Draco passed Granger and brood, although sine patre, as he made his way through the antechamber. She was rather hard to miss, given the collective racket her spawn were making -- this one screaming in her arms, another demanding sweeties at the very top of her voice, yet another sobbing none too quietly into Granger’s robes.
Draco thought she must have lost the non-crying one, Angus. Or else he’d been zoomed up into a vale of tears as well and Draco was just not noticing him because of the distaste he felt for weeping children. However, as Draco paused to stow his still-empty notebook in the pocket of his robes, he spotted Angus herding two sobbing girls after his mother.
After years of magically working to keep himself clean and desirable, Draco had become a dab hand at altering clothes. He was still wearing the grubby werewolf’s pelt that he’d had on when he first encountered Angus, but two or three spells in between had turned it laundry-fresh white -- the better to set off Stefano’s warm skin -- neatened the hems and tightened the seams, so that it enhanced rather than concealed. If one was searching for links between the before and after garments, there were clues: the overlarge hood, the old-fashioned cut, the notched belt. But who was looking?
Draco was almost sure the same child who’d screamed in fright before did it again on catching sight of Draco for the second time, although he entertained grave doubts that she recognised him. If she had -- through eyes that were pink and creased like a mouse baby’s from uninterrupted sobs -- then it would be a feat worth hailing and Draco would shake her hand.
Angus looked about with a weary expression, tugging the child’s hand a little. His eyes lit upon Draco as the precursor of his augmented trouble and then narrowed. They swept over Draco from head to foot, much as the Muggle security guard had done at Heathrow with a little machine when Draco had forgotten to take his watch off.
Draco was hardly desirous of the attentions of a small child and he tended towards suspicion against children in general. He thought they were manipulative, mean-minded little bastards, who used a built-in need for control and a lack of decorum to their fullest extent. After all, he remembered his own childhood quite well.
Angus, although heretofore having displayed the patience of a saint three times his age, was still a kid. A kid who was giving Draco a look that suggested he was made of dirty see-through plastic. The other child was still whimpering in that glassy-eyed way that was so much more irritating than a full-blown tantrum.
Angus deposited the child somewhere in Granger’s skirts, a moment before she swept into the sickroom. Draco presumed she was on her way to visit Potter, although from what he knew of her she would probably check in with the researchers first. (Researching what? a voice from the back of his brain asked. Magic can cure broken bones and ailments in an instant. Why’s Potter still in there? Not that we mind.)
The next thing Draco knew, his robe was taken in hand by a small and determined fist and was being tugged in such a way that Draco knew he’d have to bend down, or the fist would keep tugging all day and all night. For someone so very small, Angus gave off an aura of being a good deal bigger.
“What?” snapped Draco, having tilted slightly, like corn in a gale. He wasn’t disposed to be courteous: not to children in general, not to children sprung from Granger’s womb, and really not when he’d had to reign himself in from revealing his true feelings towards Potter for the last three quarters of an hour. Self-denial gave Draco a headache.
“Who’re you?” asked Angus. Draco hadn’t seen his mouth move, but he wouldn’t put it past him to be a ventriloquist.
“Michel Rodriguez, reporter for the world news section of the Spanish branch of the Daily Prophet,” Draco reeled off. He longed to pry Angus off him, but knew that there were too many Aurors -- right next to him, in the same room! Why hadn’t he set off Polyjuice Detectors or something? -- nearby to get away with it.
“Really?” Angus screwed up his eyes, as if he were a myopic trying to see a blackboard without his spectacles. Draco felt an unpleasant tickling sensation behind his ears, like a thousand butterflies had just nested there.
“Yeah,” said Draco, feeling defensive.
Who was this kid, to question his credentials when no one else did? Although they should have. They should have checked him out, to see whether he wasn’t a nutcase fan posing as a reporter, or a potential murderer. Although who would want to murder Potter, now, really, except for star-struck loonies? And Severus Snape -- who was clearly still alive -- whoever else was left out of the Death Eater elite ... and Draco Malfoy.
