Disclaimer: This is not written for profit. I don't own Harry Potter, which is copyrighted by J. K. Rowling.
there is another sky
You know that moment when time stands still and you're suspended above everything, catching all the angles? And somehow you know this here, this now matters?
May 10, 1998.
It does not rain the morning they bury Fred.
There's not a cloud in sight and the sky is blasphemous blue. Everyone drips black in mourning robes, standing out like specks of dirt on white linen. Mum's face scrunches up, a sniffling pretzel, determinedly not crying and more not crying, while her brothers have never looked so much like brothers, faces identical with loss. Only George looks on with muted anger no one else notices. Ginny does. She was sheathed in the same indefatigable rage five years ago and knows its every groove and taint.
Dad scoops dirt on the coffin and steps back, knuckles white and taut around the shovel he clutches to his chest. She wants to tell him it's no good as a shield; not when there's nothing to ward off and no one to fight; what's the point of clinging when all the hurt's inside? Finally, goodbyes are said and the leave-taking begins. The air buzzes with sympathetic murmurs and anecdotes, a humming nest of hornets. The guests swarm over, determined to prove, as if such a thing needed proving, that they knew Fred, no really truly deeply.
Ginny wants to tell them, no, I believe you, but they're too busy recollecting the past to think about her present. Harry draws her into a tight embrace, silent with understanding. Grief and anger fight for supremacy, and ultimately shame overlays the lines of his face. He alone among their friends knows there are no words. From the corner of her eye, she sees Hermione do the same for Ron. Then the absurd ceremony is over, and it's a pity it was all a sham. The corpse in the ground is not her brother – not Fred of the groan-awful puns, ready quips and frenetic grace. The body is too still, too quiet, too young when he had died a man; there is nothing left of the brother, who had been unbearable without George to take the edge off, in the gentle and pallid face.
They are Forge and Gred. An elegant sum, perfect in its geometry. What is y without x?
What is she one brother less? An irrational number.
A light breeze sweeps over them, soft as a whisper, the kind that is always a harbinger for sprawling picnics and crowded skies. Ginny craves air so viciously it is a dull ache. When no one is watching, she takes flight and it is years before she looks back.
June 5, 1998.
Prison, that unceasing orbit of lights-on and lights-off, is the worst place to remember you've become a year older.
It's what they call dramatic irony or some shit, he thinks.
His stint in Azkaban drives the last nail in the coffin of any fond memories he had for Hogwarts. They taught him nothing, nothing, to prepare him for this place. Lock-up is avoiding the deranged gazes of your cellmates; lock-up is knowing when to beg; lock-up is thank fucking godyou've already lived through one reign of terror. His one consolation is that at least Mother isn't in this hellhole. Draco used to think chivalry and honor were medieval bullshit, the fantasies of saccharine sonnets and poncey poets. But when the chips are down and he's all-in, a subterranean streak of that much-vaunted noble brute claws the insides of his chest, and he thinks he finally knows what everyone's been waxing so much rhapsodic about.
He is a believer now. There's something inescapably worth it in knowing a woman waits for you in a house the two of you can make a home. He imagines Father feels the same wintry hope beneath whatever despairing layers he's cottoned around himself. The fact of the matter is that Father has it so much worse. A minor resorting to Unforgivables in hysterical desperation is somehow different from a grown man doing the same. Fucking hypocrites.
He wants to roar, claw through chipped wood and knock out the bars on his only window, sullen reminders of the world outside, roiling blue as far as the eye can see. Something else exists, screeches a voice in his head. One day he's going to dive into that ocean and push Hades behind him with each clipped stroke and shrink this bastion of the damned into a grain of sand. So he counts down the granite-long days, his minute hand ticking with each droplet of rain and the hour hand, meals pushed through grates. And so time flies.
One indistinguishable morning, they parade him in front of robed men with ancient faces, and he tries not to stare at the empty seat where Dumbledore once sat. "On the charge of attempted murder, how do you plead?" they ask.
"Not guilty," says Draco.
"On the charge of casting an Unforgivable Curse, how do you plead?"
Ah, there's Rosmerta waiting in the wings. Katie Bell can't be far behind. "Not guilty," says Draco.
"On the charge of aiding and abetting known Death Eaters, how do you plead?"
Beneath paper-thin eyelids, he sees craven dark wood, gleaming once he was done and broken cabinets, so broken it threatened to swallow him in despair until – he relives the feeling of air gushing into joyful lungs and the swell of so much pride. "Not guilty," says Draco.
"On the charge of attempted kidnapping, how do you plead?"
Of course, Potter would swoop in, buggering war hero, to save the poor straggling Death Eater wannabes who were stupid enough to try and shackle and parade him in front of the Dark Lord for glory, vengeance and fear. He remembers fire, hot and relentless, licking at his heels and a friend he never thought was one until he was a pile of streaking ash. "Not guilty," says Draco.
By which he means, guilty on all accounts.
I learned more about you from the one time you didn't know I was looking than in six years of sharing the same spaces and hot meals.
And hexes. Don't forget hexes.
September 12, 1998.
The position of Chaser is as good as hers, but she wants more.
Hasn't she deserved it? For three slick mornings, her broomstick moist with dew and sweat, she navigates Gryffindor's brutal tryouts. Now that war and all that death nonsense are over, people flee back to the blissful and artless in droves. In the end, Ginny prevails and proves to all and sundry that she's earned the mantle of Captain and Seeker, even though afterwards, she forgets why she wanted it so badly.
Everywhere, she is the new Harry. His fame—glory?—wafts about her like perfume, pleasant from a distance, but all too discernible to reporters and biographers and sleazy tabloid writers who flock to her faster than Rita Skeeter can say, "Quick-Quotes Quill?" Ginny doesn't know why they think she'll crack and reveal how she "snared" the Boy Who Lived Again, and when her blank stare and scarlet cheeks aren't sensational enough to print, they call her arrogant and entitled. She laughs about it over fish and chips when her friends' lives pause long enough to intersect.
