Platform Nine and Three-Quarters buzzed with nervous energy from new and old students alike, just like it always did when school started now that the war had ended. As the conductor yelled "All aboard," Ginny Weasley hugged her parents goodbye and rushed toward her friends, just like she always did. She said distracted hellos to familiar schoolmates and walked through the train to find an empty compartment with her friends, just like she always did.
Except that was where the familiarity ended and the differences began.
Ron and Harry, along with over half of the previous year's seventh-year and a portion of the sixth-year students, were not on the train. Many of them declined to return, having decided they had enough of Hogwarts. Some of them simply hadn't made it through the war. Their absence weighed the train down like lead. Even Charlotte, who was usually the most talkative and excitable in Ginny's group of friends, seemed unnaturally muted. When she spoke, the topics were superficial: the fun things they had done during the summer, the classes they had registered for the year, and the food that they thought would appear on the Great Hall's table.
Inevitably, however, even the most innocent declaration scratched the scars of war that were still raw.
Hermione, who had been largely silent during the trip, commented on the view from her seat at the window. "I wish I'd a camera on me," she lamented.
"If only Colin were still here," Ginny replied absentmindedly.
Instantly, she realized her mistake. Charlotte's face paled at the mention of Colin's name. The compartment fell silent, and no one quite knew what to do. Ginny found herself feeling an unexpected spark of anger. She wanted to scream at Charlotte that she didn't have the right to look so shaken when Colin was really only one of her many flings—especially when Charlotte hadn't lost anyone closer, like a brother, like Fred.
The chatter started again eventually, but Ginny no longer trusted herself to participate. Her mind was too dark and stormy. The cheerfulness of the conversation suddenly felt offensive and took on a suffocating atmosphere. Needing to be alone, she excused herself to look for an empty compartment.
She peeked through the small window at each door, but every compartment was filled with students. She found herself almost out of hope as she reached the last compartment of the train. Yet having walked so far, she thought she might as well check.
The compartment looked shockingly, miraculously empty. Exhausted and relieved, Ginny pushed the door open and was in the process of throwing herself onto the bench, when someone grabbed her arm from the right. Her battle reflexes kicked in and she spun around with her wand ready. She instantly recognized her assailant.
"What the—let me go, Malfoy."
Malfoy blinked and immediately released her. "Sorry, I thought—" he paused, shook his head, and collected himself. "I was sleeping. You surprised me."
Ginny noted the blanket on the ground, the bags under his eyes, and the confusion on his face, and deduced he probably wasn't lying. She lowered her wand slowly as the adrenaline she had felt moments before gradually died down.
"I couldn't see you from the door," she explained lamely. She turned toward the door again before Malfoy could respond, having decided it was best to retreat before Malfoy could say anything insulting.
"You're welcome to stay, if you're just looking for a quiet place to sit."
His offer was so surprising, Ginny looked back to confirm if he was serious. Then, she eyed the compartment suspiciously, just in case there was a trap.
"Nothing's wrong with this compartment, Weasley," Malfoy assured, his lips tilting into a weak smirk. "If there is, I wouldn't be sleeping here." And as if to demonstrate his intentions, he pulled the blanket off the floor and over himself again.
He had a point, and she probably would have taken the offer if the other person in the compartment was someone else, but this was Draco Malfoy. Even if Harry was willing to vouch for his defection from Voldemort's side, being near Malfoy still made her skin crawl in the most unpleasant way. The idea of sitting in the same compartment as him seemed unthinkable, repulsive even.
"Thanks, but no thanks."
For a fleeting moment, one so quick Ginny wondered if she imagined it, Malfoy looked dejected and a little resigned. Then his face resumed its usual nonchalance, and he shrugged.
The lawyers escorted Draco out of Hogwarts to meet with his father. It was the night before the beginning of his father's war crimes trial. Draco hadn't seen Lucius since returning to school, and he was surprised at how old and haggard the older man looked. Draco wanted to say something, but what? You will be fine? I will take care of mother? I love you? He imagined standing up and hugging his father as well, but the things other people might say or do in his situation never seemed to quite fit his relationship with his father. Instead, he settled for greeting Lucius with an impassive nod.
His father nodded back and after a question about his mother (his father had always cared deeply for—and perhaps loved—her, despite what outsiders may have thought), Lucius went straight into the order of business. The details of the accounts that must be passed on, the location of the keys for all of his security boxes must be disclosed, and the fact he had added his son to all of his accounts must be revealed.
"There may not be a way to escape a jail sentence after our … indiscretions," Lucius explained when Draco asked why. "Mr. Whitestone is optimistic he could get my sentencing under ten years."
His father never voiced the worst-case scenario because there was no need. They were both thinking about it.
At the end of the meeting, his father filled two tumblers with scotch and handed one to Draco. There was no hugging, no tears, and no sentimental fatherly speech. There was simply a toast.
Raising a glass, Lucius said to his son with a wry, ironic smile, "To the future."
Grief followed Ginny around like an insistent stalker that she couldn't quite shake away. The hallways of Hogwarts were full of reminders of her dead brother, and she had nowhere to hide. For her, the manifestation of this grief came in the form of dreams, usually too vague to be remembered clearly, but which were of Fred nevertheless. When she woke, sometimes with tears in her eyes, sometimes with a silent scream on her lips, she felt his absence so strongly it would turn into anger. Anger because the world had taken Fred away from her, and anger because so many Death Eaters lived to see the end of the war when Fred could not. It made her unkind and unforgiving; it made her a lousy version of herself.
The morning after a particularly harsh nightmare, one that made her heart wrench, she was very late for her N.E.W.T. level Transfiguration class. When she finally arrived at the classroom, she found that the only available seat was next to a Slytherin, whom on closer inspection, turned out to be none other than Draco Malfoy. Ginny cursed her rotten luck, glared at the offensive empty spot for a full minute, and only begrudgingly sat down when McGonagall threatened to deduct house points. Malfoy barely looked up through all of this. His only movement of acknowledgement was a subtle shift away to the right when she put down her bag, as if to give her more space.
Ginny was determined to put Malfoy out of her mind. She focused on McGonagall's lecture, but Transfiguration had never been her favorite subject, and half of what was said refused to sink into her mind. She frantically took as many notes as possible in the hope that by transcribing what sounded like gibberish to her now, she would later be able to translate her notes into something understandable later.
It didn't work.
When McGonagall told the class to practice changing their eyes to different colors, and then to try the same spell on the person next to them, Ginny could only change the color of her eyes a single shade lighter. She repeated the spell again and again as her frustration grew, until finally the spell stopped doing anything at all.
There was a sigh next to her. "Do you need help?"
"Who needs your help?" she replied sharply.
Her irritation only grew when she noticed his normally silver eyes had already changed into Slytherin green.
Annoyingly, Malfoy ignored her. "Your wand stroke is off," he told her mildly, and waved his wand in front of him as a demonstration.
She knew he was probably right, but not liking that she was being corrected by Malfoy, she intentionally resisted imitating the wand stroke he had shown her. As one would expect, the spell failed and nothing happened.
He frowned. "No, you are doing the same thing again," he said, pausing to consider for a moment, and made a move to grab her hand.
Startled, she pulled her hand back. "What are you doing, Malfoy?"
"What am I doing?" Malfoy asked, having the tenacity to look exasperated. "I'm just trying to get us onto the second part of the exercise, but you aren't even trying."
"If I'm not trying, then it's because I can't focus when you are allowed to freely use your wand next to me."
Malfoy glanced at his wand and seemed genuinely taken aback. His eyes widened fractionally as he reached a realization. "You thought I was going to—I would never—" He swallowed hard, jaw clenching. "I was only trying to help."
"I don't need it," she snapped. The ghost of her nightmares cheered her on as angry words flowed from her mouth like a landslide. " I don't care that the Ministry acquitted your crimes. Just because they couldn't get anything out of you under Veritaserum doesn't mean you are actually innocent. You are just a rich kid living off your daddy's stolen money and a sordid lot of shady family connections. You're nothing but a shadow of your father. You're nothing but a Death Eater!"
He flinched like he had been slapped and he looked away, visibly shaken. Ginny noticed his right hand unconsciously went up to his left arm where the mark must be. Good, he deserved this. Yet, every moment passed made her less certain she was in the right. When she thought back to everything that Harry and Hermione had told her, she knew she had crossed a line.
Remorse gnawed at her insistently. "I'm sorry," she said weakly at last, but the damage was done.
Malfoy was on his feet. "I'll let McGonagall know you want to change partners."
Before she could react, he was gone.
Most of the pranks were minor inconveniences, like having food and drinks spilled on him during dinner (Draco discovered a cleaning spell that took even pumpkin juice stains out of silk shirts); or having his clothes disappear after a shower (he began to quickly improve in conjuration); or being locked in a room without a wand (he had perfected wandless door unlocking within the first week of the school year). Other times it was more dangerous, like having Bludgers batted toward him by both the opposing team and his own; or a flower pot dropped from the second floor while he was walking below; or jinxes and hexes sent his way "accidentally". There were a few close calls, but his war-trained reflexes and constant vigilance, paired with the fact that the last two years had forced him to perfect his shield charms and wards, meant he walked away mostly unscathed.
Still, the school (and the pranks, by extension) provided him with some much-needed distraction from the constant gloom that had taken over the Malfoy household. The looming war trials and the general outlook of his future set a long shadow, but, given that his sixth and seventh years at Hogwarts consisted entirely of worrying about his family's lives and trying to avoid certain death at the hands of a sociopathic monster, this "eighth" year could only be considered an improvement, all things taken into account.
On a particularly cold day a week before the winter break, after gathering ingredients from the ingredient cabinet to complete an Alchemy assignment, Draco was on his way out of the dungeon when a couple of sixth year Slytherins knocked everything out of his hands. Draco watched as they laughed and continued on their merry way. His fist clenched, but he stayed still, willing the dangerous tendrils of anger to subside. He resisted the temptation to respond, his reflex to retaliate, because nothing good could come out of either. The last thing his family needed was more bad press. In any case, he reminded himself, he deserved this. As the saying went: you sow what you reap.
He sighed and, as he surveyed the damage, someone bent down behind him and helped him pick up his potion bag.
"Thanks," he said as he turned, surprised at the act of kindness. When he saw exactly who helped him, his eyes widened. "Weasley."
"They did that on purpose, didn't they?" Weasley asked, her large, righteous eyes looking at the scattered ingredients.
He shrugged, too proud to admit to being bullied, and too proud to take the blame himself. She looked at him as she came to her own conclusion; her head tilted and an expression of pity spread across her easy-to-read face. A Weasley pitying a Malfoy, he realized wryly. Oh, how the times had changed.
"You don't need to help," he said firmly when he saw her bending down again, this time to pick up bottles of salamander blood and black beetle eyes. "I can clean up myself."
She ignored him, picked up the bottles, and threw them into the potion bag anyway. "I am not helping you because I think you are incapable. I am helping you because I am a decent human being."
The girl was too much of a Gryffindor for her own good. Still, he didn't want her pity. More than anything, he didn't want to be (however slightly) indebted to her. Not after whatever his father hinted he had done to her in her first year, not after all the danger Draco had put her beloved golden trio through, and definitely not after his indirect role in the death of her brother. He remembered the disgust on her face on the Hogwarts Express and the way she had jumped away in Transfiguration class when she thought he was going to attack her. Suddenly, he felt the familiar warmth of magic gathering at the tip of his fingers.
Draco glared at the mess around him, and the rest of the strewn ingredients suddenly levitated off the ground and violently flew into his potion bag. "You shouldn't help me!" he exclaimed, his voice more strained than he liked. "You shouldn't—"
He paused when his eyes landed on Weasley. He recognized the alarm in her posture and the energy he felt a moment ago drained out of him. He had scared her, again.
"I've got to go," he muttered, looking down at his now-full potion bag, and ran.
When Harry was not busy catching the Death Eaters who got away, he would visit her. She was always happy when she saw him. He was like a beam of sunlight in her otherwise rather monotonous world, and she loved him even more for his visits. When Harry promised to visit her that weekend so they could visit Hogsmeade together, she was so excited she couldn't sleep for days. It was their first real date in weeks, and the first weekend that Hogsmeade would be open since the war after months of rebuilding. It was the only thing she wanted to talk about with Hermione, much to her friend's annoyance.
Ginny literally skipped out of the last class of her week and, in her euphoria, she didn't notice until it was too late that she was about to run into someone. She apologized profusely as she picked herself up after the collision, only to realize whom she had bumped into.
"Harry!" she cried excitedly as she flung herself onto him.
"Ginny, you need to be more careful," Harry said, returning the hug and letting her kiss him.
"Sorry! I was just too excited about this weekend." She beamed and held onto his hand like her life depended on it. Her heart was pounding, she was so happy. She started to babble. "I can't believe you're here early! Are you planning to stay until Sunday? Maybe we can go out for dinner tonight, or perhaps we can go see a Muggle movie, or perhaps—"
"I can't, Ginny."
She finally looked up to see Harry's solemn expression, and her heart sank.
"You won't be going to Hogsmeade tomorrow," she said quietly to confirm, even though she already knew the answer.
Harry shook his head, guilt oozing out of his being like sweat on a hot day. "I'm sorry," he apologized. "We finally got a good lead on Goyle Sr., and we need to act now or he will be gone again. There's nothing I wanted more than to go on a date with you, but I…"
She mustered as strong of a smile as she could to hide her disappointment and willed her tears to stay in her eyes. "I understand," she said quietly. However selfishly she wished to be with him, she knew she shouldn't stand in the way of his important work. "When will you be back again?"
"Hopefully in a week, maybe longer. But I will drop by first thing when I get back. I promise."
Be understanding, she repeated in her mind like a mantra. She heard herself say, her voice disconnectedly cheery, "I will see you then. Stay safe, Harry."
Harry stepped forward, kissed her, and wrapped his arms around her tightly. "Thanks for understanding."
The problem with abandoning The Dark Lord's cause at the last minute was that, at the end of it, you are no one's friend. The winners cannot trust you because they view you as an opportunist with loose morals, and the losers, well, they despise you because you gave their names to the authorities to save your own skin. Draco liked to think the last two years had made him accustomed to not turning to anyone for help. He liked to think loneliness did not affect him, that he was above it all.
For the most part, it was true: he was perfectly content to spend his free time deciphering one of the ancient Alchemic scrolls in the library, searching for the panacea that he was convinced could remove the cursed mark on his arm, or reading one of the old books he managed to pack away before the Ministry seized Malfoy Manor. But every so often, especially when he caught glimpses of a group of friends laughing at a private joke or chatting animatedly about nothing in particular, he felt an ache in his heart that made him long for companionship. Inevitably, his mind would drift to whom he used to call friends: Theodore and Blaise (neither of whom had returned to Hogwarts), Pansy (who had called him pathetic in their last meeting), Gregory (who wouldn't talk to him anymore), and Vincent (who died because Draco couldn't save him). His heart would sink, and the yearning for friendly interactions would grow until in desperation he would find himself in Moaning Myrtle's Bathroom.
Pathetic, yes, but being able to confide in a ghost was better than being able to confide in no one at all.
Looking down from the top of the rebuilt Astronomy Tower, he watched the stream of students leaving Hogwarts for the reopening of Hogsmeade, and he felt that familiar tightening in his chest. For a moment, he imagined walking along with them, enjoying the food stalls in the village, soaking in the festivity of the grand opening, but the vision quickly morphed into one of being kicked out of stores by angry shop owners who had lost family to Voldemort; of himself stalking awkwardly in the corner alone while drinking Firewhisky at the Three Broomsticks. Suddenly, any desire he had to go to Hogsmeade dissipated into thin air.
He found himself tempted to visit the first-floor girls' lavatory again, but he shook his head. No. He had only visited the ghost two days ago. Myrtle was best in small dosages. Instead, he forced himself to to the library, the one place where being alone felt natural and bearable.
He headed straight to his favorite chair, the one just behind the window, farthest from the librarian, and closest to the Alchemy scrolls he had been studying. He had just plopped down his bag when he first heard the sniffle. Another followed, then another, and it was apparent to him that some girl was weeping in the Alchemy section a couple shelves from him, probably due to a broken heart or some equally silly reason. Draco cursed his luck, of all the places the girl could choose to cry at, it had to be exactly where his scrolls were. He tried to wait out the crying to avoid an awkward encounter. But when the crying only got louder and more insistent ten minutes later, he realized he may not have a choice.
Draco froze when he noticed a head of red hair as he turned into the Alchemy aisle. Weasley. He almost succumbed to his urge to flee, to avoid her, as he had done in the past two months ever since that day at the dungeon stairway. Yet, the sound of her sobs held him. Something akin to sympathy stirred within him, and he found himself searching for the packet of tissues in his robes.
He approached her cautiously and pushed a tissue into her shaking hands. "Here," he offered, and because he couldn't be seen as too generous and caring, he also added, "Moisture is bad for the scrolls around you, you know."
She glanced at him from the corner of her swollen red eyes wearily. "Leave me alone, Malfoy," she said, but she took the offered tissue anyway. "I really don't want to deal with you right now."
"Don't worry, Weasley, I will be out of your hair the moment I find the scrolls I've been researching. They're somewhere behind you." He nodded at the scroll drawers.
She frowned but stepped aside silently so he could pass, and as he pulled open one of the scroll drawers, he could hear her blow her nose behind him. He didn't understand why Ginny Weasley would be crying. Didn't her side win the war? Wasn't she surrounded by friends and family? Wasn't she the envy of all the Wizarding World because she was dating the Chosen One? And speaking of whom, why wasn't she at Hogsmeade with Potter? Draco felt sure he overheard her gushing about her upcoming date on his way to Advanced Potion class the other day … and though a part of him told him to mind his own business, the question bubbled out of his mouth.
The only response was a sniffle, so he tried again. "Why aren't you at Hogsmeade with your friends?"
"Why aren't you there yourself?" she deflected quietly, not answering his question.
"I don't think my presence would be appreciated there," he told her in an even voice and waited expectantly.
"I didn't feel like it," she said eventually, between sniffles. "Harry … it hurts too much to go without Harry."
The tissue in Weasley's hand was so wet, it was starting to disintegrate as she dabbed her eyes.
"He'll make up for it next time," Draco said, trying to console her. "I'm sure he has good reasons for missing your date." He vaguely registered that he was defending Potter, but somehow this felt like the right thing to say. And it probably was, judging by how Weasley nodded and slowly calmed down.
He finished his search in silence. A minute later, with two scrolls under his arm, he handed Weasley the whole tissue packet as he passed her.
"Keep it," he said.
She frowned. "Why are you being half decent?"
Draco shrugged. "Like I said, moisture is bad for the scrolls."
She spent an increasing amount of time flying. When something reminded her of Fred, or when she found herself missing Harry, Quidditch was her choice of escape. For the most part, the arrangement suited her well: the adrenaline from the speed and the feeling of the wind in her hair always made her feel better. Additionally, there was no time to grieve when a Bludger was only two feet behind her.
She had never considered the possibility of becoming a professional Quidditch player. Sure, she had dreamed of it when she was young, but she had never taken the idea seriously. She was definitely above average on the school team, but to go professional? That was an entirely different matter. The possibility only dawned on her one day in February, after a particularly exciting game, when Angelina introduced her to the Holyhead Harpies' scout. The scout invited her to spring training. Ginny went (because who could pass up such an opportunity), thinking it would be fun, but the next thing she knew it was mid-April and she had signed a two year contract with the Holyhead Harpies as their Chaser.
She wasn't sure about celebrating her contract; it was so close to the anniversary of Fred's death. However, her brothers' heartfelt congratulations and their enthusiasm to throw her a party took her by force, and she complied.
The next Sunday, her mum gathered her ever-growing family at the Burrow and cooked one of her infamous feasts in celebration. Ginny's brothers and Harry talked about the Harpies like they were long time loyal fans throughout dinner, much to her amusement. Then, after dinner, she found herself flying with Harry and her family in the backyard, playing an impromptu Quidditch game like they used to before the war. When George cracked a smile after he teamed up with her to bat a Bludger toward Ron (who was gloating far too much after his last goal), Ginny allowed herself to finally, wholeheartedly enjoy the moment.
And as she walked home holding Harry's hand that night, she couldn't help but think that maybe, just maybe, this was the beginning of the healing.
The Great Hall was packed. Laughter, fireworks, and drunken people were everywhere—exactly as one would expect a year after the Second Wizarding War. Draco instantly regretted coming down to the Great Hall in search for food. The sickening happiness was so offensive, he resolved to skip dinner altogether and retreated to his dorm where he cast a quietening charm to block out the festivity.
He dreamed of Snape that night, of an alternative event in which he took Snape's offer of help without resistance; where he never got the Dark Mark, where the Second War never happened, and Snape never died. His heart sank as the fog of dreams dissipated and reality set in. Guilt hit him in waves, consumed him until he could not breathe, could not do anything except sneak out of the school grounds and Apparate at the graveyard where he knew Snape was buried after the war. He ran, frantically searching for Snape's grave, and when he finally found it, he threw himself in front of it.
Breathing heavily, he wiped a strayed leaf off the gravestone to reveal the inscription that plainly read:
May 2 nd 1998
Now that it was too late, Draco could see so clearly what he had missed before: how good of a friend Severus Snape had always been to his family and to him.
"This is all my fault," he cried to the billowing wind.
Regret poured out of his being like blood from a wound that would never close.
"If I had listened to you back then, if I had taken your help, if I had trusted you more, things could have turned out differently." His eyes watered without his permission. "I'm sorry, Snape. I'm so sorry."
But the apologies gave him no reprieve. Severus Snape was dead. The man had been dead for twelve months. No amount of apologies could ever bring him back, and no amount of black magic could change the past. Draco sucked in a tortured breath as he stood up and collected himself. Then, he retraced his steps, hoping to reach Hogwarts before anyone would take note of his absence. He had just reached the Apparition point when there was a crack, and suddenly Ginny Weasley was in front of him.
"You shouldn't be here," she said flatly, once she had recovered from shock.
"Neither should you," Draco retorted out of self-preservation.
He hoped his voice did not sound too hoarse as he hastily wiped the remnants of tears from his eyes. He prayed that it was too dark for Weasley to see he had been crying, but when he looked up and saw the same pitying expression on her face as at their last encounter, he knew she most likely had.
He bit his lip, feeling distinctly that this was the universe's way of punishing him. "You must be laughing inside," he said, glaring. If he didn't, the tears might start again.
She frowned. "Why would I be?"
"You righteous lot always enjoy watching someone like me fall," he suggested darkly.
He expected her to protest, and for a moment it looked like she would, but she didn't. When she finally spoke again, she said simply: "I wasn't laughing at you tonight."
"Oh, no insincere words of denial? Does that mean you were laughing some other nights?" He used sarcasm as a sword because he was so trapped—not necessarily because of her, but because of life in general. "You people always have a funny way of admitting things."
"Oh, that's rich coming from you," she snapped, her face changing a shade as she spoke. "Have you ever taken responsibility for all of your cock-ups?"
At her accusation, his demons resurfaced in his mind with crystal clarity. He could almost hear the crying and screaming around him, smell death in the smoke-filled air. He knew, by making it possible for Death Eaters to enter the school ground, he was responsible for all of it.
"I'm well aware I fucked up," he told her, feeling that phantom burn on his left arm as he spoke, feeling his frustration and helplessness bubble up to the surface all over again. "I'm sorry, alright? I'm sorry for so many things!"
Weasley rolled her eyes. "You're not being sincere."
Her plain rejection stung like the worst venom. Draco combed his hair with his fingers in raw anguish. "Merlin," he swore as he gave in and succumbed to whatever dark and unhappy thoughts he had kept at bay for the past year. "Sometimes I wish you people would just gather all of us who are not-guilty-enough-to-be-imprisoned, but-guilty-enough-to-never-be-trusted-again in a room, and kill us all to get it over with."
Without waiting for her reaction, he Disapparated away.
The train ride back home on the Hogwarts Express was surprisingly quiet. Half an hour after the train pulled out of the Hogsmeade Station, Hermione was sound asleep after pulling multiple all-nighters while studying for N.E.W.T.s. Luna was off in search of Fluffles (or whatever nonsensical creature she had mentioned), and Ginny was left in the compartment on her own with only Hermione's copy of the Daily Prophet for company. Ginny powered through the sports section of the paper first, absorbing all the latest stats and news on the Harpies before skimming the news section. There was a lot of boring political news, a lot of non-news about Harry, but in the section dedicated to the war trial, something caught her attention.
"Lucius Malfoy's Sentencing Next Week," read the headline, accompanied by a picture of Lucius Malfoy standing in the middle of the Wizengamot. She took a second look, and her eyes instantly focused on the crowd in the background. Without even realizing what she was searching for, she found Draco Malfoy next to a woman she could only assume was his mother.
A year ago, the two first things Ginny would have thought of after seeing Lucius Malfoy in a headline was Tom's diary and the fiasco in the Chamber of Secrets. Now, strangely, her thoughts went entirely to his son and their odd encounters.
Their last meeting, specifically the dark and gloomy words he departed with, left such a foul taste in her mouth that she had secretly looked about the school for him. She had hoped to catch him alone so she could speak with him one last time. She wanted to part on a more reconciliatory note, perhaps selfishly to clear her conscience, but Malfoy turned out to be elusive. The few times she did see him, he disappeared before she could draw up enough courage to approach and then, three weeks ago, he left school all together.
