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A Flame Undamped

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The candle flickers and goes out, leaving behind a gauzy thread of smoke and the smell of heat and honey. It is not a symbol. It is a burnt wick and a pool of golden viscous liquid. It is a hiss and then a darkness.

It is not a symbol. Especially not of a young life cut short.

Draco Malfoy blows aside the glowing embers and rolls the pad of his thumb in the thickening beeswax. For a moment, it feels warm and soft. Like skin.

It is not a symbol.

The hardest thing is the imagining. It is by far the hardest thing. January serves up its snows, its cloudless glass-shard days when everything winks and your eyes brim with tears at the brightness. It serves up black-limbed oaks and snow-capped evergreens. It smells of cold and nutmeg and the smoking exhaust of Muggle cars. Its nights are long but getting shorter. The wind wraps around the house like a winding sheet.

It is not a symbol.

But it is a reality. The frost reaches at least a forearm’s length beneath the frozen grass. Its grip, he imagines, is like a vice. It is not loving. How can it be? It is white-knuckled and hard. A plea Don’t go! Not a request.

Draco knows he could have pled for mercy. He could have locked his son in a turret room and let him fall in love with his own shadow, with the branches of the trees through the curved panes. He would have fallen in love with something; it was his destiny. Maybe it would have been an idea of love itself – the face of a boy he’d never see. Dark-haired and guileless. He would have haunted Scorpius’ dreams, and yet still he would have died. Two years ago this very day. Without the press of lips to throat, without the fumble and catch of hands held as they walked into the fight. Nothing would have changed that fact, and Draco had resigned himself to his choice. Just as his father must have resigned himself to his choice. There was no prison – figurative or otherwise – strong enough that could've contained Draco’s gift, and no way to protect Scorpius from his fate. An owl would have crashed through his window and a shard of glass would have . . . . Or something less violent. Like the princess in the tale, he would have pricked his finger and sunk to his knees, death folding over him, quiet as a blanket.

If you must die – as we all must one day – then there is no need to do so before our time. The trick is to meet death gracefully, on the threshold like a long awaited friend and surrender your hand out of gratitude, not necessity.

I did it for love. I did it for love, and I was not afraid.

It was all right. The funeral, the music, the lilies. It was hard when Albus Potter stumbled on his way to the casket and dropped his gift of bittersweet. That was hard; but Harry hadn’t been there, and Draco had been able to weep without the reproach of his eyes. If there even would be reproach. In hindsight, Draco rather doubted there would have been. But reality wouldn’t have mattered in the face of perception. It had been all right. Scorpius would have liked it. The cello, the ceiling spelled to show the January sky. And of course there were the candles. Draco had taken them home, shrinking them into the size of toothpicks and wrapping them in Hagrid’s handkerchief (the one he hadn’t sobbed and blown his nose into). He took the exact number he needed. One for every January that he would be without his son. One for every year he’d spend alone.

They were not symbols.

The dead, they say, hold candles for the living. For some, it is a sinister prospect. A will ‘o’ the wisp leading the unsuspecting to a fen-deep death. For others, it’s an unfulfillable wish, a promise of being, for the first time, on the inside where the goose is on the table and boots line the hearth; no longer a phantom at the window, something glimpsed out of the corner of an eye before it vanishes. And then there are the candles of those who were loved so much that the ground cannot hold them. They walk among us, illuminating the stones and roots in our paths and warming our hands in their candles’ sourceless heat. Some days this is the only thing that prevents him from dropping to his knees and clawing at his breast in grief. The thought of Scorpius escaping his January grave, if only for one night.

Once, on Hobby Horse Day, when Scorpius had been no more than knee-high to a cricket, Draco had taken him to The Cornwall Witches’ Market in Padstow. After his son had made himself nearly sick with chasing the Blue Horse through the winding streets with a stomach full of sticky sweets, Draco had taken him to the table of one of England’s most famous candle makers. For hours, long after Draco’s patience was spent, they watched the plump witch pluck Bog Myrtle catkins from their branches and boil them into a thick, fragrant stew, which, when added to beeswax, created a heavy, quick-cooling wax. Holding his hands in hers, the witch helped Scorpius dip the foot-long lengths of canvas wick into the steaming vat, time and time again, as the wax congealed into tapers the thickness of Draco’s thumb. At one point, the witch glanced up and met Draco’s eyes.

