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[personal profile] featherxquill
Title: Apart
Rating: NC-17
Pairings: Draco Malfoy/Rita Skeeter
Word Count: 15,000
Summary: After the war, Draco doesn’t know who he is apart from the mark on his arm. Rita is unlike anyone he’s ever known and her difference aids him in discovery.
Author's Notes: Written for [personal profile] ldymusyc for HP Beholder. Thanks to [personal profile] florahart for the beta!




In the aftermath of the battle of Hogwarts, Draco Malfoy huddles in the Great Hall with his parents. They clung to each other fiercely at first, grateful to be alive, but then the battle was over and the war won and people started moving again – removing the Dark Lord’s body to one room and everyone else’s to another – cleaning up, and the Malfoys went overlooked and were allowed to stay. It’s strange, sitting at what was once the Ravenclaw table. Draco feels cemented to his seat. After the initial burst of affection, his parents have regained their composure and all three of them sit silent and oddly stiff as the world whirls by around them.

His mother watches the crowd, nothing moving but her eyes, then makes a noise of disgust. “Ugh, that horrible woman is here.”

Draco turns to look over his shoulder, following her gaze, and sees who his mother is looking at. Rita Skeeter, all navy satin and bright blonde curls, not a mark or a mote of dust on her. Here for the spoils, or perhaps the carrion.

Draco turns back to face his mother. It never takes long for the vultures to swoop in.

Nor the Aurors. The morning sun is still slanting in through the eastern windows when they come into the Great Hall, moving quietly, slowly, but obvious in their official red robes. Whispers filter down along the table – Thicknesse has lost his mind because the Deatheater holding him under Imperius was killed; Kinsgley Shacklebolt has become interim Minister. A young Auror with sunken cheeks and messy brown hair comes to their table and asks Lucius to accompany him back to Headquarters. Draco watches his parents’ grip on each other tighten, but then his father stands and their hands slip apart.

Narcissa is informed that the Manor is now an official scene of Auror investigation, and that she and her son should find alternative accommodation for the next few weeks. They stay in the empty house at Spinner’s End because its wards recognise Draco and because the hotels they tried to check into in Diagon Alley all said they were full.

*


The vulture is never far away, Draco notices in the ensuing fortnight as he attends funeral after funeral after funeral. When he says goodbye to Crabbe, she’s lurking at the back with a fountain pen, discreetly taking notes. At Snape’s, she’s front and centre, watching the proceedings with an eagle eye and asking people awkward questions at the wake.

The day that they bury his aunt – appropriately bleak and windy – Draco is standing by the entrance to the mausoleum when he sees her approaching, this time in black rather than colour and with no quill or pen in sight. His mother appears out of nowhere, black gown laced right up to the back of her neck and ice in her profile, and blocks Skeeter’s way. He can’t hear them speaking but the conversation looks deadly. His mother is making sharp hand gestures – something she only does when she’s furious – and Skeeter’s response is more subdued but her face is thunderous. Eventually, his mother wins out. Rita Skeeter turns on her heel and stalks away, and his mother sweeps up the path toward him.

“Thank Merlin for that,” she whispers to him as he leads her to a pew at the front. “Horrible, common woman.”

Aunt Bellatrix’s funeral is small, of course, only close family and one or two others. They didn’t publicise it because they didn’t want any trouble. Draco doesn’t mourn much for his aunt – as far as he could tell she was mentally unbalanced and had never cared whether he lived or died – but he knows that his mother has lost a sister and understands that she is grieving.

When the service is over and his aunt’s coffin is being interred in the Black family crypt, he notices his mother staring out toward the trees. There is a woman standing there who looks a lot like Aunt Bellatrix, only with brown hair. She must be the aunt he’s never met, he thinks, the mother of the cousin he saw but never spoke to, who is now dead. His mother stares at her living sister for some time, then turns away, chin held high, and respects her dead one instead.

*


The day the Manor is relieved of its ‘Scene of Investigation’ status, the Aurors come for Draco and his mother. They are taken to Headquarters, relieved of their wands and separated. Draco sits for half an hour in a barren little room, inspecting his fingernails and affecting boredom. When the Aurors come in, they identify themselves as Proudfoot and Savage. Proudfoot is the sallow-faced man who took his father away. Savage is a tall, bony woman with long brown hair.

They ask him about the war, about living with the Dark Lord and what he witnessed. They ask him about his seventh year, about casting Unforgivables on other students. Draco sees no reason to lie. He tells them the truth. He talks about his family’s humiliation, about being treated like dogs in their own home. He tells them about watching as one of his professors was murdered in front of his eyes, about taking food to the prisoners locked in the cellar. He tells them about the power games that Amycus and Alecto Carrow liked to play – torture or be tortured. He mentions Easter break, when Potter was picked up by Snatchers and brought to his home, and Draco pretended not to recognise him.

It seems to be going well until they ask him to lift up his left sleeve. Despite all he’s said, he watches them make up their minds on the basis of the brand on his arm. They arrest and charge him. He spends the night in a holding cell in the bowels of the Ministry and has a hearing the next day. They release him until his trial on the condition that he wears a tracking charm and doesn’t leave the country.

His mother hasn’t been charged with anything. His father is being held at Azkaban until trial.

*


The Manor doesn’t feel like home anymore. Its spaces are raw with Auror magic and tainted with memories of the Dark Lord. Draco has nightmares when he sleeps and can’t move when he wakes. The walls are closing in and he can’t stand it.

In Diagon Alley people push past him just a little too hard and when he tries to buy bread the clerks pretend not to notice him for as long as possible. A woman stops him in the street, calling him by name, and when she has his attention, she spits in his face.

His mother takes tea with no one and they eat their meals in near silence, silver cutlery tapping against china in the hollow dining room. One night, when he can't stand it any longer, Draco asks her why. He doesn't explain the question. He doesn't need to.

"Some causes," his mother says, "are worth fighting for. We may have picked the wrong way to do it - we certainly had never hoped the Dark Lord would return - but protecting our culture from the Mudbloods and filth is worth fighting for."

Draco has spent his whole life being told things like that, and up until a few years ago he believed them wholeheartedly. This time, though, he watches Potter, Weasley and Granger awarded Orders of Merlin and sees Severus Snape immortalised as war hero despite everything he did, and he's not so sure about anything.

*


Draco's trial falls on his eighteenth birthday. The vulture is there. He tells the Wizengamot everything he told the Aurors, and what he tells them is Fear. Fear for his family, fear for his life. Being branded with the Dark Mark before he was seventeen and being expected to fill his father's shoes. Living every day with the Dark Lord in his home, unable to leave because to do that would mean the death of not only himself but his family. It surprises him that Potter is there and he tells the Wizengamot about Easter. It surprises him that Luna Lovegood is there to tell them that he brought her food sometimes and was kind to her and just as trapped as she was. It doesn't surprise him that they avoid his eyes or that they leave straight after giving their statements. He wouldn't want them to stay, really, but he notices Granger and Weasley waiting outside for them and can’t help but wonder what it might be like to have friends like that. Goyle is nowhere and Draco can't blame him.

The Wizengamot hands him down a probationary sentence. No prison time, but he has to spend one day of every weekend for the next year doing community service or attending one of the Ministry's new re-education programs.

That night Draco flies over the Manor grounds and yells into the wind. The rushing air blasts his hair back and pulls tears from his eyes, or at least he tells himself that's why he's crying. He sleeps well for the first night in months and dreams of new beginnings.

*


The dreams don't last long. When the result of Draco's trial is published in the Prophet, there are four letters to the editor expressing their disgust for the new administration's soft stance. His first community service task is to assist with the repairs at Hogwarts, and within the first hour someone levitates a brick onto his foot. Madam Pomfrey heals him, all business and no sympathy, but when he looks at her he wonders whether she's remembering healing the people he tortured last year under the gaze of the Carrows. He wonders if she's tempted to stick her wand in and twist it.

Father's trial date comes and the family solicitor manages to keep him out of an Azkaban sentence through some rather flimsy legal loopholes and some even flimsier health issues. He is allowed freedom on several conditions - that he not work at the Ministry, that he resign any positions on school or company boards, and that he accepts monthly visits from members of Magical Law Enforcement - and then Lucius is striding through the doors of the manor and clapping a hand onto Draco's shoulder and acting like nothing has changed.

When they eat dinner that night he complains about the quality of the beef and Narcissa informs him that their regular butcher has stopped responding to their owls.

Draco helps at Hogwarts even when he doesn't have to. He levitates bricks into holes and casts reparo on stairwells and helps replant the greenhouses. For the first time in his life, he enjoys getting his hands dirty, planting dittany to replenish the school's supply after the battle and breathing in the smell of it.

