Marcus expects a lot of things to happen after the war.
He expects to go to prison, first off—expects the chilly, ghastly, soul-eating gloom of an Azkaban cell, a snapped wand and a forfeited future, a thin straw pallet and a bucket to piss in and not a whole lot else. He expects a short trial, a long sentence, and a permanent tracking charm tattooed on the inside of his wrist, right beneath what’s left of his Mark. He expects no second chances. No visitors. No mercy.
He expects to be the last Flint.
He expects for his ancestral home, that big, sprawling, curse-plagued pile of rocks and bones and teacups and secrets, to be confiscated, if not razed to the fucking ground—two dozen generations of purity, of politics dripping with hypocrisy and money dripping with blood. He expects for his father to be found dead and for his father’s dungeons to be found full.
He expects disdain.
From his jury, from the public, from himself.
He expects uncomplicated, undeniable guilt.
And he gets all of that, mostly, right down to the fucking letter.
Until he doesn’t.
It’s been a year, maybe—time passes oddly in Azkaban, days and nights and weeks and months all clumped together, virtually indistinguishable, a seemingly endless panorama of fog and rain and misery—when there’s a terse knock on the door of his cell.
“Flint,” someone barks, impatient. There’s the ominous metallic clang of keys rattling, of his door being unlocked. “You’re out.”
Marcus stiffens, rolling over in what passes for his bed and lifting his head so quickly he slams it against the cold cement wall. “What?”
The guard standing in his doorway is faceless, anonymous, backlit by eerie shadows and that murky not-quite sunlight Marcus has really had to work to get used to. It had surprised him, initially, how difficult that was. He’d wondered fairly often, bitterly, begrudgingly, if the darkness was actually unnatural—a figment of either magic or his own imagination, just another ugly, clumsily tacked-on layer of fucking punishment.
“I said you’re out,” the guard sneers, tossing a thin canvas bag onto the floor—Ministry-issued, judging by the crest stenciled onto the side in smeared, faded black ink. “Commutation.”
Marcus rubs gingerly at the tender, rapidly swelling bump on the back of his head. “I don’t—what? I don’t know what that word means.”
The guard scoffs and turns around, marching down the corridor, boots smacking against filthy, age-worn flagstone as he calls out, “It means you’re a fucking muggle now, Flint!”
It takes Marcus a while to realize the door’s been left open for him.
They don’t give him his wand back.
Or his house.
Or his Gringott’s vault.
They let him keep a suitcase full of his old clothes—expertly tailored, entirely monochrome—and the portion of his inheritance that came from his mother—“Can’t really prove she was Death Eater scum, too, can we?” the Ministry clerk drawls with an acid-sweet smile—and the tracking charm tattooed on his wrist, of course, because he’s both a flight risk and a convicted murderer and even if the small, incredibly beige townhouse they’ve trapped him in didn’t have a dozen aurors staked out in front at any given moment, watching him, waiting for him to fuck up—
Well, his “muggle integration counselor” needs to be able to find him.
And isn’t she a surprise.
“What the fuck,” he says, dropping his mug of tepid, watery tea—muggle kettles are screechy, flimsy, excessively temperamental pieces of shit, he’s discovered. Nothing tastes right. It’s all disposable. “What the—how did—"
Cho Chang—and, yeah, that’s Cho Chang on his doorstep, hair chopped short and sleek to her shoulders, a pale blue scarf looped around her neck, her hands clasped nervously, fingers twisting and clutching at the neat wool pleats of her skirt; she’s wearing lipstick, a bruised, glossy shade of red, and her gaze is sharp and bright and wary.
“Hello, Marcus,” she greets him, and then visibly bites down on the inside of her cheek, like she’s fighting the urge to say something else. Something more. “How are you?”
“Peachy fucking keen,” he snaps, eyes narrowing. His bare feet are sticking out from his jeans, and the tea spilling from his overturned, half-forgotten mug is beginning to stain the carpet. He remembers—vividly, uncomfortably, terribly—the last time he saw Cho Chang. He’d bet whatever’s left of his dignity that she’s never once called him Marcus before today. “What are you doing here?”
She glances down and away from him, towards the boring cast-iron light fixture and the slightly crooked matching house numbers. “The Ministry sent me.”
“You work for the Ministry?”
“No, no, not . . . exactly,” she hedges. “Can I come in?”
She doesn’t use magic to help him clean up the tea.
He doesn’t ask why.
