A fresh wave of tears threatened to fall as Draco wandered through the outskirts of the Muggle village closest to Malfoy Manor. It was a death sentence to be in the Muggle world, but he didn't care: Astoria was dead. He gritted his teeth, stopping his grief from spilling over.
Draco was so sick of the empty words of sympathy from his father and supposed friends. He just needed some time away. To be alone. To come to grips with the fact that Astoria was gone. That he'd never again hear her sweet laughter or clever tongue. Never get to hold her close.
She had been beautiful: both inside and out. He had loved the feel of her silky, long, dark hair and the kindness in her brilliant blue eyes. Even if she had been too weak to ever bear a child, he'd never considered divorce. He'd been happy; she'd been it for him.
Astoria had only been dead for a week, but Father was already pushing for him to petition for another wife. Draco had less than three months to find a half-blood to marry. But with Astoria gone, life was dull and colourless. Draco wasn't sure if he wanted to keep on living.
As he trudged along, fierce late-January gusts began to blow the snow on the ground into the air and around his body. With the increasing winds, the falling snow quickly changed from flurries into a snow squall, and ten minutes later, he couldn't see ahead more than five feet.
Draco stopped in front of the first building he found that had its interior lights on; it had a hanging sign in the shape of a swan but no name to clue him to what type of establishment it was. He tried to learn more by peering through the windows, but condensation obstructed his view. At least he knew it was warm inside. He opened the door and stepped in.
As Draco shook off his cloak, he looked around and discovered he'd entered a well-lit pub. Only a handful of people were scattered about, talking in low voices or nursing drinks. It was toasty, and inviting music played from two square boxes hanging behind the bar. The pub was quiet enough that Draco could think but had enough background noise that he wouldn't feel alone. This would do until the storm passed.
Traipsing over to the bar, he sat down at an end corner. He kept the hood of his cloak up though, his hair colour was too distinctive, but he did take off his gloves and unwrapped his scarf from around his neck.
"What can I get you?" a brash voice asked.
Turning his head, Draco found a dowdy, brown-eyed barmaid with greying red hair standing behind the bar.
"Firewhisky," Draco muttered.
"Never heard of it. For whiskies, we carry Jameson and Bushmills. But if you're feeling fancy, I think we may have a bottle of Green Spot somewhere."
Green, his and Astoria's favourite colour. Looking down at his hands, Draco smiled weakly, feeling tears pool in his eyes. "Green Spot, then," he replied, his voice sounding wobbly.
The barmaid stood there a beat longer, and Draco thought that she might say something more, but fortunately, she didn't.
A few minutes later, a glass of whisky was placed in front of him. Its amber colour looked inviting, so Draco picked it up and drank it down in one gulp. It didn't have quite the same bite as Firewhisky, but the flavour was passable. He set the glass back down with a loud tap.
"Another?" the barmaid asked.
Draco nodded and watched as she poured him another finger of whisky. Since the funeral, he'd spent most days bladdered and had no plans for today being any different.
Swallowing his second glass, he swiveled on his stool and let his eyes roam around the pub, spotting something of interest.
Once his glass had been filled for the third time, Draco stood from his seat. He carried his drink carefully, not wanting to spill a drop, and walked towards the back corner booth where a chessboard rested on top of the table.
Sliding into the booth, he picked up the Black Queen. Instead of marble, she was carved of wood and covered in paint, which had started to chip away around the bottom edge. Her features looked worn from the many time's fingers had held her.
"Do you play?" a woman asked with an Irish lilt, lifting a white pawn off the board.
Draco looked up.
The woman who stood near him had rich auburn hair and fair skin covered in freckles. She wasn't beautiful, one might even call her plain, but her brown-topaz eyes held an unexpected warmth and intelligence. Strangely, she reminded him of Granger. Another person Draco felt he had failed, just as he had Astoria. He swallowed hard and glanced back down at the Black Queen in his hands.
Flipping her hair over her shoulder, the woman glanced behind her.
Draco watched as the barmaid gave her a quick nod, and the woman faced him once more.
"I'm Sarah." She stuck out her hand.
He looked at it for a moment before shaking and releasing it quickly.
"Draco," he mumbled.
"That's a funny name." She tilted her head to the side and studied him.
Draco wished he could disappear. He didn't want to be examined by this bothersome Muggle and only wanted to be left alone. Shrugging in response, he focused his attention back onto the chess set and returned the Queen to its position.
Sarah sat across from him and placed the pawn that was in her hand on the board in an opening move.
Draco frowned and looked up to see Sarah staring at him expectantly.
"I can teach you if you don't know how to play," she offered.