Harry and Ron are on the Auror fast-track, little wonder when they've got more experience battling Dark wizards than half the remaining Aurors combined. Hermione spends her days haunting the library, preparing to sit her N.E.W.T.s. It's not enough to be the cleverest witch of her generation; she wants tangible proof of it. Ginny wonders who she's trying to impress, these invisible critics only Hermione seems to see. Not that Ginny's immune to all the attention.
Sometimes, and it's always an exercise in self-chastisement when she catches herself, she basks in it. After all, she's a war veteran; she's Harry Potter's girlfriend; she's a Quidditch star; and she's only seventeen, for God's sake. But all it takes is one cuppa with Luna for the glamour to lose its luster. She doesn't know how Luna has remained so untouched, not a single blemish from all the ruin and revolution. Somehow she's managed to retain it all, every bit of her wonder and oblivion. Maybe that's why she is Ginny's go-to person when she needs some scraps of perspective.
Ginny is on her way to cool her head after a morning of being hounded by Harry's Hufflepuff fan club when she finds Luna in the dungeons having tea with Draco Malfoy. In less than two breaths, she's drawn her wand, perching on the balls of her feet, ready to dash.
But Luna doesn't sound the least distressed. "—didn't know Professor Snape very well but I don't think he'd mind you having his Potions set," she says.
Malfoy leans closer, as though proximity would make her words true. "That's the problem with Snape. No one knew him."
"So maybe you shouldn't be so hard on yourself."
He narrows hard, grey eyes at the crystal flask beside them, tapping its smooth rim. "Why not?" he sneers at his reflection.
"Well . . . can anyone really know another person?" ponders Luna. "I think we like to pretend we do, but we're just carrying around ideas of other people, cobbled together with memories and stories we've heard. We're always looking for patterns, explanations, a why for every what. Then we wrap up our answers and call it knowing. But I don't think that's all it is."
"Then what is it?"
"I don't know. Maybe it's more comforting not to know. And maybe," Luna smiles gently, "you should ask the person who knew him best."
"Yeah, and who's that?"
"Professor Dumbledore, of course. We had tea last week. It was lovely."
Malfoy flinches and then forces himself rigid. "Dumbledore?" he says, thin mouth curved in a harsh smile.
"Oh, yes. He asked me about you once. He hasn't forgotten you, you know."
Judging by the narrowing of his eyes, it doesn't look like Malfoy's forgotten him, either. "What did he want to know?"
"Just if I'd seen you. Someone told him about me being locked in your dungeon. He thought there was a good chance I'd see you one of these days. And he was right."
"Damn him," whispers Malfoy. "I thought I was through being their pawns."
"You have an awfully suspicious mind." She tilts her head with a thoughtful expression. "If you ask me, I think he was just hoping you'd visit."
"And what? Bond over chamomile and crumpets?"
Her answering smile is serene, her soft grey eyes alit with mirth. "You could paint him a tea service."
"Paint him a tea—" he pinches off the rest, blond brows arched in astonishment.
"There were some drawings in my cell. Your aunt thought they were just rubbish," she says. "But I liked them."
"They were," he snaps. "Rubbish, I mean."
"I don't know about that. I liked the one of your mum cheering you on at Quidditch."
"I made it up," he mutters. "She never came to any of my games."
"Well, I don't have a mum anymore," says Luna. "She never got to hear any of my commentary, either."
Malfoy stares at her for a bleak, bewildered second and then snorts, shaking his head. "It's just as well," he says faintly. "Your play-by-plays had nothing to do with the game."
She laces her fingers and props them under her chin, pinning him with wide wry eyes. "That's what Blaise was for. I was the entertainment."
"Is that right? Let me tell you something, Lovegood, the man's got the restraint of saint. Don't know how he put up with you. I came close to bomb-diving the stands a time or two when you unilaterally decided Gryffindor had won."
Luna hums. "Who says I didn't do it just to see the look on your face?"
His lips twitch. "If you're trying to make me sorrier, it's working."
"I don't think I'm trying anything," she says slowly. "Except maybe passing on Professor Dumbledore's invitation."
"So you say." Malfoy rolls the teacup between his fingers, throat working tightly, staring at the inside of his left arm. "I used to think that if he'd ever favored me . . . like Potter, things would've been different."
"But you were a bully, Draco. And Harry has always been nice."
He slants a lightning glance at Luna. "Have you always been so blunt, Lovegood?"
"You would know if you hadn't spent all those weeks hiding from me in your house."
"Hiding." He laughs, and it vibrates the crisp air, acerbic and self-deprecating. "Noticed that, did you?"
"It was nice to be fed, but you didn't have to pitch the trays at us and stomp so much. We could've been friends."
"Friends," he tastes the word like it's a foreign vintage. "You wanted to be friends with your jailer?"
"Well, by then, I think you knew you were in over your head. That didn't make you a . . . good person exactly, but it mattered to Mr. Ollivander and me that you weren't a fanatical volunteer."
"Volunteer?" he repeats with scorn. "I stopped being a volunteer the day he took my family hosta—well, never mind. The point is, go ahead and put that check in the draftee column. Suicide missions aren't exactly my idea of a hobby. Tattoos get a lot less cool when you aren't allowed to leave the clubhouse."
"I thought so," says Luna, pleased. "When you're locked up, it's nice to know that at least one of your jailers doesn't want to kill you."
Malfoy's hand tightens around the cup. "Yes, it does."
In the companionable silence, Ginny doesn't know what to do, what to make of this strange, stilted conversation between two people with enough history to warrant blows. Malfoy makes the decision for her when he abruptly rises to his feet. Before he can spot her, she turns the corner and doesn't stop sprinting until she's out of the dungeons. Pinpointing all the things wrong with Luna and Malfoy having a tea party would take hours, and it feels a little like the world's careening around her. Or maybe turning without her.
Ginny didn't even know he'd been sprung from Azkaban. But she does know one thing. She doesn't buy his subdued repentance for a second.
October 31, 1998.
There are Dementors and even Grim Reapers this year.
