In an alternate universe, Draco made it out of the castle and waits with his mother and the Death Eaters for Potter in the Forbidden Forest after Voldemort issues his ultimatum. To quote another book, "There is always hope."
The day which we fear as our last is but the birthday of eternity.
-Lucius Annaeus Seneca
Draco can't seem to stop shivering. His whole world now is waiting on Potter, and his fear rises with every passing minute. It's nighttime but summer, and if everyone else wasn't so preoccupied with debasing themselves before the scowling Dark Lord, they'd snap a flame spell at him, the prissy inbred son of a failed Death Eater without the bullocks to kill himself properly.
His mother doesn't even notice his teeth chattering, her narrowed, pale eyes for once focused on her surroundings and the Dark Lord, not her only son. A wolf howls from behind him, and Draco fights the urge to run...sheer darkness and memories of Fenrir Greyback cutting off his clothes last summer co-mingle in an agony of painful shaking, and his heart is racing, now.
The Dark Lord is leaning up against a massive oak, twisting Dumbledore's wand in his hands. Every few minute, one of the patrolling Death Eaters runs up to him, whispers hurried updates, and he sends them on their way again. At the Dark Lord's feet, his aunt Bellatrix kneels, gazing up at her master through sooty lowered lashes, like an unnatural pet dog.
There is constant rustling, muffled activity from all directions around Draco, but no one speaks. They were instructed to be silent hours ago, and Draco is on even more tremulous footing with the Dark Lord than the rest of the Death Eaters. He and his parents have been informed that their lives are forfeit if they move out of the Dark Lord's sight - Draco is half-surprised his family's failures haven't been enough so far to render them long dead, but perhaps that is on the Dark Lord's agenda after he kills Potter. The Dark Lord has, after all, been known to give some of his errant followers a disappointed, almost paternal smile before torturing them into eventual heart failure, all the while shaking his head sadly like a parent who has to spank a child.
His veins fill with molten ice as he considers this. There is certainly still time to die this night, and all of the nights after this one, if the Dark Lord is triumphant.
Draco freezes where sits, and for a few moment he can't feel his heartbeat. The Dark Lord is the best Legilimens the world has ever seen, and unspoken doubts were all it took to reduce Marcus Flint's father into a whimpering, slobbering waste of a man after the Dark Lord finished with him.
But a few heartbeats pass without splintering pain and darkness, and Draco's heart pounds harder than ever. He has survived again, despite his panicking, careless thoughts.
It seems that every day he fails at one thing or another.
He casts his mind desperately to another topic before the Dark Lord decides to read his mind for hints of betrayal, but all he can think of is death and Potter, two concepts that don't seem to quite fit together.
How could Potter ever be dead? Potter is always moving, bespectacled eyes always darting around, always reacting visibly to what is going on around him. How could Potter ever lie motionless in a casket, face pale and frozen, when Draco is half-convinced someone could toss a fluttering snitch at the Gryffindor while the boy is asleep, and he would snap awake and catch it, and probably give them that stupid, open grin, too.
Potter would have been such a disappointment to his paternal grandparents, always reacting without thinking, ignoring the obligations due his status and all the people he owes allegiance to. No, Potter would have made a shitty Pureblood indeed, a quickly-rejected scion of the once-noble House of Potter. Potters intermarried with many of the Slytherin pureblood families up until a couple of generations past, and did great things for the advancement of wizarding culture, but Draco would bet his not-inconsiderable inheritance that Potter doesn't know a damn thing about his bloodline. Not that it matters much now, he supposes. Still, it's aggravating to consider what Potter could have been, if he'd been raised properly, and how he and Draco might have met under vastly different circumstances.
A cold touch on his arm almost makes him piss his trousers, and Draco's eyes snap to his mother's, her face showing something like concern as she takes in his wild expression. He wills his teeth to stop chattering, but he still shakes silently.
"Draco, you must be silent," she says, her voice ghosting over to him in the thick night air. Instinctively, he looks to the Dark Lord, who is stroking Nagini and talking to the snake in Parseltongue, paying no attention to his captive followers, and especially not to one teenage boy whose family is on the brink of falling apart. Draco has survived again.
