"Master Draco—"

"Yes, I know," Draco snapped at the Elf, waving a hand, his eyes still shut as he lay drowsily on the couch. "Let her in."

He'd been wondering at what time Astoria would arrive. She had left the day before telling him that she might be too busy to stop by, and that if she did, it would likely be very late. He hadn't minded; it wasn't like they usually followed office hours or anything anyway.

So he busied himself with trying to recall exactly what the dream he had had during his nap was of. It was likely a nightmare, but it hadn't been nearly as terrifying as the ones in the past weeks had been. He must have fallen asleep on the couch very late the night before, and as he opened one eye, he could see his lunch sitting abandoned on a table nearby, probably long grown cold. Stretching on the soft surface of the couch with a groan, he rubbed awareness back into his eyes. He had to get up; Astoria would be in the room shortly and it wouldn't do to look quite as pathetic as he did, sleeping in the sitting room when he was perfectly capable of walking to his own room. He didn't even really have a near-death experience to use as an excuse, this time.

As he sat up and tried to rub the wrinkles out of his grey shirt, reaching out to take a drumstick from the cold plate on the tray nearby, he wondered what news Astoria would bring. She had seemed terribly intent on something after examining his family tree, and he was more than a little curious as to what it all had to do with his case. All that time in the library must have amounted to something.

Then again, he did have only one task of his own to do: one he had failed at completely, so far.

Still, he was rather looking forward to Astoria's appearance that morning. Which was why he was more than a little surprised when Blaise Zabini arrived at the doorway and surveyed him with one perfectly sculpted eyebrow raised, a bemused smirk on his dark features.

"Well, you've sunk quite low, haven't you, Malfoy."

Draco could do little more than stare for a moment, before dropping the drumstick back onto his plate and grimacing with confusion. "The hell are you doing here, Zabini?"

Blaise's smirk didn't disappear—if anything, it only widened as he stepped into the room, hands in the pockets of his expensive tailored robes, looking around at his surroundings. "Thought I'd come to visit you."

"I thought you were in Germany."

"I was. I'm back now."

Draco actually spluttered, which was completely deplorable but really quite understandable. He hadn't seen Zabini in years—what with all the trials and Zabini's eventual run from the country after he and his mother were cleared of all charges, they had never crossed paths, and in truth Draco had never expected to see him again, at least not within the next ten years. He couldn't think of any reason for why Zabini would ever want to step foot in Britain again. He said so.

The other wizard shrugged. "Mother has a house here, and her husband just died a month back, so we've got quite a substantial amount of money, and it's more sensible to handle it all here. There really is no reason not to come back. Germany was more of a… holiday, so to speak."

Draco could think of plenty of reasons to not return, but he supposed there was no use in voicing them. "How did you get in here? I'm under house arrest."

"Mother has friends who have friends," was his casual reply. "I don't suppose you still have that excellent Malfoy wine, do you? I've been craving it for ages."

"When did you even try it?" The last time Zabini was likely to have set foot in Malfoy Manor had been when they were all fourteen and Lucius Malfoy was hosting large parties to invite all the politicians and powerful families of the country—and they'd been fourteen, for Merlin's sake.

"Pansy snuck into your cellars during a Christmas party," Blaise grinned. "I don't know how she managed it, but the wine is good. We got drunk in the pantry."

Well, he certainly didn't remember that, but he supposed it was too late to get offended at being shunned as a fourteen year old. He'd been something of an arse at that age, anyway.

"I've got scotch," he finally offered, because even though there was that bottle of Malfoy wine collecting cobwebs in the old ballroom, he inexplicably wasn't ready to produce it just yet. There was just something about it. It just wasn't right.

Blaise nodded, and Draco called Ollie with a snap of his fingers, ordering the Elf to bring them drinks. It was morning, but then again they were both Slytherins who had somehow survived the War, albeit one less intact than the other, and he supposed that it was a good enough excuse to drink hard liquor at noon in one's house with an old classmate.

As Blaise took a seat on a chair nearby, looking surprisingly comfortable despite being completely at odds with the sort of situations Draco had become accustomed to being in in that very room, Draco quickly noted that he looked even better off than he had before the war. It probably came with growing up somewhat in those years, and to be honest, Draco hadn't really paid Blaise much attention ever since his father had ended up in Azkaban. There had been too much to think about at the time.

