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Draco taps a restless finger on a cherry wood side table, itching for a cigarette. Daphne’s engagement ball is excruciatingly dull and even Astoria’s scathing comments about the guests aren’t doing it for him tonight. Draco attends these social events on Astoria’s arm, taunting the stiff men with the booming laughs, shocking the snotty women gossiping behind raised hands and taking the piss off their peers — girls who discuss the exact shade of white for proper debutante robes and boys talking about coming into their own vault when they turn twenty-one. He would be one of them, he knows, if his parents hadn’t fucked up so spectacularly during the war and if he hadn’t met Astoria. But for his parents’ blind allegiance to Voldemort, he’d be one of those arguing about the drain St Mungo’s is in the post-war economy, sucking up to guests in preparation for a career in politics, and sniffing coke in the loos with his hand down a man’s pants. Meanwhile, his “wife” would be mingling with guests, exquisitely dressed, and lamenting Granger’s proposal to curtail wizards’ rights over the ownership of house-elves.

Instead, he’s one of the few that knows deep in his bones how rotten things have become, and how hard it’s been these past four years to clean the festering wound in their society that gave rise to the war in the first place. The ally his parents unwittingly provided had taken it upon herself to introduce Draco to the joys of Muggle living and he hasn’t looked back.  

He’s eager to leave the ball now. Love Muscle is a night that takes place on rare Saturdays, and underneath his robes he’s wearing tight jeans and a T-shirt that would give his mother a stroke. In the back pocket rests a platinum plastic card called Visa, which Astoria helped him acquire and which gives him access to anything he fancies in the Muggle world. He has the looks and the money and the breeding that propels him straight to the top of the Muggle food chain with the added bonus that no one knows who he is.

He checks his watch. The betrothal ceremony finished over an hour ago, Duncan MacDougal and Daphne holding hands as green stalks slithered around their wrists and joined them, while their mothers wept and their fathers looked proud. ‘Another hour and we’re out of here?’ he asks Astoria.

She’s been knocking back mead like water. There’s firewhisky aplenty from the MacDougal distilleries, but it’s a big occasion and the parents of the happy couple splashed out. The buffet is heaving with salmon puffs, Madeira-glazed veal and tuna tartare, but this mead is a rare treat: made by the vampire monks of an obscure monastery in Budapest, it brings up a happy memory with every sip, which makes it almost addictive.

‘This is quite something.’ Astoria offers him a taste. He sips and feels the rush of alcohol sliding down his throat, bringing to mind a memory of a particularly happy time in the male toilets of Heaven; one of the first clubs Astoria had dragged him to and still a favourite. His cheeks heat up as the memory washes over him and he smiles to Astoria, who smiles back, lost in a reminiscence of her own.

Draco’s happy memories are all about sex. And partying and Quidditch and Astoria. But mostly sex.

A wizard ambles past, throwing a frown towards Astoria’s partly-shaven head and her nose and eyebrow piercings, and shakes his head when he notes Draco’s eyeliner. Draco delivers his finest sneer, but he also holds Astoria’s waist tighter. It’s a reflex, automatic, part of the façade they’re putting on. To his surprise, Astoria steps back this time and abandons her empty goblet on a nearby table next to a bouquet of dusty pink peonies.

‘Need to talk to you,’ she says.

‘That doesn’t sound good.’

‘It is,’ she insists. ‘Or rather, it will be.’

Draco peers at her with curiosity as she deliberates, bites her lip, and sweeps back the long hair that covers half her scalp, brown locks with blond ends. Draco has never told her, but he fucking admires her. She’s bold and a little bonkers, and the two became great friends ever since their parents set them up on a date, one in a long row of matchmaking disasters that both had endured.

It makes sense to pretend they’re together. Draco is certain they would be if they weren’t both so very gay.

A wizard jostles him on the way to the buffet and Draco hisses under his breath, but returns his careless apology with a stilted smile. A flick of his wand makes the wizard trip and drop his spinach and feta tart on his silk robes.

Astoria rolls her eyes. ‘You’re a menace.’

Draco tucks his wand deeper. ‘Let me have my fun. This ball is killing my will to live.’