The past three Halloweens, the sight of black robes and white masks usually incited terror, and not the folksy, good-natured kind. But not this year, not since Potter vanquished wizardkind's big bad and allowed black and white to make a comeback. The certainty that the Dark Lord was gone is so sweet and cathartic this might as well be a festival for costumed witches and wizards to dance on his grave. Draco doesn't see guileless celebration, only shadows slithering too close to home.
Tonight is another tepid affair, this time in honor of the reconstruction of Hogwarts. All donors are welcome. Naturally, the Malfoys are the top benefactors, the official donation request being neither request nor donation, just extortion, pure and simple. Since Draco let the Death Eaters in, and didn't fight it when they stayed, he could bloody well pay reparations, they claimed. That was fine by him, and he would have paid until his pockets were to let if it would've meant his presence would never be demanded again. But it is demanded—look how tamed and harmless ex-Death Eaters are!—and so he comes.
The evening is a farce, a way to make the humiliation complete. At the first opportunity, he slips out. His aimless meandering takes him to the Quidditch pitch, vast and quiet and dark. He doesn't expect to see the Weasley girl scooping air, but there she is, coppery red hair unmistakable in the moonlight, darting about in some inexplicable dance. Of all the absurd things, he thinks that she's throwing something over her shoulder after each loop. Looking around, the empty stands proclaim him the only spectator. It all seems fanciful and mad until she swoops one last time into a dive and the sky blazes in her wake.
Night explodes into splashes of color – bright halogens and burning embers. Each fleck of light igniting another and another until the chain reaction sets off a nova of fireworks. It swallows the inky blackness and converges into a flaming 'W.' The curly shape of the letter is familiar, and it finally comes to him as the hues start to die. The 'W' is the same one he's seen on countless joke products, Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes, and he slowly comes to understand that the lightshow is a tribute to a brother lost, a way to commemorate a holiday he'd notoriously enjoyed. It means he's intruding on a private moment, but he can't bring himself to leave.
This beacon, so bright it burned his eyes, is a symbol of love and loss and life so vivid it feels like the opposite of watching a train wreck, enthralling in its simplicity: just grief and a girl. When the snowing embers fade, she slowly drifts back to earth. Draco watches her waning freefall, flying farther and farther until she is only a moving speck in the distance. Somehow he knows this moment should matter.
That night, he visits Vincent's grave.
He doesn't bring elaborate pyrotechnics or even flowers. What do you give a man who's already dead? The staples of his giving—money, favors, companionship—are worthless in this here and this now. He sits on the wet grass and talks instead. More words than he's spoken in weeks spill out, confidences and fears and hopes. There's a chance that Vincent's listening somewhere, isn't there?
"I was a right git to you," he hears himself say. "I thought you were just another dumb brownnoser – a piece of the furniture, really. But all that time, you were counting on me, weren't you? Like how I looked up to my father. I counted on him, too. Guess both of us let you down. I thought you were all muscle, no brains, but you saw me drowning, didn't you? You knew I was a goner and utterly useless for protecting you and Greg, so you stepped up. And I let you die for your trouble. Some future leader of men, huh?"
He hears wind whip the naked trees above, and even though he knows it isn't, he takes the rustling for an answer.
For a moment all is quiet, then his stomach rumbles, loud and persistent, and the absurdity of it all breaks his solemnity. He laughs and laughs and realizes in that ridiculous moment that he hasn't eaten all day. It's the first spark of longing he's felt since men proclaiming to be wiser than he cast him out of the knowing dankness of cells into the uncertain world outside.
"Sorry, mate," he says and laughs some more.
Draco tells the smooth marble gravestone, "I hope wherever you are, they've got your favorite kippers and pudding. I can never look at the stuff without thinking of you. And another thing, you won't have to fuss about Greg anymore. I won't let him down again. I guess—maybe in a perfect world, I'd have a brilliant, heartfelt speech all ready, but this isn't and I don't. So just . . . thanks for looking over my shoulder all these years. I was never good enough to you. For you. But Vince—I'm still your friend. Always."
His throat clogs and his eyes are warm. "I'll be seeing you."
Our first reunion was a bit of a disaster, wasn't it?
Only because you were too bullheaded to ask for help.
June 15, 1999.
The leaving banquet is oddly tame this year. Maybe everyone can somehow sense it's the end of an era.
Ginny supposes the jittery feeling at the pit of her stomach is relief. Since the moment she first drew blood, these hallowed walls have felt too narrow. Someone went through a lot of trouble to decorate the shore, even erecting a pavilion over long tables cluttered with all the staples she's grown to love over seven long years. Cradling a plate of meat pie and roast potatoes, she ducks out before any more people can clap her heartily on the shoulder and commit her to keeping in touch. The future is too uncertain for such promises.
The letter she received that morning is burning a hole in her pocket. The Holyhead Harpies' signet is over the flap, and it's straddling that line between being thin enough to be a courteous rejection and just the right thickness to be a succinct acceptance. When she sees that her friends have mostly trailed off to clump under the trees or sit on the beach as they jabber and laugh and eat, she clenches her plate in one hand, tucks the crinkling parchment securely in her pocket with the other and makes for the creaky old swing-set at the edge of the Forbidden Forest.
She's not ready for exuberant congratulations or too-hearty condolences yet. This beginning of the rest of her life still feels too foreign, too private to be shared. She thinks she'd rather just know, no flash or pizzazz. But when she crests the hill, the world alive with the palpitating beat of her anticipation, she finds her favorite reading spot occupied.
Ginny can't begin to wrap her head around why Draco Malfoy would be draped over the chair swing, seemingly asleep. The picture is completely lopsided. For one, he isn't just lying down; he's scrunched up on his side, hands tucked against his chest and long, sinewy legs flung out carelessly, tipped halfway to the ground. For another, he has a streak of brown paint cradling his cheek and dried flecks beneath his fingernails. It's an altogether bewildering spectacle.