They wouldn’t have expected Draco Malfoy to waltz in to the very room where Potter was recuperating (from what? A sleep overdose?), bold as brass, because it spelled a death warrant -- his own. Which was why, presumably, they didn’t catch him when he did just that.
Draco felt that he wasn’t out of the fire yet and that he shouldn’t count his chickens before they were hatched, two peasant sayings that Pansy used to parrot like the revealed wisdom of the ages. He thought they made her sound like an old woman, or, when he was feeling vindictive and because that was his direst insult at the time, a Muggle old woman. He’d since learned that there were worse things to be than a Muggle, an old woman, or both.
Therefore he didn’t want to blow his cover, or have it blown for him by too much interest on the part of this whey-faced, shapeless child. At least Angus hadn’t inherited his mother’s hair. His was as colourless and flat as sand, although he had startlingly black eyebrows.
“Speak some Spanish,” demanded Angus. Draco’s eyebrows went up and Angus’ down, and he tempered his request with a “Please. I like to hear different languages.”
Draco thought: I’ll bet. Your parents look like they come from different planets, ones at war with each other. Out loud he gabbled, “Metetelo por el culo, doblow,” which he’d read on the back of a toilet stall one night when he’d been picked up in a bar. Stefano had never spoken much Spanish in front of him, apart from the odd, ironic-sounding 'por favor.'
“What’s that mean?” asked Angus.
Draco met him, stare for stare. A sudden image flashed in his mind, of knights, jousting, the stomach-curdling crack of wood on wood as their lances engaged. “You’re the language buff around here. You figure it out. Ask your mother.”
“I don’t ask my mother.” Angus' voice was laced with scorn. “I find things out for myself.”
“A golden opportunity, then,” said Draco. He felt Angus’ grip loosening and took the opportunity to whip his robes away. “I bid you good day.”
He didn’t look back at Angus, but one of the dove-grey Aurors broke into a smile. It cut across his wrinkles like a hacksaw. “Smart little lad, that,” he said, in a West Counties burr. “Sharp as a tack.”
“A tack,” agreed Draco. He brushed his robes back from his legs and hurried, trying to look as if he had pressing business elsewhere and not as if he were running away from a little boy.
Outside the door, one of the reporters called, “Get anything outta him?”
Draco smirked. “Wears green boxers.” He caught a glimpse when Potter was bouncing about, eager as puppy with a licking fetish, and in fact they were red.
Sometimes an outright lie was a balm for the soul.
The reporters gave an appreciative whoop, and more than one of them shook out his Quick-Quotes Quill.
Draco caught sight of Rosaline, standing off to the side and shredding her robes between her fingers like wet tissue. He repressed a sigh, wondering if she was as completely ignorant as she appeared to be. However, she’d thrown her bread on the waters, expecting prompt return of cake. Later, of course, she would be punished for letting Draco Malfoy slip through the net. That thought might be enough to get him through the torture of seducing her.
Draco reassembled his robes, settling and primping them and earning himself more than one sly look from the two male Aurors guarding the door. Draco had heard that they were trained in spotting the quirks and inconsistencies that gave people away. Poor Rosaline, although she no doubt underwent the same training, had already proved herself a sloppy judge of character and also of sexual proclivities. She was too smitten. That was the mistake they never realised they were making, when they allowed witches to become Aurors. Draco was willing to bet he could seduce half of those females after him, and convince the other half that he had repented of his evil ways. In his experience, women had always been bad at separating sex from emotions.
Before he went over to Rosaline, he summoned up an image that would see him through the next few hours. Stefano kissing someone else. Stefano and another boy. Draco had always been a voyeur first and participant afterwards. Perhaps, in honour of firsts, Stefano and Marcus Flint? He didn’t like the juxtaposition of Stefano’s dark slightness with Marcus’ blonde brutality, though. Another -- nameless but dark-haired -- boy, to make a pair.
