Title: Cold Comfort
Disclaimer: J. K. Rowling and associates own these characters. I am writing this story for fun and not profit.
Warnings: Angst, established relationship, profanity. Ignores the epilogue.
Summary: On the darkest night of the year, Draco confirms who he has been and who he is now.
Author's Notes: This is the sixth in my Seasonal Processions series, a set of one-shots focused around the neopagan holidays, and the direct sequel to 'Shadow-Boxing.' This is the fic for Samhain/Halloween.
Draco had been hearing the rumors for weeks. Sometimes it seemed like years.
"Oh, everyone knows that he cast the Imperius Curse on Potter, but Potter snaps so when anyone questions him about it, they've resolved to let it go. They need to keep Potter happy, and this is one means of doing it."
"Happy, dear? No, docile. The Ministry loves Malfoy for his crime because it means that Potter will never try to become Minister or inconvenient in any way. He's only interested in sleeping with Malfoy."
"Oh, yes, I hadn't considered that. But if everyone knows what's going on, why hasn't someone outside the Ministry tried to bring up Malfoy on charges?"
"And face Potter? You know how terrifying he can be when he chases criminals. Imagine how terrifying he is now that he's essentially the servant of a Death Eater!"
They curled and coiled around Draco like the heads of a hydra. You could cut them off, yes, or attempt to, but they would only sprout new heads. Harry had already tried to confront one of the Aurors spreading the rumors, and had been roundly trounced by her disbelief. Even if they could provide proof that something wasn't true, that would only make the people who hadn't seen the proof suspicious that it was real, and the ones who had would shift their ground and champion some new piece of gossip.
Draco hadn't known how acutely painful this new set of rumors would be. Yes, they had spread gossip about him before, and he had put up with it. He had gradually stopped trusting anyone, after several fake friendships and romances, but that was the price of self-protection, and at least it allowed him to survive.
But now he had Harry. He had lowered that wall because it was the only way he could have full access to the warmth and love that Harry embodied.
And now they despised him for having Harry, and were jealous, and moved to cut him off if they could.
Yes, Draco knew how false those rumors were. Among other things, Harry had approached him first; certainly Draco never would have dreamed that Harry wanted to date him without encouragement. But try and explain that to someone committed to the common view of him as an unrepentant Death Eater who'd only been pardoned because he had powerful friends. One twisted rumor Draco had heard claimed that he'd started casting Imperius on Harry years ago, or he would never have testified at Draco's trial.
Draco had to have something else, some source of strength that was his own. Harry was wonderful, but he was still outside Draco—a frequent visitor inside his house and his body, yes, but not part of his soul. Draco needed something that was.
He found it in the falling leaves, in glancing at the calendar that told him October had come, and in a book that he'd had for a long time on the shelf but only started looking through one night as a distraction from his boredom. When he found the mention of the ritual he could use, he sat there for a long time, blood beating in his ears.
Then he firecalled Harry and spent the night with him. He needed that warmth to at once confirm and oppose—to counterbalance—the shard of ice that reading about the ritual had lodged in his chest.
"But I don't understand. What exactly is this ritual supposed to do?"
Draco sighed. Harry was stronger than he was in many ways: braver, more perceptive, and willing to fight for him when Draco might have given up because their relationship was so new that he didn't think they could preserve it. But he didn't have the amount of book-learning that Draco or Granger did.
"The ritual is one my family used to perform regularly," Draco said. "Like the ritual that I performed on Beltane. Which you invited yourself along for," he had to add. Harry flushed a bit, but nodded. "This time, I thought I would include you from the beginning. This one is dangerous if interrupted."
"It looks dangerous all the way around," Harry said frankly, splaying one hand over the pages and frowning at the words as if it would make them less powerful to be caged by his fingers. "I don't—Draco, are you sure that you want to go through with this? Why?"
And here it was. He had to confess the real reason for his decision to Harry. Draco knew that he could trust Harry, knew that Harry would support him, and yet he still had to take several deep breaths before he could continue. Before this year, when Harry had approached him on the first day of spring, he had hidden his real emotions so deeply that it was still hard to bring them out of storage and show them to someone else.
"I have to have my pride," he said. "These rumors are destroying it." Harry's eyes filled with distress, the way he always did. Draco knew he would have preferred the rumors to have a single, solid body, so he could destroy them the way he had destroyed Voldemort. Draco gave him a faint smile, hoping to show him that the sentiment was appreciated, and then continued. "This ritual is going to show me part of my future, a year from the time it's performed, and tell me whether I have anything to live for."
