This story was written for Toujours Padfoot's Gift-It Challenge, and is dedicated to the wonderful JChrissy.
As always, that which you recognize belongs to the inimitable JK Rowling.
The world was spinning. All of the colors of the Ragged Fang were swirling through his whiskey-sodden brain, from the dull umber of the worn-out old bar to the smoke-stained beige of the ceiling to the ashy charcoal of Goyle’s cloak to the sepia tones of Zabini’s face. The colors blended together into a drab kaleidoscope of confusion and nausea. He felt himself slide off of his stool and he struggled to locate a door. The door to the toilets would be ideal. The door that led to the dingy alley behind the bar, the door to the stockroom, hell, even the front door would do. He spied something in the distance that seemed to be the correct shape, then he tried to get his clumsy, leaden feet to cooperate.
“Lookit Malfoy! Pissed as a fart!”
Jeremy Gamp’s slurred words assaulted his ears, confirming what he already knew. In his present condition, he had no business operating something as complicated and delicate as his own body. The door-shaped vision grew closer for a moment, then it seemed to shrink again. The dim, grimy oil lamps swam through the periphery of his vision like piss-yellow streamers. Howls of laughter erupted from behind him, hardening his determination. Malfoys did not embarrass themselves in public. His father would be mortified.
“Gotta go piss!”
His voice sounded thick and wet, like he was shouting the words through a mouthful of cooked spinach. Spinach. Wrong thought. His stomach was suddenly alive, straining against his diminished self-control to expel the vile mix of beer, wine and whiskey he’d been pouring into it since the bar opened that morning. It dawned on him that he had no idea what time it actually was. The last time he’d gone to the gents, he was pretty sure that the clock on the wall read one thirty. Did the clock in this place even work? Maybe it was bewitched so that the filthy, old watering hole’s shabby clientele never knew how late it actually was. Draco marveled at the proprietor’s cleverness as the first spray of vomit erupted from his mouth and splattered all over the bare, uneven wooden floor.
“What the bloody hell? Take yer drunk arse somewhere else!” The barkeep’s angry shouts mixed with the hoots and guffaws coming from his mates as Draco made a desperate lunge toward the blurry, rectangular shape in front of him. As he stumbled forward, he could feel his boots slipping on the newly befouled floor. His arms windmilled around as he struggled and ultimately failed to keep his balance. The grimy, peeling paint that covered the inside of the bar’s front door briefly came into focus before Draco’s head and shoulder slammed into it. He closed his eyes an instant before the impact and he felt the door give way as his vision exploded into a multi-colored shower of sparks. A second later, he was rolling down a set of stone steps. When the world stopped spinning, he felt the hard, lumpy cobblestones of Knockturn Alley pressed against the side of his face.
Draco took a long moment to gather himself before he did anything. He cautiously moved each limb, searching for the telltale signs of injury. Finding none, he slowly rolled onto his back. Even through his eyelids, a horrible brightness assaulted his vision. He must have landed underneath a street light. Or maybe the Magical Law Enforcement Patrol was shining a wandlight in his face, preparing to haul him in for public drunkenness. No matter the cause, he needed to collect himself. It was beneath him to be seen lying in the gutter like a common drunkard. He forced his eyes open.
It was the middle of the afternoon. Although the sun never penetrated the shadowy realm of Knockturn Alley, he could make out a swath of blue sky between the rooftops looming overhead. Pulling himself to a sitting position, he stared at the dial of his watch and waited for the tiny roman numerals to come into focus. Three thirty. Somehow, he had managed to get completely pissed at three thirty in the afternoon. He snorted mirthlessly to himself and began to climb unsteadily to his feet. A new record.
This had been Draco’s daily routine since the battle at Hogwarts ended the darkest chapter of his young life. Wake up whenever his mother’s nagging finally became unbearable. Listen to both of his parents drone on about doing something with his life while he choked down a cold, tasteless breakfast. Have a shouting match with his father on the way to the door about who was the bigger embarrassment to the family. Then plant himself on a barstool with Goyle, Zabini, Flint, Montague, Nott, Gamp and the others and listen to them wax poetic about how wonderful life would have been if only the other side hadn’t won the war. They were a bunch of bloody fools, but still the closest thing to friends he had left in the world.
The Second Wizarding War. That’s what all the papers were starting to call it. A terrible, tragic conflict resulting in scores of deaths and countless ruined lives. More widows and orphans than you could shake your wand at. The Dark Lord and his evil army of Death Eaters roaming the countryside, raping and pillaging as they went. That is, until Saint Potter and his hopelessly outnumbered band of brave and heroic followers prevailed against all odds and defeated the Dark Lord and his loathsome minions in a battle that would surely be the topic of history books and drinking songs for centuries to come.