Ginny doesn't realize she's hovering over him until she lets out a too-audible breath. That's when his eyes snap open, jaggedly alert, and he's a blur of frenzied motion, jumping to his feet and tackling her to the ground in the same frame of time it takes her to gasp. When the world reorients itself, a line of trees into palling sky, he's straddling her and crushing her throat and hefting the fork she dropped from her plate above his head like a dagger. She doesn't move, doesn't even dare to breath. She stares open-mouthed into his fear-smeared face, knowing she has less than a minute before the world becomes fringed in black. The clenched fork falls an inch, and then Malfoy tilts lower, eyes scraping over her as if he can't quite place her, tense and panting.
And it's enough. Feeding on a burst of adrenaline, she uses that one instant of hesitation to arch her back and snatch the wrist clutching the fork, rolling with everything she has. He digs bony fingers into her shoulder fighting to keep his balance. Gasping, she knees him in the groin.
He snarls and falls to his side, crumpled in agony. She flies to her feet, grappling for her wand, fumbling once, twice, too many times, before finally getting it pointed in the right direction. "Malfoy, you fucker," she croaks, each syllable wrenching her throat against the stranglehold of phantom fingers.
He stares at her drawn wand with an expression of hatred, mouth twisting into a serrated smile. Go ahead, she reads in his dark face. Slowly, his panting subsides and he shakes himself, grinding fingers into his temple. Frowning, he says, "Oh. It's just you."
"Just you," she repeats, disbelieving. "What the hell does that even mean? You attacked me!"
"I thought you were—that I was still somewhere else."
Without a doubt, this is the most incoherent admission of guilt she's ever heard. "I'm Ginny. This is Hogwarts. You apparently took exception to my breathing too loudly. Does any of this jog a memory?"
"Shit," he mutters, rubbing a hand viciously over his face. "I was dreaming."
Her arm begins to tremble from how tightly she grips her wand. "That's—I can't even—what kind of explanation is that supposed to be?"
Malfoy barks harsh laughter. "Inadequate? Mental? Take your pick."
"What is going on? What are you even doing here?"
He stands up carefully, hands outstretched in the universal gesture of surrender. "It's the leaving feast." A sardonic smile wrenches his lips. "Congratulations all."
Their encounter has been a confounding sequence of hand around her throat and grey eyes dark with terror and now painfully quirked smile, and Ginny just doesn't understand what's happening. Keeping her wand on him, she backs away until the swing bumps against the back of her legs; nowhere left to run. She searches him for any warning he's going to attack and finds herself staring at the oddest bit of all: a smear of brown across his jutting cheekbone. "You've got paint on your face," she hears herself say.
"What?" Malfoy arches a thin brow, throwing her a judgmental look that makes her bristle, and scrubs his cheeks with his palms. "Better?" he jeers.
"Not much of an improvement," she snaps. "Since you're determined to stay mum on the subject, let me guess. You chickened out on gate-crashing the feast."
"And if I did?"
"Then it makes you a coward in addition to attempted murderer."
"Believe me, Weasley, if I'd wanted you dead . . . ," he leaves off with a sneer.
Weary fury singes her veins. "God, what is the matter with you?" Her wand wavers from exhaustion. "It's over. Done. Finished. You lot lost. Get over it!"
His face twists with hate. It's a perfect imitation of his father's expression when they hand down his life sentence, the only trial Ginny works up the nerve to attend – never again after that. Bile rising in her throat, she fights the instinct to retreat another step.
"That's just a crock of fantasy your side dreamt up. It's never over," he rasps. "So long as someone—anyone remembers."
"Is that why you're here? To h-hurt us?" she whispers.
He stares at her like he's only just realized they've been speaking past each other in foreign languages. "Hurt you? How dare—what makes you think I want—" he swallows the rest, eyes slit in remembrance, jaw clenched. "I could never. Not since Vince. And my parents and the Carrows. I could never."
This new intensity and teeth-gritting conviction frightens her more than the thin fingers of pain around her throat. "Okay, let's say I believe you." She swallows hard, unable to look away from this new tension coiling inside him. "You'll have to excuse my skepticism. You did just get done trying to strangle me."
"I told you already. I thought I was somewhere else."
"Oh, you thought you were somewhere else. That's all right, then!" says Ginny sharply. "How does that explain anything? Where is this mythical place where attacking people is acceptable?"
Pale-faced, he crooks up one corner of his mouth. "Azkaban," he answers. "Not a nice place. Inhospitable even, it could be said."
"Last I checked, that was kind of the point. It's not supposed to be a weekend at the spa."
"Is that the point? Is it? Is that the reason for wide open courtyards and showers and gyms? Who needs cover? We're just scum circling the drain, right? Why not let us work out our frustrations on each other—no one out there gives a shit, anyway."
Whatever she expected, this isn't it. "Out there? Malfoy, you are out there . . . out here."
"Yes. And isn't it just fucking hilarious. They forget to tell you that once you're out," he runs his tongue over the word, "the illusion breaks."
"That anyone ever gets out. It's easier to believe in freedom when you're surrounded by steel bars and oceans. Harder when you get it and it's hollower than biting into water."
She shakes her head in disbelief. "Are you saying you've been attacked? But what about the warden a-and the guards!"
"It's a funny job, being a jailer," he muses, eyes slanted in sleepy malice. His lips pull back to bare teeth. She thinks that for all his sweeping generalities, he's talking about someone in particular, memories dark across his face. "You've got to have the right temperament, and that's hard to come by. Must be why Azkaban attracts sadists like flies to honey."
"That's terrible," she says softly.
Ginny isn't sure if she means his gruesome cynicism or the unvarnished truth she can't help believing, at least a little. And maybe it doesn't matter what she believes, not when he was in the throes of a nightmare and she was the unlucky bystander, her presence triggering the feral instincts long, vicious months thrashed into him. A small part of her protests this too-quick acceptance of his explanation, the same sliver of distrust born from her own long, vicious months of loving, sick dependence on Tom Riddle. Familiar fear swells and warns her not to fall for gilded, too-plausible answers. But watching the faint jerks of Malfoy's bony frame as he sways in clothes too big, she decides to heed the part born of seventeen years of love and compassion.
"I need to sit," he mutters, running a hand through bone-white strands matted with sweat. "This always happen after the night terrors. Damn it, I thought I was better."