"Be still, my son, and we may survive the night." His mother squeezes his arm once, and returns to scanning the forest.
He runs his hands over his pale, goose pimpled arms, and tries to take deeper breaths, but he quickly begins to believe is not getting enough air this way, and returns to quick inhalations that leave him dizzy with the effort of not fainting.
He is not sure if he even wants to live to see tomorrow. The Dark Lord and even his aunt have almost killed him so many times in the past couple of years that the end of his own existence doesn't frighten him into fits of hysteria anymore. In some ways, he would welcome an end to everything, slipping into a place where there would be no more sleepless nights taut with terror, nor watching his father being forced to beg on his hands and knees for food from his own kitchen, nor seeing his mother to slowly fall apart before him.
Death is, if not acceptable, then comprehensible. Fear of pain, on the other hand, leaves him sleepless, most nights. The Dark Lord has terrified him into submission with lengthy descriptions of how he spent many of the years before his impossible reincarnation learning how to inflict endless pain without killing the victim.
The closest Draco had ever been to true evil before fourth year was knowing that his father executed Muggles who unknowingly ventured too close to Malfoy. Sometimes, Draco thinks of killing himself and depriving the Dark Lord of the opportunity to send him into an undying abyss of agony for decades. He doesn't understand how the Dark Lord returned, but is reasonably certain he can't raise others from the grave. Surely that would be truly impossible.
He remembers how sick he was the night that Potter's Mudblood friend Granger fell into his aunt's clutches. He was forced to watch part of that, as Bellatrix stroked an anti-clotting knife and frowned in satisfaction as she marked Granger's ankles, wrists, and collarbone, and stomach with cuts so sharp that the Granger probably couldn't even feel them at first, at least until his aunt had poured powdered boomslang skin into the wounds. Granger had been screaming without stopping, back arching and toes curling, before his aunt had even pulled out her wand for the real torture to begin.
He hadn't wanted anything to do with that, any more than he'd wanted to kill a weak old man on top of the Astronomy Tower last year, and yet no one ever seemed to give him a choice in the matter.
And of course, there was never any point in resisting. Days of agony was the only result of resisting the Dark Lord's wishes - he learned that when the Dark Lord ordered him to Crucio his father a few months back - and then he was made to do His bidding anyway.
He is weak-willed and stupid, he supposes, for he has never been able to resist the Imperius curse.
He still isn't breathing enough, he knows, and he's losing his peripheral vision to unfocused black spots. He leans back against a tree, and focuses on a speck of light visible through the heavy forest. One of the towers is lit from the inside. He is less than half a mile from Hogwarts, but he feels like the Death Eaters sit and watch for Potter from the other side of the world.
He can only vaguely remember what it was like to live and study at Hogwarts. Now he is nothing like his other year mates, if he ever was. Draco's side, his battle, were chosen for him years before he was even born.
Potter's defense army stayed to fight, he knows, but even the other Slytherins are out of it now, escaped with their families or hiding on the grounds somewhere. He wonders what it would have been like to be born a Macmillan, or a Boot, or a Corner. Would he have been a different person altogether or just slightly changed? Would he have been given a choice in anything important in his life if he had been someone else, or was he doomed from the very start?
There is a soft murmuring around him, an increase in tension, and Draco realizes after a long moment that there has been almost nothing to hear for the last ten minutes or so, no Death Eaters running back and forth to the Dark Lord. The feel of waiting still hangs heavy in the air, but there is something else he can almost smell. Uneasiness. He wants to close his eyes to give into unconsciousness, but he doesn't. The Dark Lord would kill him for that weakness without a second thought, and Draco doesn't want to die yet, not when there is the slightest spark of hope still hovering in his chest.
His aunt is upright again, her arms out as if she desperately wishes to squeeze the Dark Lord's arm as she whispers urgently to him, but even she has the sense not to touch her master. He hears her say "Potter" among other things, and he lets his head fall back against the willow tree he is leaning against. Nothing has happened, and the hour of ceasefire is almost up. Apparently even Potter has the sense to avoid walking into an ambush he cannot win, to sacrifice himself meaninglessly against the world's most powerful wizard. The Dark Lord promised the Gryffindor boy a fair fight between the two of them, but Draco has long since learned that every word out of the Dark Lord's mouth is a lie.
