Thank you again for all the reviews! This is the last chapter of This Enchanted Life; the one-shot that follows it, "Letters from Exile," should be up next Wednesday.
Chapter Twelve—Cut Like an Axe
Draco felt the tendrils writhing around him, and had no doubt at all that they would soon begin to destroy and drain him the way they had Harry. The difference between him and Harry was that he didn't intend to stand still and let that happen. He coiled his arms in close to his body and shouted the first word of the incantation he had heard Harry trying before the beast hurt him too badly for him to manage it. "Ardens!"
It was not the complete spell, and so it could not destroy the creature. But Draco heard it bellow in pain and stagger backwards, and he was sure that he had done enough damage to make the beast reconsider. He smiled and watched some of the tendrils burn, the greasy smoke rising from them.
Harry tried to charge in front of him at the same moment as someone moved from the other side. Draco turned in that direction, but stuck his arm and leg out, so that Harry stumbled over them and couldn't crash into the beast. Draco had no intention of losing him, now or ever, and especially not losing him to a creature he had already mostly defeated.
The person off to the side was Alexander. And a globe was already in motion from his hand, one that blazed silver and green and made the world seem to turn over as Draco stared at it.
He could have pulled back his wand and tried to shield himself. But that would have meant not shielding Harry, or casting the spells he used then, ones that splinted Harry's broken arm and knocked back several of the creature's mouth-covered tendrils as they lashed out at him.
The globe hit Draco's chest. He saw the peace on Alexander's face a moment before he felt the ringing in his bones, the way the vibrations seemed to travel inside him and wrap around his heart like the coils of a snake. And he tilted his head back, and his body shook and the world splintered into light—
And then he was standing in a dungeon room with a view of the Hogwarts lake through the windows, and in front of him, Professor Snape turned away from a potion and watched him with eyes as cool as the light in the globe had been.
Draco dropped to the floor. Harry stared at him, and then up along the conduit of Alexander's arm to his face, and the way he was sweating and laughing both at once, his hand still extended as though he was glad to see the damage he had done.
The creature was behind the shields Draco had built, and couldn't touch him for the moment. The creature was irrelevant.
Alexander dropped his hand to his side, and shook his head slightly as he looked at Harry. "You might think your visions would have warned you of this, but I did not murder him," he said gently. "I only gave him the same chance that I gave others, to rest in dreams and see what might happen if he had made different choices."
Harry watched him from a distance that felt like one of the globes striking him, the same whirling sensations and yanking sensations. The creature hadn't broken through the shields yet, and he felt a faint surprise, and then nothing. The creature ultimately wasn't the one that had killed Lionel, a twisted so far gone that it changed from a person into something that had no name. It was one of Alexander's nightmare creations, and it obeyed him.
Like Lionel. He had never been real, only a treat that Alexander had held out to try and get Harry to agree to stop using his flaw. And there was—
There was a burning in the center of his chest, where Draco had been. And the knowledge that Draco might be gone forever, if he could not overcome the temptation of the vision that Alexander offered him, was enough to fill the hole.
Harry took a step forwards. Broken glass crunched under his feet. The beast had brought some in through the window with it, it seemed, or Alexander had. Alexander gave him another gentle smile and shook his head.
"You haven't yet seen my other nightmares," he said. "The nightmares that sprang up when I realized what the twisted were, and what we might do to Britain, if left unchecked. I have several more of them. Should I summon them? That would give you something to fight, if you wanted to. But I don't think you want to. I heard your words earlier. You know as well as I do that the twisted have to be stopped, and that you're one of them."
Harry was breathing gently. The burning ate at him, and ate at him, and his hands tightened on his wand until he could feel the wood cutting into his fingers. It might splinter. It might break, and he would be left without a defense.
"I know that you probably won't thank me," Alexander continued. "But when your friend rises from his sleep, his flaw will be gone, too, and nothing can make it come back. As long as both of you don't have the ability to become twisted, then I'm happy to let you go. I have others to find and fight."
