Draco slices the vegetables methodically. He listens to the quietness. The only noise is the chef's knife, clipping crisply against the chopping board. He pushes a tomato aside and reaches for a head of lettuce.
Clip, clip clip.
A car goes past. Somebody drags out their rubbish bin. Draco listens to the awkward, clunking movements of it.
He does not own a radio, he does not own a television. He has to save up for it first. Draco works fiercely for everything. He works at an accountancy firm, as a receptionist. He takes calls and adds up numbers in neat little columns and he treats customers with just the right air of cool disapproval.
And then he goes to the gym and trains for two hours, and then he goes home and cooks something and reads the paper and goes to bed.
Clip, clip, clip.
His mother tries to give him money. Galleons. Sickles. He pushes it away from him like its rubbish. He wants to work like a Muggle, live like a Muggle, be a Muggle. Muggles don't hiss at him. Muggles don't throw things at him. Muggles don't sneer and jeer and brand him a traitor.
There are words. Words that are missing from the Muggle dictionary. Draco searched its pages, once. There was nothing there. The word Pureblood was nowhere to be found. Nor was Dark Magic, or Dark Mark, or Unforgiveable. Draco decided, that day, to join the Muggle world and never look back.
Not even at his mother.
Especially not his father.
And never would he ever look back at Harry Potter.
Hermione is pushing the wilted flowers away from Ron's headstone. She is upset about them. She says nothing but Harry can tell she doesn't want them there. She wants his grave to look pretty all the time. Neville helps with clumsy hands, tucking away the limp laburnums, the browning lillies, the dead roses.
"I hate the way they clutter up his grave," Hermione says to Neville. "I wish people would clear away the flowers."
Neville nods. Harry murmurs and the two jump. Harry rarely speaks these days.
"I think it's nice," Harry says in a quiet voice.
Hermione looks away. Neville shifts uncomfortably. A rose remains in his open palm, fluttering like a ragged butterfly. Harry watches as the petals move like scarlet wings.
Harry closes his eyes. When he opens them again, he is alone. A cold wind stirs up rotting leaves, wetted by the winter snow. The rose cartwheels across the ground like a brilliant firework, a burst of colour in his icy world.
He watches the receding figures of Neville and Hermione and catches a flower in his palm, holding it tightly until its petals stain his palm a gentle pink, like a faded heart.
He is walking home. The pavement is slick and grey beneath his feet, the rain a steady roar in his ears. He fumbles with his umbrella and catches someone with his elbow as they wander past.
"Sorry," Draco says, half-turning. It's Harry. He isn't surprised. Harry just keeps on walking, the rain slowly darkening his clothes. Draco finds himself drifting towards him, like Harry has a gravitational pull.
"Potter," Draco shouts over the rain, catching Harry's sleeve, the words spilling from him uncontrollably, "Where are you going?"
Harry finally turns and looks at him. A smile blooms across his face and for a moment he looks positively luminous, his pale face seeming to glow against the dark rain like a beacon.
"I don't know," he says.
They sit in silence. Draco is trying to remember how Harry got here. Surely he didn't suggest it? Surely he didn't invite him in? Surely Harry should have laughed and walked away?
But Harry is standing in front of his fire. His soaked jacket hangs over the back of a chair. He gazes into the azure centre of a flame and does not speak.
Draco does not speak either. He watches, almost mesmerised, as droplets of rain slowly gather at the nape of Harry's neck, balancing delicately on the end of the dark strands of hair.
"I want to get away from the wizarding world," Draco sighs. "And then you come along and ruin it all. Are you punishing me?"
"Is this your house?" Harry asks, ignoring him. Draco nods curtly.
"It's nice," Harry says.
"It's quiet," Harry says and then he smiles, the soft smile of somebody who has just jumped off a bridge and seen exactly how beautiful the universe is in the second between life and death.
Draco closes his eyes and listens to the silence and it scares him in the same way it assures Harry.
They fuss over him. They are worried.