Taking one tentative step forward, watching for lurking rage and finding only pallid exhaustion, she takes another and then another. Pocketing her wand, she braces his elbow and leads him to the chair swing. He collapses heavily on its sun-bleached planks and grips its hardwood back with white-knuckled fingers. She sits beside him. "Is this better?" she asks.
"Yes. And before you offer, no, I'd really rather not throw a tea party and gab about my hardships." He clamps his eyes shut. "If you'll hold off shrieking for a minute or two, I might even manage not to faint from this blasted migraine."
"You do that," she says tartly. "I'd hate to explain to Headmistress McGonagall what we were doing that ended with you in the Hospital Wing."
"Shouldn't be too difficult to come up with a believable story. Malfoy sneezed and I hexed him, Professor," he mocks, peering at her beneath fingers fanned over his face. "Malfoy said 'hullo' and I tried to decapitate him. Malfoy was taking up too much room in the swing so I blew a few bits off."
"All right. So I'm a little hex-happy. You're clearly feeling better if you're back to hurling insults every other breath."
A hoarse chuckle sounds from his throat, and his gaze takes on a queer intensity, swiping up and down in a scrutiny that felt like a touch of calloused fingers. She fights down the impulse to fidget or look away. His eyes falter on the bit of envelope peeking from her robe pocket. "Haring off to read a love letter, were you?"
"Hardly," she says, cupping a protective hand over it. "It's my acceptance—or rejection—from the Holyhead Harpies."
Malfoy leans back with slow unwinding tension. "The captain's a cranky bitch. Even you could do better."
If that's meant to be an insult, Ginny chooses not to get it. "Well, I may have to. I don't know what it says yet."
With a sharp snort, as if she's vindicated everything he ever thought of her, he shoots her a look like she's off her trolley. "Then open it and find out. The decision's already been made. Not knowing isn't going to change the outcome. Well, besides burning out brain cells worrying, and it shouldn't bear mentioning how valuable those are where your family's concerned."
"If it shouldn't bear mentioning," she tells him with mocking sweetness, "stop mentioning it. You are quite possibly the least comforting person in the world, you know that? In the history of the world even. Haven't you ever heard of tact?"
"Sure. Tried it once or twice, got bored and tossed it out with my moral compass," he replies with a shrug.
"Tossed it out is right," she mutters. Scowling, she pulls out the letter and tears open the flap. In the filmy heat of anger, she forgets to be nervous. Two sheets of parchment slide out, and she makes it no farther than 'I'm writing to congratulate' before letting out an earsplitting, "Yes!"
Malfoy winces and squeezes his eyes shut. "Damn it, Weasley. Any higher and you could be mistaken for a dog whistle."
"I made it!" she shouts over him. "They're going to make me a first-string Chaser!"
"Really. Hm, always thought you'd try out for Seeker. Is this your consolation prize?"
"No. I didn't want to aim too high right away. I mean we're not kids on brooms vying for the House Cup anymore. It's the real thing. I've got to prove myself first," says Ginny, eyes bright and thrumming from anticipation.
"What is it with you people? Is there a new species of spunky mold growing in your common room? Drugs you're not sharing? It has to violate some law of nature for you lot to be so relentlessly gung-ho for years on end."
She wrinkles her nose. "That's disgusting. And if by gung-ho, you mean capable of experiencing human emotion, then I can certainly understandyour difficulty."
A wry smile touches his lips, smoothing the crinkles around his eyes, and he's almost a doppelganger of himself – a before and after photo for some life-changing procedure or an inspirational advert. Ginny doesn't understand how one sliver of a smile can transform gaunt bitterness into youth and the barest hint of good looks. He'll always be too pointy to be handsome, but right now, his face full of laugh lines and not the battering marks of time, he looks almost approachable. Whatever he sees in her expression smoothes the arch of his mouth into something bordering on intimacy, a look that includes her.
After a long pause, he tells her, "I was painting."
"Someone suggested I visit an old man and paint him a tea service. I thought it was a lunatic idea at the time. Then this leaving fest crept up and it occurred to me I would've finished today if I'd been allowed back. It was . . . a badly needed reminder that I'd been living in limbo."
He has no idea I know who he's talking about, Ginny thinks. "How did you end up here of all places?"
Malfoy gives her a speaking glance. "Before you commandeered it, this was my reading spot."
But the second and the third and the fourth times we met—those weren't so bad. Educational, even.
That's true. A bit miraculous, actually, all things considered.
February 29, 2000; 10:12 PM
The engagement party is a smashing success.
After every bite of crust and swig of margaritas is consumed, the crowd sweeps from the Burrow to the Leaky Cauldron where Hannah announces all drinks are on her. Three hours into this renewal of festivities, Ron is slurring incomprehensibly and Hermione is flushed a radiant pink. Shot glasses and tankards of beer litter the bar; the atmosphere feels stuffed from the crush of all their friends. Ginny sits with Harry in the booth by the door, face tingling from hours of ceaseless grinning. The intimate glances her brother trades with Hermione when they think no one is looking plugs her throat up a little. They say that first loves are brilliant flashes at the beginning of a tunnel-long life, blazing fireworks ending all too soon. Tonight, Ginny knows that the rest of the cynical, winter world is wrong.
When she catches Harry following her gaze, she asks him, "Bit sickening, isn't it?"
Harry grins and makes for the peanuts on the table before getting sidetracked and absently entwining her fingers with his. She loves this about him: He's always unconsciously touching her, little brushes without artifice. "Your mum pulled me aside yesterday. She hinted very, uh, strongly about the—how did she put it—perfection and quaint grace of double weddings."
"Oh, Mum," she groans, heat lapping up her cheeks.
"Well, your whole family's wedding-mad. First Bill and Fleur, then Percy and Audrey. Suppose it's only natural to expect us to catch the bug and hitch up next."
She arches an eyebrow. "Is that a proposal, you devastating romantic?"
"Hm," he says noncommittally. "Throwing out feelers, maybe."