He and Blaise had never been close friends, despite seeing each other at nearly every Pureblood occasion, since Mrs. Zabini was something of an important personage in wizarding society and it would be social suicide to not invite her to every single event. As Ollie brought them drinks and they shared a silent toast, Draco wondered what exactly Blaise had gone through in the War. He knew for a fact that the Zabinis hadn't been directly involved in anything; if they had been involved at all, then they had done a better job of covering it up than Pansy and Daphne had. Mrs. Zabini was clever enough to worm her way out of any situation, and that had probably worked in their favor.

As it was, Blaise looked well put together and utterly serene as he set down his glass, crossing his arms in front of him. "Look, Malfoy," he began slowly. "I know I wasn't here when shit hit the fan, and I know it probably would've been to your advantage if I had. We were all alone when it was all over, and… well, I guess the whole Slytherins look after our own thing was sort of bullshit."

Draco knew what he was trying to say. It wasn't exactly an apology, but it was the closest he had ever thought he would get from anyone in his House whom he had expected to be there, to act as a witness, to at least speak to him while his father was being dragged off to Azkaban a second time and his mother had fallen unfathomably silent, with him forced to sell his possessions to just let them still have a place to live in.

Now, as Blaise's dark eyes surveying Draco with a sort of guarded apology, Draco reflected that he might have been better off if he had made a greater effort to get to know Zabini in school.

He shrugged, and knew that the small gesture was enough of a reply in Blaise's eyes. "It was always bullshit," he drawled, and drained his glass.

"Doesn't have to be."

Draco looked up as he set the glass down. Blaise was gazing at him seriously, a slight look of satisfaction in his eyes as he realized that he had caught Draco's attention. "What do you mean?"

"Well," Blaise said, fingers forming a triangle as he touched the tips of his fingers. "Like I said, Mother and I have recently come across quite a fortune, which can be advantageous for us at this point if we find a way to invest it. I thought I'd stop by and ask you to consider an option."

Sally Coulson's letter was back on Draco's mind in an instant, Mulpepper's grin seeming to emerge from the shadows around the doorway beyond. He frowned. "Father's apothecary hardly exists anymore, if that's what you mean," he said warily. "There've been… complications."

"I know the Ministry took most of the Malfoy fortune; that's common knowledge at this point," Blaise said breezily, as if he hadn't understood what Draco had said. Draco gulped down the taste of embarrassment—the Malfoy family hadn't been an object of pity like this for as long as its name had existed. "And yeah, there might be easier causes to finance—I know Mother's had her eye on the Flint business for a while; but I've got faith, I guess you could say, in this idea. You've still got the contacts and all the resources but the financial ones—I'd say it's worth a shot."

Draco snorted. "And then what: Malfoy & Zabini's?"

"That's an idiotic name. I'm sure we could come up with better."

"It's an idiotic idea—I'm on the road to Azkaban right now, and you're making business proposals?"

Blaise shrugged, a slight grin on his lips. "We've all always been on the road to Azkaban. It's not really breaking news at this point."

Frowning as he tried to grasp the full weight of Blaise's offer, Draco twirled the empty glass between his fingers and ran what little he had managed to learn of his father's apothecary chain in the past years through his mind. "It's more complicated than you think," he said presently. "I haven't had the money to properly deal with anything for a while, and this whole trial thing hasn't exactly helped. Like I said, there've been complications. The Mulpeppers have been stealing from our Fluxweed plantation."

"Get it back, then," Blaise said simply.

"Don't you think I would've done that already if I could?" Draco snapped. "The Ministry's never going to listen to me if I take something like that up with them; I'll be in prison in a few weeks anyway, if everything goes their way. And Fluxweed's mostly used for Polyjuice Potion—they're not going to like it if we're still the leading name selling it."

"Malfoy Fluxweed's always been known to be the best brand," Blaise said. "You won't make it without Fluxweed."

Draco glared at him. "I know that, Zabini. Hence my inability to do anything about it."

"You could threaten him."

"With what? The Ministry's not going to do anything about it, and I don't exactly have my father's following anymore. There's nothing for me to threaten him with."

Blaise fell silent, expression contemplative as he finished his drink. "Do you still have the business paperwork? Sales and such?"

"I suppose so. It's in Father's study."

"Well, then."