Draco leaned over and retched into the gutter. The filthy cobblestones spun dangerously in front of his eyes as the last dregs from his stomach splattered onto his shoes and trousers. He had to get out of Knockturn Alley. Not only was it a dangerous place to be drunk to the point of being defenseless, but he couldn’t stomach any more of Flint’s relentless posturing. Yes! Flint was the reason he had decided to take that final shot of firewhiskey, the one that pushed his stomach over the edge. Flint had asked whether Draco would show his Dark Mark to some old hag who did enchanted tattoos out of her house in Leeds. Nearly three months after the Dark Lord’s death, the thing was little more than an ugly, black scar on his forearm. But he really didn’t feel like sharing that fact with the whole bar, so he ordered another shot and hoped that his mates would take the hint.
The corner that led into Diagon Alley beckoned in the distance and Draco began to stumble toward it. The uneven cobblestones frustrated his attempts to maintain his balance, and he was forced to lean against the fronts of buildings for support. Throwing up had done a world of good for his stomach, but he was still extremely light-headed. Food! Yes, if he could find something to eat, he might just be able to sober up enough to apparate home without losing any limbs. Diagon Alley was closer now. The noise of the afternoon crowd reached his ears. He began to be able to make out the forms of the witches and wizards passing the entrance to Knockturn Alley. The whole scene was entirely too bright and noisy, but if there was food there, he would deal with it somehow.
He stepped into the blinding sun and took in the crowds milling around among the shops and street carts. Voices came at him from every direction, assaulting his brain with fragments of dozens of conversations. Bodies hurried to and fro in a dizzying blur of color and motion. Draco closed his eyes and swallowed repeatedly to keep from throwing up again. He had already done more than enough damage to his family’s reputation for one day. If he threw up in front of everyone in Diagon Alley, he would simply go home and pack.
He opened his eyes just a sliver and scanned the alley, searching for a fixed target to lock onto. Finally he settled upon the door to the Leaky Cauldron and made a wandering beeline toward it. He ran into a number of passersby as he barrelled forward, upsetting a fat wizard’s armload of parcels and nearly toppling a middle-aged witch when he grabbed onto her arm for support. By the time he made his way into the bar, there was a trail of angry pedestrians in his wake.
The inside of the bar was dark and smelled strongly of old beer and fried food. Draco immediately felt more at ease. Without the bright light of the sun and the constant movement of bodies, his whiskey-sodden brain could almost process the scene in front of him. There were several spots open at the bar, which looked well-worn but clean and tidy. He ambled over with as much poise as his greatly diminished capacity would allow and motioned for the bartender’s attention. He looked around, taking in the decor and stealing glances at his fellow patrons. As drunk as he was, an uneasy tension still registered in the depths of his brain. People seemed to be avoiding his gaze, staring in his general direction without staring at him.
"We don't serve your kind here!"
The bartender’s loud declaration startled Draco, and he quickly scanned the bar again to see whether a werewolf or perhaps a hag had wandered in. He felt a shove against the arm that rested on the bar to help maintain his balance. Turning to express his annoyance, he found the bartender pointing a rough-hewn mahogany wand at his face. The old, bald wizard wore a greasy apron and looked much the worse for wear.
“I said, we don’t serve your kind here! Are you deaf?”
Draco stared back at the man with a complete lack of comprehension.
"Drunks? This is a bar, right?"
The barkeep's eyes hardened. The tip of the wand was inches from the bridge of Draco’s nose.
"Death Eaters. I know who you are. You’re Malfoy’s son. And if you ask me, both of you belong in Azkaban. Now go slither back into whatever hole you crawled out of."
Draco stared over top of the wand into the man’s eyes. The sensible part of him was screaming at the top of its lungs to turn and walk quietly away. But the whiskey coursing through his veins overruled his better judgment. He effected the best replica of his father’s dismissive sneer that he could manage.
“Well it’s fortunate that nobody asks you for anything more than a drink.”
Then he turned and immediately fell on his face as a Leg-Locker Curse struck him from behind. Furious anger gripped him as he rolled onto his side, searching for his assailant. He reached clumsily toward his trouser pocket, but half a dozen wands were aimed in his direction before he could even locate the handle of his own.