Ginny wondered if their paths would cross again, but even if they did, she doubted it would be appropriate to dig up skeletons from the past. Some things could never be amended. She sighed. Sometimes, there was simply nothing to be done.
With a quiet sigh, she banished Malfoy out of her mind and went on with the rest of her life.
After his father's sentencing devolved into chaos, Draco held his mother's arm as they stepped out of the courtroom into the hot summer heat. On their left was a mob of protesters, angry at the judge's lenient sentence of fifteen years and financial retribution. On their right was a swarm of reporters with their flashing cameras, hungry for statements and any words that they could twist into a sensational headline in tomorrow's paper. He pushed his mother along toward the Apparition point, and his lawyers shielded them as much as they could from the torrent of questions unleashed by the media's vultures.
The Wizengamot ward prevented non-authorized personnel from using weapons or magic and the security personnel kept the crowd back, but neither measures stopped the more creative protesters from throwing food and shoes. In the act of catching a shoe and a tomato that were meant for his mother, Draco was hit by an egg in the face. A few of the reporters saw what had happened and rushed in to take photos as he wiped the egg white out of his eyes. In the commotion, a protester somehow got close enough to grab his arm.
"Murderer!" the man screamed, and was about to swing a punch, but the guards caught up with him before he could. "Rot in hell, Malfoy!" the man spat as they restrained him. "You all deserve to rot in hell!"
And just when Draco thought his day couldn't become any worse, his mother swayed next to him.
"Mother?" he yelled, throwing himself forward just in time to catch her before she fell to the ground, unresponsive. "Mother!"
He looked around frantically as the cameras flashed all around him, but he could scarcely notice any of it. "Medic!" he cried when the lawyers finally came into hearing range. "I need a Medic!"
The Ginny did a fake out and zoomed past the keeper. She let go of the quaffle at the last moment and watched with satisfaction as it passed through the center goal hoop. Just as she hoped, Caleb Gones had the Snitch in her hand a moment later, bringing them just 10 points ahead of Wigtown Wanderers's 240. The stadium exploded as the whistle blew, and Ginny was so excited, so overwhelmed, she did a triple loop in the sky. When she landed, she was nearly tackled onto the ground by her ecstatic teammates. Next, the reporters rushed in and Ginny was urged by Joanna Gwenen, her team captain, to participate in an interview.
"That was bloody brilliant, Ginny!" Joanna said, slapping her back when they were finally rid of the reporters. "Making that last minute goal just so Caleb can take advantage of the snitch sighting on your first game; I'm so glad you're on the team."
Ginny blushed and muttered a shy thank you. Joanna laughed at her modesty.
"By the way," Joanna said, "I think someone's looking for you." She nodded with a wink toward somewhere behind her.
Ginny turned and found Harry waiting at the edge of the pitch with a heart stopping smile. She gasped and dashed toward him.
"Harry! Why are you here? Aren't you supposed to be at that security conference in Germany?"
"I took off early. It's your first game. I wouldn't miss it for the world." He pulled her into a hug. "You were so amazing today!"
Ginny laughed as she melted into his arms. "It's probably a good thing you didn't tell me you were coming. I'm sure I would've been looking out for you instead of looking out for bludgers."
"It's a good thing I'm good at surprises then," he told her with a sly grin, and leaned in to claim her lips.
Ginny felt the reporters that had gathered around them fade into the background and all was well.
In the new world that had risen out of the ashes of war, the Malfoy family's only allies (if you could call such beings allies) were the goblins at Gringotts. They had, through some clever manipulation of accounts behind the scenes, secured enough of the Malfoy's legacy from the Ministry's seizure to keep the Malfoy family financially afloat for the time being, despite his father's costly retribution payments and his mother's expensive private medical bills.
"We have always believed our most valuable clients are better investors than the Ministry," the head goblin told him slyly, when Draco thanked him for his support. "In safeguarding your interest, we are safeguarding our own."
"I will not waste any more of our time with pleasantry. I came here to request—" Draco almost couldn't complete the distasteful sentence at first, but he knew he must to safeguard his family from bankruptcy in the long run. He swallowed hard. "A loan."
"Straight to business as always, young Malfoy." The goblin gleefully clasped his wrinkled hands together, not at all surprised at the request. "Anything is possible, of course, under the right conditions."
"I am listening," Draco replied, knowing favors never came from nothing.
"As you are well aware, the Wizarding British economy has taken a significant hit after the last two wars. Rebuilding the economic cornerstones will take years, if not decades. A lot of our private clients, such as yourself, are looking for other options."
There the goblin paused and shot Draco a meaningful look.
Draco quickly understood the options the goblin was alluding to: Draco had, after all, come to the same conclusion himself a few months prior, but that was his own business and no one else's. "I do not know what that has to do with me," he said coolly. "The Malfoy family—"
"Had been very well integrated into the Muggle upper-class society prior to the International Statute of Wizarding Secrecy of 1692," the goblin interrupted. His thin lips tilted into a knowing smirk. "And since then, although the Malfoy family had always publicly denied any connection to the Muggle world, private tutors were hired in secret to educate their heirs on Muggle investments. And you, Mr. Malfoy, have been dabbling ever since you became responsible for making your father's retribution payments." After admitting to knowing Draco's biggest secret, the goblin thought it prudent to add, "Discretion is always a pillar at Gringotts. I can assure you that any records we keep are to protect our mutual interests and will never be released to a third party."
"Even if that is true." Draco knew better than to easily admit anything. "Even if I had diverted our portfolio to the Muggle world, as you are suggesting—" he sighed, thinking back to the plots and charts he had begun to construct behind closed doors out of desperation in the face of so much rejection. "—the Muggles' market may not be a long-term solution; there is a bubble that will be bursting in the near future."
"But in the meantime there is money to be made," the goblin deduced. Without waiting for Draco's confirmation, a grin appeared on his ancient face as he continued. "Mr. Malfoy, this sort of astute market observation is a marketable skill that we are willing to pay for—to take risks for." He lazily waved his hand in a clockwise semi-circle, and a thick legal document appeared out of thin air in front of Draco. "Join our Muggle Investment Division as a finance advisor to our premium clients and we shall give you your loan. We will make your time worthwhile. The details are all in the document, but in addition to the loan, you will be compensated a flat 1.5% commission for all investments you handle—renegotiable after twelve months."
Draco stared blankly at the stack of paper in front of him. "I didn't realize you joke," he said at length, when his brain could finally wrap around such a preposterous preposition, "but no one will want their money tainted by association with a Malfoy."
"Not in public, perhaps, but with the right spells and paperwork, we are confident we can keep your involvement a secret to all, excluding those who are directly involved." The goblin gave a knowing smirk. "There is no contention that Malfoys are shrewd investors, and some of our more open-minded clients care more for the results than the means."
Draco did not need to be told to know the open-minded clients were likely his family's former associates and their families. Slytherins had always been the home of self-serving hypocrites who followed the money. In fact, he was sure many of them would actually prefer to have him invest their money out of spite. To them, having him lower himself to work for a living, to work for them (and in the Muggle world, no less), when his ancestors had not worked for ten generations, would be the greatest revenge.
There was a note of resignation when Draco spoke again. "I will let my lawyer review the document," he said, but they both knew this was simple formality; they both knew Draco was in no position to reject the offer when this might be his one and only chance to rebuild the Malfoy fortune, one galleon at a time.
Let the snide comments come. Let them try what they may to humiliate me, Draco thought as he stared grimly at the contract in his hand. I will get used to it.
He had no other choice.
X-post from fanfiction.net on my account there (Ori), posting on AO3 is going to be a few chapters behind, just because, but everything will get in here eventually.
This is an expanded version of a novella length story I wrote for Haz in the DG Forum Summer Exchange 2017. The original prompt can be found below. I understand how far fetch a Draco and Ginny pairing is, but I like the challenge of bringing two unlikely characters together in a more-or-less realistic manner, post-Hogwarts and books compliant outside of the epilogue / Cursed Child. The rest of the story will be set in 2008 (and beyond?) to give the characters time to mature (and because I am fed up with how JK Rowling made everyone marry and have children very young).
Basic premise: For the first time in several generations, Draco Malfoy has to work for a living - it was just too bad that Draco Malfoy never realized tarnishing the family's reputation involved wearing a tie.
Must haves: Draco struggling to hold a job and a valid reason for him needing to work. Ginny can fit into the story however you like by being a recruiter, a coworker or a boss but she has to help him succeed and be appropriately motivated to do so.
No-no's: Ginny simply rolling over in order to help Draco out. Weak or unmotivated main characters.
Ginny Weasley knew something was wrong the moment her mum shot her a Cheshire Cat smile and personally ushered her to her seat at the table. Her intuition was proven right mere minutes later when the doorbell rang and her mother bolted to the door. Ginny heard a familiar voice and her stomach instantly churned in an unpleasant way. Harry. Harry was joining them for dinner for the first time in months, and the only empty chair was the one next to her.
Merlin's beard, not again.
Before she could run, Harry entered the room with a wrapped box for Hugo, giving hellos and kisses like he was family. He was dressed in all her favorite clothes because she had practically shopped for his whole closet in the eight-plus years she had dated him. Her heart ached, as it often did when she saw him. She was really not as bonkers as her mum liked to think—she did know how great he was: great with kids, loved her family, handsome, rich, kind and brave. She really wished everything had worked out because she knew, chances were, she would never find someone better than him.
Breaking up with him was the second hardest thing she had ever done. The hardest was sitting next to him again after their break-up.
It was always so awkward now, like everything between them was covered in red tape. They didn't look past each other anymore, as they had for the first three months, but they still couldn't behave normally around one another. After their initial quiet hellos, she and Harry kept their contact to a minimum and attempted the awkward task of talking to everyone at the table except each other. Dinner went by with relative success, much to her relief, but trouble began soon after the cake was cut, and the kids ran off to play with all their new toys in the backyard. Her mum asked Hermione and Fleur to help with tea, and turned to her brothers for help with the clean-up. Noticing what her mother was trying to do, Ginny stood up and offered to help as well.
"No, Ginny, you stay and catch up with Harry."
Her mum still held onto the perverse hope that somehow Harry and she could just talk it out and get back together after nearly two years apart. Ginny knew there was no point in arguing. She sat back down, defeated, and for some time the silence stretched between her and Harry. Eventually, when the silence became too uncomfortable, she broke it with the uninspired, "How's life?"
"Good. Busy. Working lots," Harry replied, purposefully vague.
"In the middle of another one of your hush-hush cases?" she asked, though she already knew the answer.
He smiled sheepishly and nodded anyway. Harry—the Master of Death, the Savior of the World, the Chosen One—had taken it upon himself to squash all dark wizard resurgents. For him, the world always needed saving. How was she supposed to compete with the world?
"What have you been up to?"
"Oh, you know, the same old," she told him. "The Quidditch season has started again, and now that I'm the captain, it's been rather busy."
"Good luck," Harry said, before silence swallowed the two of them again.
It hadn't been like this in the beginning, but she could hardly remember the beginning now. Words hadn't come easily to them for years. In the time leading up to the breakup, they would talk about other people, but never about their own lives, their feelings, or anything else that was important. The romantic dates became infrequent, the weekend cook outs dissipated into nothing, the flowers stopped arriving at the locker room, and they slowly fell out of love.
Maybe it was because Harry could never talk about work, which was also his life; maybe it was the complacency after dating for so many years. Or maybe it was because, long ago, she gave up and threw herself into Quidditch to save herself from having time to think about all the "what ifs".
Whatever the causes, they had led them here, and there was simply nothing to be done.
Draco Malfoy knew something was wrong the moment he arrived at Blaise Zabini's front yard. A formal party was obviously underway: he could hear music drifting from the usually quiet manor and see people dressed in fine robes lined up at the door. Blaise had requested a private meeting a few days earlier on something he had insisted was too important to discuss at the Gringott's office, but he had either forgotten, or intentionally omitted, the party. Knowing Blaise, he knew it was the latter.
Before he could escape unseen, Blaise, who had been welcoming his guests at the door, excused himself and walked toward him.
"Draco," Blaise greeted with false innocence. "Welcome."
Draco glared at his client and sometimes friend, not bothering to greet him back (he deserved none for his treachery). "What's the meaning of this?"
"This—" Blaise gestured around him dramatically. "—is a party, and before you start moaning, I know a recluse like you would never come if I had invited you in a conventional way."
Blaise had a point, of course, but Draco was still miffed about the trickery. "Have you heard the story of the Little Boy who Cried Werewolf?"
Blaise scoffed. "I will take my chances. This is my secret engagement party and I want you here."
"Engagement," Draco repeated in dismay, as his brain raced to process the news. "When did this happen?"
He had always assumed Blaise and Daphne would get married eventually, but Draco hadn't heard anything about an engagement. Merlin knew how much his clients liked to gossip when they thought no one was listening.
"Two weeks ago," Blaise replied, smiling at the apparently fond memory. "We're going to announce the news tonight. No one but our immediate family knows about this." He paused and deliberately turned to Draco. "Except for you, of course."
This was all part of Blaise's strategy to manipulate him into staying for something he wouldn't enjoy, but given how far Blaise went to ensure his presence, and they were friends, Draco relented quietly with a sigh. At least he had chosen to wear his formal robes rather than the Muggle clothes he had been increasingly favoring on weekends.
The whispers started almost immediately after he entered Blaise's home. Most of the whisperings originated from harmless curiosity—this was his first appearance at a high-society function since the war—and the few more vicious whisperings were nothing he hadn't heard before. If they were going to say something bad about him, they should at least be creative, Draco thought, as he walked past it all with practiced nonchalance—toward the bar.
He was browsing the bottles behind the bartenders when a familiar voice behind him spoke up. "I didn't believe my ears when I heard from the grapevine that you were here."
"Theodore," Draco greeted the speaker drily, without turning around. "I don't quite believe I'm here either."
"He tricked you into coming, I assume," Theodore observed without bothering to hide his amusement.
Draco answered with a sneer and ordered two double Macallan 25s, just to hit Blaise's wallet out of spite. He handed one to Theodore when they came.
They found a table at the far corner so they could talk in peace.
"I've half a million I want you to invest," Theodore said in a low voice after an initial sip from his glass.
The amount wasn't a trivial sum, but Draco knew better than to inquire about the money's origin; as with most of his clients, the less he knew, the better.
"Equity or real estate?" he asked.
Theodore shrugged. "Whatever you think best."
Draco considered for a moment. "I'll have—"
"Well, look who's here."
Draco looked up to find Kingsley Murton, one of the prankster that had plagued his last year at Hogwarts, standing before him. Ire mounted steadily as memories from those trying years that he had tried his best to forget, to move on from, crossed his mind. He kept his face impassive and readied himself for a confrontation. "How may I help you, Murton?"
"Just thought it would be nice to say hello to my ex-classmate for old time's sake," Murton replied. His words were perfectly civil, but his countenance was not.
Draco gave a thin smile and raised his glass at the man. "It's been a while."
"You've been an uncommon sight at these sort of gathering since the war," Murton drawled. His eyes took on malevolent glint before he continued. "But, who could blame you, if I were you, I would also be too ashamed to show my face."
Draco didn't dignify the comment with a response and simply sipped his scotch. Out of the corner of his eyes, he could see Theodore raising a quizzical brow.
"You may not know, Theodore," Murton said, having mistakenly interpreted that Theodore's silent question was for him, "but I've heard from my father that Malfoy has fallen on hard times and is working for a living."
"Oh, I didn't know that," Theodore said, feigning ignorance, and obviously enjoying himself as he played along. "Do tell. Have you heard anything else?"
Draco struggled to resist the temptation to roll his eyes at Theodore's mock horror. Theodore could be such a bloody git sometimes, he decided, as he finished the last of his scotch.
Murton nodded eagerly, pleased at himself for knowing a piece of information that even the great Theodore Nott did not seem to know. "I've also heard he's been disgracing himself by working directly with filthy Muggles at Gringotts's Muggle Investment Division."
Oh, if only you knew where I live, Draco thought wryly but kept his mouth shut. The years of working with bigot clients had gotten him rather desensitized to insults about what ought to be a shameful truth. He ignored Murton's obvious expectant looks, and gestured to one of the servers for another glass of scotch.
This was, apparently, not the reaction Murton had hoped for. Murton glowered in frustration, before switching tactics. "I heard your mother is not well."
At that, Draco's head finally snapped up. Seeing that his target at last looked somewhat nettled, Murton doubled down on his efforts. "It's no wonder, it can't be easy to have a husband in jail and a son acting like a blood traitor."
"If I were you, I would stop right there," Draco warned as he put down his empty glass.
He had resolved to take the high ground and ride out the attacks until Murton got bored, but while he could sit idly through anything Murton had to say about him, his mother was a different matter. He deserved the animosity because he had made poor life choices, but his mother … his mother's only real mistake was to fall in love with the wrong man.
"Oh?" Murton jeered, having had all the success he had expected. "What will you do? My father works for the Department of Law Enforcement. Attacking me will land you in jail next to your father, and then your mother will have to whore herself—"
Suddenly, Murton was still and silent.
Draco turned to see Theodore lazily putting his wand away. "Didn't want you do anything you will regret later," Theodore explained with a shrug.
Draco silently nodded his thanks. It was easier to see his options with the blinding anger he had felt moments before fading into a controlled simmer. A plan quickly solidified in his mind, one he had no doubt would teach Murton a lesson. Draco stood up and stalked toward Murton.
"Your father had signed a non-disclosure agreement when he became my client. The two of you had blatantly breached the contract by sharing my involvement at Gringotts with third parties. I could overlook your indiscretions, but I do not—" He paused to meet Murton's gaze before continuing in a dangerous tone. "—I do not tolerate any insult to my mother and I will be informing the legal team of the breach shortly. Mark my words, Gringotts takes breach of non-disclosure agreements very seriously."
Theodore, who had signed a similar agreement and was familiar with the consequences, smirked. Murton stared at him blankly, so Draco decided to explain everything in plain language.
"Per the terms on the agreement, a hundred fifty thousand Galleon fine and a team of Obliviators will find your father and you first thing tomorrow morning."
From his interactions with the senior Murton, Draco knew exactly how violently the man would react to the news. Based on the panic in Murton's eyes, he knew it too.
Draco placed a hand on Murton's shoulder and leaned forward. "I will leave you to explain why," he whispered with a sneer, "Good luck."
It would be an understatement to say Ginny Weasley was not particularly proud of her most recent game. The Harpies were playing their first game that season against their long-time rival, Puddlemere United. It turned ugly fast when the referees didn't make the call against Puddlemere United's Beater, who had kicked the Harpies' Seeker. By the time the game ended, five players had been knocked off their brooms and two of them had to be levitated off the pitch. To make things worse, amidst the chaos, Puddlemere won: a humiliating 172-90 blowout.
The dreaded post-game interview didn't help Ginny's mood. She handled the expected question about Caleb Gones's potentially season ending injury with collected composure, and the second question about whether their loss will affect their game play in the future with practiced precision. But then someone just had to ask that question:
"Ms. Weasley, can you please comment on whether your recent breakup with—"
Bloody Hell. Her carefully built poise came crashing down. "Next question!" she interrupted, before the "journalist" could finish his question, but he shouted over her voice.
"—Harry Potter might have affected your performance during the game?"
She should have known better than to answer, to feed the fire, but Ginny had never been good at holding her tongue. "I was fatigue from back-to-back games!" she cried in exasperation. "And by what standard is eighteen months considered recent?"
"Do you have any comments on Harry's new—"
Something snapped within her. Words she had repressed for months gushed out before she could stop them. "No! It's always Harry. Harry. Harry. Mum still wouldn't stop inviting Harry over for dinner, and the world still wouldn't believe he may not be the reason why I had a bad game!"
Ginny stood up unceremoniously and didn't care she had knocked over her chair in the process. "I've enough of this bullshit! Question time is over!" she told the room, and stormed out.
It was a completely unremarkable, average, ordinary work day.
By the time Draco Malfoy looked up from the computer screen after sending the investment proposal for Theodore to the printer, it was already past nine. The area around his office had long emptied, and the floor was quiet, save for the muted buzz of the printer a few turns away from him. The dull pain in his back gave way to hunger as he stood up. He gathered the report from the printer and placed it into a folder.
He had meant to order takeout before the decent restaurants closed, but somewhere along his research, he had completely lost track of time. How did it even get so late in the first place? He was sure he had thought at lunch that he could head out by six, but then he had five back-to-back client meetings, followed by a surprise visit from Blaise that as usual lasted longer than expected. Now, here he was. Not that Draco had any grand plans for the evening, but he was thinking of going for a jog. Now his only ambition for the night was to get dinner at the pub near his flat, and then head to bed.
First, though, he had to leave Gringotts.
He packed his computer into his bag, sent the folders stacked on his desk into the cabinets with a flick of his wand, and hung up the light robes he had taken off earlier, after his last client meeting. The Muggle Investment Division was located about seven miles underground, and during the bumpy ride back to the surface on the staff cart, Draco completed the routine set of Transfiguration spells on himself. He glanced at the small rear-view mirror on the cart, just in case, and nodded in satisfaction when he saw his alternate self, completed with short brown hair, dark brown eyes, larger nose, and lower cheek bones, staring back in the reflection.
Five minutes later, Draco finally slipped through the staff door onto the street. Diagon Alley was surprisingly busy, festive even. A Quidditch game between Puddlemere United and the Holyhead Harpies must have been on earlier because everyone was in their jerseys, drunk. Had the season started again? And a better question: how had he missed the beginning of a season all together? When he was younger, the beginning of the Quidditch season was something he had always counted down to. He would even purchase box seats to the first Quidditch game of the year months in advance, but now … Well, times had changed.
And sometimes it was simply better to not think about it.
He weaved through the crowd, his disguise keeping him anonymous. He arrived soon after at the closest Apparition point. He took one last look at the drunken fans, then he waved his wand. A pop, followed by the familiar pull, instantly brought him to a quiet, hidden spot in Hyde Park.
By contract, he only had to be in his disguise between the Gringotts and the Diagon Alley Apparition point, but he couldn't be bothered undoing the tangled conjuration spell. Night had cooled the summer air to a comfortable temperature and this, paired with his growing hunger, brought him to the pub in record speed. He quickly found an empty spot at the bar, and when the bartender walked over, he ordered his usual without looking at the menu: a pint of pale ale and chicken masala curry over rice.
He was about to take his first sip of beer when a voice caught his attention.
"Another!" Followed by the sound of a shot glass making contact with the counter.
There was something about that voice that sounded familiar.
He turned to find a red-haired woman in an ugly jumper and old jeans waving madly at the bartender. She was seated a few seats from him, and based on the number of glasses surrounding her, she already had too much to drink. If he had been in The Three Broomsticks, he would have thought she was Ginny Weasley. Except, of course, it couldn't be her since they were in the middle of Muggle London. In any case, even if Weasley was to visit this pub, surely she would be there with her teammates. If he recalled correctly, she had recently been named Holyhead Harpies captain, and tonight was, as Diagon Alley had reminded him, a game night.
The bartender filled a glass of water instead of her order. "Miss, drink the water first; you need to slow down."
"Come on, just one more," the girl begged desperately, hiccupped, and pulled out her wallet. "I will give you a big tip."
She pulled out a wad of cash and clumsily sent a golden coin flying in the process. Draco stared at the coin as it rolled toward him. It was too big to be a Muggle pound. Curious, he stepped off his stool and picked the coin up to take a closer look.
It was a Galleon.
Which could only mean she was a witch. His brain churned as the puzzle pieces fit together, and the resulting conclusion hit him like a train. The woman didn't just look like Weasley; she was—
"Ginny Weasley," he said out loud unintentionally. Loud enough for her to hear.
She spun around in alarm and their eyes met.
He froze. He was suddenly back in that graveyard, the night of the first war anniversary, with Weasley standing in front of him. The overwhelming sense of embarrassment made him want to dig a hole in the ground and hide. He closed his eyes and willed the memory away. She wouldn't recognize him anyway, he reminded himself, he never lifted his spells.
His attention snapped back to the present. Weasley was pointing an angry finger at him. His stomach lurched. The possibility of her recognizing him, somehow, through the layers of transfiguration spells made his heart pound. He considered Disapparating, rules be damned, but he quickly turned the idea down. If Disapprating from a Muggle pub in plain sight was not enough to earn him a Ministry interrogation, then the fact he was suspiciously Disapparating away from Ginny Weasley definitely would. It was a silly idea, and really, what was he trying to hide? This was his neighborhood pub. If anyone was intruding on another's territory, it was her.
He braced himself and met Weasley's eyes … only to find no discernible recognition on her face, just irritation.
"Who sent you?" she demanded in what might have been a threatening tone had her words not come out in slurs. "You're a reporter, aren't you?"
Draco couldn't stop himself from rolling his eyes as he denied the ridiculous accusation with a lazy wave. "No," he said coolly, he had relaxed since he realized his earlier suspicion was wholly unfounded. "I live three blocks away; I came here for dinner."
As if to prove his point, the bartender brought the curry to his spot.
Weasley scowled, clearly suffering from trust issues, and continued her questioning: "How do you know my name then?"
"Lucky guess?" He raised his fingers to his chin in mock contemplation. "It might have been the fact you play for the Holyhead Harpies, but your hair might have also rung a bell, I suppose."
It was not meant to be a joke, but Weasley inexplicably burst into laughter. She actually bent over with the force of it, her hands clutching her sides as her eyes started to water. If she was less intoxicated, Draco might have taken offense, but as it was, he could only wonder what was wrong with her. How was she so angry in one moment and so giggly in the next? How much did she drink? A better question yet: What did she drink?
