September 21, 2000.
She has a few knickknacks clumped here and there – pictures on the nightstand, a few posters and a clock Dad cobbled from Muggle gears and glued together with magic. But for the most part, her flat is functional rather than decorative.
And it makes sense, really. It takes living in a place to make it look lived-in, and Ginny spends three-quarters of the year at Quidditch boot camp or jostling around the country with the team. If anything, that's the way she likes it: smooth lines, empty walls and wide spaces. Her flat began as someone's swank art studio before she splurged her entire advance from the Harpies on it. It's the first impulsive buy of her young adult life, and all she knows is that the bay windows open to the sunrise and there are no sharp edges, only walls that curve endlessly. She overrode a lifetime's miserly habits for this place, but her childhood was cluttered with so many things and people and memories she can't escape, not when her family was present for all of them and never fail to remind her of this or that embarrassing incident, and the novelty alone makes the exorbitant price tag worth it.
She loves the feel of the sheer empty space around her, the same reason she loves to fly; there's no freedom like true, untethered freefall.
When Harry suggests that he can keep the place feeling lived-in while she's away, she doesn't understand at first. "Er, that's nice of you. But haven't you got Grimmauld Place to worry about? Every time I see it, it looks like it's going to collapse in on itself."
"Actually," he says. "If I have to choke down any more fish and chips, I'm going to croak from culinary blandness. It's about the only thing I can plop out of a pan un-charcoaled and halfway edible. Getting half the meal out of a bag helps."
"So . . . you want me to cook for you?" she asks, uncomprehending.
Harry clears his throat. "Well, not just for me. We could, uh, cook together."
"But—how would that work if you only want to stay here while I'm gone?"
"Well, when I said house-sit, I didn't mean actually house-sitting. More like living," he coughs, "here."
"Or not," he blurts out. "Only a suggestion. A horrible, horrible suggestion."
She feels a little dazed by all the careening turns in this conversation. "Hang on—this is about moving in, then? Since when have you wanted to, Harry?"
"Just hint a bit and she'll take it from there. Brilliant," he mutters, imitating Hermione's unmistakable cadence under his breath. "I ought to box her ears. Worst advice ever."
Ginny laughs at the disgruntled pinch of his face. "Wait a minute. Of course, you can move in. If that's what you want, Harry. I mean, I hadn't really thought about it, but it makes sense, right? This is what couples do next, isn't it?"
He takes her in his arms, knotting his warm hands behind her waist. She tips back instinctively, resting her palms on his hard, ridged shoulders. With a sheepish expression, he continues, "Okay, so the hinting plan was a bit of a disaster, but I am ready if you are. I don't want to rush things. But you know I already think of you as family, as my family. I don't know about other people or what they do, but I do know Grimmauld Place is too big and too damned drafty by half, and what's worse, you're not there to fuss over me, make me wear socks or come up with ways to keep me warm. So yeah, I do want to move in. No pressure or anything, though. We can pretend this word vomit never happened if it's all moving too fast."
"Too fast?" she repeats, threading her fingers around the nape of his neck. "Are you kidding? I've only been in love with you since I was—what? Ten? It's about bloody time is what it is."
September 23, 2000.
He notices it less and less as time goes on. At first he wonders how people spot him in crowds, when he's little more than a pebble on a beach, and why they make way for him, sometimes in disgust, occasionally disdain, but mostly unconsciously – what makes him different? Eventually, he decides there's no point in trying to unravel other people; image and reputation are mercurial, unfathomable things.
"You've changed," Pansy tells him one drizzling afternoon when they're sitting on her terrace, breathing in the mist of fine rain.
He slings one arm over the back of his gilded side chair. "Oh?"
"I can't put my finger on it," she says. "Maybe it's that bruised look you have when you take someone's measure. Very . . . puppy knocked on the nose by a newspaper too often."
Pansy sighs and rests a delicate elbow on the table, cradling her chin between her fingers. "Like you've seen things, Draco, and you'll never be caught unawares again."
He gives a careless shrug. "You, on the other hand, haven't changed at all. Still mistaking real life for one of your bodice-rippers. Why so dramatic, Pansy?"
"You think so?" She curves a haughty eyebrow. "You're wrong, you know. I'm not like you. I haven't become a more intense version of myself. I've become someone new, better. Now that I've found someone worth giving it my all."
"Not me, I hope," returns Draco easily. "Otherwise, you'll have to excuse me if I conjure up a hasty appointment or two and dash."
She hums a soft, amused sound. "Not you for a long time. You're ancient history, Draco." There's no malice in her voice, and somehow he knows she doesn't mean he's in her past; he's in everyone's past, anyone who used to matter. "It took me years but I finally found her."
Whatever she sees in his face makes her throw her head back in laughter. Pansy shakes the raindrops from her darkening hair with a satisfied smile. "I meant me, you idiot."
September 29, 2000.
Susan Bones takes one look at him lingering at the edge of the Home Charms aisle at Flourish & Blotts and hugs her books to her chest, white-knuckled.
He watches her watching him, caught between flight and pride. Then her nostrils flare—not worth it, he reads in her hauteur—and she whirls around and disappears, the train of her robes slapping the bookshelf in her haste. Draco thinks about following her and dragging her back, shaking her until she spills out her grievances against him, because by God, he is tired of tiptoeing around survivors and hunching in crowds, trying to be less visible, less blond, less tattooed, less everything that distinguishes him. It's been two years and he was six-fucking-teen and terrified; he's already been beaten enough shades of blue and green and all the fucking House colors by old comrades for being such a fuck-up he couldn't off a wandless old man and having a mother who saved Potter, who'd had to save his sorry arse when it came down to it, and you know what, he's done scurrying away at their every accusative look; they can take their righteous bullshit and shove it.
Draco darts after her, but when he careens around the corner, it's Harry fucking Potter he nearly crashes into, his arm slung around Ginny Weasley, and no doubt, soon-to-be Potter. She slowly lowers her hand from flattening Potter's hair. "Hey," she says, and Draco doesn't miss the way she squeezes Potter's arm when he only gapes.
"Malfoy," says Potter. "Er, shopping?"
Somewhere in the back of his mind, Draco has imagined this meeting, cradling the fantasy during the darker nights – how it would take place in neutral territory where one or the other would have to step aside or be made to move. He thought he'd played out all the possible scenarios. How he'll react if he's hexed or cursed out or more likely, simply ignored; he's run all the permutations and mapped it down to a breath. But none of those daydreams ever included Ginny Weasley, and she ruins this moment, this long-awaited-for encounter, because he's not looking at Potter or dredging up any of those terse opening lines he's tucked away for just this instant. No, he's thinking about the possessive circle of Potter's arm around her waist and cataloging the glow that is this simple, everyday, hero-worshipping girl in love and not drunk or scared or angry – Ginny Weasley when not with him.
"Yes, shopping," he replies dully.
"A bit of light reading?" she asks, eyes laughing, slanting her head to read the cover cradled in the crook of his elbow. "Gardening for the Consummate Homemaker. Don't tell me—should we be congratulating you?"
From the corner of his eye, he sees Potter blink at her teasing tone. "It'd be somewhat redundant by now," he responds. "You can't miss her. Tall, willowy, blonde. Likes to go by Mrs. Malfoy."
"Knew it," she says mournfully. "It's always the sullen, mysterious men who are secretly mama's boys. Aren't they just, Harry?"
Potter shifts in discomfort as they both glance at him. "Uh, yeah," he answers, then falls silent with a nonplussed expression, his unease snaring them in that vacuum of silence near-strangers can never entirely avoid.
Draco gives them a clipped nod and turns to leave, a strange tightness in his throat. But she calls out, "It's the Kestrels next Saturday. Aren't you going to wish me luck?"