His wand was torn from its pocket and flew into an unseen hand somewhere inside the bar. Hoots of cruel laughter seemed to come from every direction at once.
“I said GET OUT! Set foot in here again and you’ll be leavin’ with a lot worse than your legs bound together.”
The incantations of a dozen dark curses popped into Draco’s mind, but the majority of them were spoken in his aunt’s mad, piercing shrieks. He shuddered inwardly in spite of his alcohol-fueled bravado and began the difficult task of pulling himself toward the door with his elbows. Several glasses struck the floor around him as he crawled, forcing him to pause and shield his eyes from flying shards of glass. Insults and taunts continued to rain down on him as he pulled his body over the threshold and rolled onto the worn cobblestones outside.
Just as Draco was climbing to his knees, he saw his wand go flying over his head and across the alley. The door to the Leaky Cauldron slammed shut behind him, drawing the attention of the small minority of the crowd that hadn’t already seen him tumble out of the bar. He tried to pull himself to his feet with the vague intention of hopping over to where his wand lay, but he simply didn’t have the coordination. A chorus of cruel whispers and muffled laughter filled his ears as he started to pull his magically bound legs underneath his body. The cobblestones bruised his shins and knees and the filth of the street clung to his trouser legs as he reached out with his arms and pulled himself forward. A foot at a time, he began to close the distance.
The crisply enunciated counter-curse rang out and Draco felt his calves separate. He rolled onto his backside and made out a familiar-looking person emerging from the crowd. Several groans of disapproval were audible, but the witch making her way to where he sat paid them no mind. Draco squinted his eyes and forced his brain to try to identify the blurry face staring down at him.
She snorted with mild disappointment and placed her hands on her hips for a moment before offering her slender hand to him.
“Draco, it’s me, Astoria. I know you weren’t in school much last year, but you can’t have forgotten me already.”
Astoria! Yes, he could easily make out the difference now. She was shorter than her older sister and less shapely, although people used to say that Daphne’s curves were greatly enhanced with various beauty spells. Astoria had always seemed shy and quiet. In the common room, she mostly kept to herself. To be honest, Draco had hardly noticed her. In an instant, that all changed.
Draco rose unsteadily to his feet with her help. She allowed his hand to linger in hers for a few extra moments, making sure that he wasn’t going to fall right back down. He could feel the soft warmth of her skin, and found that he missed it as soon as she let go. She summoned his wand from the gutter and handed it back to him.
“Are you feeling alright? You look...”
The concern in her eyes snapped him out of it. This was not the way that a Malfoy presented himself to another member of proper society.
“Oh, yes. Just had a little mishun... I mean mishunder... uh, argument with some people in there. I’m fine. I’m just... fine.”
A small smile danced in her brown eyes and quickly migrated to her lips. She wasn’t buying a word of it.
“I, um, yeah. I had a bit too much to drink today. I’m, uh... Do you know where I could get something to eat?”
She shook her head slightly and giggled at him. Ordinarily, Draco would have found it humiliating. Instead, he chuckled and smiled back at her.
“Come with me, Draco.”
She took his hand again and led him away from the Leaky Cauldron. Draco’s brain was oddly empty. There were a thousand things that he felt he should be saying to her. Polite inquiries about her family, compliments on her appearance, questions about her future plans, gratitude for her help. He couldn’t summon any of the hollow pleasantries he usually relied on to make conversation. His mind remained stubbornly fixated on the feeling of her fingers against his palm.
“Are you going to come back to school next year? The owl I received from Professor McGonagall said that any student who missed any part of their seventh year because of the war would be allowed to sit their lessons again.”
The question hit Draco like a slap in the face, jolting him out of his pleasant contemplation of her dark hair. The last time he had been inside Hogwarts was after the Dark Lord fell. He remembered sitting with his parents in a corner of the Great Hall, unsure of what to say or whether they should speak at all. They had done their best not to make eye contact with anyone, to simply blend into the ancient grey stone of the walls. But then the Aurors came.
“I’m, um... I’m not sure I’d be welcome.”
She turned to look at him as they walked. He couldn’t quite read the look in her eyes. Interest? Confusion? Pity?
“Why not? Your family was cleared of any wrongdoing, weren’t they?”
Draco sighed, not even bothering to hide it. It only things were that simple.
“We were, but that won’t matter to most people.”
She looked like she wanted to ask him something else, but instead she smiled and pulled him toward a street cart covered with baskets containing loaves of bread and steaming copper kettles.
“Give me some money.”