"It's just," she tried to explain when she finally settled down and noticed his bewildered expression, "I haven't heard the hair thing for years—like, not since Hogwarts."
He snorted at her odd observation. Then, remembering what had brought about this conversation in the first place, he held up the Galleon in his hand. "You dropped this."
"Oh," she said sheepishly, and thanked him as she put the coin away in her jeans pocket.
Deciding the best course of action was to end this baffling exchange and eat his curry, Draco shrugged and turned back to his seat. He had only taken two bites of his lukewarm dinner when he was interrupted by the sound of a neighboring stool being dragged back.
His eyes widened as Weasley sat down and extended her arm toward him.
"I'm Ginny Weasley, as you already seem to know," she said, smiling. "What's your name?"
She probably wouldn't be so friendly had she known who he really was, but he couldn't resist the temptation to mirror her infectious smile and play along.
"Floy Macorad." He told her the well-practiced lie as he shook her hand.
Weasley did not know this, but Draco was keenly aware: this was the first time a Weasley and a Malfoy genuinely smiled and shook each other's hands.
There were mornings when waking up was just that much harder than usual. This was one of them. Ginny Weasley woke to an exploding headache and a spinning room. She had, obviously, drank too much the night before out of sheer stupidity, and she was thankful she had no practice or game today because there was no way she could get on a broom without throwing up. She was contemplating the unpleasant prospect of crawling to the kitchen to get herself some hangover draught when she heard the fireplace in her living room roar to life.
"Ginny?" a female voice called that she recognized as Hermione's. "You here?"
Ginny groaned miserably in response. A few moments later, Hermione appeared at her bedroom door.
"You alright?" Hermione asked.
Ginny shook her head. She hissed when the headache flared with the movement. "Can you get me some hangover draught from the cupboard?"
Hermione took pity on her, stepped away wordlessly, and did as asked. When the brunette came back, she handed Ginny a small, dark vial. Ginny gingerly tipped the potion to her lips. More slowly than she would have liked, she felt her headache retreat and her facility returned to her. Fifteen minutes later, she finally felt well enough to leave her bed and sit down at the dining table.
"I figured I should check up on you after reading the headline today," Hermione said as she sat down a mug of tea for herself and another mug along with a plate of eggs and toast in front of Ginny.
Ginny winced. "How bad was it?"
"Pretty bad," Hermione admitted, her mouth in a grim line. She produced a copy of Witch Weekly. "They said you had a mental break down from the breakup."
Ginny looked at the headline and the unflattering repeating picture of her, shouting at the reporters. She sighed in resignation and poked at her eggs. "I guess that's nothing worse than what they said about me in the past." When she saw Hermione's worried look, she added: "I'm not having a mental breakdown, Hermione. I just needed a break …"
She drifted off as the fuzzy memory of last night came to her. She was drinking away her sorrows alone, and then that strange wizard in Muggle clothes recognized her. The man—Fay, no, Floy, was it?—gave her a perfectly logical answer for why he knew who she was and why he was there. He said he wasn't a reporter, but maybe …
"Were there any reports of where I went yesterday, after I stormed off?"
Hermione shook her head in confusion. "Should there be?"
"Mmm, I guess he really wasn't lying," Ginny muttered absently, and took a bite of her toast.
"He?" Hermione shot her a suspicious look.
At Hermione's question, Floy with his soft brown hair, dark twinkling eyes, and warm teasing smile popped into her mind. "No, it's not what you're thinking," Ginny quickly corrected, feeling her face flush.
Hermione laughed. "It's fine even if it is, Ginny; you're an adult and single."
"This wizard recognized me at a Muggle pub near Hyde Park after I dropped a Galleon on the floor. He seemed nice enough so I stayed and hung out with him for a bit," Ginny explained a little too quickly. She chided herself for feeling embarrassed at all. She was twenty-seven and a Quidditch star, for Merlin's sake. How did the mere idea of a one-night stand with an attractive stranger still somehow embarrass her?
Hermione raised an eyebrow. "And that's it? You just went home after that?"
Ginny strained to recall exactly how she got back home. "I was too drunk to Apparate yesterday …" She frowned when she remembered foggy details of an unfamiliar flat with a rather nice view. She remembered sitting down on a very comfortable chair with a glass of water as Floy tinkered with his fireplace. Ah. "The wizard was nice enough to lend me his fireplace, and I Floo—"
"Wait," Hermione interrupted. "You're telling me that you went to this wizard's home?"
Ginny looked away. "Nothing happened," she defended, but she recognized her recklessness, and waited for the lecture. From the corner of her eyes, Hermione simply sipped her tea and looked thoughtful.
"I thought you were going to scold me," Ginny said at last.
Hermione deliberately put down her mug and looked straight into her eyes. "When was the last time you went to a wizard's home alone after getting plastered at one of those Quidditch parties?"
Ginny thought hard but nothing remotely recent came to mind. The only time she could think of was that incident with the French Seeker at the beginning of her Quidditch career. Raphael Moreau was really just a friend, and she was only going to his hotel room to see his really cute corgi, but the resulting picture of them entering his room together almost ended her relationship with Harry. She had steered clear of wizards' homes and hotel rooms ever since.
"The last time you did that you were only nineteen," Hermione replied for her. "You've been so cautious around men, even after you broke up with Harry, so why did you follow this wizard home yesterday?"
Ginny wondered the same thing. She was drunk, but she had been drunker before. He was nice, but other men had been nicer. He did seem strangely familiar, but if familiarity was her main criteria, she would have gone into Oliver Wood's bed months ago.
"Maybe Witch Weekly was right and I'm losing my mind."
"Or maybe," Hermione suggested ever so logically, "you're finally ready to dip your toes into the dating scene again.
A/N: There you have it, they cross paths again, and the story begins! I had a lot of fun writing older Ginny and Draco, I especially hope you like my characterization of Draco. A heads up, Ginny and Draco have a lot to work out (particularly Draco), so those two are not going to suddenly be romantically involved, they have to work really hard for it.
I also want to thank my beta Boogum and Laina. Without them this story would be in much worse shape.
"You don't have to take a day off every time I have a checkup," his mother said as they took their seat in the waiting area, after they had checked into the private clinic with the nurse on duty. "I can get here myself, you know. I haven't had a fainting spell in weeks."
"Don't be silly, Mother," Draco replied without thinking. "It's too far to come alone. In any case, I enjoy spending time with you."
His words earned him a smile. "You always say the right thing, darling, but you don't need to lie to me just to make me happy."
"I'm not," he reassured her.
And he wasn't. After watching her suffer from whatever mysterious ailment that gave her extreme fatigue and near daily fainting spells, seeing her relatively healthy again really did make him happy. There were no clear diagnosis and no magical cure, but the healers had at last found the right spells and potions to manage her symptoms, and for that, Draco must feel grateful.
He caught her eye just to convey his sincerity. "I wouldn't lie about that."
"No, you wouldn't," she agreed. Her smile turned into a grin.
They fell into a comfortable silence. He resorted to reading the Daily Prophet while she pulled out a copy of Bewitching Home. He noticed, as he fingered through the finance section, that his mother turned to him periodically, as if to say something, only then to change her mind. After a fourth instance, he glanced up from the paper to look at her.
"What is it, Mother?"
That seemed to give her just enough encouragement to finally speak.
"Oh, there is something I need to tell you," she said slowly, her fingers fidgeted until the edges of her magazine were crumpled. "The lawyers contacted me the other day; the court has finalized Lucius's release date."
Father. He had forgotten.
He had chosen out of necessity to put out of his mind Lucius's imminent release as soon as he signed the last legal document to finalize Lucius's appeal victory months earlier. Nothing made him feel more conflicted than his father's freedom. And perhaps it wasn't so much his freedom, but the man himself, because Lucius's existence had always been a mixed blessing. It was easy to focus on the good parts while Lucius was in prison and their interactions boiled down to once-a-month twenty minutes visits, it would be much harder to do so once his father was free.
Draco sighed in spite of himself. "When is the official release date?" he asked.
"Eighteenth of November," his mother replied. There was a hint of longing and excitement in her voice. "The lawyer said around noon is when the releases usually happen."
She stopped short of asking him to go with her to bring his father home; she always stopped short of asking him to do anything when it involved his father ever since the war. But Draco knew his mother's heart well, and he knew his mother had dreamed of a family reunion for a very long time.
"I'll take that day off," he offered. Every interaction with Lucius felt like a sacrifice, but he could never deny his mother of anything. He owed her too much. "Just let me know when you want me to pick you up closer to the date."
She looked contrite. "Thank—"
He stopped her before she could finish. "Don't." Don't feel sorry. Don't thank me.
There were no dark curses or potent poisons to blame; his mother had fallen sick for no discernible rhyme or reason. The healers said it was stress and natural disposition, but he knew better. He wanted to grab her shoulders and shake her to her senses. Can't you see? He wanted to scream. Father and I had committed our sins but it was you who had paid for our bad karma!
He did not voice his thoughts out loud. Instead, he forced the line of his lips to soften. "You didn't force me to do anything."
His mother responded with a fragile smile and he did not quite know where to look. He only knew he was thankful when the healers called her name.
Ginny Weasley crumpled up another piece of paper and threw it on the ground in frustration. This shouldn't be so hard, she grumbled to herself as she pulled out a new sheet of paper. She had just wanted to write a thank you note, but Hermione's words kept popping up in the back of her mind, and suddenly everything she wrote seemed wrong: too serious, too bold, too disingenuous, or just didn't feel right.
Pigwidgeon was getting increasingly impatient and had been fluttering about her room like a Snitch for the past five minutes. It was little wonder why Ron gave her Pig soon after he got married. The owl's hyperactivity would have most definitely gotten on Crookshanks and Hermione's nerves. The stupid owl was lucky he was cute enough for Ginny to overlook his less than stellar personality.
She turned her attention back to the offending piece of blank paper again. She had to stop over-thinking things, she determined. She needed to keep it simple and tie the damn note on Pig's leg and get this over with. She glared at her quill, picked it up, and drafted a new note.
It was nice meeting you the other week. Thank you for lending me your fireplace. You were right: Flooing was a much better idea than splinching myself.
I was wondering if you'd be interested in dinner sometime, as thanks. My treat, of course.
She read the message once over and did her best to convince herself that it was just a casual note. With a frustrated grunt she summoned her Gryffindor rashness, tied the note on Pig's leg and sent him on his way before she could change her mind again.
Draco was in the middle of reading a new alchemy manuscript he had acquired through one of his clients when he first heard the soft, insistent tapping at his kitchen window. Upon investigation, he found a very small owl, the size of a tennis ball, staring at him while hooting and extending a leg to show the note it was carrying. Draco stared back, but didn't open the window because he knew the owl must have made a mistake. There was no way the owl was delivering a note to him; the handful of entities and people that did owl him (the Ministry, the lawyers, the bank, Theodore, Blaise, and his mother) would never be caught using such a ridiculous looking bird. He made a gesture to shoo it away, and then closed his blinds.
The tapping, this time louder, began in earnest almost as soon as his blinds were drawn.
Draco rolled his eyes, casted a silencing charm on the window, and went back to his work. He forgot about the owl until hunger drove him back to his kitchen for a sandwich and he opened his blinds to let the light in. The owl was still there—and there was now a few small scratches on his window and a pile of droppings on his windowsill. He was sure the owl was bonkers, but recognizing that the owl wouldn't leave until he completed the delivery—and not wanting any more damage to his window—he let it in.
The owl zoomed into his kitchen the moment the window was open, hooting incessantly as it flew around Draco's head. He wasn't sure if the owl was just naturally hyperactive or if it was intentionally doing all this to annoy him. Draco caught the owl when it flew a little too close and untied the correspondence on its leg.
He unfolded the piece of paper and scanned the content. It took a few moments for him to decipher the messy handwriting. He did a double take when his eyes landed on the sender's name. Ginny Weasley. No way. He was so sure their paths would never cross again the moment she disappeared from his fireplace, but there the note was.
His thoughts went instantly back to that surreal night a week ago, at the pub, and her long drunken rant about the inner-workings of the Quidditch post-game interviews. He'd listened as he ate his dinner and drank his pint, nodding at appropriate moments. It was almost as if they were friends, except that was the first time in many years he had seen her, and she had no idea who he really was.
Draco re-read the note again. He was glad she didn't seem to think he was pushing his luck by lending her his fireplace at his home. He had wondered whether or not it was appropriate to even make the suggestion that night, but it was late, and the Floo network seemed to be the safest way for her to get home, given how ridiculously clumsy and trusting she seemed to be when drunk. He never expected thanks, and he certainly never expected to see her again.
His first reaction was to reject the offer without even entertaining the idea, but that felt like stomping on her sincerity, so he reconsidered. He let himself imagine eating a good meal across from Weasley while she droned on about her latest Quidditch match. Then he imagined being able to openly talk about the Muggle world with someone who did not hold it in disdain. He realized the idea of having dinner with Weasley was not as repulsive as it should have been, and if he was honest with himself, it might even be fun.
It was just a thank you dinner; there were no strings attached, and it wasn't like he actually had any plans outside of work. As long as he took care to hide behind the mask of Floy Macorad (and he had proven that he could maintain the façade in front of her for at least a few hours), was there any harm in accepting the offer?
He decided there was nothing to lose, so he pulled out a pen from his drawer and scribbled down a response on the back of Weasley's note:
Although entirely unnecessary, a thank you dinner does sound nice. You choose the date and restaurant, and I'll be there - Floy
He secured the note onto the owl's leg, fed it a piece of ham, and then sent it on its way.
Ginny Weasley was on her way to Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes, balancing three large cups of coffee from George's favorite coffee shop in her hands, when she turned at a blind corner and collided into someone on the other side. The collision promptly caused a chain of events that resulted in Ginny burning her hand and flinging one of the cups away from her and into another person. There was a short moment of motionless shock and then, as if time had started again, the man swore and quickly pulled his cloak off before attempting to peel the wet shirt underneath off his skin to avoid getting burned.
She put the other two cups of coffee on the floor before she could do further damage. "Sorry, are you alri—"
She stopped abruptly when she got a better look at the man. His blond hair was longer now—long enough for him to tie it back in a short pony tail, but the shape of his jawline and his eyes were still the same. She recognized him right away.
Malfoy groaned. "What do you want?" he snapped, but his tone was more resigned than angry. He straightened and looked up, his posture defensive, as if he was preparing for a fight. Then his eyes widened in recognition. "Oh, Weasley," he greeted, and his shoulders visibly relaxed.
Ginny wondered who exactly he thought she was. She remembered the time she saw him at the dungeon in her seventh year, but this wasn't school anymore. She couldn't imagine anyone deliberately spilling coffee onto another person in the street, even if it was Malfoy, but his reaction was suggesting otherwise.
"I think I can see where your family's owl got its klutziness from."
She eyed the dark stains on his clothes and grimaced. She supposed she did deserve the bit of sarcasm. "Is there anything I can help with?"
Malfoy bent to pick up his cloak, pulled out a wand, and held out the cloak to her. "Here, hold this up," he instructed.
Ginny did as she was told and watched in wonder as Malfoy lifted every last bit of coffee from his cloak with a charm she wasn't familiar with, and then he turned to do the same on his shirt. She vaguely wondered if whatever he used would also work for grass stain.
"Stop staring, Weasley. It's just a modified cleaning charm."
Ginny felt her face flush and felt the need to justify her staring. "It just never occurred to me that you knew how to clean your own clothes."
Malfoy looked scandalized at her accusation. "Of course I know how to clean my own clothes," he shot back. "I don't know how you think I live, Weasley, but I don't have servants running around in my flat to do my bidding."
He reached for his cloak and pulled it back on in one swift motion. Then, he glanced at his pocket watch.
"I should get going," he announced, and began to walk away.
Ginny was having a moment of déjà vu. "Wait," she called.
When Malfoy finally stopped and looked back, she jogged toward him. It occurred to her that whenever she spoke with him, he always seemed to walk away before she could say anything. This was her chance to leave on a more conciliatory note. Who knew how long it would be before she would see him again after this?
She stuck her palm out toward him. "It was good to see you again, Malfoy."
He stared at her outstretched hand. For a moment, Ginny thought Malfoy would just point his nose up in disgust and walk away, but he stayed put. He brushed his hand on his cloak, as if to clean it, took her hand into his own, and returned the cordiality with a firm shake and a subtle smirk.
Draco had always prided himself in being able to compartmentalize his thoughts and focus on work even when life was at its worst. This talent had served him well through the years. It had made him more efficient than his counterparts, won him loyal clients despite his family name, and made him top advisor of the year at Gringotts five years in a row, through his father's messy appeal and through his mother's many hospital stays. Yet, somehow, he found his mind drifting as he waited for Theodore to finish reading through the proposal.
Not for the first time today, Draco thought about his recent meetings with Ginny Weasley. He had thought—was sure—that Weasley was only friendly to him at the pub because he was Floy Macorad, but the notion seemed to be contradicted by what happened after he physically bumped into her on his way to restock his potion cabinet. He had been defensive out of habit, but she had stayed to help him; she had deliberately stopped him from leaving just to tell him that it was good to see him again. Even if she was lying about the latter, it was still warm civility he did not expect from her. He was not sure how to take any of that, but it made him feel…
Draco snapped back to attention, but it was too late; he had completely missed what Theodore said. "Sorry, what did you say?"
Theodore placed the proposal back on the desk. "I said the proposal is good," he repeated and eyed Draco curiously. "Are you alright, mate?"
Draco tried to brush him off but Theodore stopped him with a wave. "I haven't seen you so distracted since our sixth year."
They both knew the implication of 'sixth year' was too serious to simply shrug off. Draco scowled as Theodore smirked, knowing very well he had no choice but to tell the truth, or at least a portion of the truth.
"I bumped into Ginny Weasley yesterday."
He had intentionally left out the fact this was his second meeting with Weasley in two weeks, and they had another meeting in the plan.
"I should have known," Theodore remarked theatrically. "It's always because of a girl."
Draco rolled his eyes. "You know it's not like that; we are talking about a Weasley here."
Theodore shrugged. "Do I? She was attractive enough even in the Hogwarts days, blood traitor or not, but now she has friends in power."
A burst of irritation hit Draco and it took some effort to keep his expression even. He felt the chasm caused by his changing beliefs between him and Theodore too clearly at that moment. He knew Theodore meant well enough, and he knew his friend simply spoke his mind. But having lived and worked amongst Muggles for so long, terms like "blood traitors" made his skin crawl. Plus, speaking of Weasley that way just seemed … wrong.
"I just wasn't expecting to see her again, that's all," Draco said with exaggerated dismissiveness, determined to change the subject before he accidentally said something that might drive Theodore away. "Is there anything you want me to change in the proposal?"
Theodore shot him a pointed look, but Draco ignored it, and the conversation moved on.
Ginny put on the black dress she'd grabbed from the bottom of her closet and frowned at her reflection. She hadn't worn the dress for years, not since before the breakup. She was sure she hadn't gained any weight, so why didn't the dress look right on her anymore? She tried another dress, and another after that, and she came to a similar conclusion: her chest was too flat, arms were too fat, her hips were too wide—and suddenly it dawned on her that she didn't have to endure any of this angst and frustration. No. She was not going to worry about what she was wearing because this wasn't a date. This was a thank you dinner, no matter what Hermione had said. Simple as that.
She pulled on jeans and a lavender shirt and walked out of her closet before she could change her mind. It wasn't like she was dressed up when she met Floy at the pub. If anything, she had chosen to wear the most atrocious outfit that night because she didn't want to be bothered by anyone. Whatever she was wearing now had to be an improvement by comparison.
The grandfather clock in her living room chimed seven times. She realized she was running late. The restaurant, a small neighborhood French joint Hermione had brought her to a year ago, was located in a quiet Muggle area, a good twenty minute walk from the closest Apparition point. The reservation was in fifteen minutes. Ginny swore, hastily grabbed her cardigan and her wand, and Disapparated away.
After speed walking her way through the neighborhood a little like a mad woman, she arrived at the designated restaurant to find Floy standing casually near the front door. He was dressed in a light green dress shirt, tan dress pants, and brown leather shoes. In his right hand, he held a dark, expensive looking leather bag, and in his left was one of those portable Muggle telephones her father had been playing with at home. Floy looked like he belonged there. Had she not known he was a wizard, she would have thought he was simply some Muggle businessman who had just left work.
Her heart staccato in her throat when he looked up and waved at her. "You're actually here," he said, sounding relieved, as if he wasn't sure she would come.
"Of course I'm here. Sorry I'm late."
Floy gave her a slightly embarrassed shrug and, without wasting more time, held the door open for her. Ginny could feel her skin tingle as she brushed passed him into the restaurant. This was not a date, she had to remind herself as she sat down across from him at their table, but it was really beginning to feel like one. She forced herself to focus on the menu and kept her eyes from wandering.
Floy broke the silence. "Do you come to this restaurant often?"
She shook her head. "Only once with another friend, but the food was good last time I was here."
Floy turned his eyes back to the menu. "Do you frequent Muggle restaurants?" he asked conversationally, and then paused as if a thought had crossed his mind. He amended the question before she could comment. "Not that I have anything against Muggle restaurants, of course. I'm just curious."
She laughed at his political correctness; he was probably the last person she would suspect was a pureblood supremacist, given how very well integrated he seemed to be in the Muggle world.
"I didn't used to when I was younger," she admitted, "but I sometimes find myself in them because they seemed to be the only place I could get a bit of privacy, ever since …"
"You became a Holyhead Harpies player and Harry Potter's girlfriend."
"Ex-girlfriend," she blurted out before she could stop herself. "We broke up over a year and a half ago."
Floy shot her a perplexed look, and she felt her cheeks heat up.
"It was all over the news," she stumbled, wishing she had the foresight to order a glass of wine earlier.
"Sorry to hear that," he replied with equal awkwardness. "I, er, don't read the news much—only the finance section. You see, I'm a financial advisor at Gringotts, in the Muggle Investment Department."
Ginny found herself surprised, but she wasn't entirely sure why. If he was telling the truth, and she had no reason to believe he wasn't, then his job really did explain a lot of things. She supposed, given no one in her family or circle of friends was in the banking business, the possibility had just never crossed her mind.
"Oh, how interesting," she replied.
"It's not interesting at all," he assured her in a disparaging tone. "Just a lot of research, spreadsheets, and graphs. I really wouldn't recommend this career to anyone."
Before she could respond, the waitress returned to take their orders. Hermione had ordered for Ginny the last time she had come to the restaurant, and since Ginny didn't know French, she had been guessing about what each of the items were. When she asked the waitress about the haricot vert, Floy suddenly burst into a good-natured chuckle.
"You do realize haricot vert is just the French words for green beans, right?"
"Of course I do," she lied before blindly ordering a main course to prove her point.
Floy quirked his eyebrow and ordered something for himself in fluent French.
A pig leg completed with hooves was placed in front of her twenty minutes later, and she realized she had made a horrible mistake.
She glared at her dish and then at Floy. "You knew that was what I ordered."
"I thought you understood French," Floy replied simply, a little smug, as he dug into the delicious looking duck confit in front of him.
Ginny knew she had no one but herself to blame, but the food (if this could be considered food) really did not look appetizing. Dejectedly, she settled for her wine.
A few moments later, Floy motioned for her plate. "I'll trade with you if you want," he offered, pushing his plate toward her. A smirk lingered at his mouth. "But you owe me."
He was definitely taking pity on her, but at least, unlike her, he seemed to have no problem eating the trotter. He explained to her that pied de porc was a traditional French dish, and his mother, who had grown up in France, sometimes ordered the dish out of nostalgia. Ginny wasn't sure if she could have suffered through the hooves even if her mother had begged her, so she supposed he must be a better son than she was a daughter. Fortunately, the duck he had passed to her was as delightful as it looked. A good dinner, accompanied by an easy conversation about Quidditch and weekend plans, made the night pass seemingly in a blink of an eye.
"Next time," she said absentmindedly, as she finished her meal with a sip of wine, "I'll let you order for me."
Floy's head jolted up at her words, his expression incredulous. Ginny was convinced she should backtrack to save herself from humiliation, but before she could he cleared his throat. His voice quivered slightly when he finally spoke.
"Are you suggesting that we should have dinner again?"
Ginny felt her heart pounding in her chest as she considered her answer. She sucked in a deep breath. "I guess I am."
Draco's description of Narcissa's health issues is accurate, it's not caused by foul play. I intended her sickness to be a magical equivalent of a severe autoimmune disease.
Draco hadn't expected Floy Macorad to make another encore so soon, but a mere days after their last meeting, Weasley had invited him to dinner again. They agreed to go to a sushi bar he favoured, close to the Muggle financial district. As their acquaintance had proven so far, he obviously had a superior palate.
He recognized it was probably morally ambiguous at best to keep on the Floy Macorad façade, but he did it anyway, because their meetings had given him a taste of something he had been lacking for years, and he found himself greedily wanting more of whatever that was. He was more at ease now: the nervousness he felt during their first few meals together had dissipated, and he settled into an easy script for the Floy character: himself without the cumbersome duties and tiresome dark history. His ability to compartmentalize every aspect of his life had once again came handy.
"This is fancier than I was expecting when you suggested sushi," Weasley said a little uneasily when the server left them with their menu.
He quirked his eyebrow and eyed her body hugging black dress. "Well, you certainly seemed to be dressed for it."