Never seen such patience in such a wee one, she said. Nothing won’t be his one day. If he lives long enough, the Goddess willing.

Leaving Scorpius in her kind and capable hands, Draco had fled the faire and the cramped narrow streets where tiles now and again slipped loose from their moorings and slid down the steep-peaked roofs, scattering slate across the cobblestones. At the village’s edge, he paused to lean, panting, against a farmer’s gate. His throat was choked and aching with unshedable tears. Dear God! There would never be enough time for his son! Whereas he, himself, had so much, Scorpius had so little.

They’d burned the candle that night in Scorpius’ bedroom. Tell me a story, father, he’d said, half-asleep and heavy-lidded in the wavering light. Draco had shook his head.

I can’t think of one, he’d lied. And to his relief, his child had sunk into sleep with nothing more then the feel of Draco’s chest rising and falling, rising and falling under his little head.

Candles burn down and snuff themselves out. They are not symbols.

The wind whips his hair about his face and creeps under the collar of his cloak. Above his head, the trees creak and groan. It had taken a long time to light the candle, but once it was lit, Draco had shielded it with his hands. It was not a symbol of the tenacity of love.

Suddenly, from behind him, there came a humming. A Muggle tune, soft and soothing. Draco turns his face towards it like the sun.

* * * *

Albus and James and Lily had returned to school that autumn, each of them nearly two years behind. Harry was proud of them and the various ways they managed to cope. James hurdling forward with a sense of life’s brevity, flying higher than Harry, himself, had ever dared, and hitting the Quaffle over the stands, causing the spectators to shriek in a mixture of fear and delight. Lily surrounded herself with friends; Christmas hols had been spent in a mad flurry of owls and gifts mailed on Christmas Eve flying through the air on dark wings like a meteor shower of coloured paper. And Albus? Well, Albus turned inward, curling around his books and his music and the sound of words. Harry sensed that it was his way of keeping Scorpius beside him, keeping him alive and untouched by death.

On the platform, the steam enveloped them like a fog, and Harry found himself imagining how it must feel for each of his children, in their own way, to board the Hogwarts Express for the first time since that fateful night almost two years ago. Would it be like it’d been for him and Ron and Hermione, and yes, even Draco in his own way? For months he’d been haunted by the screams of the dying and the incongruence of dining in a room where blood had pooled like rain water beneath the ceiling suddenly comprised, no longer of stars, but of nothing more than rafters and stone. He watched as the three of them chose a carriage and sat down gingerly as though the seats themselves still contained the spells of their enemies. Standing beside Ron, he waved and smiled. Draco had not been there, although Harry had found himself looking for him.

Much had transpired in the days and months since the war ended, and Harry knew that when he returned from a greasy pub lunch, he could sit by the fire and not think of the absence of Ginny and Hermione. Time did, indeed, heal all wounds, although Harry felt guilty admitting it. Somehow it seemed disrespectful not to mourn, but then he remembered that Albus and Draco mourned enough for both Harry and Ron put together. Ginny and Hermione had lived lives, as brief as they’d turned out to be, but still long enough to hold their children in their arms. Still long enough to grow lazy and content in their love, after the edge of must-having wore off. It was a contentment that he and Draco hadn’t managed before Draco had left – either as friends or as lovers. It was a contentment that Scorpius and Albus had known only too briefly and without the consummation of love-making. Boys, it seemed, could only manage living by halves.