"And if you don't see that?" Harry demanded tensely. "Are you going to kill yourself?"
Draco blinked, caught off-guard by the question. But it was a reasonable one, he reckoned, if one saw his behavior only from the outside, as Harry had to, and thought that he might take any escape from the rumors that someone offered to him.
"No," he said. "Of course not. But I might take measures that I might not otherwise take, to make sure that they don't talk about us anymore."
Harry looked at him uneasily, and said nothing. But he reached out and took Draco's hand in his, and his fingers were warm and strong and steady, the way they had been since he had managed to convince Draco that he took his complaints and his fears seriously.
"I'm with you," he said.
Draco hadn't needed the verbal confirmation, but the kiss Harry leaned over to offer him a moment later was very welcome.
Draco stood on one corner of the lawn behind his house, staring at the bundles of twigs stretched across the grass in front of him. They didn't appear to form a pattern at first, but when he cocked his head, he could see that the bundles were paired, and that they bent and curved away from him, then formed a rough spiral in to the center of the lawn. Harry had done as he'd asked. The person who mostly participated in the ritual couldn't be the one who arranged the objects needed for it.
Draco licked his lips and nodded once, though the nod was more for him than anyone else. He only had one witness, anyway: Harry watching from beyond the aisle of twigs. Draco lifted his hand in greeting to him and then began to move forwards, keeping his steps slow and deliberate.
This was Samhain, the night when the barriers between the worlds were weakest—and when the barriers between different times were the weakest, too, although only pure-bloods preserved that tradition. The Muggles as well as most wizards knew they might see the dead tonight. They didn't know that they might see the future.
Draco came to the first pair of bundles. He stretched out his hands so that he could hold his palms, downwards, over them, and was silently impressed to find that the width of the aisle was just the width of his outstretched arms. He had told Harry to do that, of course, but it was a hard thing to watch and adjust for in someone else. This was only another sign of how much he could trust Harry, he supposed.
"I come in longing," he murmured, the phrase that the book had taught him and which his ancestors had used in the various languages they had spoken—it was the wish that was important, more than the words—and stepped forwards.
The bundles of twigs sprang to life, hissing. They burned with a cold, blue-white flame, bright along the edges with an extra layer of white. Draco shuddered. He could feel the fire against his skin, sure enough, but it took heat rather than gave it. And the shadows cast by the twigs were deeper than the light was bright.
He took another step, keeping his hands out from his sides and turned down, and the second pair of bundles came alight. Their flames rose higher, and although Draco didn't dare glance backwards—one of the many things he didn't dare do in this ritual—he could see out of the corner of his eye that the fires had begun to form an arch-like pattern. If he and Harry had both done their parts correctly, that arch would connect with the flames he had left burning behind him, and he would walk the whole way between fragile, shimmering blue columns and under an arctic roof.
If he and Harry had both done their parts correctly.
He walked carefully, making sure that the whole sole of his foot touched the earth after each step, and that the sides of his ankles never brushed the twigs. That could be disastrous, too. He would have walked less carefully clutching many a Malfoy heirloom.
The Ministry had done the best they could to tarnish his heritage, to make him less proud of being a Malfoy. They had taken the Manor, and his money, and his parents. They had rendered him an outsider instead of the social paragon he had been raised to believe he would be. He had no reason to turn back to the world that had abused him so much. It was the future that was important.
He reached the first turn, and so became part of the spiral. This time, the flames met and made the arch with a spitting of white sparks that showered down on him and left small flakes of ice behind. Draco shivered and resisted the temptation to speed up, yet another thing that could be fatal.
When he turned, it brought him within sight of Harry, who stood in the place Draco had left him, peering after him with wide eyes. Draco smiled—there was no rule against that—and felt a surge of warmth run through him. Harry had trusted him, in the end, to brave this labyrinth by himself, though he must have longed to come with him. That was real trust, real love, and Draco was beginning to think that, if he took no other possession away with him from this year, that was enough.
But he wanted still more. Malfoys always had. He picked up his feet and walked more gracefully and delicately than ever, on, towards the center of the spiral.