So now there will be more death, and Draco will probably have to kill his fellow students to avoid the Dark Lord's displeasure after he has won. If Potter is still fighting though, there is a chance. He begins to pull himself upright, but stumbles backward in shock.
Potter is here, walking deliberately into the clearing, wand hanging loosely at his side.
His eyes are blazing and he is still covered in ashes, just like Draco, and abruptly Draco is in the air again, Fiendfyre melting his friends to ash and less below him, and Potter is carrying them away from the orange blaze that Draco can't stop seeing even when he closes his eyes.
He hadn't meant for it to get this far, but then he hadn't meant for a lot of things to happen, and now his oldest friends are dead because they are scared too, but they picked the wrong people to fight, or maybe it's the wrong side. Draco has a terrifying moment where he wonders if it would be better to die the agonizing death of cursed fire than face the Dark Lord with yet another failure, and almost slides off the broom from the jolt of fear that races up his arms to his pounding heart. Suddenly, Potter's warm, firm hands are jerking him back upright, and then he is reaching around to grab one of Draco's arms and placing it firmly around his chest.
He can feel Potter's heartbeat through his shirt, and it shocks him, as if he hadn't realized Potter is alive, too. Until the Dark Lord kills him, at least. And after saving Draco from a death he deserved, from the flames he should have died in, he just lets him go again without a word. Draco had stood there for a moment, wanting to pay him back, wanting to vocalize the life debt he now owed his enemy, and found there is nothing he needs to say. Potter has to know how these things work - Draco saw Pettigrew's mangled corpse - but Potter had just looked him in the eye and told him to get out of his way.
He could have ordered him to protect him with his life, and he hadn't.
And now Potter is here, and he is going to do what Draco is so afraid he would do. Potter stands calmly in front of the Dark Lord, whose lipless mouth is forming words that Draco can't hear over his own labored breathing. If Potter loses this battle, there will never be anyone who can kill the Dark Lord, and Draco will open his wrists within the week.
He cannot live in a world operated by the Dark Lord. He realizes that now, that he can be free or he can live, but he cannot have both.
He remembers Fenrir Greyback's bloody claws opening his stomach after the Dark Lord orders him punished for failing to kill Dumbledore, of him forcing himself into Draco until Draco is sobbing like a toddler, promising the world if the werewolf would only stop, and he remembers seeing Granger begging for death with her eyes only he sees himself sitting in that chair pleading for an end, and the Dark Lord explaining to him exactly how he would peel the skin off his body strip by strip if he does not succeed where his father failed, and suddenly his path is so blindingly obvious.
He can be free of fear, free of pain, if he only does this one little thing.
He is not brave. He is terrified out of his mind of the consequences if he doesn't...and for one little slice of time as his body is in motion, he feels a thrill of sweet vindication that Potter will never be able to one-up him for this. Potter's eyes are widening, and the Dark Lord is incanting the spell, and Draco remembers the feel of Potter's hands on his and wonders what they could have been if Draco had been born a Macmillan, or a Boot, or a Corner.
"- Kedavra, " the Dark Lord says, and Draco lets the darkness fill him with a smile on his face.
He is back in the Forbidden Forest, feeling strangely light, like he lost something important somewhere along the way. The air is still and expectant, and even the birds aren't chirping. He's not certain, but it seems brighter than it was…before? What does before mean?
He has no plans, he realizes, so he starts walking, unable to feel the impact of his feet on the ground. After only a few steps, he spots Albus Dumbledore sitting on a tree swing he is positive wasn't there moments ago. Dumbledore looks at him calmly, raising his eyebrows as he sips at a mug of something hot and steaming. After a long swallow, the cup disappears from his hands, and Dumbledore slides off the swing with the agility of a teenager, and jogs over to him with a genial smile on his face.
The forest is heavy and silent, but Dumbledore's footsteps do not make a sound as he approaches Draco. "My dear boy," he says with a smile, and Draco frowns at him. He doesn't know much, but the former Headmaster certainly never greeted that way.