Harry sighs and glances at the Christmas tree. He didn’t have the heart to take it down before the children left for school. It wouldn’t be long now; Harry would take them to Kings Cross in the morning. Gently, he reaches his arm around Albus’ shoulders where he sits beside him on the couch, his face inscrutable behind a book on defensive spells. At first his son stiffens at the touch, but eventually – slowly – lets himself sag against Harry’s side. For a fleeting moment, it is like it had been back when Albus was a little boy. Back before he’d received his Hogwarts' letter, but after James had left for his first year. Ginny and Lily would go for long walks down roads of Muggle houses, and their cheeks were always pink and sore with laughter when they returned home. But Harry’s time alone with Albus had been different; they hadn’t needed to speak, and the fire would burn down in the grate as Albus dozed with his head on Harry’s knee.

It had been one of the few times Harry could remember that he’d been entirely free of pain.

Tonight, Albus does not doze, and when he lays aside his book, his eyes fix, with a frightening determination, on the fire behind its grate. But his body is pliant, and Harry strokes his son’s hair, his fingers trailing now and again over a fever-hot cheek. Talk to me, he wants to say. Unburden yourself. But he knows he has no right.

He knows he has no right.

When at last Albus pulls away from him, the sudden absence of his child makes Harry shiver with cold and loss, but he says nothing when Albus gathers up his books and climbs the stairs to his room. Instead of following him, Harry stands and tries to prod the dying embers back to life, but the effort is futile.

This is not a symbol, he tells himself as he pulls his cloak around his shoulders and closes his eyes against the grip of Apparation. There is only one place he wants to be.

* * * *

“You didn’t have to come,” Draco says, resting the candle’s stub on the ground at what would be his son’s feet before rising, his back straight. The pride, even now, preventing him from acknowledging companionship.

“I know,” Harry replies, spreading his fingers in a gesture of peace and not just supplication.

“You know,” says Draco. “I’m not even sure that I’m glad you’re here.”

Harry nods. When Draco says such things, Harry sees it now as a bloodletting – a draining of the wound before he cauterizes it again for yet another year. It is this that Albus is never permitted to see.

“You enjoy this.” He is an animal caught in the trap of his pain.

Harry merely shakes his head. Draco bears no love for platitudes, for bland assurances. Instead he merely says, "Come home."

 

The side-along is dangerous. Draco is in no shape after these vigils to surrender himself to the vagaries of magic – whether Harry’s or his own. Harry pulls him tight against his breast and whispers the address into his flying hair. Draco struggles weakly, the roar and nausea finally loosening a sob. He would stay there all night if Harry let him. He would lay himself down on his son’s grave and die.

It is a leaving too permanent for Harry to let him entertain, even for an instant.

“You are cruel,” Draco hisses when their feet touch the gravel path of their driveway. He stumbles slightly and reaches blindly for Harry’s hand. It is a gesture that brings more comfort to Harry than a thousand declarations of undying love.

Glancing up, Harry can see a face in the window – Albus’ window. It is cast in shadow, and Harry cannot make out his expression.

“I wish,” Harry says, though it is against his better judgment, “that you would let him accompany you.”

Draco’s face turns ugly and sour for a fleeting second. “He hurts enough, Harry. How could you wish such a thing on your son?”

“I wish,” Harry says patiently, “that he knew that he is not alone in his grief.”

Draco shook his head, his mouth in a wry twist. “Ah, but he is, Potter. As am I.”

* * * *

They make love, slowly and quietly, their bodies clothed in nothing but candle and fire light. Neither wish Albus to hear them – on this night in particular.

Draco throws himself into the act, apologising in the only way his pride will let him. Their legs tangling in the sheets, their bodies’ merging is almost as guileless as the rutting of beasts in the grip of spring’s gut-wrenching thaw. Harry never asks him for more than this, and Draco senses that it is out of fear – fear that he will want too much, push too hard, and Draco will leave him with no more than a note on his pillow. How, after these two years and all they’ve seen, how he could think such a thing is a question Draco rarely wishes to contemplate. But tonight of all nights even less than usual.

Harry pins him with all of his weight, a ballast against Draco’s desertion, giving him the split-second moment in which the ship resists the lateral force of the wind and can right itself once again. I love you, Harry says, but his tone does not ask for, let alone demand, a reply. I love you, he says again.