Draco fumbled through his money bag until his fingers identified a Galleon in the jumble of Knuts and Sickles. He held it out with his free hand and she turned to take it from him. For a brief moment, they were face to face. One of her small hands was holding his while the fingers of her other hand wrapped around the golden coin in his open palm. He stared at the faint freckles on her alabaster cheeks. She nibbled slightly at her lower lip.
The moment ended as suddenly as it happened. She turned away from him, and studied the contents of the cart. Draco couldn’t be sure, but he thought he saw just a hint of a blush. He studied her long, dark hair from behind as she spoke with the street vendor. Her fingers still clutched his hand, and he felt a strong reluctance to move his arm. It was all very strange. Since the end of the war, Draco couldn’t remember feeling much aside from anger and bitterness. His daily diet of alcohol took the edge off, but the feelings were always lurking right below the surface, ready to flare as soon as some tosser like Flint brought all the awful memories crashing back.
Standing unsteadily behind Astoria Greengrass, feeling her fingertips pressed into his palm, a new feeling had slipped into his mind. It filled the irregular, empty spaces between the pain and resentment that defined his daily life. The feeling was only vaguely familiar at first, and he racked his brain, trying to name it. It seemed to associate itself to long-forgotten memories, times in his life when he didn’t know anything about war and dark curses and death.
“Here, Draco, take this.”
Her voice brought his mind back to the present, and he gratefully accepted a large sandwich of some sort, wrapped in white butcher’s paper and making his mouth water. He watched in fascination as she accepted a large cup of coffee from the street vendor, followed by a handful of Sickles and Knuts that fell from her hand into the bag under her arm with a muffled, metallic tinkle.
“What about my change?”
He honestly didn’t give a toss about the coins, but his mouth moved faster than his brain could restrain it. They were his father’s words, and he hated the taste they left behind.
Her devious grin wiped the anxiety from his brain, and he stumbled along behind her, clutching the sandwich in one hand and relishing the feel of her skin against the other. She came to a stop in front of an empty storefront, still boarded up from the war, and helped him ease into a sitting position on the front steps. Without thinking about it, he took a large bite of the sandwich and chewed contentedly as he enjoyed the way that she smiled at him. Later, after he sobered up, it would dawn on him that it was the first time food had actually tasted good since before his father was arrested in the Department of Mysteries.
“What really happened to you last year, Draco?”
Swallowing suddenly became painful as the muscles of his throat tightened up. His brain began to race in spite of the alcohol that still dulled his senses. A hundred horrible memories flashed through his mind. He felt trapped between the past that he desperately wanted to forget and the concern that clouded her sparkling brown eyes. Part of him wanted to simply disappear on the spot, to flee into the dark recesses of another pub and drive away the pain with more alcohol. Destination, determination, deliberation. Yet a small but insistent voice inside him disagreed. As if to drive home the point, the voice gave a name to the feeling that once again welled in his chest when she reached out and laid her hand on his wrist. Hope.
The voice boomed across Diagon Alley. Both teenagers gave a startled look toward the front steps of Gringott’s, where a portly, well-dressed wizard stood with his arms crossed over his chest. Draco could feel the weight of the man’s disapproving glare on his shoulders. Horatio Greengrass’s beady, dark eyes were filled with suspicion and naked contempt.
“You should go.”
The hope seemed to drain from Draco’s chest as the words fell softly from his lips. It was the right thing to say, but he felt empty. He wanted her to stay. He wanted to explain everything to her. He needed to tell her about the horrifying things that he’d seen and done since the night when the Dark Lord had made Draco his servant and whipping boy. For reasons that Draco couldn’t begin to comprehend, he needed her to understand. Because maybe if she can understand then so can I.
Astoria rose to her feet and nodded somberly toward her father. The man turned away, as though he could no longer tolerate the sight of his daughter associating with such a loathsome individual. Draco stared at his shoes. The sandwich in his hand had lost its appeal. Perhaps Zabini and the others had moved on to a different bar by now, one where he would be allowed in. The touch of her fingertips against his cheek surprised him.
“Draco? Here, take this. And be sure you finish it. There’s a fourth ‘D’, you know.”
Draco looked up at her with his mouth hanging slightly open, holding the sandwich in one hand and the large coffee in the other. Her dark locks sparkled in the evening sun and the twinkle in her eyes seemed to brighten the world. She waited for a second, then giggled when he couldn’t manage to say anything.
“It stands for ‘Detoxification’.”
Astoria leaned forward and kissed him on the top of the head, then hurried across Diagon Alley to her father’s side.