Draco narrowed his eyes at her and moved his Bishop's Pawn forward, beginning the Sicilian Defence. His lips twitched when she fell for it and placed her Knight on the F3 square.
From there, the game progressed, and Draco forgot about Astoria for a while. He forgot about refilling his drink, and when the barmaid set a glass of water on the table for him, he drank it without thinking, concentrating more on his next move.
He and Sarah played three consecutive games, and Draco won each one. He felt vindicated; while Muggles might know chess, wizards were still superior.
They were about to start their fourth game when the barmaid set a steaming plate of Shepherd's pie in front of each of them.
"You two have been at it for hours. Time to eat," the barmaid insisted.
"Thank you…uh…" Draco had never caught the barmaid's name.
"Mary." She grinned at him.
He felt the corners of his lips turn up slightly.
"Sarah, here, is my granddaughter. Freshly home from finishing uni. She graduated at the top of her class."
Sarah reddened. "Gram…"
"Och, no need to be modest." Mary patted Sarah's shoulder and looked at Draco. "Sarah won't be staying here in this little village forever. I'm sure she'll be heading off to a large city like London once she settles on a job." Smiling, she made her way back to the bar.
Draco had never heard of a 'uni' but guessed it was the name of her school; it didn't sound very distinguished.
"What type of work are you looking for?" he asked her and took a bite of Shepherd's pie. It was the first time he'd spoken to her. Whilst they'd played, she had chatted, whereas Draco had kept his answers monosyllabic.
"Data science," Sarah answered.
Draco lifted an eyebrow; he had no idea what 'data science' was. Should he ask her to elaborate? Or would that make him look stupid? He kept his mouth shut; he didn't want to look foolish in front of a Muggle, even if he knew he would never see her again. It just wasn't in his nature. He turned his attention back to his food.
"A data scientist looks at datasets and uses them to extract meaning and interpret data. It uses a lot of statistics and maths, as well as machine learning and computers, and mostly deals with collecting and cleansing data," Sarah added with a shrug.
"What kind of data?" Draco asked as he thought about what he did in the Research Center. His work seemed awfully similar to what Sarah was describing.
"Oh, all kinds. It depends on where the work is performed. If it's for the government, it will be things like population data, housing statistics, maybe crime data. If it's for a business, it will be marketing data or product sales numbers, things like that."
"Huh." Draco didn't comment further. It, indeed, sounded almost exactly like what he did.
"The biggest part of my job will likely be computer programming. As I'm sure you know, computers are everything these days, and machine learning is a huge part of it."
"I...see..." Draco said. Half of what she said was gibberish to him. Computer programming? Machine learning? He didn't know what any of that meant. "Why haven't you decided on a job?"
"Just felt I needed a bit of break after uni. I went directly after A Levels. So I didn't have a gap year. Now I'm thinking about taking one."
Merlin, her answer to his simple question wasn't any better, Draco thought as he tried to process what she had said. Gap year? Did that mean taking a year off from schooling? He snorted. He wouldn't know much about taking a year off. Since fifth year, his life had included non-stop warfare, and now, twelve years later, his life wasn't much better.
Sensing that his mind had wandered, Sarah asked, "What about you? What do you do?"
"I...work in research for the government." He hoped that was a safe enough answer.
"Oh? Research?" She brightened. "Which department? "
"I can't talk about it." Draco shrugged and then smiled. The wizarding world had secret departments like the Department of Mysteries. He betted that the Muggle world did too.
"Oh!" Sarah's eyes widened in comprehension. She lowered her voice before asking, "Is that why you're here in Wiltshire? For research?"
Draco nervously fiddled with his wand in his pocket and shook his head. "No, I live near here. I don't come into the village often, but today, I had to get out of the house."
His heart sank as he remembered why.
"Oh, right then," Sarah said awkwardly, sensing Draco's saddening mood.
They finished the rest of their meals in uneasy silence.
It was only after they had eaten that Draco realised he couldn't pay with Galleons. He reached for his coin bag, wondering if he could transfigure his Galleons, but he didn't even know what Muggle money looked like.
"Er..." Draco stood up. He could feel his face heating up. "Where's the toilet?"
Sarah pointed at a hallway located on the other side of the pub, and Draco spotted a toilet sign on the wall next to the hallway opening.
"See the sign?" she asked.
"It'll be the second door on the right."
"Thank you," Draco said quickly before sprinting away.
As soon as he entered the single-person toilet, he locked the door and then started to pace. What was he going to do? The obvious solution would be to cast a spell. Maybe Imperio Mary into thinking he'd already paid. A sick feeling in Draco's belly told him that wouldn't sit right with him. He didn't want to lower himself and steal someone's free will. Another option was to just leave. But a Malfoy not paying a bill would be nearly as bad. Then an idea struck.