Harry half-closed his eyes. His fingers eased on his wand, because he had remembered.
He might not have his flaw anymore, and if he broke his wand, he wouldn't have a way to fight with the magic contained in it, either. But those were not his only weapons. There was also the magic that had killed the beast when it tried to consume Lionel's body, and there was the will that had driven him to escape from St. Mungo's and kept him alive after that even though he was banned from ever coming to hospital again.
He reached out and pointed his wand towards Alexander, who shook his head wearily and lifted his hand. Shadows started to creep around him, no doubt because he was summoning the second of his nightmare creatures. "I told you already, there's no need for that, and it's not going to work—"
Harry gave a wordless shout, into which he poured magic. It could have been a real world in some other language. He knew it wasn't an incantation. But he made the sound that would suit the power boiling in him at the moment, a power as dangerous as a fall of scalding water.
And the power that would fit that sound answered his call, flooding out of him.
Something black and cold filled the space between Harry and Alexander. It looked as fluid and dangerous as the shadow-creature that had wrestled Draco the last time they were in Leah's shop, but Harry knew it wasn't the same. It was designed to do only one thing, and it rose up, formless and swaying back and forth.
"A cobra," Alexander murmured, watching it in some interest. "Or a wave. Either way, you won't get much out of me—"
"I want a lot out of you," Harry said quietly, and he snapped the cobra forwards with a slight hiss that might have made it move faster. Or not. He didn't understand anything about this magic, any more than he had understood that his flaw was a flaw at first. He felt dizzy and light-headed.
The cobra fastened its teeth on Alexander, and he stared at it. Harry was sure that he didn't really feel any sensation but cold and darkness at first. Perhaps a bit of dizziness from where it was starting to leach the power out of him.
Then he screamed.
Harry smiled, and pulled the leash on the cobra viciously tight. The cobra's teeth went deep, and deeper, and met what he was looking for, a burst and bubble of magic that sang to him. Harry drew his fist so tight that he could feel the bones aching under the skin, and pulled.
The cobra swallowed, and Harry's stolen flaw came rushing through the cobra's body, back to him. Harry caught it up and wrapped himself around it, bundling it into his heart and soul. He didn't know whether it was always the best gift, and he knew that he could have got along without it, but it was his, and he wanted it.
The cobra's fangs were still lodged in Alexander's body. He stirred, weakly, and the creature thrashed behind the barriers that Draco had set up. Harry ignored it. It wouldn't attack without a command more clearly phrased than any Alexander could come up with right now.
Draco's flaw came whistling down the tunnel that the cobra's body formed, and slammed into Harry. For a moment, he cradled it to him, a treasure more delicate than any glass globe. Then he turned and tossed it back to Draco. Familiar though it felt, powerful and treasured, what he wanted was to give it back to Draco, not to keep it for himself. He'd had enough of other people's magic inside him for a lifetime.
He thought he saw a spark of something bright out of the corner of his eye as the gift flew towards Draco, but he really couldn't be sure; he hadn't seen anything the proper way so far, the way he would have if the cobra was real and the transfer of the flaws was physical, so this might be just his imagination.
But it would be appropriate if Draco's flaw really looked like that, he thought. Dark in heritage though Draco might be, Dark as the magic might be that he used, he was light to Harry.
A sinking sensation seemed to happen in the center of his stomach, and Harry swallowed, his fingers clenching for a moment in his shirt and around his wand. If he was thinking like that about Draco, then he might be in a lot more trouble than he had realized…
But he thrust the thought away, because Alexander was stuttering and writhing back to his feet, not yet dead, and Harry didn't have the right to think about Draco like that. Not now, maybe not ever.
Alexander looked at him and shook his head. "You should not have done that," he whispered. "I will only begin the harvest all over again, and this time, I am going to start by making sure to kill you. And your partner. The other twisted can live, in comas or without them, as long as they yield their flaws. But you are going to die." And he flickered his head to the side to look at Draco.
