Draco brought his fist down on his desk. Laying on his blotter was an envelope, the wax seal unbroken. It had taken him a week to get the letter right. After all that, there wasn't a sign that Starling had so much as pried the letter open then refastened it. Instead, she'd scrawled one line on the front:
Return to sender, address unknown, no such number, no such zone.
Draco could sense that he was the butt of some kind of joke. The fact that he couldn't understand it only made him angrier. He'd done everything in his power to reach his little bird—to apologize for his disappearance for the past three months—but to no avail. And now, after all his efforts to pen the perfect apology (as honest an explanation as he could possibly give a Muggle) and then find out how to mail it, it had reappeared on his desk unopened.
Draco rubbed his throbbing hand and wished he hadn't hit the oak-top desk quite so hard. He'd never had much tolerance for pain. Yet, in some ways, the pain of his fist slamming against wood was preferable to the pain from the other slams he'd heard lately:
Slam!:Starling closing her textbook when he'd approached her table.
Slam!: The sound as she walked out of the pub the next day, not giving him a chance to come near her.
Slam!: Her apartment door closing in his face moments after their eyes met. She hadn't even unfastened the chain.
And now this letter: "Return to sender, address unknown . . . " Her words sounded like some kind of school-yard chant, but if it was, it was a cruel one.
But was it any crueler, Draco wondered, than leaving Starling alone, then looking away when she saw him through the bookstore window? Up until that moment, she'd been ready to forgive him. It was only after he turned away that she gave up on him.
She was rejecting him, just like he'd rejected her. Yet, instead of the relief Draco should have felt, there was only emptiness. It was ironic. Hardly twelve hours after his performance in the portrait gallery, he learned he'd lost the woman he'd finally admitted he loved. Without shame. Despite what she was.
And now she didn't want him.
The realization made bile rise in his mouth, and it was all that he could do to to keep from being sick then and there. He might have succumbed, except a flash of movement caught his eye. Phineas Nigellus Black had wandered into the painting in front of Draco. The Headmaster surveyed his companions—a dragon roasting a griffin to a crisp while copious amounts of their blood spattered the earth—with revulsion.
But then, when did Phineas Black look anything but revolted by his company? Not for the first time, Draco praised Merlin for Hermy's spell. The silence of the Manor's portraits had been the only balm for Draco's wounds. It had also, of course, unsettled the rest of the Manor's residents. Lucius couldn't bear the quiet. Narcissa sat alone in the portrait gallery, studying the faces around her—especially her sister's. And Draco—Draco was torn between relief that his secret remained hidden and regret that his grand gesture had, once again, amounted to nothing.
Draco turned his sealed letter over again, his eyes drawn to the inscription on the front. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Phineas leaning down, squinting through his spectacles to make out the words.
"My, my," the Headmaster murmured, "Has our little Edmund Kean gotten his first Dear John letter?"
Draco's chair clattered to the floor as he leapt to his feet. When he tried to speak, nothing came out.
"Mmmm," Phineas continued, "Forgotten our lines again, have we? Well, never fear, I haven't gone up yet—though your disgusting little elf did its best. Its nasty trick has made Malfoy Manor an even drearier place than usual."
"H-h-how?" Draco sputtered.
"How could this place be drearier? Or how can I speak? Ah, that's it." Phineas regarded Draco as if he were as stupid as a flobber-worm. "It's quite simple. I—wasn't—here. You drove me away with your oh-so-sincere, lavishly produced mea culpa. Though I must admit there was something lacking in your show. Talent, for example. Taste. And a scourge. Without a bit of blood and self-flagellation, you made a sorry excuse for a penitent. I've seen much better . . . in my time . . ."
Phineas looked wistful.
"I—" Draco began, snapping his ancestor out of his reverie.
"Don't interrupt, boy. You've put me through enough trouble."
Phineas seated himself on the only un-scorched tree stump in the painting. Beside him, the griffin and the dragon continued their struggle.
"Rather poetic, isn't it? An endless fight to the death—yet neither beast will ever prevail. Of course, there are no words for this poem—not like the one on your little love-note—but if there were, it wouldn't matter. There are no answers here."
Both Draco and the former headmaster studied the battle in silence. Draco clutched the letter, worrying it in his hands.
Finally, Phineas stirred. "I'm weary of this place," he said, "And I am weary of you. You may be a Slytherin and share my blood, but you're little better than a traitor. Little better, indeed. And you, Draco Malfoy, are a fool as well as a traitor. Ever wonder how that letter showed up at Malfoy Manor?"