He freezes. Why is Dumbledore the former Headmaster? Because...his head feels thick. Because... "You're dead." It comes out of his mouth flat, but inside Draco is reeling.
Dumbledore gives his shoulder a friendly squeeze, and then begins to lead him out of the forest, in a direction where the trees get sparser and more light shines through from the noonday sun. "I'm afraid so, Draco, but that puts me in excellent company, does it not?"
"Does it?" He's being a little rude, and his father has always told him that rudeness should always be intentional and carefully calculated, but that all seems insignificant somehow.
Dumbledore just chuckles and keeps walking. Soon they are heading away from the Forest and toward the lake. After a few minutes, Dumbledore speaks again. "You always were a clever young man, Draco. Why are you here?" He smiles, but his sharp blue eyes are suddenly peering at Draco intently.
Draco blinks, and suddenly it's obvious. "I died, too." The words coming out of his mouth somehow don't surprise him much. He thinks that some part of him had already realized what must be true if he is talking to Dumbledore.
The Headmaster nods. "That you did, my boy." He doesn't seemed inclined to say anything else, and Draco walks in silence beside him as they approach Draco's favorite hiding place near the lake, a small ridge that hangs over the lake on the farthest side from the castle, completely hidden by thick clusters of trees on all sides. He and Blaise and Pansy spent many lazy Saturdays on that ridge, talking about nothing important and enjoying being normal teenagers, not Death Eaters in training. How could Dumbledore have known about this place?
Dumbledore chuckles, as if he can hear Draco's thoughts. "This is your afterlife, my boy. You see what you need to see. I am only here to guide you." Draco looks sideways at him, but doesn't say anything. After a moment, he sits downs near Dumbledore beneath the heavy pines, and Dumbledore looks at him expectantly.
Draco knows he needs to talk to Dumbledore, but he is ashamed of their last interaction in life. "I almost killed you," he whispers, and to his shock, Dumbledore smiles and shakes his head.
"My dear boy, you did nothing of the sort. We could have stood atop that tower for hours, and I would have still been alive to tell the tale. I told you then, and I will say it again - you are not a killer, Draco. And as I'm sure you have learned, using intimidation and fear to force someone to follow your wishes, as Voldemort tried with you, is an inefficient approach at best, and a disastrous one at worst."
Something Dumbledore said clicks, and he knows what he is missing. "I'm not afraid anymore," he says slowly. "I stopped feeling afraid right after I decided what I was going to do." He feels free, and... happy? He's not sure; he doesn't think he's ever been happy.
Dumbledore smiles. "I have always said it is our actions that make us who we are, and you chose to die so that Harry might live. A truly admirable decision."
"So the Dark Lord might die," Draco corrects him sharply. "Potter had nothing to do with it."
Dumbledore laughs aloud at that, though not unkindly. "Draco, this is the one place even someone raised in the art of deceit cannot successfully lie. Your decision had everything to do with Mr. Potter."
Draco opens his mouth to protest, but Dumbledore raises his eyebrow at him, and Draco flushes to remember strong hands pulling three wands out of his grasp at Malfoy Manor, an arm around his waist as Potter returned to save him from the flames he deserved to die in, of Potter trying to save him yet again, trying to move in front to take the Dark Lord's curse even though he had to know it was futile, and he finds himself desperately hoping that Dumbledore can't read his thoughts in this place.
Dumbledore smile looks a little too knowing though, but Draco is saved from having to explain anything to the Headmaster because his skin suddenly starts prickling, and he knows that he and Dumbledore are not alone in this place anymore. Something rustles in the bushes, and Potter marches toward them, looking furious. Draco can't remember rising, but there Potter is, towering over him. He scowls. He has always been taller than Potter, but it seems Potter has had a growth spurt over the past year.
"You-" Potter growls at him, invading his personal space. "Why the bloody fuck did you do that? You didn't have to die!" Draco sputters in response, and Harry glances at Dumbledore guiltily. "Sorry, Professor."
Dumbledore just looks amused, waving away his apology.
Potter turns back to him, something unidentifiable flashing in his eyes. "I just mean...I can't believe you saved me, Malfoy."