In fact, he had wondered if she had just come straight from some Quidditch function when he first saw her outside. He allowed himself to admit—in an intellectual way—that she was quite stunning, but he forced himself to stop there.
"This is just a coincidence," she insisted with a frown. "I had to go to a charity function and smile for the camera right before this. But this doesn't seem like the appropriate choice for a Tuesday dinner."
He couldn't help but smirk and tease at that. "You're a Quidditch star, Ginny. Surely, you make enough to splurge a little."
Her face flushed, it was endearing how easily she got embarrassed. "I can, but this just seems a little too extravagant."
Draco wanted to laugh (does the mentality of poor people never change?), but he reminded himself that Floy Macorad did not know the details of Ginny Weasley's family history just in time, and he simply told her: "I'll pay for this."
She opened her mouth to protest, but he silent her with a wave. "You paid for the last meal."
She made a face, but relented. "Regardless, I think we should go somewhere else next time. This place was a nightmare to get to."
He didn't understand at first what she meant. Downtown London was very accessible with the tube and bus system, it seemed like a perfectly logical spot to meet … Oh, right. "I forgot about the anti-Apparation wards in downtown," he admitted. "I came by the tube; that's the Muggle's—"
"Hermione told me about that. It's like a train that goes underground, right?"
Draco chuckled at how pleased she seemed to be with her answer. "You are mostly right," he granted. It was close enough, and he had to give her points for her enthusiasm. He was about to educate her on the finer details of the Muggle mass transportation system when the the server returned with their cold sake and asked for their orders.
Weasley glanced at the menu with a slight frown, before deferring to him for help. He handed both of their menus back to the server and ordered two omakase.
"You better not have ordered me anything weird," she said suspiciously when the server left again.
He couldn't hold back his smirk. "I ordered what I liked," he replied simply. He didn't tell her that the chef's special at this restaurant was their ikizukuri, sashimi so fresh that the gills on the decorative fish head would still be moving.
Her reaction to the chef's 'special' did not disappoint. Weasley shrieked when the dish arrived and she hit him repeatedly on his arm out of squeamish-ness. He laughed at her expense as he nursed the sore sport on his arm, unrepentant.
"This isn't food," she complained, but she was truly a good sport and she tried everything. Even though at times she looked like she wanted to die, she was honest enough to admit in the end that the food was good.
He had fun, he realized as he sipped the last of his sake, he had more fun since meeting her again than he had for so many years.
If he was a better man, maybe someone more like Potter, he might have kept his distance and ended this madness before it could grow into something that resembled too much like a friendship. But he couldn't do it because, at his core, he was a selfish creature. When she proactively looked into her planner and gave him a few potential dates for their next meeting, he picked the earliest one.
It started when an unfamiliar hawk owl delivered an envelop with the Gringotts letterhead. Ginny had assumed it was her bank statement so she kept the envelope unopened until the morning after when she had to clean out a spot on her dining table for breakfast. She was puzzled when two certificates for gin making sessions at a gin lab in the Muggle part of town fell out of the envelope instead of the expected statement. When she peered into the envelope for an explanation, she found a piece of paper stuck inside. The familiar tight handwriting on the paper made her heart skip a beat from anticipation. The note read:
I got these certificates from one of the real-estate firms I partnered with. I have no use for them but I thought you may. - Floy
P.S. Consider these as your belated birthday gift if you must
She rolled her eyes even as she felt a swell in her chest. Floy had a strange tendency to discount nice things he did, but none of that really detracted from the fact he was a really sweet and attentive guy. It was a thoughtful gift and it was very flattering to know he had paid enough attention to their conversations to remember her offhand mention of her birthday.
She wrote him a thank you note and considered asking him to join her for the session, but she couldn't quite muster up her courage to ask. It simply felt too forward. Instead, she settled on asking Hermione. She reasoned Hermione probably needed a break from her family, so it was a win-win solution.
This was how, she found herself at a girls' day out with Hermione a couple weekends later. They had brunch, followed by a spa visit, before going to the gin making class. While they waited for their gin to distill, Hermione complained passionately about her husband (Ron had a way of pissing a woman off), while Ginny ranted (as usual) about reporters.
"I don't understand," she moaned. "Why won't they give up? Do you know they're starting new rumours about me and Seamus Finnigan the other day? I mean, Seamus doesn't even like women!"
"Well, you can hardly blame them. You've been rather boring since the big meltdown," Hermione quipped, and then added a question as an after thought "What exactly have you been up to lately?"
"What do you mean?" Ginny said, but her mind had already involuntarily jumped to Floy. They had been going on their non-dates weekly now, sometimes more often, whenever they could find time.
Hermione shrugged. "Well, you haven't even been photographed outside of the pitch in two months, and you know, you have a spring in your step, so to speak."
"I've just been spending time in Muggle neighborhoods, trying out restaurants," Ginny replied vaguely.
Unfortunately, Hermione had known her for over a decade and she simply wasn't satisfied with her answer. "You've never been overtly interested in Muggle restaurants before. What changed?"
Ginny hesitated for a moment, but deciding Hermione would not rest until she had the truth, she relented. "I've been meeting up with that wizard I told you about before," she confessed before she realized just how much of what she said sounded like dates. She rushed to clarify, "Just for food, and only as friends."
Hermione considered her words silently and smiled knowingly. "Is he the reason why you have two certificates for a Muggle gin lab? No wonder you have a spring in your step."
"It's just a birthday gift," Ginny replied dismissively, but she stood up and took sudden interest in the bobbling botanical inside the bubbling spirit to hide her embarrassment anyway. As her traitorous mind reminded her exactly how much her heart fluttered when Floy smiled and said the most mundane things like, see you next week. She felt a blush spread from her neck to her face. "Is the spring really that obvious?"
"Well, Ron hadn't noticed anything, but Harry and I both noticed it," Hermione replied behind her.
The warm and fuzzy feeling in her heart instantly cooled. She felt like she had done something wrong. It was completely illogical. Harry wasn't her anything, not anymore—not for a long time—but the feeling remained.
Hermione frowned. "You shouldn't worry about Harry. He'd been—" Her face scrunched up as she searched for more diplomatic words.
"I know. He'd been exploring his options," Ginny supplied to save her friend the trouble. There had been rumors of Harry having a new girlfriend for months. It had been jarring to read those reports when they first came out, but the twist of her heart had since died down into mere pricks, annoying but painless.
Hermione gave a sheepish nod.
Ginny sighed. "I'm not worried about what Harry or anyone else think. I'm just taking things slow."
The scar from her failed relationship still throbbed. It made her cautious. She enjoyed Floy's company and was aware of her growing attraction to him, but she was also mindful to keep him separate from the rest of her life. She knew she had chosen to meet him in Muggle neighborhoods exactly because she wasn't prepared to legitimize whatever was growing between them. And perhaps, because he could sense her distance, Floy also kept something back. He never pushed further than meals and good conversations, even though he was always happy to oblige whenever she set the next non-date. It was like they were both dipping their feet in the water, but neither took the plunge.
Honestly, she wasn't sure if she was more relieved or frustrated about this whole business. "I want to make sure I won't repeat history ."
Hermione gave her a sympathetic pat on the back. "But you can never be sure, Ginny. Sometimes, you just need to take a leap of faith."
"I know," Ginny told her, and she did; she just wasn't ready to do anything with the piece of wisdom. She could also feel a headache coming from the strain of their conversation and decided enough was enough.
She turned her attention back to the dripping gin pointedly. "Hey, look, we're almost done."
"That's where I want to go," Weasley said as she pointed to The Golden Hind, a rather plain looking fish and chips joint.
"That?" Draco asked just to be sure she was serious.
While fish and chips were a quintessentially Muggle British dish, there were good reasons for why Muggle Britain wasn't known for its cuisine. Surely, there must be trendier, superior options just steps away. For Merlin's sake, they were in the middle of Marylebone, not the middle of a small town in the countryside.
Weasley nodded slowly. "You told me to pick a spot," she reminded him.
Draco opened his mouth to argue but kept quiet when he noted her enthusiasm. "Fine," he said as he pushed the restaurant door open, but he made sure to sound just a touch crabby because he didn't want her to think his taste was so poor that he wanted to eat there.
It was past eight thirty, so the main dinner crowd had passed and they were seated almost right away. Draco's impression of the place was not improved by the uncomfortable wooden seat or the uninspired menu. He followed her lead and ordered a plate of haddock and chips and a pint of beer.
"Thanks for humoring me," Weasley said when their pints arrived. "I know fish and chips is too commoner for your taste."
At her assessment, Draco could only smirk. "You're right. I don't understand the appeal at all, but I guess it's my mistake for asking you to pick a place."
She shot him a look in protest.
"It's fish and chips," Draco said curtly, baiting for her reaction. "Surely, even your inferior palate can't be that bad?"
Weasley rolled her eyes. "It's not just any fish and chips," she declared passionately, but before she could explain why, the server brought them their order.
Draco found himself more interested in watching Weasley than starting on his food. It was amusing to see the look of pure ecstasy on her face when she took a bite of her fish and tartar sauce. It made him want to chuckle out loud and he only refrained from doing so because he had beer in his mouth. Her face turned pink when she noticed him watching.
"Floy, stop looking at me and eat your fish while it's hot."
Draco snorted but did as he was told. The batter was crispy and not too oily and the haddock actually tasted quite fresh. He had a hard time keeping his expression neutral as he chewed and swallowed, but he managed. Beside him, Ginny puffed in exasperation.
"Oh, please admit it," she said. "You enjoyed the fish."
"It was acceptable," he replied in a purposefully tepid tone.
"Is that so?" Ginny arched her brow. "Then I guess you wouldn't mind if I have the rest of your fish."
She made a move to grab his plate, but having anticipated her reaction (this wasn't the first time he had insulted her taste), he moved his plate out of her reach before she could. She pouted like a child and he couldn't help but smile.
"It's good for fish and chips," he admitted at last before taking another bite of the fish. "How did you even find this place?"
"My brother, Bill, brought me here to cheer me up after he found me crying at the park because some girl made fun of my hand-me-down-clothes," Weasley recalled wryly. "My family were poor then. This was before Hogwarts."
She didn't sound too hurt, but the words cut through him like a hot knife anyway. He had also looked down on people because of their clothes and had viciously taunted them until they were in tears. He had been one of those tormentors Weasley just spoke of, even if he was not the one who had caused her to cry that one time. He forced himself to eat a few chips to avoid grimacing. "It must be hard growing up like that."
Weasley shook her head. "It wasn't so bad. I have two parents and five older brothers who were more than ready to 'talk' with whoever made fun of me, so I wasn't bullied much." She reminisced for a moment before turning to him. "Do you have any siblings, Floy?"
"No, I'm an only child."
He had wanted a sibling when he was a child. He asked his mother once whether he could have a sister after a visit with the Greengrass family. His mother answered with a sad smile and an apology, and his father had pulled him aside and told him to never ask that question again. It was only years later, once his mother became his responsibility, that he found out she couldn't. His throat felt dry but he forced himself to speak.
"It must be nice to have brothers."
"Yeah, it's pretty nice," Weasley agreed with a fond, reminiscent kind of smile. "Sometimes they were aggravating, and we fought and picked on each other all the time, but when things go south, we always have a united front."
A united front. He could almost smell the sulphur in the air and see the Weasleys standing across from him with grim determination, their wands drawn against Voldemort, against the Death Eaters, against him. He had always known he and Ginny had grown up in different worlds, but what she had just said had spelled everything out with such crystal clarity that he felt his heart wither a little. What exactly was he trying to accomplish dining with Ginny Weasley every week like they were friends?
"Floy, don't you dare blame the fish and chips," Weasley said, her voice barely breaking through the fog of his introspection.
He blinked. "What?"
"You look like you have the runs," she told him in a matter of fact voice.
He scoffed as dignifiedly as he could. "I do not," he protested, but he could hear his own voice break.
He looked away and focused his attention on his plate of fish and chips to clear his mind. He should—no, must end whatever this was tonight. Spending time with her was like treading through curse infested water where one false move would render him chest deep in a destructive spiral. The question was how and whether he should simply tell her the whole truth or something in between, but before he could make up his mind, he felt warm fingers reaching for his hand.
Startled, he instinctive recoiled from her touched, but she didn't let go. His eyes flicked down to their now intertwined hands before looking back up at her in confusion.
"I said something wrong, didn't I?"
He shook his head, but he felt a spark of warmth in his chest from her genuine concern all the same. "No. Of course not, I'm just—" he stopped himself before he could say the lie that hung off the tip of his tongue. "You're so close to your family. I'm just a little envious," he admitted at last with a sigh, taking care to smooth out any spluttering as he spoke. "My family situation is rather more … complicated."
He finished the rest of his beer in one swig. He prepared himself to speak the truth if Weasley pushed for details, but she didn't. She simply placed enough money on the table to cover their meals and gave his hand a reassuring, compassionate squeeze. "It's still early. Do you want to hit a pub?"
Merlin, he wanted to drink and laugh with her again. He needed this farce of a friendship.
He really ought to say no, but she smiled at him and he almost forgot how to breath.
The final bit of his resolve crumbled. "I do," he conceded and let Weasley pull him out of his seat.
A/N: Next chapter publish time will depend on when my beta gets back to me. This is the first chapter with major new content. I would love to hear from you (every review makes me so happy, you have no idea).
P.S. If you see any mistakes let me know. This had been a work week from hell, so I am running on very little sleep.
The post-game cleanup took longer than she hoped, but given she fell off her broom after slamming into the Falmouth Falcon's Seeker, she supposed she was lucky to just need a little extra medical attention and a dosage of Skele-Gro. The plan was to meet up at a trendy Mexican lounge, one of those places that would present three tacos on an overly large rectangular plate and dips in fancy wooden bowls, at eight-thirty. Unfortunately, by the time she could excuse herself from the reporters and the locker room, she was already late.
It took her another twenty minutes to speed walk between Apparation points and arrive at the restaurant. Her heart sank when she didn't see Floy. She wondered if he had got fed up with waiting and left, but a quick check-in with the hostess proved otherwise. As she followed the hostess to her table, she glanced at a passing mirror to make sure she was still presentable. She wasn't. Her ponytail had apparently come half undone during her speed walking. She scowled as she pulled off her hair tie and tried her best to comb through her long red hair with her fingers. It was good enough. This wasn't a date, after all.
Floy was seated at a small table in the corner with a glass of wine in one hand and a book in the other. He looked handsome as always, and she felt the familiar butterflies in her stomach as she approached him. He was so engrossed with whatever he was reading that he didn't notice her until she pulled the chair across from him out and sat down.
"Sorry I'm late."
"Ginny, so kind of you to grace me with your presence," Floy greeted with a smile as he looked up from his book, not missing a beat. "Congrats on the win."
"You watched the game?"
"I saw enough. We had a good quarter so the big boss took us out to the Leaky Cauldron for drinks and they were projecting your game. You really fed the Falcons a dose of their own medicine."
"I don't know what you're talking about," she replied in an act of false-ignorance.
"I'm fairly certain your 'accidental' crash was deliberate," Floy drawled with a smirk.
For someone who didn't seem to watch a lot of Quidditch, Floy was exceptionally astute in his assessment. She had, in fact, tackled the Falcon Beater off his broom so that he wouldn't be able to defend his Seeker from a Bludger. Falling off her bloody broom wasn't part of the plan, but it had won her some sympathy points, and that, along with the fact that she'd sent two of her players to distract the referees through the whole thing, meant she had walked away with no penalty.
"It's all fair play," Ginny maintained with a shrewd grin. "We won fair and square."
Floy snorted out loud. "Yes, you played fair like how Kevin Muscat plays fair."
She vaguely recognized the name from that Muggle ball game Floy was partial to that often played on those Muggle moving picture boxes in pubs. She was certain Kevin Muscat was the one everyone booed at when he charged at another player from behind. The comparison was warranted, but Falmouth Falcon was a truly dirty team and she had no regrets.
"The Falcons deserved every tackle they got."
He raised his glass of wine to her. "I can't argue that."
The waiter interrupted them with food that Floy must have ordered before she arrived. The smell of carnitas and steak wafted through the air, reminding her of exactly how hungry she was. Her stomach rumbled as the waiter set down two plates of tacos with tortillas and a pint of beer in front of Floy. She wondered if Floy would take pity on her and let her eat one of the tacos.
"One of the plates and the pint is yours, you know," Floy said before she could ask.
She noted the plate he was pushing toward her had no coriander, unlike the one he kept for himself. She also noted the pint he ordered for her was a light beer, unlike the IPAs he generally preferred. He hadn't just randomly ordered extra food in case she would come; he had ordered exactly what she liked. She felt her heartbeat quicken. It was impossible to stay unmoved by his attentiveness. Her cheeks pinked and she distractedly picked up a taco.
She was a few bites in when she noticed Floy had picked up his fork and knife. That in itself wasn't anything interesting, but they were eating tacos and tortillas and normal people simply ate those things with their hands. Come to think of it, she had never seen him eat anything with his hands, not even bread. Ginny couldn't hold back a snicker when he started pushing a tortilla with salsa on his fork with his knife, all proper and prim.
Her snicker prompted Floy to raise an eyebrow that read: problem?
She put down her taco and ate a tortilla with her hand after dipping it into the salsa like a normal human being. "Seriously, knife and fork for tortillas?"
Floy shot her a slightly irritated look. "I was brought up not to eat like savage," he deadpanned.
Oh, was that a slight? She was hit by a rather immature idea for revenge. She proceeded to pick up her unfinished taco with her hands. She could feel the sauce drench her fingers as she finished the taco in two unladylike bites. Then, without warning, she stretched toward Floy's book as if she was about to pick it up and only stopped inches before she touched the spin. The horrified look on Floy's face was so priceless it made her giggle.
"Not funny," Floy muttered as he glared at her, but she could see the sides of his lips lifting into a faint smile and he made no effort to move his precious book.
She laughed harder as she wiped her fingers with her napkin. "You should have seen your face when you realized you couldn't stop me—"
Something odd caught her attention when her eyes landed on the book. She took a closer look, blinked, and took another look. It wasn't an optical illusion; the title really was changing, refusing to form into meaningful words.
"It's charmed," she said quietly, thinking out loud.
Floy followed her gaze to his book and confirmed her assertion with a nod.
"Can I take a closer look?"
Floy appeared as if he was about to decline, so she struck him with her best puppy eyes.
He stared at her for a moment and sighed. "Fine," he relented, before glancing around them quickly as if to confirm no one was watching.
She saw him mutter something under his breath, and the air around her warmed. She turned sharply to look at him, even as the noise coming from their surroundings muffled.
She noticed his eyes were on her hands as he spoke again. This time she could hear the incantation clearly. She watched with astonishment as the grease lifted off her hands and dissipated into thin air. Her fingers were no longer sticky. Magic—but Floy's hands were still on his cutlery. She was not sure if she was more surprised or impressed.
"What was that?" she demanded.
Floy ate another piece of his taco from his fork like nothing extraordinary had just happened. He chewed and swallowed before he bothered to explain. "The first spell was a modified Imperturbable Charm to keep Muggles from hearing our conversation, as per the Statute of Wizarding Secrecy. The second was just a cleaning charm so you won't dirty my book."
She rolled her eyes in exasperation. "You used wandless magic."
"I can hardly pull my wand out in the middle of a Muggle restaurant, can I?" He shrugged, put down his cutlery, and handed her his book. "Here."
The cloth cover felt warm in her hand from the charm. She studied it carefully and noted that she had seen similar concealment charms before on the case folders Harry used to bring home. "There's nothing confidential in here, is there?"
Floy looked insulted by her question. "I wouldn't hand you client-confidential material just because you asked. It's just a book I'm reading. I've charmed the cover so I can read it anywhere in peace."
She nodded and opened the book carefully and flipped to the title page. It read in old formal fonts: The Paracelsus Theorem of Alchemic Relative Equivalence. Alchemy? She hadn't taken Alchemy in Hogwarts. The course was infamous for being impractical and demanding and was often cancelled due to low enrollment. She flipped to a random page and saw strange equations made up of unfamiliar symbols, words, and numbers. She flipped to another page: this one had a diagram that didn't make sense to her and notes in the margin written in Floy's tight, neat print.
"Is this for work?" she asked.
Floy chuckled. "I'm an investment banker, Ginny. Last I checked, alchemy isn't one of the prerequisites."
Her disbelief only grew with his response. "You read this for fun?"
"Alchemy is my hobby," he replied as he took a sip of his wine.
He said hobby as nonchalantly as Ron would say wizard's chess was his hobby.
"You mean you read books on alchemy occasionally?"
He shook his head slowly. "I mean I spend most of my weekends translating alchemic manuscripts fromancient runes and running experiments on transmutation of substances," he replied in a tone that told her he was being perfectly serious.
Merlin, he knew ancient runes, too? It was just too easy to forget that Floy was a wizard when she always saw him in his Muggle clothes eating in a Muggle neighborhood. The fact that his work required little magic didn't help either. Bill had told her on multiple occasions how magically inept a lot of the wizards and witches taking desk jobs in Gringotts were, so she had assumed Floy was the same. Apparently, she was wrong. She leaned back in her seat, suddenly tired from all the revelations.
"What are you thinking about?" he asked.
"There's a lot I don't know about you," Ginny said honestly.
She couldn't quite decipher the expression on his face as he considered her words.
"What do you want to know?" he asked eventually.
"I've always thought because of what you do at Gringotts and where you live that—" she paused to find more diplomatic words "—that your talents are in investing and not magic."
"I suppose that's not an unreasonable assumption," Floy said mildly. If he was offended by her statement, he didn't show it. He paused and looked away as if he was self-conscious. "But, yes, I like to think I'm proficient in magic."
"You're more than proficient! Casting a modified Imperturbable Charm that works on thin air wandlessly—that was advanced magic!"
Ginny spoke more fervently than intended, but something wasn't adding up. Gifted wizards and witches generally did not work in dull desk jobs at Gringotts. "With your skills," she continued, "you must have had other opportunities. Why did you choose to become an investment advisor?"
A disconcertingly bitter smile appeared on Floy's face. "Nine years ago, Gringotts was my only real option."
He picked up his wine glass for a long drink.
The pang in her heart grew. Unlike the time when he told her about his family situation, she did not hesitate when she reached for his hand, and he did not resist her touch. She could feel his anguish as his fingers curled around hers and she squeeze his hand once to let him know it was okay to stay silent.
Nine years ago was only a year after the war. The second wizarding war began and ended in their teenage years. While she could only assume he hadn't been at the epicenter of it all like her, surely he had still been impacted. He had spoken of his mother fondly enough, but he never spoke of his father or any other family. Was there a reason behind his omission? Did something happen to his father during the war? Hermione told her that investment bankers made a great living. Did he need the money then? Was that what he meant by Gringotts being his only real option?
She kept those burning questions silent. He would tell her if he wanted to, but until then... there were boundaries that were better not crossed, and asking about war time tragedies was probably one of them.
"This place is beautiful," Weasley breathed as she looked out from the window of the bistro to the landscape outside. Autumn had turned the trees orange and gold on bother sides of the steady river. The expanse of lush British moorlands stretched behind the river as far as the eyes could see. In the distance, a small herd of deer leisurely picked at the grass in the cool October sun.
A familiar ache, a deep longing, passed through Draco as he followed her gaze. It was as beautiful as he knew it would be. Malfoy Manor was only a few miles north, so he was familiar with the scenery in this part of the country. He had chosen the bistro because of the unobstructed view. He had chosen Wiltshire because ever since she pointed out how little she knew of him, he had felt an inexplicable compulsion to find small ways of letting her know about his life.
He had eaten at the bistro a few times before when his mother felt nostalgic and her health allowed her to travel. Mother never voiced the thought, but Draco knew she missed the manor. He missed it too, but he hadn't allowed himself to dwell on it often because it was no longer something he could return to.
Unfortunately, it was impossible to avoid thinking about the manor's vast, ancient magnificence when he was physically so close. "I grew up about five miles from here," he told her, as close to the truth as he dared. "Autumn had always been picturesque here."
"You grew up around here?" She turned to him with keen interest, her eyes burning with anticipation, as they did whenever he offered her nuggets of his life. "What was your home like?"
Home. The overpowering yearning returned, but he pressed on and allowed himself to reminisce. In the end, he wanted to indulge her curiosity. "The house I lived in was old, but beautiful and well maintained. In the summer, the house was cool and smelled like the roses that Mother used to grow, and in the winter it was warm and smelled like the firewood in the large fireplaces. We had a bloodhound named Fenrir that used to follow me down the long hallways."
There was an obvious omission that she didn't miss. "And your father?" she asked after a moment of hesitation.
It was more than he had said to anyone else about his childhood, and he was edging toward truly dangerous territory, but with her he felt safe enough to tell the truth. "He would call me to his study to tell me how much I had disappointed him."
The ghost of a bitter smile appeared out-of-place on Floy Macorad's lips.
Their casual brunch became an afternoon of Muggle sports cultural exploration. It started with Ginny making an offhand comment about the superiority of Quidditch to Muggle sports. It was followed by Floy rolling his eyes and telling her that she was comparing apples to oranges and they each had their own merits. Before Ginny knew what had happened, they were in a full-blown debate where neither of them would back down or agree to disagree. They were at a stalemate when Floy asked if she was free in the afternoon (she was), poked and swiped on the glass of his portable telephone, and announced he had acquired two tickets to a Muggle ball game and she should be prepared to be proven wrong.
