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Chapter Eight—Ethan a Mystery

…I know that you want to meet me, and I feel flattered by that, but I have to admit, I'm a little put off by the way that you keep referring to pure-blood heritage and ideologies in all the letters that you send me. Are you going to despise me when we meet face-to-face and you see that I really am an undistinguished half-blood? I read an article a few years ago that talked about the features you can recognize pure-blood wizards by, and I don't have any of them. Not the aquiline nose or the deep-set eyes or the high forehead or the special way that you speak.

I'm glad I can help you with your son. I think certain advice can cross all sorts of boundaries and touch the hearts of different people. But I won't set myself up to confront someone who will despise me on sight.

Another thing I would tell you about Scorpius: see if he can understand the difference between temporary and lasting happiness, like the temporary happiness he gets out of flinging his dishes at the wall, and the lasting happiness that he gets from being with you and his mum. My own elder son understood the distinction a lot younger than I had thought he would.

Yours,

Ethan.

"You don't usually frown that hard over a letter, Draco."

Draco looked up absently as Astoria came into the room, her robes flowing behind her. She wore the same robes that she had when they were married, he saw, pale green ones that he supposed she thought complemented her coloring. She had always claimed to be too busy to buy new ones. That failure to keep up a certain standard had been part of what bored Draco about her.

Draco decided that he might as well tell her about Starfall. She didn't care enough to mock him for it, or to spread the news as gossip. "It's a letter from the man who's been advising me about Scorpius. I invited him to meet me. He says he doesn't want to meet someone who holds to pure-blood standards."

"He sounds intelligent." Astoria sat down and reached for the marmalade.

Draco reared back. Lack of standards or not, that hadn't been at all the response he thought he would get from Astoria. "What? Then you think that I shouldn't be rearing Scorpius by pure-blood standards, either?"

"It's one thing for people who were raised to it, and take to it, the way you did," Astoria said, pausing to stare at him. "It's another for people who were never raised to it, the way you say this man wasn't, and for people who were raised to it and for whom it didn't take." She pointed a silent finger at her own chest, then went back to spreading the marmalade.

Draco shook his head. This was something he had forgotten about Astoria, or never known. At the moment, he couldn't remember which. He only knew that it was annoying that Ethan would judge him like this, when Draco had simply spoken his thoughts straight out, and not said anything about what would matter to him in an adviser.

"But if he doesn't want to meet with me, why does he keep writing to me?" Draco asked.

He had meant to muse aloud, but Astoria answered him as if she thought the question was directed at her. "Perhaps he wants to help with Scorpius, whatever he thinks of you. Does he seem to love children?"

"Yes," said Draco shortly. And Ethan did. Or perhaps Draco should think of him as Starfall, since the man was so prickly and unfriendly.

Seriously, I never said anything about wanting him to have an aquiline nose.

"Well, then." Astoria moved the sleeve of her robe delicately out of the way of the marmalade that spread in an orange flood over her bread. "He might want Scorpius to be happy, and not you."

Draco winced and slumped back in his chair. That stung more than Astoria could know. Draco didn't think he had many close friends, except for Blaise, and his parents when they were on speaking terms. Sometimes he saw Pansy, but not usually for much more than a few hours of gossip before Pansy was rushing off to her efforts to prove that a new breed of dragons existed in far northern Finland.

Why do all the women I know have ambition to work outside of the home, and I'm the only one who has the ambition to work inside it, at raising children? That's the most important thing you can do!

Maybe that was another reason Ethan's rejection stung, Draco had to acknowledge. Because he had seemed to be a man like Draco, who spent all his time thinking about children and the future and how to make sure that the children became that future, but he still wanted to separate himself from Draco and make a different kind of life.

Maybe you shouldn't place such dependence on the friendship of a man you haven't ever met.

But that was the kind of thing Draco wouldn't admit to anyone in his life. Blaise would laugh his head off. The others weren't even possibilities.

Astoria finished gnawing her bread and stood up. "I should be returning to the lab."

Draco narrowed his eyes. "I thought you would at least say goodbye to Scorpius before you went."

"I talked to him a lot yesterday," said Astoria, shaking her head. "He knew to expect me gone when he woke up this morning."

"You care more about your career than about him," Draco said.