The second turn, and this time the sparks landed around him, forming pillars of snow that projected out of the earth, hard to see in the wildly dancing shadows. Draco reached out without breaking stride and hit the pillars with his hands. They shattered at a touch and melted—or vanished, that might be the better word, since they were, abruptly, not there anymore. Draco nodded slightly. He had passed the second challenge, after the first of fulfilling the ritual's instructions, but it was the easiest, and he would have to hope that he did as well on the others.
Yet he was two-souled at the moment, and along with his natural doubt ran a bright, shining, transparent confidence. Of course he would succeed. Wasn't he a Malfoy? Wasn't he Draco, whom no rumors had been sufficient to destroy yet, whom Harry loved?
The arches rose and fell. When Draco reached the third turn into the spiral, he could see them better, stretching away behind him like a pavilion made of blue-white cloth that rippled in the wind, impossibly fragile, impossibly lovely.
This time, the fire stabbed down on either side of him, becoming whirlwinds of color and coldness and sound, nearly blowing him from his feet. He might have landed on the twigs; he might have reached out a hand and been sucked into the center of the winds. The ritual hadn't described what would happen then. The person who wrote the book where Draco had found it seemed to have simply assumed that any sensible person would listen to the warning not to do it and believe him.
But Draco also knew how to get through this one. He tucked his arms close to his body for a moment—a moment only, since his hands would need to be above the bundles of twigs in the next second—and slid between the whirlwinds, neatly as a dancer. The whirlwinds faded back into the arches seconds later, and Draco heard the distant sounds of Harry applauding and cheering.
It is nice to have a lover who has so much confidence in me.
Draco kept his eyes aimed forwards and his hands out and didn't turn, because he couldn't. But the knowledge of Harry's support made his feet float and his arms tremble with delight, and that was acceptable.
The fourth turn came, and the fire formed itself into lightning. Draco serenely ignored the bolts that stabbed the earth around him. Yes, they could hurt him, but only if he set a foot wrong, and he didn't intend for that to happen. So, while the world around him went wild with broken shadows from the bolts, Draco kept walking, his world the path that stretched ahead and the twigs that formed the sides of that path. He could do this. He intended to do it.
The lightning faded out, leaving his eyes dazzled. This could be a dangerous moment, too, Draco knew, since someone blinded could stumble here and lose his balance permanently. But if you had the confidence to keep going and follow the rules in the first place, you wouldn't trip.
Nor did Draco. He kept going along the gentle bend and straight parts of the path until he reached the fifth turn, the last one before the center of the spiral.
This time, the fire sank down into the earth as he approached, and Draco stepped into the middle of a sudden turbulence of blue and white, greedily sucking at his feet, trying to slide them from the center of the path.
But Draco stepped lightly, quickly, without faltering, and while one of his feet was always balanced on a rising swirl of blue and white, the other was always on the grass and dirt. The fire could tip him and try to scare him, but it would never more than half possess him. He would always be part of this maze, always a walker through it, because he was just that good.
His head spun when the fires finally faded and he found himself in the center of the maze, the center of the spiral, beyond the reaches of the barriers, but he had made it, and that was the important part.
He turned in a slow circle, hands extended like the hands of a clock, so that eventually both of his palms would pass above all the bundles of twigs that formed the center of the spiral. His arms shook with exhaustion, but he had sworn that he would do it, and he did it.
A single burst of enormous, silent blue-white flame passed through the circle when Draco had completed his turn and caressed, through the air, every bundle of twigs there. Draco dropped his arms and stood blinking and uncertain in the middle of it. He knew that he had completed the ritual successfully and that something to show him his future would happen next because of it, but he didn't know exactly what that was; the book had been, he thought, deliberately vague.
Then he saw the figures in front of him, silent, frost-colored shadows that pivoted and spun around each other, but gradually formed into recognizable silhouettes of him and Harry. They opened and closed their mouths. Draco concentrated, striving to shut out the noises of the outside world that might dare to intrude, trying to hear their words. He was aware of his skin chilling and his hands turning blue, but he needed to listen.
"…always be around." That was Harry, and he took the fiery Draco in his arms and nuzzled into his neck with a warmth that conveyed itself to the real Draco through the cold light.
"I know." The fiery Draco leaned back in the arms of his lover with a languid grace that made Draco ache with envy. Would he ever move with such confidence, such elegance? "But I don't care, because I have you."