“Purebloods have historically, um, really struggled to adapt to muggle society,” Cho says haltingly, as Marcus scowls at her from across the kitchen table. He isn’t sure why he’s being so hostile. Why he’s reacting so viscerally to her presence. So negatively. “And since your upbringing was particularly, um, well—the Ministry believed that you could do with some, um, some guidance, as well as—”
“Since my upbringing was particularly what?” he interrupts, jaw creaking.
Her lips part with a slow, slick, criminally mesmerizing drag. “Excuse me?”
“If you’re going to criticize my upbringing,” he says tersely, “you might as well be specific.”
Her expression flickers. Tightens. Shutters. “I don’t really think I need to be specific. Do you?”
He shifts, cracking his knuckles, fidgeting with the dented aluminum top of the salt shaker, his irritation—his resentment—already beginning to wane. “So, what, you’re here to teach me how to talk to muggles? Use a telephone? Get a fucking postage stamp to stick?”
“I . . . yes, to a certain extent, that’s what I’m here to—”
He cuts her off with a hard, mean, humorless chuckle. “Right, cool, then your job’s done, I’m all adapted.”
She stares at him for a moment—studies him, more like, intent, determined, with only a hint of the vague, formless, utterly impersonal disappointment he’s gotten accustomed to being on the receiving end of from strangers.
“I testified at your trial,” she says abruptly, her voice colored with something quiet and fierce and contemplative and petrifyingly, terrifyingly discerning. “Did you know that?”
“You were on the witness list, yeah.”
“Were you ever curious? About what I said?”
He shrugs, playing at nonchalance. Failing at it, probably. “I can guess.”
“Yeah,” he says, clearing his throat. “You saw me—I know what you saw me doing. Or—what you saw me almost doing. It doesn’t matter.”
“That you say it doesn’t matter.”
He scoots forward and then backward, gritting his teeth, scrubbing at the stubble on his chin that he never bothers to shave anymore. “Why? Why is that funny?”
She pauses, still staring at him, and if her face—her features—her mouth, so soft, so delicate, so, so pretty—were capable of it, he might describe her smile as more of a smirk. It’s gently patronizing. A lilting curl of smooth edges and sly amusement.
“It doesn’t matter,” she murmurs, relaxing in her seat.
He can’t tell if she’s mocking him or answering him.
Is there even a fucking difference?
Cho Chang shows up like deeply annoying, distracting clockwork on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays.
She drags him to crowded, benign places—a zoo, a coffee shop, a festive outdoor market—and chatters to him like they’re friends, like they’re voluntarily spending time together, ordering mulled cider and navigating the icy patches on the sidewalk and watching stupid muggles kick a stupid ball around a stupid field like it’s any kind of respectable substitute for quidditch. She demonstrates how to properly hold a pair of chopsticks and laughs at the scorch marks on his tea kettle and never, ever, ever takes her wand out of wherever the fuck she keeps it.
Not even by accident.
“Are you not—is there a rule against it?” Marcus finally asks, peering skeptically at an oversized leather-bound atlas. It unnerves him, how muggle books—muggle objects, in general—they don’t do anything; the illustrations don’t move, the covers don’t bite, the spines don’t sing. They aren’t fighting for space on the shelf. They aren’t hiding anything. “Against you, um, using magic? Around me?”
Cho startles a little at that, whipping her head around to blink at him. “Oh—no, of course not. No. I just—I don’t use it. Magic. Anymore. At all.”
He frowns. “You . . . what?”
“I don’t use magic anymore,” she repeats, gaze darting to the atlas he’s still touching. “I stopped after the—after all the trials. Are you going to get that?”
In a jumbled, creeping, frustrated daze, Marcus walks to the counter and pays for the atlas and a romance novel and a children’s book about caterpillars transforming into butterflies.
He suspects he might be missing the fucking point again.
She can’t cook, he discovers with a fairly hysterical amount of astonishment.
“I don’t know why you’re laughing at me,” she says, flour dusting her chin and her ponytail and the beds of her ivory-polished fingernails. “You grew up with house elves, didn’t you? You can’t even boil water.”
He snorts, prodding gingerly at the lumps of butter in the pastry dough. “I also never pretended to be competent.”
“At setting apples on fire, sure.”
“It was the brandy!” she argues. She looks like she’s suppressing a smile, one of those wide, beaming, effervescent smiles he used to always see her flash at first years and teachers and her twittering Ravenclaw friends and even Cedric Diggory, although—
Marcus supposes the smiles were dimmer and smaller and a bit less genuine, after Diggory.
