Disclaimer: Harry Potter belongs to JK Rowling and her publishers; no money is being made.
A/N: Written for hd_career_fair on LJ 2009.
And War, which for a moment was no more,
Did glut himself again; - a meal was bought
With blood, and each sate sullenly apart
Gorging himself in gloom: no love was left;
All earth was but one thought - and that was death.
February 10th, 2003
I do not suppose that the postal system has improved much during the few weeks I have been absent, so while I am writing this in Rome, we should already be in Athens, or even Madrid, by the time it reaches you.
How are you doing? I know you asked me to drop the subject, but I cannot help myself: I still consider it bizarre that my son should have chosen to waste his potential on playing social worker. If you wish it, I am sure I could get you a more respectable position at the Ministry. At least think about it - a year and a half of this absurd way of self-chastening should be more than enough.
I have to admit that slowly, I am getting used to travelling by aeroplane. Of course, it is unnervingly slow in comparison to Portkeys or the Floo network, but incomparably more comfortable as well. I shall not even mention flying a broom. The Muggle Prime Minister's secretary assured me that the wreck with which we are flying is nothing against the first class machines they had at their disposal before the war.
You see, I am doing my best to appreciate Muggle technology, if only by necessity. The idea of having to content myself with it for the rest of my life is still preposterous. I cannot understand why you seem to care so little.
Concerning the purpose of our journey, I am very pleased. Do not talk to this about anyone - it is not yet certain if we succeeded, and we do not want any rumours spreading false hope. Disappointment could lead to riots like the ones when France backed out on their promise to help in the first winter.
Prime Minister Berlusconi and Minister of Magic Gaudino were very accommodating, and despite my words of caution, I am convinced that our visit was not in vain. Minister Gaudino was particularly interested in my personal history. It appears that when the Italian Wizarding world took Mussolini's side in the 30s, he played an important part. I shall never enjoy posing as the contrite former villain seeking to make amends and help his country, but he seems to recognise himself in the role I have to play and therefore is much more inclined to help than if we had sent someone with a clean record.
I do hope that you will not volunteer again for work at a crisis centre should there be another outbreak of July Plague, or any other epidemic. It was very foolish of you to endanger your life in such a careless fashion. Contrary to what many of you seem to believe, volunteers are no more immune than the people they are trying to help. If there still were anything to inherit, I would threaten to disown you, but as it is, I can only ask you to think of me. I do not wish to lose you as well.
Draco sighs, putting the letter down on the bedside table. He understands his father - July Plague carries people off like flies, and they hardly have anything to oppose it. If the reports are to be believed, it has killed more than four million people since the war. Of course, Lucius wouldn't want Draco within a hundred mile radius of an infected town, especially now that his son is all that he has left. Yes, Draco understands his father.
It is no surprise that in turn, Lucius doesn't understand him at all. Draco's gaze wanders to the heavy backpack sitting next to him on the narrow bed. He would like to be able to put his father's worries at rest, but has long realised that it is impossible.
The bed is inviting, and briefly he wonders if he shouldn't simply go to sleep now. It's 8.30pm, and he came back from twelve hours of work only fifteen minutes ago, but he knows he has to go down to the canteen and eat something first. He hasn't had anything since breakfast, and if he doesn't eat now, he won't make it through tomorrow. The train will take off at six in the morning, because although Hull isn't that far from London, getting there will take almost all day. They'll have to walk the last 20 miles - the rails haven't been rebuilt yet. There's no money for it, and the government has more pressing matters to consider.
In the corridor, heading for the stairs to the ground floor, he passes some fellow workers on the way to their rooms or out for the night-shift. They look as tired as he feels, but that's not saying much; everyone seems to look that way nowadays, drawn and exhausted, the result of too much work, tight rations, and too little sleep.
The canteen is mostly empty, the few people present talking in hushed murmurs. It's about cases, mostly, as far as Draco can tell - he's had hundreds of such conversations during the last months, and it's always the same. Sometimes, he wonders why they're still talking about it.
They're having potato soup for supper, like the two previous months, and, most likely, for some months still to come. Nobody would dream of complaining; instead, the soup is downed greedily. Beggars can't be choosers.
He's been so immersed in his thoughts that he hasn't noticed anyone approach, and now he starts as his shoulder is being touched. Looking up from his soup, he sees Raymond - he's sleeping in the room next to his, and they've been on the night-shift together regularly for the last five months.
"Phone-call. Lloyd's holding it for you."
Draco shovels the last spoonfuls into his mouth and gets up.
"I'll bring it back, go ahead." Ray has already taken hold of his tray, shooting him a worried look. "It's Milward."
It's Ray's night of phone duty, Draco realises, and he must have taken the call, just when Lloyd was ready to call it a day. Not that Lloyd ever really is off duty.
"Did they say anything?"
"No, just that they wanted to speak to you. Now go; I'll come back once you're done."
Tray in hands, Ray makes off toward the kitchen, while Draco heads for The Office some corridors away. There are many offices at Headquarters, but Lloyd's is "The Office" to everyone. It's a small room, cram-full with shelves in various states of disarray. Folders and loose stacks of paper are lying everywhere; even the floor is covered with them here and there. On the wall behind the bulky desk there is a rainbow flag with a peace sign printed on it, and, next to that, a wooden crucifix. The combination looked silly when Draco first saw it, but now that he knows Lloyd a little better, it makes perfect sense.
Lloyd is sitting behind the desk, as always looking buried in his paperwork. Draco has given up wondering how he can keep track of everything, how he can coordinate the entire Volunteer Service for London and the surrounding area from inside this mess.
"I hope it's not bad news," he says, handing Draco the receiver of the only working telephone in the entire neighbourhood. "Do you want me to go?"
Draco shakes his head, the receiver already at his ear. There's only one reason they'd call him at this time of day, and if it is what he fears, he'd rather have the older man with him.
"Mr. Malfoy? Dr. Keenan from Milward. It's about your cousin ..."
Draco listens to explanations and apologies for two minutes before cutting the man short.
"I'll be there as soon as I can."
Keenan rings off after a last apology, but Draco doesn't notice until the receiver is taken out of his hand. Lloyd is watching him from behind his round, metal-rimmed glasses, the grey tufts of dreadlocks on his head making him look like an absurd worried sheep.
"So it was bad news?"
"It's my cousin, Nymphadora," Draco hears himself say, although the voice doesn't seem to belong to him, he feels dizzy and strangely detached from his own words. "The nurse found her half an hour ago. It was suicide."
The next thing he knows is that he's sitting in Lloyd's chair with a glass in his hands, his mouth filled with the taste of strong alcohol. Idly, he wonders where Lloyd might have got it, but then, the man isn't the head of London's VS for nothing. He has connections everywhere, and if something exists, he can probably get it, despite regulations. How much of the food they give out in the soup kitchens is truly coming from the government, and how much from the black market?
"... come with you?"
Someone is touching him, and he snaps back into focus; Lloyd is crouched down in front of him, his hand on Draco's knee.
"I asked if you want me to come with you. You told them you were coming, didn't you?"
"I ... yes. I have to go and get the paperwork done before I leave tomorrow." Draco empties the glass and gets to his feet. It won't do to let himself go. "But didn't you want to visit Rachel?"
"She'll understand." Lloyd gets up as well, smiling slightly. "It doesn't matter all that much; her grave won't disappear if I'm not there tonight."
Not knowing what to answer, Draco heads for the door.
It's a one-hour walk from VS Headquarters to Milward Sanatorium, and as they pass groups of shadows huddled in the doorways and ruins lining the silent, dark streets, Draco is glad to have Lloyd with him. It would have been foolish to go by himself; after dark, it's dangerous to be out alone. People have been murdered for less than a day's ration of food, and he'd do well to not forget common sense over this. The night-shift only ever go out in groups of three.
When they arrive, his stomach is balled into a tight lump of nausea that makes him unable to listen to Keenan attentively. All that he can gather is that Nymphadora managed to hide a shard from a broken glass in her room and slit her wrists with it while the staff thought she was sleeping. It's depressingly easy to believe - during her worse phases, she had to be restrained in her bed, sometimes for days, to prevent her from hurting herself. And just who bears the blame for that?
Having arrived at her room, Keenan leaves them with a few polite words - surely, Mr. Malfoy wishes to say goodbye to his cousin in private. Draco wishes he could do anything but that, but he has no choice. He needs to see her. Taking a deep breath, he opens the door.
It's even worse than he feared, not that there's anything to see of what she did to herself. She is lying in bed, with the covers pulled up to her neck, brown hair tidily brushed out of her face, very pale, and very peaceful. It's that last fact that proves beyond doubt that she truly is dead - he has never seen her peaceful before.
They hadn't met until after the war, Draco has never known the woman she used to be before the Drain, before her magic was ripped from her along with her mind and the unborn child. All he knows is the woman living in this room, the woman he and his father were responsible for since there were no other relatives left. To him, Nymphadora is the woman who would struggle to get free of the restraints so she could hit her face and pull out her hair, the woman who would, on better days, spend her time huddled in a corner of the room, softly crying to herself and rocking a baby that wasn't there.
And now this.
He sits down and reaches out to touch her cheek like he did to calm her during his visits, Lloyd is hovering behind him, and for a while, they stay that way. Her skin is soft and cold.
"I killed her," Draco finally says into the silence, voice low, but still too loud for this room.
There is the feeling of Lloyd's hand on his shoulder, squeezing gently, and Draco knows he's about to protest.
"I did, and you know it! I could as well have held the damned glass myself!"
"But you didn't. She did." Lloyd stays calm, unlike Draco - they've been having this discussion too often by now for him to get upset.
"Yes, she did," Draco snaps. "And why? Because she lost her husband and child, and because she was insane, and why was that? Because I -"
He finds himself pulled up from the bed and spun around, held tightly by the arms, Lloyd's eyes boring into his. There's nothing sheep-like about him now.
"You, your father, Harry Potter, Scrimgeour and Blair, and most of all Voldemort. All of you are responsible, not you alone. And you didn't know what could happen, only Voldemort did."
Draco stares, stubborn. "That's not an excuse!"
"No, but it's the truth." Lloyd's grip loosens a little, his face softens. "You've got to stop blaming yourself personally for everyone who died or lost their minds during the Drain; it's eating you up. You never intended for this to happen - you were all desperate, you thought it would help! I know, I've told you all this a dozen times, but I won't stop before you truly listen."
Never, never will Draco be able to understand this man. For all he knows, Lloyd should hate him - his wife was a Squib, and she, too, died during the Drain.
Looking down to the floor, he finally nods. "I know. I know you're right, but I can't feel it."
Lloyd sighs. "I know." Slowly, he lets go of Draco, moving a step away. "Do you want to be alone with her for a while?"
Draco turns to look at the dead stranger once more. "No. This...it doesn't feel right. There should be someone here who knew her, not me."
They leave, then, take care of the paperwork and head back for home, walking in silence just like when they came. The air tastes gritty, of foul water and dirt, and it's too cold for March, or at least it would have been for March before the Drain. Since then, since magic is gone from the country, the summers are hotter, the winters colder. Everything in nature seems out of balance and too extreme.
Fifteen minutes from home, they hear a sound in the mostly silent streets; it comes from an alleyway and sounds like a crying child. At first, they hesitate - the parents could be with the child, or it could even be a trap, but in the end, like they usually do on night-shift, they know they'll have to look; they can't walk away.
Following the sound, they find themselves in a narrow backyard between halfway collapsed buildings. It's nearly pitch-black and full of rubble and broken furniture; only a faint, flickering shimmer from one of the windows above gives them some light. Nobody else seems to be here; they're alone with the frightened, sobbing noise.
A child, Draco is sure of that now as they carefully make their way to a big wardrobe standing in the far corner against a wall. One door is splintered and broken, but the other is closed, and the child must be hiding in there.
It's a girl, looking no older than four, and she starts when Lloyd opens the creaking door, scrambling back against the wood with a shriek, eyes wide and terrified. Slowly, Lloyd kneels.