It takes his father three days to realise that things aren't the same as they were before. Stripped of his legitimate connections and shunned by his contacts, he is virtually housebound. At first he seems content to sit in his study and read or brood or plot - Draco isn't sure which - but soon he becomes restless. Draco visits him in his study where he's sending owls to peacock breeders in the hope of getting a new bird, and they play chess. It's barely midday but there is half a decanter of whiskey on his desk and Draco doesn't miss the wet rings beside it that tell of a glass hastily moved.

*


Mid-August, as he's levitating a desk from an abandoned classroom to a useful one, he learns that Hogwarts will reopen in September not just for its regular students but for his year as well. Eighth year, they're to be called, though they'll share classes and NEWTs with the sevenths. A chance for those whose learning was interrupted to complete their education, McGonagall says. There'll be a dorm and a common room set up in one of the unused parts of the castle, but the students will be allowed to lodge elsewhere if they wish and come and go according to curfews.

That night, Draco finds his father passed out in the sitting room, tumbler still clutched in his hand and reeking of drink. Furious, he snatches the glass and shoves Lucius hard in the shoulder.

"Get up," he says, watching as his father stirs, blinks, peers up at him.

"Is it time for tea?" he slurs. "Has my peacock arrived?"

"Get up!" Draco snarls, grabbing his father by the arm and wrenching him out of his seat.

"How...dare you, Draco, I'm..." He pulls back, wrenching out of Draco's grip, and stumbles back against the chair, losing his footing and grabbing feebly for its arm as he falls to the floor.

Draco stares down at him. "You're pathetic," he says, putting as much venom into the words as he can. "You've ruined our family and now you're just going to drink yourself to death and not even try to make it right. I wish they'd thrown you in Azkaban forever."

He turns on his heel and stalks out of the room.

The next day his father does not emerge for breakfast and his mother admonishes him for being rude.

*


With the Hogwarts repairs all but finished, Draco attends the first day of the Ministry's re-education program for people who've shown 'antisocial attitudes to those of mixed heritage'. It's basically a hybrid of History of Magic and Muggle Studies. In one day, Draco listens to a lecturer almost as boring as Binns talk about great contributions to society made by Muggleborns, Squibs, intelligent Beasts and Beings of mixed breed, and gains a basic understanding of British Muggle history over the last fifty years. He doesn't know quite what he's supposed to be taking from it all in terms of changing attitude, but he does find the lecture about the Second World War interesting.

It's an exhausting day - in many ways more exhausting than the lifting and planting and casting charms was at Hogwarts - and afterward Draco stops in at a coffee shop in Diagon both to relax and to avoid going home. He takes a seat in a corner with a copy of the Prophet, though he doesn't really read it. His eyes are tired and his mind is wrung out, so he's thoroughly unprepared for conversation when a violet-clad Rita Skeeter sits down at his table.

"You've been to one of the Ministry's new seminars," she says.

"Yes," Draco replies. He doesn't bother to ask her how she knows it was today - it wouldn't surprise him if she knew what the Minister had for breakfast.

"What did you think of it?" she asks, palms flat down on the table. "Was it all just a bunch of love-thy-neighbour bollocks, or did you actually learn something?"

Draco studies her carefully. Her eyes are clear and blue and interested behind her glasses. He's surprised that a woman affiliated with the Ministry-loving press is implying that one of the new programs could be 'love-thy-neighbour bollocks', but he's well aware that she could be pretending to think like him to get a quote that will make him look bad. She probably is, and he's tempted to tell her to sod off just to feel the vulgarity roll over his tongue, but she's the first person who isn't family, law enforcement or someone he's working with to speak more than two words to him in weeks. He doesn't want to burn an olive branch, however dubious its origin.

"It was interesting," he says. "I learned about non-purebloods who've made outstanding contributions to society, as well as a brief overview of recent Muggle history. A bit too brief to be truly useful, probably, but certainly unlike anything my family ever taught me." He watches her and she looks a bit disappointed, but searching. She's looking for something in him, and saying nothing, and the silence is unnerving so he fills it by speaking. "If I'm to learn about Muggle culture, though, I don't see why the people who shove and spit at me in the street shouldn't learn about the traditional responsibilities of wealthy pureblood landowners, so they might gain an idea why people like my parents found Muggles so threatening that they became involved with someone like the Dark Lord."

Skeeter smiles and it's catlike and pleased, though with him or with herself, he can't tell. "I knew there was an opinion in there," she said. "Perhaps they should."

"Should what?" Draco asks, taking a sip of his coffee.

"Learn about you, like you said."

Draco's head is full of fog - he's thought so much today he's almost incapable of it now. He doesn't know what she's talking about. "How?" he asks.

"Give me an interview," she says. Her eyes are eager and her fingernails tap against the table. "Get your story out there. Your trial was moving. I think people would respond to what you have to say about the war and your role in it - family obligation and being trapped. It's only a small step from what a lot of people felt last year - all those people who worked at the Ministry and had to keep their heads down or risk losing their jobs or having their families killed. People might understand better if they knew."

It smacks a bit of exploitation. Draco's mind instinctively flinches away - talking about himself, about his family, using his story to garner sympathy from the public - and what would Skeeter get out of it? She's all sympathy and smiles, but what is she hiding?

"How do I know you wouldn't twist my words and make me sound like a sycophant? Like a pureblood supremacist with wounded pride? What do you have to gain by portraying me sympathetically?" He takes a bite of scone, careful not to drop crumbs on his robes.

She chuckles. "Controversy, darling. I've made my living by making heroes look like fools, so why not the other way around? People get fired up when they read things that make them think about things a different way, but they certainly do read them, and they pay for them too. Why do you think my book about Dumbledore was a bestseller in the middle of a war?"

He stares at her. Did she just call him 'darling' and try to banter with him? He's not sure he's buying it. Strokes his chin with his thumb. "So I'm what? A meal ticket?"

Skeeter arches a brow and peers right back at him. "Only if you want to put it as vulgarly as possible. But yes, we all have our jobs to do and mine is to write about people. Glare at me if you like, but you've been fed so much bullshit over the last few years that I thought you might appreciate the honesty. It would be a mutually beneficial arrangement."

He thinks maybe he does appreciate it, but that doesn't mean he wants to do it. He watches her for a moment, she watches him back. "I'll think about it," he says.

"Lovely," Skeeter replies. "You can owl me at the Prophet any time." She rises from his table and departs.

*


Three nights in a row, Draco finds his father asleep in his wing back chair with empty bottles of wine beside him. He doesn't get angry again, merely helps his father to one of the guest bedrooms, peels him out of his robes and tucks him into bed. He still feels the irritation but he can't bear the thought of his mother hearing again, of her looking at him in the morning in that way that accuses him of being the one causing the damage. The fact that his father is his usual self in the morning - albeit paler than usual and guzzling water - doesn't make it any easier. After breakfast he wanders the grounds to tend to his peacocks and looks completely normal and Draco has no idea what to do.

He begins to think about what he said to his father about making things right. He will go back to Hogwarts in September, so his time will be limited, but he is now around the same age as his father was when he joined the Dark Lord. At the time, Lucius had seen a need for something so he'd taken up the cause. Now, Draco can see different needs. He's proud of his Wizarding heritage and he's fairly certain he'll always believe his way of life to be better than the loud, crass ways of Muggles, but Slytherins are nothing if not adaptable. The pureblood cause has gone too far and is now suffering backlash, and if he wants to restore his family's name he'll have to be seen to be changing.

First change first, though. Draco moves out of the manor. He shrinks his belongings into his trunk and his mother watches from the doorway, face stricken. Pureblood boys do not move out of their family homes.

"I hope you won't blame us forever, Draco," she says.

"I don't blame you for anything, Mother." There are several 'buts' and many other things he wants to say, but heartfelt words don't come easily in his family, especially after so long guarding themselves against the Dark Lord. Instead, he reaches out and touches his mother's arm, but he still feels a gulf between them.

He takes a room at the Leaky Cauldron because he doesn't know what his father will do about money or how long he'll have to make his own vault last. It's a tiny little den with a bed, a desk and a chair and the window is small and high and faces the Muggle street. The patrons are loud and scowl at him and the first night he can't sleep because the sound of cars is so strange, but he feels truly free for the first time in life.

Three days later, he sends Rita Skeeter an owl.