Thus bolstered, Draco went forward to ask Rosaline what time she knocked off.
Draco leaned out of the window, gulping in deep, reassuring breaths of polluted air. In the sagging bed, Rosaline rolled over like a beached whale, making smacking noises with her mouth. Draco looked over fearfully, but she wasn’t awake, merely dreaming. A disgusting thought, but now her dreams might involve him.
Draco wrapped his arms around his body and pinched the skin under his naked ribs: a very literal way of getting a grip of himself. He was out of practice with women, most especially with young ones. Rosaline was twenty-one. The last time a woman had bought him, she’d been forty if she was a day, although she laid claim to the age of thirty-two. Her jowls had sagged as if her face, like her breasts, was melting. She’d wanted to pretend to be a man, however. She hadn’t wanted him to look at her poached egg face, in which craving Draco had wholeheartedly obliged her.
Rosaline, on the other hand, had wanted to touch. Surprisingly, given the undercooked appearance of her body, she’d wanted the lights on. Draco, even with Stefano, even with Achilles and Paul and Nat, had preferred the lights out, with a kinder illumination allowed in from streetlights, moons or bathrooms. Above all, Rosaline had wanted to share. Sex with eyes wide open when it was all Draco could do to hold on to a desirable image by squeezing them shut, so that he could get through the episode at all.
Draco had undressed himself, and then Rosaline; a calculated move, so she wouldn’t touch him too much and so he knew now where all his clothes were. He scooped them off the floor, the Butterbeer bottle last, then had an inspiration.
Rosaline was three sizes larger than him. Her wardrobe had rack upon rack of tent-like robes, either navy or black -- a sensible choice, Draco commended her -- or dove-grey. She would never miss one, and Draco was careful to pick a robe from the very back of the wardrobe, where she’d be keeping the things into which she could no longer fit.
The night was young. Draco was at the most gorgeous he’d ever been, and the most desperate. He wasn't about to leave a magical signature in Rosaline's flat. He wouldn’t survive till he got back to the hotel and Stefano, because changing faces in the middle of a Muggle street was not to be recommended. He couldn’t Apparate either, because Stefano coming face to face with his own face would be even less well received.
Draco needed to rid his skin of the imprint of Rosaline’s touches, and the best way he knew how was to cover them with someone else’s. He was running close to being strapped for cash, the aeroplane ticket having sapped his resources.
Besides, the corner of Blackweather Alley was his old stomping-ground. It really was a night of recalling firsts, he reflected, pulling Rosaline’s robes over his bare back and making a note to spell away the crushed-rose-petals scent. Now that Hogwarts was impenetrable and Malfoy Manor burnt to the ground, Blackweather Alley was the closest he had to going home.
Draco didn’t make it back to the hotel that night. Rather, he didn’t make it back to the hotel in which he was sharing a suite with Stefano and Alexandre. There were several small establishments in Blackweather Alley that had opened for the sole purpose of catching the passing trade, and very passing it was too, sometimes passing right out of the window in the middle of the night.
Draco didn’t bother with this, one of his old tricks. He waited until his companion, who looked rather like Potter’s friend Peter -- only seedier -- woke up, and earned enough to buy a new wardrobe. It had been his intention since he caught sight of himself in a plate glass window the night before. Black suited Stefano well enough, although it did not complement him so well as white, but it drained Draco of all colour. He’d always felt like a wrung-out washcloth in his Hogwarts robes.
Draco did not usually take drunks, but that night he had broken with a well-established pattern and gone for a complete sot who didn’t notice in the morning that he had a different man in the bed from the night before. He looked a little startled at seeing a man there at all, in fact. However, he soon reconciled himself to the agreeable fact that hands and mouths were pretty much the same, regardless of their gender.
Draco arrived back at Stefano’s hotel at lunchtime, cheerful and bearing three packages of robes and two bottles of Polyjuice. He was unprepared for the greeting he received. Alexandre was waiting at the reception desk; or so Draco thought, but in fact he was checking with the receptionist to see if he, Draco, had arrived. When he caught sight of Draco, his mouth flattened into an equals symbol.