"I only wish luck to people who need it," he tells her over his shoulder, and she lights up with a grin.
Even beneath all your masks, I think I always knew you for exactly what you are.
Yes. Yes, you did.
October 7, 2000.
Being a Seeker is the best worst position in the world. Today, it's the worst worst position.
They were so close, and they only needed her to seal the deal, to catch the damn Snitch, the only fucking job she has, and she couldn't do it. The bloody thing was between her fingers, and if she were less reckless or even half as good as she promised to be when they finally gave her the position she'd coveted for so long, she might not now be responsible for her team's cloying disappointment and blown-to-bits hopes. But she wasn't good enough. Wordless blame pins her down, digging a granite block into her stomach; there's too much gravity in her legs.
"You tried," says Gwen softly, laying a hand on her swollen shoulder. "It wasn't your fault the Bludger got you when you caught it. We should've guarded you better."
Ginny shakes her head, salty pain prickling the backs of her eyes. "Thanks. But we both know I shouldn't have let my guard down. I should've been watching for it."
The game was close, neck-and-neck to the very last, and for one glorious second, she thinks they have it in the bag. But when it comes down to it, Ginny Weasley, new recruit fresh out of Hogwarts who talked her way into becoming replacement Seeker, chokes under the pressure. They say that in moments of crisis, time slows and you clip along, millisecond by millisecond, painstakingly aware of everything; they're wrong. When the Bludger bears down on her, there is no violent pounding heart or eerily silent world; no, it's short and vicious and there's no getting around the fact that she froze up, a flutter of hesitation that cost them the game.
The rest of the team files into the locker room without a word. Ginny has never wanted a hot bath and a good cry more in her life. Losing friends and family on a battlefield is a cold pain that dulls everything; this is a hot agony that spikes every fleeting thought, an eternity of what-ifs and why-nots. Failure, failure what good are you, rings in her head, and there's nothing so brutal as knowing that she's let down not just herself—what does she matter after all?—but everyone who does matter, her friends and teammates, her family away from home. They carried their load of the dream and she fumbled hers.
It's nearing on midnight when she Floos to her flat. For a heart-wild instant, she thinks it's the wrong address. Then she realizes the hills of boxes and shadowy piles in the dark living room belong to Harry. Over the weeks, he's slowly filled in the free spaces; on Tuesday, it was a Muggle movie poster for something called 'Dr. No' and by Thursday, his flannel pyjamas have snaked their way over her towel on the handrail. Tonight, she spots his Quidditch trophy on the mantel by a framed photo of the team his fifth year, everyone crowded around him, congratulations Harry, fluffing his hair, laughing and cheering over and over. The sight of it scrapes the back of her throat. Bone-deep fatigue and rippling, tugging warmth hook into her shoulders and drag until she has to fight down bile.
Perfect, universally adored Harry – if nothing else, he never, ever let anyone down. It's why she loves him so much, she thinks hysterically. So why, why couldn't she be more like him? She hears a thud in the bedroom then his groggy voice calling her name. She leaps back into the fire before he can find her lurking, tear-stained and ashamed, in the dark.
The sitting room of the Leaky Cauldron is vacant this time of night. Swiping at her eyes, she drifts into the hall towards the soft clinking of glasses. There's no one at the bar but Hannah, hefting a tray of glasses over her shoulder. Ginny waits until she sets it down before murmuring her name.
She whirls around. "Ginny! You scared me half to—what's the matter?"
"Nothing. Just been a long day. I was hoping to, um, cool off my head for a while."
"Of course! That is, I heard," Hannah hesitates, mouth furrowed in worry, "on the radio about the game—Ginny, you're shaking! Come over here and sit down. I'm going to bring out the leftover toffee pudding and some tea. You look like death bowled you over. Don't go anywhere, all right?"
"All right," she promises with a stiff nod.
The old grandfather clock slouching in the corner of the room emits a groaning, unsteady gong. Ginny's eyes drift closed; she presses her cheek to the smooth wood of the bar. That fractured moment of loss is burned on her eyelids, and she relives it over and over, the feel of the lithe Snitch in her fingers before the Bludger clips her on the shoulder and snatched it all away, victory and triumph slippery as smoke. The crowd from the wrong damn side roars as the Kestral Seeker shoots past her to snap the golden ball out of the air. Over and over she views it from all angles, dissecting it into still frames single heartbeats long, and still, she knows she screwed up. Harry would've rolled or dove or done something to avoid the Bludger. She'd just sat there waiting for it.
Behind her, the floorboards creak. She stirs in a half-hearted show of appreciation, but when she looks up, it's not Hannah standing over her with a bemused expression. Malfoy frowns, his hair half-stuck up and tousled by restless sleep, and she's never seen him so unkempt, in a faded shirt with silk pyjama bottoms pooling over bare feet. His presence is so jarring she can't help staring. "What are you doing here?" she asks, startled.
Under her scrutiny, he unconsciously smoothes the ragged edge of his shirt. "That should be my question. I live here."
"When I'm not," he nods at the roof, indicating the world outside, "on the job. Yeah."
"But . . . what about the Manor?"
"Renovations," he replies, tightlipped.
His eyes look so dark in the flickering lamplight Ginny immediately drops the subject. Then she realizes what's wrong with this picture. "Wait. That means you lied to me at the engagement party! You said you were only here for a drink."
"So," she says, angrier than makes any sense, "you're a liar."
Malfoy laughs softly and slips onto the bar stool beside her, bare ankles dangling. "You look like you crawled out of a ditch, Weasley. What's the matter with you?"
"Like you don't know!" she snaps.
"Don't tell me this is about the game." When she turns away, wiping him from her field of vision to blink back tears, he curses. "Shit, this is about the game?"
"Not just any game! You think I'd be this cut up? It was the playoffs, Malfoy. The only one that matters! I singlehandedly knocked us out of contention for the League Cup."
When she lapses into mortified silence, choking off the tail-end of a sob, he shifts closer to catch her downcast, wet-lashed eyes. Whatever he intended to say is lost when he jerks back, slowly exhaling as if in confirmation. Tapping an impatient rhythm on the bar, he narrows his eyes in thought, shaking his head regretfully. "I hate to break this to you, Weasley," he says slowly, "but your team was never going to make it to the League Cup."
Forgetting her blurring tears and splotchy cheeks, she whips around on the stool, incredulous, hands fisted to keep from hauling him up by the ratty t-shirt until his teeth clicked together. "Are you seriously telling me this? Are you really fucking saying this to me right now?"
"Look—is this crappy timing? Yes. But let's be realistic. That's what depression and histrionics boil down to, you know, not seeing clearly. You lost your best Keeper midseason and your Beaters are shit at defense. You replaced the deadbeat Seeker, but it wasn't a bloody coincidence you were two or three goals behind the Kestrels the entire game. Even if you'd won today, this was as far as you were going to go. The Harpies have too many holes to plug. Next game, the Catapults would've chewed you up and spat you out. So . . . there's no reason to cry. You didn't sink the team. Not really."
"This is—you are the worst—what is wrong with you?"
"The truth is shitty," he shrugs, discomfited, "but hearing it makes things better. Eventually. What the hell else do you want me to say? You're doing that scrunching up your face trying not to cry thing, which looks terrible on a girl by the way. If you were Blaise or Theo, I'd tell you to buck up and stop sniveling, but you're not. So what—you want me lie to you some more?"
"Yes! No. I don't know! Something. Anyone with a teaspoon of human feeling could come up with something better than, 'your team was going to suck anyway, chin up,'" says Ginny sarcastically. "Considering your sparkling personality, I'm sure you've made loads of girls cry. I refuse to believe this is a novel experience for you."
"It's not," he mutters. "You're just the first I've stuck around for."