Astoria leads him away from the babble of the party and towards the open window, where long amber curtains flutter in a rain-scented breeze. The late autumn sky blushes violet and pink, and tips, ever so slowly, into night. Eyes and murmurs follow their progress through the crowded room. Astoria’s dress is exceptionally elegant, but Muggle, and Draco barely escaped prison, a fact people carefully avoid mentioning in polite conversation, but never forget.

Astoria takes his hands in hers. ‘Will you do me a favour?’

‘Anything,’ Draco replies.

She squeezes his hands. ‘This… thing we have. It has to end.’

Draco is startled. ‘What thing?’

‘Us. That thing. It’s just that — I want to meet someone, Draco. Yes,’ she stops him with a gesture, ‘I already meet girls, I know. But I want to stop pretending. Daphne says mum and dad might be OK with me dating a witch—’

‘Would they?’ Draco interrupts, genuinely surprised.

‘Daphne says that now is the best time. They’re so happy with her getting engaged that they might take the news better than we think. And I want to. I want to tell them.’

Draco shudders. His coming out to his parents, three months into his “relationship” with Astoria, was an occasion that the monks’ happy-memory mead will never elicit. ‘So, you’re — breaking up with me?’

‘I won’t be your beard anymore, is what I’m saying. We’re still friends. We’ll see each other all the time.’

Draco glances at his parents gliding majestically on the dancefloor to the sound of a waltz. They know he and Astoria are a sham, but as long as Draco appears to be attached in public, they can’t spring up another “unexpected” guest at dinner or drag him to a hunting weekend that the daughter of Such And Such also happens to attend.

‘You do realise you’re leaving me prey to my parents’ matchmaking attempts?’

‘You indulge them, Draco, and you know it,’ she says, and Draco drops her hands. They’ve had this conversation before. ‘I admire you for coming out to your parents and you’re the reason I want to do it. Coming out is the hard part; but you’re still allowing them to talk about marriage when it’s the last thing on your mind…’

‘They’ll stop, eventually—’

‘No, they won’t. You know Slytherins.’

Draco does. Communication is an intricate dance for them, alluding and hinting, deflecting and avoiding, circling around a topic but never quite discussing it.

‘Unless you’re more direct about your wishes,’ Astoria insists, ‘they’ll pretend you said nothing and keep bringing more of these insipid people to dinner. You need to be — dare I say it — a Gryffindor about this.’

‘Don’t be crass.’

Stars come out in the sky, shy at first, huddling together in the east. In the gardens, the house-elves are lighting a small fire. The betrothed couple will jump over it three times to signify their commitment to overcoming obstacles. Draco hopes Daphne has practiced her leaps. The music stops and a silver bell silences the chatter; heads turn to Duncan’s father who invites the guests to join them outside. Draco checks his watch again, impatient to get away. He feels slightly overwhelmed by Astoria’s request, their impending break-up, even if it’s all a show, and needs a proper drink.

She cups his cheek, her hazel eyes reading his face. ‘I can’t leave yet,’ she says. ‘But I know you’re eager to go. Say hi to Blaise for me.’

Draco nods and starts to leave, but Astoria doesn’t let go yet. ‘This is a good thing,’ she reminds him. ‘Let’s be brave and be happy.’

‘A very Gryffindorian sentiment. Not my style,’ he comments. ‘Hopelessly in love with the wrong man is more … me.’ He winks at her, pretends it’s a joke when it isn’t, and he sees in her eyes that she sees right through him. He kisses her cheek and Apparates to Blaise’s bar, pulling his robes off when he arrives.

‘What on earth are you wearing?’ Blaise asks when Draco approaches, pushing through the crowd of well-dressed, beautiful people, who sway in the rhythm of a sultry, smoky tune. His eyebrows rise as he looks Draco up and slowly down. ‘You look like a right tart.’ Knowing Blaise, that’s high praise.

‘That’s the idea,’ Draco winks.

‘Muggle clubbing later, then? I think I’ll branch out, you know. As soon as the bar is making enough profit.’

Draco commandeers the stool next to him and orders a Finnish vodka-soda from one of the Patils. Blaise opened this bar a year ago and it has become the latest sensation in the witching world. He employs the Patil twins, the Carrow twins he met in the Slug Club as well as an army of twinks to work behind the long wooden bar and serve the tables, while he mingles, drinking something expensive and flirting with scantily dressed witches, and calls this a job. Often Draco spends his evenings in a similar manner, drinking shots and flirting with wizards who’ll flirt back but won’t date him, and he also calls this a job — mainly in his parents’ hearing.