“Where were you? We were worried sick.”
His fingers were pinching on Draco’s elbow, but his words were so ridiculous Draco had to prevent himself laughing. “What do you mean? I was out. I went shopping this morning, as it happens.”
“You didn’t tell Stefano you were going!” Alexandre’s words were an accusation, but he kept his voice low, escorting Draco to the elevators by his elbow. Is pinching shouting in Braille? wondered Draco.
“Well, no,” he drawled. “We aren’t attached at the hip. We’re boyfriends, not Siamese twins.”
Alexandre made a disbelieving noise, but didn’t deign to comment. Draco turned his mind to his new robes. He needed them, of course; reporters, even purportedly Muggle-born ones, did not go to interview celebrities in fashionably frayed t-shirts and someone else’s jeans. However, he couldn’t shake the distasteful feeling that he was dressing up for Potter. Some of the robes were very fine ones. He should wear the others. Even though he’d bought the fine ones to suit Stefano, and the others to suit Draco.
Alexandre gave him a look of steel, mimicking the shiny number plate on the room door. “I’m going in first,” he said, and Draco didn’t demand for it to be otherwise. “Then I’m making myself scarce, and you’d better put on a damn good show, do you understand?”
Draco nodded. He felt a little better about Alexandre, in that he knew a show was all it was, but no less suspicious of him for it. Alexandre was wearing Stefano’s jeans again and, because Alexandre was taller and slimmer-hipped, they slid. Draco could appreciate an sexy bottom without particularly liking the person. He'd never realised that it was a talent before he'd had to do it for money.
Draco left a suitable interval and deposited his purchases in the hall cupboard before announcing his arrival. What he saw in Stefano’s face, when it reared up from a burrow on the sofa, startled him. Stefano’s nose was red, his eyes swollen, and tears had marked blotchy runnels down his cheeks. He’s a wimp, Draco told himself, horrified.
Stefano stood up as Draco approached, finding his way blocked by an incredible number of occasional tables and floral arrangements. The cashmere blankets fell away, revealing Stefano to be clad in nothing but old grey boxers -- Draco’s own, he noted. Yet if it weren’t for a face which sorrow had made ugly, Stefano could pass for a creditable Botticelli angel.
Draco willed Stefano to say nothing, to perhaps stride forward and kiss him and forget it. Even, in a wild chance, to understand. But he was only a boy, still; a boy in beauty, in energy and virility, but also in temperament. His lip wobbled when Draco came close enough to see it and he blurted, “Where were you? I was so worried. I missed you.”
It was too like Alexandre’s speech, except for the last addendum. That, despite himself, was the one that melted Draco. Not much, but enough. Just enough water around the ice-cube to grip it by, was what Draco thought later, when he went to fetch drinks. He needed brandy, not just to calm Stefano’s post-coital, uncustomary storm of tears, but also for himself, to survive them.
In the end he didn’t make it up in time to go to St Mungo’s, which closed to visitors at four o’clock in the afternoon. Not to Granger or Weasley, he imagined; but he wasn't either one of them, and even with Polyjuice it would choke him to transform into them. On the other hand, he had cemented his story to Stefano, and thus to Alexandre. He gave the impression that he had a relative -- possibly a mother, possibly not -- whom he was visiting. Stefano didn’t probe; it was one of his best qualities.
Potter, perhaps, would have taken umbrage at his non-appearance, Rosaline at his disappearance. Draco would have to win them over again. Draco didn’t doubt that it was possible, though. Potter was so raw, so green, Draco could seduce him if he had to. As for Rosaline, no one as good-looking as Stefano would ever look twice at her again; a little sackcloth and ashes and she would be in the bag once more. Neither prospect was tempting, but Draco had done worse than both.
And maybe he wouldn't have to do either.