"It's all right. You needn't be scared."
There's no answer; the girl seems frozen with fright, her face smeared with traces of tears and dirt.
"We're not going to hurt you."
Still nothing, and now Lloyd leans forward and reaches out. She shrieks again and flinches, but can't escape, and then Lloyd is holding her close to his chest, waiting until she stops struggling and is crying again. It doesn't take long until she's only sniffling, little hands clinging tightly to Lloyd's worn coat.
"Now," he asks softly, running his hand over her messy hair, "tell me, what's wrong?"
She looks up after some seconds and hiccups. "M-my mum, she ... she doesn't come back."
It's easy to see that she's still scared out of her mind, but more because of her mother's absence than because of them.
"And do you know how long she's been gone?"
Sighing, she leans back against him; she's shivering in her filthy, thin dress, seeking warmth in the embrace.
"I ... she told me not to look out before she comes back, but ... it was so long. She went when it was dark, and ... and then it was light, and then dark again. She wanted to go to the soup kitchen, get something to eat."
Draco shares a worried glance with Lloyd: if she'd intended to come back, she would have by now - unless something happened to her. They have to take the girl back to Headquarters; it's out of the question to leave her here.
Opening his coat, Lloyd wraps it around the girl, pulling her skinny body closer against himself.
"Can you tell me your name?"
"Very well. Now, Laura, I'm Lloyd, and that," he points at Draco, "is my friend Draco. We're from one of the shelters - do you know what that is?"
She nods, now sounding clearly relieved. "It's where the soup kitchens are, where Mum wanted to go. Have you seen her?"
"No, we haven't. But Laura, you can't stay here, you have to come with us."
She shakes her head vehemently, trying to pull away from him.
"No! I can't! I have to wait for Mum to come back!" Panic is creeping back into her voice.
"Laura, listen!" Lloyd holds her firmly and cups her cheek, making her look at him. "Did your mother ever tell you what to do if something happened to her? If she got sick or disappeared?"
"Yes ..." Reluctantly, she relaxes back against him. "She said ... to go to one of the shelters."
Draco knows it's what Lloyd hoped for - they're constantly spreading the message for newly arrived fugitives from other parts of the country: if someone gets sick, if your parents are gone, if you need food or clothing because you're not yet registered and not getting rations, come to the shelters.
"So she'll know where you are when she comes back. She'll know you obeyed her and she'll come find you."
It's unlikely that it happens, but it's the best way to make her comply.
Laura nods silently, and Lloyd picks her up as he stands. "Let's go, then. You'll get something to eat and a bed to sleep."
"A real bed? With pillows? I remember those - I had one when I was four. Now I'm six."
Remembering beds ... Draco wants to punch something.
As they walk home, it takes Laura only minutes to fall asleep with her head on Lloyd's shoulder. The building is dark this late at night; except for Ray in The Office, everyone is either out on night-shift or sleeping.
"I'll give her a bath, get her something to eat, and bring her to the dorms," Lloyd says when they enter. "You go upstairs and get ..." He trails off and frowns. "You won't be able to sleep, will you?"
"No, it's too late. I'd miss the train."
"Then at least try to rest." He reaches out, touching Draco's arm. "Are you sure you want to leave tomorrow? You can still change your mind, especially after tonight."
Draco shakes his head. "I have to go. You know that."
"Yes, I do. Just ask yourself this: are you going because you want to help, or is it to punish yourself?"
Alone in his room, Draco lies down, throwing a wistful look at the pack of sleeping pills on the bedside table. They'll make him sleep for six hours straight, and there's little that he's more grateful for than for the fact that along with food, the Germans and Dutch send ship after ship with medication to them. Since the Drain, he hasn't been able to sleep one night without help.
He's got a six-month ration of pills in his backpack, and all that he wants right now is to take one and not think about anything, especially Nymphadora, for a while. But it's almost midnight, and he wouldn't be able to get up at 4.30am to catch the train.
So he lies with his eyes closed, looking at her pale, peaceful face, in death so much like his mother's, and thinks about how it could come to this.
The interrogation room at the Ministry is small and windowless, bare except for two chairs and some candles. On the one chair, there is Draco, held in place by restraints around his ankles, wrists and forehead. On the other, there is Potter. He's taller than Draco remembers, taller and thinner, deep lines edged on his forehead and around his mouth. His eyes are the same, though, still spilling over with anger and dislike at his sight.
"You know you won't be able to lie; I don't see why you're even trying! You can't believe we'll fall for this!"
It's not surprising that they don't believe them - Draco wouldn't if he were in their place. If he were Potter, he's not sure he'd even listen to them, and in the beginning, he was surprised that they were taking the time. But then, after three years of open war and with the country in shambles, they must be desperate, and they can't afford to miss a chance.
"So, you and your father want to betray Voldemort?"
Potter looks wary, but confused - Draco drank enough Veritaserum for three men, and he couldn't possibly be lying. In the room next to this, his father is doing the same: spilling his guts, drugged, to the Minister of Magic and Prime Minister Blair.
"And it's because you want revenge for your mother's death?"
At least he doesn't have to go into detail about this; at least Potter didn't ask how, precisely, she died. At least he didn't ask if it was the Dark Lord who killed her.
"All right." Potter sighs, rubbing his temples; he doesn't seem quite so hostile any more. "I'm sorry," he adds softly, surprising Draco, and maybe even himself.
"And you say you know how he suddenly got so much more powerful, and why some people started losing their magic temporarily?"
"Yes, the two go together ..."
Draco tells it all: how the Dark Lord had found an ancient ritual for the darkest, most forbidden Blood Magic that would allow someone to bind the magic of all their relatives to themselves. How he'd made all Death Eaters perform the ritual, enabling them to draw from the magic of every witch and wizard they were related to, no matter how distantly. How he then had altered the spell to be able to draw from each of his followers by using their blood - and consequently from all bound to them.
"But wouldn't the Death Eaters who're related all draw from each other, then? Like, you from your parents, and the other way round?"
"No." It had been their first concern as well. "Everyone who's performed the ritual is exempt from the effects."
"Right. And why doesn't if affect me? I mean, my father was a Pureblood, I'm sure I'm somehow related to some Death Eaters."
"That's what annoyed him - he'd expected he could affect you too, but it didn't work because of your connection, and because none of us could draw from him, we couldn't do it with you either. He said that for him, it would be the same as if trying to steal magic from himself; it can't be done. He couldn't steal from himself, because he has to use his magic willingly. And you'd have to give yours willingly for him to use it."
"When Hell freezes over!"
Potter scowls darkly. He doesn't like this at all, it's obvious, but there's worse to come. Draco can predict his next question, and he won't like the answer at all.
"Can it be reverted? Could we somehow undo the spell?"
"No, not against his will. He'll be able to draw from others until he dies or reverts the ritual himself."
"But there has to be a way!"
"We can do something?" Leaning forward, Potter looks eager for him to go on, and Draco wishes he could tell him something else.
"Only you can, because neither he nor any Death Eater can affect you, even if they got some of your blood. You'd have to do the ritual as well, but bind more magic to you than he could."
"WHAT?" With a loud clatter, Potter's chair falls over as he jumps up, staring at Draco in shock.
"It's the only way: to become more powerful than him and destroy him. And you can only become powerful enough if you draw from others."
"Never!" Potter looks outraged. "That's ... disgusting! Like ... vampirism or something. It's wrong!"
"Yes. But it's a war, Potter. Haven't you noticed?"
Potter's fist connects with his chin with a sharp, blinding pain. There's something warm running down Draco's chin and neck and he can taste blood in his mouth. When he's able to see straight again, Potter is kneeling on the ground with his face in his hands.
"You're not lying," he whispers, horrified. " You can't. You're telling the truth - that is the only way, isn't it?"
"I can't do it. There has to be something else, something you don't know."
"There isn't. You don't have a choice."
The journey to Hull is exhausting, and during the seemingly endless march after they have to leave the train behind, Draco stumbles more than once, barely able to stay on his feet during the last few miles. In the end, he has to sit down on one of the hand carts they're using to get supplies - food and medicine - to the city from the train.
Three miles from the city outskirts, they meet one of the military posts that are positioned around the entire city to make sure that nobody leaves. Whoever comes closer than a hundred feet to the hastily drawn ring of barbed wire will be shot without warning. It's cruel, but they can't afford to let the disease be spread by fugitives under any circumstances; it would be madness.
When they arrive in the city, the trek splits up into different directions: there are several crisis centres in different quarters, and the 200 volunteers from London are split between them. Draco is listed for the biggest, an assembly of former warehouses at the harbour. He's glad that he is so tired that he can barely keep his eyes open - at least for now, he's spared the first impression of Hull. Not that he doesn't know what awaits them; he's been in an infected city before, he has seen it all. But it can wait until the next day. For now, he's glad that all he has to do is report for duty in one of the offices and take his backpack to the room that has been converted form a large storeroom into one of the volunteers' dorms. Having arrived, he takes a sleeping pill, lies down on one of the camp beds, and then, thankfully, the world fades to black.
Two weeks later, Draco is almost as exhausted, but it's a permanent condition in crisis centres, and his body got used to it. Everyone's working hard seventeen hours a day, leaving him with six hours of medication-induced sleep and one to spend as he sees fit. Many use it to sleep, but he can't, and so, most of the time, he chooses to work instead. They need every hand, and he wishes more volunteers from London could have come with them. But the capital needs the VS as well, and during the next days, there are others due to arrive from various cities.
By now, the situation is disastrous, much like it had been when he'd been helping out when July Plague had almost entirely depopulated Birmingham. It reminds Draco of what he read about the Black Death in the Middle Ages, with people abandoning their sick or dying family members, focussed solely on trying to stay alive themselves. It's the same now, and those who're assigned to the search parties that go out to look for infected people to bring them to the centres for treatment are telling the usual horror stories over their hurried, sparse meals: families fleeing their flats, leaving sick loved ones to die in their beds; children being thrown out on the streets by their terrified parents who discovered first signs of infection in them.
It's horrifying, but if he is honest, Draco can understand people's fears. The disease, conned after the month it had first appeared shortly after the war, is a magical one - it's ironic that the only magic left in Great Britain is this deadly threat - and it's impossible to treat it with Muggle medicine. All the experimental healing Potions that they could come up with have hardly any effect, and it's not made easier by the fact that they can't brew them here, since no plants with magical properties have been growing since the Drain. They're depending on help from other countries for everything.
Draco is glad that he hasn't been assigned to a search party yet, or even worse, to the shift that's handling the disposal of the dead. Thousands have died already, and they can't be buried. Instead, there's a small quarter of the city that has been cut off from all the others: it's where the pyres are burning constantly. The ones on "death shift", as they call it among themselves, are wheeling the corpses to the pyres on handcarts, collecting them from both, the crisis centres and the streets. It wouldn't be quite as gruesome if they had petrol for cars, but there's hardly any to be had, and what little comes to Britain is used by the government.
So far, Draco has been lucky: they're working in rotating shifts of ten days, then have one free, to try and regenerate at least a little. His first shift was spent in the kitchen; now he is tending to the sick. The work is disgusting, and back in Birmingham, he'd spent the first few days trying not to throw up rather than actually working. This time, he managed to adjust more quickly, and the smell of vomit and faeces no longer bothers him. Most of those who work indoors with the sick hardly notice it any more; it's permeating every room, even their dorms, and their own hair and clothes are soon reeking of it.
The only positive news he receives is from Lloyd: during his last weekly report call at Headquarters, Lloyd told him that a day after Draco had left, Laura's mother had indeed turned up, looking for her daughter. She had been on her way to the nearest soup kitchen when she'd been kidnapped by a group of men, and had only managed to escape two days later. She refused to talk about what had happened to her, but gratefully accepted when Lloyd had offered to help her get registered and then stay at Headquarters to work in the kitchens. Looking at it realistically, she was lucky; it could have been worse.
