A/N: Thanks to all readers and reviewers, especially researchinmotion and pitzi.
And we still have almost a week of voting left in the exchange! Just click on the LJ link on the main front page and take a look at the nom list.
"I am Ginny Weasley," she whispered.
The lock quivered.
"I am she who bonded with the Malfoy heir."
There was a squeak of metal, a rattling.
She took a deep breath. "I claim the right of initiation magic."
The lock grew a long face with a lifted brow and a supercilious air about the long, thin nose.
"Do you now," said Obfirmo. Ginny recognized the Malfoy lock. She squirmed, feeling like a young, guilty girl again, as she had been when she stood at this gate with… with the man she wouldn't think about, years ago, when they had been only boy and girl, before adulthood was thrust on both of them too soon.
"Yes. I do," she said defiantly.
"Well, you're certainly not the first misbehaving member of the Weasley clan I've ever known. There was a certain Amalthea Wellesley who served as Elizabeth I's maid of honor in 1583, if I'm not much mistaken, which, of course, I never am."
"Um, yes, I'm sure you're not. Mistaken, I mean. You look like a lock who's always right," said Ginny, hoping that she wasn't laying on the flattery too thickly.
Obfirmo preened. "More often than not, I would say… nothing like that unfortunate Royal Doulton teapot, who can scarcely be called a proper Inanim at all. But to return to the relevant subject, I'm afraid that one couldn't accurately say that the lovely Mistress Amalthea was a maid. She dallied with Sir Ingram Malfoy a bit too frequently to deserve that appellation. In fact, she cut quite a swath through the Tudor court, and was referred to as the Wanton Wellesley
Wench, if I'm not much—"
Ginny put her hands on her hips and glared. "Look, I've never done anything like that, and you know it! So much for diplomacy, she thought just a bit too late.
Obfirmo smiled. "Oh, I know very well that you haven't done, my dear. You more than fit the claimed qualification. In fact, if the Inanim candlestick in the gazebo is to be taken as a trusted witness—"
"Thank you." She would not blush in front of a lock.
The gate swung wide.
There was no road after this, so Ginny left the car parked in a patch of short grass. She walked forward slowly. The trees thinned abruptly, much too fast, giving her no time to prepare herself for what she was about to see. She stopped short. The ruin of Malfoy Manor loomed over the horizon.
Ginny realized that she was biting her lip until she tasted blood in order to avoid making any sound at all.
She realized now that she had thought, she had hoped, she had believed that this great house still stood intact, that the fire had been some kind of strange cover story. That the graceful sweeping curve of the exterior still stood like a figure from a dream, the peacocks strutting across the lawn.
All she could think of for a stupid moment were the old photographs of ruined houses in Charleston and Atlanta after the American Civil War, the ones she'd studied during her courses of architectural restoration. The blackened walls. The fallen timbers. The sparkling shattered glass. The vast, dark rectangles that formed the foundation. This was what a great house became when it had been destroyed by fire.
Except that a place like the Manor could never really be destroyed. It just couldn't. And she remembered so much more to it than could have been accounted for by what she saw now, a larger complex of buildings and gardens and guest houses than anything that could have fit on the stretch of land she was looking at.
She wasn't going to give up yet.
Eventually, she found landmarks. One blackened wall had been part of the wing with all the new bedrooms, she thought. She walked around the area, carefully skirting the sunken ground and fallen stones. If she went all the way to the back and the right, she should be at the location of the dungeons. A shiver ran through her at the memory of the last time she'd seen them. A memory she could not afford to indulge in.
At the very edge of an abandoned rose garden, she saw a small building, still intact. A gazebo, one that also served as a gatekeeper's lodge. There was a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom…
Oh, she remembered that bedroom all too well. It had been a safe place to go, a hidden place, and one night, they had gone there.
Ginny knew that she should leave now, before it was too late. But then, she thought, it had been too late for a long time. By the time she'd gotten off the plane, no, by the time she'd bought tickets, no, by the time she'd fixed on this idea in the first place, it was already much too late. Her feet were set inexorably on this path.
There was a small inset of blue stained glass above the oak door. Resurgam, the twining lead letters read above the image of a coiled snake.
The door opened before she even knocked, which didn't surprise her at all. He stood in the front hall. Tall, straight, stiff, thinner than she remembered him, a little haggard. He was more beautiful than ever.
"What are you doing here?" asked Draco Malfoy.