*


He puts on his best set of semi-formal robes for the interview. He might be staying at the Leaky Cauldron, but he's still a Malfoy, and this is a professional exchange. He tidies the room with a few waves of his wand, tucking most of his personal belongings away into his trunk, leaving only enough that it won't seem as if he is trying to hide something: a glass of water, his wand and a book on the bedside table, quill and parchment on the desk along with a reader given to him by the Ministry to accompany their lessons.

He tries to read while he waits for her but ends up just sitting and staring at the print, fanning the pages of the book with his thumb. He's trying not to be nervous about the thought of answering her questions and revisiting horrible moments, but he's not sure it's working. A mutually beneficial arrangement, she said, and he supposes he doesn't need to fear that she'll twist his words and make him a monster. He has a fairly significant insurance policy against that, and he'll remind her of it if necessary.

The knock comes quiet and sharp and Draco nearly drops his book. His stomach twists, but he forces himself calm, like he learned during Occlumency lessons, and rises to open the door.

"Miss Skeeter," he says.

"Draco," she replies.

He steps aside to let her enter the room, and she brushes past him. He watches her as he closes the door, looking about - glancing at the Ministry reader on the desk, then at the high window on the Muggle side of the inn. It's open for the air and the sound of traffic comes through despite the silencing charms he erected. The room is a box in the summer heat without the window open, but silencing charms don't work as well on thin air.

"Did you request that?" she asks.

Draco smiles wryly. "No. I think it was Tom's idea of a joke."

She turns to face him, and there's barely a metre between them. He wants to shift on his feet but he knows it's a nervous impulse so he resists it. "Take a seat," he offers. She glances at the bed, then the desk, smirks, and sits in the chair beside it.

"Quite a change of scenery from the manor," she says, but he can hear the question mark at the end of the sentence.

"Would you want to live in a house you'd watched people killed in?" he asks her.

"Probably not," she replies. "I didn't want to live with my parents once I turned eighteen, either." She gives him a sly smile, as if guessing that the horrible memories of the manor were not his only reason for leaving, then arches a brow. "Are you going to sit down, too? I'll get a crick in my neck if I have to keep looking up at you like this."

The smile stays on her face and it looks condescending. She's trying too hard to be nice and it doesn't suit her.

"I'll sit when I'm ready," he says, but he sounds like a child, playing right into her condescension, so he moves to the bed and perches on its edge, keeping as much distance between them as possible. This is going to be strange enough without their knees almost touching.

"Well?" he asks. What's she waiting for? The sooner they start, the sooner this can be over.

She pierces him with a stare, and for a moment looks exactly like his mother.

"Well what?" she demands, dispelling the illusion in an instant. "I don't generally jump in with barely a hello, though if that's how you want it, we'll move right along. Do you have any questions before we begin?"

"I..." he says, and falters. He doesn't know. Should he have questions? Mutually beneficial, she said, and he'll have to trust her on that (or at least trust that she remembers what he knows about her without him having to say it), but beyond that, he'd really rather just get it over with. "No."

"All right," she replies. She opens her handbag and pulls an improbably large notepad from within it, then her acid-green quill. She sets the pad down, sucks on the quill's nib, then sets it hovering over the page. He watches the movement of it uneasily as it begins to write.

"Tell me about the Malfoy family," she says. "About your history. What kinds of stories were you told, growing up?"

This is fast. He wishes, momentarily, that he'd made more small talk, but it’s too late for that now. He's uncomfortable where he is, though, so he shifts back on the bed until he's propped up by the wall. At least this is an easy question.

"The Malfoys have always been landowners. Three hundred years ago, Malfoy Manor wasn't just a home; it was an estate that supported an entire wizarding village in Wiltshire. We owned farmland in the surrounding area and employed people to work on it. Even now, there's an orchard on the grounds of the manor, but back then it went on for miles. Back then the rich had a responsibility to provide jobs and income to the poor, and it worked well. But then the industrial revolution happened, and Muggles created their steam trains and factories and farming equipment, and they started putting train tracks through wizarding land, breeding, spreading out and making their farmlands bigger. And wizards had no choice but to go along with it, really, because we couldn't expose ourselves, so the system of wizarding villages farming their own crops died out, and wizards had to rely more and more on trading with Muggles. Obviously, there was some tension there - we'd lost our whole way of life - but there were just as many wizards who thought it was great, and who adapted Muggle inventions into magical ones. The Hogwarts Express is an example of one of those. So the changes were harmonious enough for a while, but then the Muggles had their war and their stock market crash, and because the magical economy was so tied up with the Muggle one, wizards fell on hard times too. All because of Muggles and their stupidity and because we were tied to them because of inventions we didn't even need in the first place. That's when the tension started, I believe, and generations of my family have been raised to believe that Muggles are destroying wizarding society, and that Muggleborns bring Muggle ideas directly into our culture."

She is staring at him, looking interested and nodding minutely. "And Voldemort? What did he offer?"

Draco hates when people say the name - has to suppress a cringe. Every time he hears it, he can't help but imagine the Dark Lord rising from the dead to answer the call. He forces himself to relax, though, rolls his shoulders and leans back against the wall, glancing at his loosely entwined hands. "I'm not sure, really. By the time he came back - by the time I knew him - not much more than fear, really. If he had a plan, I think he went mad with his desire to kill Potter, and forgot about it. But I think what he must have offered was a return to the old ways. Glory in magic and the exclusion of Muggleborns from wizarding society. A chance for old families to preserve their power and wealth, and greed always tempts people. I'm not trying to say that these ideas are right - just that they exist. I saw...saw a lot over these last few years. I don't know what I think any more, but I'm trying to learn and make things right."

She starts to ask him the harder questions then, about what it was he saw and lived with. He hesitates at first, but she leads him into them gently and she seems so genuinely interested that it gets easier and easier to talk. He knows it's probably an act - though he's not sure how she could do her job at all if she wasn't interested in people's stories - but it's been so long since someone listened to him that it all comes pouring out. It gets hotter in the room with both of them in there and only the tiny window for air, and he feels himself sweating, but in a way it's fitting because this feels like a marathon. Whenever he pauses, the frantic scratch of quill on parchment drowns out every other noise.

They talk and talk, and eventually she asks him about a story she heard of the battle - had Potter told the Dark Lord that Draco had disarmed Dumbledore before he died?

"Yes," he answers.

“How did that happen?” she asks. “How did you come to disarm Dumbledore?”

"The Dark Lord ordered me to kill him."

Something happens in her eyes, then. Surprise and a glint of eagerness that looks like thrill, and her voice catches on a breath when she asks him to elaborate.

He tells her everything and she listens with that strange excitement in her eyes. He tells her about his father being in Azkaban, about being given the Dark Mark and then the order. He laughs - a humourless, edgy sound that isn’t quite the noise he meant to make - when he recalls boasting about being given an important task to his friends. He tells her about the weight of it, the reality of it, thrown into the Deatheater game with no idea how to play it and just wanting his father back. His mother had been terrified, urging him to talk to Snape, but he hadn't known who he could trust when the Dark Lord had told him to keep it a secret. He tells her how badly he wanted to succeed and wonders if she realises how terrifying the Dark Lord was that killing someone seemed like an easier task than facing him after a failure. His palms are sweating and his heart is pounding as he remembers, as he tells her about Potter who seemed to know what was going on, who followed him and watched him and eventually attacked him. He pulls at the buttons of his robe and tears them open down his chest, exposing the thick, ragged scars left from the curse that almost ripped him apart.

"Yes," he says. "Saint Potter, the hero. He did this to me and he gets an Order of Merlin, and the man who actually killed Dumbledore is a war hero, and I get spit at in the street."

His chest is heaving and his fingers grip either side of his robes and she is staring, staring with that hungry look in her eyes.

Then she laughs. "Lovely," she says. "Absolutely lovely."

*


September 1st and he takes the Express to Hogwarts for the eighth year in his life. The day is grey and it's a long trip, but he always enjoyed it in the past for the chance speak to people, find out what was happening and network where he needed to. This time, though, there are only a few of his classmates on the journey, and none of them seem to want to speak to him. Luna Lovegood and Ginny Weasley pass his compartment at one point, and Luna gives him a small smile, but Ginny scowls and pulls her away. Draco spends the journey reading and watching raindrops spatter against the window.

There are more of his classmates at Hogwarts, but the welcoming feast is a quiet affair. Headmistress McGonagall is only inclined to functional speeches, and after her instructions and explanations they are allowed to eat. Draco sits with Pansy and Goyle, as he always has, but the gulf between them is even wider than the one felt with his mother. They are all acutely aware of Crabbe's absence, as the entire school must be feeling the spaces at their tables that shouldn't have been there. Draco feels himself watched, blamed, and he's sure Pansy and Goyle the other Slytherins feel it too.