‘How was the ball?’ Blaise asks, gesturing to Parvati that Draco’s drink is on the house.

‘Hell is a mansion full of boring people and crystal figurines,’ Draco says. He sips his vodka, thinks for a moment and shrugs. ‘The food was nice, though.’

‘I don’t know if I should serve food here,’ Blaise thinks out loud. Conversation for Blaise is an elastic band, stretched for a brief time before it snaps back to him. He named the bar Blaze.

‘You could do chips,’ Draco teases and Blaise shudders. Draco swirls his glass and watches the ice cubes bump into each other. ‘I’m single now.’ The bitterness in his voice startles him, and Blaise revolves in his seat, attention — for once — snapped.

‘Do you mind it? It was a pretense, no?’

It was, but the pretense came with clubbing nights and cinema evenings, dinner at Muggle and wizarding restaurants and walks by the river on warm nights. Astoria knows about the thing he never told anyone else, although Draco suspects that Blaise might have guessed. She often comes to his flat in London after a night out, sometimes with a girl, spends the night in his guest bedroom and cooks breakfast in the morning. Draco feels bereft, a pang of loss, even though none of it needs to stop altogether. It’s just that Astoria would like a girl to do these things with, which leaves Draco with no one and certainly not the one he wants.

Blaise nods as he listens to Draco. ‘I can come crash at your guestroom with a girl, if it’ll ease the transition,’ he offers and Draco rolls his eyes.

‘And what’s worse is that my parents will be already conspiring to introduce me to someone before the week is out.’

‘Well, then, you’ll have to find yourself a new fake girlfriend,’ Blaise suggests and stands. ‘Or dare I say it, a real boyfriend.’ He pats Draco on the back and is off being a host. Draco pushes back his empty glass and Disapparates to south London where men are already queuing outside the club.  

≈◊≈

 

Harry likes the clubs. He likes dancing, being lost in a rhythm that makes his heart pound almost outside his chest. He loves the darkness, the writhing bodies around him, all together and alone at the same time, all surrendering to this peculiar music and its promise: oblivion. He closes his eyes and raises his hands and shouts with the rest of them — and for a moment, he’s not the Boy Who Lived but a boy like all the others. Ginny, her hair a long curtain of fire, laughs as she jumps up and down, holding the waist of some girl she pulled. Ron and Hermione dance together, laughing at private jokes whispered in each other’s ear. Harry can make out Luna’s bright hair under the strobing lights. This music is a godsend, he thinks, as the tune changes (it’s a good one) and the whole club whistles and rises to their feet, heaving as one, a beast of many hearts, furiously alive.

When they leave the club, they traipse down Charing Cross trying to find somewhere to get some food. London is dark and drizzly, full of the odour of car exhaust and rubbish. Saturday nights smell of lager and rain; they sound like car tires slashing the wet street, off-tune singing and a siren wailing in the distance. They taste like freedom, like forgetfulness, like life. There are moments that all thoughts of Will vanish like slippery dreams that can’t hold up to the daylight.

Shit, how he misses him.

The chip shop is full, lines of intoxicated people shoving, flirting, nibbling on too hot chips, the sharp smell of vinegar in the air. They get their food and sit down on the curb, after casting a discreet Scourgify. Ginny’s not with them. She’s stayed at the club snogging that girl, and Luna is half-asleep but she picks dutifully at her chicken donner. She loves the Muggle world, Luna. ‘Wilder than the steppes of Siberia where the Horned Corklarash lives.’ She likes watching the cars pass by, doing mental Arithmancy on the numbers of the licence plates, claiming she can predict natural disasters this way as well as the next Muggle chart hit.

Conversation turns to the event of the year and Harry groans. Not three months ago, he was thrilled to be asked to participate in the friendly Quidditch game between St Mungo’s and the Aurors, the proceeds to go to the Dementor Victim Clinic. He wanted to help raise the money, but he also liked the idea of playing against his Healer boyfriend, a bit of good-natured rivalry and fun in the sky, before they would slink off to the flat they shared for some fun in the sheets.