"Oh, that's comforting. Please. Keep going. The night's still young. Let's see if you can't goad me into—"
The adjoining door to the kitchens swings open, Hannah reappearing at last with a bowl of dessert and a teacup. "Ginny, I've got—oh, Mr. Malfoy. Ah, did I forget your sleep tonic again?"
"No, it's quite all right," he says, slanting a grimace at Ginny. "Any chance I had of getting shuteye tonight is already blown to hell anyway."
Ginny tries to smile for Hannah's sake. "Thank you, but I've lost my appetite." She gives him a dirty sidelong look. "So I think I'll just turn in for the night."
"Well, if you want to stay here, I've got more than enough room," offers Hannah.
Ginny thinks about Harry and the way he sprawls in his sleep, like he's making up for all those years of cupboard-living by engulfing all the space he can now. If she goes back, she'll have to explain why she ran out earlier. There would be questions and attempts at comfort and more tears. That decides her. "Actually, yeah, that'd be great."
Hannah plucks the first steel key from the corkboard of most empty hooks. The Leaky is nearly full-up tonight. "Room 211. Try to get some sleep. I'll have a big breakfast for you in the morning."
Ginny thanks her and takes the key, brushing past Malfoy, avoiding any contact. After a moment, he pads after her with disgruntled steps. She quells the desire to climb the stairs two at a time; it's harder to ignore the prickling sensation of his presence a breath behind her. He moves so quietly that except for the creak of the stairs, she wouldn't even know he's there, but she does know and his proximity narrows the tiny staircase around them, packing the air until she's desperate to escape. On the second floor landing, she takes off for her door and stabs her key into the lock. Her head lifts at his footsteps. When she turns around, he's still behind her, looking as though their conversation is unfinished and he can't bear not to have the final say.
Pushed beyond endurance, she snaps, "What do you want?"
He gives her an arch look. "The same as you. My bed."
"So go there," she grits. "Why are you following me?"
"211." He points a long, graceful finger at her room and then leans back on the door across the cramped hall, arms crossed. "212. Funny how that works, them being next to each other."
Balling her hands into fists and ignoring the key digging into her palm, Ginny chokes out, "God, what is wrong with you? Were you born this insensitive or—"
"Actually, Weasley, the only insensitive person here is the one screeching in the hall at one in the morning." Kicking his door open, he grips her wrist, and she's too surprised by the feel of his fingers, rough and warm, and too keyed up and spoiling for a fight to realize his sudden momentum has yanked her into his room until the door clicks shut and he keeps going: "—room's warded. Yell. Scream. Do whatever you need to, to stop being such a whinging bitch."
"Oh, that's good, keep insulting me. That'll shut me right—" Ginny trails off at the sight of the rumpled bed behind him, the only anything askew and used in the room. The corner of a trunk peeks out from under his bed, beneath a shelf overhead with only three books. The room otherwise appears as though he only just arrived. There is more clutter in her loo than Malfoy has in the entire room. "You live here?" she asks again involuntarily.
"We've covered this," he says, irritated. "Yes."
"But—you must've been here for months. There's nothing here. Where's your stuff?"
"This is my stuff."
"You live out of a single trunk?"
He snorts. "Don't you?"
"Well, yes. Out of necessity. What's your excuse?"
"Why are you so obsessed with this? Maybe I like being able to pick up and leave whenever I want. Maybe I've got house-elves constantly on-call. What does it matter?"
"But you're Draco Malfoy. You're up to your ears in gold. In six years, I've never even seen you use the same quill." She throws her hands up, bewildered. "Where are all your valuables and things?"
"Why do you care?" he grinds out. "Maybe I'm done with all that juvenile bullshit; maybe I'm not. What business is it of yours?"
"It isn't. I just—I'm curious. You're . . . I don't know how to deal with you. I mean, you're not easy to like or a comfortable sort of person—God knows, you're not. But I thought we were—maybe we'd become friends. Then you pour buckets of salt in my wounds. Somehow, I've ended up in your room where it looks like a ghost lives, and you're confusing the hell out of me. Who are you? Someone I found at the leaving feast looking like a starved person pressing his nose to a shop window? Someone who I can share a smoke with and not feel judged? Or are you the same jumped-up bastard I went to school with? Which is it? Because I don't—I can't understand you."
Malfoy doesn't answer. He stands so still his silence seems to deepen the tension in his body. Her breaths hitch at the way he looks at her, unerring and naked. She tries to match his statue stance. She doesn't want to miss the first break in composure that'll tell her he's ready – to speak, move, do something. Ginny almost steps back when he smiles slowly but it doesn't touch his eyes, weary chips of slate.
"None of the above," he tells her. "I'm nobody at all."
"What does that mean?"
He cocks his head, cheeks implacable stone. "It means we're not friends. It means I'm not your drinking buddy or someone who'll throw you pity parties." He takes a step towards her. When she doesn't hide her flinch in time, he laughs. His noiseless strides eat up the distance between them in an instant, and he comes to a rest slapping a hand on the door above her right shoulder, forcing her to tilt back, all the way back against wood, to meet his cold gaze. "It means I won't sugarcoat things with you. I lie. I lie all the time, to everyone. But I don't like lying to you."
"I don't understand."
"No," he murmurs. "I suppose you wouldn't. You're this . . . crazy person, who's so bright and alive and right that when I look at you, I think you'll burn me to nothing if I wander too close." Two slim, cool fingers tug at a strand of auburn hair then drift down the side of her face, leaving quivering warmth in their wake. "Even your coloring's right. A little like a flame I want to put in glass and carry around. But I'd dim you. I know you only burn for him, and that's right, too. It's how the world should work."
"What are you talking about?" she whispers.
He cups her cheek and for a terrifying instant, she thinks he means to do more, but his hand slides down her arms and slips behind her. The door clicks open. Suddenly she's keeling backwards, off-balance and catching frantically at his arm to stop her freefall. His throat works as he glances down at the fingers pressed on his bare skin over the uneven pulse in his wrist. Ginny follows the line of his sight to her hand and immediately releases him; the feel of him scalds. But whatever noble instinct led him to open the door is gone now; he sweeps a hand behind her neck, five pinpoints of pressure that ignites a charge in her chest, palpitating awareness of his proximity, his musky scent, the light bristles on his chin.
He hauls her against him and she sways forward, too feeble and lightheaded to resist him. Heartbeat hammering in her wrists, she clings to the fabric of his shirt, not knowing if she is pulling closer or pushing away. The motion tugs down the neckline of his shirt to reveal a slice of scarred flesh clinging to his collarbone, so faint she's never noticed it before; but they're standing so close now, closer than they've ever been, and she can't help tracing the curve of his scar, following it until it disappears beneath his shirt, a memento of a time they both want to forget.
"Another double-edged gift from Potter," he says, pressing his eyes shut.
Malfoy abruptly releases her. "It—and you are both reminders he'll always be better. This was a mistake. A delusion better unfulfilled."
Ginny doesn't know what to say, how to give him an answer without acknowledging the question. "I don't know what you're talking about," she says, trembling.
"I won't lie to you. If you really want the answer to your question, you'll ask again. The real one this time."
The hall echoes with her harsh breathing. When the moment drags on so long his face twists into something bitter and bleak with hope, she whirls around to turn the key to her door, slamming it behind her, lowering a wood curtain on the unbearable sight of this strange stranger Malfoy. No, not Malfoy. A different name thuds in her mind. Now that she has made the leap, it's too late; his surname already tastes foreign, and that can only mean one thing. Is he Draco now?
In the morning, Draco—whoever he is—is gone.
You have to love before you can be relentless.
I don't know about that. You've always been relentless.
October 18, 2000.