Most of the eighth years, he discovers, are taking advantage of the decision allowing them to live outside Hogwarts. He is one of the few who have chosen to stay. The eighth year dorms are different to the rest - in acknowledgement of their adulthood above and beyond the seventh years, perhaps, they are divided into small, single bedrooms, sorted randomly, with one bathroom for each group of five students. It's strange to not be among his housemates and stranger still to share a common room with everyone, but it's better than going home to the manor every night or living next to a Muggle street in a London pub.

Classes begin and everyone is subdued and tentative, speaking in whispers and taking notes diligently, an echo of last year when being loud and not paying attention was an invitation to torture. Draco sits off to the side and observes because that seems to be the role he has been handed. He passes Pansy and Goyle in the halls but they say little to each other. He knows why. Pansy's parents were never Deatheaters and she wants to avoid the taint of being associated with him. Goyle looks like he is missing a shadow but seems to be finding new friends in Care of Magical Creatures. Pansy doesn't want him and Goyle doesn't need him anymore. They are polite but disinterested.

In the evenings between the end of classes and curfew, the common room is nearly deserted. Draco reads the Ministry's booklet and wonders where other people go. Wonders what opportunities they have and whether he will have them too when this year is through.

On the weekend he attends another Ministry seminar and visits his parents. He has tea with his mother and tells her what he's learning, and she nods and smiles but her eyes are distant and her nose wrinkles when he tells her he is learning about Muggles. He watches her, cool and elegant, and thinks of another blonde, blue-eyed woman who hung on every word he said and laughed when he got angry because she didn't care one whit for propriety.

*


When the article is published people start to look at him again. He passes Hufflepuff girls on their way to potions and they lean in close and whisper to each other. After class he goes to Hogsmeade for a drink to test the water, and he doesn't get shoved or spat at this time but still no one talks to him. He orders a pint because he's never had one before, because Malfoy functions were always clinking glass decanters, champagne and aged firewhiskey. Beer didn't seem appropriate for a Young Pureblood Lord, but it's perfectly acceptable for an Ordinary Man. He sips from the glass and watches the crowd and wonders if whispers follow Rita Skeeter wherever she goes like they've followed him today. He feels fluid, in between, like who he is is being formed by other people's speculation and opinions. He wonders if this is how it feels to be Rita Skeeter all the time and if it is, how does she know who she is?

"I couldn't give a toss what people think of me, darling," she says when he asks her, when they meet for a drink one Saturday afternoon after he owls her. He's not sure why he did, really, but he wanted to talk to someone who wasn't all politeness and pretending. He looks at her, taking in her perfectly manicured appearance, from the red satin blouse and the pencil skirt with the seamed stockings and three inch heels to her hair expertly curled and the light sheen of powder on her face, her lipstick shade that matches her top exactly, and he thinks she might be lying, but he's interested in the cultivation of carelessness.

"Bothering with what people think," she says, stirring the olive in her Martini, "is an invitation to madness. I wouldn't be doing my job properly if people didn't hate me."

"Mother calls you common," he says, before he thinks about why.

Rita laughs, looking up from her drink to arch an eyebrow at him. "Does she now? Is that why you're here, then? Rebelling against your parents?"

Draco scoffs, but he's not really sure.

Not Sure is a good phrase for the afternoon in general. He's not sure why he owled her, not sure why he's there, and he's certainly not sure how he ends up with tiny golden key in his hand, climbing the rickety staircase to one of the rooms. There's beer on his breath and gin on hers, but it would be too easy to explain this by being drunk. All Draco knows is that he's finally doing something, something that is entirely his. It's not something the Ministry told him to do or something his parents got him involved in, but something of his own. Perhaps it's a mistake, but he doesn't care. He cultivates carelessness as he climbs the stairs behind those heels and stockings and it's a heady, potent feeling.

The room is small and dingy - larger than the one he stayed in at the Leaky, but still small. The varnish on the furniture is faded and dull, as is the incongruous floral pattern on the duvet cover. Ragged, flimsy curtains hang in the windows, but the glass is frosted, so there's no need to close them for privacy. Rita is the brightest thing in the room.

"Are you a virgin?" she asks after he's locked the door behind them, as she steps close and works his collar undone.

"No" he says, though it's a blatant lie. When would he have had the chance to lose his virginity, what with trying to kill Dumbledore and having the Dark Lord living in his house? He's kissed before, and Pansy once let him slip his hand inside her blouse, but she was a 'not before marriage' princess who wouldn't let him below the waist.

Rita laughs and plucks his buttons open and says "It's all right, you know," but she doesn't make him admit it. When she's done, his robe hangs open and he's not wearing a shirt beneath it. He glances at the scars on his chest and they’re paler than his skin and glossy in the light. She runs a fingernail down over the largest one and it's strangely sensitive. Draco shivers.

"Take it all off," Rita tells him, turning away. He can see her arms moving as she unbuttons her blouse, then red satin slides down over her shoulders to reveal a black bra. She catches the blouse deftly and drapes it over the chair in the corner, and he watches as she reaches behind herself for the zipper of her skirt.

He shrugs his robe off and loosens his belt and it feels seedy and out of character but he loves it. No one would expect him to do something like this. She's shimmying out of her skirt and laying it aside and he's kicking off boots and socks. She tosses her skirt over the chair with her blouse and turns to face him. His hands are on his belt buckle but they still when he sees her, when he really looks. Her clothes are gone but she's still wearing her shoes and the stockings that end with lacy tops on her thighs. Knickers and bra match the lace and there's a string of pearls around her throat. She moves to sit on the bed and watches him the way she did in the interview, like she can read all his deepest secrets. He's unbuckled the belt and slipped his hand into his trousers before he realises what he's doing.

"Yes," she murmurs. "Show me how you touch yourself."

He should be embarrassed, should be shy but he can't look away from her. He doesn't feel like himself so it's easy to open his fly and pull his cock out. He feels the cool metal buttons against his skin as he licks his palm, but then he's holding himself again and stroking slowly, slowly, running his thumb around the head and squeezing. His cock is hardening in his hand as he looks at her tits and those stockings and the pointy heels of her shoes and back up to her eyes. They're devouring him and he feels like a whore and he doesn't know how it happened that she's telling him what to do but he likes it because he chose to let her.

"Lovely," she says, when he's good and hard and beginning to sweat. "Now come here."

He doesn't even think about resisting. His feet carry him across the room in an instant. He stands before her, chest naked and cock hanging out. She looks up at him, peering over the top of her glasses and smiling. Close up and looking down at her, he can see that her body isn't perfect, that her belly is soft and rounded above her knickers and her skin is looser in places, like his mother's, but then he glances again at the ragged scars on his chest and thinks of the fine ones like chandelier shards on his cheeks and knows he isn't perfect either. The war has marked him as age has marked her and they're both flawed.

She reaches up and tugs his pants down and he steps out of them and kicks them aside. Her hands on his hips, then, sliding up and down and around. Her nails scrape over his backside and his muscles clench involuntarily, then she's wrapping her own hand around his cock and he's too busy trying to breath to think. Her nails are red and he watches the contrast of them against his pale skin as she strokes him, mirroring his own technique then watching his face as she twists her hand and mouths a word and he feels the tingle of magic, all hot and cold at the same time, circling his cock and twisting around his balls. It's gone in an instant, leaving him throbbing in her hand, and he doesn't realise he gasped until a moment later.

"You like that?" she asks. He feels flushed and unable to talk and she doesn't wait for his reply. "I thought you might. Now, do you want to fuck me?"'

Breathlessly, he nods.

She reaches behind herself to unclip her bra, sliding the straps down over her shoulders as he stands there and watches. Her breasts aren't huge, but they're big enough to look soft and to sway when she moves, pink nipples puckering with lust and the touch of air. He reaches down to touch them and she lets him, watching him still, completely at ease with her nudity. Her breasts are soft and pliant under his hands and he can feel the weight of them under his fingers as he scoops them up, brushing his thumbs over nipples and drawing small circles until they're almost as hard as he is.

He wants to ask what should he do, but it would make claiming not to be a virgin obviously a lie, and while he doesn't mind being told what to do, he refuses to ask and sound like a fool. Without a word, he steps closer, urging her back, and climbs onto the bed with her, reaching down to the waistband of her knickers and peeling them down. She lifts her hips and he eases them off her, careful not to snag them on the buckles of her shoes as he pulls them over her feet. He likes the shoes, likes the stockings, fingers the ankle strap and slides his hand up one silk-covered leg.