“Yeah, you’re right,” Marcus says belatedly, swiping a spoonful of brown sugar out of the box to mask his sudden and utterly moronic fucking jaunt down memory lane. Hogwarts was a lifetime ago. A universe ago. He can’t—he won’t go back. “We should just drink the brandy.”
“That isn’t what I—”
“It’s tastier than pie,” he goes on, rifling through the cabinet above the sink, hunting for the pretentious fucking liqueur glasses that had inexplicably come with the house, like those assholes at the Ministry really thought he might need them for—what, dinner parties? Smarmy upscale Death Eater luncheons? “Easier, too. Hard to mess up pouring something into a cup, isn’t it?”
Cho meets his eyes, her lips quivering as she presses them together.
When her smile does eventually break through, it’s even better than he remembers.
She coerces him into going ice skating, which she can do, and it’s wildly embarrassing.
The rink is decorated with jingling silver bells and winding boughs of holly, shrieking packs of children in hats and mittens and puffy jackets flooding the courtyard outside, where all the hot chocolate and peppermint sticks are—Cho glides in front of him, forwards and backwards, a practiced, well-oiled grace to her movements; and her face is flushed pink against the navy blue of her scarf and her short wool skirt is swirling around her thighs and her teeth are glinting white and straight as she giggles and he struggles to find his center of gravity.
He isn’t built for this shit.
It’s slippery, more about balance and concentration and restraint than brute strength, and what the fuck does he know about any of that?
“Don’t you miss it?” Marcus blurts out, breath fogging as he exhales. Inhales. Carefully avoids so much as a brief, too-charged glance in Cho’s general direction. “Magic? You grew up with it, didn’t you? Like I did?”
She hesitates. “Not like you did, no.”
“You mean your parents didn’t tell you the bad guys won the war the first time around?” he tries to joke, but it lands flat, falls flat, and he wishes he could take it right fucking back as soon as it leaves his mouth. “Sorry. That was—bad. I didn’t even like my father, honestly. Dunno why I ever listened to him.”
Cho doesn’t reply for a while, and the only sounds Marcus’s brain can process are painfully inconsequential—the distant blaring whir of a car alarm, the twinkling, nightmarish melody of a merry-go-round, the sloshing thrum of blood rushing to his ears and the whispering rasp of his sweater rubbing against the lining of his coat.
“Sure, I miss it,” she eventually says, her tone subdued, regretful, like she’s confessing to him. Confiding in him. “But—not enough, yeah?”
His skate blade hits a rut in the ice, sending him spinning, flailing, pitching awkwardly to the side, and he slips once, and then twice, and then a third time before she sighs and huffs out another giggle, grabbing him by his elbow, and then his wrist, and then his hand to hold him upright.
He’s afraid to let go—of her, of her hand—but he can’t figure out why.
Cho drops a deli container of kimchi into his grocery basket and yawns into her fist. “It’s too late for this.”
Marcus squints at his watch. “Technically, it’s too early for this.”
“I should be sleeping.”
“You should be sleeping.”
“I don’t do a ton of that anymore,” he admits, picking up a bottle of hot sauce and tiredly inspecting the label. “Besides, no one else is ever here in the middle of the night. I like it.”
“Of course no one else is here, it’s the weekend.”
He stops walking. “It is?”
“Technically,” she mimics petulantly, tugging at the sleeves of her sweatshirt and crossing her arms over her chest, “it is Saturday, yeah.”
He puffs his cheeks out, placing the hot sauce back on the display shelf. “Don’t, uh, don’t take this the wrong way, but—why are you here?”
“Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays,” he says—or recites, more like, because he’s basically had the schedule memorized since it’s fucking inception. “That’s when you come over.”
She lifts a single finely shaped, incredulous eyebrow. “And?”
“And,” he drags the word out, scowling, hoping she might not force him to spell it out for her, “it’s not Monday. Or Tuesday. Or—”
“It hasn’t been Monday—” She steps closer. “—or Tuesday—” She steps closer. “—or Thursday—” She tilts her head back, searching his eyes. “—for a while, now.”
He swallows. “Oh,” he says dumbly. “That’s—okay.”
She kisses him, arching up onto her toes and pulling him in close by the back of his neck, right in the middle of the cereal aisle, surrounded by rows and rows and rows of brightly colored boxes that look a little like wildflowers in his periphery, all blurred and bunched together, just waiting to be picked.
Just waiting for the chance to grow back.