She could have ended up dead, or, if she were here, like the poor wretch Draco is supposed to tend to next. Sighing, he kneels down beside him, taking wash-cloths, towels, and a bowl of water from his cart with supplies. The man on the bare rubber mat - if they used sheets and blankets, they'd have to be changed several times a day - is lying with his face in a puddle of brownish, blood-stained vomit, curled up tightly on himself. He's shivering fiercely, burning up with fever, his skin covered in weeping sores and rashes; it would be a miracle if he were to survive.
Carefully, Draco turns him over to his other side, earning only a moan from behind long, matted hair. When the vomit is gone from the mat and he starts washing the hair, he notices that the man's right eye is gone: instead, there is thick scar tissue stretching out from his cheekbone to his forehead. It looks sore and badly healed; it can't be that old.
Draco wonders only faintly about what might have happened, concentrating on washing the man without hurting him too much. Whenever the cold wash-cloth touches the skin, he's rewarded with miserable whimpers, and Draco wishes, once again, that they could warm the water. But it would waste resources - they barely have enough electricity to keep the building lighted, and heating it on fires would cost time that can be spent on the patients instead.
Having finished, Draco takes one of the small bowls of soup from the cart; it's cold as well, but most won't even notice that. The soup is spiked with the most promising healing potion that has been developed, a foul-tasting concoction that usually can't be forced down the patients' throat in its pure form. At first, the man tenses when he is pulled into the best position to feed him, with his head lying against a kneeling Draco's chest. But then he slowly relaxes, tight limbs uncurling slightly, and during the next half hour, Draco manages to spoon-feed him almost all of the soup.
It's time to move on to the next patient then; they can't afford to linger, with too many sick still arriving each day. But when Draco wants to get up, his wrist is grabbed weakly, and he turns back to see if he can do anything else. The man is shaking convulsively, mouth agape in a grimace, and then he opens one dull green eye, looking up at him. Draco can't breathe.
No, it can't be. He looks similar, but Potter is much younger, and certainly, Draco would have realised it earlier if it were him.
The other man frowns and blinks several times.
Potter. Draco is certain now, but before he can try to talk to him, Potter groans, curling up tightly again, then passes out.
For what seems forever, Draco can't move, blankly staring down at the sight before him. Potter's body is skeletal, his drawn face marked by more suffering than only recent illness, and there's more grey than black in his hair.
They haven't met since the war ended almost two years ago: the last time Draco saw him was during the last battle against Voldemort. After that, Potter had been brought to St. Mungo's, and then had vanished only a few days later. As far as Draco knows, nobody has seen him since.
He vividly remembers how angry he'd been when hearing of Potter's disappearance - he'd left them alone with the terrible aftermath of the war. Just as guilty of the Drain as Draco, his father, and the two ministers, he'd fled from the responsibility of what they had done.
To his own surprise, now, Draco can't feel anger. There is only relief, worry, and a weird tingle of something that he can't explain. He doesn't know what will happen, or what to think, but one thing he knows for sure: he won't allow Potter to die.
"You'll pull through." He will make sure of that.
Three days later, Potter is hovering on the brink of death. He hasn't been conscious since Draco recognised him, he can barely keep anything down that he's fed, and his hair is falling out in bloody clumps - a side effect of what little of the healing potion Draco is able to gets inside him.
Draco managed to get assigned to hospital duty for as long as Potter is in danger, claiming that they were old friends without mentioning his name, but of course, he can't stay with him. He does his best, though, to be the one who takes care of him most of the time, and makes sure he stops by regularly once an hour.
It's late at night now, but for the volunteers, it doesn't change anything; the sick need constant care. Draco's shift has ended some minutes ago, and like every night since he found Potter, he spends the hour until he has to sleep with him. To his own irritation, he doesn't know why he cares so much about what will happen to Potter. They had learnt to tolerate each other towards the end of the war, had even had a few honest and serious conversations about what they would have to do to destroy Voldemort, but they had never become friends.
So why is he now sitting at the man's bedside, holding a claw-like hand and willing him to survive? He doesn't want to think about it - he isn't sure he would like the answer. It's because he wants an explanation, he tells himself. After all, Potter deserted them, leaving it to them to bear the blame for what happened.
With a sigh, he puts Potter's hand down again. Half an hour before he should sleep, and he still needs to eat.
Startled, Draco looks down at Potter, who's staring at him with a dazed expression.
"How are you feeling?"
"Weird ..." It's a shaky whisper, and without thinking, Draco reaches out to take Potters hand again. Potter looks confused for a second, but doesn't complain.
"I had a dream ... it was horrible. I dreamt that ... that Ron and Hermione had died."
Not knowing what to answer, Draco stays silent.
"How ... how are they?"
Potter is staring at him anxiously, and although Draco's throat feels like he's being strangled, he ignores it, managing to speak.
"They're fine, you needn't worry."
Potter sighs in relief.
"I dreamt it was ... my fault that they died."
"Oh, come on, Potter," Draco murmurs. "Don't be so dramatic, it's entirely unbecoming." Seconds later, he could slap himself, but it's how they had talked to each other before the last battle, and he doesn't know how to handle this, how to reply.
But Potter smiles weakly, closing his eyes.
"I dreamt everyone was gone, and ... it scared me. But you ... you're here, and you're still a git. It's kind of comforting, you know."
It's then that Draco realises something.
"Yes. I'm here, and I'm still a git. Everything's all right."
Potter smiles again. "I'm tired."
"You need to sleep now; you're sick and need rest."
A faint mumble is the answer, and then Potter has dozed off again. His sleep during the next minutes seems less troubled than his unconsciousness before, and Draco dares hope. It's a sign of progress.
Draco had to lie, had to make sure Potter won't give up, especially now that he begins to understand why he needs him to survive.
Having rung the doorbell of #12 Grimmauld Place for the third time without result, Draco starts wondering if he got the dates for his reports mixed up in his mind. He and his father aren't supposed to come to the Ministry any more - it's too risky in case they're recognised by anyone except the Minister and the few Order members who know that they're spies.
He's just about to turn and leave when the door finally opens to reveal Potter, his hair even messier than usual, eyes red, face ghastly pale. For a few seconds, he stares at Draco blankly before stepping aside to let him enter without a word. Something is wrong, Draco knows it immediately: it's like the times when Moody and that other Auror, Shacklebolt, had died.
Potter heads for the kitchen, ignoring him, and, not knowing what else to do, Draco follows. The house is dark and silent, almost as though nobody else were there. Chaos is reigning in the kitchen, broken dishes and cutlery lying everywhere. Who wreaked havoc in here? And why?
"We're alone," Potter says flatly, slumping down on a chair at the table. "They're all at the funeral."
He bows his head, staring down at the shards at his feet. For a while, there is silence, and when he moves, it's only to wrap his arms around himself with a hardly suppressed whimper. His behaviour and the destruction around them make Draco almost afraid to ask who died. The times before, everyone was sad and mourning, including Potter, but it's never been like this.
What now? He'll have to wait until someone else comes back; Potter seems in no condition to listen to what he has to tell about more death and destruction. The Dark Lord targeted Leeds last week, now Hull is the next city on his list. He no longer wants to reign over England; he wants to destroy it, as a warning for other countries he plans to take. Already, representatives from the Pureblood population of several European countries have come to indicate their support should he decide to invade. With his new, multiplied powers and large parts of the British Muggle military under his control thanks to the Imperius curse, he soon will be no longer only a national threat.
And to think that Draco once believed that supporting him was a good idea ...
When his attention returns to the present, Potter is swaying slightly back and forth, almost looking ready to keel over at any moment. Draco still doesn't like him, but he pities him all the same. Not for anything in the world would he want to swap places; all the responsibility and pressure would drive him insane.
Hesitantly, without knowing why, he reaches out, all the while thinking that it is a mistake. But when his hand comes to lie on Potter's shoulder, the other man doesn't protest. Draco can feel bones; Potter is too skinny, and he doubts it's only because food has been rationed for several months now.
Slowly, slowly, the movements cease until Potter sits still on the chair.
"They don't understand why I didn't go with them," he says in the same monotonous voice as before, never raising his head. "They're angry ... Mrs. Weasley ... she said he can't have meant that much to me if I don't come to see him buried. If I don't even do that much for him."
Surely, Potter can't mean -
"I could have prevented it, that's the worst thing. Ron wouldn't have to be dead." Potter shivers. "I couldn't go. Watch them bury him and know that I could have done something ..."
First Granger two yeas ago, now Weasley. "I'm sorry."
"For what?" Even now, he sounds eerily calm. "You told me what I must do to kill Voldemort. Everyone who knows about it said I should do it: you, your father, Scrimgeour, Blair. But I didn't, I thought I was too good for your methods, and now ..."
He falls silent, and after a while, the small, rocking movements start again. There's nothing more to say.
Potter gets better over the next few days, slowly, but steadily. When he wakes up and is lucid for the first time, Draco isn't with him, but Shawn, another volunteer from London, comes to get him as soon as he can.
This time, Potter isn't smiling, and despite his weakness, his remaining eye is clear and full of anger and pain.
"Why?" he hisses as soon as Shawn is gone. "Why did you have to play my saviour? Why put so much effort into making me survive?"
Draco is taken aback.
"It's my job!" he eventually manages. "Don't think it was fun to wipe your stinking arse!" This isn't how he had thought it would go, and he's just as shocked over his own words as he is about Potter's.
Potter snorts weakly. "You playing nurse, it's ludicrous. I must be going insane."
"I don't doubt that. But the nurse has breakfast, and you're going to eat."
He doesn't want any discussion like this one, and thankfully Potter glares only briefly before he complies. Hardly ever has anything felt as awkward as feeding Potter now, and it only gets worse when it's time to wash him and apply salve to the sores on his skin. Potter is silent throughout it; he could ask for someone else to do it, but strangely, he doesn't, making Draco wonder why.
When he's finished, he pulls a blanket over Potter - now that the worst is behind him, they can provide him with a little more comfort.
"Don't expect me to be grateful," Potter murmurs. Draco says nothing and leaves to tend to someone else.
The next two weeks aren't much better: Potter is recovering nicely, but seems to have gone mute and only has glares for whoever takes care of him.
Then, one early morning after he finished night-shift, Draco stops by to check on him as he's used to by now. He sits next to the sleeping man, watching him, wondering why he still can't be truly angry.
"You're an idiot," he says softly after a while. "Everyone else would be happy to be alive."
Minutes go by in silence before suddenly, there is a hoarse whisper.
"Everyone else isn't a mass murderer."
Draco doesn't know what to say.
"I came here," Potter goes on. "I came when I heard Hull was infected, because I'm a coward. I could kill others, but I can't kill myself. And then you ..."
He trails off, and now Draco is angry.
"It doesn't help anyone if you throw your life away!"
"It would help me!"
"You're right, you are a coward! How about you do something useful instead?"
"Like you?" Potter looks at him with a mocking grin. "Saint Malfoy taking care of the sick and dying; it's too ridiculous for words!"
"If you think so." Draco leaves without another look.
When he comes back later that day, Potter is gone. He's barely strong enough to walk, but no longer acutely ill, and they had to let him go when he demanded to leave. Draco is sure that he won't see him again. It's his free day the next day, and although he shouldn't, he takes three sleeping pills and is passed out for almost the entire day.
The next ten days, he spends on death shift, and absurdly, it's almost a relief. It's horrifying to transport and burn the corpses, and for the entire ten days, he can't think of anything else. He would ask for another ten days, but it's not allowed; they don't want anyone to break down, and this shift is the most dangerous for the volunteers' mental health.
Most of them are members of the Volunteer Service from all over the country. It was assembled after the war from other charities like the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and St John Ambulance, so many of them already have experience with sickness and death, but never in this massive form. Some can't take it and have to leave after some time, but they'll have to stay in the city for as long as it takes. When there haven't been any new infections for two weeks, there will be another two-month quarantine, and only then will anyone be allowed to leave the city again.