The first couple of weeks, she and Harry are on their best behavior. She says 'please' and 'thank you' when he passes her the sugar, and he's careful to leave the toilet seat down.
Ginny loves knowing, while thumbing through a good book, that he's only a few feet away in the wicker chair, nose in the paper, and she can share all the funny and thoughtful lines. At night, they take sweeping, breath-robbing flights to the corners of London which only end when he tumbles her onto their bed and makes her arch and soar, soaking in his blazing warmth.
She remembers daydreams in Charms doodling 'Ginny Potter' over and over on her notebooks. Somehow, their reality is even better.
November 12, 2000.
"Gin, do you ever think that names are important?"
"What do you mean?"
"Like namesakes – why your parents named you this or that."
"Hm, can't say I've ever really thought about it. I hated my name for ages. It's a good thing Ron couldn't figure out how to pronounce 'Ginevra.' I might've been stuck with it. I've always thought it too stuffy."
"If you could change your name, would you?"
"Well, no. It's much too late now. I've made my peace with it. Would you, Harry?"
"No, not me, either."
"What's brought this on?"
"Not sure. I guess I'm just nostalgic. I was . . . rearranging things on the mantel when my parents' picture fell out of the frame. It sort of hit me—like a punch to the gut. I never got to know them, Gin. Just their names: James and Lily. Lily and James."
"By all accounts, they were amazing people."
"Yes. But you know, I've always thought that children are supposed to outlive you and then carry you on after you're gone. Who's going to remember them when I'm gone?"
"Well, your kids, I suppose."
"Don't get ahead of yourself. Maybe one day, Harry."
"Is that so? Just so you know, I want at least one boy and one girl."
"My parents gave up so much, and they never even got to know me. I think . . . I'd like to honor them somehow. Maybe name a little boy and a little girl after them."
December 19, 2000.
There's hardly an inch of space now.
Everywhere reminders of Harry creep up walls and drawers like lichen. She marvels that her flat was ever mostly empty. It looks so decidedly lived-in now. His packrat mentality amuses her, the way he hoards all the mementos of where they've been and where they'll go: concert tickets, the knob that fell off the stove, a fork he nicked from Dobby one late-night snack many years ago. For a man who's never had anything to call his own, any treasures he could share with someone else, he takes fierce delight in piling her flat with what he calls, 'meaningful trinkets' – nothing you can replace with money; only what you can accumulate from lots and lots of hardy living.
They spend all morning wrapping presents and preparing to spend the holidays with her family. Watching Harry hang vinyl records—some daft Muggle thing—on the crowded walls, Ginny realizes as she shrinks their things into a trunk that her flat has become its own small Burrow.
January 2, 2001.
Mum takes her aside after her third helping of eggnog. "You know I don't like to interfere with your life, but your dad and I are getting worried."
"How do you mean?" asks Ginny, wary.
"Well, the thing is . . . Harry asked your dad," she wrings her hands, "for your hand last year. At your birthday party. Of course, Arthur said yes—"
"Don't raise your voice," admonishes Mum, as though there were eavesdroppers lurking about. "Now, your dad and I don't know why the two of you are waiting, but Harry told us last night he didn't think you were ready yet. Which is ridiculous because you're certainly not getting any younger—"
"Of course, I'm not ready! I-I'm not even twenty!"
"I hope I've taught you better than to lead someone on, Ginevra Weasley. All this playing coy and dragging your feet won't end well," says Mum, disapproving.
Ginny stiffens, stung. "I've got a career, something I'm good at that's got nothing to do with Harry or being one of those Weasleys. I don't want—I can't settle down yet. It's too soon."
Mum softens her tone. "What are you afraid of, love?"
"I don't know. I just know it's too soon. If I say yes—I think if I said yes, if I agree, I'm going to get swallowed up by him," she whispers. "Don't you see? It's always been him and about him: putting him first, waiting for him. His marriage, his future, his parents' names for his kids. I spent years pining and aching for him, Mum. Can't it finally be his turn?"
January 7, 2001.
The sky bloats with rain. It puts her in one of those melancholy moods where Harry's absence throbs like a slow-bleeding cut.
An inexplicable peak in Dark wizard activity steals him from her at the cusp of the New Year and she's restless. Puttering about her—their flat, she starts flinging clothes into her trunk. Quidditch boot camp is tomorrow, and even if she's only a second-string Seeker now, nothing will stop her from proving she'll never, ever choke again. She and Harry have never talked about it. Her shame is too fierce, too private to be shared with someone so close. It's less real this way; unspoken is unfelt.
Every now and then, she thinks about the one person she did tell. The remembrance comes unprompted; she'll be doing something domestic, dishes or laundry, or something completely unrelated to Quidditch when the expression on his face, caught in that slice of a second before she slammed the door shut on any possibility of wanting to know another man like she knows Harry, drifts into her mind. Over time, he has become darker somehow; for all his bone-white shocks of hair and rugged pale skin, in her mental image, he's always shaded. It's strange that she prefers him that way, like looking into the too-bright, too-harsh sun through tinted glasses.
January 10, 2001.
His head pops out of the fire, hair askew and glasses fogged over. "I'm going to have to travel a bit. New assignment. Very hush-hush."
"All right. Remember to stay safe. No reckless heroics if you know what's good for you," she warns him but his face is tilted to the side, listening to someone unseen.
After a moment, Harry turns back, flashing an apologetic smile. "Have to dash. Duty calls and all that."
The fire goes out before she can say goodbye.
January 29, 2001.
A snow-coated owl lands on her bed and shivers, scattering snow all over her comforter. Ginny unties the letter and feeds him an owl treat. She opens the water-logged parchment and reads:
We've caught their second-in-command. Only a matter of time before we get their leader. Can't give out too many details. The case's still confidential. Wouldn't want the public to get wind of it and panic.
You've still got that scrimmage tournament on, right? Give them hell!
The scrimmage ended two weeks ago. She refolds the letter slowly and sinks onto the bed, staring out the open window. Flecks of snow drift into the room but she doesn't notice.
February 12, 2001.
Even though she heard from Harry only yesterday, she feels in the aching joints of her exhausted, wind-battered body that something has changed.
There are no more twice-daily Firecalls. Now she's lucky if she catches him before bed or when he sheepishly checks in the next morning. He's about to break a big case and she's so, so close to redeeming herself on the pitch. At the end of the day, neither of them has enough mental stamina to do more than murmur goodnights and sweet nothings.
February 14, 2001.
Valentine's Day begins brilliantly and ends knife-twistingly wrong.
Harry takes her to a posh restaurant, so she dresses glamorously for the occasion. Their place settings are impeccable, the atmosphere is romantic and the food is to die for. What makes it all shrivel into ash is seeing Draco Malfoy walk in with a svelte redhead on his arm and saunter into a private dining room. Not even the smallest acknowledgment when Ginny knows he saw her. It makes no rational sense that such an insignificant slight should simmer her blood and pepper her cheeks red, but it does, and she can only hope Harry doesn't notice the reason she's upset.
She jumps him the moment they're back in the flat. He stiffens in surprise and then melts with her into a furious tangle on their living room floor. There's nothing wrong with the sex. But when it's over and they're tucked into bed, she can't remember a single thing they said to each other that day.
March 23, 2001.
Ginny believes she's finally put a finger to the pulse of their problem.
She and Harry are too eager and not eager enough. Her vacation times are sporadic and too short; when they both manage to be home during those brief stays, the pressure to make every moment special, fine china for dinner and rose petals on the bed, hikes their expectations beyond reason. She walks in, they make small talk, quip over the latest anecdotes the other has missed and then attack each other. The sex is frantic, but their physical intimacy is no salve for the scripted nature of their reunions: dinner, wine, sex while talking about everyone but themselves.
April 1, 2001.