Now the whole thing fills him with dread. ‘I can always pretend to be sick,’ he says.

‘Robards will fire you, Golden Boy or not,’ Ron says. He has an arm around Hermione’s waist, his fingers stroking the sliver of brown skin under her cropped top. Harry looks away, the intimacy making his heart ache. He wishes noticing their casual touching didn’t bring his ex to mind, but it unfailingly does. ‘Actually, no,’ Ron reflects, ‘he will kill you first and then fire you.’

Anticipation for the coming Quidditch game has reached fever pitch in both workplaces. The Aurors are in a frenzy and Robards rivals Wood — whom he hired as a coach — in his obsession, especially as he’s always at odds with the Head Healer, a woman he famously had a childhood grudge with. Half of the chalkboard in the Auror office with the active cases and shift schedule is now taken by Quidditch training times and diagrams of flying techniques. Ron is right; Robards will go for the Avada first, the dismissal second.

‘And then there’s the gala…’ Hermione says. ‘Who are you going with?’

Harry wraps his unfinished kebab and bins it, his appetite gone. He doesn’t want to admit that he’s every bit as incapable of finding a date to parties as he was in his teens. He’s never really had to — he and Ginny had been friends first. Then, working as an Auror, he kept ending up at St Mungo’s where the same handsome Healer treated his wounds and chatted with him about sports. It felt natural to ask Will to grab a coffee together when they bumped into each other in Flourish and Blotts, and before Harry knew it, he’d moved in with him and they were shopping for curtains together.

‘I’ll take Luna,’ Harry says, but his usual party companion turns her large eyes to him in remorse.

‘I’m sorry, Harry, but I’m leaving for Sweden the day after tomorrow. Rolf owled me to say that it’s mating season for the flying reindeer and two were spotted by some locals — admittedly, one of the blokes was exceptionally drunk when it happened, and the other is half-blind — but Rolf says we’re certain to catch them and witness the mating dance ourselves.’ She smiles blithely at him.

‘The event is in a month,’ Harry tries again, feeling a little desperate. ‘You might be back by then.’

‘I’ll be flying back and forth in the next four weeks, but I doubt I can make it that weekend. The Winter Solstice is the day with the most sightings.’ She yawns and it’s the clue for the others to stand up as well.  

‘You don’t have to take anyone,’ Ron says as they duck inside a dark alley.

‘Will might not come with a date either,’ Hermione offers and an acute hope of reconciliation stabs Harry’s chest.

The others say their good nights and Apparate home, but Harry can’t sleep. The night’s exertions are burning through his veins and he doesn’t want to return to the empty Grimmauld Place, which only serves to remind him of what he’s missing, so he trudges down Diagon Alley for the one place that stays open after four.

The bar Blaze is sleek, stylish and suave, like its owner. It’s also quite empty at this time and they’re still serving alcohol so it’s perfect. Hestia Carrow is at the bar as he takes a seat. There’s almost no one there. Blaise Zabini is chatting with two young women, sisters it looks like, in one of the brown leather sofas. Laughter is coming from a corner booth and the music is low and mellow, sweet like chocolate. He stares at the bottles on the shelves behind Hestia to decide what to drink.

‘Whenever you’re ready,’ Hestia says, tapping black manicured fingers on the polished surface, and Harry shakes his head to clear it, slightly tipsy and quite dazed by the selection. He’s usually a pint man, but he doesn’t feel like ale right now.

‘Try the Finnish dwarf vodka,’ says a familiar voice beside him. ‘Two doubles of Lempo, soda and lime,’ Malfoy tells Hestia and slides onto the stool next to him. He’s wearing something absolutely ridiculous that draws Harry’s eyes and keeps them there. Harry can’t help it, he’s only flesh and blood.

‘Or maybe I choose what I drink?’ he hears himself objecting.

Hestia turns and raises her well-plucked and not impressed eyebrow. ‘What’ll be then?’

Harry swallows. ‘Um, vodka, soda and lime is fine.’

Malfoy smirks. He notices Harry staring at his top. ‘Too conservative?’

Harry snorts. ‘Just a tad.’