After death shift, Draco is scheduled for kitchen duty - it's the easiest shift, and everyone is assigned to it for twenty days to recover after handling the dead. He is busy peeling potatoes when he's called to the kitchen door, and when he comes, he is faced with Potter standing there awkwardly, staring down on the floor. The man still looks like death warmed over; he's far too thin, his hair barely beginning to grow back.
Draco hesitates for only a moment.
He makes Potter wear an apron and wash his dirty hands and face before they sit down to peel the mountain of potatoes together. There is no talking; in fact, Potter never says a word, but when he leaves after three hours, he quietly asks if he can come back.
Draco doesn't ask why, and Potter offers no explanation, but for the next four days, he is there to give Draco a hand with easy menial tasks. Draco doubts that it's for the little portion of food he's receiving for it. He seems different than when he was recovering, more subdued and thoughtful, although he still hardly speaks a word.
Finally, when they're peeling potatoes once again, Potter caves in.
"Why are you doing this?" There's no aggression in his words this time, no ridicule.
Draco doesn't look away from the potatoes as he replies.
"Father and I were sentenced to spending the rest of our lives doing something for the community. It was either that or prison."
"Your father?" Potter sounds surprised. "I can't imagine him doing anything like this."
Against his will, Draco has to smile.
"He wouldn't in a million years. He works for the Ministry, flying around the world with Blair's secretary to try and gain support from other countries. He's the contrite villain, and it seems to work for many of them. He told me the Germans were particularly impressed, and that he inspired their chancellor to a speech in which he insisted they had to help us because of their similar past - a madman with ideas of racial purity taking over and inciting a war."
"But couldn't you do something similar, then?
"I'm not him!" Draco snaps sharply, then hisses with pain as the knife slices through the flesh of his thumb. He gets himself a plaster, and they go on peeling in tense silence.
"I'm not him," Draco repeats after a while. "I'm not like him, and I've never been. He just pretends that nothing of it had happened, that he has nothing to do with what's going on in the country. I don't know how he does it, and I don't really want to. We don't really talk much or see each other."
"So it's because you feel guilty."
"How couldn't I?"
There is no answer for some time.
"At least you never actually killed anyone," Potter murmurs in the end.
The Malfoys are standing before their master, surrounded by his masked followers, the Dark Lord regarding them with a dissatisfied frown.
"You have disappointed me, all of you," he accuses coldly. Draco feels a shiver go down his spine.
"You," - it's addressed at him and he flinches - "aren't a Death Eater. You're no more than a child. A weak child who can't carry out simple orders. This was the third time that you failed to cast the Killing Curse. I have no use for servants who will fail me when I need them."
"I'm sorry, my Lord." It's merely a whisper, and Draco curses himself. The Dark Lord is right; despite the Dark Mark on his arm, he is not a Death Eater - he can't, and, if he is honest, he doesn't want to be.
"You will be punished appropriately. The ones I'm even more disappointed with, however, are your parents. After all, it is their fault that you turned out as you did. Lucius," - he turns to Draco's father - "I had expected you to have better control over your family than that. Especially over your wife."
His mother's fingers curl painfully tight around Draco's; he can feel her trembling beside him.
"It's obvious that she ruined the boy for us with that constant mollycoddling of hers. I have been patient, but it's enough."
The Dark Lord fixes red eyes on Draco, wand in his hand. "Now let's see if you can't obey with a little help. Imperio!"
Within seconds, Draco feels his mind go blank.
"Your mother." The Dark Lord's voice is coming from far away, yet it's still piercing, filling him out entirely. "Kill her. Use the Killing Curse."
Immediately, Draco draws his wand, letting go of his terrified mother's hand.
"Draco, no! You can't!" It's his father, who's stepping forward, trying to get between his wife and son. "Try fighting it!"
On the Dark Lord's command, two Death Eaters seize him by the shoulders and drag him away.
"Please, Draco ..." His mother is white as a sheet, red spots blooming high in her cheeks. All he can feel is the wish to kill.
She falls in a green flash.
"Very well." The Dark Lord smiles; it's a terrible sight. "Maybe you will be able to learn after all."
The Imperius fades, and Draco's wand falls to the floor with a clatter, landing next to his mother, but Draco can't move, or speak. He stares down at her face, at her wide, incredulous eyes, and he stays frozen until his father comes to lead him away.
They can't talk about it for a week, and it takes them a month to decide to go to the Ministry.
"He made me kill my mother under the Imperius Curse."
His words are met with shocked silence, then suddenly, there's a touch on his hand. Draco closes his eyes and prays that Potter won't say anything, but the other man only lets his fingers linger for a little while, then pulls them back. Two more hours are spent without words before Potter leaves.
"She still was just one person," Potter slowly says the next day after they've been working for a while.
"Does it make a difference?"
"Yes, it does, at least to me."
"She was my mother! You didn't kill your own family."
"The Weasleys," Potter asks, "what about them? Did they survive?"
Draco shrugs uncomfortably. "I'm not sure. I think I heard the father did, but that the others all died."
"They were my family, not my uncle and aunt. They hated me. And it was me who killed the Weasleys. I killed everyone who died during the Drain."
It's true, and yet ... "You didn't intend to. What you wanted to do was to help, you have to keep thinking of that."
He can't believe he's using Lloyd's argument himself. But he likes talking with someone like this; they did it before the Drain too, and it's a relief. His father doesn't want to hear any of it, and although Lloyd is great support, he can't fully understand.
"Intention doesn't matter," Potter says flatly. "They're dead, I did it, and that's all there is to it."
"You weren't alone. You wouldn't have done it if we hadn't pressured you to, all four of us. And if Father and I hadn't told you how to do it ..."
Potter shakes his head. "It's not the same."
"Oh, fuck you, you're a bloody stubborn idiot!"
"Like you're any better!"
"Well, at least I'm trying to do something to make up for it!"
"I still don't get it. I always thought you wouldn't be able to wipe a table or cook coffee without magic if you tried, and now you're some kind of Red Cross worker without magic. Don't you miss it?"
Potter looks surprised. "Why? You were raised a Pureblood, shouldn't you of all people..."
"Stop it with that shit! Purebloods, magic, that's exactly what fucked us up! The earthquakes during the Drain, July Plague, the whole reason for this stupid war, my mother - it's all because of magic. Everyone who died is dead because of magic! I'm glad it's gone, and if it ever comes back, I wouldn't want anything to do with it even if I weren't forbidden to use it as part of my punishment!"
Now Potter is staring at him completely incredulously, but Draco only turns back to his potatoes. He means what he said, although he's still stunned himself, because he's never articulated it quite so clearly.
"I'm not even saying Voldemort was entirely wrong. There could be a society in which witches and wizards could be superior to Muggles and it would make sense for everyone. But only if we were actually more intelligent and, well, more ethical. And since we clearly aren't ..."
"Even if we were, it wouldn't be right."
Draco sighs. "I don't want to discuss it. It's not like it would happen anyway. Do you know what they say about the return of magic?"
"No. I don't know anything, really. Just that it's temporarily gone because of the fight between me and Voldemort."
"They say it's possible that it will return within a few years, but it's unlikely. It seems that when the two of you drew magic from every witch and wizard in the entire country with all your strength, you completely exhausted the country's magic on the deepest level. Magic isn't inherent to witches and wizards, it's in the earth, the country, but most don't even know that."
He wants to think that if he had, he'd have done things differently.
"Father and I and even Scrimgeour didn't. When you drew from everyone, you used them as vessels for all the magic that existed here. They didn't die or go insane because their magic was drained, but because their bodies and minds couldn't take all the magic flowing through them to you."
It must be for that reason, too, that Potter has aged so much; it happened to others as well.
"And now that the country is drained, nobody can perform magic, and there aren't any magical creatures born and no magical plants growing. And it's also the reason why even normal plants have difficulties and we can hardly grow any crops or vegetables ourselves - there has to be some small magical basis for growth in nature. The estimate is that it could take a hundred years before the magic recovers."
For a while, Potter stays silent. "Knowing I'd killed so many with it was bad enough. But that..." He gets up. "I totally fucked up everyone's lives. You should have finished me off, not healed me!"
Before Draco can answer, he's stormed out of the room.
After that, he doesn't return for three days, and when he does, he's looking much worse than before. At first, Draco fears he could have a relapse - you're not immune once you survived, so it's possible to fall ill again at any time. But there are no signs of fever or any typical symptoms when a morose but uncomplaining Potter allows Draco to examine him.
"You should tell me where you live," Draco says in the end. "I was worried. I could stop by sometimes and make sure you're all right."
"Why?" Potter looks wary. "Why is this so important to you?"
"I don't know. Maybe it's the same reason why you keep coming back."
Apparently unconvinced, Potter says nothing, but later grudgingly agrees to take Draco to his place on his free day tomorrow.
"It's shabby," he warns when he gets Draco in the afternoon. "Don't be surprised."
"Shabby" doesn't even begin to describe it, and Draco is shocked, not surprised, when they arrive. Potter leads him to a ruined house not fifteen minutes away from the harbour, then down a narrow flight of stairs into a cellar.
The room is tiny, damp, and pitch-black before they light a candle; it's a hole, and Draco can't imagine anyone living here. There is no furniture, just a bundle of filthy rags in one corner.
"You can't tell me that you're sleeping there!"
Potter shrugs. "I've slept in worse places before I came to Hull."
"But why?" He can't understand it. "You could have got registered to get a flat assigned, and rations. Nobody would have recognised you the way you look now. You could have used a false name."
His inquiries are met with a defiant glare, then Potter walks over to his miserable "bed". He sits down on it, with his back pressed into the corner, ignoring Draco, who's still standing in the doorway.
After some time, Draco approaches, and, with a sigh, sits down next to him. He doesn't understand this man; he doesn't know him. The Potter he had known had been very different. Draco hadn't liked him much, but he'd come to respect and even grudgingly admire him. Others would have broken down under the pressure Potter had been under, but he had somehow handled it as long as he was needed, until the bitter end.
"Potter ..." He touches the other man's shoulder, but Potter flinches away.
"It wasn't only your fault," Draco says quietly, willing Potter to listen. "Not even you are stupid enough to believe that. Father and I told you what to do, and you told me yourself how both ministers were urging you to do it every day."
"I know," Potter finally mutters. "But I didn't have to give in."
"What else could you have done? Voldemort was gaining more ground every day. He would have won if you hadn't done it in the end, and you can't tell me it would have been the better outcome."
"No. But this..."
"At least the Wizarding and Muggle world aren't separated any more, and they won't be for a long time. We can't afford it." Not now when there are not even half of the Wizarding population left.
"You said you'd do it if you were me," Potter says. "Now that you know what happened, would you still do it?"
"I...I don't know. Maybe."
Draco, his father, the ministers, and Potter are meeting at Grimmauld place to once more go over the details of their plan. They've talked it through half a dozen times already, but they can't afford to make any mistake.
Nobody but them knows anything about it - the more that know, the more likely it is that there will be a leak. And they're sure that if the public learnt about what they want to do, there would be uproar, and it would never work.
"Everything is prepared," Scrimgeour says, looking each of them in the eye, one after one. "The Ministry is ready to proclaim the temporary loss of magic an unknown epidemic to which some are immune and others aren't. There are letters prepared for every Wizarding household to request each witch and wizard to go to a Healer and let a blood sample be drawn so it can be sent to the Ministry where they'll analyse it and try to find out what causes the illness and what the immunity."
Potter nods, but looks unhappy.
"The samples will go to the Department of Mysteries. I have a man there who won't ask any questions. Then Mr. Potter will come to the Ministry and perform the ritual with the blood. When it's completed, he'll practice drawing from others for a short while before we'll attack."
"I don't like it," Potter repeats his earlier objections. "I don't like all this lying."
"We don't have a choice," Scrimgeour says coldly. "We already waited far too long because of your moral struggles. Many who died could have been saved if you had agreed weeks ago."
"Be happy he agreed at all!" Draco interjects sharply. "It's easy for you to demand, but you're not the one who has to do it."