A thirty-minute ride on a Muggle underground train (it's called the Tube, Floy reminded her), a short walk to a crowded stadium (Twinkenham Stadium according to the sign), and she was at her first Muggle rugby game (not his favorite type of Muggle ball game, Floy would let her know, but this was what was on). To her surprise, the game started with one of the teams taking center field and goading the other with a strange mix of angry shouts, muscle flexing, and borderline rude gestures. It was like nothing she had seen before.
"That's haka!" Floy shouted helpfully beside her. It was hard to hear him through the cheers. "A war dance. It's what the touring New Zealand team's known for."
He made similar commentary as the game progressed, translating rugby terms into Quidditch terms when it was applicable and explaining new concepts when it did not. He didn't seem to know everything, but he knew enough that Ginny was impressed. When she let him know this, Floy simply shrugged and said it made networking with Muggles easier.
Forty minutes of gameplay later, she was privately beginning to take his point of view. She actually did find the game just as exciting as Quidditch with the quickness in which the game could turn with just a single mistake. She also had to commend the men for their single-mindedness with which they grappled for the ball without fear of a kick in the eye or worse.
But she wasn't going to tell him any of that.
She had noticed that as the initial awkwardness of knowing someone fell away with the amount of time they had spent together, Floy was increasingly bringing out the mischievous side of her that pranked her own brothers when she was little. She found herself enjoying riling him up for that exasperated reaction she secretly found adorable.
"Oh, for Merlin's sake, there're nearly no rules against contact!" Floy cried when Ginny told him that the game just wasn't as technical or brutal as Quidditch during the break between the two halves.
She casually took a sip of that frizzy sweet drink Floy had bought her. "The worst injuries they can get is a few bruises and broken bones."
"Yes, but rugby players don't have you-know-what to help them heal, and—" He stopped when she started laughing. "You are obstinate on purpose to get an reaction out of me, aren't you?" he huffed and folded his arms across his chest.
She smirked and he snorted.
She allowed herself to enjoy the game more thoroughly in the second half. She followed every ruck, maul, and knock-on, cheered when a point was scored, and heckled when her team (the New Zealand team with the nice black uniform) got a penalty. In the excitement of the moment, when New Zealand scored their game winning try, she jumped with half of the stadium and threw her arms around Floy.
He jerked away minutely as her chest collided with his, and Ginny found herself worried she had crossed a line. She was about to step back when he returned the hug tentatively, his arms loose around her, the tip of his chin landing softly on top of her head. She let herself enjoy the moment of warmth, and then it was gone. She was disappointed, but she was not surprised when he pulled away.
She got the impression that personal space was important to him, and she realized she had probably made him uncomfortable.
"I'm sorry, the excitement got the better of me," she apologized. When she looked up into his eyes, he looked embarrassed and almost ashamed. She gave him her most sympathetic smile. "It's okay, there's nothing wrong with wanting personal space."
His eyes slid away from hers. "I didn't mind it, per se. I was just surprised," he explained clumsily. "The people I … associate with generally don't give hugs."
He said 'people'. Not 'friends', not 'family'. She was struck by the puzzling loneliness that she had increasingly noticed from Floy. She suspected it had always been there, but he had just hidden it better. It must mean there was still a lot he was hiding underneath his easygoing countenance, but it must also mean he was finally letting his guard down around her. That thought pleased her more than it probably should.
A flood of tenderness swelled inside her chest until she could hardly stand it. A small tug of her heart she sometimes felt when she looked in his soft brown eyes a little too long became almost impossible to ignore. They weren't dating, but at that moment, Ginny found herself wishing that they were.
He had never quite appreciated how famous Ginny Weasley really was until he started seeing and hearing about her everywhere.
He was going through his morning routine, sipping his cup of Earl Grey as he flipped through his copy of the Daily Prophet to the finance section. On the front page of the sport section, a looped picture of her zooming on her broom across the picture caught his eyes. The harpies had won their game last night and had officially qualified for competing for the European Cup. She was as usual rather photogenic. His eyes lingered on the photo perhaps longer than necessary. It was too bad her hair was pulled back in a tight ponytail, he lamented before he could stop himself. He secretly preferred her with her hair down.
He turned to the finance section before he could traverse deeper into these dangerous lines of thought, because one thought could lead to another, and he couldn't afford to take that risk.
It was lunch time when Weasley made her second appearance. He was waiting in line to order lunch at a café close to Gringotts when the two men waiting in front of him started discussing the game between the Holyhead Harpies and the Wimbourne Wasps. He found himself unconsciously tuning into their conversation. The shorter of the two insisted Weasley had been under-performing ever since her injury the prior year. The taller one told the other that he was full of it, reminding him that she had scored twelve goals in the game. His friend was not convinced and pointed out the blunders she had made that he felt almost cost her the game.
What utter bullocks, Draco thought, but he said nothing out loud. Perhaps Weasley wasn't quite as good this year, but she was still ranked third amongst the Chasers in the league.
The line moved. The men put in their orders and walked out of his hearing range.
Draco was acquiring his mid-afternoon espresso in the office kitchenette when he overheard her name a third time. Julie, from a few offices over, and her friend from accounting were sitting at the kitchen island, flipping through a copy of Witch Weekly. They swooned about Oliver Wood and his six pack. Then they wondered out loud whether Wood was dating Weasley. Draco purposely stepped closer to the women on his way to the department's shared Muggle espresso machine, just to catch a closer look at the magazine. He couldn't quite read the words, but he could see the pictures of Weasley and Wood standing happily together at some sort of public function.
He chided himself for hitting the espresso machine buttons harder than necessary. There was nothing to be upset about. An eligible witch like Weasley never stayed single for long, and Wood was a perfectly good match for her. Draco wasn't daft enough to read deeper into their outings than what they really were: breaks from her intrusive fame. To her, he was simply a convenient guide for her to the Muggle world, an acquaintance of sort to make her reprieve a little less lonely. Nothing more, nothing less.
That was the way it should be as well, but he found himself wishing there could be more.
A disconcerting truth, one which he didn't like to admit even to himself, materialized in his mind. Weasley wasn't appearing on paper and conversations more often than she always had. Her popularity hadn't suddenly risen; what changed was merely his perception. In spending time with her every week, in knowing her better, he had become more aware of her existence. He was becoming attached to her companionship. And that scared him. His identity would come out, as truth always does. When that inevitable day came, and everything crashed and burned around them, he knew his unrequited regards would only hurt him.
It was not in his nature to fantasize about happy endings that would never come true. It was; however, in his nature to avoid unnecessary pain. Until he could prove to himself he was capable of living without her, he needed distance.
The next time he received Weasley's owl, he apologized, rejected her invitation, and told her family commitments made November a busy month.
Before I say anything more, I want to thank idreamofdraco for taking over beta duty.
Nearly everything in this chapter was not in the original exchange fic. Fun interactions between Draco and Ginny aside, I really wanted to show that while those two both enjoy their time together, they are moving at vastly different speed. There will be more interactions between Draco and Ginny in the next chapter.
Ginny arrived at Cookbook Café for her bi-monthly meetup with Hermione and Luna at ten sharp, surprising even herself that she was not only on time but actually the earliest to arrive for once. The café was situated in a Muggle hotel in Hyde Park and was famous for its weekend brunches. Ginny had first heard about it months ago from a Chaser on Chudley Cannons, but she made no plans to visit until Floy described the restaurant's dessert buffet during one of their dinners.
The hostess gave her a tour of the buffet before walking her to her table. As she admire the various tasty displays, she found herself wishfully searching about the room for a familiar face. It had been nearly two weeks since she had last seen Floy because of his family obligations, something to do with a long awaited family reunion. She figured more fantastical coincidences had occurred in the world than a chance encounter with Floy at a restaurant that was a mere fifteen minutes walk away from his home.
It was not to be, he was nowhere to be seen, but a serendipitous meeting of a different sort did occur.
She didn't spot him until she was seated at her table, but it was hard to miss his strangely familiar face when he was seated at a nearby table directly in her line of sight. The man in question was sitting alone at a table, sipping red wine while reading a thick book behind a half finished plate of omelet. He wore skinny jeans and a plaid shirt, and his blond hair was tied up in a short ponytail behind his head. It took her a few moments before her brain worked out exactly why he looked familiar. It took a few more moments before she could actually form sensible words.
For a moment he was motionless. She thought perhaps she had gotten it all wrong, but then his head shifted upwards and their eyes met. Merlin, it really was Malfoy.
"Weasley, it's not polite to stare," Malfoy deadpanned when he recovered from shock.
She muttered a flustered sorry before looking away. "I just didn't expect to see you here looking so much like a..."
He sneered, amused and taunting as he supplied: "A Muggle?"
She nodded and gawked at him while he closed the book in his hand and casually moved to sit down in the empty seat across from her. The surrealism of what was happening kept her from telling him the seat was taken.
"What are you doing here?" she asked.
He chuckled like it was the funniest joke in the world. "I could ask you the same thing, Weasley, but this is where I go every Saturday morning for breakfast and to read."
So mundane was his answer, a suspicious "Oh?" slipped off her tongue. This seemed to further amuse Malfoy.
"Weasley, what exactly do you think I do on weekends?"
"Something less humdrum?" she offered.
She wasn't entirely sure what she expected, but she had figured someone like Malfoy would spend his weekends away in a large private chateau with his rich friends, or spend his nights out on a date with a gorgeous, leggy, blonde model. At the minimum, if he was between dates, she thought that he would go to one of the high-end clubs downtown until the wee hours in the morning.
"I'm sorry to disappoint, but this is exactly how boring my weekends usually are."
The playfulness of his tone threw her. They had shaken hands last time they met, but that couldn't explain the new familiarity and friendliness, and it seemed a little early for Malfoy to be drunk. Nothing was making any sense, but some how she didn't think he was lying. "But why would you do that in Muggle London? Shouldn't you be at—"
She wanted to say Malfoy Manor, but she could vaguely recall that had been seized years ago. She had no idea exactly where Malfoy had lived after that.
"I live near here, Weasley."
His face was too impossibly straight. In any case, living in the Muggle area of town didn't seem like something a Malfoy would actually joke about.
"I didn't know this area is so popular with wizards," Ginny observed. "You're the second wizard I know who lives here."
Malfoy shrugged with an ironic smile. "It's a good area to live in, if you want to be under the radar."
She was not sure what he meant, but she knew 'under the radar' must be a Muggle saying of some sort. She felt like her mind was imploding. Perhaps she was still dreaming somehow—that would explain everything. She pinched herself, just in case. It hurt.
Malfoy didn't seem affected by the strangeness of the situation. In fact, he seemed entirely too comfortable when he asked: "So, what about you, what are you doing here?"
"Waiting for a friend and my sister-in-law for brunch…"
She broke off when a horrifying vision overcame her: Luna and Hermione catching her socializing with Malfoy. They would recognize him, of course, just as she had. Even after seven years, even in odd Muggle clothes, his platinum hair and aristocratic jaw line would most likely give him away. She wasn't sure she was prepared for the onslaught of questions that would definitely follow, and for which she would have no answers.
The sound of a chair being pushed out caught her attention. She looked up and saw Malfoy had already returned to his table. "Sorry to leave so abruptly, Weasley," he said as he hastily placed a neat pile of Muggle cash next to his unfinished glass of wine, "but I've just remembered I have somewhere else I need to be."
He looked, for the first time since the encounter, frazzled. And though she knew he was most definitely lying, she could not quite bring herself to tell him to stay. She settled for a nod and watched him leave.
Draco held his mother's shaking hand as the guards accompanied his father out of the door at the bottom of the imposing, tall walls of Azkaban and into the mid-afternoon sun. The moment the guards retreated, his mother shook her hand loose and, before he could stop her, ran to his father. She affectionately placed two kisses on both sides of his cheeks and Lucius quickly pulled her into a tight embrace. They remained for some time in the same position, their foreheads touching.
Draco looked away and let his parents have their moment. He waited for them to untangle from each other before he finally strolled toward them. As his mother busied herself with putting the cloak she had prepared for the occasion around his father, Lucius regarded him with a single stoic nod. Draco never had high hopes for this family reunion to begin with, but after witnessing such tenderness from his father just moments before, he suddenly found himself wondering the same thing he had always wondered growing up: what had he done wrong?
He had tried, for so many years, to do everything he thought his father wanted—for Merlin's sake, he had even gotten that cursed Dark Mark—just to have his approval, just to earn that affection he knew his father was capable of. But what exactly had he gained from any of it?
He remembered the curses flung so carelessly at him at Hogwarts, the egg that had landed on him as the protesters had screamed in front of the Wizengamot, the haughty sneers his clients bestowed on him with regularity. He remembered with sharp clarity the look on Weasley's face when he had forgotten, momentarily, exactly who he was, and why in his true form they could never, ever, be friends.
The shadowy coil of anger grew.
Draco felt a soft touch at the side of his arm. He turned to see his mother smiling, her countenance glowing in jubilance for the first time in years. Her blatant happiness soothed until the dark thoughts retreated to the back of his consciousness.
He returned her smile, gave her hand a quick pat on her arm, and produced the Portkey he had prepared for the occasion. "Shall we go home and eat lunch?"
When the nauseating swirl of light and space died down and they were in front of his mother's house in Derbyshire. He could hear Lucius's breath get caught at the sight of the lush rolling hills that went on forever around them, a big contrast from the prison walls that surrounded him in the last nine years. When Draco turned, Lucius looked lost and more frail than he had ever remembered.
His father's eyes flickered toward him, damp with emotion too poignant.
There was a twinge in his heart when he murmured: "Welcome home."
The dinner at the Burrow was particularly brutal. Her mother had once again invited Harry over, except, unlike all the other times, this time he came with Astoria Greengrass.
The sight of Astoria in Harry's arms made her so angry, she only managed cold civility. The poor woman must have thought Ginny hated her. She didn't. She was only annoyed and frustrated that she had to find out about Harry's new girlfriend in such an awkward manner. Harry had so many opportunities to give her a warning, but he never dropped any hints of Astoria's existence. Instead, the coward just showed up and left Ginny to fend off her mother's That-Should-Have-Been-You look all through the dinner without any preparation.
It was cruel. It was not what amiable exes were supposed to do to one another.
She made her excuses to leave at the first opportunity and, without thinking, found herself at the Hyde Park Apparation point. Floy had been mostly absent since the beginning of November, but she began to walk toward the pub where they had first met nevertheless, irrationally hoping that he would somehow be there.
The pub was quiet that evening: there were only a handful of patrons when she walked in. There were two small groups chatting quietly at the booths, and one lone drinker at the bar. She made her way to the bar, sat down a few seats away from the other person, and quickly ordered two hard tequila shots. She drank them one after another without salt or lime, and then promptly requested for a glass of top end scotch. While waiting for her drink, she took a better look at the man sitting to her left, and she nearly fell off her seat from panic.
Malfoy. The last person in the world she wanted to see. Again in Muggles clothes, but this time more similar to those she had seen on Floy.
Not again. And certainly not now. She had half a mind to flee, but she was—because the universe hated her—too late. He had chosen just that moment to turn toward her. As if to mock her, he licked his lower lip and gave a strangled laugh.
"Weasley," he grumbled. "Of all people, it has to be you."
"Sod off!" she snapped.
She turned away but stubbornly remained in her spot, deciding that it was unfair for her to move when she had already suffered enough that night. She drank the scotch in large gulps, letting the alcohol burn her throat until her eyes almost teared. To her surprise, the bartender brought her another just as she was finished. When she gave him a perplexed look, he simply gestured at Malfoy.
"Token of my apologies, Weasley," Malfoy said quietly when she spun toward him and demanded an explanation. "My tone was uncalled for. I shouldn't be projecting my own frustration onto you."
Her scowl softened but didn't disappear entirely. "I guess I wasn't exactly cordial either," she admitted, recognizing the peace offering, and took a sip of the scotch to show her acceptance.
He took a sip of his own scotch, then he sighed and asked without looking up from his glass: "Are you alright? Bad reporters?"
She shook her head, biting the inside of her cheeks to hold back the tears she had kept at bay all through the night. Malfoy remained quiet, sipping his own drink, and did not force her to talk. Eventually, when she felt composed enough, she spoke.
"Harry was at our family dinner with his new girlfriend."
She wasn't entirely sure why she confided in him on the matter, but she found her heart lighter after she did.
"I see," he said a little uneasily as he considered her words. He was obviously unaccustomed to relationship talks, but he was kind enough to give it a try. "Are you… upset because you're still in love with the Savior of Britain?"
There were moments, like when she noticed a happy couple in the park, or when her mother made a certain comment, or when she had to deal with the never-ending questions about Harry, that she found herself reminiscing, wistful and near regretful. In her moments of weakness, she would ask herself whether they could have been happy, whether she gave up too early. But when she remembered exactly how the relationship was toward the end—the unbearable anger, the unending loneliness, the bitter indifference—suddenly, the answer would come back clear as day: "No. I haven't been in love with him for a long time." It felt good to say the truth out loud.
He nodded slowly, distractedly. Then he made an admission of his own. "My father was released from Azkaban today."
The news took her by surprise. She had long since stopped following news on war criminals; it was healthier that way. She turned to him, a little bewildered. His father. Lucius Malfoy. She didn't trust herself enough to say anything more than "Oh."
"Mother was ecstatic, but I—" He broke off, and she could hear him swallow hard next to her. "Sometimes, I wish..."
Then he looked at her, and, as if suddenly realizing where he was and who he was talking to, he closed his mouth and fell silent. They didn't talk again after that. She left without ordering another drink, the conflict in her felt resolved.
A week later, she took out her quill and wrote a note she had never quite been bold enough to write before, because she had never quite been sure enough, and she sent it to Floy.
It was time to take a leap of faith.
There was a non-descript black door a block away from the intersection between Diagon Alley and Knocktum Alley. By day, the door was lost in the background in the hustle and bustle of Diagon Alley, but by night, a bouncer stood guard at the door as a long line formed from outside, sometimes wrapping around the block. The black door led into Lucid: a trendy nightclub where the rich and famous frequented, and was owned by none other than Theodore Nott.
Draco walked briskly to the front of the line and flashed his invitation. He felt everyone's glare as the bouncer nodded and waved him by, but he felt no satisfaction. It wasn't like he actually wanted to be there. Clubbing was not his scene. He was only there because Theodore had guilt tripped him into joining his birthday party ("I don't go to parties, Theodore," he had said, trying to weasel his way out of going. "You went to Blaise's party," Theodore had reminded him pettily).
The music was tolerable enough, he would give Theodore that much. Nothing else appealed to him: not the drove of intoxicated, under-dressed witches, not the way the floor stuck to the bottom of his shoes from (hopefully) spilled alcohol, and certainly not the ever growing crowd on the dance floor. Perhaps he would have felt differently about all of this if history had taken a different turn and the war had never started to put a damper on parties during his Hogwarts years. But history had unfolded the way it did and, by the time the war ended, he had trials, responsibilities and the damned Dark Mark on his arm. Parties simply lost their allure.
He cursed when he saw Theodore at the raised booth in the middle of the room. The only route to go there was through the dance floor, and he could feel his heart speeding up and the palms of his hands sweating. He took an uncertain first step onto the dance floor with its disorienting flashing lights, maddening movement, and thumping music. He was pushed into a woman. Her companion, a man, shoved him back.
"Watch it," the man snapped.
Draco muttered an apology and barely managed to keep his instinct to run at bay. He hated crowds. They always reminded him of angry hordes (protesters? Dumbledore's Army?) ready to strike and… The couple he had knocked into earlier had moved on. He felt drained and weary, but he made one foot move in front of the other until he was at the booth. It was the lesser of the two evils, the prospect of explaining to Theodore why he had gone home without a greeting would have been embarrassing.
He was pleasantly surprised by the relative quiet as he stepped through the barrier past the bouncers. He could still hear the music from the outside, but the volume was noticeably dialed down by the muffling charm. He looked around him. He recognized many people in the booth from school, and a few of his own clients as well. He could tell most of them were at least a bit drunk from their laughter and postures, probably because the party had started a few hours ago and he was late. No one seemed to have noticed his arrival, and that served him just fine.
He couldn't see Blaise, but he could see Theodore speaking into the ears of a well-endowed woman he did not recognize before she laughed at whatever joke Theodore had said. Draco was not entirely excited about intruding on Theodore and his date (more probably his one night stand), but he figured he should let his presence known. He did not want to stay any longer than he had to; draining flashbacks aside, tomorrow was a work day, and his first meeting would be at seven-thirty.
Theodore and the woman were getting uncomfortably close to each other by the time Draco dropped unceremoniously into an empty spot across from them. He coughed to get Theodore's attention, just in case the other man didn't notice him.
Theodore looked up, almost lazily. "Ah, Draco, you're actually here."
"As I promised I would be," Draco replied drily. He reached into his robe and pulled out a small wooden box, carved with intricate design, obviously ancient. "Your gift."
Theodore sat up unsteadily and reached for the box, but Draco shook his head and pulled the box back. "Call your house elf, Theodore," he suggested as he shot a pointed glance about the room, his eyes landing on the center table full of half empty bottles and the many guests hovering over it. "I trust you won't hurt yourself even if you are drunk, but the night is long and I won't be able to find you a replacement if you lose it."
He really wouldn't; that was the problem with rare dark artifacts.
"Kill-joy," Theodore snarled, but snapped his fingers and ordered his house elf to guard the box until he was sober nevertheless.
Draco watched Theodore's elf snap out of existence again. "Happy birthday, Theodore. I guess I'll leave you now with your—" he glanced meaningfully at the woman who had looked annoyed since he had interrupted them "—acquaintance."
He smirked when he saw her glaring daggers at what he was clearly implying and stood up. He had only taken a few steps when Theodore sprung up, wrapped his arm loosely around his shoulders, and handed him a shot of unidentified green liquid.
"Draco, there's an open bar, one of the best DJs in London, and lots of very pretty girls here. You should at least try to enjoy yourself tonight."
Draco made a non-committal sound.
"I can even introduce a few girls to you," Theodore began, but corrected himself quickly when he saw Draco's disdain. "Or Blaise can, since you two seem to have more similar taste in women, whenever he takes a break from the dance floor."
Draco turned around to face Theodore, frowning irritably. He could already feel a headache forming. "I'm not interested in dancing, or socializing, or having fun.. I'm here only because you serve top shelf drinks and wouldn't stop pestering me about coming for the last two months."
Theodore dramatically feigned offense. "Aww, you're not here because you love me?"
Draco rolled his eyes. "Look, I'll drink this shot with you, and a couple more if that's what it takes to get you off my case."
He raised his shot glass in a silent toast, waited for Theodore to follow suit with his own, and tilted the shot into his mouth. The liqueur burned down his throat and left a disgusting aftertaste in his mouth. Draco made a face.
"Was that Salazar Fire?"
"Salazar Fire with a dash of extra Slytherin pride," Theodore explained with a wicked grin, knowing exactly how little Draco liked the shot.
Draco glared. Two can play that game.
He waved his hand and summoned the closest bottle of gin to his hand and filled both of their shot glasses. "Happy birthday, Theodore," he said, holding up his shot glass before muttering one of the spells he'd learned from the books he'd acquired in Knockturn Alley. It was a petty trick, but pettiness had always been a core part of the Slytherin spirit.
Theodore's hand moved on its own accord until the shot glass was right at his lips. He grimaced as he tried to fight against the spell. "You know I hate gin."
Draco sneered with little sympathy. "And you know I hate Salazar Fire."
He tilted the shot back and watched with satisfaction as Theodore unwillingly did the same. Draco laughed at Theodore's misery as his friend belched.
"I can play juvenile revenge games with you all night, Theodore, but before this gets out of hand, I suggest you go back to your lady friend. She's running out of patience."
Theodore smirked. "Is the great Draco Malfoy calling for a truce?"
Draco shrugged. "I see it more as a necessary détente; you want to get laid tonight and I want to go to work without a hangover tomorrow."
"Crude, but I suppose you've a point."
Theodore looked back at the woman waiting for him on the couch and his eyes darkened. It was easy to imagine exactly what crass thoughts he was thinking. Draco took that as his chance to escape.
Three minutes later, Draco finally took his first sip of Glenlivet twenty-one-years-old single malt scotch and sighed in contentment. Unlike the shots, the scotch slid down his throat smoothly and left a wonderful aftertaste in his mouth. He looked around for an appropriate seat where he could sit in peace and people watch.
He was turning around to walk toward the spot when he bumped into someone. "Excuse me," he said reflexively, about to walk around whoever he had hit without a care until his eyes landed on the person's face.
He froze. Her long brown hair was curled now, and her face had lengthened, but he saw the same shrewdness in those brown eyes that mirrored his own surprise. "Pansy," he mumbled, before he could stop himself.
He hadn't seen her for a long time. She had moved to New York some years ago, but, in truth, he had not seen her since that summer after the war, over nine years ago. He was very good at avoiding people he didn't want to see when he put his mind to it.
He could hear Pansy take in a long breath. "Draco, it's been a long time."
"I thought you're in America."
"I came back a few months ago," Pansy replied curtly, unease clear in her tone. "I was heading out to the smoke pit," she explained, looking down at the pack of cigarettes in her hand. "Do you want to join me?"
He was so sure that Pansy had been aiming to excuse herself when she mentioned the smoke pit that her follow up question caught him unprepared. He stuttered stupidly, his mind scrambling.