Through the smoky haze and the fuzz of more than one tequila shot, she wonders if the staccato thudding in her chest is joy or anxiety – she only knows it's pure something with one hell of a kick. She blinks the edges of his face sharply into focus and lingers on the note of anxiety in the quirk of his mouth.
"Feelers duly noted," she tells him wryly. "The way Mum prattles on, you'd think marrying off one lone daughter was a type of siege warfare. Still, no matter how eager she is to chuck me, I don't think it'd be right to make Ron and Hermione share their day of bliss."
"Well, I'm in no rush," says Harry. "This whole thing's mad is what it is. After Ron dragged me to the jeweler's, every woman in a ten-mile radius honed in on us with samplers and fabrics and wedding plates. What's wrong with regular plates?"
"Until you learn the answer to that question, Mr. Potter," she teases, "I guess we'll have to keep being what we are."
"And what's that?"
Grinning, she sashays to her feet and leans in, running a finger along his jaw line. "Uncomplicated," she whispers in his ear and seals the vow with a kiss.
February 29, 2000; 11:51 PM
His memory of the last leap year is a blur of smuggled Firewhisky and his first fumbling attempts at sex with Pansy – funny now to remember how youth gave rule-breaking a forbidden appeal, gone now that nothing is off-limits. He remembers that the night didn't go well.
In the morning, he recalled only the feel of things: smooth shapely limbs and drunken pawing narrowing into a pinpoint of clammy, thudding lightness that ends with him leaving a puddle of sick by the bed. Strangely, Pansy clings only harder after that, as though making her the object of his aborted first try at sex is some kind of promise ring. It isn't. His first time would be with Daphne Greengrass the following summer, though that too is an almost-accident. He only visited because Daphne's sister is breathtaking and only stayed the night because she's too young.
This year, on a day that shouldn't rightly exist, a day he convinces himself he can shuffle into some nonexistent black hole tomorrow, perhaps literally if he has any more to drink, he returns from another forgettable night with someone going by Carla in Knockturn Alley. It's funny how names work. They're everything and nothing at once. Carla is a shard of fantasy he sometimes cuts himself on; he insists she try on a different name each night, slipping from one into another as though names are only undergarments and garters. When she is all of them, fully clothed in it, he realizes that is just as much tissue paper as .
Maybe that's why he's learned to keep so many faces, because if he ever stops pretending, his selves will slip off like wet tissues, and isn't it fucking ridiculous how all the names that anchor and drag him down are no more or less than words he can smash into a run-on sentence, inert and weightless? It means the crazy is in him, a figment of his bloody imagination, perhaps even possession if he's feeling particularly melodramatic. If that's so, he wants a goddamn exorcism, please.
Draco doesn't realize he's unconsciously made the familiar turn toward the Leaky Cauldron, which is inexplicably lit up like it's Christmas, until he's near enough to feel music pounding the chilly air. It's impossible not to recognize the people framed in the window, everyone from his other life dancing and clanking cups, half his year crammed into a foggy space, lively and warm and wrong. He's turning on his heel to flee before anyone can spot him when the door swings open and Ginny Weasley falls out, clutching a carton of fags and a match.
Brows shooting up in surprise, she nearly slips on the patch of ice beneath the overhang. Grabbing for a handhold, she drops her match and anchors herself on the rusted metal railing beside the door. Steadied, she darts him an indecipherable look and utters only: "Malfoy."
It comes out as neither a question nor a statement. He hasn't seen her in months; he might've seen her just yesterday.
"Weasley," he responds. When she only stares at him, white puffs of breath tangling the space between them, he reaches into his pocket and pulls out a match. "Light?"
"What? Oh. Yes, thanks."
She slaps the smokes against her palm and offers him the first one out of the carton. He pauses, unsure what he's even doing here before deciding that maybe he doesn't care and maybe it doesn't matter, and accepts. He masks his hesitation by lighting the match, a pinprick of warmth he cups while she bends down, cigarette between rouged lips, to catch its spark. Draco takes a long drag, surprised to find that it isn't the menthol ultra light kind he knows girls like. It's not as strong as he prefers it—he's a cigar man—but it'll do.
He tilts his head towards the celebration. "What's the occasion?"
"Engagement party," she says, cheeks rosy. "Ron and Hermione's. It's all a very big deal. Very. And uh, you?"
"Wanted a drink." The lie slips out like it could be truth. "Didn't realize the place'd be overrun with gingers."
"Oh, sod off," she says with a slight slur, and he realizes she's drunk.
"Last I checked, the bar wasn't a smoke-free zone. And a hell of a lot warmer. Playing the truant?"
"A bit, maybe. Hermione doesn't like smokers. I may have . . . neglected to mention the new habit or two I brought home from Quidditch training."
Draco wonders if he's really going to ask the next logical question: And how's Quidditch? That would make this the most inane conversation he's had in weeks, and whatever he's thought of her throughout the years, inane isn't it. He opts for companionable silence instead. For a few minutes, they savor the soft burn in their lungs, hot and cold from the tart air, and exhale in hazy spirals. He watches the casual way she grips the fag between two slim fingers; she brings her hand up for another drag, and tracing its curve, he notices there isn't a ring.
"Still can't bring Potter up to scratch, then?" he drawls.
She snorts and her eyes laugh at him. "Are you serious? Don't tell me beneath all those swirling cloaks and dashing haircuts you're just another gossipy old woman."
"Ah. Bitterly disappointed, then."
"Hardly. In fact, Harry brought the idea up himself tonight."
"I implied I wasn't ready," she says, giving him an arch look. "And that was that."
Chills begin to creep up his ankles, so he steps out of the slush. Resting his weight on the rail beside her, he murmurs, "Oh? I thought you Weasleys were all about snatching up your first loves and begetting broods."
Her thin shoulders shudder but not from the cold. "Not me," she tells him. "I've had enough of being packed like a canned sardine and made to spill my guts about everything, because no one knows how to mind their own business. It's like a double-edged sword, being so crowded and hovered over. A stray word's enough to get us all snarling at each other. I wouldn't change a thing about the way I grew up, but big families sure don't make it easy to breathe."