There's a disapproving look from Scrimgeour, and surprised ones from his father and Potter. Prime Minister Blair is staying in the background as usual; he knows it has to be done, but although he urged Potter as relentlessly as Scrimgeour, it's obvious how uncomfortable it all makes him.
There is a tense silence, then Scrimgeour nods with an air of finality.
"If there are no more questions, I suggest we part now and make our final preparations. The owls with the letters will be sent out tomorrow."
He and Blair make for the door, as well as Draco and his father.
Both Draco and his father turn back to Potter, who looks at Draco.
"Will you stay for a moment?"
Draco's father leaves, and then he and Potter are alone in the study. Potter turns his back to Draco, walking over to one of the large windows to look outside.
"Do you think it will work?"
Draco is not sure why Potter asks him, of all people.
"Yes. We went through it too often to overlook any mistakes."
"I still think it's all a mistake in itself." Potter sighs as Draco joins him at the window. "I wish I could at least tell the Weasleys and not have them have any blood drawn."
"You can't play favourites. I know they're your friends, but what about others? Take Longbottom - he's your friend as well. What makes it all right to exempt the Weasley but not him? And what about any random Wizarding family out there? Do they deserve less to be told about it than the Weasleys?"
"That's easy for you to say. You're immune to the effect because you went through the ritual yourself."
"Do you want me to revert it? If that makes it easier for you, I can do it. I don't care if I lose my magic for some days."
Stunned, Potter shakes his head. "It wouldn't make any sense. But ... if you're for real, then..." He seems to struggle with himself shortly. "You're different from what I thought," he admits in the end. "I'm ... impressed."
Draco feels strangely flushed. "Same here," he replies awkwardly, and for a while, they stare out of the window without speaking.
"Would you do it?" Potter eventually breaks the silence, turning to Draco again. He's never sounded more serious than now. "I'm not asking you if you think I should, but if you would do it yourself."
"Yes. If it were necessary, I would." His hand somehow sneaks up to Potter's shoulder, like some weeks ago after Weasley died. "You're doing it to help all of them, and there won't be any permanent harm done. It's our best option, and I know you can succeed." He trusts Potter, he realises. It's bizarre, but he does.
They stay like this for a while, Draco's hand on Potter's shoulder, looking each other firmly in the eyes.
"All right." Potter nods, and suddenly, responsibility weighs heavy on Draco, as if it was he who convinced Potter all by himself. "I'll do it. I just hope we won't regret it in the end."
"Think about it," Potter now whispers. "You do something you think is wrong, something you'd never do if you had a choice. But it's the only thing that can save the country - you believe that, and others do too. And they assure you it won't have any lasting effects. You lie to everyone you know, to all your friends, then you go and perform the darkest Dark Magic with their blood, you drink their blood." They're not touching, but Draco can feel him shudder.
"And then, when you managed to win and think everything went well ... they tell you that you caused a catastrophe. That hundreds died or went insane because you drained them completely, that whole towns and villages were destroyed by earthquakes because of it. Can you really not understand that I left?"
He doesn't wait for an answer.
"I just ... wandered. I sometimes stayed for some weeks, in some ruin or cellar, away from people. Everyone I met had lost someone, and half of the time, it was because of me."
Draco wants to say it was really all because of Voldemort, but he knows the feeling too well; he can't even convince himself.
"And do you think I don't know that July Plague is a magical disease?" Draco can barely hear him by now. "I asked before I left the centre here, you know. About how many it had killed and what caused it. They said it was because of residual Dark Magic from the battle. That all the magic we used turned dark because of how we got it. And that four millions died."
The candle goes out, and the room sinks into darkness.
"Then you know why I have to be here and do this," Draco says in the end.
Potter doesn't answer, and it soon becomes clear that nothing will come from him any more for today. Draco gets up and leaves.
Another ten days go by with Potter turning up to help out in the kitchen; by now, everyone knows him there, if not by name. They quarrel little, which might be because they don't talk much, but as much as it's awkward sometimes, it is comfortable as well. Draco even managed to organise a pair of glasses that are more or less fitting for Potter, and it was good to see the other man smile for a change. He finds himself almost wishing it could stay this way.
On his next free day, he decides to get Potter for a walk. There have been fewer new patients for several days, fewer dead in the streets, and everyone is breathing a tentative sigh of relief. It might not be over yet, but it's looking up, and they all need some positive thoughts and feelings. He and Potter could go down to the beach and even eat there - Draco brought his rations for the day and a few extra scraps.
When he enters the ruin, however, he feels wary all of a sudden; it's a kind of sixth sense you develop on night-shift after a few weeks. Something is wrong, he knows it, and when he's arrived at the bottom of the stairs, he can only gape at the image that presents itself.
Potter isn't alone: there are three other men, all crammed into Potter's tiny cell. One has Potter pinned to the wall, with Potter's back turned to him, both their trousers pooling around their ankles as he's fucking Potter roughly, the other two watching with salacious grins. Potter's face is pressed against the wall, half turned to Draco, blood running down the chin from teeth being deeply buried in lips. His eyes are shut tightly, and there's no doubt that he is in pain.
"You!" Draco snaps without thinking. "What the hell are you doing?"
All three turn their heads, but it doesn't seem to bother them to have been discovered, the one busy with Potter directing his attention back to him after just a short glance.
"No reason to get upset," one of the two watching men says. "Just wait and we'll let you have your turn."
Draco stares dumbly, and then it all goes too quickly for him to later explain. Suddenly, he's next to Potter, dragging the man who's fucking him away. The guy roars and tries to pull free, but stumbles over his open trousers and falls to the ground. Vaguely, Draco registers that behind him, Potter did the same.
"Sod off, all three of you!" he yells. They stare at him as if he'd gone crazy.
"What makes you think you can win against us?" The two still standing look ready to attack.
With a slow, deliberate motion, Draco raises his left arm and pulls down his sleeve. His opponents gasp in shock, making him confident.
"So you know this," he says calmly, in a low voice. "Then you know what it means, and what those bearing it are capable of. I won't have any problems finishing you off. For your own sakes, you should leave."
They back away towards the door, the third one by now having managed to rise and dress again.
"Wait," the one on the left suddenly says. "They say that magic is gone, so he can't do anything. We can take him out."
Draco smiles - it feels like the cold smile he saw on Voldemort after his mother died, and inside, he is almost scared of himself.
"And do you know for sure? Magic is coming back, you see. Even the tiniest bit would be enough for me to kill all of you, or at least make you roll on the floor and scream with pain. If you want to take the chance, be my guests."
They exchange some quick, frightened glances, then turn and run like one man.
Draco stares after them, suddenly feeling light-headed and wobbly on his feet. He never knew he had it in him to do something like this, but what disconcerts him most is the realisation that if he had magic, he'd have followed through with his threat.
Behind him, Potter coughs, and Draco spins around to see if he needs help. The other man is holding himself up against the wall, trousers still down at his feet.
The words feel like a slap in Draco's face.
"Can't you mind your own bloody business for once? No, Saint Malfoy must come to the rescue, of course!" Potter is furious, and Draco feels like the world doesn't make any sense.
"But ... what..."
"I wanted it!" Potter bellows, blood spraying from his lips in a fine crimson mist. "Where do you think the homeless get their food from without rations? There's far too few soup kitchens, and the black market is too expensive to buy even one lump of mouldy bread! It's shitty, but it's keeping me fed, and you so desperately wanted me to stay alive, isn't that so?"
"But," Draco tries again, "I ... you are getting food in the kitchens."
"Right. And what about after you leave? They kept me fed before you came, and I can't risk losing them until then."
"Leave? What makes you think I'll leave just like that?"
"Everyone leaves!" Potter is still glaring angrily, but his eyes are suspiciously bright in the flickering light of the candle. "My parents, Sirius, Dumbledore, Hermione, Ron, the other Weasleys... Even my stupid family is gone! I tried finding the Dursleys after the war, I don't even know why. The house was burnt down. Everyone leaves, and most of the time it's my fault! Don't pretend you're any different!"
"But I am."
Draco takes a step forward, his gaze fixed on Potter, who's looking terrible: old, starved, and disfigured, he's half naked, his chin smeared with blood.
"I'm not leaving."
It's only now that Draco understands it himself, and instead of an answer, he presses his lips gently against Potter's, tasting blood. The other man stiffens, and suddenly, Draco is seized by the shoulders and slammed against the wall.
"Say it again!" Potter demands hoarsely. Draco stays silent. "Say it again!"
He doesn't know what, but then, having Potter stare at him half furious, half frightened, he realises what the other man needs.
"I'm not leaving," he says firmly. "I'm not leaving you."
Potter whimpers, and then they are kissing hard, Draco being tightly pressed against the cold stone behind him. It doesn't take long until Draco's trousers are open as well, cocks rubbing against each other as their bodies grind together again and again.
It's over too soon, and Draco is disappointed when Potter pulls away after a last bruising kiss. For a moment, Potter's face softens, his fingers trailing through sticky come on Draco's stomach in an almost gentle manner. But then he straightens himself and pulls up his trousers, and when he looks back at Draco, there is only the wary, resentful man he met right after Potter began to recover.
"Well?" Potter prompts. "Don't I get my reward? First fucking, then food, at least that was my deal with the others."
Slowly, Draco dresses again, then picks up the bag with food he'd let go of when he'd attacked earlier. He feels weirdly detached from everything.
"Maybe I should really have let you kick the bucket. I'm not going to waste my food on you."
Potter doesn't move when he leaves.
The next ten days, Draco is assigned to the search parties, and while he told Potter when he'd be back before the disaster between them, the other man doesn't turn up - not that Draco is surprised. In fact, he is glad the first several days - why would he want to see someone who treated him like that? He can't help but worry, however, no matter how angry he is, and so his next free day has him visiting Potter's hideout once more, although he tells himself it's a stupid idea.
This time, he is greeted by darkness and silence, and he's about to leave again when a faint sound holds him back.
No answer but an almost inaudible whimper. Draco lights the candle he brought with trembling fingers and rushes to the corner where he now can see Potter lie on his makeshift bed.
Potter is ill, there's no doubt about it - he's lying on his back, jerking slightly every now and then, his sunken eyes closed, lips dry and chapped. There is no fever, though, and none of the typical symptoms of July Plague, just what looks like severe dehydration. What could have happened? Draco is at a loss.
"Potter?" Draco touches the other man's face, then cradles his head in his lap. "Come, wake up!"
The answer consists in a groan and a flutter of lashes.
"Potter, it's me, Draco. You need to wake up!"
"Not ... sleeping," comes a hoarse whisper, and Draco feels almost dizzy with relief.
"What's wrong? What happened?" There's no reply. "Tell me!"
"Will you ... let me be ... stop being annoying ... if I do?"
He has no such intentions - Potter can't be in his right mind if he believes it - but of course, he agrees. "Yes, sure, I just want to know."
"You left," Potter rasps weakly. "You said ... you wouldn't, but you left ... and ... you didn't come back. I couldn't ... I didn't eat or drink."
"What?! How long? How long didn't you eat?"
"Dunno ... five days..."
"Idiot," Draco hisses, pulling the bottle of water out of his bag. "Idiot, idiot, idiot!"
He puts the bottle to Potter's lips, but the other man turns his head away.
"No. You'll ... just leave again."
"I won't! I promise I won't leave you. Now drink!"
It takes several more tries before Draco can convince Potter to drink a few sips, then he simply sits with the other man's head in his lap for a while. He can hardly believe it, it's so bizarre: Potter wanting to die because he thought he wouldn't see Draco any more? It has to be some kind of weird dream.
But there'll be time to think about this later; for now, he has to make sure Potter will be taken care of during the next few days. He can't leave him here, but he can't take him with him to the centre either - it's too much of a risk. In his weakened state, it's likely that Potter would get infected again.
In the end, he comes up with a plan, born out of despair rather than because he believes it will work. He has to try, though, and he has to be quick. It's only a few hours until evening, and it will take time.
Potter protests weakly when Draco makes to leave, but he can't possibly take the man with him right now.
"I'll be back," he promises. Potter doesn't seem convinced.