Where have you been? they demand. Where did you go?
But Harry does not give them answers. They do not deserve lies and the truth is too unbearable and so he says nothing.
And he goes to bed and dreams of a silent world, an empty world, where he floats through the oceans and walks the deserts alone.
And he wakes with a rose in his hand.
Draco sees Harry everywhere now.
He sees him sleeping on the trains, walking on the beach, buying strawberries at the shops. Harry likes strawberries, Draco notices. He buys them and walks along eating them, his lips staining red.
He doesn't notice Draco. He doesn't notice anyone. He drifts through the world like a tattered leaf, making meaningless patterns, spiralling away to destinations unknown.
Sometimes Draco wants to reach out and touch him, to stop him from floating away, to see if he is still real.
One day he does.
Harry sleeps on the trains. He doesn't sleep much at night. The night is for the thoughts to come and slither through his mind like shadows.
He wakes once because somebody has touched him. A hand flutters at his shoulder. He looks up into Draco Malfoy's face.
Draco doesn't apologise or offer an explanation. He merely stares at Harry and then he says, "I didn't know you caught the 6:55 to Upfield."
"I caught the first train," Harry says.
"The first train where? Draco asks.
"Anywhere," Harry replies. He stands on station platforms an inch from the trains and feels them rush past his face and watches the people come and go and sometimes he goes with them, sometimes he doesn't.
Draco doesn't say anything. He seems to understand.
Harry feels different, somehow.
A little closer to earth.
He watches two people get off the train and because he likes odd numbers, he joins them.
Draco frowns and picks up something from Harry's seat.
A jacket, sodden in seawater.
Draco holds Harry's damp jacket uncomfortably. He gazes up at the street sign.
He imagines the redheaded girl laughing with Harry across a table, perhaps a small child or two between them. The child would have Harry's eyes and Ginny's hair and everyone would be smiling. The thought makes Draco feel sick in the stomach, a strange shifting feeling that he hates.
He pulls out Harry's driver's licence. 21 Peppermint Drive.
Number twenty-one is nothing like he imagines.
Every light on the house is on. It's like some sort of lighthouse sending secret signals out into the dark, mysterious night. Silhouettes move. There are far too many of them, like there are people everywhere, strange figures dancing through the halls. Too many shadows, Draco thinks, and he knocks on the door.
It's the hardest thing he's ever done, standing there whilst Hermione Granger glares at him. She snaps something through the crack in the door. Ginny is behind her, an incredulous expression on her face. They're both shouting something.
And then Harry appears, melting through the door. He is darkness in the light, like a piece of the night escaping to float back into the sky, to join the stars again.
"Draco Malfoy," he says, and Hermione and Ginny subside into silent rages. Ginny puts a hand on Harry's arm then takes it off again almost as though she is afraid of him. Hermione retreats, red-eyed. Harry and Draco are left alone on the front porch.
"Your jacket," Draco says, holding it out. "I found your drivers licence in the pocket. I couldn't find your wallet though."
"The sea can have it," Harry says in a low, quiet voice.
They sit in silence. The moon waits above them, heavy and perfectly round, slowly rising into the sky.
"Got a party happening?" Draco asks, glancing through a window. The shadows tumble around. Music echoes faintly.
"They are always here," Harry says.
He leaves then. Somebody is calling his name. Draco gazes through the window. Everyone is in the room.
Oh, he's there, standing in the middle of it all, standing there as people move around him.
But he is substantial as a ghost, as real as a phantom.
He is not there.
And Draco fancies that if he turned and stared out into the ocean, he would see the real Harry standing there, waiting for his world to end.
His heart is still.
If Harry closes his eyes and just lets himself go, he can see his heart, still and silent in his chest. His chest does not rise and fall. His pulse slows as though his blood is treacle.
And when he opens his eyes again, he sees the world so vividly, all the colours and shapes and beautiful mess, and he considers why his heart doesn't collapse with the wonder of it all.
Draco quits work.