"I care more about my career than about raising him," Astoria corrected him. "And that, dear Draco, is a large part of the reason he's with me and not you." She paused delicately. "Another reason is that when I did try to introduce him to inventions and magic that would improve those inventions, you said I shouldn't."

"Scorpius is never going to have to work for a living. He doesn't need to know about those things."

"You problems run too deep for this half-blood to help you with," Astoria said, and walked out of the breakfast room.

Draco cursed, kicked the leg of a chair, and then felt uncomfortably childish—which was probably exactly the way Astoria had meant to make him feel.

At least it was a few more minutes until Scorpius woke up and wandered into the kitchen with a bleary look on his face, which gave Draco some more time to think about how he was going to respond to Ethan, and what they were going to do today.

Scorpius sat down in Astoria's chair and said, "Butter!" It promptly appeared on the table, and Scorpius hooted gleefully and grabbed it.

Draco watched him eat, slathering his scones with butter that he had long since learned both to spread himself and to restrict to an appropriate amount. There was no way that Draco was going to tolerate his child slobbering over butter and only eating it instead of actual food, but on the other hand, he didn't want to deprive Scorpius of one of his own pleasures.

This is a child who'll never have to work. This is a child who only has to meet people who aren't pure-blood at Hogwarts, unless he wants to make the effort to seek them out.

Given that, the way that Astoria had talked about raising Scorpius just wasn't feasible. But it still didn't give Starfall the right to decide that Draco was prejudiced against someone who had helped him, all without meeting him. What could Starfall be going on, anyway? The reports of Draco's crimes during the war, by now more than a decade old? Starfall had bragged about avoiding all the prejudice, but he had taken in some of it after all.

Draco's mouth firmed. He would write back to Ethan and let him have it. If Ethan couldn't stand that, then Draco would know he was better off without him. He had enough advice about Scorpius to be going on with, anyway.

If he could sting Ethan and make him reconsider meeting Draco, though…

He might try it. There was no way to be sure it would work, but simply giving up and letting what Ethan and Astoria had said rankle with him and seem true was not an option.

"Daddy!"

Draco blinked and looked up. Scorpius had one butter-covered thumb in his mouth and was staring at him.

He's waiting for me to react, Draco realized, in the moment before he caught sight of the butter dripping down Scorpius's sleeve and wanted to react anyway. But he didn't want to reward negative acts with attention. That wasn't the sort of thing a pure-blood parent would do.

A pure-blood parent was what he was, in spite of the efforts of other people to change him.

"I'm displeased, Scorpius," he said, in the calm voice that he knew used to drive Scorpius wild when Draco and Astoria still lived with each other. "Now you've made more work for the house-elves, and you'll have to have a bath before Blaise comes and takes you to see the unicorns they have in that children's park."

Scorpius immediately sat up, his eyes wide. "I don't want a bath!"

"But you have to." Draco gestured to the butter on Scorpius's clothes again. "You don't think that Uncle Blaise will want to go anywhere with someone who looks like that? Who's so dirty all the time? I know he won't."

"I don't care," said Scorpius, and his lip was sticking out in a way that Draco despised for the way that it disfigured his face, but also knew was probably useless to try and stop. "And Uncle Blaise won't care!"

Draco let his own careful silence answer that. Scorpius knew what Blaise was like, and while Blaise would smile and joke and not make Scorpius take a bath, he would also refuse to be seen in public with him. He would just sit at home with Scorpius and play with him until Scorpius either changed his mind or Blaise felt he'd spent enough time with him.

Scorpius slammed his plate on the table and stood up. Draco let him make it to the doorway before he spoke up, his voice as gentle and polite as before. "True pure-blood heirs are never small and petty like that."

Scorpius hunched his shoulders, but didn't turn around and snap at Draco the way he would have only a few days before. He just walked through the door and shut it behind him.

In its own way, Draco knew, that was as pointed an answer as he could have made by shouting. Draco didn't much care. He was smiling as he picked up Ethan's letter. He could parent on his own, and if Ethan insisted on abandoning him, then he wouldn't be much worse off.


Harry winced and looked at the letter on the table from Malfoy, then looked away again. He had read it, but he had been tired, finally released from hospital and working late and long to make up for paperwork he was behind on, and he had flung the letter away from him in a frenzy of impatience at its content. So he hadn't replied yet, and Malfoy's owl was growing dust on its talons as it crouched on the perch he had for visiting birds and hooted disapprovingly at him.