It takes him four hours, and he lost count of how many people refused or simply slammed the door in his face, but finally he finds a family - mother, grandmother, and daughter - agreeing to take Potter in exchange for some food. He'll have to sneak it out of the kitchen, but that's the least of his worries.
Potter is barely conscious when Draco returns, and he has to drag him up the stairs and to the family's flat. Luckily, it isn't far away - he'd been ready to give up and returning when he'd decided to try one last time.
Mrs. Carwin, the mother, opens the door as he knocks, and although she goes pale at Potter's sight, she helps Draco bring him to a guestroom and lay him down on the bed.
"He's starved and dehydrated," Draco tires to reassure her one more time. "It's not the Plague."
She nods, obviously trying to calm herself.
"And you'll come every day to look after him and bring us food?"
"Yes." He sits down on the edge of the bed. "I'll try to make him eat and drink something now, and I'll leave some more here - you can have half of it, but please make him eat the rest. I'll bring more tomorrow."
She agrees and leaves them, and only now does Draco dare think about what exactly happened. It still makes no sense.
Potter has been lying quietly, like asleep, since they made him lie down, but now he opens his eye.
"Why don't you want me to die?"
Draco has been asking himself the same for weeks, and now he has an answer.
"It's because...magic, my friends, my family - they're all gone. You're all that is left."
With surprising strength, Potter's fingers curl around his.
"Yes, that's it," Potter whispers. "They're all gone, but you're here..."
"And I won't leave."
There's no resistance when Draco leans down to kiss Potter softly. On the contrary - Potter grabs his head, roughly deepening the kiss; apparently, even in this state, he's not the type for gentleness. It's Draco who pulls away in the end, his lips feeling slightly sore, their fingers still intertwined.
"Why didn't you just come to the centre, like usual?"
Potter looks away. "I ... didn't think I'd be welcome any more after I fucked up like that."
"Idiot," Draco mutters once again.
He stays for another half hour during which Potter drinks and eats, but in the end it is time to leave.
"I've got to go. I need to get some sleep before I have hospital duty tomorrow."
Potter's face darkens, his grip on Draco's hand tightening.
"You needn't worry, I'm coming back."
Carefully, Draco pulls his hand away after a last squeeze, causing Potter to roll onto his side, facing the wall.
"Promise," he demands - if it weren't so serious, he would sound like a child. "Promise you're not leaving me."
Draco sighs. "I promise. I'm not leaving you, I'm coming back." Potter nods jerkily, clenching his fists, and Draco gets up. "I'm coming back."
Back at the centre, Draco realises he still has to call Lloyd; it was time for his weekly call already yesterday. Lloyd sounds relieved when he recognises who's on the other side of the line - he'd feared Draco might have fallen ill like a few of the volunteers who came with him. Three have already died.
But Draco can reassure him, and they talk for some minutes about how things are going: there are fewer and fewer new infections in Hull, and thanks to excellent recruiting skills, Lloyd managed to keep all soup kitchens running, despite losing 200 members of his staff for some time.
"Laura and her mother are still here at Headquarters," he says, and Draco means to hear fondness in his voice. "Laura seems to have adopted me, and they're both doing better." He falls silent for a few moments. "Jennifer reminds me a lot of Rachel when she was young."
There's a lump in Draco's throat, as always when Lloyd talks about his wife. He did so much for Draco over the last year and a half, being there for him almost like a father figure, despite the fact that Draco contributed to her death. He'd be very glad if Lloyd found someone again.
"Do you think the two of you -"
"No. No, not after what she went through. I wouldn't want to hurt her. I'll just be a friend."
Draco can't think of an answer.
"It's all right," Lloyd says. "I'm glad that they're here. And I had a visitor you should know about."
"A visitor? Who?"
"Your father was here to see you."
"He wasn't pleased when I told him where you were."
"Oh Merlin!" Draco covers his face with his hand. He doesn't even want to imagine Lloyd and his father together; it would be insane. Surely, his father was arrogant and condescending, treating Lloyd as the odd, left over Muggle hippie he seems to be at first glance.
"I'm sorry, Lloyd. Whatever he said, I'm sorry. He didn't mean it."
"Actually," Lloyd manages to sound serious and amused at the same time, "I very much hope he did mean it."
"What did he say?"
"Well, at first he was a little incoherent, and I couldn't understand everything, he was yelling so much."
"Draco. Can't you understand him? He's incredibly worried; he's scared of losing you, like your mother. If you were to die, he wouldn't know what to do any more. He needs you very much."
"He told you all that?"
It is true that his father voiced his wish not to lose Draco in his letters, but still, Draco is surprised by how serious he appears to be. After his mother's death, their relationship never recovered.
"Do you think ... would he come and talk to me when I call next, today in a week?"
"I'll let him know," Lloyd promises. "I'm sure he'll say yes."
"Thank you. I have to go to bed now or I won't get enough sleep." Draco is ready to ring off when he has an idea. "Lloyd, can you do me a favour? I need to find a family of three: mother, father, and son. I have the last name, but I don't know where they are, or if they're even alive."
When Draco returns to Mrs. Carwin's family the next evening, it's her mother who opens the door.
"Oh, thank God you're here, Mr. Malfoy," she greets him, clearly upset. "We tried our best, but he wouldn't eat anything unless you were here, and we hardly got him to drink."
He tries his best to calm her, although he feels worried himself. In the end, he manages to send her off to the kitchen with the food and the promise to cook and bring a portion for Potter and him.
In the guestroom, Potter is sleeping, but he wakes up when Draco sits down and takes his hand.
"I heard you refused to eat."
At least he has enough sense to look somewhat ashamed.
"I told you I'd be back. There's no reason to worry."
Nothing - except that Potter turns his head away.
"Idiot," Draco mumbles and lets go of Potter's hand, instead lying down to wrap his arms around the man. But Potter stiffens and pulls away, and then Draco instead finds himself wrapped in an embrace, his head pressed against Potter's chest, Potter's hands clinging tightly to his back.
"Tell me again," comes a whisper against Draco's hair. "Tell me you're not leaving. Now. Please."
"I'm not leaving."
Potter draws a deep, shaky breath. "Please, again."
"I'm not leaving." If Potter needs it, he won't complain.
After a while, he feels Potter relax, but they stay like this until there's knocking on the door and Mrs. Carwin's mother brings something to eat. She doesn't seem to mind to find them in bed together, or maybe she does, but doesn't say anything. After all, Draco is paying them with what is most valuable these days.
To Draco's contentment, Potter eats without complaint, and he's clearly relieved when Draco offers to spend the night. He can't stay more than half an hour without sacrificing a whole night of sleep if he wants to be on time for work, but it's obvious that Potter needs him there longer than that. The Carwins don't object when he tells them, and so Draco falls asleep in their guest bed and Potter's possessive embrace, his last impression being the other man's warm body close to himself.
It goes like that for the next two weeks, with Draco spending the night and Potter eating in his presence, gaining strength continuously. Then, however, Mrs. Carwin's five-year-old daughter falls ill with July Plague, and they insist that Harry and Draco leave. Draco is loath to let Potter return to his cellar hole, but Potter won't allow any discussion, refusing to come to the centre with Draco and help out.
"I can't," he says when they're on the way to his place. "I can't be there all the time. I came because of you, but living there ... it's too much."
Draco knows better than trying to convince him otherwise. With less than half the number of patients than they had when he arrived, everyone can afford to have an hour more for sleeping, which Draco instead spends with Potter each day. He's not fond of the cellar, and so he manages to talk Potter into taking walks to a nearby small park or the beach most of the time.
It's on one of his free days when they decide to spend the afternoon at the beach and eat there as well. Draco brought his ration and what little he could scrape together for Potter today - it's just enough to survive. But by now, summer almost has arrived, and with the number of the infected people dwindling each day, the atmosphere in the city no longer is quite as dark and hopeless. Everyone's daring to hope again, and even they can feel the pressure lift a bit.
They're nowhere near exuberance, but it's nice to sit in the sun together, nice to walk down the beach with their feet in the water. Just for a while, they can pretend they're a normal couple having a good time.
Both of them are hesitant to let the day end, and in the evening, they're still at the beach, watching as the sun slowly sinks, dyeing the ocean first orange, then red. They're sitting on a blanket on the coarse sand, Potter's arms wrapped around Draco from behind; by now, Draco resigned himself to the fact that Potter doesn't want to be held. Instead, he clutches Draco to himself as though he were about to disappear into thin air most of the time.
"We have to go," Draco finally says; he doesn't really want to, but it is time.
Potter shakes his head, though, holding him tighter for a while, and Draco complies before he frees himself a little to turn around for a kiss. By now, Draco found out that he was right from the beginning: Potter indeed isn't the gentle type. Nothing about him is soft, neither his kisses, nor his touch, and in turn he doesn't like to be caressed either.
Now, Potter's fingers are digging into Draco's shoulders as they kiss, Potter more aggressively, sometimes almost biting. Draco doesn't mind; he can stop thinking entirely when their lips crush together and Potter's tongue moves in his mouth.
"Sleep with me," Potter mutters into the kiss after a while, and although he's surprised, Draco doesn't hesitate to agree. They haven't breached the subject before - there have only been kisses and hand jobs, both of them still being dressed.
Now, though, they take off all their clothes, and then Draco is pinned on his back, Potter staring down at him from one bright, shining eye. They kiss again, rubbing their groins together, then Potters lips and teeth go down his neck, chest, and side. Now as well, he is more biting than kissing, an intoxicating mixture of warmth followed by sharp pain.
The only thing they could use as lube is some leftover butter, and it doesn't work well - Draco groans with pain as Potter's cock enters. Slowly, slowly, it's getting better, and then Potter kisses him again, Draco's cock grinding against Potter's stomach, and the pain is drowned out almost entirely. It wouldn't be Potter, though, if it didn't hurt a little; Draco is getting used to that.
"Say it!" Potter is panting as he breaks away from the kiss, their bodies rocking as he thrusts again and again.
"I'm not leaving!" By now, Draco knows exactly what Potter means. "Never, never, never," he chants in the rhythm of Potter's thrusts, and it doesn't take long until they both come to the sound of his voice.
"I'm not leaving, promise," Draco whispers against Potter's shoulder as they lie limply together, a soft breeze cooling the sweat on their heated bodies, the taste of salt and Potter's skin in his mouth.
Potter's embrace tightens without a word.
This was a good day, but there are bad days as well, days when Draco can't convince Potter to go outside, when the other man only wants to stay down in the cellar and lie in bed. There's nothing Draco can do to help, so he simply stays with him until he has to leave. He's worried, because these days are getting more frequent, but Potter won't talk about it with him.
A month after the night at the beach, there hasn't been any new infection in two weeks, and they're entering the two-month quarantine before the city is declared safe again. Slowly, Draco tries to speak with Potter about what will happen then. Potter should register, for his own sake - he'd have regular rations, a room, and they might be able to get him medication that would help with his depression. If you can prove that you need it, the government will provide you with rations of medication, like the sleeping pills for Draco's insomnia.
But Potter is irrational, refusing to listen, and Draco gets more frustrated every time.
"What would be so wrong with it?" he asks for what feels like the hundredth time. "You wouldn't have to use your old name; nobody will recognise you like this. And you can't tell me you want to be so depressed!"
The day before, Potter spent their time together curled up in bed, silent, and although he's talking to Draco today, he didn't want to go outside.
But Potter only shakes his head. "I don't care," is all he has to say.
That evening, Draco leaves in anger, and he's still angry when he's talking to Lloyd on the phone. Luckily, his father isn't there today - they had some careful conversations over Lloyd's phone over the last couple of weeks.
Draco told Lloyd about Potter some time ago - he's the only one, and Draco knows he'd never give Potter away.
"I can keep things to myself and God," Lloyd once explained. He was a Catholic priest before he left the church for his wife, and he told Draco about the confessional secret. Draco finds religion silly - that Jesus can't have been more than a wizard with delusions of grandeur. He respects Lloyd, though, and doesn't talk about it, and sometimes, like now, he's even grateful for it.