Draco looks at his feet, bitter at his own failure. "Well, I didn't do a very good job, obviously, as you still wound up here."
That makes Potter snap his head toward Dumbledore again. "Is that what happened, Professor? Are we dead?"
Dumbledore shrugs. "You, my dear boy, have a choice to make, I think. But please, do tell us how you find yourself here after Draco saved you." Again, Draco wants to contradict this, as that obviously isn't what happened, but Potter is already explaining.
"The curse bounced back on Nagini, and she was surrounded by green lightning for a moment, then she dropped to the ground, dead. I thought Voldemort was going to explode with fury." Dumbledore nods, like he expected this. "But I knew... I saw Snape's memories and I knew about that Horcrux inside of me, sir, so I knew I still had to die."
To Draco's shock, the old man's eyes fill up with tears, and he reaches out to grasp Harry's arm, something tentative in his eyes. "My boy...I couldn't bring myself to tell you right out. You had to make your own decisions about that."
Harry nods slowly, and he and Dumbledore look at each other for a moment longer, but Draco's head is spinning. Horcruxes...he remembers leaving his father's library late one night in his fifth year, after his father had gone to bed. He had walked over to examine the forbidden objects on the old mahogany desk, where his father had been conducting furtive research ever since the Dark Lord's impossible return, and saw an ancient-looking book spread across most of the desk, magic of the darkest sort detailed on the pages. With curiosity he could not contain, he disobeyed his father and began reading this book, open to the chapter on death, and learned about the most dangerous sort of death magic...the splitting of the souls.
It is incredibly destructive magic, requiring the murder of someone the killer truly believes to be completely innocent, plus it usually kills most of the caster's blood relatives in the process of completing the spell, but he is not at all surprised that the Dark Lord had been willing to pay that price.
"You're a Horcrux, Potter?" he says softly, and Potter looks at him for a moment before nodding.
"Not anymore, Harry." Dumbledore is staring at the two of them meaningfully. "Draco has killed Nagini, and you've now eliminated the final Horcrux, the one residing within your very soul, through your self-sacrifice."
Potter gasps, and Draco finishes the thought for them. "So the Dark Lord is mortal now. He can be killed." He feels a strange thrill at saying this. Perhaps his efforts weren't in vain after all, even if Potter never sees his sacrifice in the way he intended it.
"Professor," Potter says carefully, picking at a few clumps of grass near his foot. "You said I had a choice."
"Ah, that." Dumbledore leans back, resting his white head against the tree trunk. "Yes, Harry, while you have had very few real choices in your young life, I believe now you have the greatest choice of all - to move on, or to return to life. Of course, eventually you will return here, in any case."
Potter's breathing has sped up, Draco notices. "And, ah, can Malfoy come back with me?"
Dumbledore's eyes hold the answer before Draco hears the words. "I'm afraid Mr. Malfoy is quite irreversibly dead."
Potter is on his feet before Draco can blink. "That's not fair! Malfoy died to save me and he doesn't even like me, but you're saying I can go back and he can't?" His fists are clenched as he stares the former Headmaster down, and Draco can't help but feel...something at Potter's defense of him.
"Harry." Dumbledore's voice is soothing, his eyes calm as he regards Harry. "I do not make the rules here; I am only trying to explain to you how things stand." He smiles mischievously. "I daresay you will see Mr. Malfoy again, if that's what you both want."
That leaves Draco and Potter staring at each other uncertainly. Without the Dark Lord and the war and death looming over them, setting the stage for their every interaction, Draco finds himself curious about Harry Potter - not the legend, but the real teenage boy. Yes, he would like to see Potter again.
Dumbledore rises slowly, and places his hand on Potter's shoulder. "Should you decide to go on, I will take you - and Mr. Malfoy, if he desires - into... the Great Hall, let us say. If you decide to return, you will arrive at the moment when Voldemort's curse hit you. I am delighted to say that, for once in your life, the choice is yours."