Now that the time had come, her words were stuck in her throat.
His mouth twisted into a sneer. "Come to gloat, Weasley?"
His use of her last name was not lost on her. Of course, it had been a long time since he had used any name at all for her, and it seemed much longer than the four years it had really been. They had never spoken since that last time she had met him here, that last secret time, the time both bitter and sweet. She had seen him standing with his mother in the Great Hall after the war had ended, looking lost and bewildered and very young, and she had turned away from him and not spoken a word.
"You know that I haven't," she said.
"Oh? Seems a shame to waste the opportunity, really."
"I'm not interested in gloating."
He shrugged, as if the effort of keeping up a fašade of his old self were too exhausting. "Then what is it that you do want?"
"Can I come in?"
"You might as well."
They sat at the old oak table in the kitchen. The closed bedroom door was just to the left; she refused to look at it. Now that the sunlight was full on him, she could see that he looked utterly exhausted. But the planes of his face were no less perfect.
"To what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?" he asked. "Or are you determined to keep it to yourself?"
"I heard that you were here." She didn't fool herself into thinking that he didn't know she hadn't really answered his question. But now that the time had come, she had no idea what kind of answer she could really give to him.
"Yes, I'm here. I wasn't in the house at the time of the fire. I'm sure that a great many people think it was a pity that I wasn't." He gave a short laugh.
"I… I didn't know there was a fire," she said.
He studied her face. "No. I see that you didn't."
He had always been able to read her. She sat back a little, letting part of her hair fall aslant over a cheekbone.
Draco's voice was almost gentle when he spoke again. "Walk with me."
They walked at the very edge of the land on the far side, where the forest bordered Malfoy property. He had once told her not to try to walk there alone, she remembered. It was a place ancient beyond imagining, and it had little to do with humans, even wizards. The trees at the border parted for him, for a Malfoy, one of the family who had lived on this land while the Druids hauled stone across three hundred miles of Britain to build Stonehenge. But the long grass and branches seemed willing to move aside for her sake, too. The land itself must recognize her bond with him, as long ago as it had been.
He stopped when they approached the house itself, one of the wings that had burned. Ginny couldn't look at it.
"Never be afraid to look," he said, and she did. She blinked back tears, fiercely.
"I…" she began.
"You might just as well say what you're thinking, Weasley."
"I was thinking that I just don't understand how it could have happened," she said.
"Great-grandfather Augustus was fool enough to build onto the Manor without the proper magical protection," said Draco. "Those are the parts which burned, and they border on the land that Muggles can now see." He kept staring across the fields.
"How much of it could he have built?" asked Ginny. "At least half the house is gone."
"Oh, that wasn't the end of his idiocy. He… borrowed magic from other parts of the manor, shall we say. He left them unprotected. Of course, it's safe to say that he wasn't predicting this sort of ending to the grandeur that was Malfoy Manor."
I'm sorry, she wanted to say. She knew exactly how much he would despise hearing those words, especially from her.
"I suppose you're wondering how it happened," said Draco. "The precise details, I mean."
"You don't have to tell—"
"But I will, if only so that you won't ever wonder about it all." Draco kept staring straight ahead.
"Potter was responsible. No, not deliberately. But he was pursuing McNair during the cleanup right after the war. McNair was running through the newer part of the forest that led here; he knew it fairly well, you see. Potter knew that the wards had been sensitized to him during his brief visit here in his seventh year. One of them went off. McNair was caught in it. But so was the Manor, or most of it, at any rate." He spoke in short, clipped sentences, as if each word formed a separate penance that he had set upon himself, as if she were the only human on earth who could serve as his confessor.
"So that was it," she said, when he seemed to have finished.
"You really didn't know anything at all?" asked Draco.
"No. I mean, I could have known. I just… didn't want to, I guess," she said.
"Mm." Draco stood as still as a pale marble statue, and his eyes did not flicker even once. She had a sudden desire to goad him.
"So you know it was Harry. I'd have thought you'd want revenge."
"I thought that revenge was part of the Malfoy code."
"Yes, well, I wasn't a terribly good specimen of the illustrious name by the end, was I? A rotten Malfoy, a rotten Death Eater… I haven't made the greatest success of my life to date, I'd say."
She wanted to put out her hand, to touch his arm, to feel the warmth of his skin through the thin linen sleeve. She did not move. The soft hum of the crickets rose around them both in the silence, and the baked-sun scent of the long grass was making her dizzy.
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