Going through Lucius Malfoy's study was a nerve-wracking experience, especially now that Draco knew where the things Nott had planted in the Manor were. Zabini didn't comment on the state of disarray of the place, merely following him to the drawers where the paperwork was kept. In the aftermath of the War, when he realized that there were still things he needed to tackle regarding the family business, Draco had attempted to go through it all to understand what he could. Lucius had been of little help there—prison had kept his mind set on very few problems, the largest of which was his insistence that Draco not take a side. He had never trusted his son to deal with apothecary or political matters, and there was little that he could have explained properly, anyway, what with the limited contact they had.

Draco clenched his jaw, trying to relax his violent pulse as he extracted the files he needed. Nott's presence seemed to linger there, a dark cloud hovering above the artifacts that were stored in the hole near the fallen tapestry. The snake eyes, less bright in the sunlight that came in through the study windows, still hadn't lost any of their strange vigilant spirit, and he could feel the familiar surge of overwhelming desperation lingering at the back of his mind, threatening to take over if he stayed there much longer.

At his side, Blaise didn't seem to notice anything, merely taking what was left of the files and following Draco as he hastily left the study, making his way to the sitting room and trying not to feel the burning pain of the invisible scars that he hadn't felt in a while—had it really only been a few days? The corridors were suffocating, but he was very aware of Blaise's presence; it wouldn't do to lose it, not now.

He forced himself to breathe.

The information in the documents they had retrieved slowly began to make more sense as they went through them one by one, Lucius Malfoy's neat handwriting detailing sales and expenses, prices and deals he had made. A separate folder had notes that were harder to understand, since they pertained to particular negotiations Lucius seemed to have carried out individually, and very discreetly—it didn't surprise either of them, and Draco was a bit startled to realize that he didn't mistrust Zabini in the least with the confidential information. Maybe the last years had put everything in perspective to such a degree, and he had already lost so much, that he didn't have much energy left to suspect or care about what Blaise could do to hurt him.

It was about half an hour later that Zabini suddenly stopped, his finger halting over the center of a page. Draco looked up from the numbers he had been examining.

"It's Travis Mulpepper, right?" he asked.

"Yeah. Did you find anything?"

"Well, he seems like a bastard," Blaise put bluntly, and slid the parchment over to Draco so that he could read. "I think there's something here that might interest us."

Draco looked it over. "I don't understand."

Blaise smirked. "Maybe you can't threaten Mulpepper, what with your situation, but now I have a reason to—and I think that together, we could make something of a lasting impression."

When Astoria finally did arrive, it came as something of a surprise, for multiple reasons. Firstly, Draco had spent the last few hours just sitting in the couch staring at the wall in a mix of shock and satisfaction—he had never expected to see Zabini, much less have Zabini visit him in order to offer him help. A partnership had never occurred to him, because it carried the implication that someone would want to have something to do with him in the first place, which the War had made pretty clear would be very hard to achieve.

And yet, here he was.

The second reason Astoria's arrival came as a surprise to him was because of the state in which she arrived. She didn't look bad—slightly windswept, that was it, and there was a distinctly darker tone to her skin that looked almost as if she had spent the day at a beach or something, which was inconceivable. As she approached the fire, he wondered if it had just been her imagination.

"So," he said as a greeting. "How did it go?"

Astoria started a little, as if she hadn't come to see him in the first place. "Oh," she said quickly. "Er—well, I suppose."

Draco had to hold back a grin of amusement at her distraction. "Are you going to tell me what exactly 'it' was? You left in a hurry yesterday."

She shook her head and seemed to find her footing again, walking across the room primly and settling down in her customary seat beside him, pulling out a box from somewhere in her bag. She must have charmed it. "It doesn't matter. I don't know if it'll work anyway, so I'll spare you the disappointment. How has your day been?" She set the box on the table with a small smile. "I brought pie."

"Please don't tell me you spent the whole bloody day just to find pie."

Astoria looked mockingly offended. "Draco, I'm a professional."

He snorted. "Right."

Maybe he hit a nerve, he realized, as a strange sort of tension settled down over them. He cursed internally; he shouldn't have said anything—especially not after what had happened, because that had been distinctly unprofessional. She had gotten a tan, he was sure of it now, or at any rate her cheeks were lightly tinged red—or was she blushing? No, she wouldn't blush. His eyes flit over her face suspiciously while she wasn't looking, and he cleared his throat lightly to try and dissipate the sudden unexplainable strain in the conversation.