"I don't know what to do any more!" he complains. "He's the most stubborn person I've ever met! I don't get why he won't get registered - it's what would be best for him!"
"Draco." He imagines that he can almost hear Lloyd shake his head. "You surprise me. Are you really that blind? From what you told me about him, he'll never do something because it's what is best for him, on the contrary."
"I suppose you're right; he's big time into punishing himself. But what should I do then?"
The next day, Potter isn't much better, but well enough to have sex and, after that, ask Draco to spend the night. He does that sometimes, so he always brings a sleeping pill with him, and when they lie on their makeshift bed of blankets, Draco realises that there won't be a better opportunity than now.
"I still think you should get registered," he picks up their conversation from the day before, and, as he anticipated, he can feel Potter tense.
"I'm not going to talk about that," Potter murmurs against Draco's neck, his hand on Draco's chest curling into fists.
"I asked Lloyd for a favour some time ago," Draco continues, undeterred. "He told me yesterday that he found your cousin, and Dudley agreed that you could live with him. He's in London."
Silence is the only answer for a while, but finally, Potter shakes his head. It's not really a surprise, and Draco doesn't let it bother him.
"Please, Harry," he only says quietly, using the other's given name for the first time. "I want to go home to London when the quarantine ends, and I want you to come with me. I need you. Do it for me."
Harry's heart is fluttering in his throat; if it weren't for Draco's hand on his shoulder, he would turn and leave again. They're standing in front of the door of a flat in the heart of London, and now Draco knocks, making Harry flinch.
"I ... maybe we shouldn't - " he tries, but the door opens, and it's too late.
At first, Harry's mind doesn't recognise the stocky blond man as his cousin - Dudley must have lost half his body weight since Harry last saw him. Dudley, too, is staring blankly for a while, until he seems to pull himself together.
It's awkward as hell.
Harry turns to Draco. "Are you sure you don't want to come?"
"Yes, I think you should do this alone."
Taking a deep breath, Harry nods. "All right."
The door closes behind them with a creaking noise, and then Harry is alone with Dudley in his cousin's flat.
"Come, let's go to the kitchen," Dudley says. "Do you want something to drink?"
The flat is tiny - one room with a bed, a couch, a wardrobe, and some shelves. The kitchen is hardly big enough to turn around in, but somehow, Dudley managed to cram a folding table and two chairs into one corner.
"I only have water," Dudley says when Harry is sitting.
Harry hasn't had anything else since the war.
Dudley sits down with two glasses of water. "So, what did you do after the war?"
"Nothing, really. I never spent much time in the same place."
"I searched for you when it all was over, but they said you had disappeared."
Harry is stunned. "You were looking for me? Why?"
"I'm not sure." Dudley shrugs. "I wanted to know if you ... well, if you were still alive. After what happened..."
There's a lump in Harry's throat. True, they never got along, but apparently, Dudley seems to care in some way.
"I searched for you too, you know."
Now it's Dudley's turn to look surprised.
"I don't know." He almost has to smile, the situation feels that strange. "Maybe I was worried as well." And with good reason, as it seems. He's not sure how to ask without sounding insensitive. "Where are your parents?"
"Our house burnt down when those Death Eaters attacked the town," Dudley replies in a low voice. "Dad didn't make it. Mum and I moved in with Aunt Marge, but during the Drain, her house collapsed in an earthquake, and they both died."
They stay silent for a while, both sipping their water, looking anywhere but in each other's eyes.
"I'm sorry," Harry finally gets out hoarsely. He has to say it; it's like all the tension he felt is now pouring into these words. "I'm sorry, it's my fault, I should never -"
"Don't be an idiot! You didn't have a choice."
Harry stares at his cousin blankly - Dudley is glaring at him with a determined face.
"Mum explained some things to me after Dad died, and she should have done it much earlier, when we were still kids. It's not your fault, it's Voldemort's, and do you honestly think that if he'd won the war, anyone would like it better than this?"
Slowly, Harry shakes his head. Draco told him the same, and he knows it's reasonable, but hearing it from Dudley is a shock all the same.
"Maybe you made a mistake with what you did, but you didn't make it alone, and I'm still glad that you did it at all. I wouldn't want to live as some second class human like we would have under that madman. Nobody would. Don't you get that?"
"Yes," Harry croaks. "Yes, I do."
"Fine." Dudley gets up and opens the larder. "It's bread and corned beef for supper. We'll have to share my ration tonight, but your Draco said he'd help you get registered tomorrow, and maybe we can sometimes cook up something warm now that you're here. I'm no good with the hearth."
He talks like it's already settled that Harry will move in, and Harry finds that he doesn't have the will to disagree. This man is someone he might be able to live with, someone he even might want to get to know in time.
"Who are you and what have you done with my cousin?"
"There was a war," Dudley says matter-of-factly. "People grow up and change."
Three months later, life has settled into a routine. Harry registered in London under a false name, and now he's living with Dudley in surprising uneventfulness. Neither of them is big on talking, but maybe it's for that reason that their cohabitation is beginning to feel comfortable over time. Dudley is gone most of the day for work - he's working as building labourer on the rebuilding of the city - while Harry keeps the flat in order and retrieves their rations each day.
Even so long after the war, repairs are still going at a snail-like pace: they don't have electricity or running water in the entire street, and a broken water pipe at the corner has long been turned into a well for the neighbourhood. Of course, the electric hearth isn't working either, but Harry manages with the old wood-stove Dudley found in a ruined house they tore down last winter and that he used only for heating until Harry came.
In the evening, they eat together, and then Draco visits for an hour, with Dudley being considerate and often disappearing into the kitchen to give them some privacy in the limited space. He doesn't seem bothered by their relationship, or if he does, he's hiding it well.
"Whatever makes you happy," was all he had to say.
Draco couldn't convince Harry yet to get checked up for depression, but apparently has realised that Harry won't be rushed, and Dudley is the same. On the days when he comes home and finds no food and Harry motionless on the couch, he goes to the nearby distributing centre to get their rations without complaint.
Maybe, Harry thinks, coming to London was the right decision. He feels better than he did ever since the war ended, and he's glad about that. Nothing is easy, but he almost starts feeling safe - as long as he lies low, he can't screw up anything, and both, Draco and Dudley, seem to want him to stay.
Dudley is woken by a scream in the middle of the night; he jerks upright in bed and hits his head on the low-hanging shelf. He can't concentrate on anything but the throbbing pain for a minute, but when it fades away, he hears quick, heavy breathing and suppressed whimpers coming from the direction of the couch.
Still rubbing his forehead, he gets to his feet and over to Harry, being careful to not fall over anything on his way.
He sits down on the edge of the couch, but there is no answer, and as his eyes slowly adjust to the darkness, he sees that Harry is curled up tightly with his back to him.
"Harry, are you all right?"
His cousin flinches when Dudley touches him, but he ignores it, beginning to slowly rub his shoulder.
"You were gone," Harry gets out between shuddering breaths after a while. "You, Draco, everyone ... everyone was gone, everyone had died..."
"We're not dead. We're here, and we won't go away."
"Tell me again!" Harry seems to be struggling to calm down, breathing more slowly, the tenseness in his shoulder slowly draining away.
It makes sense, Dudley supposes, after what Lloyd told him about Harry when he talked to him for the first time. Everyone Harry cared for is gone; how couldn't he be terrified of Draco leaving as well? As to himself ... well, they're getting along fine; life is stable and he can see Harry not wanting to lose that. Dudley himself certainly feels that way.
"We won't leave," he repeats, tightening his grip on Harry's shoulder. "You needn't worry; everything's going to be okay."
It takes some more repetitions and some more time until Harry has calmed down completely; then he awkwardly thanks Dudley, who makes a move to get up to return to bed.
Harry grabs his hand.
"Wait! Can you stay?"
"Until you're asleep?"
Harry nods mutely, looking away. He's terribly embarrassed, and Dudley knows that in his place, he would be as well.
Dudley sits down again more comfortably, his hand still in Harry's, and he waits like this until he is sure that his cousin is sleeping. He, in turn, finds himself awake for some time when he lies down again.
If anyone had told him he'd live with Harry without being forced only some years ago, he'd have laughed in their face and thought them insane. He won't even mention what happened right now. It's ludicrous that it took a war to make them get along, but maybe that is exactly it: before, nothing had prompted them to give each other a chance. Now that they're all that remains from their former lives, things are entirely different.
It had been strange to be called by a stranger introducing himself as Lloyd who said he was looking for Dudley's family as a favour for a friend. When he'd heard what the man had wanted, he hadn't been able to make up his mind for almost three weeks, but in the end, he had known he would curse himself if he let the chance slip by. It was the right decision, Dudley is sure of that when he finally falls back asleep again.
In the morning, he wakes up with a splitting headache. They sneak up on him without warning every few weeks, and then he can't go to work. Right now, he can't even keep his eyes open for more than some seconds, and he knows that he will spend all day in bed with the curtains drawn shut. Sometimes, if he rests enough, it disappears after just one day, but most of the time, he needs two or three to recover.
Thankfully, Harry doesn't ask any questions, and he tries to be as quiet as possible as he putters around the flat. In the evening, it is no better, and Harry can eat Dudley's ration as well. Dudley himself feels like he would throw up if he were to swallow even one bite.
It takes a full three days until he can get up this time, and by the end of it, Harry seems to be more than worried. He's started asking what's wrong, joined by Draco, who went so far as to offering to get a medic from VS Headquarters to look at him. Dudley managed to convince them that it's unnecessary and he can handle it, but they're still concerned when he can get up again on the fourth day. Harry is fussing over him, and Draco, to their great surprise, brings some peppermint tea in the evening, according to him organised by the ever-capable Lloyd.
It's good to have people like them around, to have someone care, but by the fifth day, Dudley is getting annoyed. Harry is treating him like an invalid and not at all agreeing with his plans to go to work the next day.
"I'm fine!" Dudley insists for the umpteenth time - he's had enough, and if Harry goes on like this, he'll only get a headache again.
"Are you sure? I don't -"
"Yes, damn it, Harry, I'm sure! I know I'm all right! I've been handling this just fine ever since the Drain!"
He doesn't realise what he said until he notices Harry's stricken expression, and then he curses silently - he never wanted him to know this!
"Dudley?" Harry's voice is small and terrified, full of suspicion. "Tell me what happened. Tell me everything."
Sighing, Dudley slumps down on the couch, Harry staying frozen to the spot, anxiously staring at him.
"It's ... the headaches, it's because of the Drain," Dudley explains. "I'm not a wizard, but I'm related to you, and some people who're related through blood to witches and wizards felt the effects as well. They said it was because we had at least the potential for magic in our blood, or else there wouldn't be any Muggleborn."
"And ... how bad is it? Are those headaches the worst, or...?" Harry trails off, and Dudley finds it hard to go on.
"No," he admits. "This ... it's rather mild. Some get them much more frequently, and others -"
"What?" Harry urges.
"Others went insane."
There's a thudding sound, and Harry is sitting on the floor, staring ahead with a dazed expression.
"No," he whispers. "No, not that, too."
Dudley looks down, supporting his head with his hands. Let Harry stop asking now, don't let him get the idea -
"Dudley? Your mother, did it affect her as well?"
He doesn't want to answer, and he doesn't manage to. He doesn't know how long he's been looking down at the floor when he feels Harry sit down next to him.
"She isn't dead, right?"
Aunt Petunia is sitting in an armchair at the window in her room at Milward, dressed in a white nightshirt and cardigan, with a light, beige blanket spread over her knees. She's slightly hunched over, her face hidden behind her hair, thin hands clasped tightly in her lap. When they approach, Harry hears soft, almost inaudible whispers.
Dudley steps aside to let him go to her, and for some moments, Harry hesitates. Suddenly, he's not sure he wants this, that he wants to know, and see, and feel. But then he is by her side, sitting down on the chair next to her.
She doesn't react.