"Really?" The fire-Harry sounded half-choked. His hand slid restlessly up and down his Draco's body, as if they were discussing permission for Harry to touch him in public or something else equally far-fetched.
"Really." The fire-Draco arched his head back and seized Harry's lips in a searing kiss, then broke free, panting. "I know that they won't give up chasing and hounding and teasing me. Most of them might, but there will always be some people who think I'm not good enough for you. I've learned not to let it bother me. Yes, they're jealous, but then, there's so much for them to be jealous of."
That future Harry laughed, his laughter breaking in cold notes around Draco's head, and then they vanished, blending with the darkness. The fire that had given birth to them followed them, and Draco found himself standing alone in the night, shivering violently. He had to fumble for his wand twice before he could cast a Warming Charm.
And then he drooped there, feeling drained and empty, the twigs and the spiral around him no more than the somewhat clumsy accompaniments to a meaningless ritual. Draco was tempted to scream and kick them away, but he took a deep breath, mastering the temptation instead.
Well, what had he expected to discover about his future? That his enemies had changed their minds and welcomed him back as a hero into wizarding society? He had known better than that. Of course he had. He thought he did.
But his stomach ached with the force of his disappointment, and he had to turn his head down and stare at the ground for long moments before he felt equal to answering Harry's anxious calls. Harry had trampled up to the outside of the spiral and stood staring at him.
"Draco?" he asked. "What did you see?"
"That we were still together a year from now," Draco answered. Harry winced, and Draco tried to moderate the bitterness in his voice a bit. He had hoped for something different, though, something new. He knew that he loved Harry. How was that different? "And the future me said that I didn't care about the rumors because I was with you, not that the rumors had stopped."
Harry smiled tentatively. "I'm glad that you saw we were still together, at least. I would hate to think that you'd abandoned me for anyone else."
Draco snorted. "You think too highly of my claims if you believe that anyone else would take me, Harry."
Harry made a sudden rushing movement and broke through the circle of twigs, coming to rest on his knees in front of Draco. Draco stared down at him as Harry took Draco's cold hands in his and chafed them back and forth.
"Don't be an idiot," Harry said harshly. "What do you think I realized when I saw you going down the center of that spiral? Do you realize what you looked like when you passed those challenges? How beautiful you were? I always lost sight of you when the fires began burning, and then I saw you again. You didn't need my protection, the way I thought you would. You proved that we could both trust each other—I could trust you to do well on your own, and you could trust me to hold back from interfering. If you have enough courage to do all that, then you have enough courage to face the rumors."
Draco blinked. He had never considered it that way, or what he would look like form the outside to someone, such as Harry, who probably thought the risks of the ritual even greater than they were. Perhaps it was the experience of facing the ritual, and not the answer he found at the center of the spiral, that mattered most, after all.
"And now I have enough courage to do this," Harry continued, barely letting his voice rest. "Draco, will you marry me?"
The moment froze, sharper and more brilliant than any moment when Draco had been surrounded by the icy fire. He stared. Harry stared back, his face seamed with cracks of love and desire.
"You're—you're mental," Draco said, but he was breathing too fast.
His confidence during the ritual seemed to have gone into Harry, who gave him a starry smile and shook his head. "I was never surer of anything in my life. I know that we have a lot to go through, I know that starting to date you was almost an impulse, but we've learned to trust each other. I love you. I want to be with you. I'll never want to be with anyone else so much." He nodded his head at the broken spiral. "And now you've seen that we're together a year from now. What could be more perfect? I want to marry you. Only you."
Draco gasped. It felt as though the pride that the rumors and the people who hated him had been so effective in squashing down was stretching and coming alive again, like cramped muscles that suddenly flooded with blood. It hurt, but he would have been more than stupid to go back to that cramped little posture.
And he loved Harry.
He looked down at Harry and thought of what it must have looked like, when he was passing into that shining blue-white flame and through it, how Harry must have held himself in check. He had trusted Draco to the utmost, trusting him to stand up for himself when he had tried, only a few weeks ago, to protect Draco from the rumors by stopping them.
And, for some reason, Draco remembered then that Harry's parents had died on Halloween night, and that he must have memories of pain on this anniversary. He might have thought he was going to lose Draco the same way. He was trying to replace those fears with a different set of memories, a happy one.
It was more than trust. It was a step into the most intimate part of Harry's heart, saying Draco mattered.
"Yes," Draco said, and bent down to kiss Harry's cold lips.