"Blaise Zabini came over."

Her eyebrows shot up and she straightened in her seat. "How did he get in?" she exclaimed sharply.

"Relax, Greengrass," he admonished, realizing as he said it that it had been a while since he had referred to her by her last name—or was the distinction made only in his mind? "He didn't attack me or anything."

She sighed and opened the cardboard box, revealing a frankly delicious looking pie. He suddenly realized that he hadn't had lunch. "But still—the Aurors aren't doing their job."

"Is that even a surprise at this point?"

She hummed noncommittally.

"Anyway," he stated pointedly. "He wants to work as my partner and bring the Malfoy business back to life. He's got money, I've got the supplies. It could work."

He realized as he said it that he had never confided in her the entire Mulpepper situation. He hadn't even mentioned it yet, in fact. But he also realized, as she looked at him with the same mix of shock and tentative interest he himself had displayed as he discovered that Zabini's plan might actually be somewhat promising, that it was a problem that didn't matter; it didn't deserve his or her time. It wouldn't be a problem for much longer.

The thought threw a wave of relief over him that was so incredibly strong, so satisfying, that he was stricken by the epiphany that it had been a very long time, years even, since he had felt anything remotely related to his sort of tranquility, the serenity that came with finding that one's problems did indeed have a solution.

Astoria was staring at him with a little smile on her lips. He belatedly took notice of the fact that she had spoken. He reached up and rubbed his forehead, shaking his head. "Say that again? I-—"

But she never got to repeat what she had said, because there was suddenly a loud shriek that echoed throughout the Manor, sounding so chilling and eerie in the otherwise quiet house that they both froze.

Astoria moved closer to him so quickly that it must have been instinctive, reaching out to seize his wrist with her warm fingers. "Don't go alone," she whispered.

He frowned, heart racing. Was Creevey back? He wouldn't dare... or would he? There had been plenty of other people with him last time—

But Astoria was already rising, pulling out her wand, fingers still clutching his arm. Draco rose behind her and followed her quietly out of the room, trying to move to walk ahead of her as they left the sitting room.

"Don't be an idiot," she hissed, gesturing towards her wand and giving him a scathing glare.

She was right. He was pretty much useless without his wand, and either way she didn't give him much of an option, taking the lead. The noise had come from downstairs, Draco was sure of it, and Astoria seemed to silently agree, feet completely silent as she made her way towards the stairs. He saw that she was barefoot; she must have left her shoes by the couch.

He felt terribly unprepared for a fight, and all the more powerless in the knowledge that if Astoria was attacked there was hardly anything he could do about it.

Maybe it was in his head, but he thought he could hear voices coming from the drawing room. A shiver shattered through his spine, and he stopped short in the middle of the staircase. Astoria turned to look at him, and it took all the strength in his body and mind to force himself to continue. But the drawing room—if she heard the voices, then they must have been real, not just memories like the ones he had had for so long before now. And yet, as they reached the bottom of the stairs, he could already hear the particles of glass crashing to the ground, feel Aunt Bellatrix's hand tearing his hair, feel the scars on his face and the endless swirling of red eyes...

Astoria's fingers clenched around his wrist, pulling him back into reality. Could she feel his pulse? Maybe she could—her eyes were wide as she glanced at him, and he could swear her index finger made its way down to his palm, stroking his skin, bringing warmth back into his flesh.

His heart contracted.

"DRACO!"

He felt his muscles tense violently, his breath escaping him. He could feel the scars, feel them acutely, feel the glass tear through his face, feel that horrible breath of death all around him, hear his mother's shrieks. But Astoria was real, and her hand was an anchor, and he forced himself to see, to hear, to ground himself in the reality that demanded his attention. The voice had been familiar, and despite the initial scare, it did not belong to Bellatrix. It was Pansy's voice.

He drew a shaking breath. "What the fuck, Parkinson."

The blonde woman emerged from drawing room, satin robes billowing around her as she dragged Daphne Greengrass along behind her. Astoria stopped sharply before the doorway, and Draco belatedly saw the particles of dusty glass that would have cut her if they had gone into the room.

All the better; he didn't intend on having any sort of conversation in there.

Pansy's pale face was tense, her features pulled into a scowl. "Hi," she said scathingly, eyes flitting from Draco to Astoria to the way in which Astoria was holding his wrist—nearly his hand, at this point. Astoria let go abruptly. A slight smirk graced Pansy's lips and Draco felt his bubbling emotions slowly change course and head towards the annoyed spectrum.