"I thought not. Too busy burying yourself . . . in self-pity." Phineas looked down his aquiline nose, his lips twisted. As he strode towards the edge of the painting, he called back:
"By the way, Dumbledore forgives you, Merlin knows why. I wouldn't. As for Snape—well, let's just say he has other things on his mind."
For several long moments, Draco was rooted to his seat. Then, Phineas's words registered.
Dumbledore forgives me! Like his ancestor, Draco was unable to comprehend his former Headmaster's magnanimity. In Dumbledore's place, Draco would never forgive. In fact, when he'd begged Phineas to apologize to his former mentors, he'd regarded it as a bit of madness. But now, despite his crimes against Dumbledore—his year-long-attempt to cut the Dark Lord's most powerful foe down—Draco had received forgiveness.
Draco breathed easier than he had in a long time. Sure, he had as good as murdered the man who had been ready to rescue him. He was still guilty of the crime. But Dumbledore had given Draco absolution, simply because he'd said he was sorry.
Perhaps Draco's resentful nature caused more suffering than necessary. For some reason, he thought of the day he'd met Harry Potter in Diagon Alley—how happy he had been to talk to someone smarter than Crabbe and Goyle. Then, he'd made that same boy his enemy over a single refused handshake. If he'd been a little more flexible, a little more understanding, how different might he be today?
Never mind. Whatever he might have become, he wouldn't have been Draco Malfoy.
Draco turned to Phineas's other words. How had Starling returned his unopened apology? Surely Muggle post offices couldn't locate Malfoy Manor! Yet here was the letter, laying on his desk. He had been so busy mooning over Starling's cryptic inscription that he hadn't bothered to ask the obvious question.
Hermy provided a few answers: she'd found the letter, and it was she—not magic, not an owl—who had left it on Draco's writing-desk. As for how she'd found it, she could only answer that during her "free times" she liked take "a constitutional" around the the grounds. It was a pleasure she'd been denied before Draco gave her his robe.
That morning, she'd spotted a befuddled Muggle postman pacing up and down the street near the border of the estate. When Hermy recognized the Malfoy seal on the letter in his hand, she'd summoned the missive right through the Manor's wards. After seeing the letter vanish into thin air, the postman had, it seemed, departed with great dispatch.
Then, Draco had to consider the inscription. Phineas Black had called it a poem, and the more Draco read it, the more certain he became that it was exactly that: a poem and a riddle. He cursed. Starling, with her endless Muggle mumbo-jumbo, was maddening.
Yes, there was something cunning about his little bird. Despite her sweet face, she had a temper. Draco realized that she was punishing him. Pushing him. Making him work to win her back. Starling wasn't going to make things easy for him. She didn't bow to the Slytherin Prince—not like Pansy, Millicent, or the others had.
Draco loved Starling all the more for it. He'd tell her so, if he ever cornered her—and if he could keep himself from strangling her in frustration first.
It took several days for Draco to discover that the lines Starling had scrawled on his letter were not a poem. After a long morning scouring Muggle libraries for clues, he walked past a little diner: another place he and Starling had gone. It was—he recalled—a 1950s, American-style place with an ice-cream counter, a fat, friendly-looking waitress, and something called a jukebox.
A jukebox. At last, Draco realized the words on the envelope were not a poem. They were the refrain of song—a maddeningly catchy song that had played in that diner as Starling drank a chocolate milkshake. Through the whole thing, she'd hummed and tapped her foot. Draco hadn't paid attention to the music—he'd been too busy staring at a smudge of chocolate syrup on Starling's lip and wishing they were back in her apartment.
The song was some sort of message, but Draco knew neither what it was called, nor the names of any popular musicians. There was only one thing to do: question more Muggles. Hopefully, this time he'd only have to ask one. He was too impatient to search every music store in London.
When he entered the diner, the same old woman stood behind the counter. She recognized him, and her eyes crinkled at the corners when she asked him where his girlfriend was—they made such an adorable pair. Draco felt a stab of pain.
"Um—" he started, racking his brain for a suitable lie, "Well—her birthday is coming up soon, and I wanted to buy her a record, but I can't remember the musician or the name of the song or—anything—"
His voice trailed off lamely, but the server seemed to believe him. She leaned on the counter.
"How can I help you, sweetie?"
Draco's lip curled at the term of endearment—it was far too familiar for his taste. But then, if he was going to be with Starling, he supposed he'd have to get used to Muggles taking liberties with him. He schooled his face into neutrality.
"Well, if you could tell me what the song is called—"
Draco stopped short as he realized just what he was going to have to do next: Sing. Aloud. To a Muggle. In public. The old woman was looking at him expectantly.