The Harpies soundly defeat the Chudley Cannons, whom Ron has finally given up on account of family loyalty – or so he claims, loudly and often. He waves merrily at her as the team does another victory lap. Most of the family sprawls on the top stand, eager to witness her return to the pitch as Seeker. Even George chortles whenever she does something right and fires off fireworks when she catches the Snitch. A birthday party awaits them at the Burrow, with one cake they'll eat there and a second they'll bring to Fred's grave where they'll celebrate all the ways he's touched their lives until well into dawn.
Ginny does one last sweep of the stadium. She looks. She always looks, but she never sees Draco.
May 20, 2001.
This, she thinks, is what it must be like to be married.
She and Harry make sure to talk once a week, even if only for a snatch of minutes. They both owl all the splinters of the Weasley family regularly, even Percy and Audrey, but when it comes time to put quill to parchment for each other, the words don't flow. They agree it's better not to write at all than to exchange terse, awkward snippets. There are only so many times she can deliver the same lines about how tough practices are, how ragged the captain's run them all or hear the latest updates on cases that are a blurring line of dominos Harry knocks over one after another.
She knows that married life or whatever approximation of it they're currently living can be banal and humble. Earthshakingly passion can't be sustained indefinitely, or at least that's what she reminds herself, trying to temper her expectations and disappointment. But the gulf between them, exacerbated by time and space, seems deeper than the exigencies of a long-term relationship. And that's what they're in. Ginny doesn't understand what's happening; she spent years chasing Harry, longing for him like a parched flower in cracked desert rock. Now she finally has him; and he loves her; what's wrong?
July 31, 2001.
They spend Harry's birthday at the Burrow and barely have a scrap of a moment alone together. A small part of her is relieved that her family and friends act as buffers, so there's no room for stilted silences or "work" dinners with case files strewn about the dining table. But there's no wild beat drumming in her wrists or heated glances stolen across crowded rooms, either. And yet, he's become more a part of her family than ever. Ginny can no longer imagine any birthday or Christmas or New Year's without him to split eggnog or play impromptu Quidditch or laugh over horrid Weasley sweaters with. It confuses her that the closer he is, so inextricably tied to every meaningful facet of her life, the stronger her impulse to move, to imagine being farther away.
It's ridiculous, she reassures herself. She's been in love with the man since the moment they met. There is no such thing as feeling too much like family.
August 12, 2001.
The morning after her twenty-first year in the world, she drifts sleepily into the warm kitchen, pours out a cup of tea and accepts a battered slice of yesterday's cake from Harry, who's already dressed, shaved and thrumming with queer anticipation. "Ugh, morning people," she mutters, pressing a sloppy kiss to his cheek.
Ginny stabs the cake with a fork and flops onto the only unoccupied chair, stifling a yawn. That's when she notices the kitchen is packed. There's nothing unusual about her brothers waking at the crack of dawn to shred open presents on their birthdays, but it was hers yesterday, and this is already tomorrow. Why is everyone staying at the Burrow crammed into the kitchen? George and Angelina at the end of group are nearly pushed out the door.
"What's going on?" asks Ginny, confused.
Hermione's smile is too wide and Ron's face is bright red, not meeting her eyes. She follows his line of sight to her plate. Beneath the frosting and crumbs is a glint of something that doesn't belong. It looks like gold. "Oh, my God," she says faintly, nudging apart the slice to reveal a gold band studded by a single teardrop diamond.
The ring is wrenchingly beautiful. Ginny swivels to face Harry, dizzy from the whiplash of it all, but she needn't have bothered because he closes in on her and bends down on one knee. "H-Harry," she stammers.
"Ginny," he says, gripping her slack hand. "Will you marry me?"
She doesn't know how long she gapes at him, only that it must've been too long. Nervous tension wires the room; all the worried looks exchanged means her silence is much too long. "I thought we were waiting," she finally manages.
His brows crease, the first hints of hurt. "We are. We did. I've been waiting for a year."
"You asked permission only—Mum said my last birthday," she says, throat dry as sandpaper, darting a look at Ron and Hermione's shocked faces. No doubt they expected her to leap with joy, accepting her shiny diamond shackle with a flying tackle. "Harry, I'm – I'm only twenty-one."
He slowly rises to his feet. "What does your being twenty-one have to do with anything?"
"What does—it has everything to do with everything! I mean, we just moved in together. And you can't pretend things have been perfect—"
"Okay," cuts in Hermione, with her arms full of Weasleys. "I think this is a private conversation. Let's, ah, leave them to it."
Her family stampedes out of the kitchen – Charlie throwing her a look of support, Ron blinking dumbstruck, Dad looking bewildered, Mum frowning in anxiety. Ginny forces herself to meet Harry's green eyes, dull with pain. "It's not that I don't love you, Harry—you know I do. But this is all happening too fast. We've both been so busy. I've hardly seen you in weeks."
"That's the point. All this distance," he swipes the air between them, "won't matter once we're married."
The bruising edges of a thought she's buried again and again finally slip out, unstoppable as a waterfall behind a cracked dam. She cries, "But—but how will marriage fix anything?"
"We'll be a family, a real one," returns Harry as though reciting a definition. "With unbreakable bonds. We'll never have to worry about losing each other. Whatever petty fights we have will just be petty fights. We'll know here," he slaps his hand across his chest, fingers splayed over his heart, "that that's all they are. And it won't matter when we don't see each other. We'll be married."
"But . . . first of all, I don't even know if that's true. And even if it is, none of those are reasons to get married. They're—Harry, those are all fears," she chokes out.
A desolate conviction slowly collects in his ramrod straightness, and she can no longer cram the thought she's been denying for months back into its mental vault.
She's always known that for Harry, family is a mythical and perfect phenomenon, a construct he's cobbled together from all the tales of his parents' tragic love and her own family's seeping intimacy – never mind that Ginny isn't ready to be Mrs. Potter, even if there's nothing that sounds more right. She isn't someone given to introspection, but after long months of clutching whatever scraps of him she can hoard, of living in her own head because they keep passing each other like ships in the night, all the loneliness has built and built into this brutal truth. Harry means this ring to be a salve, a patch for their leaky raft of a love, to pave over the leagues they've drifted apart and haul them forcibly together, as if none of this—the silences, the jagged way their lives don't match, their emotionally stale dances at night—will matter once 'I do' passes her lips.
But he's wrong. Every moment of these ten months has been a preview of the rest of their lives. Ginny can no longer refuse to see down the tunnel-long years: bearing Harry's children, all named after his sanctified parents and his dead heroes; keeping house and home for him while he bustles up and down the span of England in a job with no end; and losing her one last sliver of independence the day she becomes too old for Quidditch. She will spend a lifetime swathed in the mantle of Mrs. Harry James Potter, dwarfed by his birth and victories and calling, and always, in the eyes of the world, the woman at his side and never the other way around.
"No," she tells him, her grief splintering until she is numb from its shards. "I can't."
Turning him down was the hardest easy thing I've ever had to do.
So what does that make me?
Giving into you was the easiest hard thing I've ever done. You've never exactly been in our good books, you know.
August 13, 2001.
His things are gone. That's all Ginny sees when she opens the door to her flat, twin beats of anticipation throbbing in her wrists. Harry is gone, too.
No more meaningless, meaningful knickknacks; no flannel pyjamas on the towel rack; no motionless posters lovingly preserved in glass frames. Only vast, vacant space remains – just like she wanted, only this is the first time each unsteady (steady) breath has seared from a wish granted.
September 19, 2001.
The merrily wrapped birthday present—a book, of course—feels slick between her sweaty palms. Trying to brace herself for the inevitable, she hesitates on the doorstep of Ron and Hermione's new home, bricked and painted and beautifully ordinary. They're all (her family) waiting inside; she can hear their voices buzzing through the oak door.