"What are you doing here?" Astoria demanded, more defensively than Draco had expected her to react. "He's under house arrest; he can't receive visitors without Ministry authorisation."

Pansy snorted dismissively. "I can go wherever I want. Don't spew your Ministry talk at me, Greengrass. Draco owes me an answer and I demand it. Now."

Draco saw Astoria's gaze move to her sister, who stood behind her friend looking uncomfortable. A look crossed between them, and when Astoria turned back to Pansy, there was an unforgiving harshness to her expression.

"You can wait until we've made a decision, and I will contact you. Breaking into people's houses—"

"Shut up!" Pansy exclaimed suddenly, hands flying up to her head. For the first time, Draco recognized a look of acute desperation in his childhood friend's eyes. "I'm not here to talk to you. Draco."

Draco's jaw clenched. "Don't talk to her like that."

"Oh, please. Just because you're shagging her doesn't mean you need to get all moody—this is too serious to mess around and I'm tired of you avoiding me. Do we have a deal or not?"

Swallowing down the multitude of words he wanted to shoot back at her and pointedly avoiding meeting Astoria's eye, Draco stepped forwards. "She told you. We haven't decided yet."

Daphne had inched closer to Astoria, free of Pansy's grip. Pansy let out an almost animalistic growl. "You're stalling, Draco. And it's so like you; it makes me sick. How hard of a decision is it? We'll testify for you—there's nothing to decide!" She gestured towards Astoria. "Didn't you ask me to do it like a week ago? I'll do it now; hell, Daphne'll do it too."

"I told you," Astoria snapped. "Draco's credibility could be compromised—"

"Fuck Draco's credibility," Pansy shot back, eyes still fixed on Draco's, her entire frame shaking slightly with anger. "I need this—we need this. And you need this. I'm not going to prison over something stupid I was pressured into doing as a kid; I'm not putting myself through that and I'm not putting my husband through that." She glared at Astoria. "And Daphne doesn't deserve it either, stupid as she is."

Daphne didn't seem to dare protest.

Draco ground his teeth. Nott seemed to smile from the flickering light in the room behind Pansy. They must have entered through Floo, likely having managed it somehow through Julien Prince's Ministry connections. He felt his fingers clench instinctively, his heart pounding. The glass glittered in the red light, seeming to shine unnatural, unrelated green in his mind.

He couldn't give away that he was thinking of accusing Nott. He couldn't. And yet there was a certain desperation to Pansy, the way she was shaking, the corners of her lips trembling with the sort of barely suppressed fear that he had never seen in her before. It had been an extremely long time since he had seen her, he realized—they had sent letters, yes, but those had grown progressively more scathing as time wore on. And yet, he didn't feel like she had changed at all, even though she was now two years older and considerably more grown, a married woman, living a completely different life.

But she still had the eyes of a schoolgirl, the soft lines which she had always tried to intensify with glamor charms, the guarded eyes that had kept her insecurities under lock and key and which he had always somehow seen through, ever since they had been nine years old. He remembered what it had been like to play with her, still, when she had been a carefree, mischievous child who didn't give a damn about what people thought of her. He remembered when she had been ten, crying over her parents' fights, and he hadn't know what to do—he was only a boy, after all; a boy who had never had to deal with that sort of drama. Pansy had grown up faster than he had, had gone through things he knew she never confided to anyone, not even to him. And yet here they were.

Somehow, they had survived. They had survived everything.

Pansy flinched, eyes leaving his for a split second. Did she know what he had been thinking? Had she seen the pity in his eyes?

Pansy had never liked pity.

And before he could think about it more, he suddenly reached out, seizing Pansy's upper arms and half-pushing, half-pulling her until she had her back against the wall besides the drawing room doorway, his face dangerously close to hers. She was trembling, still—he could feel it.

"Let me leave something abundantly clear, Pansy," he said through gritted teeth. "I don't owe you shit."