Many hours later, Draco lay in bed, unable to sleep. The moonlight reflecting off of the fountains below danced on his bedroom ceiling, and he stared at the intricate patterns as he turned the day’s events over again and again in his mind.
He never went searching for his mates after Astoria left. He finished the coffee and the sandwich -- which ended up tasting better than anything he could remember -- and then Draco had simply wandered the side streets of Diagon Alley for several hours. For the first time since he was a young boy, he took notice of the way that other people looked at him. He watched their eyes and tried to read their body language. Some stared at him with open contempt. A few even hurled insults in his direction. Others simply looked unsettled. A couple of the shopkeepers his father had done business with smiled nervously and waved at him when they thought nobody else would notice.
As he walked, it gradually dawned on Draco that he wasn’t so much a person in their eyes as a reminder. A living, breathing embodiment of the terror and bloodshed and death that had gripped their world for the past two years. It didn’t matter to any of them that his life had been little different, that his family had also lived under constant threat of torture and death. They didn’t know and they would never care. To them, he was Draco Malfoy, son of the Death Eater who got away. In their minds, there would always be a cell in Azkaban with his name on it, waiting for the day when justice finally prevailed.
In and of itself, that revelation didn’t bother him so much. Draco had been hated for so long by so many people that he honestly couldn’t remember life any other way. Just as he was finally feeling sober enough to apparate home, something completely different struck him, a sticky truth that his fourteen-year-old self would have laughed off with a casual toss of his head. The fact that he was loathed was no longer the rest of the world’s problem. Suddenly, there were things that Draco wanted. Things that he could never have as long as wizards like Horatio Greengrass stared at him with disdain. The fact that people hated him was now his problem, and that realization hit him harder than he ever imagined possible.
Draco suddenly sat bolt upright in bed. In an instant, everything clicked. There were things he needed to do before this moment of clarity escaped him.
Draco continued to collect his thoughts, forming ideas and sentences in his head. Several seconds later, the elf appeared with a pop, looking sleepy and confused. He turned to Draco and bowed deeply. Draco didn’t wait for any of his fawning pleasantries.
“Kriffin, I need parchment and a quill. Hurry.”
The elf disappeared and Draco lowered his feet over the side of the bed. He pulled on his robe as he walked to the sitting area between the doors leading to his bathroom and closet. The elf reappeared a few moments later and Draco snatched the items he was carrying. Settling into one end of an overstuffed settee, he pondered the best way to put his thoughts into action. He finally settled on a letter to the one person who had never deserted him throughout his long ordeal.
I’m sorry that it’s taken so long, but I’ve finally decided that I need to change. I’m tired of being drunk all the time. I’m tired of pretending that the nightmare we lived through didn’t happen. I’m tired of ignoring the fact that people hate me and blame me for what the Dark Lord did. Some of this I can change easily, and some of it I have no idea where to begin. I want to do something with my life. I want people to respect me, not hate me because of the mark on my arm. I need your help. I need you to help me make the right choices. I need you to help me convince Father to change his ways. I need you to support me if I start to lose my nerve.
I also need you to understand why I’m doing this. I could tell you that it's just because I want to make you proud of me, but that isn't the whole truth. I met somebody today when I was drunk and alone in Diagon Alley. She's beautiful and kind and she comes from a good family. She picked me up off of the ground and helped me start to sort myself out. But her father stared at me like I was poison. And he's right. I am poisonous. That's why I have to change. I can't go through life alone or surrounded by people who tolerate me in spite of who I am. I don't want to live that way.
I'm going to sleep now, but I needed to tell you this while it was all clear in my mind, before I lost the courage to put it down on paper. Please don't tell Father about this until we have a chance to talk. I need to figure out how to approach him without making things worse.
Draco cast a quick drying charm on the ink and then folded the parchment. He thought for a moment about his parents’ morning routine and then handed the letter to the elf.
“Put this on my mother’s dressing table, under her hairbrush.”
The elf bowed obediently and disappeared with a pop. Draco shed his robe and crawled back into bed, closing his eyes resolutely. Tomorrow was going to be an important day. Every day would be important from now on. The magnitude of what lay ahead weighed on his mind and for a moment he felt his determination waver. But he recalled those sparkling brown eyes and the feeling of slender fingers wrapped around his hand. Whatever it took, it was going to be worth it.
Draco has begun the long journey toward reclaiming his life after the war. It won't be easy, but Astoria has given him a reason to try.
I hope you enjoyed this chapter. I always appreciate it if you can take a moment to let me know what you think in the box below!