Someone clears his throat behind her. Ginny startles and ceases everything – breathing, movement, surely even her heartbeat. Harry looks up at her from the bottom of the stairs, thinner than when she saw him last, green eyes swiping over her once, twice, and then settling somewhere on the vicinity of her throat.
"Hullo," he speaks softly, shifting his weight to tuck his unevenly taped gift securely in the crook of his arm.
Salty warmth burns the back of her eyes. Her throat unknots just enough for her to say, "Hi."
December 24, 2001.
"Mum!" Ron hollers. "He's at it again."
He is Teddy who scampers after his Unka Ron, changing his hair into iridescent shades and a spiky shape that could vaguely be a spider. Mum totters into the living room, levitating a tray of dancing biscuits ahead of her. She pivots her head to follow Teddy's shrieking form dart madly around the living room and sighs. "Teddy, you're scaring your Uncle Ron."
"I'm not scared," he sputters. "It's just . . . freaky, is all."
Grinning like the mischievous monster he is, Teddy does one more Medusa imitation and then hares off to the stack of gifts under the tree. For one discordant, fleeting moment, a wobbling heat pounds her chest as she realizes that one day all her married brothers will have children, and they'll stay here—in her childhood home—on holidays and birthdays, all the ordinary and special days. She will be their emergency babysitter whenever her brothers want to take their wives out, and their children will think of her as that maiden aunt who spoils them rotten. After all, here she is again, sitting alone on a lumpy couch by the fireplace sipping eggnog because it's what she's always done, year after year for twenty winters.
She sneaks a glance at Harry, sandwiched between Hermione and Fleur, writhing in vain to escape them wrestling a Santa hat on him. He notices her staring and crinkles his eyes in a resigned I-look-bonkers-don't-I? expression, its aching familiarity catching her off-guard.
Swallowing hard, she nods, mockingly solemn, and cracks a smile that quivers into a laugh at the red stripes on his cheeks as the women beside him crow in victory.
January 10, 2002.
He's never put much stock in New Year's resolutions, partly because the number of things in his life that need fixing is staggering, but mostly because he doesn't think he'll follow through.
There have already been so many; he can't bear to fail at yet one more thing. Not when the wizarding world is so damned small, a microcosm of the most judgmental, interfering slice of humanity, he sometimes thinks. These days few people stare anymore, most simply oblivious to his continued existence. That isn't the problem. The problem is that he can never see even the barest snatch of red hair—strawberry, copper, auburn; it doesn't matter—without whirling around for a second glimpse. It's worse than a double take because it's always some other woman, never her.
Once, he nearly collides with Molly Weasley as she is walking to Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes, a lunchbox tucked beneath her arm. "Excuse me," he mutters and then stops dead, tracing the edges of her lined, plump face, lingering on the same bright brown eyes she'd gifted her daughter.
The gentle curl of her mouth smoothes into a frown. Her eyebrows pinch together in thought, and she blinks as though trying to place him in no doubt the encyclopedia of her acquaintances. After all, that's what Weasleys do: befriend everything that moves. At last recognition dawns; she says slowly, "Draco Malfoy."
He gives her a clipped nod. "Mrs. Weasley."
This is followed by a hitch of silence, tension swooping in to compact the air between them. Briefly, she glances longingly at the entrance to her son's shop, her hesitation palpable. Then she pivots fully to face him, the set of her shoulders bespeaking resolve. "How are you, Draco?" she asks kindly.
Startled, he can only manage monosyllables. "Fine. And you?"
"I'm doing very well, thank you." Mrs. Weasley smiles, transforming her wrinkly, freckled face, a countenance that hooks claws into the back of his throat. He would've given an arm as a boy to uncover this soft tenderness in his mother's cordial indulgence. "How is your – how is Narcissa these days? I don't believe Arthur and I have seen her in years . . . ."
Since I killed her sister and we imprisoned your father, he can almost hear the unspoken words. Draco clears his throat. "Mother lives in France with my grand-maman. She's in good health."
Mrs. Weasley arches to peer up at him, fully aware that he didn't answer her question. Somehow, the movement makes her more approachable; even were he to slouch, she would only come to his shoulder. "Well, that explains it. She can't have seen you recently." She pauses then continues, lowering her voice. "You look like skin and bones. Mark my words, the first thing she'll do is feed you a good Sunday roast or two."
An image of his mother whizzing about the kitchen with oven mitts and a spatula flits involuntarily across his mind. He laughs, deep and hard. "Mrs. Weasley," he says when she begins looking flustered. "Can you imagine Narcissa Malfoy in an apron and elbow-deep in roast beef and potatoes?"
"Perhaps not," she admits.
"But I'll take it under advisement," he tells her. "There's only one house-elf left at the Manor and she's getting on in years, so I've been avoiding her meals."
"Well, if you – that is, if you wouldn't mind some plain home-cooking," she hesitates, appearing surprised at the invitation on the tip of her tongue, "you're welcome to come to the Burrow for dinner."
A spasm of longing clenches his chest. Curling his left hand into a fist, he answers haltingly, "Thank you. I would . . . it's very kind of you to invite me."
Having issued her invitation and committed herself, she reaches out to squeeze his elbow. "Good, that's all settled then. Arthur and I'll expect you one of these days."
June 5, 2002.
It takes him nearly six months to make a New Year's resolution.
The grove behind the Manor was once an exemplar of manmade beauty. Walking through it now, he wonders why he finds the frenzied bushes and shrubs and flowers bursting in his absence, radiating across the paved path and springing up trees and benches, more beautiful than the perfectly trimmed garden, his mother's pride and joy. Roses and bluebells and flowers he has no names for have migrated from their designated plots and rooted into new territory. The sight of them thriving in a dizzying field of greens and blues and reds tugs at a different place inside him than mere appreciation of beauty. Malfoy Manor, his childhood home, the residence and source of nightmares past and present, the place he is finally returning to after years resonates in this other, deeper place inside him.
All living things move on, he thinks. They have to. Moving is living.
October 21, 2002.
For some reason, the fundraising banquet Hermione spends nearly three months putting together becomes a masquerade when all is said and done.
To hear her tell the story, her superiors marched into her office, a little room tucked in the nook of an obscure hallway next to the even smaller Office of House-Elf Relocation, and ordered her in no uncertain terms that she would make the function "fun" and "hip" and ply all potential donors with liquor, sparing no qualms to employ every non-magical means of persuading partygoers to part with their hard-earned gold. She would do this, they added, if she really cared about finding a cure for lycanthropy. Predictably this fires her up – as would any aspersion cast on her enthusiasm for her sociopolitical agenda. No more staid, straight-laced political affairs the Prophet's always panning, she promises them.
"You're a celebrity," says Hermione when Ginny asks why her attendance is mandatory.
"So ask Harry."
"He said yes?" asks Ginny, taken aback.
"Well . . . not in so many words exactly."
"In what words exactly?"
Fidgeting with the sleeve of her jumper, Hermione mumbles, "He might've mentioned—hinted really, something about coming only if you'd go divert the crowd."
"Brilliant," she mutters. "Traitor."
Hermione feigns deafness. "It's a costume ball," she continues. "Wear masks. No one'll even know who's who until midnight."
"I'm warning you right now that I'll come as a ghost, the Muggle kind with a bed sheet—"
"Er, well . . . about that. So it might be a Regency-style masquerade—"
Hermione begins backing toward the door, deftly avoiding a collision with Mum who breezes into the kitchen, a load of beets inexplicably slung over her shoulder. "Corsets, ball gowns and dominos," she says quickly. "Ron and I'll see you there. Oh, hullo, Molly. Just on my way out!"