Harry finally sighed and picked up the letter again, wondering if he had misread what so irritated him.

Dear Starfall, as perhaps I should call you since you want some formal distance between us,

Do you think that the appearance of another wizard matters to me? Why would I have suggested meeting you, if it did? I knew from the first who you were; you took enough care to announce it. I haven't disdained your advice. I applied it, and it works. For me, competence in the actions of someone I asked for help matters more than their blood.

Harry tapped his fingers on the edge of the desk where he kept a pile of the books that Hermione was always giving him as presents and stared out the high window the owl had flown through once before. All right, not as offensive as he had thought. Although he still resented Malfoy's way of speaking as though Harry was an employee he'd hired, one who currently wasn't giving satisfaction.

But that wasn't the same as hating and despising him because of his blood. Harry had had Ethan adopt the tactic because he was absolutely sure that Malfoy would back off. He talked about raising his son in the "traditions" of his family, why wasn't it reasonable for Harry to assume that?

I wanted to meet you to thank you. At the very least, I wanted to express my gratitude in person. I find the medium of letter and ink a clumsy way to do it. And it must be especially clumsy, since you managed to misinterpret my intent so badly.

I do not despise you. I think that you don't know as much about pure-bloods as you think you do, and if you persist in that ignorance when I have shown you that we aren't as bad as you thought, you'll become offensive. But for the moment, you're still someone I would like to speak with, someone I would like to meet.

If you don't want to do that, all you have to do is say so. I will retire, and you can maintain your own kind of purity among your acquaintances.

Harry winced again, and then sat down in the chair next to the desk, which, he noticed from the corner of his eye, made the owl perk up. Malfoy might say that he didn't express himself well in letters, but his words sure could sting.

But I think there is no good reason for us not to meet. You've provided me with valuable advice. I want to say thank you. You don't have friends among my enemies. You don't have a grudge against my family, or you would never have written me back. You don't have a grudge that comes from the war, either. Your children sound interesting, and your wife as if she makes you happy. You could not hurt me.

That last line made Harry snort bitterly and drop his head against the back of the chair. "If you had the least idea," he told the ceiling.

The owl shifted on its perch and dropped a pellet on the floor. Harry sighed and looked at the last little paragraph of the letter.

If you have your own reasons for not wanting to meet, by all means say so, and I will do my best to accept them.

Sincerely,

Draco.

Harry leaned his forehead on his hand and regarded the letter some more, but nothing came to mind. There were no good choices here. He shouldn't have written to Draco as Ethan at all, or let that name out into the world. Ethan Starfall was his private consolation and his private joy, never meant for anyone else's eyes, whether or not they would tease him for it.

So, while he still couldn't explain who he was, because Malfoy would probably hunt him down if that happened, he could try to apologize. And give an explanation that at least was the truth without nuance.

He picked up another sheet of parchment, because the first one in front of him wasn't inspiring him with Ethan's voice at all, and closed his eyes and sat there for a bit before he finally opened his eyes and put quill to paper.

Dear Draco,

Yes, I have reasons of my own for not wanting to meet. I should have told you the truth from the beginning, that we could never know each other and never be friends in person, and perhaps I should never have responded to your initial letter. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to raise your hopes and then dash them down again.

I'm glad that my advice has helped you raise your son. That has to be the chief joy that came out of this correspondence, that I know I helped you. I hope that you and your son and even your ex-wife have plenty of happy times in the future.

Harry winced again. Here came the hardest part, but both his conscience and the owl walking and clucking anxiously on the table were telling him that he would be in danger if he stopped.

I'm sorry for assuming that you wouldn't want to meet up with someone who wasn't pure-blood. You're right that you weren't asking for friendship or for anything other than advice. And I'm the one who chose to answer that letter. I just could have sent it on to someone else the way that you suggested I do if I didn't have the experience raising children.

Again, I'm sorry. I made lots of assumptions, especially the assumption that we could just maintain this correspondence for a long period of time and you would never demand anything more than that. You caught me off-guard when you asked for a meeting, and that was why I responded the way I did. I know nothing can actually make up for answering your letter in such a nebulous way, but I offer my apologies for what good they can do.

Harry hesitated as he thought about how to sign it, then firmed his mouth and clutched his quill. No, he was going to do this.