"Aunt Petunia? It's me, it's Harry."
The whispers stop abruptly; he can see her wince, then shiver. Slowly, she raises her head, and for some reason, Harry's stomach clenches as he notices tears on her cheeks. She looks small and frail, and it makes him feel angry with her.
"Harry," she whispers softly. "Harry, Harry, Harry."
"Yes, it's me."
"Harry," she repeats. "He was my baby, too, you see."
He's baffled, not sure what to make of it, but she doesn't seem to expect him to answer, turning her head away from him again.
"Scared," she murmurs after a few silent minutes. "I was so scared ..."
"Scared of what?"
"He had the same eyes as Lily." She doesn't seem to have heard his question. "When he was small, he'd sleep with his bum lifted in the air. I've got pictures of her, she did the same. And his voice, and how he'd say my name ..." Her hands clench tighter, the knuckles going white. "Lily ... always, so much like Lily ..."
Was that why she'd disliked him so much, Harry wonders. Because he reminded her of her hated sister?
"I knew they'd take him away as well, just like her. Take her, kill her ... take him ... I knew ... I knew that one day, he'd die ..."
Harry's heart is sitting in his throat all of a sudden. Then she turns to him, looking him straight in the eye.
"They can't hurt you if they take something you don't love. I loved Lily, but I didn't make the same mistake again."
Harry wishes he had never come, that he had never heard what she said. He watches as his hands reach out and carefully touch and start stroking hers. She shrinks into herself, head lowered, and whimpers, but he keeps caressing gently, and finally, her hands unclench and she allows him to take them. They tremble in his like little frightened birds.
"I tried," she whispers after a while. "I tried not to care. And then ... then they took him away."
"Aunt Petunia," Harry says softly, letting go of her hands to touch her cheek and make her look at him again. For a long while, their eyes are locked, before suddenly, she sobs and turns away.
"Green," she whispers shakily. "Green, like Lily and Harry. Harry. He was my baby, too, you see."
"Yes, I see." The worst thing is that he does, that it's not a lie. Things could have been so different. Without thinking, he leans forward and kisses her cheek. She draws a deep breath, but says nothing, and Harry knows it is time to leave. He gets up and turns to Dudley.
"I'll wait for you outside."
Dudley nods and takes Harry's place next to his mother as Harry leaves the room. He feels upset, sitting down on a chair to wait, and soon, he gets up and starts pacing. After a few minutes, he freezes in his tracks. A nurse is pushing a wheelchair down the corridor towards him, and the woman in it ...
She doesn't react, staring ahead with glazed, half-open eyes, but the nurse looks at him.
"You know her?"
Harry nods, barely able to speak.
"I ... yes. We ... we were ... friends." He can't mention that for a few short months, they also were more than that.
She looks even frailer than Aunt Petunia, more lying than sitting, her head leaning heavily against the headrest of the wheelchair.
"What happened to her?" But he knows it anyway.
"Come." The nurse starts walking again. "I'm bringing her back to her room. You can come with me."
He follows her although he doesn't want it; he's had enough of this and only wants to leave and go back to Dudley's flat. He should never have let Draco convince him to come to London again.
"It was the Drain, for her and all in here," the nurse explains as they enter a large room with several beds. They're all occupied by patients, silent, unmoving shadows of humans Harry doesn't want to see.
"Can she hear us?"
The nurse shrugs, pushing Ginny's wheelchair next to an empty bed.
"We don't know. If she can, she doesn't react to it." She skilfully lifts the thin body and places Ginny on the bed, covering her with the bedding. There is no sign that Ginny is noticing any of it. "She barely survived."
"Can I stay for a while?" He doesn't know why he asked - he doesn't want to stay. But he has to.
"Please. It's important. She ... we were ..." He can't make himself say it, but she seems to understand.
"All right. Stay as long as you like."
She leaves and he sits down next to Ginny's bed, not knowing what to do or to say. He would like to talk to her, touch her, like he did with Aunt Petunia, but the longer he is there, the clearer he realises that he can't. All that he can do is sit in silence and look at her until the door opens and someone enters with heavy, irregular steps.
"Who are you? What are you doing here?"
Turning around, Harry is faced with an old man leaning heavily on a wooden cane. It has to be Mr. Weasley, although he barely recognises him; just like Harry himself, he looks far older than his years because of the Drain.
Mr. Weasley looks incredulous, but then breathes deeply, closing his eyes.
"Please, go, and don't come again. I don't want you to visit with her."
For a second, Harry would like to protest, but then he simply nods and obeys, heading for the door with leaden limbs. He has no right to be here. In the doorway, he turns back to see Mr. Weasley sit down and take Ginny's hand, then he turns and leaves.
He doesn't wait for Dudley. He has to get away.
"...deeply sorry for what happened. None of us knew that what we were doing would have these consequences, but that is no excuse. It doesn't make those who died come back, and it doesn't help those whose minds suffered too much for them to take care of themselves."
Harry is speaking slowly, pronouncing each word carefully, his hands clinging tightly to the edges of the wooden lectern in front of him. He looks unwell under the continuous flurry of flashbulbs directed at the podium on which he is standing, the black eye-patch standing out in stark contrast to his pale skin, but he doesn't let himself be deterred from the speech he prepared.
Draco and Dudley are watching from the side of the podium, down at the stairs. Draco knows they're both worried, but proud as well. Four months ago, Harry decided that he had to go to the Ministry and, as he put it, "turn himself in". There was a long, difficult trial, but in the end, the outcome is fair - at least Draco thinks that way.
"Our intention, my intention, was to help destroy Voldemort and end the war that was costing far too many lives already. I wanted to prevent a future in which people who aren't witches or wizards would be oppressed and regarded as worth less than those who are able to perform magic, and by the time we decided to use Blood Magic to draw magic from others, we were desperate and thought that it was our only choice. Maybe it was a mistake. Maybe we could and should have found another way. But in the end, I decided to do it. Nobody forced me - I was pressured, but it was my decision alone. Voldemort is responsible for the war to begin with, and because of that for the deaths of everyone who suffered or died. But I am no less responsible for the death and suffering caused by the Drain."
Harry has been looking down at the lectern, but now he raises his head, looking at the reporters and the crowd that has amassed on Trafalgar Square to listen to him.
"All I can do is offer my deepest apologies and assure everyone in this country that even if magic were to return, I will never use it again. I went through this trial for my short-sighted actions, and it was ruled that I would be prohibited from performing magic for as long as I'm alive. I also was sentenced to spend the rest of my life working for the good of the country, and tomorrow, I will start doing that. I'm not going to do anything that would give me great responsibility, though. I did that, and it went horribly wrong for all of us. For the next years, I'm going to work as building labourer to help rebuilding this city."
It had been a surprise for Draco as well as Dudley, but Harry had been adamant that it's what he wanted to do. He couldn't do the same as Draco, he said, and he wants nothing to do with the Ministry.
"I will never forget what I did," Harry concludes, "and I don't expect anyone else to do it either. Believe me when I say that I grieve with you for everyone who died. But I hope that with time, we can all learn to look forward again." He lets go of the lectern, taking a deep breath. "Please accept that I'm not going to answer any questions," he tells the reporters, then he turns and makes his way towards the stairs.
He's managed three quarters of the way down when his face turns grey and he stumbles, and Draco leaps forward without losing any time. Dudley was even quicker, managing to catch Harry, and for half a minute, Harry leans against him, face buried against Dudley's shoulder, with Draco rubbing his back. Then he pulls away, straightening himself.
"Let's go home before they get through", he says.
The reporters are held back by security men, but it's only a matter of time until some of them will manage to get near Harry. Fortunately, the government provided them with a car for the way home - it wouldn't have been safe to let them walk all by themselves.
They moved into a new flat two months ago, a flat with two rooms: one for Dudley and one for Harry and Draco. It was the most reasonable solution since Harry wanted to have both of them with him, and although Dudley and Draco needed some time to get used to each other, it's working out surprisingly well.
The ride home through the darkening streets goes by in tense silence, Harry sitting between them in the back seat, holding on tightly to Draco's hand on the one and Dudley's on the other side. In the beginning of them living together, Draco sometimes felt almost jealous of Dudley, absurd as it may be. He and Harry were a good team where sharing a flat was concerned, and Draco felt like an intruder every now and then. But they told him to not be ridiculous, and he's shaken it off for the most part.
It's not all that easy to do because of the nights: Dudley told him Harry had nightmares, and Draco hates that he can't be awake when it happens. But he tried a few times, and each night he didn't take a sleeping pill, he was unable to sleep at all. It just doesn't work. So he's getting used to trusting that Dudley knows what to do, getting used to sometimes waking up with two men next to him in bed because Dudley had to stay until Harry slept and fell asleep himself. It was strange the first times, but by now, he doesn't mind.
Having arrived at home, Harry starts cooking a meal out of their daily ration without words. Draco doubts that any of them is hungry, but it would be foolish to skip a meal. They force down the food, still not talking, and then Dudley announces that he'll do the dishes and then go to bed.
Harry rises from the table and disappears into their room, and when Draco follows him a few minutes later, he finds him on their bed, blankly staring at the wall. Draco knows it won't do any good to talk or try to comfort him, and so he only changes into his pyjamas and lies down as well. It's almost dark outside by now, only the full moon spreading some dubious light.
"I bet many think that I got off lightly." Harry doesn't move; his voice is quiet and flat.
"That's nonsense," Draco says. "You stopped Voldemort with what you did. The sentence had to take that into account."
"I know. I know, but it still doesn't feel right."
"Well, what would you have wanted?" Draco sits up, leaning at the creaking headboard. "A lifetime in Azkaban? Some kind of slave labour? Tell me."
"Idiot." It could be his pet name for Harry, he says it that often. "That wouldn't help anyone. It would be a total waste."
"That's what you think."
"Yes indeed." Now he's beginning to get annoyed. "I happen to think so, and do you know why? It's because I love-"
"No!" Suddenly, Harry is sitting as well and clamps his hand over Draco's mouth, shaking his head. "No, I don't want that! I mean, I do, but ... please. Please don't say that."
Draco is stunned - neither of them ever said it before, and he had no idea that Harry would react like this.
"Don't say it," Harry repeats. He looks shaken and almost scared.
Slowly, Draco takes Harry's wrist, moving his hand away, prompting Harry to slump slightly and lower his gaze.
"Harry, look at me."
But Harry doesn't react. His skin feels hot when Draco touches his cheek.
"I'm not leaving," Draco says firmly, making Harry look at him again. He wants to say something else, but it's not what Harry needs, and he can't hurt him. "I'm not leaving you."
Slowly, he releases Harry's hand, waiting. Harry stares at him with an unreadable expression; then, suddenly, he kisses him. It's gentle and slow, not at all like their usual hard kisses, only lips on lips, again and again, soft, feathery caresses. Like something from a world - and a Harry - from before the war. The kisses wander down his cheek and neck, stopping only when Harry's head comes to lie on Draco's shoulder. Tentatively, Draco wraps his arms around him; he's never held Harry like this before, and he can feel him shake, hot breathing coming too quick and shallow against Draco's neck.
"I'm not leaving," Draco says again; it's all that he knows to say to help, all Harry ever wants to hear. "I'm not leaving. Never. Never."
"I'm ... I'm not leaving either," Harry whispers all of a sudden, voice hoarse and muffled by the soft fabric of Draco's pyjama top.
Draco is confused for a few seconds, but suddenly, he understands, and he wonders why he didn't before. He holds Harry tighter, a fiery warmth spreading out from his stomach through his entire body. He can't believe that he's been so stupid, that he didn't realise what he's been telling Harry every day for a little over a year. The words are different, but to Harry, the meaning is the same.
There's a sob and a whimper; Harry is crying, but that is all right. Draco starts stroking his hair - soft, unfamiliar - and closes his eyes. Their bodies are warm against each other, they're safe for the night, and through the open door, they can hear Dudley clattering with the dishes in the kitchen. It's a soothing sound.
They'll be okay. Nobody will go anywhere.