There was nothing for it. Draco turned as red as a beet, but he did it. He sang—right then and there—while a dozen people turned to stare at him. The old woman erupted in laughter, which made Draco's humiliation, he thought, complete.
But it got worse.
"Oh, dearie," the old woman said, stifling her giggles. "It's called 'Return to Sender.'"
Bloody hell. Of course.
"And the performer?" Draco said between his teeth.
"None other than the King."
Draco blurted out the first thing that came to mind: "But I thought we had a queen?!"
The Muggle made a choking noise and covered her mouth with her hand. Finally, she told him that the musician was Elvis, that she could show him how to work the jukebox, and that he deserved an ice-cream soda for giving her the best laugh she'd had in years.
Before long, Draco found himself with cold drink in his hand, a cackling old woman at his side, and a sickly-sweet song ringing in his ears. By the end of the number, however, Draco got Starling's message:
"This time, I'm gonna take it myself, and put it right in her hand . . ."
She wanted his apology in person.
Well, if that's what she wanted, that's what she'd get. But why had she put him through all this? Why not just tell him she was ready to hear him out? Draco slammed his glass down on the counter and stalked out of the diner. Before going, however, he tossed the old woman a tip. As much as she had mortified him, she'd also given him the answer he needed.
And he had rather liked the ice cream soda.
Although Draco had the letter in his pocket, it was many hours before his temper cooled enough for him to go to Starling's flat. He wasn't accustomed to being laughed at—except when the Dark Lord and his cronies had mocked him. His experience in the diner had enraged him. Indeed, it was fortunate that he didn't have his wand. A few things might have mysteriously exploded, laws against magic in Muggle London be damned.
At dusk, Draco found himself sitting on a bench in a park. He stared across a pond as a few ducks quacked and waddled away from him. As Draco gazed into nothingness, the image of the wrinkly old waitress came back to him: her eyes sparkling with good humor, her ready smile, and her warm words. Her laughter wasn't a thin veil for nastiness. It was genuine.
She's probably somebody's grandmother. The thought came out of nowhere, and he didn't see much point in speculating about a stupid Muggle's family. Still . . . Draco could imagine the woman with a gaggle of giggling children, each digging into a chocolate sundae or banana split while she plugged coin after coin into the jukebox. He could even see her grabbing a little boy's chubby, sticky hands and leading him in a clumsy dance.
Muggle or no, that person, who had helped him even as she bit her knuckles to hold back her laughter, was kinder than either of Draco's grandmothers had ever been. In fact, he hadn't liked either of them much at all. Certainly, they'd never played with him.
Draco shuddered. The more he saw, the less he liked his own relations—excepting his mum, of course. He wished he could have another family. One of his own making. No formal, distant grandparents. No drunken father. No mother who'd suffered so much that she'd turned herself into ice. And absolutely no insane aunts.
Maybe Starling's family is better . . .
Then, Draco knew that he didn't just want his family to be better. He also wanted the Malfoy name to mean something again. Something good. It shouldn't have to be a byword for evil, shame, and failure. Couldn't something be salvaged from the wreckage of his and his mother's lives? Dimly, Draco recognized that Narcissa had already started to rebuild. She'd begun long ago, the moment she'd told the Dark Lord that Harry Potter was dead. All the time she'd worked, Draco had been running. Even now, he was fleeing from life, avoiding both Starling and his overdue apologies.
He couldn't hide forever. With a sigh, he started walking to his little bird's flat.
By the time he arrived, darkness had fallen. There was no moon tonight, and most of the street-lamps around Starling's apartment were flickering or out. As Draco reached for the bell, he saw two things: a shadow gliding down the street, and the corner of Starling's curtain dropping, as if she'd been watching for something.
When she opened the door, her eyes were wide. She looked behind Draco nervously.
"Did you see anyone out there?" she whispered.
Draco shook his head.
"I . . . thought I saw somebody."
"Maybe it was me?" Draco said.
Starling released the chain. Following her up the stairs, he noticed her tangled hair and tattered robe. He realized it was quite late—that he might even have gotten his little bird out of bed. After she let him into her flat, she clutched her robe at the neck and waited.
Draco fumbled in his pocket and produced the letter. He said that he hoped she'd open it this time. Nodding, Starling responded she would read it in private. She sent him to the battered living room and started to play a DVD.
"I'll be a while, so you might as well have something to watch," she threw over her shoulder. "And Draco, I hope I like what I read."