The cool, fall air in the smoke pit was refreshing. He felt more alert simply being outside, and he suddenly remembered he still had a couple of cigars left in his pocket, left from the morning before when he had opened a new box for his client to celebrate the closing of a multi-million Galleon commercial building sale. Deciding a cigar would complement the scotch in his hand much better than a cigarette, he pulled the cigars out, kept one for himself and offered Pansy the other.
Pansy took the cigar thoughtfully, lit it with the tip of her wand, and leaned back on the railing of the courtyard. She looked upward at the sky as she took a long, first draw. "I haven't smoked a good Cuban cigar for a long time," she said after a moment, "It's hard to get it in America with the embargo."
Draco sipped his scotch and nodded. He wasn't sure what to say to Pansy, and he figured the safest course of action was to stay silent until she actually asked a question or there was an obvious question to ask. In any case, Pansy had always been the more talkative between the two of them.
"My stint in New York was going so well, you know," she said after an interlude of silence, cigar smoke billowing past her lips. "I thought I was going to stay in the States forever."
Pansy shrugged. "I started to miss home."
At the mention of home, his mind drifted to Malfoy Manor. He understood Pansy's sentiment. He missed his home too.
"You're planning to stay in London, then?"
She paused to think for a moment. "For the foreseeable future. It's nice to be able to spend time with my family and friends again." She regarded him evenly when she mentioned family and friends.
They fell into silence as they smoked their cigars. A stray memory of a sunny, summer afternoon, before the start of fourth year, flashed in his mind. Under the gazebo in the rose garden at the manor, after an impromptu Quidditch match, he'd had afternoon tea with Theodore, Blaise, Vincent, Greg, and Pansy. They had all been joking and laughing at nothing and everything. A lump formed at the back of his throat. He didn't know whether the memory from a simpler, happier time made him feel more pleasure or pain.
Vincent was long gone. Gregory blamed him for Vincent's death, even though he had never explicitly said anything. And Pansy … He couldn't even fully remember what had led to their last argument, only that it had ended with Pansy calling him pathetic and storming off in frustration as he had stood watching her go, feeling angry and betrayed. His initial anger subsided in the months that had followed, but his stubbornness remained for much longer, until at some point it just felt too awkward and impossible to seek reconciliation. So, he had avoided Pansy even when he no longer had any good reason, even when she sent him a personal invitation card for her moving-away party.
A wistful sigh escaped Pansy's lips. "Back then I hadn't fully comprehend how much the war had affected you and your family. By the time I finally appreciated the severity of your situation, it was already too late."
The genuine regret in her words caught his attention, and he wondered how much she knew. Theodore and Blaise had kept in touch with Pansy throughout the years, and though he wasn't worried they had told her the exact nature of his work, they must have told her something. Pansy had always had been resourceful and intuitive enough to accurately come to her own conclusions.
"I called you pathetic and a coward, but that was unfair and I'm sorry for it. Surrender, in its place, was as honorable as resistance, especially if one had no choice. There was nothing pathetic about swallowing your pride to salvage a bad situation."
"Theodore and Blaise should've kept their mouths shut," Draco said, but there was no bite in his voice, just weariness. Pansy was trying to make amends. It was up to him to decide whether to graciously accept her efforts or push her away like he had done for all these years.
He thought about the time in the past when they were inseparable, and he thought about the circumstances that had abruptly dissolved the decade long friendship. They could never be friends like the way they used to be; it was too late for that, but perhaps it would be nice to have another person to talk to next time he was forced to go to another party.
"I'm sorry I missed your going-away party," he told her.
Pride wouldn't quite let him admit he was sorry about avoiding her for eight years over a single spat, but he knew she was smart enough to read between the lines. She was a Slytherin, after all.
A thin smile appeared on Pansy's face. "Likewise, Draco."
He was about to suggest they head back to the party when he noticed a familiar scope owl flying unsteadily toward him, before finally landing on the railing beside him. His eyes widened and he didn't bother to hide his surprise. He had traded a few notes with Weasley since his last dinner with her as Floy, but with his father's release, he had not found time to reply to her last correspondence from over a week ago. He had not seen Pig since then, but here it was.
Pig stuck out his leg and started hopping on the rail wildly as it lost its balance. Stupid bird.
Draco was starting to wonder how he was going to catch the owl, given he had a cigar in one hand and an empty scotch glass in another, when he felt Pansy's hand on his shoulder.
"I can hold your glass and cigar for you, if you like," she offered.
He thanked her and wasted no time in catching the owl with his freed hands, as he had done so many times in the last few months, and dislodged the note tied on its leg. Pig was glaring at him for manhandling him when Draco finally put him back down on the railing.
"It's not my fault you can't hold still on your own," Draco grumbled with a frown.
The owl huffed and snapped its beak a few times. Draco rolled his eyes.
"You can beg all you want, but I don't have any treats for you."
The surly owl glared at him again, jumped up and pecked his hand because he could, and then flew away when he had the satisfaction of hearing Draco swear.
"Interesting bird," Pansy said beside him with a smirk, her eyes focused on Pig's retreating form.
"It's a total git. If birds got sorted into houses, it would definitely be in Slytherin," Draco said as he rubbed the throbbing wound on his hand. Then, remembering about the note, he quickly unfolded it, slanted it toward himself so Pansy wouldn't see anything, and read its content:
I have two tickets to a Montrose Magpies and Ballycastle Bats game next month. Do you want to come and watch the game with me?
PS. I think Pig missed you secretly.
PPS. You would be so proud of me for introducing my whole team to the Japanese delicacy of ikizukuri.
He smiled in spite of himself at the last comment. He could almost hear her voice as he read the letter. It had technically only been days since he had last seen her, but he was himself then, and it was not the same. He missed their carefree banters. He missed her. Was a month long enough to prove he could interact with Weasley in a rationale manner? Being seen with Weasley at a pubic event like a Quidditch game had inherent risks, yet he found himself caring about that less and less. November had been such a bad month. He felt like he deserved a break.
He reread the note a couple more times before folding it back up and stuffing it into his trousers pocket. He would have to worry about answering Weasley later. For now, Pansy was standing next to him with a bemused glint in her eyes that he wasn't sure he liked.
"Ready to head in?" he asked as he took his glass and now extinguished cigar back from her hand.
Pansy nodded and straightened. She turned back toward him just before they reached the door. "Next time we meet again, Draco, introduce me to her."
But Pansy had already turned away and stepped back into the club.
"Thanks for the cigar," she yelled over the loud music, waved, and disappeared into the night.
A/N: I hope you enjoyed this new chapter even though Draco and Ginny only met a couple times. Draco needed some time to deal with Lucius release and sort out his own feelings toward Ginny. I never meant Theodore's party to be so long, but Slytherins are just so fun to write so I couldn't help myself (P.S. Salazar Fire is inspired by Prairie Fire, except worse because it has other gross things in it to make it green).
Ginny suppressed a strong inclination to Apparate away as Astoria Greengrass smiled up at her from behind the banquet welcome desk.
"Ginny," Astoria greeted in a crisp accent that literally dripped with old family lineage and expensive education. "So happy you could join us for the St. Mungo's Children's Ward Benefit Dinner."
Ginny's years living under public scrutiny kicked in, and despite her knotted thoughts, she managed a polite nod and a tight smile. She listened distractedly while Astoria informed her of the night's agenda and other useful information. The words were coming in one ear and rushing out the other, and she missed everything except for her table number. She only came to attention when Astoria finally stopped speaking, her eyes focusing on something behind Ginny.
Reflexively, Ginny turned and followed Astoria's gaze.
She found Harry standing not five feet behind her. She couldn't believe her eyes. Harry was frequently invited to high-society functions, of course, but he had avoided parties and banquets like plagues. The few times she managed to guilt-trip him into joining her at one of these events, he had made his displeasure so blatant, she arranged for them to leave early. But the Harry standing in front of her did not look disgruntled or bored. The Harry standing in front of her wanted to be where he was.
He greeted her as soon as their eyes met. "Hello, Ginny," he said, before he purposefully strolled toward Astoria. "I am sorry to interrupt, but Mr. Walker said he needed to speak with you, when you've a moment."
"Got it," said Astoria and then turned her attention back to Ginny with an apologetic expression. "Do you have any questions before I head off to speak with the director?"
The question that had been churning in her mind bubbled out before she could stop it. "You must tell me what magic you have casted on Harry here. I could never get him to attend any formal events with me."
She had tried to keep her demeanor light to pass the words off as a joke, but judging from the defensive expression on Harry's face she had most likely failed.
Thankfully, Astoria didn't seem offended, and the warm smile that lit her face melted away the tension. "I am on the committee running the dinner," she explained easily, turning toward Harry and placing a casual hand on his arm. "Harry must have heard me talk and stress about this dinner so much in the last eight months he felt obligated to accept the invitation."
Unable to tear her eyes away, Ginny watched in silence as Harry and Astoria shared a meaningful look before Harry's lips tilted into a tender smile. The subtle intimacy of the gesture was disconcerting, but Ginny realized she didn't feel any sting from watching. There was no jealousy. She only felt uncomfortable, like how she often felt when she accidentally caught sight of strangers' public displays of affection.
Harry's voice broke her out of her reflections. "I couldn't decline the invitation," he said sheepishly. "She worked so hard on this."
Ginny nodded as she glanced about the grand room and the many famous faces around her. She turned to Astoria. "You did a great job organizing this."
"Thanks, but really it was a team effort," Astoria replied with enough humility to make Ginny question whether the Sorting Hat might have made a mistake when it put her in Slytherin. "I just hope we raise enough money tonight to fund that new wing with larger rooms that will let parents stay with their sick children on an actual bed."
There was enough passion in Astoria's voice and fire behind her eyes to make Ginny suspect her interest stemmed from personal experience. Slytherin children were, of course, not immune to sickness, but she also never really thought about this while she was in school with them. "I'll do what I can to convince my friends to donate to your cause."
Astoria expressed earnest thanks before her eyes once again drifted behind Ginny's shoulder. This time, when Ginny glanced back, she saw an older, official looking man nodding meaningfully toward them.
"You've to excuse me. The director's summoning me," Astoria announced as she stepped around the table. "Harry, I'll find you after dinner," she said before turning toward Ginny and shooting her one final glowing smile. "Ginny, it's so good to see you again."
Ginny watched Astoria's retreating form for a long moment. "She's a nice woman, Harry. It's hard to believe she was a Slytherin."
"I'm starting to think that the house system is absurd as well," Harry acknowledged, his eyes still tracking the far side of the room. They stood side by side for a few more silent moments. Until, a server with a tray of champagne walked nearby. Harry took two flutes and handed one to her. Ginny thought Harry would leave after they toasted, but he lingered next to her, as if he wanted to say something but didn't know how. It was decidedly less awkward to stand in silence with drinks in hand than without, but Ginny was getting impatient. "Is there something on your mind?"
At her prompt, Harry finally spoke. "Dinner won't start for another forty minutes; if you've a moment, perhaps we can catch up?"
Catching up with Harry was not exactly something Ginny wanted to do, but it was necessary and long overdue, so Ginny mutely agreed and followed Harry out onto the balcony where the cold had kept the crowd thin. An uncomfortable silence settled over them. Historically, Ginny had always been the one to break the silence, but this time she stayed mum and waited. Catching up was, after all, Harry's idea.
"How have you been?"
Ginny didn't know whether she wanted to cry or laugh at how long it took for Harry to say something so very mundane. "I've been busy. The usual practices and games aside, in the six-week run up to Christmas, my schedule is filled with charity functions and holiday parties nearly everyday—none of which, according to the team manager—I can skip."
Harry bowed his head sympathetically but said nothing. Ginny knew Harry was not the world's best conversationalist, and she could tell from the way his eyes darted about that he was at least trying, so she took pity on him and forwarded the conversation. "How about you? You and Astoria seem to be getting along very well."
"I'm happy, yes," Harry assented without looking at her, his expression soft and shy. "Astoria and I—" He stopped, the smile peeking at the edge of his lips fell as he was hit by a realization. "I think Hermione and Ron are right."
Ginny stiffened and stilled.
He took a deep drink from his flute as if for courage and admitted: "I should've told you when things became serious with Astoria like an adult."
She had been handling everything so maturely tonight, but Harry's not-really-an-apology did not sit right with her and her temper flared. "So your only reason for telling me is because you are an adult?"
"That's not what—"
She raised her hand to silence him. "You told Hermione and Ron but gave me no warning before you brought her to the Burrow. I had hoped," she began, her voice rising as she revealed what she had buried deep in her heart for so long, "that even if we couldn't be lovers, we could still be friends."
Harry's protest was earnest and near instantaneous. "And we're friends!"
A hollow laugh slipped past her lips. "Friends tell each other about their lives."
Harry shrunk back like he had been hit. "I've wanted to tell you a few times… but things just seemed so complicated between us."
He sounded so rueful, so lost, but his words rang true. Things always seemed complicated between them because of their tangled history, and if she was honest with herself, she was guilty of keeping secrets as well. Her earlier rage drained out of her veins. "That has always been the problem between us, hasn't it?" She sighed when Harry nodded in agreement but would not return her gaze. "For what it's worth, at least in this matter, things don't have to be complicated. I'm happy for you."
Ginny returned a wistful smile at the quiet apology. She lifted her champagne flute to him. "Here's to a better friendship from here on out."
They drank to the toast.
Harry told her about Astoria, about how fate gradually pulled him to her through a series of unrelated hospital visits, about the way Astoria dazzled him with her optimism and love of life despite the ancient curse she had inherited at birth, and about how much Astoria had changed his world's view for the better in the short time that they were together. It was like a floodgate had opened, and Harry shared more of his life with her than he had since forever. All Ginny could think about as she listened was how glad she was they had their conversation.
In the end, he asked if there was someone special in her own life.
"There may be," she admitted because truth begot truth, "I'll be going to a Quidditch game with him in a few days."
Harry's eyes widened. Having grown up under media scrutiny, he clearly understood the implications of a public date. "You're serious about this one."
She could feel a blush rising up her cheeks even as she nodded. "We've been having dinner in Muggle restaurants as friends for months. I've grown to really like him."
Harry smiled. "What's his name?"
"His name is Floy."
"What does he do for a living?"
"He's an investment banker at Gringotts."
"How did you meet him?"
"I met him at a Muggle—" It dawned on Ginny that this was sounding a little too much like an interrogation for her liking. She narrowed her eyes. "For Merlin's sake, Harry, he's not a case for you to investigate."
A toothy grin appeared on Harry's face, and he raised his hands in resignation. "Sorry. Occupational disease, I'm afraid. I'll stop."
Ginny folded her arms across her chest, mistrust glinting in her eyes. "Promise me you won't open any files on him." God knew her brothers—Ron particularly—would ask him to soon enough. She groaned in exasperation when Harry simply chuckled. "You owe me."
"Fine, no files. I do owe you," Harry conceded. He laughed, the first weightless laugh in her presence in many years, and Ginny smiled.
The stadium erupted into cheers as the horn blew.
The group of fans sitting around Draco and Ginny began a rowdy rendition of "We are the Champions"—at least the Wizarding version—as the announcer read out the final score of 182 to 175 win for Ballycastle Bats. Draco was fairly certain Weasley procured tickets for the Ballycastle Bats section just to spite him. She knew very well he was more of a Montrose Magpies fan (Why cheer at all, if you cannot cheer for the best team in history?). Song finished, Ginny leaned in and obnoxiously waved the Ballycastle Bats scarf she had bought in his face.
Draco couldn't help but roll his eyes. "You're not even a real Ballycastle Bats fan," he muttered in a low voice that only she could hear.
"But annoying you is so much fun," she whispered back with a smirk, taking pleasure in watching him seethe.
He wondered at the back of his mind if his Slytherin ways had been rubbing off on her, because she definitely wasn't so amusingly impish when he first met her. He growled indignantly under his breath, just to egg her on.
"The Bats just got lucky," he said. "The Quaffle was in the Magpies's possession for the majority of the game."
She smirked gleefully. "Oh, yes, but the Bats performed where it mattered," she leaned in and taunted in a low, sing-song voice. "You're just too proud to admit the Magpies cocked-up in the game."
She head was so close he could almost feel her breath. Draco knew he should move away, but he ignored the thought and stayed where he was. "Bollocks! It was a home team advantage and nothing else."
"I have tissues in my purse if you're going to cry." She patted his arm in playful consolation.
He resisted the temptation to put his hand on top of hers. Instead, he focused his attention on looking offended, which was unconvincing, because his lips had twitched upward into a smile. Merlin, this was too much fun; he had completely forgotten how much fun games could be. He used to get season tickets for years and years, but he stopped renewing after the war because watching games at the stadium alone was just utter nonsense.
She shot him an odd look. "What's so funny?"
You, he wanted to say, but he didn't say it out loud. He meant to continue their trash talking, but he stopped mid-sentence when he noticed someone watching them. Specifically, Blaise Zabini with a rather alarmed expression on his face.
"What's wrong?" Ginny asked beside him as she followed his gaze. At the back of his mind, Draco registered that Ginny had taken a step toward him and took hold of his hand. His fingers closed reflexively around hers.
He had recovered from his initial shock when Blaise began to approach them in purposeful strides. He did not like the stern determination on Blaise's face, it made him feel too much like a little boy caught red handed with his hand in a cookie jar. He considered running away, but to where? Besides, a sudden exit would raise more suspicion than it was worth. Blaise knew of his alternate ego, of course, but he would never jeopardized his identity. There was no harm in staying put and hearing what he had to say.
"Mr. Zabini," Draco greeted before Blaise could say anything. "I wasn't expecting to see you here."
He shot his friend a meaningful look, just in case.
"Mr. Macorad," Blaise said with a disapproving frown, but he played along. "I knew you had a wide network, but I didn't realize you were so…" Blaise paused, and his eyes trailed down to their still intertwined fingers. "…Well acquainted with Ms. Weasley here." He turned his eyes to Weasley. "It's been a long time since we last saw each other."
"Good to see you too, Zabini," Weasley said, doing little to hide her insincerity.
Blaise smiled mildly and trained his eyes back on Draco. "I was going to make an appointment with you tomorrow, Mr. Macorad, but since you're here, I wondered if we could talk for a moment in private." He paused deliberately. "To save me the trouble."
Draco would much rather not, but he also knew Blaise was not going to let him go until they had a talk, so he complied. "Of course, Mr. Zabini."
He apologized to Weasley, excused himself, and followed Blaise out of the spectator seating area.
Blaise cast an Imperturbable Charm around them the moment they found a relatively quiet corner. He stayed silent until the spell took hold. "What are you doing, Draco?"
"I was just watching a Quidditch game," Draco replied impassively. "I don't see what that has to do with you, Blaise."
"Tsk, tsk. If you were merely watching a Quidditch game in your alternate persona, I wouldn't need to intervene." Blaise's voice was light; his features were not. "But you were watching a game with the darling of the British Wizarding World, and Harry Potter's ex, in the middle of one of the most public settings possible. Don't you see how that might be reckless?"
Draco glared at his friend. He did not appreciate how patronizing Blaise sounded at the moment. Of course he understood there was a difference between dinner in a quiet Muggle neighborhood and a Quidditch game between two of the best teams in the English and Irish Quidditch League. He was perfectly capable of weighing the risks of being seen publicly with Weasley. "I know what I'm doing, Blaise," he snapped sullenly. "It's not against Gringott's policy or Ministry's laws to watch a Quidditch game under transfiguration spells with Ginny Weasley."
"No, but the media will have a field day," Blaise hissed.
Draco stood his ground. "Even if there are a few pictures of Floy Macorad sitting next to Ginny Weasley, it won't matter. Floy Macorad is a perfectly respectable banker at Gringotts and no one other than those under non-disclosure agreement knows he and I are one and the same person."
"There is no 'if'. I can assure you the photos are out there already, waiting to be circulated," Blaise corrected him with a deep scowl. "And for the record, you weren't just watching the game sitting next to her, you were flirting with her."
Draco narrowed his eyes. "I wasn't flirting with Weasley."
"Oh, right, because you always whisper in a woman's ear and hold a woman's hand."
Draco grimaced and conceded there may be a minor—minuscule—chance that his behavior around her was considered flirting. He had been getting a little too comfortable around Weasley in the past six months and, even after he had taken a strategic break from her, old habits died hard. But even so… "Other men have flirted with her too. Whatever I've done there shouldn't really be news."
Blaise groaned in frustration, looking like he was ready to throw himself into the wall. "It'll be news because she was obviously flirting back, Draco. Weasley fancies Floy."
Draco froze at the observation. Impossible. There was nothing about Floy that someone like Weasley should fancy. He wanted to dismiss everything Blaise has said as lies. Blaise had a track record of embellishing the truth to make his point, and this was absolutely no different.
He had kept to himself since the end of the war out of self-preservation, but he had been in relationships while he was in Hogwarts. He thought back on how his ex-girlfriends had behaved at the start of a relationship, determined to find inconsistencies in Weasley's manners to prove Blaise wrong. But when he allowed himself to study her actions under romantic lens, he could not completely rebuke Blaise's assessment. She laughed at all his jokes, gone to places he had mentioned, initiated all their outings, and… The truth hit him like bricks as dread spread through his veins like a wild fire on a hot summer day.
The expression on Blaise's face softened, and Draco could not help but wonder just how affected he must have looked for Blaise to be so consolatory. "The media, her family, and her friends will investigate until they know exactly who Floy Macorad is. You may have some time, the Goblins will not give away their secrets easily, but all it takes is a few of your more loose-lipped clients to make a slip when they drink a little too much. It's only a matter of time."
Bile rose in Draco's throat. "I know."
"What will you do now?"
Once the mystery behind Floy Macorad's identity was unraveled, it would be as simple as adding two and two together to expose the work he had been doing for Gringotts. The truth would undoubtedly cause uproars of all sorts. His parents' (his father's) predictable shame and fury aside, he was sure the comfortable, anonymous life he had been building for himself would be over.
He would likely lose his job at Gringotts because the goblins could never forgive a breach in contract unless more money could be made (which it couldn't). His clients would sue him for any bad press caused by the fiasco, and the fallouts from those lawsuits might very well render all of his hard work in the past nine years naught. Those were all grave consequences, but the one consequence that filled him with more fear than anything else was this: Ginny Weasley's heart will break when she finds out the truth, one way or another.
Now, there was only one decent thing left he could do for her.
"I'm going to tell Weasley the truth."
Ginny walked briskly into Gringotts at twelve sharp the following afternoon, wearing a dark green dress and brown heels, excited but uncertain of what the future held. It was the first time she had tried visiting Floy at his work. She had assumed he would be waiting for her in the main hall so they could go eat lunch together since he asked her to come during his lunch break, but when she didn't see him there, she walked up to the receptionist.
"I'm Ginny Weasley," she greeted. "Here to see Floy Macorad from the Muggle Investment Division."
The receptionist reviewed the magic planner on her table for a moment. "Mr. Macorad is expecting you, Miss Weasley," she confirmed and gave a small ticket to Ginny. "Take this to door C, and the goblin there will bring you to the office seven miles down."
Ginny thanked the receptionist and did as told. The ride was longer than she had thought, but about five minutes later, the goblin stopped the cart and nodded at a door. Floy was waiting for her, wearing a long, dark formal robe. She waved but he did not wave back.
"I'm glad you made it, Ginny," he said quietly without making any attempt to close their distance.
His words were normal enough, but his intonation was too distant. As she walked closer, she noticed the grim expression on his face. A feeling of foreboding crept up on her.
He pushed open the door and led her to what she assumed must be his office. The room was fairly small, but it was very neat. There were no personal artifacts on the table—just a name plate that read 'Floy Macorad', a Muggle machine that she sometimes saw Hermione use, a stack of paper, a quill, and a Muggle pen. He motioned her to sit down on the chair in front of the desk, and then closed the door behind them. He did not say a word as he sat down in the other chair.
Feeling uneasy in the silence, Ginny could not help but hesitantly ask: "Floy, is something wrong?"
Floy regarded her solemnly and shook his head. "Nothing is wrong." He gave her a long look that appeared too close to regret. "There's something I must tell you, something that I should've told you a long time ago. But, before I start, I want to let you know that I'm sorry, that if I hurt you in any way, it was done unknowingly. But I take full responsibility, and I understand if you can't forgive me."
She did not know what he could be referring to but her heart pounded wildly in dread at the severe warning. She was too nervous to speak, so she simply nodded.
"Usually, the ward lowers automatically for those who have signed a non-disclosure agreement, but given the circumstances, I think you deserve an exception, so I'll lower the ward for you." With that, Floy pulled out his wand from his robe and began a long incantation of which she had never heard before.
At first, nothing seemed to happen, and then, the letters on the name plate started to shift and rearrange into an anagram until it read a disturbingly familiar name.
She looked up in horror, and she watched as Floy's face began to transform. First, his eyes shifted from brown to gray, then his cheekbones moved higher, and finally the dark brown hair lightened until it was platinum blond, lengthening until it was almost touching his shoulders.
The face that stared back at her was not Floy Macorad's. It was Draco Malfoy's.
Malfoy's jaw tightened. "I'm sorry, Weasley, but this is the truth."
Weasley abruptly stood up and lifted her hand. For a moment, he was sure she would strike him, but the hand never moved and she merely looked at him, silent tears streaming down her usually lovely face. He never thought he could feel guiltier about anything after his role in the war, but seeing that devastated look in Weasley's wet brown eyes somehow made him feel a million times worse.
He laid out the truth for her, too late.