They move further up the bed, don't speak. This feels almost like a dream, like he's inside someone else who's doing this, but she's very real beneath his hands and he can certainly feel the throbbing pressure in his cock. His hand trails up the inside of her knee, pushing her thighs apart, and then he's running his fingers over the folds of her cunt and easing a finger inside her. He hears her breath catch, its cadence becoming rapid and shallow as he presses deeper, but still she's propped up on her elbows watching his every move.

She's already wet - more so than he would have expected, probably - but she gets wetter as he works his finger in and out of her, going slow so as not to poke the wrong places and give away his inexperience. It's spreading as he moves, the wetness, and soon his hand is slick with it and her breathing is even shallower than before.

"Now," she breathes. "Fuck me now."

He doesn't need to be asked again. He lifts one of her legs and props it on his shoulder, pulling her forward and positioning himself between her legs. Taking his cock in his hand, he guides himself to her entrance and pushes inside, squeezing his eyes shut hissing a breath as he feels her wet heat envelope him. Just as quickly they're open again because he doesn't want to miss this and he's sure she's still looking at him. She is. Still wearing her glasses and her pearls and looking clear-eyed, and he wants her to feel just as fogged with desire as he does. He leans down over her, hands on either side of her shoulders and her leg trapped between them, and he feels himself go deeper as he moves.

Then stillness instantly as he thinks of something he probably should have considered well before now. "You are...on something, aren't you?"

Her voice is ragged. "A potion, yes."

"Good."

He starts to move, then, slowly, in and out, feeling as if he's going deeper each time, and for a while she barely moves, letting him find a rhythm and no doubt feeling his inexperience in the uncertainty of his thrusts, but then he does, and it's slick and easy and he increases the pace, feeling her muscles ripple and tighten around him as he moves. She arches beneath him, then, her free leg coming up and her hips pressing back against his, one hand clutching at his shoulder and the other wrapped around the headboard of the bed. He presses in harder, faster, the air filling with the sound of grunts and heavy breath and the slap of skin against skin. His knees slide backward on the duvet; he loses purchase, falling heavily against her. Her leg slips off his shoulder and he catches it with his elbow. She laughs and he growls, wrenching his knee even higher so it's right up under her leg, clamping a hand around her waist and pulling her onto him. His head presses into her shoulder, he licks sweat off her skin, her nails dig into his back and their limbs are so tangled he barely know which are his, but damned if he's going to stop now. Moving moving moving and his eyes are closed tight but he feels everything, feels her breasts against his chest and her skin under his fingers and her cunt clenching around him and he has no idea if she's coming or not but he knows he's about to and then he's blind, his head is pounding and he's coming, coming coming.

Breathing, for a time, nothing but breathing, enjoying the darkness behind his eyes and the feel of their bodies slick with sweat. They're still tangled, though, and she's pinned beneath him and he knows that can't be comfortable so he rolls onto his side and lets her go. When he opens his eyes the daylight floods back in, the room comes back and it's as dingy as ever. He stares at the ceiling, breathing hard. The afternoon sun is bright but the windows are dirty so the entire room is painted in a yellowish monotone.

He turns his head to glance at Rita. Her glasses are gone now and her hair is mussed but she's still looking at him.

"You were a virgin, weren't you?" she asks.

"Mostly," he admits. "Did you...?"

She shakes her head against the duvet. "No. But no matter," she smiles. Her hand slips down between them and her fingers wrap lazily around his cock again. Her lips move and he feels the gentle lick of that hot and cold magic. "What you lack in endurance I'm sure you'll make up for in stamina."

*


When he leaves that afternoon twilight is beginning to descend and he doesn't know what it means or what will happen next, but he's sore in all the best places and he sleeps better that night than he has in a year.

The following day he has community service in a kitchen that provides meals for people left destitute by the war. He washes dishes and wipes tables and serves soup with a big ladle and he doesn't look at many of the people who come through his line but some of the ones he does glance at are smiling. At the end of the day his bones are tired and his hands are raw but he's glad they appreciated the irony.

The week passes in a blur of lessons and evenings spent alone in the common room, and on Friday he owls Rita again. They meet at an inn in the wizarding district in Norwich and when he tells her about the soup kitchen she laughs.

"Doing dishes? Oh, you poor dear."

He pins her to the wall, tangles one hand in her hair and shoves the other between her legs. This time, he makes sure she comes.

On Saturday he has lunch with his mother and she pointedly doesn't mention the Prophet article. He finds himself thinking that if Rita had a problem with something, she'd come right out and say it. They go through three courses without mentioning it so Draco asks his mother what she thought of it. She sniffs and tells him that he should do whatever he thinks is best, but the disapproval is plain on her face. When she's not looking, he allows himself a quiet smile.

*


The third time he owls her, Rita gives him her address. It's a townhouse in one of the residential streets off Diagon Alley, oddly designed with most of the rooms upstairs because of the Muggle dwellings it backs onto. Even so, there is a window in her bedroom that looks onto the Muggle street, and when he asks her why she chose it she tells him she's always been fascinated by what goes on in that other world. They leave the lights off and the curtains open and as she moves beneath him, arching her back into white sheets, he watches her skin painted blue and red and yellow from the lights of silent traffic.

Afterwards, they sit facing each other with legs entwined, knees making tents in the sheets and elbows curled around them. Rita brushes her fingers over his cheek where the tiny pattern of scars is.

"What happened there?" she asks.

"Potter and his friends, during the war. There was a duel in our entrance hall and a chandelier fell down. It took Mother hours to pick all the glass out."

Rita smiles. "You're just covered in battle scars, aren't you?" She doesn't look at it, but the Dark Mark on his left arm is pale and glossy in the half-light, like a newly healed burn.

He brushes his toe against her hip. There's a tattoo there, all curves and crisscrossing lines that looks sort of like a beetle, if you know what you're looking for. "When did you get that?"

She rests her elbow on her knee and her chin in her hand. "In Paris, when I was young. Not long after I transformed properly for the first time. I did my cadetship there in the early years of the first war."

"Why?"

"The Prophet wouldn't hire me and the French newspaper would. My parents wanted me out of the country after my sister ran off with a Muggle. I only stayed a few years, though. Got qualified and came back. Being on my own was wonderful, but I wanted to be where the action was. The Prophet jumped on me as soon as I got back. Probably gave me a dead woman's job."

He asks her about her sister and she tells him - yes, they still speak; no, her parents don't hate Muggles, they were just afraid what would happen with Voldemort rising to power. She's surprisingly candid and he can't believe he's having this conversation. He's never had a conversation this easy in his life - he spent his childhood learning to decipher what went unsaid and his time at Hogwarts being careful of everyone. Hastily spoken words in the Slytherin common room always came back to haunt you. Rita doesn't tell him much of what she feels but her stories speak for themselves, and she's so different, so apart from anything he's ever known that he can't help but want more.

*


Draco does well in his lessons both at Hogwarts and the Ministry, and at the soup kitchen he graduates from washing pots to chopping vegetables. There are charms for dicing, he’s told, but he doesn’t know them and he’s too proud to ask and actually he rather likes the motion with the knife, the snick snick snick and the vegetables falling into neat cubes or circles. More and more, though, he finds himself living for the moments in between, for the afternoons and evenings when he steps through Rita’s floo and replaces the drab monotony of his life with her colour.

At first, it’s just weekends. He goes there after Ministry lessons when his mind is turned to mush and she offers him an evening that requires no thought at all. After days at the soup kitchen she examines the burns on his hands and rubs them with a salve that tingles and soothes and then experiments with it on different parts of his body. On the days he has lunch with his mother he goes to her afterwards and strips her bare. She calls him a spirited young thing and it makes him angry and she laughs so he pins her down and spreads her wide and watches as his cock teases her cunt, dipping in shallow and teasing and brief until she’s shaking but refusing to beg. It only occurs to him later, when he’s spent and sweaty, collapsed against her and feeling like an animal, that she might bait him like that on purpose.

They talk a lot, too. Not always about themselves or things that matter, sometimes just chatter. When she’s not reporting actual news, she goes to a lot of parties and dinners and likes to talk trash about the people she meets at them – Ministry beaurecrats and stuffy society wives and how they’re all sleeping with each other or snorting pixie dust in the bathrooms and isn’t it hilarious how they think so much of themselves when really they’re just like her?

“I might be a gossip and a conniving bitch, but I’ve never tried to pretend I’m not.”

Draco glances at her from where he lies in bed and smiles at the ceiling, because those were the gilded halls of his childhood and he enjoys having spotless memories torn to shreds.