Starling went into her bedroom, and Draco, suffocating, opened the window and leaned out. He hoped the cool, spring air would clear his head. After a few minutes, music began: a deep, throaty voice accompanied by a guitar:
"If you're looking for trouble, you came to the right place."
Draco glanced towards the television. Muggle music. What tripe. Lucky Starling isn't here to see me, Draco mused.
"If you're looking for trouble, just look right into my face . . ." After a few moments, he realized that this performer was the same one that had sung the ditty that Starling had written on the front of his letter.
"Well I'm evil, so don't you mess around with me."
That hit a little too close to home. Another of his little bird's bloody riddles. Draco forgot the open window and steeled himself to listen carefully—to figure out this puzzle faster than the last. When camera panned to the audience, Draco noted that the Muggles were wearing the most ridiculous clothes he'd ever had the displeasure of seeing. All the same, Draco had to admit that this man's music was better than any of the wizarding bands he'd heard.
After a few minutes, the singer—Elvis, Draco reminded himself—interrupted a song to speak to his audience:
"Wait a minute, wait a minute," the performer said. "There's something wrong with my lip." He curled his lip, much to the audience's delight.
It was not a pleasant expression. Draco resolved to sneer less often. It was an ugly habit, and Draco couldn't afford to look worse than he already did. He stepped away from the window. Where the hell is she? It's been almost eight minutes . . . How could reading one letter take so long? He began to pace. The apartment was too small, too hot. The music droned on.
"Well, since my baby left me, I found a new place to dwell . . . I've been so lonely, baby, I've been so lonely, I've been so lonely I could die . . ."
That's exactly how Draco had felt for the last few months. Perhaps that was Starling's message?
When twelve minutes had passed, the so-called King began a ballad:
"Wise men say, only fools rush in, but I can't help falling in love with you . . ."
At that moment, Starling emerged from her room, fully dressed, a blue vest pulled over her button-down. Despite her layers, she was trembling. Her eyes shone. The music played on.
"Like a river flows surely to the sea, darling so it goes, some things are meant to be . . . take my hand, take my whole life too, for I can't help falling in love with you."
Draco's heart soared. Starling's timing couldn't have been more perfect. Her riddle was solved. She loved him. Starling loved him, despite what he'd done. In an instant, Draco saw their future unfolding. She'd forgive him. She'd look at him the way she had before. Together, they could make a family. He wouldn't be alone anymore. He'd show everyone that he had changed.
He'd get everything he wanted. He just had to say those three little words—
But Starling spoke first.
"You are an intolerable dictator, Draco Malfoy."
Despite her trembling, her voice was low, dangerous, and—worst of all—bitter. Draco had never heard her sound bitter before. His vision of their future together shattered.
Suddenly, Draco realized that Starling was trembling from rage, not joy. She turned off the television and wiped her eyes on the back of her sleeve.
"My sister always said that people tell you who they are," she said. "I thought I was so clever. I thought I knew better."
She turned to Draco, studying him as if he were a grotesque specimen in one of Severus Snape's jars. "I had this all planned out, you know. That song was my cue to forgive you. I'm such a—a—fool. I should have walked out the moment you said you weren't a nice man."
Say something. Say anything. Draco could feel himself flailing. He'd never been good at dealing with a full frontal assault. He did better when he attacked first. Therefore, he said the first thing that came into his mind:
"I am not a dictator!" Damn. Not that. He tried again, but his next effort was no better: "I apologized. What more do you expect?"
Even he could hear the whining, wheedling note in his voice. He sounded just like the little third-year who'd spent months with his arm in a sling, milking a scratch for all it was worth and pointing his finger at that damned Hippogriff. He'd always done everything in his power to deflect attention from his own foolish mistakes. But what could he have done wrong this time? He'd poured his heart into that letter—yet, somehow, he'd still failed.
How could he have failed? Starling didn't keep him waiting for an answer.
"This isn't an apology, Draco," she said, holding up the crumpled letter. "Every word is about you."
"That's not tr—"
"Let's see . . ." she continued, tossing the wad of paper on the floor. "You heard some disturbing news three months ago—I can just imagine what kind!" Draco could hear the sarcasm in her voice. "You didn't have the heart to contact me. You were worried that your family wouldn't accept me. You decided it was best that we not see each other again, that a clean break would be easier for me. And—best of all—you've changed your mind and decided that we're perfect for each other."
She ticked each point off on her fingers. Draco had to admit that what he wrote didn't sound so good, not when she put it that way.