First, he pulled out a few Galleons from his coin bag. Next, he cast a Disillusionment Charm over himself, the sensation of a raw egg trickling down his head making him shiver. After glancing into the mirror to ensure he was invisible, Draco made his way back into the main room.
He found Sarah still sitting in the booth, deep in thought, and tapping a pawn against her lips. He smiled and walked behind the bar, stopping near the till. When Mary went into the kitchen, he opened the drawer of the till with a wordless Alohomora and found coins and...colourful paper.
Unsure of whether coins or paper had the higher denomination, Draco Transfigured two of his Galleons into 'Twenty Pounds' and another two into 'Twenty Pence.' Then he closed the till as quietly as he could and rushed back to the toilet to remove his Disillusionment. He wondered if he should Transfigure more for later—Later? You're never coming back here! He shook his head but, in the end, Transfigured a few more Galleons anyway. Just in case.
Draco hurried out of the toilet and returned to his seat. Sarah had replaced her pawn.
"Fancy another game?" she asked.
Glancing out the window and seeing it was dark, Draco shook his head. "I can't. I have to get back."
Sarah frowned. "Alright... Let me fetch the bill for your drinks." Smiling, she said, "The food's on the house."
As she strode to the bar, Draco had to turn away. Her denim trousers hugged every curve of her bum and legs; it was scandalous.
Sarah chinwagged with Mary for a bit and then retrieved a slip of paper that must be his bill.
"Here you go," Sarah said, handing over a small sheet of paper.
Rising from his seat, Draco reviewed his bill. 'Black Swan Pub' was printed at the top, and his total was £7.20. He pulled out one note and one coin and offered both to Sarah.
Accepting both and taking a step towards the till, she said, "Let me get your change."
Draco sighed in relief. "No, keep the change," he insisted.
"Thanks," Sarah beamed. "And thank you for the games. Maybe we can play again sometime."
Draco gave her the smallest of smiles. "You must enjoy losing." Striding towards the exit, he chuckled softly as she promised that, next time, she would have him eating his words.
Once outside, Draco put on his gloves, wrapped his scarf around his neck, and then just stood for a moment. His heart felt surprisingly lighter. However, the moment was short-lived when he recalled how much Astoria loved freshly fallen snow. He sighed and began his trek back towards the Manor.
Five days after his first visit to the Black Swan Pub, Draco was back. It had been unintentional. He'd left the Manor only wanting a nice walk around the grounds, but instead, his feet had brought him back to the small Muggle village of Tilshead.
At the moment, he stood in front of the entrance of the pub and debated whether he should enter or not.
The door opened, startling him. As a patron exited, Draco spotted Sarah inside, and their eyes met for a split second. Draco made his decision. He grabbed the door before it could close and found himself walking inside.
Once he had settled at the bar, Mary smiled at him and sauntered over. "Whiskey?"
Draco nodded. "Please."
"Fancy seeing you here," Sarah commented, plopping onto the stool next to him.
Draco turned to see a playful smile on her lips. At that moment, he thought she looked beautiful. Her smile turned her ordinary face into a captivating one, and he couldn't find it in himself to shut down her attempt to socialise with him.
They played chess again. This time, she won two out of four games, and Draco felt his world shift: Muggles weren't as inferior and unintelligent as he'd thought. He considered himself quite skilled at chess; it was rare that he lost to anyone except Severus.
They ate once more, this time a mouth-watering steak-and-kidney pie, which was so delicious it put the food at the Manor to shame.
"Who's the cook?" Draco asked, scooping up another forkful.
"Oh, Miss Maggie from the village does. But they're all my grandmother's recipes." Sarah grinned. "Good, isn't it?"
"Very," Draco replied, finding himself grinning back.
He left when it was once again dark outside. When he arrived home, Mother was waiting for him.
"Merlin, Draco! Where have you been? You've been gone for hours?" Narcissa shrilled as he shed his cloak and gloves.
Draco unwound his scarf as he thought about his answer. He couldn't very well tell her that he'd been off in the Muggle village.
"Just a long walk, Mother. I needed to clear my head."
Narcissa apparently didn't believe him.
"Really, the grounds are beautiful with the freshly fallen snow. And I've been sheltering myself in this house, drowning my sorrows instead of dealing with them." While he'd been gone, Draco didn't feel like he'd dealt with his emotions over Astoria's death at all, but now, he did feel a spark of something. He wasn't sure what it was quite yet.
"Alright," Narcissa agreed. "Let's get you warmed up with a spot of tea."
She beckoned him forth, and he smiled softly. Mother believed tea solved everything.