He doesn't announce it, doesn't hand in a letter to his manager or call or anything.
He simply goes outside one day for his lunch break and he eats a punnet of strawberries by the fountain in the city park. And the sun is brilliant, a promise for the first day of spring, and he sees everything. The tiny rainbows reflecting off the fountain, the way the stones are flecked with dark water, the way the sun is warm and heavy on him like the embrace of an old friend. Each strawberry is bursting with sweetness and he looks down at his scarlet-stained fingertips after he's finished the last one.
Everything is perfect. Yes. Right now, here, every place, every world, every me, he thinks.
And he stands up and walks into the sunshine and does not look back.
Harry stands at the water's edge. It is calm and gentle. Spring's moodiness has long subsided into a mellow summer.
"Are you going to walk into there?"
Harry does not turn. Draco stands beside him and says nothing. Harry stares into the horizon, his eyes narrowed. The sun illuminates every pore on his face, every mark and freckle and flaw on his body. He smiles.
"No," he says at last. "No, I don't think so."
They stand in silence for a while.
"I wish I'd never seen you that day," Draco says at last. "My life was perfect until you."
Harry says nothing and bewildered anger arcs through Draco's chest like an arrow.
"I had everything," he says. "I had a Muggle job and a nice house and I'm training to be an Auror and everything was exactly how I wanted it!"
He shouts the last bit. It echoes down the beach. Draco has never yelled before. His temper is always cold and controlled and this new wild anger scares him.
Harry does not respond for some time. Draco is ready to strike him when he finally speaks.
"If you're so desperate to be a Muggle," he says, "why do you want to become an Auror?"
"Because," Draco says tightly, "I was always going to be one, since I was small. I've always wanted to be one."
"Except now you don't," Harry says, and he walks away.
Draco stands for some time, alone in the sand. The tide begins to froth around his shoes.
Except now you don't.
Draco can understand why Harry woke up one day and walked into the ocean.
Except now you don't.
Except now you don't want to be an Auror.
Except now you don't hate Harry Potter.
Except now you don't want to have a nine to five job and go to the gym and own a nice home and be like every other Muggle in the world.
Except now you don't want your life.
Draco feels like a mirror that has been shattered. He picks up pieces of himself to try and see but there is nothing there. Just reflections of a world he doesn't want.
He picks up the vase his mother gave him and stares at it for a long time, at the lovely blue curves and glossiness of it.
Then he drops it, deliberately.
Pieces of a perfect world.
Harry comes in at dawn.
He stands in the hall and hears the familiar clink of cutlery in the breakfast room and he closes his eyes and leans against the wall like a faded painting. He isn't there.
He's never there.
He opens his eyes.
Draco notices Harry is always on the 6:55 to Upfield these days. He watches Harry open his eyes. He doesn't blink. He just opens them wearily, slowly, as though he is reluctant to see the world. As though he knows what it will bring and he wants to stay in his mind forever.
"There's too many people," Draco says quietly. Harry turns and looks at him. The train sways round a corner.
Draco sits next to Harry and he finds himself spilling it all out, telling Harry everything. His dreams to be an Auror. His job that he quit. Pansy's letters. His mother's visits. His torn tendon that slowed his training. His empty home with the broken vase in the middle of the floor.
He sits on the 6:55 Upfield and tells Harry Potter the map of his mind and heart.
And at the very end, Harry opens his eyes and looks directly at Draco. Not in a dazed way, not in a glazed way, but his eyes are brilliant and burning like green flames and Draco's breath catches.
Harry is finally there. He isn't in the ocean any more.
"I think you should see your father," he says, and then he closes his eyes.
Draco did not mention his father once, not once.
But Harry knows. The silences, the empty spaces, told him more than any words Draco said.
And Harry knows what he must do.
He comes in at dawn. He hears the clink of cutlery, the murmur of voices.
He walks in, this time. He walks in and looks at Hermione and Ginny and Neville and George and all the rest of them, eating and talking and making him into a ghost. A ghost.