She was gulping down tears, he could tell. She was good at hiding it, but he could tell. He had always been able to tell. "We've been friends since we were kids! Slytherins—"

Draco let out a harsh laugh. It rang through the corridors long after he had fallen silent. "What, I should help you out of some misguided sense of House loyalty? We're not in school anymore." His gaze burned down at her with fury, and suddenly all the anger he had been building towards her for years came up boiling to the surface. Zabini had come back; Zabini had offered him help. There was something in it for him, yes, but he would never have dared come to him the way Pansy did now—and he and Zabini had never even been close friends as he and Pansy had been. "Don't think that I've forgotten," he said through gritted teeth, and as he spoke he felt his throat tightening with rage, twisting him painfully. "How you threw me to the dogs as soon as things got hard; how you turned on me and refused me help even when you had nothing to lose. How you left me behind-—me, when there was a time when I was all you had—and went off to live your same old comfortable life with your rich husband and your Ministry influence while I was left here to rot alone for two fucking years! Don't you dare think that I've forgotten."

And the tears in her eyes did spill out at that. Slowly, and maybe unnoticeable to anyone further away than where Draco stood, but they did, and Draco felt a surge of bitter satisfaction at her emotion. "I didn't—"

"Don't lie to me," he said. "Don't you fucking dare. We both know the truth; don't make yourself look any more pathetic than you already do."

Pansy fell silent, her breath escaping her nose in short, violent gusts.

Draco swallowed down his nausea, the tightness in his throat sore and jarring. He pressed a fist to the wall behind Pansy, forcing his voice to return. Finally, he spoke in a low, calm voice. "But yeah. You both get to testify. Daphne, because she deserves a chance. You, out of the kindness of my fucking heart."

And with that, he pushed off from the wall, stepping away from her as if he'd been stung, unable to speak. He looked up to see Astoria watching him; he had almost forgotten that she'd been there the whole time.

Behind him, Pansy drew a shuddering breath, eyes downcast.

"All right," Astoria said in a low voice which somehow still managed to be sharp. Draco looked away, crossing his arms tightly over his chest, his voice now strangled by the weight of it all pushing down on him. "You can go now."

He didn't watch as they left, hearing a low murmur of voices as Astoria spoke to her sister, and then the familiar blinding green of the Floo network threw shards of light all over the floor and he had to jerk his head away.

"We're going upstairs," Astoria announced quietly as she reached him again, and he met her blue eyes for a full second before turning back towards the stairs. It didn't occur to him to ask until they had already reached the top landing.

"Why?"

"You need fresh air," she replied from behind him, nudging his elbow softly with her hand. "Come on."

Astoria opened the balcony doors shakily. It didn't matter anymore, she supposed; after all, three people had already entered the house without the Aurors doing anything about it, so she doubted a couple of open doors would do much of a difference. And though she couldn't see him from here, Draco had looked sickly pale, shaking slightly when he had moved to sit on the barstool at her instruction.

The doors were considerably less dusty this time than when Draco had first shown them to her, but she still had to struggle with the weight of them. She wondered, rather fitfully, if she was overreacting—but when she turned around, her back towards the night sky outside, and a cool breeze wafted through the large, long-enclosed ballroom, making its way over to where Draco sat hunched and ruffling his hair slightly, making her feel alive and maybe not quite so bewildered at the situation and everything that had just happened with Pansy…

He didn't look up at her when she returned.

Astoria wasn't surprised; she knew Draco hated looking weak, and though the words he had addressed to Pansy, his manner, everything, had been rough and bordering on violent rage, there had been a certain vulnerability to the entire exchange and she couldn't help feeling like she had intruded, somehow, in an deeply intimate moment between Draco and his childhood friend—between Draco and his past.

So she didn't break the silence. His eyes were hidden from her, his head downcast, and she looked around the room, searching. Most of the lights hadn't turned on as they had made their way up to the ballroom, and Astoria wondered if the Manor could sense Draco's emotions, darkness settling around them just as it had settled in his mood.

There were bottles of drinks behind the bar, mostly broken. The only clean things she could find were many half-empty bottle of scotch, which she swiftly dismissed—she knew Draco drank too much of it anyway, and the last thing she wanted to do now was to propel him into a spiral of memories. She moved about quietly, intent on not disturbing him.

When he finally looked up, she was pouring them drinks. He didn't look at the glass she slid across to him, only held her gaze.

"It's done," she said quietly, as if any louder noise might disturb the peaceful night. Another breeze filled the room and Draco, framed against the starlight, looked darkly enigmatic.

"It's not done," he scoffed, his voice escaping him rather hoarsely. "I just brought down problems on us, again."