Harry could have smiled and laughed at his threats, if he had left it to threatening him. So many people had spoken similar words to him by now that he didn't remember individual names.
But the thought of Alexander threatening Draco, and not because of something Draco had done but because of what he was, and because Alexander was mad, froze part of him inside, and then cracked it.
He raised his wand, not knowing what would come out of it until he heard his voice speaking the words, the same words of the incantation that he had used to destroy the creature that had killed Lionel.
Draco leaned back against the wall behind him, and nodded to all and sundry, which at the moment included just him and Professor Snape. "I admire the effort," he said aloud. "Home-like, really. But I know this is just a vision that Alexander conjured, and that takes away the temptation to believe it."
Alexander had got Severus Snape's face down to perfection, at least, the hard black eyes and the sneer that he would give Draco after hearing words like that. But then, Draco reminded himself, he had all of Draco's memories to pull from.
This is a dream. Not reality. There's no reason to think Snape would say the same words to me if he was still alive.
"You were meant for a Potions master," Snape commented, picking up a vial full of crumbled leaves and sifting them across the surface of his potion the way that Draco imagined Harry would put cheese on something. Not that he'd ever seen him do that. Snape paused suddenly, and his dark eyes darted back up to Draco's. "You can't even identify them anymore, can you?" He held up the vial of crushed leaves, and watched the way Draco's face heated up.
"I decided not to be a Potions master," Draco said, and his voice was calm, his whole soul was calm. Alexander could only use visions of the dead, couldn't he? Or else he thought the dead were always more powerful than the living, and more likely to cause regret. Otherwise, he would have chosen Draco's parents. "An Auror career suits me."
"It suited you to anger your family," Snape said, and lounged back against the table behind him, watching the potion with one critical eye as it bubbled and steamed. "It suits you to contemplate Potter's arse while you prance about and pretend to be saving the world."
Draco shrugged. "I don't know anything about saving the world. It suits me to be in an Auror corps where my use of Dark magic goes unquestioned and no one looks too closely at anything I do. It suits me to have a famous partner who stands a chance of getting away with more than I ever will." He paused and flashed Snape a sharp smile. "And it suits me to contemplate that fine arse. Better than someone else contemplating it."
Snape watched him with a snake's slow malice, this time. Draco wondered if Snape resented him for surviving and escaping Snape's fate at the end of the war—
And then jerked himself up with a sharp tug on the reins of his mind. Idiot. This isn't the real Snape. The only emotions he has are the ones that Alexander's poured into him, to try and convince you to give up your flaw.
"You know he will never accept you," Snape said, in the same relaxed tone he might have used to point out that Draco had ruined one of his potions. No, on second thought, he would have been angrier about the potion, because of the waste of ingredients rather than anything else. "You should know he fears that his feelings for you are as childish and silly as the obsession he imagined for his partner."
"If that's the way it starts, that's the way it starts," Draco said, and bit the corner of his lip to keep from smiling. If Alexander knew how glad he was to have someone to talk to this about, even a hostile audience, he wouldn't have started the conversation. "But it needn't stay there. I am receptive to Harry's advances, and sooner or later he'll see that."
"And you're not worried about the regulations that the Ministry puts on partners sleeping together?" Snape leaned forwards slightly.
Draco sighed. "We break the rules all the time, anyway. We're part of a Corps that I never heard of before I transferred into it, a Corps that has a different name and description on paper than it does in reality. I don't care about the regulations that Harry doesn't care about."
"He may care more about them than you think."
"Now you're reaching," Draco said. "And this conversation bores me. You don't have any more convincing arguments as to why I should do what you want than that, Alexander?"
The shape in front of him wavered and blurred, and Alexander's features seemed to stare through Snape's for a moment. Then he shook his head, and the long black hair fell across his face. Draco had never seen Snape make that particular gesture, however; it made him look vulnerable. His lip curled.