Hestia thuds their glasses in front of them and joins the laughing group in the corner booth. Malfoy fishes a pack of cigarettes from his back pocket and lights one, then pulls it out and stares at it. ‘These are not even mine,’ he laughs, checking the packet. He’s sweaty and flushed pink, his hair damp on his forehead, his pupils large, his lips swollen as if he’s just been kissed.

‘Good night?’ Harry asks.

Malfoy shrugs. ‘The usual. A dance, a snog, a blowjob in the toilets.’ He smirks again when Harry chokes on his vodka and stretches a hand to lazily pat him on the back. ‘Easy there, Potter. Did I shock you? I seem to remember seeing you in the gay clubs, back in the day. You know what those places are like.’

Harry knows. He wants to ask if Malfoy gave or received head, but doesn’t. Both mental images, Malfoy on his knees on the dirty tiles, or Malfoy leaning back on the cubicle wall, eyes shut and a smile playing on his lips, fill his stomach with a swirling unease. Something slow and heavy trickles in his veins. He sips his drink, Malfoy smokes and they share a silence as pleasant as stepping on crushed glass. Hermione and Malfoy’s enmity might have thawed during the time they’d worked on the Prison Reformation Scheme and after the Incident, but Malfoy has always kept his distance from Harry. The way he looks at Harry now is guarded, wary; as if looking at him is distasteful.

‘What about you?’ Malfoy says, staring at his glass. ‘Can’t sleep?’

‘Just wanted a nightcap. I was… too excited.’ He remembers why he came here, the beacon of hope that he might get back together with Will, a hope he’d never really relinquished, and smiles into his glass.

‘Astoria dumped me,’ Malfoy says unexpectedly. He slants a sideways look at Harry and smirks with malice. ‘Any tips? Dumpee to dumpee?’

The longing that’s been burning in Harry’s veins turns into rage so easily. They’ve always been close, those two feelings; a flip of a knife’s edge and one emotion turns into the other. Rows with Will ended up in sweaty sheets and a sated smile for both of them. If Harry was honest with himself, he’d admit that make-up sex retained its appeal for the first few months only; eventually the rows ended up in slammed doors. But he’s drunk and he doesn’t want to be honest. What he wants is to grab Malfoy and hex him into next Tuesday. ‘Once an arsehole, always—’

The door opens, letting in a gust of cool night air, and Harry turns automatically as he speaks, and then he can’t speak anymore.

Two men fall in, shut the door behind them, and flop on a chesterfield. One of them is a Quidditch player from the Wasps. Spanish, dark and lanky, a transfer from the Toledo Toros, and one of the best Chasers in Europe.

The other one is Will.

Malfoy has turned on his stool and is staring at the two men, who are so absorbed in each other that they haven’t noticed Hestia standing in front of them and clearing her throat twice. Harry expects Malfoy to taunt him, but he doesn’t. For once, he looks serious and holds himself still.

Harry’s heart has turned into ice. Pain is gutting him and it becomes more ferocious every passing second, every second Will smiles at Joaquin Whatshisname and brushes his lips against his cheek in a way that suggests that later they’ll be brushing other things against each other.

He can’t stand it; he bends over his knees trying to stem the pain, and senses Malfoy jumping from his stool and standing in front of him, covering him from sight. ‘Don’t give him the satisfaction, Potter,’ he says. He clasps Harry’s shoulder and Harry takes several deep breaths before he rises. Malfoy is right in front of him, shielding Will from view. Harry wants and doesn’t want to see what his ex is doing, but Malfoy won’t budge.

‘Get a grip on yourself,’ he scolds Harry again. ‘Come. Let’s get you out of here so you can have your breakdown in private.’ He calls at Hestia to put the drinks on his tab and waits for Harry to stand.

The exit is close to the table where Will sits and Harry sees him lift his eyes from the Chaser’s, sensing their approach. In a moment of desperation, he grabs Malfoy’s hand and whispers out of the corner of his mouth, ‘Play along.’

Malfoy raises an eyebrow, but he doesn’t pull his hand away.

Will finally notices Harry and freezes, with the same apologetic expression he gives Harry whenever they cross paths. It infuriates Harry, every single time. Will’s eyes travel to Harry’s hand, clasped with another man’s. A shadow of shock or even anger crosses his face when he sees that man is Malfoy. A small flare of gratification flutters inside Harry; at least, Will isn’t indifferent. He nods hello, hoping he looks casual, Will nods back, and then Harry takes the last few steps and he’s outside.

