manor destroyed, the berk, and it left him feeling half-sick and so horribly, horribly empty as the thought centred. He snatched up his robes from the back of the kitchen chair, ignoring Henrietta’s squawk of indignation when he knocked it flat in his haste and Apparated straight to the Manor.
He ruffled the back of his tangled hair, pulling on his robes against the chill that now filtered in from all the broken sides of the Manor. “Draco?” Al cast a Sonorous on his voice. “Draco?” He rolled his lips into his mouth, cancelling the charm. Draco would hear him regardless now he had his attention, Al was sure of it. He huffed out a short laugh. “This is so utterly fucked. For more reasons than even you know. Forget that you’re not really Draco Malfoy, just some clever representation of what he might be – forever stuck in the past just like the rest of this place – but I’m not even the first Potter to fall in love with nineteen years worth of you. How bloody pathetic is that?” Al snorted. “My dad got that honour. You even said it when I first met you, that I was the spit of him. Inside and out as it turns out.”
He drew in a deep breath, watching his own chest rise with it. “I know why you want to see it crumble to nothing. It was obvious when I just fucking sat down and looked and, Draco, Merlin. You’re wrong. You’re so, so wrong.”
“What am I so wrong about then, Potter?” And there he was, lounging against the balustrade like he’d never been gone. His body language was trying for easy but there was too much stiffness in every line of him. His eyes were hooded, hidden.
“You didn’t deserve what they did. You didn’t deserve what happened to you and your family.” Draco’s jaw clenched and he looked away sharply. Al took a step forward and he flinched back. It hurt more than Al would’ve thought it could. The key seared into his skin and it had to be leaving a mark, something permanent, and Al almost laughed aloud at that. Another Potter scarred by an unselfish love. Al’s voice stretched, strained, bottomed out with a bone-deep sincerity. “The Malfoy line isn’t something that needs to be snuffed out and forgotten, lost to history. It’s not evil or undeserving of being remembered. You were not the villain, Draco, and you didn’t – don’t – warrant being reduced to ashes. You can still restore it.” Al licked his lip, steeling himself. “I think you should.”
Draco’s eyes widened and something flickered across his face, something like gratitude and regret. He took a step forward and his lips quirked at one end, like he was trying for a smile but couldn’t make his mouth comply. “You were right, about why I was letting it be razed to the ground.” His lips twitched once more. “Now it needs to be done for another reason.”
Draco’s expression was solemn. “You know it can’t stay, not now.” Draco reached out a hand, placing the heart of his palm flat over the key’s design and Al gasped as it burned even more, magic sparking in and around his skin. “You want it for all the wrong reasons, the same way I did. You and your Irish, you have to take it apart until there’s nothing left.” Draco’s mouth tightened, eyelids fluttering slightly. “Because now I want it for the right ones.”
Al stared up into his unmoved grey eyes. Didn’t he understand that Al couldn’t? He’d never had this before, hadn’t even thought himself capable and now that he knew it was possible he was being asked to destroy it? How was he meant to live with that? His voice dropped, tinged dark. “I meant it when I said I hated you.”
Draco smirked properly, pressed the fleeting tingle of magic against his cheek before he was gone.
Oisín did the last room a week and a half later while Draco stayed far enough away from him that he no longer even lingered on the farthest edges of Al’s senses. Al was bereft but he knew the true feeling of loss had yet to hit him. He watched as the walls fell to nothing, disintegrating into empty air while Oisín’s wand guided them to their destruction. It was the only comfort he could offer, doing it himself rather than having Al take it apart. Al appreciated it more than he would likely ever be able to put into words. They both stared down at the last brick, Al sitting on nothing but worm-churned dirt and an empty feeling.
Oisín caught his eye and Al shook his head.
“Draco?” His voice was a rasp of a sound. Pathetic even to his own ears.
Oisín crouched down in front of him, his big, strong hand eclipsing his jaw. “It was never real. Real as it felt, it was an illusion.”
“Is that supposed to make me feel better?”
Oisín smiled grimly. “Yes, boss. That’s supposed to make you feel better.”
Al offered him a smile that was close to watery and nodded once. It was the only affirmative he could bring himself to give. Together they watched the last stone unravel, solid matter slowly unpacking itself in a swirl of fluttering sparks and the brief chill of a sudden breeze. The key grew cold and lifeless in his hand and with its warmth went all that Al had left inside him.
He was hollowed out, scorched and barren. He stood, hardened his jaw and dropped the key in his pocket and – with a nod to Oisín – he Disapparated. He knew, useless as it was now, he would never let it out of arm’s reach again.
The next time Liesel looked over at him with a nervous hitch to her smile and asked for a sliver of his time while her hands shook at her sides, Al said yes. His smile felt fake and foreign on his lips and he knew his eyes would only portray a cold deadness but Liesel laughed and flashed white teeth at him and brushed his shin with her ankle.
Al watched it all through a haze while he rolled the small, intricate key over his knuckles, a shiver creeping through him each time the cool silver met with his skin. It was the best sensation he’d felt in months.