He had foolishly thought that as long as they did not label anything, as long as he strategically retreated whenever he felt himself slipping into wishful thinking, neither of them would be wounded when the truth surfaced. Did he miss the signs of her growing attachment because he was too busy juggling his identities and the problems in his life? Or was he blind to all the clues because he could not imagine a universe in which Weasley may actually like someone similar to him, even under false pretenses? Or did he subconsciously know what was happening but acted deliberately obtuse because he was enjoying his time with Weasley too much? It was probably a little bit of all three, and he knew it was his fault for letting everything progress this far.
He felt nauseated, just like he used to when the Dark Lord killed and tortured in front of him. Except this time, instead of just watching, he felt like he was the murderer. In a manner of speaking he was; he had metaphorically stabbed Weasley in her heart. It was a crippling thought. His chest tightened until he could hardly breathe.
Weasley finally found her voice. "Was this some depraved plan to humiliate me?"
"Was this all a game to you?"
"Give me a good reason not to hex you!"
When Draco wouldn't, couldn't, she pulled out her wand and jabbed the end of it hard in his chest. He closed his eyes and remained still. "If that makes you feel better, Weasley, do it. I won't resist."
They stayed in the same position for a full minute before a strangled sound escaped Weasley's throat. The wand lifted off his chest. "I hate you!" she bellowed. The anguish in her voice burned like venom in his blood, but he could only agree with her sentiment. He hated himself too.
She grabbed her coat and ran out of his office.
Draco did not stop her.
He spent the rest of his lunch hour dazed. He had half a mind to tell his manager that he was sick and had to head home early. He would not be lying. He really did feel sick. The memory of his exchange with Weasley looped relentlessly in his brain like a hung computer. It threatened to drive him mad. But he stayed, because he was in desperate need of a distraction and work was as good of a distraction as any.
The minutes drained away slowly like tar. It was difficult to focus on what his clients were saying, but he managed, just barely, and he even provided half-intelligent responses. When the last client meeting ended, he strong-armed his mind into focusing on the words and graphs on his computer screen and worked through every proposals in his queue. Under any other circumstances he might have been proud of his productive day, but as it was, he felt no satisfaction.
He ran out of work at twenty-past-eight, and suddenly, there was nothing to keep the tsunami of dark feelings back.
Ginny Weasley's final words echoed incessantly in his brain as he made his way home.
I hate you.
He put on his transfiguration spells and rode the staff cart back up to street level.
I hate you.
He ran from the Hyde Park Apparation point to his flat through the cold winter rain.
I hate you.
He would likely regret the decision later, but for now he needed something to muffle that damned voice in his head and to forget everything that had gone wrong in the last six months, no, his life in general.
He pulled whiskey from his cupboard and drank straight form the bottle.
A/N: Did your heart break a little? I know mine did when I wrote this. But ahh, it was necessary and had to be done.
Ginny woken up to the sound of Ron and George calling her name. They had let themselves into her flat uninvited, but she was only half surprised. She had skipped dinner at the Burrow, ignored nine owls from various members of her family, and disconnected her fireplace from the Floo Network for over six hours the day before.
She could only avoid her family for so long before her family came to her.
She felt tired and numbed, a little like she was outside looking in, but at least her eyes were dry. This was an infinite improvement to the night before, when she was stuck in a broken loop of sobbing, drying her eyes, only to burst into tears again when something mundane, like a plate, somehow reminded her of Floy—Malfoy—the liar. There was a moment of silence, and then Ron called her name again, with increasing urgency. She answered with a curt "coming" before Ron could barge into her room in his pigheaded way. With a sigh, she pushed herself out of bed, pulled on a house coat, and reluctantly made her way out of her room.
She stopped in her tracks when she reached her living room door and saw all five of her brothers along with Harry and Hermione waiting for her. Charlie, Bill, and Percy were sitting at her couch silent and grave. George was pacing around at the center of her room. Ron was having what looked to be a hush argument with Hermione and Harry at the corner. She coughed to make her presence known. All eyes instantly turned toward her.
Fear spread through her veins until it paralyzed her. Her brothers and friends may be over-protective, but she didn't think they would all congregate at her flat simply because she was caught on camera with an unfamiliar date at a Quidditch game or being MIA for one day of her life. No, something serious must have happened. "What are you all doing here?"
Bill was the first to speak. "You don't know?"
"No, what is it?" Her heart was pounding so hard she wondered if she would faint. "Oh Merlin, did something happen to Mum and Dad?"
"No, no, they are both fine," Charlie quickly assured. "We are here for you."
She regarded her guests in confusion. There was nothing outwardly suspicious about Floy, and she hadn't told anyone about what had happened at Malfoy's office. Percy pulled out a copy of the Daily Prophet from his bag and silently handed it to her.
Her eyes widened at a picture of Draco Malfoy under the headline: Quidditch Star Seduced by Lies! She dropped the paper on the floor and ran to the curtained window and took a peek. She saw, to her horror, a great swarm of reporters waiting for her outside. A million thoughts fired in her mind but none of them were jelling into anything coherent. Her breath hitched. She clutched the curtains so hard her knuckles turned white. She felt her mind go into overdrive. She barely felt George's hand on her shoulder, leading her away from the window and toward the couch.
Hermione passed her a small vial and motioned for her to drink. She took a sip without thinking and almost spit the foul liquid out. Whatever Hermione had given her was extremely bitter, but it had a potent calming affect. Almost instantaneously, her breath slowed and her mind began to clear.
Ron began to say something insulting about Malfoy, but she wasn't listening. She picked up the paper from the floor again and skimmed the article with morbid curiosity. There was nothing in the article that Malfoy had not already confessed to her himself the day before. He must have known about the article, she realized with detached clarity. The timing could not be a coincidence. Did he create his fake identity a mean dare with his friends just to see how she would fall to his charms? Did he tell her everything personally just for the perverse pleasure of seeing her distress? Did he leak his identity to the world himself just to humiliate her? He must have. Naturally, he must have.
Anger boiled with every moment passed, until it spilled over into a harsh laugh. But she wasn't sure with whom she was more angry: him playing the perfect long con or herself for stupidly falling for all of it.
Harry's voice broke her from her thoughts. "Are you okay, Ginny?"
"I am fine," she said. She was proud of how unperturbed her voice sounded. "I am glad the truth is out."
Harry gave her a sympathetic look. "I am sorry, I know I promised I wouldn't investigate your date," he said gently. "But given the suspicious circumstances, I need to ask you a few questions."
Of course. She stared at the thick folder in his hand. It was charmed the same way as those case folders he used to bring back to their home on weekends; it was charmed like that book Floy—no, Malfoy—was reading at the Mexican restaurant. Her resentment faltered, and suddenly she felt the lump in her throat grow without her permission. Stupid, sentimental, foolish…
Ginny stood up. "Tomorrow morning," she replied firmly out of self-preservation. "I promise I'll answer your questions tomorrow morning, but right now I want to be alone."
Ron frowned. "But—"
"Please," she beseeched, unconcerned with how raw and desperate she sounded. "I need to be alone."
One by one, her brothers and friends complied.
Blaise Zabini scrunched his nose up in disgust when he Apparated into Draco Malfoy's flat. The usually tidy flat was in disarray. Books, manuscripts, and empty bottles were scattered everywhere on the floor, and the room stunk of spilled alcohol. He gingerly walked through the flat, careful not to let his robes touch anything repulsive, before finding Draco Malfoy sitting pathetically near his toilet bowl, dry heaving.
"Draco, you must be so proud of yourself," Blaise said drily before pointing his wand at Draco. "Scourgify."
Soap rapidly filled Draco's mouth and spilled over to the rest of his body, making him dart up in dismay.
"What the hell, Blaise?" Draco shrieked when the effect of the spell subsided enough for him to speak. He went over to the sink and rinsed his mouth multiple times before turning furiously to Blaise. "Why are you even here?"
"Just want to deliver you the news," Blaise told him evenly, throwing a copy of the Daily Prophet on the counter. "Look at how famous you are."
Draco groaned as he glanced at the newspaper headline: Quidditch Star Seduced by Lies! Under the headline, there was a picture of him taken from a few years ago and, beside it, another of Floy and Ginny Weasley smiling at each other.
"I'm already aware," he responded bitterly. "My father sent me a Howler a couple hours ago to let me know what a disgrace I am."
Blaise handed Draco a vial of hangover draught. "Then you should stop whining, turn this sorry mess into an opportunity, and prove him wrong."
"What's the point?" Draco reluctantly drank the contents of the vial. "Ginny Weasley hates me, Harry Potter and her brothers are probably out to kill me, Gringotts put me on a leave of absence, my clients are threatening to sue, and my father and I are currently not on speaking terms."
Blaise took a step toward him in exasperation, "Don't you think it's suspicious that the newspaper managed to find out who you are so fast when everyone you work with is under a ridiculously strict non-disclosure agreement?"
The draught had lifted the headache and fogginess, leaving him with clear memories of everything that had happened in the last two days. Draco narrowed his eyes. "Who cares who leaked it? It was leaked, and it was done. Who knows, it could—" There was a pop, and Theodore suddenly appeared behind Blaise. "—be another Kingsley Murton."
"Or it could be Kingsley Murton," Theodore stated.
Ignoring the fact Theodore seemed to already know what they were discussing, Draco frowned at his friend. "What are you talking about? The Obliviators were sent the day after Blaise's engagement party. Whatever he knew, he would have forgotten by now."
"Have you actually checked the report to make sure?" Theodore asked and threw a stack of paper on top of the Daily Prophet. "I read through it. Kingsley Murton fought the Obliviators off, put one of them in St. Mungo's, and has not been seen since."
"And I have heard from a reliable source that his father disowned him soon after," Blaise added meaningfully. "You know how much Murton Senior cares about saving face. Having a son that broke the law on his watch must be absolutely unacceptable."
"The leak will bring Murton a bit of needed cash." Draco gave an nonchalant shrug. "Even if we can somehow prove that it's Murton, it won't help me."
"If it's just about the leak, neither Blaise nor I would have bothered to come here," Theodore scoffed. "Think. Think about what any of us would do if we thought someone cheated us out of an inheritance."
Draco considered everything he had heard more carefully. If Murton was disowned because of a series of events stemming from the non-disclosure agreement fallout… His eyes widened as he came to the same conclusion as Blaise and Theodore. "We would want revenge, and Murton blames me."
And just then an owl pecked at his window.
The white envelope the owl left him had no words, only three pictures that sent chills down his veins: a newspaper cut-out of Floy Macorad and Ginny Weasley, a photo of Draco Malfoy and Ginny Weasley talking to each other at his favorite pub, and a stock photo of Ginny Weasley flying at a Quidditch game.
Ginny was finally feeling a little better when the fireplace in her living room flashed. She started to speak before she even looked up from her cup of tea. "Ron, I don't—" When she saw who had materialized in her grate, she jumped up and pulled out her wand, pointing it straight at her intruder.
Malfoy raised his arms in surrender.
"How did you get my Floo address?" she demanded. The only thing stopping her from hexing him was just how oddly distressed he looked.
"I looked up my fireplace's history, Weasley," he explained quickly. "You Flooed from there, remember?"
Ginny would rather she did not remember, but as it was, she remembered that night a little too well. The last thing she needed as an unwanted reminder. "Leave. You're not welcome here."
Malfoy shook his head once. "Hear me out and then I'll leave."
"Kingsley Murton is after me for revenge."
Whatever bullshit explanation Ginny thought Malfoy would give, his actual attempt was even more laughable. "Oh, how typically Slytherin. Do you people ever just shake hands and be friends?" she observed caustically with a roll of her eyes. She was so very, very angry at him. "Oh right, I forgot, you people only know how to fake a friendship."
Malfoy flinched at the attack and looked away. "I'm sorry."
His apology, all his other apologies, sounded thick with guilt, but she had learned better than to trust a con. "I still don't see a reason for you being here." Her eyes hardened and she took a step forward. "Leave or—"
"You're in danger!"
His alarming words gave her pause. She frowned. "You're not making any sense. Why would I be in danger if he wants revenge on you?"
"Because he thinks I—" his voice was threatening to crack when he broke off and ran his fingers roughly through his hair. "Just take a look." He held out a white envelope for her to take.
She lowered her wand, though not completely, as she stepped close enough to take the envelope. She emptied the contents on her dining table and stared at the pictures of her with Malfoy. Someone, it appeared, was spying on them. Or… this was just another one of Malfoy's traps. Her lips tightened, unimpressed. "Nice try, Malfoy," she said after a moment. "You've always been quite good at conjuration, even back at Hogwarts."
This time his voice did crack. "I didn't make this up, Weasley!" Malfoy cried, he was such a good actor he sounded desperate. "You have to believe me! I might have withheld information, but I never outright lied, not to you."
Ginny laughed bitterly. "Except for who you said you were!"
"Weasley…" Her name sounded like a plea, and his eyes looked so afraid, panicked, but she refused to be duped again.
She dumped the photos back in the envelope and threw it back at Malfoy furiously. She took one menacing step toward him and raised her wand. "I don't want to see your face ever again. Now get out before I call the Aurors!"
"Stop pacing, Draco," Blaise said. "You're going to wear a hole in the carpet."
Draco stopped and instead combed his fingers through his hair in agitation. "I can't be as calm as you, Blaise. Murton never answered my note about giving him money, the Aurors already rejected the case because all we have is a collection of photos, and Ginny wouldn't even entertain the idea that she might be in danger."
"Murton won't answer because he's probably not looking for money," Blaise conjectured. "And since we won't be getting any help from the Ministry or Weasley, I think our best chance is probably to bait Murton out."
Theodore smirked. "We can always just wait until Weasley gets hurt. Her next game is Thursday night, so everything should end soon enough."
"That is not an option," Draco snapped, thought he knew Theodore was most likely joking. He drummed his fingers on his leg angrily as he forced himself to think. "Murton likes to gloat more than anything. If we can make it seem like he's gotten to me, maybe he will show his face."
Blaise thought for a moment. "Maybe we can stage your father disowning you and leak the story."
Draco glared at his friend. "Not funny, Blaise. If his letter this morning is anything to go by, my father already wants to disown me."
"Other than the fact you are in control of all your family's fortunes, Draco, that idea is actually quite compelling," Theodore pointed out mordantly.
Draco supposed that Blaise and Theodore might have a point. This wasn't the time to reject potentially workable ideas. He closed his eyes and made himself consider the idea more seriously.
"Let's assume we go with this plan," he began. "If I transfer my family's main account back to my father through the lawyers in some convoluted way, we can probably make it look like it's my father's doing. I've only been using that account to hold the dividends to pay my father's restitution and my mother's medical fees—but no one knows this except for the goblins."
"Murton is already familiar with that silly Muggle pub you like, seeing as that was the setting of that photo of you and Weasley," Theodore reasoned. "If we make that the obvious place for you to be, perhaps we really just have to wait there once the news breaks. Easier to find Murton at a pub than at a Quidditch stadium."
Draco nodded in agreement. He was liking this plan more and more. "That does also have the added advantage of thoroughly pissing my father off," he added with a smirk. "I'll call my lawyers and initiate the transfer."
Blaise clasped his hands excitedly. "I'll leak the most sensational parts of your father's letter and the account transfer details to my contacts at The Daily Prophet for publishing first thing tomorrow."
"And I'll spread the word about how much you like to pathetically mope at the Muggle pub when things go bad," Theodore said with a teasing sneer before glancing at Draco. "If all else fails, I suggest you somehow try to talk to Weasley again, before the game."
And so a plan was put into motion.
The air was tense as Harry opened his folder and picked up his pen. "Right then, can you tell me how you met Malfoy again?"
Ginny felt small in her seat as all of her brothers' eyes shifted to her. "I met him at a Muggle pub near Hyde Park in July—"
"It's been that long?" Ron exclaimed in dismay. He was the only one who spoke, but Ginny could tell everyone in the room shared his sentiment. "Why didn't you tell us anything?"
The judgemental tone Ron used did not sit well with her. "I didn't realize I have to report everything to you," she snapped, irritated. "In any case, I suspected nothing. He was always so un-Malfoy-like, a perfect gentleman, when we dined at Muggle restaurants."
"What?" Ron barked loud enough to make Ginny cringe. "How many times have you seen him between July and now?" His voice was rising with every word.
She threw her hands up in frustration. "I don't know!" she cried, feeling more upset every moment. She didn't need Ron to make her feel stupider than she already felt. "Fifteen? Twenty? What does that matter?"
"Twenty?! That's it! I am going to find that son of a—"
"Ronald Bilius Weasley, if you don't stop speaking at this very moment, I will be escorting you out of here!" Hermione warned and directed a stern glare at her husband.
Ron wisely shut up.
George crossed his arms and sighed. "We all care for Ginny, Ron, but let's leave the questioning to the professional." He motioned for Harry to continue.
Harry nodded and referred to his notes. "Were some of those meetings scheduled on your calendar?"
"Many of them were."
"Excellent." Harry shot her an encouraging smile. "Okay then, can you reference the calendar and tell me about what you remember from each meeting starting from the earliest one? Focus on things he said that stood out to you."
Ginny was beginning to realize why Harry was one of the Ministry's top Aurors. She followed his instructions and began to talk. Harry took more notes, referenced the documents in his folder, and occasionally stopped her to ask clarifying questions and confirm details. She finished her statement with a detailed account of everything that happened at the Quidditch game and at Malfoy's office. She kept mute on Malfoy's impromptu visit the day before against her better judgement. She still was not entirely sure what that meeting was about, but she was leaning toward it being a compulsive liar's demented attempt at reconciliation. Angry as she was, she did not want to give Harry a reason to arrest him for that.
"I don't understand, Harry," said Hermione when Ginny finally stopped speaking. "The Ministry must have kept tabs on Malfoy. How is all of this surprising you?"
Ginny was wondering about a similar question too. "I mentioned Malfoy's alternate name to you the other week at the banquet, how come it didn't ring any alarm bells for you?"
Harry looked a little embarrassed at that question. "Our surveillance tapered off five years ago when the operation came up empty handed. We knew Malfoy had close dealings with the goblins, but all we could glean was that Gringotts had provided several major loans, that Malfoy invested the loans in Muggle real-estates and stocks, and that his investments paid off handsomely. It was surprising, but not illegal. As for Floy Macorad…"
He sighed deeply. "We never suspected they were one and the same person. The goblins created him and they are never forthcoming with their secrets. Even now, they wouldn't give me access to Floy Macorad's files until I have a warrant—which I can't obtain until I can establish reasonable doubt against Malfoy's motives. Unless…" He glanced pointedly at Bill.
Bill held his hands up defensively. "I told you, Harry, I can't give the files to you either if I want to keep my job. I did call in a few internal favors, though. I am not authorized to give you particulars, and I can't tell you my sources, but I can tell you Malfoy had been working at Gringotts under the identity of Floy Macorad ever since he finished school."
Ginny felt her stomach flip flop at the revelation. Malfoy did not create Floy Macorad just to hurt her. It didn't make everything okay, but it was consoling.
Next to her, Ron gave a snarky laugh. "You've failed to mention embezzlement and laundering," he said with clear distaste.
Bill shrugged. "Malfoy has a number of shady clients with questionable connections, as one would expect, but he had been careful in following the Gringotts investment guidelines. As far as I could tell he hadn't broken any laws."
Charlie, who had been a quiet observer until then, touched his chin and mused out loud. "Is there anything suspicious about the meetings Ginny described? How about those times when Ginny met Malfoy as himself?"
Harry went back through his notes. "From Ginny's description, the first and third meetings were likely coincidences." He tapped his pen on the table absentmindedly as he thought. "Theoretically, he could have planned the second meeting at Cookbook Cafe, but to what end? He left without asking Ginny for anything. Besides, I don't think he was lying when he said he spent his weekends at the Hyde Park Intercontinental. We've found him there on multiple occasions when we were still keeping tabs on him."
"So where does that leave us?" Percy asked impatiently. "From what Ginny said, all Malfoy did was have meals and watched sport games with her under his alternate identity. What's his motivation? Money?"
Bill crossed his arms and shook his head. "He doesn't need any, at least not in the last few years. Judging by the fact Floy Macorad had made The Goblin's Club for five consecutive years, Malfoy must be earning at least a late six digits annual income. This is not including whatever additional investments he had been making on the side as Draco Malfoy."
Ginny didn't think money was it either. She didn't know the Muggle real-estate market, but she knew housing overlooking Hyde Park couldn't be cheap. "If the location of his flat is any indication, Malfoy had recovered from whatever circumstances drove him to work for a living."
Ron had something to say about this, but stopped when Hermione elbowed him.
"If it's not money…" George considered thoughtfully, "…could it be connections? Ginny, did he ask for any introductions?"
Ginny could only shake her head.
"If he hasn't done it yet, then he probably isn't using Ginny for connections," Hermione pointed out rationally. "Ginny treated him like a friend right from the beginning. All he had to do was ask."
Harry mulled over the information. "During the last five and a half months, had you ever felt like you were not yourself?"
Ginny frowned at the implication. "You think I was under an Imperius Curse or something?"
Harry shrugged. "Nothing points to that, but it's a possibility I can't ignore."
Ginny found herself strongly disagreeing with the statement. As furious as she was with Malfoy, she still found the idea preposterous. In fact, she could not even imagine him attempting it. "The only spell Malfoy used on me was a cleaning spell. I know he didn't cast an Imperius Curse on me," she told him with surprising conviction.
Unsurprisingly, it was the curse breaker who protested. "You can't be sure of that, Ginny. If the caster is skillful enough, the victim may not even realize he or she was under a spell."
Her other brothers echoed Bill's opinion.
Ginny agreed to a test to put everyone's mind at ease even though she did not think it was necessary. She was not sure where her confidence came from, but she could not help but feel a little vindicated when her test result came back thirty minutes later: Negative.
She was increasingly convinced they were all thinking too hard about this and that they should just accept the simplest answer: "Malfoy probably just played this out as a practical joke for a laugh."
"It wouldn't be beyond him," Ron said with a huff.
"If it was a practical joke, then it was a very expensive one," Bill commented offhandedly. "Malfoy was put on leave by the Goblins the moment the news broke."
Percy crossed his arms. "Not to mention his father might have disowned him, if the Daily Prophet is to be believed."
Losing his job? Being disowned? Ginny felt her mind flail, screaming in confusion. "He what?"
She hadn't considered the leak might have had consequences for him. The whole time she had thought Malfoy was the one to feed his real identity to the media, that this was all a vicious game for him, but if what Bill and Percy said was true, then her assumption made no sense.
"I'm not sure if Malfoy is stupid enough to risk everything for a joke," Hermione ventured at last, and no one could contradict her logic. "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth," she mumbled under her breath, and Ginny faintly recognized that as a Muggle line Hermione liked to quote. "I can't believe I am saying this, but maybe Malfoy really had no nefarious objectives. Maybe he was just enjoying Ginny's company."
The room fell silent as everyone considered the possibility.
Ginny involuntarily thought back to her meeting with Malfoy the day before.
You have to believe me! I might have withheld information, but I never outright lied, not to you.
She tried to think of a time when Malfoy had blatantly lied to her as Floy, but aside from the obvious fib about his name, everything Floy had said fit perfectly into all that came to light of Malfoy's life. She thought back to the times when she met Malfoy as himself, and none of what he said in those meetings seemed to be a lie either. In fact, in hindsight, everything Malfoy and Floy had said complemented each other so perfectly, it was as if Malfoy had been deliberately leaving clues for her to figure out exactly who he was, she was simply too oblivious to solve the puzzle.
She remembered the anguish in his eyes as he told her that Kingsley Murton wanted revenge and that she was in danger. She had assumed he had fabricated the story then, but she wasn't so sure now. The only Kingsley Murton she could recall from her acquaintances was a Slytherin in her year. Theoretically, Malfoy could be framing Murton, but if so, why wait for so many years? Why now? Why in such a convoluted way?
She wound in her heart still throbbed, but she needed to speak with him. She needed to understand why.
A/N: I bet very few of you (other than those that had read the original exchange fic) would connect my comment with Kingsley Murton (that jerk in Chapter 1 who had insulted Draco's mother). For those of you who had wiped Murton from your memory (I don't blame you, it's been weeks since I've mentioned him), I encourage you to re-read Chapter 1 (maybe prologue as well, I didn't explicitly say his name, but Murton was one of Draco's tormentors in his last year at Hogwarts).
As they say, revenge is a dish best served cold. Had Draco actually viewed Murton as a threat and expected revenge, it would never have the same impact. The irony, of course, is that if Draco hadn't changed (for the better?) as much as he had since he started Hogwarts, he might have suspected revenge a lot earlier, since revenge is such an ingrained part of being a Slytherin (and this is a concept I had toyed with in the last chapter, and will continue to toy with in the next chapter).
His fire flared and then there was commotion.
"What is the meaning of this," Lucius yelled, throwing down the Daily Prophet on the kitchen counter in Draco's flat. Draco glanced at the headline with some satisfaction (Blaise had really outdone himself this time): Malfoy Family in Turmoil: Draco Malfoy Disinherited from the Family Account.
"I was simply doing what you suggested in your letter," Draco replied mildly.
Lucius seethed at his response. "Why do you always have to twist everything I say to you? Are you trying to drive the Malfoy's name into the ground?"