 

Once, after that first moment when Draco had heard Harry’s voice from the embers, he had believed that to love Harry back would be, somehow, to betray his son, as though love were an unrenewable thing. As though its well could empty, its river run dry. Since his realisation that this was, in fact, not the case, his fear of depletion has shifted to Albus, Harry’s son, whose gaze never failed to fillet Draco open like a fish and pluck at his thinning, translucent bones. Harry assured him that Albus would, in fact, find love again, but the thought made Draco’s heart seize up. He, too, had found love again – or at least a subspecies of love – for Scorpius’ mother, but it had been no more than a star to the sun of his lingering love for Harry. He did not wish such a fate on Albus. And sometimes, to his great shame, he wished him the respite of death.

 

“Oh,” Harry gasps as he comes, just as he always did and still does, as though Draco is an epiphany he keeps discovering over and over again. Draco’s own climax is silent, as it always is and always was. Words, his father had once told him when he was very young, are tiny fragments of the soul. Use them wisely, Draco. Use them wisely and know when to shut up. Over the whole course of your life, they should never comprise more than a fistful. At the moment when, legs spread and Harry between them, Draco reaches orgasm, his soul, he knows, is too close to the surface. Too subject to exhalation. He dare not take the chance.

Afterward, as they lie in each others' arms, their skin cools and their breathing slows, and Draco thinks of Albus alone in his room at the end of the hall. Rising from their bed and reaching for his robe, he sets out in search of Harry’s son.

* * * *

From his chair by the little hearth in his room, Albus watches the swirl of snow as his father and Scorpius’ Apparate into the drive. Slowly, their cloaks unwind from each others’ and even slower Albus’ father removes his arms from Draco’s waist. Even from this distance, Albus can see the unyielding expression on Draco’s face – the pinch of pride.

Sometimes – thankfully not always – Albus wonders if this man could ever have loved Scorpius as much as he did.

This was the first year they’d all spent the anniversary of Scorpius’ death together. Albus’ father had been kind enough to permit him – and thus James and Lily – to stay until the following day. The train would take them north on a special trip – a concession not only to Albus’ father’s sacrifice, but to Scorpius’ as well. He’d died sheltering Albus and Lily as they’d worked frantically to stop James from bleeding to death. In his darkest moments, Albus wonders if he wished he’d done things differently. Left his brother to die and taken Scorpius away in a wandless Apparation. He knew he could have done it. His desire to be at Scorpius’ side, had caused him, on numerous occasions, to spontaneously Apparate long before his father had taught him how. He was certain that he could have done so again that night. In fact, he had. But it had been too late.

As always happened when he remembers the way Scorpius had clutched his hand as he died, Albus’ eyes well with tears. They track down his face uninhibited by time or distance. Like him, Scorpius would have been nineteen today, and the two of them would be travelling the world together as international Aurors or professional Quidditch players, or – better yet – dragon tamers. Or more likely, given Scorpius’ affinity for books, they would have been at some university in Ireland, perched on a cliff overlooking the sea. After the summer month they'd spent there with Albus’ family, Scorpius had sworn he’d go back. The land of saints and scholars, he’d sighed. The land of Vikings and pubs, Albus had replied teasingly.

There was, it turned out, no compensation for his loss. Nothing proved to stem the bloodletting. Like a bucket of water thrown on a fire, the pain had extinguished every joy, every hope. He stumbled through life now, broken beyond repair. It was not an issue of self-pity, as James sometimes suggested. It was merely the truth – a fact like the sun’s rise and set, the position of the stars in a constellation of grief.

 

His father and Scorpius’ retire to their bedroom without even so much as doffing their cloaks, and Albus hears Draco stumble on the stairs. Drunk no doubt; firewhisky being the most selfish of escapes. Outside, the snow begins to fall again, and the window is dark save for the reflection of the fire in the hearth and the flame of the candle on his desk. The wind whistles through the eaves. It is as cold as any January night has ever been, and Albus cannot stop himself from thinking of the icy grave beneath the willow. Scorpius, who’d been so warm in Albus’ arms that night in the cave – the only night they’d been permitted to spend together as lovers – lay now in the embrace of frost and ice and dirt. It was more, sometimes, than Albus could bear to contemplate.