The cold air does him some good. Malfoy pulls his hand free as soon as they’re out of sight and lights up another cigarette. ‘Joaquin Villena’s coaching the St Mungo’s staff team,’ he says as they walk down Diagon Alley. ‘For your charity match.’

Harry groans. ‘I’ll have to break my leg. Will you break my leg?’

‘It would be my pleasure,’ Malfoy drawls. ‘But first you have to give me a reason. I don’t break legs just for fun, you know.’

They’ve reached the Leaky, although Harry doesn’t remember getting there. He should Apparate home, but his limbs are shaking. ‘Because I’m playing in the match,’ he says, ‘and Will is playing, and now his—’ He stops, he can’t say the word.

‘The Spanish hunk he’ll be shagging later tonight is going to be present?’

Harry glares at him. ‘Are you enjoying this?’

Malfoy leans against the wall. ‘A little,’ he admits. ‘But I have a proposition for you, Potter, and it’s in your best interest to take it.’

‘I’m not sleeping with you. I’m not that drunk,’ Harry adds, because he’s furious and hurt, and Malfoy makes a good target.

Malfoy’s smile could freeze hell. ‘Charming. Perhaps I’ll reconsider helping you make your ex jealous.’ He takes his wand out and prepares to leave, but doesn’t go far. Harry grabs his arm.

‘What do you mean?’

Malfoy taps the wall and the arch opens. ‘I live in Knightsbridge. Walk me home?’

As soon as they’re in the Muggle world, Harry relaxes, as if the more distance he puts between him and Will, the easier it is to breathe. The streets are empty at this time of night. Sunrise isn’t too far away.

Malfoy begins. ‘I suppose you don’t want to show up to the event of the year without a partner while your ex is shagging the hottest man on UK soil. Right? You want to make him jealous, you want to show to the world that you’re not pathetically pining over him, like an utter loser, and you probably won’t find a real boyfriend in a month, seeing as you are pathetically pining over Burke like an utter loser. Am I correct so far?’

Harry nods, disregarding the insults. He supposes Malfoy can’t help it, they’re like oxygen to him probably.

‘So you need to be a Slytherin about it. And I need to be a Gryffindor about … things. We could work together. Scratch my back while I scratch yours.’

‘What’s in it for you?’

They’re walking along Hyde Park now, the Albert memorial glinting in the street lights. The silence is complete; if it wasn’t for the wind, Harry would think this wasn’t real. There is a dreamlike essence surrounding them; the sunrise gathering in the sky, the empty streets and dark buildings, the eeriness of being the only moving thing in a still world.  

Malfoy tucks his hands in his pockets. ‘Astoria wants to start seeing people and to do that she has to stop pretending she’s going out with me. Only that means my parents will resume matchmaking in the hopes I’ll settle down and become a good pureblood with a family, a job in law or politics and some influence over the government. So I find myself in need of a boyfriend. All pretense, of course.’

They turn left to a quiet avenue lined with expensive cars. ‘You could find a real boyfriend.’

Malfoy doesn’t look at him. ‘I’m not one for settling down, Potter. Want to have some fun while I’m young.’

Harry considers the proposition. Will was shocked to see Harry with Malfoy, but there could have been a little jealousy creeping in there. And jealousy is good; jealousy means Will still cares — a little. A pinprick of light pierces the darkness in his head; suddenly, he’s hopeful.

‘It’s perfect,’ he says, waiting at the traffic lights. ‘Will hates Death Eaters. His family had to flee to Norway during the war to escape attack. He’ll be so pissed off if I’m seeing one.’ Pissed off is good, pissed off means fights, pissed off means not indifference.

Malfoy has a rather wooden expression affixed on his face, but the beeping alerts them that the light turned green. They cross the road, turn into a quiet, leafy street and reach a large building with a creamy façade. Malfoy hasn’t said anything for a while.

‘We have to talk more,’ Harry says, ‘to decide how to do this.’

‘Sure,’ Malfoy says. ‘Look, it’s late and I’m beat. I’ll owl you.’ He quickly disappears behind the glass doors of his building.