"I wouldn't know."
"No." Her bright brown eyes flick over him. "I guess you wouldn't."
Draco remembers their last conversation, and it's a little funny and a little pitiful how awkward they still are around each other, two people who've shared the same space for years and years and are no less remote than the barest of acquaintances, which is funny, because in a way, he feels like he knows her. He recognizes a crack of artificiality in her manner, an almost too-aloofness he sees in himself when he forces himself to look in mirrors. Yet he's still standing here, not leaving, not making his usual excuses to amble off into the night.
"I saw you playing a few months ago," he says instead.
"Oh? Ha! I knew you were all talk, Malfoy. No red-blooded male in their right mind could loathe the Holyhead Harpies. If nothing else, we ladies make good calendar centerpieces."
"No, not anymore," he concedes. "Not since you thrashed Puddlemere United."
"Ah—you were at thatgame." She nods her understanding. "Brutal and fantastic, wasn't it?"
A small smile curves his lips. "The Harpies may have gone up a notch or two in my estimation."
She sighs. "Only a notch or two? Everybody's a critic. Wait. What were you doing in Puddlemere, anyway? Come to think of it, what do you do with yourself these days, Malfoy?"
He shrugs. "I'm about a rung above being chained to a desk. I hunt down Dark artefacts mostly for a private contractor. Sometimes, I get loaned out on cases the Ministry can't handle."
"Well, I suppose there's a certain kind of logic to that. It takes one to know one, right?" she hums. "Need to find a Dark artefact? Who better than a collector to do the job? You lot already know all the best hiding places."
Draco slants her a wry glance, lingering on the boneless way she slumps against the railing. "What makes you think I still collect them?"
"Oh, I don't know—let's just say, I've got more faith in old habits than people spontaneously turning over new leaves."
"Cynical," he notes. "I approve."
She laughs, a lilting crack of sound, dissonant against the rhythmic bass of the dance music wafting from the bar. "Careful. I might take that as a point for the optimists. Can't have you approving of me. The world'll stop turning."
"Is that right?" he says with a small smile. "Shows how little you know. If you'd just drunk more and shrieked less in school, I would've bestowed it sooner."
"Oh, please. You were always too caught up in making life miserable for Harry to notice anybody else. Admit it. You only knew my name because everyone and their pet toad knew I had a mad crush on him."
"Who said I knew your name?" he asks dryly.
She squints up at him in a facsimile of a glare and tosses her head, flinging rebellious red curls over her shoulder. "Wow. This really isn't an act for you, is it?"
"Being such a wanker. There is nothing put-on about it. At all."
April 1, 2000.
For the hardiest Quidditch fans, to whom the game is a quasi-religion, there is a solemn tradition of pranking their rivals on April Fools' Day.
Draco navigates a labyrinth of exploding streamers and people lobbing smelly globs until he finally finds his seat in the top box, best in the stadium, his bookie claims. The Harpies are playing the Wimbourne Wasps on their home pitch, and no one thinks they've got a snowball's chance in hell of winning. The signal is fired, and the Harpies slip into formation. In a daring opening gambit, Weasley zips through her team's protective hoops, buffered for those few precious seconds from the other team, to sink the first Quaffle of the game. It gets downright nasty after that.
By the time the Snitch is caught, three players have been knocked off their brooms, thirty-two fouls have been called and the Harpies' Seeker is levitated off the pitch after crashing in a bravado ploy to catch the Snitch. The Harpies lose, as is expected, but it is a very near thing, which is not. Weasley gives a helpless shrug to her groaning fans in the stands—what can you do?—before disappearing into the locker rooms, but not before he sees her hang her head. He doesn't stop to say hello.
That night, when someone taps him on the shoulder at the hotel bar, the last person he expects to see is Weasley. "What are you doing here?" he asks. The team staying across town is the only reason he chose this unassuming bed and breakfast.
"Someone decided they couldn't express their sense of humor without tossing dungbombs in the air vents," she says sourly. "It stunk. We left. And now, I need a drink."
Lingering on her scowl, he forgets why it was so imperative to avoid her. Her unexpected intrusion into his nightly routine should bother him, but it doesn't. It feels a little like slipping back into a conversation that has lulled. He raises his glass of scotch in salute. "And the rest of the team?"
"Calista and Gwen are over there," she points at two blond women wrapped around each other, murmuring sweet nothings on the loveseat, "and the rest are out partying or salvaging our things."
The bartender, a stately old man, makes a sympathetic noise and pushes something called a Faery Elixir into her hands. She nods gratefully and tips it back in one swallow. "I'd do something about the name, but whatever this stuff is, it's wonderful."
Eyes closed, she rolls the tension from her shoulders, slumping crookedly on the bar. After she orders another and downs it—an impressive maneuver—he ventures to comment, "Tough break for your Seeker."
"Tough is right. It's the third one she's bungled this year," she mutters. "No way management will keep her on."
"You might get your chance after all."
Her brows quirk in surprise, and he isn't sure if his picking up a tangent of their months-old conversation astonishes her or it's something else. "I'll certainly push for it, but it's by no means a sure thing. She might have an in with management. That's what I've always thought, anyway," she says with a grimace. "Far be it for me to wish a teammate ill—it might not bother you overmuch, Malfoy, but not all of us think of knocking out a teammate as advancement."
Draco drains his glass and helps himself to the bottle of Ogden's the bartender left by his elbow. "Then you've still got a thing or two to learn about team sports. Now, I know a thing or two about having ins and holding them over people. Nothing she's got up her sleeve'll be good enough after today. A child can see you're five times nimbler on your broom than that lummox of a woman. She'll stay on the roster only if they're blind, lumbering idiots."
"Gosh, Malfoy," she says with a wide-eyed look, feigning a swoon. "You'd better stop while I'm still conscious. If you give me any more compliments, I won't know which way is up."
He chuckles. "Don't take it so personally, Weasley. I'm just looking after my bracket."
"Of course. Personal gain." She turns her eyes heavenward. "So I'm guessing you didn't come just for the game. Artefact hunt?"