Draco wanted to laugh in frustration at the irony, at the fact his father still felt the Malfoy name meant something, as if they hadn't thoroughly trampled on the Malfoy's legacy in the war. He considered needling his father on his delusions, but he knew it was not the time or place. He was, however, perfectly ready to fight his father on his accusation. "Careful, father," he warned. "You may be the defacto head of the Malfoy family, but don't forget who feeds the Malfoy accounts."
"Are you threatening me, boy?" Lucius asked in the same low drawl that used to intimidate him as a child, but Draco wasn't a young boy anymore.
The scare tactic that once made him cower in the corner only made him defiant. He stood up to his full height and looked down at his father with a measured sneer. "No, Lucius, I was merely stating a fact."
His father started at the sound of his name. Draco had never called him anything other than father before. When Lucius recovered he had the expression of all the disappointment in the world. "What exactly did I do wrong with you?"
Oh, that's a loaded question, Draco thought dryly, but he managed to stay quiet.
"You were such a good, well-behaved boy when you were young; I thought I raised you well—" Lucius's furious words spewed out of his mouth like an erupting volcano, "—but you turned out to be a Muggle-loving Gringotts drone, tainting our fortune with Muggle filth and spoiling everything that defines a Malfoy. You're making Armand Malfoy roll in his grave!"
Draco had always pride himself on his control, on the way he could banish dark thoughts and impulses to the far side of his mind before they took root. But at Lucius' outburst something cracked inside of him, and suddenly the tendrils of anger he had suppressed for so long surged to the surface. The stress and frustration from the last few days had piled on top of each other until Draco could no longer hold his tongue.
"As if any of this was ever my choice!" Draco shouted, gesturing wildly at his flat, growing angrier and angrier as he spoke. "I would have preferred to live in Malfoy Manor, like all of our ancestors, but you had to court the Dark Lord's favor, and he made that his base. I would have preferred to not work for a living, but you had to be a convicted Death Eater and burden the family with no allies and a monthly retribution payment. I would have preferred to never have the Dark Mark, and to live a carefree life like Blaise and Theodore, but after what happened at the Department of Mysteries you told me that was the only thing that could stay the Dark Lord's wrath!"
His breath was haggard when he finally stopped. He bit his lip almost hard enough to draw blood as he glared at his father, who was for once in his life rendered completely speechless.
"I'll admit I made a mistake, Father," he added with quiet intensity, once he had calmed down a bit, "but everything else I've done in the past nine years was in the family's best interest. I don't owe the family anything, and I certainly don't owe you anything."
Draco glanced at the clock. It was already eleven-thirty. He was supposed to meet Theodore and Blaise in an hour for their stakeout at the pub, but there was no good reason why he couldn't be there earlier. Anywhere would be better than here. He needed a stiff drink, but in light of Murton, he would settle for an IPA.
With that thought in mind, he left his flat.
Ginny followed her intuition and found herself at the pub where she had first met Malfoy all those months ago. The chances of Malfoy actually being there were low, but it seemed like a reasonable place to start. She scanned the lunch crowd, and to her surprise (and relief, and unease, and all the conflicting emotions in the world), her eyes found Malfoy.
She found her courage, and, before she could regret anything, walked toward his lonesome figure and sat down on the empty seat next to him. He was so absorbed in his own thoughts, he didn't notice her until she tapped his arm.
He spun around so quick that his drink was almost swiped off the counter. At the last moment, he caught it with his left hand. His eyes darted about frantically, looking for something, until they landed on her. His posture relaxed by a fraction, but he remained agitated and tense. Ginny could see dark bags under his eyes; it seemed she was not the only one who had lost sleep in the past two days.
He regarded her warily. "I'm not in the mood for a fight."
"I've calmed down since yesterday," she announced. She wasn't there to argue; she wasn't even that angry anymore. "I just want to talk."
He nodded rigidly and waited.
"I won't pretend I'm not still hurt by your actions. I really thought I'd something special with Floy. I could understand why you didn't say anything the first couple times we met, but five months? That was mean."
"Sorry," he murmured and dropped his gaze on the pint in his hand.
This time, she allowed herself to believe his apology.
"I'll get over it, eventually," she consoled, because he looked so woefully lost. "You can't really fall in love with a persona who is only part of someone and not all of someone."
He nodded feebly and Ginny sighed. "Did you know how I felt the whole time?"
He shook his head once. "I suspected nothing until Blaise talked to me after the game." He grimaced at his own words. "It's a poor excuse. I should've told you the truth from the beginning."
"Then why didn't you?"
Malfoy stilled. He was silent for so long Ginny was convinced she would never get an answer, but then she did.
"I never meant for the ruse to last, but, when I sat across from you as Floy, I could pretend for a moment that the past didn't exist and that I genuinely deserved your attention and I—I couldn't…" He broke off and made a sound that was between a loud breath and a sob. "I had been lonely for many years, Weasley."
She was stricken by his raw honesty, at the poignancy in his words, at how very vulnerable he was at that moment. She fought her instinct to give him a hug. There were still so many unanswered questions. "Who leaked your identity to the Daily Prophet?"
"I've no solid proof, but Blaise and Theodore think it's Murton," he replied wearily. He took a deep drink of his beer before he continued. "He knows enough of my secrets and had enough motivation to find out the rest."
One question down and so many more to go. "And why is he so motivated?"
"I ruined his life."
"But you think he deserved whatever you did to him," she observed. There must have been more to the story; Malfoy sounded too callous and uncaring about something that was so atrocious. She knew for a fact he was capable of remorse if he actually thought he was in the wrong.
"He insulted my mother and I put him in his place."
"By ruining his life?" Ginny asked incredulously. Somehow the punishment did not quite match the crime. "What exactly did you do?"
"He was indiscreet with my secrets and I reported him to Gringotts."
Ginny was taken aback by the banal truth. She didn't understand why he was making everything sound so much worse than it really was. "So you called him out on breaking an NDA. How does that constitute as ruining his life?"
"It resulted in a hundred fifty thousand Galleon fine and a visit from Obliviators for his father and him."
Ginny blinked away her bewilderment at the ridiculously severe NDA penalty. "I see," she managed. She wondered how Malfoy ever convinced his clients to sign an agreement like that. "Did the fine put Murton in debt or something?"
Malfoy chuckled at the notion. "The fine is a drop in bucket for a family like Murton's. But Murton's father didn't appreciate being Obliviated. One event led to another, and within a month Murton was cut off from his family and a very large inheritance." He took another drink from his pint. "And so he wants revenge."
"You got suspended without pay by Gringotts and there were rumors of you being disowned by your father in the Daily Prophet. An eye for an eye, right? Isn't his revenge complete?"
"No." A rueful expression dawned on his face. "My housemates and I prescribe to methodical destruction of someone's life for an eye."
It occurred to Ginny that she should probably trust Malfoy on a fellow Slytherin's wrath. "Okay, so he's still after you, but why did you think I was in danger?"
He made sure he had caught her eyes before he affirmed with conviction: "You still are."
The question why hung restlessly in the air between them. She was not sure she wanted to hear the answer, but amidst the drumming of her heart, she bravely pushed on. "I don't understand. If Murton really wanted revenge against you like you said, why would he target me? Why not you or one of your close friends like Nott or Zabini?"
"You're—" he broke off and swallowed thickly. His hand clenched and unclenched on the table when he finally managed to continue. "You're important to me. I've never been as taken by anyone as I was with you, and everyone who knew me long enough could see that. I've just never entertained the idea we could be anything, because I knew you and I could never even be friends."
His eyes flickered away from hers, wounded and resigned, and Ginny felt her heart knot.
"I don't believe that's true," she told him earnestly, because that was the truth. "That night when I saw you after I first found out about Harry and Astoria, I vented to you knowing exactly who you were. I wouldn't be so honest if you were just an acquaintance or an enemy." She stopped short of calling him a friend, the cuts of betrayal were still too fresh, but she wanted him to know time heals all wounds.
He shook his head. "Not with my past."
He sounded so haunted, so defeated, it hurt. She watched as his right hand reached up to the same cursed spot on his left arm as he did back in her seventh year when she told him he would never be anything but a Death Eater. It dawned on her she had never explicitly let him know how drastically her opinion had changed since then and how much she believed he deserved a second chance. She wondered if it mattered.
She decided it did.
She was about to speak, but before she could say anything more, she was distracted by the way he had tensed and straightened, like he had suddenly remembered something.
"You have to leave," he said with sudden urgency.
He was on his feet, gathering her coat with one hand and pulling her out of her chair with the other. "Murton. I've worked out a plan with Blaise and Theodore to lure him here before he can follow through with his threats."
Her mind was racing to catch up with the new turn of events as Malfoy pushed her toward the exit. "Where are Nott and Zabini?"
"They will join me in another fifteen minutes. You aren't supposed to be here."
"But what if he shows up before they do? Do you think he would attack you?"
He smiled down at her, and it sent a chill down her spine. "He could, but it doesn't matter."
"It doesn't—" She couldn't even fully repeat what he had said because the words sounded too appallingly wrong in her mind. "This pub is full of Muggles!"
"Murton wants me, not the Muggles. I'll just lead him away."
"But what about you?"
He shrugged too casually. "Murton has no intention of spending the rest of his life in Azkaban, so he won't use the Unforgivables. I will dodge and counter whatever lesser curses he cares to throw at me, but if one of those curses hits, it is what it is."
The reckless pragmatism didn't sit well with her. The suspicion she had on a few of their interactions, but never let herself fully acknowledge, solidified in her mind: Malfoy didn't care enough about himself. She grounded her feet and glared at him. "I won't just stand by while you let him walk all over you."
Frustration colored his cheeks. "What would you have me do? Fight back? I couldn't risk landing in jail just when my father got out of it. No, better I get hurt than—"
She spun around and grabbed him by his shirt. "You can't say that!" she spat. She knew she was causing a scene but she didn't care. "It's not better for you to get hurt. You may not care about what happens to you, but I care!"
His swung his head toward her at the revelation, his mouth hung agape.
She met his grey eyes steadily, unblinking. "Let me—"
Suddenly, Malfoy's eyes snapped toward something behind her. He grabbed hold of her left shoulder, pushed her to the side, and held out his right hand.
Immediately, there was a bang.
One moment his mind was swirling at the implications of all that Weasley said, and the next second he had noticed Murton with a nasty, gleeful expression, pointing his wand at Weasley's back a few tables away.
Draco's wand was in his jacket pocket back at the bar, and as he watched Murton's lips move, he knew there was no time to reach for anything. He didn't know what Murton was casting, but he was most certain it could be nothing good. Instinctively, he pushed Weasley to the side and held his right hand up, hoping, willing that the familiar heat of magic would gather at his fingertips in time.
He could feel the pressure of the incoming spell as it hit his shield, pushing, pushing, before it dissipated.
He let out a breath he didn't know he was holding and spared a glance at the general direction of Weasley. "Get your wand."
But Weasley had already beaten him to it. Without warning, she jumped up from where she was hiding and pointed her wand precisely at Murton. "Stupefy!"
Murton jumped away, so Weasley tried again. On her third attempt, the spell nearly hit a panicking Muggle.
"There are too many Muggles, Weasley," Draco said as he scanned the room around them. "I'll be fine on my own for a bit. You must evacuate the Muggles and call the Aurors."
"Blaise and Theodore should arrive at any moment. I'll go on the offensive if I have to." To demonstrate his intent, he sent a disarming spell in Murton's direction. It missed, but it was enough to get Weasley's cooperation.
"Everyone, go to the exit!" she roared. Without wasting another moment, she began waving the Muggles toward the door.
Draco rushed toward the bar and stretched out his hand to call his wand, but before he could say the spell, Murton attacked again.
The spell sped toward a group of Muggle stragglers in front of him. Draco swore and ran forward, casting another shield charm in front of them, just in time.
"This is not the time to worry about others, Malfoy," Murton taunted. "You can't hide behind your shield charms forever without a wand."
Draco grunted as he strained to maintain the wavering shield. Murton was right, he needed his wand. Draco hoped Weasley could get these stragglers out of the way before the shield broke.
"How did you like the past few days?" Murton asked as he flicked his wand and pushed.
The spell broke through, and the force of it threw Draco onto the floor. Instinctively, he rolled behind one of the fallen tables for cover. Murton was still talking to him, but he tuned him out to better gauge the situation in the room. He could hear the room clearing out as Weasley shouted orders at the last few remaining Muggles with her captain voice. Good.
He turned his attention back to Murton just in time to hear the end of his rambling. "…I destroyed your career, I destroyed your reputation, and now I'm going to destroy her!"
'Her' caught his undivided attention, and fear instantly overtook him. He watched in horror as Murton turned his wand toward Weasley. He was close enough to hear the incantation form Murton's lips. It was an obscure dark spell, but he recognized it from the war. It was a cutting spell, not strong enough to amputate, but enough to cause critical damage if it hit the right spot, and it was unblockable.
"Weasley, incoming, dodge!"
But Weasley didn't hear the last word and casted a shield charm instead. Draco saw the tip of Murton's wand glow. He would never make it in time to push Weasley out of the way, but he might be close enough to step in front of it.
He dashed forward and stretched his left arm toward the projected path of the spell, praying that for once in his life things would go exactly as he wanted.
For once in his life, it did.
Draco heard himself scream. The spell tore into his arm like serrated knives too dull to cut cleanly, but sharp enough to do their miserable job. The initial pain seared into the depth of his marrow like eternal fire, so intense his vision momentarily darkened. He staggered blindly forward in a daze and barely managed to keep himself on his feet.
In the pain-induced mist, he could make out Weasley's horrified cry somewhere behind him. He looked with detached curiosity at the blood that rapidly pooled at his feet and vaguely wondered just how far into his bones the spell managed to cut.
A moment later, Weasley was beside him, her arms grabbing his shoulders as a means of steadying him. "Malfoy! What did you do that for?"
He struggled to refocus his mind to respond, and he was so grateful when a familiar, dry voice (Theodore's) saved him the trouble. "What he did was spare you from nasty cuts on your chest. That was an unblockable curse."
From the corner of his eyes, Blaise and Theodore burst onto the scene, wands drawn.
"Accio Draco's wand," Blaise said, realizing exactly what Draco needed. He caught the wand mid-flight and quickly threw it Draco's way. Not to be outdone, Theodore flicked his wand and tried to disarm Murton. The spell missed Murton by inches and sent a chair flying into the wall.
Adrenaline made the sharp throbs in his arm more manageable. Draco recovered enough to catch his wand with his good hand. Knowing he needed more time to recover, he levitated a few tables and chairs in front of him to form a physical blockade. Ginny took his lead and added more tables and chairs to the collection until a crude fort was formed.
Behind the relative safety of the makeshift barrier, Draco sat down and glanced pointedly at Weasley. "This is a good time for you to go call the Aurors."
"But your arm—"
Theodore kneeled down next to them and cast a few basic healing spells on Draco's wound. "He'll live."
Blaise joined them after casting a smoke spell to buy them time. "All of us here are proficient duelists," said Blaise when he saw Weasley's hesitation. "But only one of us here has the right connections to get Aurors and Healers to come without delays."
Weasley considered Blaise's words and relented.
"I'll be back," she promised. She shot one last worried look toward Draco's arm and ran toward the door.
Theodore had the grace to wait until Weasley was out of earshot before he asked: "How long can you last?"
Draco glanced down at his arm to assess the damage. There were five long vertical cuts, two of them deep enough for him to see bones. Theodore's healing spell did not close the wounds, only lessen the pain and slowed the bleeding. He could work through the incessant ache but the blood loss was concerning. "Five minutes. Eight tops."
"We'd better end this quick then," Blaise commented grimly, just as the fort rocked from an attack.
Murton attacked again, and at the fourth spell, a few chairs fell out from the pile.
"This won't hold much longer," Theodore observed.
The three got on their feet just as the table closest to them exploded.
Draco, this time with his wand, cast a much sturdier shield charm around them. Behind the shield, Theodore, ever the strategist, discretely motioned for them to spread out when the dust settled.
"Give up. You're outnumbered, and the Aurors will be coming," Blaise said to distract Murton while Draco and Theodore got into position. Theodore started his silent count.
"I just have to wait this out. Malfoy won't last long with his wound."
"We can work out a deal," Draco suggested. "You don't have to do this."
"Of course I have to do this!" Murton yelled. "You've ruined my life, Malfoy!"
"Last chance," warned Theodore, "You've done an admirable job at ruining Malfoy's life in turn. Let this be."
Blaise cast Lumos Solem toward Murton at the same moment Draco lowered the shield. All three of them ran to more strategic positions, and with a nod between them, simultaneously attacked.
Murton side-stepped two of the stunning spells, but the third one hit his back. Without waiting to see the effect, Blaise quickly cast an Incarcerous spell, just for safe measure. Chained and stunned, Murton crumpled onto the ground. The three friends gathered in front of the motionless body of their former schoolmate.
Theodore threw a glass of beer on Murton's face with a smirk. "I guess he really is out."
"Well, why not?" Blaise said, and poured a half-empty bottle of wine over him as well, shrugging. "That was bad wine anyway."
Draco took a half-eaten plate of masala curry that had miraculously survived the battle and dumped it on Murton's shirt. The juvenile act was remarkably satisfying, liberating even. A sardonic smile spread across his face. Pay back for all the pumpkin juice you "accidentally" spilled on me at Hogwarts, bastard.
A torrent of footsteps could be heard outside. Weasley returned with a team of Aurors as she had promised. Draco was secretly glad for the timing. He was starting to feel faint and he was extremely glad for the day's chaos to finally draw to an end.
It was strange times when Ginny found herself at one of the more exclusive restaurants in Diagon Alley with three ex-Slytherins of her own free will, but this was exactly where she found herself a week after Kingsley Murton's arrest.
They had finished their main course, and for the past few minutes, the four of them had been quietly reading; their little adventure was front-page news in the Daily Prophet, and Zabini had brought each of them a copy.
"It's a fine piece, Blaise," Malfoy complimented from next to her, the first to finish reading. "Just the right embellishments."
Blaise bowed with a flourish. "Why thank you, Draco. I'm really thinking about framing this one."
"I particularly liked the bit alluding to the apparent lack of Ministry involvement as part of the plan," Malfoy said with a knowing smirk.
Zabini shrugged wryly. "One never knows when they need a favor."
Ginny put down the paper when she finally finished the article. "I really feel like you have grossly exaggerated the role I had in this whole business," she observed (though she supposed, for the Prophet, this was actually a fairly factual story).
"I believe that was the point," Zabini deadpanned with a sly grin. "We Slytherins don't generally play valiant heroes. Your involvement is what gives the story credibility."
"Ah, how devious," Ginny quipped.
"Just resourceful," Nott assured with an amused snort. "Any other spin would simply be wasted potential." His eyes flicked over to Malfoy. "I trust the healers took care of your injuries."
Ginny was wondering the same thing. She had visited Malfoy a couple of times at St. Mungo's but hadn't seen him since he was discharged. Malfoy flexed his left arm and moved his fingers in demonstration. "There are a few scars, but otherwise my arm is fully healed."
Malfoy seemed too nonchalant about his scars. Ginny made a mental note to confront him about them later.
"And what about the lawsuits and Gringotts?" Nott followed up. "I take it I won't need to move my investments elsewhere."
Malfoy nodded. "The lawsuits have all been dropped. Apparently, it's bad form to sue a hero who just saved the Wizarding World's darling." Malfoy shot a sarcastic glance at Ginny and chuckled when he saw her disparaging eye roll.
Malfoy took a sip of his wine before he continued. "As for Gringotts, there have been flurries of inquiries about my service under my real name. Gringotts has pulled me off leave of absence, redrafted my contract to remove the secrecy clauses, and moved me into a larger office."
"About time," Zabini noted breezily. "You make half of the quota in that department to begin with, and now that you can stop with the silly pretences and actually focus on growing your accounts, it's only a matter of time before they beg you to be the head of the department." Zabini sipped his wine and added as an afterthought, "Or the bank, for that matter."
Malfoy didn't affirm or deny Zabini's assessment, but Ginny could see his smug smile as he finished his glass of wine. She snorted at the return of the Malfoy-brand cockiness she remembered so well from her youth but didn't find herself offended.
There was only one more loose end that remained unanswered. She turned sharply to Malfoy, caught his eyes, and asked what Nott and Zabini did not have the courage to ask: "Did you manage to patch things up with your father after the fake disownment stunt?"
Malfoy lazily pulled out a letter from his cloak and waved it in front of him in a triumphant manner. "He finally owled me yesterday and said our plan was adequate and had a semblance of brilliance."
Nott smirked. "That's dangerously close to praise."
"So it is." Malfoy grinned wickedly as he poured himself more wine. "And I only have Murton and Weasley to thank for all of this good fortune."
It was a little scary, but by listening to the conversation, Ginny could not help but be impressed by their twisted genius in fabricating such great outcomes from what could only be considered a bad situation.
Blaise and Theodore simultaneously raised their brows when Draco offered to walk Weasley home to her apartment at the end of their dinner. He shot them a pointed look, and they simply smirked.
"You don't have to walk me home, Malfoy. It's a fifteen-minute walk in a perfectly safe part of the neighborhood."
Weasley seemed a little flustered by his offer, but she also didn't sound too opposed to the idea, so he told her that this was merely how he had been brought up (which was true, though whether or not he followed those teachings all the time was another question). She relented.
For a while, they walked next to each other—side by side, close but not quite touching—down the Christmas light-lit cobble-lined street in silence, each lost in their own thoughts. He took advantage of the silence to gather his thoughts before he spoke. "I was serious back there. I really have you to thank for everything."
Weasley blushed and told him it was nothing; that she was just playing along.
He shook his head slowly. "It went further back than the past two weeks. You were compassionate even when I deserved none, you extended your hand to me knowing exactly who I was and what I'd done."
Her blush had deepened so much it reached her ears. She looked away momentarily before turning back to him. "If you thank me, then I have to thank you, too," she replied, waving at his left arm. "You took that spell for me."
"It was nothing."
Her denial was immediate and vehement. "It wasn't nothing, Malfoy."
It was his turn to look away. "You wouldn't have been a target if—"
"Stop discounting all your good deeds!" Weasley cried, in her signature self-righteous anger. She grabbed for his left arm in one determined motion. Without giving him a chance to pull away, she unbuttoned and pushed his sleeve up until his new scars were exposed. She let out a small gasp when she saw them. "Merlin, these are so deep."
He watched, frozen, as she ran an unsteady finger across the most prominent scar. When she finally let his arm go, her brown eyes were glistening with tears. "I would've gotten those on my chest if you hadn't run in front of it. Don't say what you did was nothing!"
It was too much, too soon. He felt overwhelmed. His brain couldn't quite process how upset Weasley was, or how much she cared, or how she was crying for him.
His hand shook as he reached up to brush away the stray tear that fell down her right cheek. "Don't cry," he pleaded, fumbling for words, "I promise I..." His couldn't finish his sentence because his throat was too tight and his eyes were too wet.
He dried his tears with the back of his sleeve. "Oh look what you've done," he jested half-heartedly, trying his best to smile, because it was the only thing that kept him from breaking down.
Weasley leaned in and slid her arms across his back, pressing her face into his shoulder. "Malfoy," she said before he could even react. "I used to think you were just a Death Eater. I don't think that anymore. I haven't thought that for a long time."
His breath hitched. He could feel her arms tightened around him as her tears soaked through the fabric of his collar.
"Now, I think of you as a friend, but most of all…" She pulled back enough to catch his eyes. "I think of you as a good man."
She wasn't lying. He knew she wasn't lying. His mind was chasing circles around itself. It must be impossible, but she had all but spelled out that she had forgiven him, not just for his recent indiscretion but for his past transgressions as well. The lump at the back of his throat grew as he registered that fragile but unmistakable spark of something he had long forgotten: hope.
He had put on a false bravado in front of his friends during dinner, but while the developments in the past week had been largely positive, he had no confidence in their long-term impact. In many ways, he still believed his life would continue exactly the same as it had over the last nine years. But now… For the first time since forever he let himself really believe that there could be a life for him outside of his façade, outside of living between two worlds and never really belonging in either, that he could be defined by his present accomplishments instead of his past blemishes, that he could find and keep something (someone) that made him truly happy.
The vision was so beautiful and splendid, it was overpowering. His breath shuddered, his vision blurred, and when he blinked he could feel trails of warmth on his face. It was so difficult to form words, but he managed eventually: "Thank you."
Weasley smiled through moist eyes, and without a word pulled him back into a hug. She squeezed once before releasing him.
They resumed walking in a similar manner as they had before, close but not touching, silent but comfortable. When his emotion settled enough for him to think, Draco busied himself with untangling the jumbled mess that was his mind. He meticulously sorted his thoughts until he descended gently from his earlier high back to the ground, himself but lighter.
The future he wanted wouldn't come easily—his mother was still sick, his father was still deeply flawed, and the past would never fully go away—but possibilities now shimmered through the darkness like stars. There were billions of ways in which his future could unfold, not all of them happy, but some of them were so tantalizingly brilliant they were worth the risks. His only certainty was that every path started with the same question.
He paused his steps, steeled his courage, and called her name.
She turned toward him, her head tilted with expectancy.
"I know this patisserie with amazing pastries and coffee," he ventured, hoping the wobble in his voice and the pounding in his heart wasn't too noticeable. "If you like, we can go there together sometime?"
She mulled over his question for a suspenseful moment. Then she smiled warmly like the summer sun. "Yes, I would really like that."
And just like that, his world began to move forward again.
I actually wrote an epilogue for this. It's posted on ff.net.
I may eventually post it here as a separate thing later, maybe.