*


One Saturday when he arrives at the soup kitchen they tell him the cook is ill so he’ll have to make the stew today. He’s never cooked a meal in his life but they thrust a recipe at him and tell him to get on with it. He cuts up the vegetables and prepares the meat but when he looks at the recipe he can see that the quantities of herbs are all wrong. He knows enough about potion making to know which herbs are which, and that’s far too much garlic and far too little rosemary. He adjusts other things as he cooks – a few minutes here and there and a few extra stirs when it’s boiling – and by the end his hair is slicked with steam and his clothes smell like lamb, but after lunch one of the servers comes out to the kitchen and tells him people are saying this is the best stew they’ve ever tasted.

When he leaves that evening he feels satisfied by work for the very first time.

*


He finds himself visiting Rita more and more. On weeknights he discovers that as long as he leaves before curfew, he can floo directly to her house in the evening and no one cares where he is until morning. Sometimes she’s there when he arrives and sometimes she’s not, but her settee is much nicer than the one in the common room and it’s a quieter place to read. The Muggle streets are close by and sometimes he goes wandering. He watches the traders close up their shops and Muggles wrapped in coats and scarves darting from coffee shops to tube stations through chilly autumn evenings, and aside from the loud machines that rumble past and the small ones people press into or against their ears, they don’t seem that different from wizards.

When Rita gets home she’s barely in the door before he’s on her, prying her handbag out of her fingers and tugging her into his arms. “I’m tired,” she murmurs petulantly as he kisses her neck. She doesn’t stop him from unbuttoning her jacket, though, and once he’s got it open he slips his hand inside and catches her nipple between forefinger and thumb. He whispers the word she taught him and magic sizzles in his fingers and her nipple goes rock hard.

“Cheat,” she says, but lets her head loll back. “Merlin, young men and their stamina. You’ll be the death of me.”

He backs her into the bedroom, pulling her blouse open as they go, and she lets him undress her. They stand in front of the mirror and she watches his face in the reflection as he slides the blouse back off her shoulders the slides her bra strap down, leaning in to kiss her throat as he flicks the catch open at the back. Slides it off her arms and then his own is around her middle, holding her tight and flicking her nipple with his thumb. He unzips her skirt then drops to his knees behind her, working her shoes gently off stockinged feet before he takes the skirt down. It’s off and he’s kneeling there staring at her arse and the suspenders stretching across it, and he can’t resist reaching up and spreading her cheeks apart and pressing his face into her knickers. She makes another noise of approval and leans forward to press her hands against the wall either side of the mirror. He grips her by the thigh and pulls her legs apart, then he’s catching the lacy fabric of her knickers under one finger and pulling them tight against her, sliding them side to side and he can hear her trying not to but grunting, heavy breaths that barely have sound in them, and can feel the dampness on the fabric when he pulls it back.

Please,” she whispers.

He smirks. “I thought you were tired.”

Her chuckle is ragged. “Cocky little bastard. I can see you in the mirror. I think you should finish what you start, or you’ll be taking care of that bulge in your trousers all by yourself as well.”

“Oh, but you love that, don’t you?” he asks, reaching down to pull his buttons undone and take his cock in hand. He strokes it once, twice, three times, groans, and he can see her heel twitching against the carpet. He uses his free hand to drag her knickers against her cunt again.

“Please,” she says again, only this time it’s more of a command.

He pulls her knickers aside and licks her. She smells musky and tastes of animal and her cunt gets pinker with every swipe of his tongue. He grips her arse again and spreads her wide and pushes his tongue inside her, feeling her muscles quiver and clench and her hips push back against him. She’s breathing heavily, her nails scraping against the wall, and he swipes his tongue all the way from clit to asshole. She’s whimpering and he slides even closer, feeling the carpet burn his knees, lifting her thigh and holding it so he’s almost directly underneath her, head back and face buried against her, licking and flicking his tongue against her clit until her leg is shaking in his hand and he feels the gush of warmth against his mouth.

She’s shaking so much she can barely stand when he’s finished, so he rocks back up onto his heels and catches her around the waist and pulls her back to the bed. They fall onto it on their sides and he drags them up, but then she’s rolling over and sliding down and wrapping first her hand, then her mouth around his cock. He fists his hands in her hair and tries to be gentle but her mouth is amazing, taking him all the way in and pulling back with incredible heat, sucking and licking and sliding and his balls are in her hand and magic twists around them and soon his grip is tightening and his hips are moving and he’s rolling so he’s half on top of her and fucking her face til his eyes roll back in his head and his balls tighten and he pulls as far back as he can before the spasms take hold and he comes and comes and comes into her mouth.

Later, when he’s recovered but she hasn’t, she’s laying half covered by sheets but with her back bare and he trails his fingers down it so she sends him out to buy Chinese from the Muggle place around the corner and tells him to take the pounds out of her purse. When he gets back she’s wrapped in a satin robe and they eat the food in bed with flimsy wooden chopsticks. He asks her if she ever cooks and she tells him sometimes, but it’s really too much bother when you live on your own.

He makes the stew at the kitchen three weeks in a row and buys himself a cookbook from Flourish and Blotts.

*


He starts cooking simple things – French toast or Eggs Benedict for Rita on Sunday mornings, but soon he wants to take on the more challenging recipes. He likes dishes with lots of herbs and spices and subtle ingredients – the chopping and crushing and grinding is soothing and he doesn’t have to think. Preparing the ingredients has always been the part of potion making he finds enjoyable, but while he’s skilled enough as a potion maker, he’s never really had the inclination to do it outside of school. Cooking, though, is different. When he makes food, people sit down and actually enjoy it, linger over it, close their eyes and taste it.

He finds a recipe for Cajun chicken and rice that looks suitable for making in large quantities and takes it to the kitchen with him. The chef frowns and glowers but says that if everyone liked his stew so much, he’s willing to give it a go. Together they cut up peppers and onion and grind garlic and spices, and when lunch is served that day Draco lurks behind the crockery and watches people’s faces. They look intrigued when they set their plates down and take the first mouthful carefully, but he sees nods and smiles and gestures with forks and has to resist the undignified urge to jump up and down and cheer.

He can’t cook at school and wouldn’t at the manor even if the kitchen wasn’t elf-sized, so he does it at Rita’s. He skips his last class one Wednesday afternoon and goes to the market instead to buy rice and prawns, tomato and chilli. He peels, chops, grinds and simmers and it looks and smells amazing, but he spills garlic tomato sauce all over his shirt so he takes it to the laundry and rinses it. He’s sure he has a spare in the closet – he seems to remember leaving for Hogwarts one morning while Rita padded around making coffee in his shirt – so he goes to the bedroom to look for it. Rita’s closet is so full of colour that it’s easy to spot the white shirt, but when he tries to take it off the hanger it falls and he has to dive between satin suits to retrieve it. He reaches over pairs of stilettos and plucks it off the top of a box that’s too big for shoes and is yellow and dusty with age. He tells himself to take the shirt and close the closet door but his curiosity is piqued and he’s interested in Rita’s life. Taking care not to disorganise her things, he reaches into the back of the closet and lifts the box into his lap.

The first thing he sees when he opens it is the green and silver of a Slytherin tie. It’s coiled like a snake and he lifts it out of the box, rubbing the fabric between his fingers and staring at it in wonder. She’s never told him she was a Slytherin, but he supposes he might have guessed if he’d bothered to think about it. She told him about Paris and about her sister but she’s never mentioned Hogwarts, and now he’s curious about why. Underneath the tie there’s a book – seven books, he discovers as he lifts them out, one for each year at Hogwarts. They’re scrapbooks. The first is covered with colourful cut-out shapes and the title ‘Marguerite Ann Skeeter: First Year, 1962-1963’. He flicks the cover open and leafs through. There are notes written in coloured ink – purple and pink and green, clippings from Witch Weekly and pictures of singers and authors and other 1960s heartthrobs . Pictures of Hogwarts, of a bed in a Slytherin dormitory with a violently purple duvet, and a blonde girl standing in the grounds waving at the camera. Rita, eleven years old and angelic but for the gleam of mischief in her eyes. He flicks past more notes and silly lists until he comes to a photo of Rita and a black-haired girl, heads together and giggling. The photo captures the dark-haired girl’s lips twisting into a dark, sardonic smile and looking directly at the camera with eyes that are challenging and depthless. Draco remembers that smile from only a year ago but even without it he would have recognised those eyes and the shape of that face anywhere. The nose is the same as his, the same as his mothers. Aunt Bellatrix.