Alexander's illusion began to break apart again, and then abruptly, cracks appeared in the walls of the lab and he screamed. Draco laughed, even as a wrenching sensation in his stomach snatched him away from the illusion and back towards reality.
He didn't know exactly what had happened to Alexander, but he was willing to believe that its name rhymed with "Harry."
Harry burned Alexander.
He had burned the creature, too, the only way he could, casting a fire that destroyed all its tendrils and eyes and mouths because they were all part of the same body. It was useless to fight only one of them, since the creature could grow new ones any time it wanted. But burn the central body from which they all sprang, and the deed was done, and the creature wouldn't be able to resurrect itself from the flaming ash.
Harry burned Alexander's wand. He sent the flames flickering into his body in quest of his bones, and when they found them, he roasted and burned those, too. He burned his flesh, his muscles, his eyes, his tongue. He burned his magic.
Alexander had started screaming long since, but Harry was able to put the screams out of his mind with nothing more than a little serene concentration. The flames were harder to control, although based on the information that he had retrieved from Leah, Draco had pushed all the crates that contained especially flammable or explosive materials to the back of the shop. They didn't have to worry about burning evidence.
Draco stirred and groaned on the floor.
Draco was more important than anything else. With a series of swift incantations, Harry set up a ring of joined Shield Charms around the flames that would hold them. Then he knelt down beside Draco and braced one arm behind his back, so that he could sit up if he wanted to.
If he'd been thinking of it, he would have turned Draco's head to the side, so that he didn't have to watch Alexander burning to death. But he didn't think of it, and so Draco opened his eyes on the sight of roasting flesh in a bubbling case of skin.
Harry flinched, and his serenity cracked. He had—he had done something to Alexander that was worse than what they'd done to any other twisted, despite the fact that Alexander had really hurt fewer people. He started to yank his arm from beneath Draco's grip, to rise to his feet and end the spell.
Draco's hand closed down, holding Harry so fast that he hurt himself when he tried to pull free.
"No," Draco said, and Harry had no idea whether Draco was telling him not to pull away or not to end the spell on Alexander. But Harry still had one free hand, and he could wave his wand and end the spell. He did so, and the screaming ceased. Alexander collapsed in on himself in a pile of greasy ash.
Draco took a deep breath and turned to look at Harry. His eyes were huge and solemn, and Harry opened his mouth to ask what Draco had seen in the vision that Alexander had cast him into.
Instead, it was Draco who spoke, his hands sliding around Harry's neck and jaw as though he thought he would need to support his head in a moment. "Harry, did you realize that I know about your feelings for me?"
Burning and freezing inside him again, but this time Draco was alive, he had to remember that, no matter what Alexander had done to him he had managed to stay alive, and Harry was just trying to jerk away, long, steady pulls against Draco's hands that made him tighten his grip and shake his head urgently.
"Stop it, Harry!" he hissed, when Harry had almost managed to get free, and wrenched his neck in the process. "I promise, I'm not going to reject you like Lionel did. You arse, how could I do that with someone who's saved my life, whose life I've saved, someone who went on working with me even after I tortured him? Do you think that I'm like Vane, and you're the same person you were with him?"
Harry shook his head and ducked aside. This time, Draco let him go, but he remained sitting on the floor, staring at Harry so keenly there was no place to hide. Harry gasped, feeling as if icicles in the air had pierced his lungs.
"You idiot," Draco said, his voice barely recognizable. "I'm telling you that I'm returning your feelings, don't you see that? Doesn't it matter to you that that's what I'm doing?"
"I don't—I can't," Harry said, and recovered himself when he thought about the harm that he might cause to Draco otherwise. "I can't love someone, not really," he said, when he could catch his breath. "You were the one who told me. I was so disappointed that Lionel didn't return my crush that I made childish vows never to love anyone anymore. Who does that? Somebody who's still like a teenager, or a child, which is another way of saying the same thing. I have to show that I can love somebody for real. I have to get my head sorted out. I'm going to leave the Ministry for a while and see what happens."