Sincerely,

Ethan Starfall.

The last word paired with the false name seemed mocking to him, but anything else would seem more mocking still. Harry folded the letter carefully into its envelope and didn't even have the chance to hold it out before the owl snatched it from him. Hooting in agitation, the owl took off and soared through the window. Harry sucked at the blood from its talon-scratch on his finger.

I'm sorry, Draco, he thought, calling Malfoy by his first name in his mind as he never would aloud. I hope you can understand.


This is the strangest letter I've ever received in my life.

Draco leaned his chin on his palm and regarded Ethan's letter. But it didn't change form, or sprout more paragraphs, or explain itself. There it was, a bald apology for something that shouldn't have needed an apology in the first place.

Why did he send this, if he meant what he said in the first letter?

But then Draco shook his head and snorted. His father had always emphasized careful and multiple rereadings of important communications. Draco had found the answer to that on the second trip through the letter. There was no sign that Ethan had ever believed that Draco held blood purity beliefs. He had just thought those beliefs were a convenient excuse not to meet with him.

What are the sorts of things that would cause people to avoid going out in public?

Well, if they were hideously deformed, of course. Draco reckoned that someone who was hideously deformed could still write a plausible-sounding letter and might even have found someone who would want to marry them and have children with them, even if his wife had to close her eyes when they were in the same bed.

But there were other answers that he had to consider before he settled on that as the final one.

Perhaps Ethan was shy and socially graceless, only confident when he had ink and parchment between himself and the world. Perhaps he was a known criminal and needed to stay out of public places; he had only responded to Draco's letter in that case because he'd known that Draco would hardly go around advertising his source of advice.

Or perhaps he's simply lying.

That consideration came along with the kick of truth, and made Draco narrow his eyes and growl dangerously, low in his throat. His father had told him he would know when someone was trying to take advantage of him, if he just listened to his instincts. And Draco had been right about numerous things, including people who had tried to kidnap Scorpius or to simply take his money, and about Astoria's parents when they came asking for money for "Astoria and her inventions."

The thing was, what could Ethan possibly have to gain from lying? It wasn't like he had suggested that Draco send out a letter, or that he could have known the owl would choose him even if he had. Draco knew that Blaise had really been Blaise, not someone Polyjuiced into his friend, and Draco's owl had likewise been with him for years and was thoroughly guarded against enchantments that would influence him. Ethan couldn't know that Scorpius would have problems as a result of the divorce. He couldn't know that Draco and Astoria would divorce, for that matter. This kind of lie, the elaborate edifice of deception that had immediately sprung up in Draco's head, wouldn't stand for long; it would be toppled by the sheer effort of all the coincidences and good luck Ethan would have to have.

Maybe that was why he backed away from trying to fool you so quickly. Because he saw that he couldn't keep up the lies.

But Draco had been willing to trust him, to meet with him. What had suggested to Ethan that his pretenses wouldn't work indefinitely?

What if it's a specific kind of lie? The sort that would work through the medium of a letter but not in person?

Considering it, Draco had to nod decisively. Yes, that made much more sense. Not that he liked being tricked or lied to, about anything at all, but Ethan might think Draco would never ask to meet, and he could go along his merry way deceiving Draco, only to be confronted by a request he had never planned on. So he had to back out.

Which left totally unanswered the question of what Ethan would have to gain from lying in the first place.

But Draco distrusted Ethan more than he did that kick in his gut that told him it was true, that Ethan had lied about something.

For now, Draco decided slowly, cocking his head so he could study the letter from all sides and make sure he really hadn't missed any clues, I'll go along with this. I want to know what he thinks he can win from me, who he thinks he is. I'll tell him that we don't have to meet up, and go on asking his advice about Scorpius.

I'll lure him in, make him comfortable, the way he was planning on doing with me. It might not get me much closer to the truth, unless I can trick him into a meeting, but at least it gives him more time to slip up and betray his real intentions.

A faint smile on his face, Draco reached for the parchment that he had piled beside him in readiness and started writing, pausing every few words to make sure that the shapes of the letters and the splatters of ink didn't betray his anger or his real purpose.

Dear Ethan,

Apology accepted. Just make sure that you don't accuse me of baseless blood purity beliefs again. I don't have them.

One thing I was wondering…