Draco closes the first book and opens the second – more of the same but perhaps with fewer colours on the pages. More pictures of his aunt staring at him, her arm linked with Rita’s. The third is the same, and the fourth, though in the book of her fourth year there’s also a picture of Rita with a brunette in a Hufflepuff tie who looks so like her she can only be the sister. By fourth year the magazine clippings have changed to articles about hair and makeup, and by fifth they’re about kissing and sex. Rita looks more and more polished in every photo, and Bellatrix’s hair gets longer as her eyes get darker. The photos of Bellatrix stop midway through sixth year, but he stilt spots her name on the pages. The magazine articles are gone but there’s gossip written down instead. The book from seventh year is much thinner, covered in plain green. ‘Rita Skeeter: Seventh year, 1968-69’ is written on the front in silver pen, but there’s little colour inside. More gossip, bolder than before, but no mention of his aunt at all.

Draco glances at the window and the sky is darkening – Rita will be home soon and he doesn’t want to be caught rifling through her things. Carefully, he puts the scrapbooks back in order, curls up the tie and returns the box to the wardrobe.

When he does up the buttons of his shirt in front of the mirror, his fingers shake a little. Rita, a Slytherin and friends with his aunt? He doesn’t know why that should shock him, but he supposes he’s built her up into someone so separate from his family that it’s strange to discover she’s tied to them too. He shrugs the shirt into place and tries to shrug off the feeling of unease at the same time – how could he judge her for the friends she had at school, and especially for a friendship that seemed to have waned by the time she was sixteen?

He pours wine to go with the risotto and she makes such delicious noises when she eats it that he takes her to bed with the dishes still on the table, but the image of her giggling with his aunt doesn’t really leave his mind.

*


Early December and the stores in Diagon are setting up Christmas displays in their windows with gingerbread houses, fairies preening on pine trees and enchanted snow. In the Muggle street outside Rita’s window, strings of twinkling lights are strung out between the power poles when Draco walks beneath them he feels like the stars are within reach of his fingers.

Rita receives an invitation to a charity gala organised by the same group who run the soup kitchen. She smiles at him over her morning coffee and he can see by her eyes that she’s thinking something devious.

“Will you escort me?” she asks.

Draco peers at her, unsure what she’s thinking or how to answer the question. “Why?” he asks, throwing it back at her.

“It’ll be delicious,” she says. “A scandal. Everyone will whisper behind their hands and wonder why we’re there together, but they’ll all be perfectly polite and proper to our faces. They’ll talk about it for a week. I’ll go on your arm and then I’ll flirt with other men and you’ll dance with other girls and everyone will wonder but no one will know. It’ll kill them. Come on,” she says, eyes twinkling.

He’s not sure he wants to be gossiped about but he remembers cultivating carelessness in the pub that afternoon, and where that’s led him, so he shrugs a shoulder and smiles.

“Why not?”

*


Rita spends an entire afternoon getting ready. She lays her gown out on the bed and takes a bath, soaking in warm water til her skin is pink then padding across the bedroom naked and smelling of musk. She rubs scented lotion into her skin and shimmies into an undergarment that cinches her waist and accentuates her bust. Silk stockings are slipped over toes and rolled up calves and fastened to thighs with suspender clips. The gown is ice-blue satin like his dress robes, body hugging and fishtailed, and when she asks him to fasten the hooks at the back he does it with reverence for the feminine ritual. He’s fascinated by it, by the array of paints and powders and pencils on her dresser and the way she uses them all, by the painstaking curling of hair into perfect corkscrew curls, by the charms to keep everything in place and sparkling and comfortable.

Draco showers and slips into his robes and combs back his hair and is ready. Rita smiles at him, dons her cloak. He offers her his arm and they walk through Diagon and she’s right, people do look at them, and he can’t help but feel full of secrets.

The gala venue is resplendent – decorated for Christmas with red tablecloths and gold cutlery, snow falling to just above heads and towering trees decorated with fairies, fluttering tinsel and shining boughs of holly. They are announced when they enter and their names together turn heads, and Rita smiles like royalty, like a Muggle film star as they move through the room.

Everything is clinking glasses and quiet murmurs and dances to music played by the string quartet. It looks and sounds just like his childhood, but Rita leans in close and murmurs snarky asides over the rim of her champagne glass and keeps him from getting swept up in the pretence of it all.

Then the announcer says “Mr Lucius Malfoy and Mrs Narcissa Malfoy,” and Draco’s fingers freeze on his glass. He doesn’t know why his parents are here at this charity event raising money for Muggleborns and people they would consider blood traitors, but he supposes they must be pretending to care like everyone else.

Beside him, Rita is as still as he is, but it’s not a tense stillness, more a curious one. There’s something akin to amusement in her eyes. He wishes he felt her ease.

“I’d better go and say hello,” he says, and does.

They look impeccable, which is nothing less than Draco expected. His mother is wearing a sapphire blue gown, simple but striking, and his father black dress robes with accents that match his mother’s gown.

“Mother,” he greets, leaning in to peck her on the cheek. “Father.” A nod.

“Draco,” she says, touching his elbow. “I didn’t know you were coming tonight. Is Pansy here with you?”

“No,” he says, and his heart is pounding but he’s had years of experience at pretending. “I’m escorting Rita Skeeter.”

His mother’s eyes, moments ago warm with greeting, go cool and hard and pierce him through. “How lovely of you,” she says, though, and her voice betrays none of it. Lucius says nothing, but his expression is curious and calculating.

After that, the night is tense and awkward. Draco no longer feels comfortable with the glances that accompany whispers in other people’s ears. He circulates, dances and chats but he could do that with his eyes closed. His attention is always on the room, on the location of his parents in relation to Rita. In one quiet moment, he can see both Rita and his mother clearly in opposite directions, and he can’t help but take a moment to observe them both.

They are alike in appearance, at the most basic level – both blonde and blue eyed and of a similar age. Narcissa is tall and willowy while Rita is short and curvy, but they both move with a feline or perhaps serpentine grace, and walk like they own the room. Their difference, however, is far more marked than their similarity. His mother is elegant: poised and timeless, her hair is in a simple twist and everything about her telling the story of someone who has always been rich. Rita, on the other hand, is glamorous – she shimmies and flirts, smiles and laughs and every inch of her is perfectly put together. He can’t honestly say which is better, or more real. The glamour might be put on but he knows how beautifully Rita comes apart, whereas his mother is always elegant and cool.

*


The morning after the lavish night he wakes to harsh reality. He’s barely slept but he has to be at the kitchen, so he showers at Rita’s and hurries down the street rubbing at bleary eyes. He helps prepare a chicken version of the seafood risotto he made for Rita and the chef glances at the annotations Draco made on the menu, changing quantities and instructions. He lifts his eyes to peer curiously at Draco but the alterations go unquestioned. The meal is once again a triumph.

Back at Hogwarts there is a letter waiting for him that bears his father’s personal seal. Draco cracks it open and sinks down into one of the plush common room chairs to read it.

Draco,

The article was one thing but being seen leaving Rita Skeeter’s flat in the morning is another entirely. I want you to put a stop to this now, for the sake of our family’s reputation. I expect a reply.

Father


Draco crumples the parchment into a ball and throws it on the fire.

*


He tries to visit Rita on Monday but he can’t get through the floo. He owls her and she doesn’t reply. He Apparates to her doorstep and knocks on the door, but if she’s home she doesn’t answer.

Draco is distracted in class. His potions overflow and turn to lumpy sludge and his transfigurations go horribly wrong, and every night in the common room he tries to concentrate on the Ministry reader because he has four straight weeks of seminars coming up, but all he can do is stare at the printed page until the words blur before his eyes. He sends an owl every night for three days. On Friday morning he finally gets a reply.

I’m sorry.

It’s a reply but it’s not good enough. Not bloody good enough and there’s no way he can sit through classes today. After breakfast he takes off. He doesn’t have a morning class so there’s nothing to prevent him from leaving, even if he doesn’t intend to return for the rest of them.

He goes to the Prophet and demands to be shown to Rita’s office. The receptionist looks likely to refuse him but he draws himself up to show every inch of pride and arrogance his father taught him and demands again.

The receptionist takes him meekly through the office and he can feel eyes on him as he strides through and hears whispers following him but he doesn’t care. He is shown the door and he pushes it open without knocking.

Rita is bent over parchment, quill in hand, but she looks up as he enters and a smile dies on her face. Draco lets the door close behind him with a loud snick.

“What the hell is going on?” he asks. Can’t demand in front of Rita because she shrinks him down to size and now that he’s standing in front of her he doesn’t feel angry anymore, just strange and fragile.