When the knock sounds on his door, Albus almost doesn’t answer it. He’s not in the mood for Lily’s sweet but ineffectual platitudes and, even less, James’ hearty message of “buck up, old boy!” His father maybe he could stand, but he’d probably smell of bed clothes and firewhisky and the distasteful, unmistakable scent of sex. He had his Malfoy. Albus was fucking glad for him, but even his awkward silence is not welcome on this night of all nights. But at the last second, against his better judgment he says, “Come in.”

* * * *

The room smells of boy. No doubt his and Harry’s had as well. Draco fights not to wrinkle his nose, and then, when the realisation of what he’s done sinks in, he fights not to weep. Scorpius’ room had always smelled of boy as well. And unwashed socks. Like heliotrope hangs in the June air, the scent of boy hangs in the rooms of solitary sons. Only one person, Draco knew, had ever visited his son’s room at the Manor, and that person was sitting on the windowsill staring at him in shock.

Crossing slowly to the wooden chair before the little writing desk, Draco determinedly ignores the silence that has greeted his entry. In the air disturbed by his approach, the candle flame wavers and smokes reproachfully. Wrapping his robe tightly about him and pinching the collar closed on his bare throat, Draco sits and raises his gaze to Harry’s son’s.

“Are you drunk?”

Draco might have been affronted by the boy’s tone, by his insulting presumptuousness, but the wobble in Albus’ chin belies his confidence.

“No,” Draco replies simply.

“Then . . .” Albus blurts. “Then where did you go?”

Draco regards him for a long minute, assessing the pros and cons of telling him the truth. In the silence, Albus’ chin wobbles even more, and a single tear tracks its way down his cheek. Draco decides to push pride aside and relents.

“To my son’s grave,” he replies.

A second tear escapes Albus’ other eye.

“I . . .” Draco clears his throat and the roughness from his voice. “I’ve gone there every year, on both his birthday and the anniversary of his death. I go at night because I hate the pitying gaze of strangers, and I go at night because the candles shine brighter.”

Albus lets out a tiny and almost imperceptible sob.

“It is not what you think,” Draco says. “It is not a symbol.”

* * * *

Albus doesn’t know why Draco has decided to come to him, after all this time, but he finds he cannot be angry. My father, Scorpius had told him once, a long time ago. My father is a good man. But he’s tangled so tight inside himself and the ropes have bitten so deep . . . He’d not elaborated, but the image had stuck with Albus all this time. And then there were the words whispered against his mouth, only a little more than two years before: Tell my father . . . Make sure he knows that I did it for love. That I did it for love and that I was not afraid. If Draco was someone Scorpius had loved – no matter how cold and aloof he seemed to Albus – then Albus would find a way to love him, too.

“I don’t think anything,” Albus says. “I’m too numb to think.”

Recognising the concession, Draco tilts his head to the side and fixes him with a steady gaze. “But you do,” he says. “Perhaps too much.”

Albus rises suddenly and paces for several minutes before the hearth, now and again kicking errant embers back beneath the grate. That too, he thinks, is not a fucking symbol.

“I don’t want your empty words,” he snaps. “My sister is full of them, and I’ve heard enough of them to last me a lifetime . . .” He chokes on the last word, realising too late what he has just said. Instinctively, he glances at Draco whose chin has dropped on to his chest, his hair, so like Scorpius’ falling away from the part and curtaining his face from Albus’ eyes. For a long ugly terrifying moment, Albus thinks he has fallen asleep, but then he sees that Draco’s shoulders are shaking. Albus lets him cry for a very long time, and then, out of sheer discomfort, he goes to the door to fetch his father.

Without looking up – something his pride obviously did not permit him – Draco sobs. “Don’t go,” he says brokenly. “Stay with me.”