"No, you didn't," she replied. "You made a decision—that's a good thing. Great, in fact. At least the pressure's gone." Leaving the bar, she crossed over to his side and sat on the barstool in front of him, very much mirroring the first time they had met in that very house. Draco tapped his fingers lightly against the wood, brow furrowed.

"What about Nott? Am I going to testify against him?"

She bit her lip, turning to look at the balcony beyond, as if the fresh air might provide them with some modicum of peace. "You don't have to decide now."

He let out a low growl. "Then when? The trial's on Friday! I can't just—fuck." He sighed, reaching up to rub his face with his hands. "I shouldn't've told Pansy yes; if it's going to be me who implicates Nott, I'll be a bloody hypocrite."

"That doesn't matter, Draco. This is about you and giving you a chance—"

"Exactly," he hissed. "And what chance is that? A chance to get cleared and keep my massive fucking empty house and—" he broke off, jaw clenching.

Astoria didn't understand. She hesitated at the brink of answering, afraid that whatever she might say might make him feel any worse. Their glasses sat on the bar beside him, neglected. "Yes," she said tentatively. "You'd be free."

Draco snorted. "Free." He scowled. "You don't understand."

"No, I don't," she replied slowly. "I—"

"Should I do it?" he interrupted.

Astoria sighed tiredly, utterly bewildered. "Do what?"

"Say his name in court. Tell them what he's done."

"I already told you, I can't—"

"I don't care, Astoria!" he suddenly exclaimed, and she started, unused to the tone of desperation in his voice. His eyes were wide, his hands clenched into fists as he looked at her, and she thought that she probably ought to be frightened—she had never seen him act like this, especially not towards her, but then again it didn't seem like the emotions were directed towards her and more like he was clinging to her, somehow, like he needed her. "Just tell me. Tell me what to do and I'll do it."

She slid off the barstool, standing. "Draco, calm down."

"I can't calm down! I can't! I need to make a decision, and I can't—I just—just tell me what to do, Astoria." He swallowed. "Please."

Reaching out sideways, she brought her hand to rest over his wrist, her fingers moving to stroke his skin. And it was soothing; she could see the violent tension in his body fade slightly, and couldn't bring herself to stop, despite how inappropriate it was, according to a forgotten voice in the back of her mind. His hot skin and forcefully tensed muscles melded with hers, and she took a breath.

But before she could say anything, he spoke again, his words tumbling out of his mouth as if he couldn't quite hold them back. "See?" he said in a low voice, through gritted teeth. "That's—that's why I can't."

She frowned, and her fingers stopped the stroking of his inner wrist; looking up at him, she saw that he was watching her with a dark, visibly pained expression. "I don't understand."

"Can you honestly say," he murmured, and despite the vast room around them and the towering open balcony doors, it felt like the space they were in was enclosed, secret. "That if I accused Nott, and he revealed what your sister did, and she had to go to Azkaban for her crimes while I was cleared… can you honestly say that if that happened, you would ever touch me again like you're doing now?"

And suddenly all the doubt in his voice, all the pain and desperation became abundantly clear to her; the problem, exposed and voiced for the first time, validated after days of being kept buried inside her skull, a secret she wouldn't dare even admit to herself, finally expressed out loud. And Draco's lips were trembling ever so slightly—she could see it, being as close as she was—and his hand was still warm against her wrist. Yet she couldn't give him a proper answer, because she didn't know the answer herself.

It was too unfair, to put them both in a situation like this, where it had somehow become a matter of choice… a matter of what was right, and what was dubiously right, and what felt right but might be wrong. She wished intensely that she could say I can, that she could say It wouldn't matter to me, but she couldn't—because she didn't know herself; because Daphne was not a choice, like Draco was—Daphne was family, and Draco knew that dichotomy all too well, knew it better than he knew himself.

And so, lips parted to reveal an answer she didn't know at all, she held his gaze and suddenly abandoned the mission. Because the dim lights of the ballroom and the starlight that glimmered in his eyes, wide and expectant and terribly afraid, made her own skin buzz with something she couldn't describe, something she couldn't hold back.

Her fingers circled the expanse of his inner wrist, lining the veins that paved the way up to his heart, and she watched him suppress a shiver, watched the slowly simmering realization that began in his skin spread through his nerves and make its way to his eyes—and his hand, slow and tentative, turned slightly to brush its palm against hers, slowly, hesitantly… and when Astoria reached his forearm, popped open the cufflink without daring to ask, and the movement was fast and it was a realization that she saw mapped out in his eyes as he never broke contact.