"No. You've had your turn, Draco. Now it's mine, and I want to know something. Did it ever occur to you that—maybe—my family might not be thrilled about you? Or—maybe—I might have my own feelings and and opinions about my life? Or that—maybe, just maybe—I might not fall right back into your arms as soon as you called?"
Well, no. He hadn't considered any of that. He'd assumed that, as long as he passed her silly little tests, she'd take him back. He'd thought he was taking the high road—that he was doing her a favor by deigning to love her. After all, she was a Muggle. She was just a better kind of Muggle.
"Starling," he whispered, "I didn't want to hurt you." That was true.
"I was trying to protect you." Also true.
"I'm not as frail as I look."
When she took a few steps towards him, Draco stepped back. Gone was his bookstore-girl. His little bird. His sweet, breakable Muggle. Looking into Starling's eyes, Draco realized that that person had never existed. Starling was a woman. A formidable woman. More than his match, in fact—with or without magic.
He couldn't bear to look at her, so he walked to the window and leaned against the frame. Shadows shifted in the street, darting from tree to tree. The clock in the kitchen counted off the seconds.
Draco knew he was a selfish man. He was a little dictator. He did expect everyone to jump to do what he wanted—even after five years of being an outcast.
His shame meant nothing, because deep down he hadn't changed at all. Everything he'd done had been to ease his own conscience. He hadn't even freed Hermy because it was the right thing to do. He'd done it because he wanted her to be devoted to him. Just like he'd wanted Starling to be. Just like he'd imagined she already was.
He'd fallen in love with a fantasy, and he'd been too blind to see it.
"I think you should go now."
Starling was holding out his coat. Numbly, he took it. In the past, he would have kissed her goodnight. Now, that was impossible. But even if he couldn't kiss her, he could tell her the truth. He wasn't all bad. He had tried to do the right thing, though in all the wrong ways.
"Starling," he said, "I also went away because I didn't think I was good enough for you."
He nodded, struggling into his coat.
"But Draco," Starling pressed on, "I know enough about you to see what else is going on."
"And what is that?"
"You also think that I'm not good enough for you. I always thought you were better than that, Draco. I really did. I believed in you."
And now I don't. Starling didn't have to speak the words, but Draco understood. It was time to leave.
"Wait," Starling called after him. He stopped, his hand on the knob. "Tell me one thing before you go. Have you ever—ever in your life—said you were sorry and meant it?"
"Yes." He swallowed. "Once."
"What for? Who to?"
"I said I was sorry—to a man I tried to murder."
Starling didn't do any of the things he'd expected. She didn't gasp. She didn't scream. She didn't look at him with horror or try to ring up the police. She just stood there, staring at the floor. He couldn't see her face, but as far as he could tell, she hadn't reacted at all. After a moment, she took a deep breath.
"Goodnight, Starling." His throat closed as he spoke the words. The lock clicked behind him. As Draco walked down the stairs from her flat, he could hear each step echo.
It was over.
It was really over.
And it was his fault that it was over.
Draco stepped out the front door and leaned against the brick wall. He stared into the shadows cast by the flickering streetlights. There was nowhere he wanted to go. Not home. Not to the Leaky Cauldron. Not to some Muggle hotel or all-night diner just to stare into a cup of coffee and feel sorry for himself.
This was the only place he wanted to be. He'd stay where he was. Draco slid down the wall and pulled his knees to his chest. For an hour, Starling's light glowed and her window remained open. He heard that Muggle music playing again. The same ballad: "Wise men say only fools rush in . . ."
Draco thought he heard a sob. Finally, Starling shut the window and turned out the light. Draco imagined her going into her room, undressing, and curling up under her duvet in her frumpy pajamas . . . Did she doze off like that time when they'd cuddled on her bed and she'd laid her head on his shoulder? He hadn't even minded when she'd drooled on his favorite shirt.
Draco doubted he would ever sleep again.
In the early hours of the morning, it started to drizzle. He buried his head in his arms and closed his eyes. Not even his worst nightmares had felt this bad.
DISCLAIMER: The Harry Potter universe and all canon characters belong to J.K. Rowling, not me.
ACKNOWEDGEMENTS: "Return to Sender" was performed by Elvis Presley in the movie Girls! Girls! Girls! The DVD that Starling plays in her apartment is "Elvis," often referred to as the "'68 Comeback Special." The song order, quoted dialogue, and timing matches the first fifteen minutes of the special (also available on YouTube). If you squint, Elvis resembles a raven-haired version of LeatherPants!Draco. The King of Rock and Roll seemed like just the person to wipe that smirk off Draco Malfoy's face . . .
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Reviews—and especially constructive criticism—are warmly welcomed.