He knew he didn't imagine the way Draco went stiff, staring at him, his hands—so graceful and fast, usually—lying there as if useless at the ends of his arms. But he thought he might have imagined Draco's headshake, so small was it at first. Harry turned his head away and swallowed, concentrating on the far wall.
"That's impossible," Draco whispered. "I offer you what you most want, and you want to run away?" Scorn thickened his voice. "I didn't think you were a coward. A lot of other things, but not that."
Harry turned and pointed a finger at the pile of ash that had been Alexander. And God, bile was rising in his throat and he really thought he would sick up, how could he have done something like that, he knew that he was violent sometimes but he had never thought it would be something like that, how—
Draco looked politely along his pointing finger and then turned back to Harry. "Yes? What about him?"
"I just destroyed him using a spell that's so Dark the Ministry would probably put it immediately on the list of Dark Arts if they knew about it," Harry snapped, making sure to keep his voice low, just in case someone came by the shop. "I'm a twisted, or a few steps away from one. I can't connect to other people in normal ways. What do you think these are but the first steps down that path? Twisted are mad wizards who use Dark Arts and kill people."
Draco stared at him. Then he said, "That's what you've been worrying about? You believed Leah when she accused us of being twisted?" He shook his head. "That's ridiculous—"
"It's not," Harry said. "If the lot of us are twisted in the Socrates Corps, then we have to think about whether we have any right to hunt them."
Draco made a great show of standing and brushing ash away from his cloak. Harry shuddered and looked aside. Draco seemed to have noticed, because his voice descended to a lower note. "I don't think of myself as twisted."
"But we kill people," Harry muttered, and dragged a shaking hand through his fringe. At the moment, he thought he could feel madness creeping around him, whether or not it had its claws in him yet. He was exploding with all the things he was feeling at the moment, and Draco wanted him to stay here and become his—his boyfriend, or something? It was too much. "We do."
"We aren't mad. At least, I'm not, and I won't let you drive yourself that way." Harry heard the quick steps, knew Draco was drawing nearer.
And knew he might stay if Draco touched him, might let himself be persuaded by those graceful, quick hands.
Harry reached down and tore, hard, at the Auror badge on his robes, flinging it in Draco's direction. Draco cursed and fumbled. He might have grabbed at it—a Seeker's instincts—but Harry didn't know if he'd been able to catch it.
"You'll receive the paperwork later," Harry said. "A leave of absence. I need it. It's the only thing that's going to make this any better." He tore off his Auror robes and draped them over his arms, then sprinted for the shop door.
Harry paused and glanced back. Touching or no touching, Draco could still command with his voice, it seemed.
Draco stood in the middle of the shop, staring at him so hard that the gaze was painful to sustain. He held up Harry's badge—the crossed wands—and gestured slightly with it.
"I'll keep this until you come back for it," he said. "And if you don't write to me, then I'll hunt you down and break your wand."
Harry swallowed, warmth spreading through him. They might disagree about what being twisted meant, and Harry still had no idea if the things he felt for Draco were real or not or whether he wanted them to be, but at least there was a connection there, and one that he didn't think would break.
He turned and scrambled once more for the open air. The night beyond the shop smelled sweet and cool, and he clasped trembling hands to his forehead, holding them there and waiting for them to stop trembling before he Apparated.
Draco turned back to the pile of ash that had been Alexander, shaking his head. The only thing he regretted about Harry's spell was that it left nothing of the body for him to kick.
"I won't wait forever," he whispered, in reassurance to himself and Harry both, though he doubted Harry was in earshot at the moment. He thought of the paperwork he would have to file on the case and owl to Harry, and then smiled. Inside, he felt—not as he should have. Sharper, brighter, clearer, and not as upset.
"If you don't come back, I'll come and find you."
He bent down to retrieve his wand, quelled the last of Harry's flames raging behind the Shield Charms, and left the ashes behind.