It was his left arm, and she didn't have to look to see the Dark Mark black against his pale skin, because she could feel the slightly jagged, swollen line of his scar cutting through it—she still thought about what it had been like to find him on the carpet in a pool of his own blood, and she touched it with three fingers, followed it up his arm until it faded into his skin, dismissed the Dark Mark as nothing because she could not feel it, and if she could not feel it then it didn't matter. His hand was at her elbow, steadying her as she drew closer, grasping her with a firmness that did nothing if not encourage, and now she was standing between his knees, his shirt sleeve pushed far up his arm, his eyes smoldering, and she thought she could feel his heartbeat beating in synchronization with the pulse she could feel against her skin—

And she supposed it was a decision, but it didn't feel like a decision; it felt natural, instinctual, as if this was what had been meant to happen from the very beginning, from the moment she had met him—she reached up one hand to the collar of his shirt, fingers brushing against the skin of his neck, watched him swallow, watched him lean into her grasp, and suddenly didn't care that she was nearly pressed up against him between his legs, enveloped by his body, his eyes on fire and undeniably willing as she tilted her head upwards, standing on her tiptoes, eyes half-closed as her lips brushed against the underside of his jaw, his stubble rough against her lips—

And then his head had turned and his lips were on hers, pressing, yearning, his arm curving around her waist and holding her up against him, her arm hooked around his neck and his hand moving from her elbow to her jaw, stroking her in the same rhythm that his lips followed, that his tongue followed, sliding and tasting and taking. Astoria's hand buried itself in his hair and for once she didn't bother making excuses—it was what it was, and he was Draco and he was warm against her, his breath hot and the kiss passionate, and suddenly there was a scrape of the stool against the floor and he was pressed against her completely, standing in front of her, her back pushed into the bar, their legs entangled and his arms enveloping her.

She let out a moan as his mouth moved off of hers, his hot breath against her jaw and her neck as he made his way down her throat, kissing and licking and letting her writhe against him, hands in his hair, the bar uncomfortable against her back—but she didn't mind, really didn't mind, couldn't even completely focus on her thoughts because his lips were now behind her ear, and his knee was between her legs—

He drew away slowly, his breath brushing against her jaw as he raised his head to look at her, one hand still cradling her neck and the other around her waist. Astoria couldn't help the small smile on her lips; it appeared too quickly for her to stop it, and she watched his eyes linger on her mouth again before he looked back up at her eyes, his chest heaving against hers.

"Well," he breathed.

She slowly stroked his shoulders and let out a low, slightly nervous laugh, suddenly hyperaware of all the places his body was touching hers.

He glanced over her shoulder and suddenly seemed to catch sight of something. "You poured us drinks."

Astoria looked amused. "Yes. You were—distracted, though."

He didn't seem to hear her. A slight frown had appeared on his face, and it took him a moment to speak again. "You opened the Superior Red," he continued in a low voice. "It's a Malfoy brew."

She glanced over her shoulder at the dusty bottle she had found by the mirror, abandoned and forgotten, its label nearly completely faded. It was different, and she had thought it might help to have a different taste to distract him, had thought that it was time someone rid the house of some of its dust-covered relics, buried under time and fear and pain...

"Should I not have?" she asked, turning back to Draco. "I'm sorry, I just thought—"

"No," he answered quickly, and he met her gaze again, his grey eyes suddenly different—warm, almost, and there was bubbling emotion there emerging through the lust in his gaze. "No, it's—it's perfect."

But he didn't drink any of it. Instead, he leaned forwards slowly and pressed his lips against hers with a softness that almost made her want to cry. She clung to him as their lips moved together, and the frantic beating of his heart against hers despite the slowness of his movements, the taste of his breath against her tongue, all Draco, all hers now, out of some unfathomable twist of fate, made emotion bloom and envelop her heart.


So… that happened.

I hope you liked it! This story is almost at 100 reviews, and I've never had a three-digit review number, so let's make it our mission to get there, shall we?

Chapter 24 might take me a while because I have lots of projects at the moment, but I'll do my best to have it done as soon as I can. There was supposed to be a cliffhanger at the end of this one, but I decided to be nice for once, so yeah. Thanks for reading!