"Yes. The Aubreys. They've been hoarding quite the stash for some years." A wry smile brushes his mouth. "They were convinced it would be their nest egg. We got them when they tried to fence a few . . . rather unique pieces."
"Can't imagine why they'd take the risk. It's hardly like they need any more money. I mean, haven't they got a wing at St. Mungo's? They're only what—one of the richest families in England?"
"You say that like it's ever possible to have enough. I assure you, the first thing you learn when you hit the big time is that the rich people need more. There's nothing harder than maintaining the status quo. It's a sinkhole of expenses you'll spend forever trying to fill."
She slings back another shot and turns watery, amused eyes on him. "Over-identify much?"
"I thought 'it takes one to know one' was my job qualification?" says Draco dryly, drumming long pianist fingers on the bar.
"Oh God, did I say that? I can't remember what we talked about that night. I suppose," she sighs, "that does sound an awful lot like me."
"Yes," he agrees.
She clears her throat. "So. Seeing as you're here in this backwards, country slosh pit—sorry, still a bit bitter about the game—I'm guessing you travel a lot, huh?"
"Sometimes. For some reason, paranoid rich folk like to squirrel away their goods in obscure summer homes."
"Probably the smart thing to do if they've got something to hide," she comments.
"Not really. There are far fewer places to hide in a cottage or whatnot. They'd be better off sticking them under the staircase at home."
"Straight out of the Malfoy Handbook of Secrecy, I take it? Don't tell me you actually hide your shiny trinkets in the stairs."
"I'd tell except for the whole cursed to secrecy thing. You wouldn't fancy talking to me sans a limb or two."
"Hm, serious business," she says.
"Still, no matter how tough it might be for you rich people to figure out what to wipe out all your money on next, it can't compare to poverty. Leagues apart on the hardship spectrum."
Draco orders another scotch on the rocks, sliding a stack of coins across the bar. He bites back a barbed comment when he catches her eyeing the size of his tab. Cocking his head, he says slowly, "I don't know about that."
"Oh, this ought to be good. How do you figure?"
"I'll admit to the odd fantasy—delusional moment, really—every now and then."
"Do tell," she coaxes. "Well, unless it's too lurid. Not sure I want to know all your creature habits or demented inner workings."
"You can rest easy," says Draco wryly. "It's very bland. Vanilla, even. Just me cast out on the street with only the clothes on my back. No money, no name, no history, nothing. It doesn't seem so awful."
"Sure. Except it is." Her voice becomes almost imperceptibly sharper. "You shouldn't ever romanticize poverty. It's not."
"Is that what I'm doing?"
"It doesn't seem so awful," she parrots his words back at him. "Well, you know what – there's nothing glorious about having nothing. It's not all ill-fitting clothes and homemade Christmas presents. It's that look in people's eyes that somehow you deserve it, that you've done something wrong," her calloused hands tighten around the empty shot glass, "or digging through the ninety-percent-off bin in the wrong season and people treating you like what's on the outside, the battered books and secondhand brooms, are all you'll ever be. It's not just panhandling or skirting starvation—we've never been that badly off. It's the way so few people'll give you a chance, and all you can do is grin and bear it and wait them out."
"Christ, Weasley," says Draco. "That's why I called it a delusion. I was one of those people you're talking about, who'd written your family off, remember?"
"Perfectly," she replies, frowning. Her brows furrow at this fluid admission, delivered so simply in his cultured tones it sounded rehearsed even to him. "Was one of those people?"
He turns on the bar stool to face her, and he doesn't understand why it's important that she should know this, but it is. "I'd be irredeemably stupid to still believe it, what with your Quidditch stardom and your brothers' millions."
"Very astute, Malfoy." Ginny Weasley laughs, a rueful smile curving her lips. "Congratulations. Better late to the reality party than a no-show, I suppose."
This is my theory: We've got to meet the wrong people so we'll know when we meet the right one.
That is the worst excuse I've ever heard for the number of notches on your belt.
June 5, 2000.
As far as birthdays go, his twentieth is barely memorable, and he finds he likes it that way. A little cognac goes a long way on rainy days.
Draco's mother used to make an elaborate fuss over the passage of every year, but that was before the war and its shivering steel aftermath. Now, she spends most months of the year commuting between safe, distant France and bitter, barren London where the crowds and guards make her swallow shame on every supervised visit with her husband. She never stays long afterwards. Draco usually wakes up to a pile of presents, all the tags French.
Daphne's little sister is finally old enough to fuck and so beautiful it hurts him to meet her again; she is the last remnant of teenage fantasies from a time when such things were still possible, when he dreamt of her thighs and pouty lips, when he slept full nights and none of the Golden Age he'd been promised, silky crooned lies from a snake bastard, looked like fool's gold. It's a fucking disaster, of course. The youngest Miss Greengrass expects to come first, and for a few weeks, he humors her. In the end, she breaks it off and slashes him with selfish and empty andnot worth it. He wants to pick up the scraps of her bitter accusations and spread them over her skin, scorch them into her with teeth and nails and fingers until she admits there is no truth to them.
But of course, there is.
August 11, 2000.
Nineteen. The 'teen' means she's still a teenager, not yet an adult.
At least that's what Mum tearfully reminds her, after exchanging a sidelong glance with Harry over the entirely too creamy—fairly bursting with tooth-aching sweetness—lopsided cake her entire family shares. Even Charlie, all hard edges and sleek grace, makes it back in time from wherever it is in Romania he spends most of the year lurking. They have to take the party outside, what with all her brothers paired off, except for smiling-too-brightly George and eternal bachelor Charlie. Their spouses flit about delegating all the tasks Ginny used to be responsible for. She supposes it was only a matter of time. She's no longer Mum's lieutenant; there's Hermione and Fleur and Audrey for that now. The kitchen that was stuffed to chaotic proportions all her childhood is no longer enough, not now that their family has swelled.
Maybe that's what growing up means, she thinks. It's about making room and expanding your heart until the muscle's fit to burst and not daring to breathe until this pain-that's-not-pain feels normal.