He walks up to Hermione. She does not notice him.
He lays a warm hand on her arm and still she laughs and talks. Her ghost Harry isn't there.
"Hermione," he says quietly. "I think it's time you left."
The noise dies away. The movements still. Harry feels his heart slowing down again. He is calm, he is still and soft and silent like the inevitable dawn.
He closes his eyes and he wishes for a rose to give to her, a beautiful rose to bring a smile to her face and make the pain fade from her lovely eyes.
She takes his hand.
He opens his eyes.
"I know," she says. "I'm sorry, Harry. Oh God, I'm sorry."
And they know, they know that they weren't there for each other. Ron's grave was always between them, making them alone in their grief.
And they hold each other and Hermione packs her bags and orders everyone to leave with her. By nightfall Harry is alone.
He stands alone in his silent house and he feels his heart melt into the silence and darkness and he feels okay. Just okay.
But it is enough.
He dreams of bronzed, salty skin and sun and all the perfect places, the smooth curve of a collarbone and the soft expense of velvety skin on a back and ruby lips stained with strawberries.
He wakes with a heat he cannot ignore, a wildfire consuming his heart.
Harry can talk to Ron now without the others around. They took up all the space in his home, his life, his head. Now he has space. He unpacks the suitcases in the attic of his mind, he looks at the maps and unravels the dusty spools of memories.
He tells Ron he understands why he did it.
"And you called me a hero," he reprimands, sitting in his willow tree. "Who was playing hero that day? Saving a little girl from getting hit by a car. It doesn't get any more heroic than that, you stupid git. Did you rescue cats from trees too, carry damsels away from fire?"
He can almost see Ron laughing at him, saying you would've done it too mate, don't give me that...
"I see the little girl sometimes. She comes down to the beach early and walks her dog," Harry says. "She's got red hair just like yours, did you know that?"
Yes. Ron would remember. The last thing he had seen, five months ago on Christmas Day. He would've felt her soft mittens in his hand, seen her brilliant hair splaying across the snow like a rose blooming. Harry wonders if Ron knew she survived, if before he died he knew in his heart that her pulse raced, her heart beat, her lips drew breath. That somebody's daughter would grow up and learn and live and love and he would die.
Up in his willow tree, hidden from the universe, Harry smiles beautifully into the canopy of leaves.
He runs a hand along the stone, feeling mortar crumble between his fingertips. Cold radiates from it and he withdraws his hand, feeling almost tainted by the low temperature, and thrusts it deep into his pocket.
There is silence. Draco expected noise but it is completely silent. Somewhere, water plinks. The footsteps of the guard echoes heavily, his gait awkward and stumping.
Draco gazes at his feet, concentrating on placing them precisely in a line as he walks. He falls into a pattern and startles when noise rings out, a quick clamour of sound: the guard is running his baton along metal bars.
"Oi, you! Prisoner D10332. Get up. Visitors."
Draco holds his breath and slowly walks to stand by the guard.
His father gazes at him. He is small as if he has shrunken somehow, as though prison has taken away his flesh and bone too. His hair is short. Shadows smudge his eyes.
"Draco?" Lucius says. His voice is hoarse.
"Hello," Draco says uncomfortably, unsure of what to do. Lucius seems to catch his uncertainty and does not mention his son's long absence, his lack of replies to Lucius's sad letters.
"My dear son," Lucius says. "Your mother tells me you're happy?"
Draco falls into conversation as easily as falling asleep in his childhood bed. The two Malfoys talk long into the day.
Harry lazes in the afternoon sun like a warm cat, stretching and yawning. Dappled shadows play against his skin and he thinks its been ages since he greeted the day like this. He is used to his dark sacred nights. But now his shadows dissipate with the morning dew, and the sun illuminates him, every lovely flaw. He smiles, the sun dazzling him, dazzling the world and he knows summer is here. In England and in his heart.
Draco unfolds the letter.