 

For more than an hour, neither of them speak nor move. Finally, understanding that he must be the one to do it, Albus crosses the room and kneels on the floor before Scorpius’ father, and when he does not shy away as Albus had imagined he would, wraps his arms around his back and, with a gentle hand at the back of Draco’s neck, guides his head to rest on his shoulder. The simple gesture makes Draco cry even harder, and Albus has the distinct impression that, despite all of his father’s gestures of love, only he, Albus, could comfort him in this particular grief.

For the first time in two years, Albus does not feel alone.

* * * *

When Harry wakes from his light doze and realises Draco has not returned, he sits up and swings his legs over the side of the bed. At first, he goes down to the little study with the Muggle telly – a concession to Harry’s tastes – but Draco is nowhere to be seen. Harry is suddenly gripped by the horrible conviction that, with nothing more than a robe over his nakedness, Draco had returned to his son’s grave. In an instant, one of Molly’s many tales comes back to him: the little candle girl (well, in this case boy) who sells candles on Christmas Eve so as to bring some money home to her sick grandmother. But the night is bitterly cold, and strangers pass on the street, eager to get to their fire-lit parlours and unwilling to look grinding poverty in the face – on that night of all nights. She lights a candle to warm her hands – just one – she thinks. Just one. But the wind blows colder and the night grows longer, and the streets empty of people. Not one of them has bought a candle, but she can’t bear to go home with empty pockets. Determined to stay in the doorway as long as she has to, the little girl lights another candle . . . and another and another. The next morning, the people on their way to buy their gooses and their puddings, discover a little girl, slumped in a doorway, with burnt matches and candle stubs around her bare feet. Of course she is dead, and of course the teller of the story comforts himself with the certainty that she is now an angel in heaven, but having seen what the world can do, Harry does not believe it.

Grabbing his boots and his cloak, Harry throws open the door and Apparates into the night.

* * * *

Exhausted by the heretofore pent up flood of his grief, Draco slumps in Harry’s son’s arms and does not resist when, gently, Albus leads him to his bed and pulls the covers up to his chin. Standing and stepping back, Albus regards him for a long minute, his eyes soft and kind and devoid of the knee-jerk Potter hurt. Draco knows he does not look like a forty-six year-old man with his eyes all but swollen shut and his knees bent in a child’s narrow bed, but he can’t be moved to care. When Albus retrieves his pyjamas from the heap they’re in on the bottom of the wardrobe and his toothbrush from the top of the bureau, Draco makes no effort to rise and leave. His bones feel as weak and malleable as clay. He is exhausted and emptied at last. When Albus dampens the flue, snuffs out the candle, and slips out of the room, Draco does not make an effort to stop him. He hears the plaintive sound of James' voice asking Albus, “What the fuck is up?” and Albus’ reply of “Budge over, you bastard,” and smiles to himself. Silly silly boys.

In the darkness, still smelling of heat and wax and embers, he slips into a dreamless sleep.

* * * *

To his relief, Harry sees no sign of a recent Apparation and no tracks in the deepening snow. Draco must have decided that he needed a night on his own – this night not surprisingly – and gone to sleep on the couch in the library. It was the only thing he’d brought from the Manor; well that and two tiny nondescript wooden boxes whose contents Harry had never seen and sensed he wouldn’t want to see even if Draco had invited him to.

Drawing his wand, Harry begins the spell to Apparate home when something catches his eye all of a sudden. He turns, squinting into the blowing snow. From this distance, it looks like a tiny bright window in a tiny fire-lit house, but as he draws closer to the foot of Scorpius’ grave, he sees that it is a candle. The same candle Harry had watched Draco blow out and push into the ground. Somehow – miraculously – it burned once more, unwavering in the wind. Stronger and brighter than a blazing torch.

Swallowing back a throat full of grateful tears, Harry blows Scorpius a kiss, draws a circle in the snow with his wand, and Apparates home. Home to his hearth. Home to his children. Home, at long last, to Draco.

 

A Flame Undamped