Mum blinks at the door swishing from Hermione's momentum. "In a hurry, wasn't she?"
"Rotten cheat," says Ginny, sighing.
October 31, 2002; 9:26 PM
He loves flying: the feel of being cradled by razor-cold wind and the knowledge that no matter how far he flies—flees, falls, soars—or wherever he goes, always, always there is another sky.
Tonight, that sky swells with heaviness. Draco feels it in the marrow of his bones, those long weeks in wet, dank Azkaban having left an aching legacy in his joints, a dull pain that flares before musky rainfall. When he tilts back to the Manor and dips down into the ramshackle courtyard where overgrown hedges and ravenous weeds cling to the fences, he spies a woman in a fancy ball gown through the wide, ivy-draped windows: Pansy pacing in his foyer. Shaking his dusty robes out, he unlocks the window and steps inside.
"There you are!" she snaps.
Hackles raised, he intones, "At your service."
"If only that were true." Pansy glances at her diamond-encrusted wristwatch. "We should've left half an hour ago."
Draco twirls his broom idly. "Left for where?"
"The Ministry Masquerade, of course! The one I've been telling you about for weeks?" At the faint crease of remembrance in his brow, she darts a silent plea skyward before stalking over to the armchair draped with clothing: breeches, dress shirt, waistcoat, a grey cutaway coat and layers he doesn't recognize. "Strip. We might still be fashionably late."
Looking down his nose at her, he tosses off his robe and begins unbuttoning his shirt. When her only response is to huff at him, he shrugs. "Just following orders."
Pansy eyes him with pursed lips. "I've seen better."
"Whatever helps you sleep at night—is this a cravat?"
The offending white neck-cloth leaps out of his hand with a flick of her wand, winding itself around his throat into the most complicated knot he's ever seen. "Too tight," he croaks, reaching up to loosen it.
"Don't touch!" She fires a Stinging Hex at his hand. He levels a glare at her, sucking on his stung knuckle. After another flick, air rushes back into his windpipe. "I practiced for an hour before I could figure out how to tie one of those infernal things. I don't want to see one, not one wrinkle in it tonight."
Draco catches his reflection in the ornate mirror by the fireplace and scowls. "You wasted your time. I look ridiculous."
"You look fashionable. Get your skinny arse into these breeches and you'll be the perfect Regency gentleman ready for a night out on the town."
"What the hell is this flap?"
She smirks. "I'd leave that alone unless you don't plan to make use of your plumbing at any point tonight."
Cursing, he tugs the breeches on and shoves his feet into the boots she holds out with sadistic glee. "And now for the final touch," she declares, draping a dark grey cloak over his shoulders and a mask on his face. "There. Evening dress, domino, mask. My goodness, you might even look presentable, Draco."
A muscle jumps in his cheek as he grinds his teeth. "What is this blasted masquerade for? And why can't I just write a cheque?"
"I'm bored so I'm calling in one of the twenty-six favors you owe me. There'll be dancing. And no one'll stare because they won't know who we are!" she replies airily. "The whole thing's a benefit for curing lycanthropy or something like that."
"Well, that makes it all right then. You're onto me, Pansy. Everyone knows how close werewolves are to my heart."
October 31, 2002; 10:49 PM
"I can't breathe," hisses Ginny, pulling futilely at the laces on the back of her taffeta silk gown.
Hermione grins behind her feathered eye-mask and suggests, "Think of it as being authentically period. None of the debutantes in the nineteenth century got to breathe much, either."
"Hang being period! Have I thanked you yet for stuffing me into a rib-crushing corset?"
"Not yet, but I suspect you will. Get out there. It wouldn't kill you to enjoy yourself." With a flirty wave, Hermione melts into the crowd, abandoning Ginny to a grotesque potted fern.
Flinging her dark green domino back, she hauls up her skirt and dashes through a part in the dancing couples for the terrace. The glass door doesn't budge. "God hates me," she mutters when the handle jams. Pulling out her wand from her beaded reticule, she taps the brass handle with a whispered Alohomora. When nothing happens, she does it again and the window snaps open. She hurriedly slips through, rushing to the railing to gulp in the chilled air.
"I locked that door for a reason."
Ginny whips around, her wand aimed at the black-masked man resting on his elbows against the end railing of the terrace, light from the ballroom casting a silken halo on his pale hair. She slowly lowers her wand. "Sorry. I . . . didn't know anyone was out here."
He shifts to his feet in one sleek motion. "Obviously."
"Well, there's no reason we can't share," she says, bristling. "It's not like I'm taking up that much space."
"No," he agrees, a lazy half-smile hovering on the corners of his mouth. "If your waist were any smaller, you'd be two-dimensional."
"I'm – I'll have you know that I'm being authentically period. All the girls had to endure corsets in their day."
He laughs. The crisp sound snaps the night air and makes her shiver. "Granger dressed you, didn't she?"
"So? Wait. You know Hermione?"
"Not particularly. I'm mostly acquainted with the back of her hand."
"With the back—Dra—Malfoy?"
"Guilty," he answers, taking off his mask to reveal cheekbones sharp enough to cut granite and bone-white hair windswept around his temples, a sharp departure from the perfectly slicked-back style of their school days.
Lowering her glittering eye-mask, she sighs. "How did you know it was me?"
Stepping fully into the light streaming from the window, Draco doesn't stop until they're almost touching, leisurely perusing up and down her body. "Some things are impossible to miss," he says and threads a gloved hand into the coiffure her mum spent two hours fashioning.
But it's already too late for protests; he pulls out the pins and her hair tumbles down in kinked waves. "Better. You look like you're on fire."
Trying simultaneously to flee and sway closer, Ginny stays motionless, trying to ignore her tingling scalp and skin his fingers brushed. Her cheeks burn with heat as she asks unsteadily, "A-Another crack at gingers? You never change, do you, Malfoy?"
His face turns dark, the soft admiration in his eyes sharpening into bladed grey. "You believe that? You do. I can see it," he says softly, and she has the fleeting impression that he's disappointed. "You're wrong. Everyone changes."
"Haven't you? Because where's Potter? I don't see him anywhere." Draco tilts his head to the ballroom of swirling masked dancers cloaked in dominos of every shade and color. She stiffens, but he continues, "You outgrew him. I wondered when you would. Though it's taken longer than I expected."
She frowns, her eyes raking over his face because she can't have heard him correctly. "Than you expected?"
"Make no mistake, I'm not saying you two don't deserve each other. When you're both swimming up to your ears in virtue. But what we deserve and want are so rarely the same."
"Are you actually trying to pass yourself off as some expert on relationships? You can't even keep up with your own date. She's been flirting up a storm since the moment you got here."
Draco shrugs casually. "Pansy's enjoying her anonymity. Even ex-Death Eaters and Slytherins deserve a reprieve."
"Which, last I checked, doesn't exactly qualify you to dispense advice to me. Have you ever even been in a long-term relationship?"
"No. But I've also never tried to force my first-love fantasy into reality."
"Are you saying being with Harry was a fantasy?" she grits.
"I shouldn't have to. You should already know it. The problem with you, Ginny Weasley, is that you love freedom too much to be shackled to someone who'll always overshadow you, who has no ambitions, who only wants to preserve the status quo and marry into a ready-made family so he can stop being an orphan."
Ginny flinches, nails digging into her palms as each aloof word battered against her. "You don't know anything about me—"
"I know you well enough to know you broke it off. He did something to force more commitment on you. Moved in, bought a pet, wanted children, proposed. Something that scared you."