She stands and moves around her desk, touches his arm and says “Draco, I...” but he doesn’t want to hear it. The touch burns because it’s been a week since he felt it and he doesn’t know why and suddenly he desperately doesn’t want to know. He grabs her around the waist, pulls her close and kisses her hard on the mouth to silence her words, and she tries to pull away at first but then her fingernails are digging into his arm and she’s kissing him back with the same desperation he feels.

Her breath is heavy when they break apart; his forehead presses against hers. Her glasses touch his cheeks. He tries to search her eyes but all he can see is downcast eyelashes. It’s the first time she’s ever not been watching him.

Please,” he whispers. He’s not sure what he’s asking. Whatever this is, please don’t do it, maybe, or please look at me. She’s cool and unresponsive in his arms but her hand is still clutching him tight. He kisses her jaw, her neck. Her breath is heavy and catches in her throat. Before he knows what he’s doing, his hand is fisting in her skirt and he’s pressing her back against the desk. He tugs the skirt up and slips his hand beneath it and that brings her to life.

She lets go of his arm and her fingers pull at the buttons of his robe instead, nails fumbling with buttons and getting two undone before he knocks her hands away. Leave it on, he doesn’t care. Skirt rucked up to her hips and he pushes her back onto the desk, gripping her legs above the knee and shoving them wide. Her suspenders stretch over her thighs and her high heels dangle from her toes. He catches her knickers under two fingers and tugs so hard the fabric tears. He doesn’t care. He wants her, wants to bury himself in her and rid himself of this anger and this hollow feeling and he thinks maybe if he reminds her of this, of them, she’ll stop whatever it is she’s trying to do by cutting him off. He licks his finger and thrusts it into her, pushing and twisting and turning his palm from up to down, down to up, feeling the inside of her and listening to the harsh hitch of her breath. She’s not as wet as she’s been other times, but she slicks right up in no time at all.

Whore, he thinks, then is ashamed of the thought, because he’s the one that’s come here after a week of silence and wants her for no other reason than to have her.

Belt unbuckled and trousers pulled open and his cock is in his hand. Grabbing Rita and pulling her forward, right to the edge of the desk, and then he’s sheathed in her and his face is buried against her shoulder and animal growls are rumbling against satin blouse. Her arm is about him and one of her legs wrapped around his waist and her hips are slapping against his, fingernails in his back and the heel of her shoe digging into his arse.

It’s happening too fast and he knows it but doesn’t care. Knows a few tricks by now, though, so his hand pushes between them, finds her clit and rubs against it. He whispers magic words against her shoulder and the spell vibrates between them, circling and tightening and then she’s crying out and her muscles are clenching around him. There are tears in his eyes and he’s pounding, pounding, pounding into oblivion.

They are still and silent for several moments. His legs are shaking and he uses the desk to support himself. His face is still pressed against her shoulder and her blouse is wet from the tears that fell. Just his climax, he thinks, but when he speaks he can hear them, raw, in his voice.

Why?” he asks.

“Your father came to see me,” she says, quiet and over his shoulder. She’s holding him, one arm about his waist and the other around his back, drawing nonsense patterns with her nails. “He told me that if this didn’t end, he’d report me to the Aurors for being an illegal animagus.”

“How does he know?”

Rita lets out a humourless laugh. “He’s known for a long time, Draco. Since before you were born. He found out during the first war, and ever since I’ve been writing little things for him in exchange for his silence.”

Draco wrenches himself away from her, as hard and as fast as he can. “What?” He fumbles for his fly buttons, for his belt, suddenly feeling bare and dirty.

Rita smiles, arches a brow, amused. “Why do you think I revealed myself to you so easily during the Triwizard Tournament? Surely you don’t think I go about showing random interview subjects something that could put me in Azkaban?”

Draco scratches his arm where her nails dug into it, staring at the spot and wishing he could scratch the skin clean off. “What about the article about me? Did he ask you to write that?”

“No. I did that on my own.” He looks at her and she’s staring at him again, like he’s a specimen, like he’s a subject.

She did it on her own, she says, but what is she not saying? She’s an expert at twisting words and he’s only a novice, so he doesn’t know if she means that she did it on her own because she thought he was interesting, or that she did it on her own because she thought it would benefit his father and his family. He’ll never know, either, and it changes everything.

He feels dizzy and there’s a sick, churning feeling in the pit of his stomach. It’s the shattering of his illusions, maybe, because he’s built her up for so long into something so different and separate from his parents, and now he knows that she was friends with his aunt and has been working for his father and it turns out she’s so tangled up with everything he’s trying to get away from that he wants to run, or be sick, or something.

His mind has spun away but he pulls it back to focus on her again and she’s still watching him, hands on the edges of the desk and her skirt still bunched up and dishevelled from their fucking. In that, at least, he knows she wasn’t a tool of his father’s, but does that make him her tool for getting back at his father for years of blackmail?

He can’t look at her any more.

“I’m sorry too,” he says, then he fastens the buttons of his robe, smooths his hair, and leaves. He doesn’t even glance back at the building as he walks away.

*


Dear Mother,

I’m writing to let you know that I will not be returning home for the Christmas break. I’m sorry, but I cannot live under the same roof as Father anymore. I will be at the kitchen on Christmas day, helping the chef prepare a roast dinner for the people who can’t afford to make their own.

I know this will hurt you, and I regret that, but Father needs to understand that I will not allow him to control my life any more. I am an adult and I will make my own decisions and mistakes, and I will make them for myself, not for the glory of the Malfoy family. The damage done to our reputation is because of him, and I will not abide his hypocrisy any longer.

I need time, but I hope you will want to see me when I am ready to visit again.

With love,

Draco


*


It’s lonely at Hogwarts over the Christmas break. He doesn’t usually talk to people anyway, but at Christmas the halls are quiet and full of ghosts. He feels the absence of company and sinks into a melancholy that he supposes must be characteristic of breaking up with someone. For days the castle grounds are blanketed with fog and he’s never quite noticed how isolated this part of Scotland is before. He reads the Ministry reader and browses his growing collection of cookbooks, but he has nowhere to practice now.

He goes to London and walks along Diagon Alley. It’s bustling with people doing their Christmas shopping or sipping mugs of steaming coffee in the cafes, laughing and smiling. The shop windows sparkle with their festive displays and Draco peers in at their wares and wishes he had people to buy for. It’s cold and grey out in the street but he doesn’t go in to the warm.

He’s grateful when an owl arrives from the Ministry assigning him more days at the kitchen during the break. When he arrives on his first week day, the cook greets him with a gruff smile. He chops and grinds and serves and scrubs pans afterward and the patrons exclaim over the food and wish him Merry Christmas. A girl not much older than him wraps a purple scarf around her neck as she gets ready to leave and tells him he could make money doing this, cooking. The kitchen is warm and bright and full of steam and he starts going there even on the days he doesn’t have to.

On his days off, he ventures further with his wandering. Out into Muggle London in the rain and the cold but it’s exciting. Frightening, sometimes, when he has to do things like cross the road, but there is so much to see that he doesn’t know how he was ever content to stay in Diagon Alley. He changes money at the Leaky Cauldron and visits the bookstores that line Charing Cross Road and picks up books on Muggle cuisine from all over the world.

One afternoon at Hogwarts the weather turns unexpectedly fine. The sun is wintery but warm so he wraps his scarf around his throat and puts his hands in his pockets and walks to Hogsmeade. He explores the streets of the town and watches children run out their front doors to make the most of the sunshine while it lasts. They play with miniature broomsticks and disappearing toys and throw melting snow at each other with aim assisted by their wild magic, and Draco finds the Muggle world interesting instead of repugnant now but he knows this is where he really belongs. It’s a question of balance, he thinks, of keeping the good parts of his heritage and replacing the bad parts with new things he’s learning, like how to order Chinese takeaway and how to make Massaman curry.

It’s magic that is his heritage and the magical world he wants to hold onto, not the clinking glass world of pureblood pretention. He sees through that now, thanks to Rita, and he’s grateful to her for that even if she turned out to be far more involved in it than he thought. He doesn’t know what her motivations were when she wrote the article or when she first took him to bed, but there were truthful moments and he did learn a lot from her.

He meanders through the town and heads back towards Hogwarts when the daylight starts to fade. Just before he turns back onto High Street, he stops to peer in the windows of a restaurant apparently abandoned during the war. It has a flat above it and a for sale notice on the door, and as he wanders back down the road to the castle he thinks about the future, and what he might be able to do to prepare for when his NEWTs are over.


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