Dear Mr Malfoy,
We are writing to inform you that your application was unsuccessful due to the following reason:
Torn tendon in left knee. Does not pass medical.
We remind you that you may re-apply during next year's intake.
Head of Magical Defence
Draco stands alone in his kitchen. A piece of blue vase glints under his foot. He considers everything.
Then he books a one-way trip to France.
He leaves in a week.
The summer storms are coming in and it's on a quickly darkening afternoon that Draco goes to 21 Peppermint Drive.
Draco gazes at the house and walks forwards. This last thing he must do.
He has sold all he owns, he has ended his lease, he has quit his job and packed his bags and the ticket waits in his pocket, hot and heavy like a sun-warmed stone.
On the winding garden path near a trail of white roses and wisteria is Harry. He stands silently in the shadows of the gathering storm as though he has been waiting for Draco. Standing guard for him.
Draco steps forward.
"Harry," he says in a strange thin voice, "Harry, I can't be an Auror."
Harry winds a thin black ribbon around his wrist and says nothing. Overheard, storm clouds gather.
"I don't want to be one either," Draco continues. "I don't know what I want to do, except...just leave. I've booked a ticket to Paris." Draco can suddenly feel everything; the cracked, uneven path beneath his feet, the hot breath of a summer about to snap. It blows at the hairs on the nape of his neck and he closes his eyes.
"You're not coming back," Harry says, looking up at him. He is smiling in a strange sort of way, as though he has been staring at a speck and it is only now, when he leans back, he realises it is part of a masterpiece.
"Yes," Draco says. "Don't ask me why. I just need to leave."
"I know." Harry twists the ribbon and Draco stares at his hands, the long clever fingers and the delicately curved spaces between them. If he could place his hand into Harry's, it would fit like a puzzle piece.
Draco shoves his hands deep into his pockets.
There is a long silence. Harry finally looks up at the other man.
"Thankyou," he says. Unexpected words from his strawberry-stained lips. "I don't think I want to walk underwater."
"Not now?" Draco asks.
"Not now," Harry replies. "Not ever, perhaps." He smiles again, the gentle dreamy smile. "Of all the people in the world," he murmurs, almost to himself. "I fall in love with you."
The hot breath of summer tightens its grip on Draco's throat. In the distance, thunder rolls over the ocean. The waves fade away from the shore and the sky darkens. Draco's eyes suddenly seem to match everything - the stormy skies, the rough ocean, the grey pavement darkening with rain. A white rose captures droplets, the petals outstretched like a milky white palm.
"You can come with me," Draco says quickly. "You can come with me and -"
But Harry is shaking his head.
"No," he says quietly. "My place is here."
"Then I'll stay," Draco says, his mind churning like the sky overhead. "I can find another place and a job and I can stay and we'll...we'll..." He stops. Harry takes Draco's hand and slowly entwines the ribbon through his fingertips, like a silken cobweb of shadows.
"If there's one thing you taught me," Harry says, "it is that there's a time and a place for everything, and it's not now."
Draco looks at the empty house. He imagines Harry speaking up in that same intense voice, telling his friends to leave.
"But it's not fair," Draco whispers. Rain illuminates his hair against the fall of stormy night.
The two of them stand in the garden and watch the lightning crack the sky, illuminate the ocean, tear the stars apart. It's the loveliest thing they've ever seen and it's made all the sweeter by the fact that they are exalting in it together. Harry smiles as the thunder rolls over the beach in exact motion with the waves.
Draco walks away and he breaks the rules of all the stories by looking back.
Harry is standing there, smiling in the rain and lightning and thunder, looking at Draco. He stretches out his arms.
"Don't forget me!" he calls, and his voice carries clear over the storm.
Never, Draco thinks. Never. Not now, not ever.
And then he turns and walks into the silver rain, and his heart bursts with something he hasn't felt since he was five years old and his father was picking him up and swinging him over puddles.
He looks up into the rushing rain, a gift from the skies. For a second he can't breathe.
And beneath the raging sky, two hearts break and mend in a moment.