Harry hesitates, then nods, and Dumbledore reaches out to clasp Draco's shoulder, and says softly into his ear, "You may wait in this place for all eternity if you need to, but I very much doubt you will need that long." He chuckles, and then to Draco's shock, waves cheerily at them both before stepping off the edge of the ridge and diving without a splash into the murky water of the lake. Draco can see him doing a world-class breaststroke, long white hair making a pale cloud in the water as he swims - away, away, and then he is gone.
There is a moment of silence, then Potter says, "I wish you hadn't done that, Malfoy." He stares at him intently, and reaches out suddenly to grip his arm, like he thinks Draco is about to swim away, too. "I wish you hadn't died, and we could have gotten to know each other, become...friends." His voice catches, and a blush creeps up Potter's cheeks, and Draco knows what he is thinking, because he is thinking the same thing.
Draco can't really bring it in himself to regret anything, though. "You never would have thought of me any differently if I hadn't done it. It wasn't really a conscious choice, anyway...I just was so tired of being terrified all the time, and you needed to live so you could kill the Dark Lord."
Potter's eyes bore into him. "Say his name, Malfoy. I want to hear you say it."
Draco waits for the fear of the thought of doing that to hit him, waits for the panic and the cold to sink in. But it doesn't. He is truly free, now. So he smirks cockily. "I'll say his if you say mine."
Potter moves closer. "You first."
He looks up into Potter's stupidly brilliant eyes, somehow not minding now how much Potter has grown, how hard and taut his arms are, holding his own wrists tightly. "Voldemort," he says, slowly and deliberately.
Potter's lips crash down on his, and Draco suddenly feels very much alive, even though he is supposed to be dead and Potter isn't exactly alive, either. He gasps and wraps his arms around Potter's neck, who responds by grabbing his arse and pulling him even closer. "Draco," he whispers against his lips, and Draco feels a stupid smile about to overtake his face, so he kisses him back, harder, so Potter won't realize what he does to him – what he's always done to Draco, and hopes that this memory will last him until Potter comes back to him.
After a moment that could have been a lifetime, Potter draws back. "You know I've got to go back, right?"
Draco nods – he expected no less - but says seriously, "Don't go back unless you're actually going to live, Potter. I didn't save you just so you could pine away for my good looks for the rest of your life."
Potter meets his eyes for a long moment, then nods, a faint smile lighting up his handsome face. "I already know I'll never meet anyone else like you, but I'll try to live properly...maybe raise a family." Draco expects to feel jealousy at this idea, but curiously, all he feels is an overwhelming desire for Potter to be happy. It's the least he deserves.
There's one last loose end he needs to tie up, though, before Potter leaves. "Tell my mother I'm alright, would you? I know she's going to be a wreck, but I'm truly much happier here. And tell her...tell her about the Unbreakable Vow that Snape took to protect me last year, so she knows you're not making all this up."
"I promise." Potter pulls him tight against his chest again and whispers into his hair, "I never thought I'd say this, but I will miss you so much, Draco Malfoy."
"I'll be waiting, right here. Well-" It occurs to him that if this is his...purgatory, then he should be in control of it, surely. He closes his eyes, concentrates, and suddenly he's staring at a huge Quidditch pitch in pristine condition, on a clear, bright morning. Shining green and silver striped goal posts stand at either end of the field and a range of broomsticks lines a clear display case nearby.
A mint condition Japanese Raikou, one of only five ever produced, gleams especially enticingly at him, and he glances over to see Potter swallow hard upon seeing it. Even the savior of the wizarding world himself can't get his hands on a broom that requires Japanese ancestry to ride. Except for here.
He holds his hand out, and suddenly the Raikou is in his hands, and he turns it to sit on it sideways, hovering a couple of inches off of the ground so that he is eye level with Potter. "I'll be waiting right here," he amends, smiling in self-satisfaction at his handiwork.
Potter sighs in frustration but leans over to give him a searing kiss. "I had better get to ride that when I come back, Malfoy," he says grumpily, and Draco smiles serenely.
"We'll see, Potter." Potter can't help but grin at his haughty attitude, and he blows Draco a kiss before he closes his eyes and fades away, returning to life.
Draco straddles his broomstick and begins to ride to the heavens, already counting down the lifetimes until Harry returns to him.
There is absolution in death, after all.