Anger churns in her blood at his presumption, but it's fear, a thin slice of cold through her abdomen, that makes her shove him. He barely moves, taking the impact of her violence like he's been waiting for it. When he moves even closer, she falls back against the brick wall, desperate to put distance between them. "Just stop—you have no right—who do you think you are? We're not even friends! I've seen you once in two years. You disappeared in the morning without a word and when Hannah told me you never came back, I stopped waiting. You don't get to make me miserable with your cryptic bullshit then vanish and show up out of nowhere to pick a fight. You are nothing to me!"
"Then why are you so angry?" he asks softly.
"Because you got lucky and guessed one thing right—"
"Harry proposed but that was not why—"
"You really said no?" he breathes, as though he hadn't believed his own words until this very moment.
"Of course, I said no! I'm too young—!" she shouts.
Draco leans in until the wind-trembling strands of his hair brush her cheek. Her shoulder blades already digging into the wall, she sinks her fingers into the bricks to stay composed when there is nowhere left to run. He whispers in her ear, "When you were sixteen. If he'd asked you to marry him then, would you have?"
Ginny opens her mouth to tell him off; her lips are curving to form no when she suddenly remembers how lovesick she once was for him. The sun didn't rise or set on his say-so, but it was a very near thing – only she eventually wised up and learned never to let him see how deep her feelings ran. If he'd proposed then, she would've thought it an overwhelmingly romantic gesture. In the climate of war and death and lives disrupted, she might've said yes if only because their time together was so finite. "I'll always love him," she speaks shakily instead. "Always."
He reads the truth in her face, and then his air-constricting, pulse-provoking presence abruptly lifts as he retreats a step back and then another. "I see," he says, a queer flatness in his voice.
Draco stands nonchalantly, framed in an aureola of candlelight like some stained glass religious martyr, with his feet tipped casually apart, weight distributed evenly, his arms motionless by his sides, as if he only just happened upon her; and their paths crossing is no more than mildly surprising. He's looking at her as he would any stranger, without any of the quiet intimacy she's taken for granted from the moment she found him asleep on a swing, so there's no reason why the sudden absence should pinch her throat with regret or make her heart stutter in remorse. "Malfoy, what—tell me what you want," she pleads.
But his face remains dark and closed, as inscrutable as if he were still wearing his half-mask. "Want?" he repeats with a touch of scorn. "Why should I want anything from you?"
Because not a minute ago, you were drinking me in like a shipwrecked sailor in an oasis, she thinks. "I don't know," she murmurs. "For a few months, it felt like I'd lost an anchor when I rejected Harry's proposal. He was a reference point for so much of my life that I didn't know what to do when I was finally free. Once or twice, I even thought about asking him to take me back. That's how much I missed being burdened by him."
"Why didn't you?" asks Draco, tone polite and disinterested, tapping his gloved fingers against his thigh.
Ginny swallows hard, intuitively sensing that despite his abrupt apathy, this is the answer he wants most to hear. "Because I didn't want to be a coward."
"Not good enough," he says coolly.
"I loved Harry for so long he was the definition of love for me. And I didn't know it was possible for that definition to change until he proposed. I realized I love him, and will always, but I had stopped being in love with him some time ago."
She watches his drumming fingers crumple into a fist, his only reaction to her confession, to the words she's never spoken aloud. His blasé attitude lights a reckless fire in her chest, and she's moving forward before she can even form the conscious thought. She shoves him again, and this time, he stumbles back, eyes wide. "You know what? The only coward here is you! You want me to make sweeping gestures and grand statements and share my secrets, but now that you've heard me out, you've decided to get cold feet? Man up, Draco! Two years ago, I asked you who you are and you said nobody. But everyone is someone; we don't get a choice in that, so who are you? And who do you want to be to me?"
For an air-crushing moment, she thinks he won't answer. Then slowly, ever so slightly, he looks away. "I'm . . . cold," he says. "Cold-blooded maybe. By myself, I've always felt inadequate. I look for warmth from other people, so I can imitate the things they do. So that maybe one day, I'll figure out how the rest of you stay so right, even when you're alone and haven't got anyone to prop you up or define you. I'm always reacting, taking cues from everyone else so I know what my place is. Pureblood, Muggle-born. Slytherin, Gryffindor. Potter, the Dark Lord. Rich, poor. Wizard, Muggle. Because I'm not . . . right or strong. I haven't been in a long time; maybe I never was." Ginny starts to reach for him instinctively, but he lifts a hand to forestall her. "Don't. This isn't me looking for commiseration. I don't want you to feel sorry for me."
"I'm not. I don't."
He smiles bleakly. "In school, whenever you and your family were around, I felt this acidic envy which ate its way into every thought of you. But after Azkaban, after learning to survive, to live, I realized how pointless envy is. It's been quicksand for me for so long. Jealous of Granger, of Potter, of Theo and Blaise. Then you showed up. I'd always thought—" Brushing the fringe of his hair viciously from his eyes, his face keeps still and tense, like rock being grinded into dust. "Fuck. I don't know how to say this—you know you're beautiful, Ginny. You have been since fifth year. I knew it, too, intellectually, could even appreciate it aesthetically. But until the leaving feast, I'd never wanted you. I'm attracted to strength because I-I'm weak so much of the time, and that day, I knew instinctively that you're one of the strong."
"I didn't know. You—you've got a hell of a poker face."
"Considering you were shackled to Potter," he says caustically, "I thought I'd spare myself that mortification."
"Then, is this what you wanted to tell me that night at the Leaky Cauldron?"
His mouth turns upward in a self-deprecating smile. "I'd hoped for more eloquence but yes, these are the essentials."
"And what are the . . . nonessentials?" she asks.
Draco laughs, and the coarse sound hurts her to hear. "Still haven't had enough? But remember, you asked for this."
"Go on," she urges, not knowing why it's important she listen to everything, empty him out entirely, but only knowing that it is.
"You're not just beautiful enough to make my throat hurt—no, karma's not nearly so lenient. When you're near me, I'm drawn to you. I want to talk to you, to sift through all your thoughts, to bask in you until I stop shivering. That night, with you standing in my room trying to provoke me, I'd never wanted anyone so much in my life. But I knew you didn't want me, so there was no point. I feel more alive, more aware of everything; alcohol burns more around you, the ground feels harder under my feet; you're a little like flying. Senseless, risky, but what I'll crave even when I'm old and decrepit and toothless."
"You're wrong." She lowers her head to stare at the stone floor. "About my not wanting you that night. I did. And it scared me because I can't—I'm not someone who can live with being unfaithful. So I told myself to forget it, that it was a fluke. I was vulnerable and you were there."
"Was it?" he asks, tugging her chin up, forcing her to meet his eyes. "A fluke?"
"No. I'm . . . very attracted to you," says Ginny with a small, helpless smile. As soon as her words are smeared in the space between them, the oppressive weight on her lightens, as though all along, she only had to admit what was until this moment a horrible, traitorous truth. Now it is the truest form of true, undeniable. "I wanted you then. And I want you now."
"Because I don't suffocate you?"
"Yes. And because I feel free around you. There are no ruts to fall in. You're this unpredictable, reckless person who challenges me, shakes out all my lines in the sand. I don't wonder what other people think when I'm around you. I just am. And I want you to show me things I've never thought of or done or seen. But most of all, I want to fly with you."
"Is that right?" he says gently, his artificial indifference evaporating like smoke. He cradles a hand around the nape of her neck, pulling until there's nothing left between them.
November 1, 2002; 12:01 AM
The night air bites her cheeks, but she's too busy hanging onto his shoulders for dear life to care, finally, finally kissing his acerbic, wicked, taunting, kind mouth. His left arm wraps firmly around her waist, the other steering the broomstick into a dive she never wants to end.
"Where are we going?" she murmurs into his neck.
"Nowhere, everywhere. We might even make a pit stop for a Sunday roast or two."
When Draco kisses her back, hard and warm, Ginny hopes that if she holds on long enough, they'll never break this freefall.