It soon became a regular occurrence for Draco to play chess and share dinner with Sarah. He continued to wear his cloak when he visited, but once inside the pub, lowered his hood.
More and more, Draco found himself laughing with Sarah; something he hadn't done with anyone other than Astoria in recent years. But unlike Astoria, he found himself laughing so hard tears would roll down his cheeks. This Muggle girl brought out something in him that he hadn't known he had.
Today, since a loud crowd was watching a football match on the telly, they decided to go for a walk.
It hadn't taken Draco long to figure out football was a Muggle version of Quidditch. He had watched a few matches with Sarah. She would cheer for Southampton when they played. The residents of Tilshead seemed to support Southampton and Swindon equally, which was why the crowd at the pub was so large and rowdy: Southampton and Swindon were playing each other.
Just a month ago, Draco couldn't have imagined he would know what football or a telly was. He'd learnt a lot about the Muggle world spending hours every week at the pub.
"Are you sure you wouldn't rather be watching the match?" Draco asked Sarah.
She shook her head, the bobble on her hat bouncing as she did. "Nope. This is better." She grinned at him and looped her arm through his.
Draco's heart lurched and then raced. They hadn't touched before, and he thought that having a Muggle touch him would make his skin crawl. But he rather liked the way her arm felt against his. He moved closer, tucking her further into his side, and thought he saw a grin on her face before she looked away.
When they returned to the pub, they were in high spirits and were relieved to find it mostly empty. Draco ordered them each a shot of whisky to warm them up.
"Cheers," Sarah grinned, tapping her glass against his.
Draco returned the grin, and they both swallowed their drinks in one go.
Sarah poured them each another drink and then guided Draco to the corner booth that had become theirs. Instead of sitting across from him, as usual, she urged him further in so she could sit beside him.
"What are you doing?" Draco asked. He'd wanted to play a few games of chess.
Sarah took a look around the pub; nobody was paying them any attention. She turned back to Draco and licked her lips, leaning closer to him.
Draco froze as Sarah closed her eyes, clearly expecting him to kiss her. He couldn't kiss her, he'd just—
All of his thoughts vanished when Sarah pressed her mouth to his. Her lips were soft and warm, and before Draco knew what he was doing, he was kissing her back. He cupped her head with one hand, pulling her against him, and just let himself feel. Feel the way her soft skin felt under his fingers. The way her searching kisses felt against his lips. It was heavenly. Draco never wanted it to end.
It didn't end, not there anyway. Not that night.
Draco followed Sarah up to her room above the pub. They tumbled into her bed with a passion he'd nearly forgotten.
Later, when they were both sated and exhausted, he wrapped her in his arms and fell asleep: it was the soundest sleep he'd had in years.
The next morning, Draco had to explain to his mother why he'd been out all night. He lied. He couldn't tell her he'd slept with a Muggle. He couldn't tell anyone. If the Dark Lord discovered what Draco had been up to, he would kill him and Sarah and, likely, her entire family without a second thought.
After speaking with his mother, he went up to his bedroom: the one he used to share with Astoria.
It didn't take long for the shame of sleeping with Sarah to set in. He'd been married to Astoria for nearly a decade, and in the last few years, they hadn't had much in the way of a physical relationship, but he'd always been faithful to her. And now, he felt like he'd cheated on her.
But he hadn't. Astoria had crossed into the Veil. He wouldn't be able to see her again until he also met his end.
Draco sat hard on his bed. His soul ached, and he couldn't seem to catch his breath. How could he have betrayed Astoria like this? How callous was he, thinking with his cock instead of his brain? Worse, Sarah was a Muggle. Maybe he truly had a death wish because the Dark Lord would surely kill him. He grimaced as the thought crossed his mind and shook his head. No. He didn't want to die now. Despite the fact that it would allow him to be with Astoria once more, he felt like there was more he had to do. More to live for. And the thought of not seeing Sarah again warred with his confusion over his feelings for Astoria. Could he still love Astoria and honour her memory if he wanted to be with someone else?
As a child, Draco had always known when he'd made a bad decision; he'd get this sick, uneasy feeling deep in his belly. It took him a while to put a name to it: guilt. But his emotion over sleeping with Sarah didn't feel like that. He knew he should feel guilty, but what he and Sarah shared, it didn't make him feel wrong. What they had felt right. And maybe that was his answer. He could still love Astoria and want Sarah. He wasn't foolish enough to think that he loved Sarah, but he thought that given enough time it may become that. And that contemplation both thrilled and terrified him.
For the rest of the day, Draco worked on strengthening his Occlumency shields, burying Sarah's beautiful brown eyes deep within his mind.