Love Under Will
- Story Summary:
- In their 5th year, Harry and Draco choose to be with one another; but the story--and the battle-- is just beginning...
Love Under Will 14
- Chapter Summary:
- In this chapter of LUW: Owls, fights, light reading, silent portraits, and revelations everywhere. Draco's day of reckoning is at hand. A really long spindly ugly hand.
- Author's Note:
- Info on points raised throughout the story will always be chapter-specific; look at the end of each chapter for notes as necessary.
Love Under Will
Part One: Transeamus
Chapter 14: The Center Cannot Hold
The sense of danger must not disappear.
The way is certainly both short and steep
However gradual it looks from here—
Look if you like, but you will have to leap.
A solitude ten thousand fathoms deep
Sustains the bed on which we lie, my dear.
Although I love you, you too will have to leap:
Our dream of safety has to disappear.
Hey, I might as well go ahead and give you this. At first I wasn’t sure I should say anything till I saw you again, and then I finally wrote and then I wasn’t sure if I should send it. But I am anyway. You don’t have to write back. I’ll understand if you don’t know what to say back—about what I said, I mean. You don’t have to say it back or feel it or feel like it means something new. It doesn’t. It doesn’t change anything. I just figured you deserved to know how I felt. And, well, now you know. Just don’t feel like you have to feel anything back. It’s okay. I guess I’ll see you in a few days.
Harry couldn’t stop his fingers from shaking as he scrunched the note in at the very bottom of the letter. He stared at the few remaining centimeters of empty parchment for long moments and finally scribbled Love, Harry there, then stared at the words he had written for even longer moments, ignoring the queasiness of his stomach. It took him several tries to tie the letter to the owl’s leg. She noticed his nervousness and hooted at him questioningly as he fumbled with the ribbon. A few feet away Hedwig scolded him mercilessly, while the other owls hooted their displeasure at the racket she created.
Harry sighed and apologized to her again. “I’m sorry,” he tried to explain over the din of flapping wings and occasional screeches. “I can’t use you. And you probably don’t want me to anyway.” He rubbed the head of the bird, a brown barn owl, reassuringly, and told her to fly as fast as she could to Malfoy Manor. Hedwig clucked reproachfully, fluffed her feathers, and flew up to the ceiling, landing on one of the uppermost perches. The owlery was a large round room at the top of the West wing of the castle, with hutches and roosts lining the walls all around. Snow whirled in through the uncovered windows from outside, mixing with the white feathers and dust particles spinning in the air. The midday sun streaked through the cracks and gaps in the ceiling and walls, and Harry had to squint from the glare as he turned back to the barn owl.
He hesitated just a moment before he carried her over to the east-facing window, but in the end he forced himself to make sure the letter was tied tight to her leg, and to watch as she gave a hoot and burst out of the tower, the quick thrust of her wings snapping like muted drums against the wind. He forced himself to ignore the snow blowing into his face and watch the blurred shape of the owl as she glided over the clean, white stretch of the Quidditch pitch, out across the frozen cliffs beyond, finally merging into the muddy grey cloudbank above the lake. He stared at the gap in the clouds where she had vanished, feeling rather than seeing it, as if it were a hollow place inside him. After standing there in silence for who knew how long he suddenly awoke to the fact that he was freezing. He turned away from the window, grateful that he had an excuse to rub his hands because he was cold, rather than out of agitation.
Not nervous, he thought, and then his thoughts were scattered.
“A Barn owl, flying east into the wind, would probably average about 75 kilometers per hour. It’s almost noon, so I’d say it should probably reach Malfoy Manor right around dinner tonight.”
Harry froze where he stood, still working his chapped palms in circles against one another, suddenly keenly aware of everything around him: of the drafts hissing through the room, the cold wind whipping his back; the way shafts of sun cut like veins of rough gold through the dimly lit grunge of dirt and dust and dung; the stench of owl and damp wood and straw and pellets that was so overpowering he almost couldn’t smell it at all.
“Do I have your attention?” Hermione asked him.
“You followed me,” he said.
“I went to find you and you weren’t in the dorm room, so I used the map.” Hermione shivered slightly, and Harry noticed she was inches away from the direct warmth of a sunbeam, yet she stayed close to the door, shifting on the balls of her feet like a moth hovering dangerously near a flame. Her eyes looked watery from this distance, and he momentarily panicked at the thought that she had been crying, before deciding it was only an effect of the cross-wind that stung her cheeks a pretty red, and lifted her hair away from her neck. She was flushed from the cold, he thought, not because she was angry, or because she had run all the way upstairs to catch him there.
“Well, um. What is it?” he asked, knowing full well what.
“We need to talk,” she answered, and he flinched, because her voice was harder than he’d heard it in a long, long time. It dawned on him immediately that this was her pre-Tournament voice, the firm, unbending tone that had given way to a constant soothing murmur after the Third Task, as if she could console him with her voice alone the way she could not with words themselves.
He heard himself reply defensively, “What do you want to talk about, then?”
“Don’t you blow me off, Harry Potter. Don’t you dare!”
Harry looked at her and waited. She thrust her hands in her pockets and shivered. “What—what is this, Harry? You’re acting like him.”
“Like Malfoy,” Hermione bit back, her voice hard with loathing. “Harry, what’s going on between the two of you? You’re fighting constantly, you glare and snipe at each other every chance you get, you follow one another around, now you’re—you’re writing him! What on earth are you doing, Harry? And why won’t you tell any of us? Ron and I, we’ve been worried sick!”
“I haven’t told you because it’s none of your business,” Harry replied simply. Across the room Hermione gasped audibly, and then covered her mouth with her hand, as if he had just called her a Mudblood or done something else totally unrecognizable.
“But why—oh—oh, Harry, he hasn’t—been trying to recruit you, has he?”
Harry stared at her for a few moments, blinking. “What? Recruit me? You mean to the Dark Order? Hermione, what do you think I am?”
“I don’t know, Harry, I didn’t know, I had to ask!” Hermione blurted in a stream of words that were more sobbed than spoken. “I don’t know what’s happening to you and why you won’t tell me anything anymore and I—”
Deliberately Harry interrupted her. “He’s not a Death Eater, Hermione.”
“Oh, and you know this how?”
“He told me.” He shrugged. Even from halfway across the room he could see her eyes light, and he thought blankly, she must be really mad.
“You’re just trusting chums, then, is that it? When you’re not beating the life out of each other? Come on, Harry, I know that you’ve been spying on him. Why can’t you tell me why?”
Harry began to speak, found that no words left his mouth, and had to start over again. “Hermione,” he said, as gently as possible, “I haven’t been spying on Draco.”
At the sound of his name spoken so casually, Hermione blanched. She gaped at Harry.
“I’ve been seeing him,” he ended.
Hermione blinked and echoed, “Seeing, seeing…seeing him,” blankly.
“As in, seeing each other,” he added hastily. “We’re—he’s my—” he had to pause to wrap his brain around the word—“boyfriend.”
The world seemed to freeze as the word slipped past his lips; even the flurry of snow and dust around him seemed to dissolve into one immense stillness that made the word seem larger than it ever had before. And Harry thought, what a silly, stupid word it was, really, so neat and compact and misleading. Draco was a boy, but not a friend—he had never been, perhaps never would be a friend—and any other combination of words might have done just as well, carried just as much meaning to him. The moment he spoke he wished he could take it back, try again, find a different, better word; but he knew that there was no better word, and he had never been very good at invention by himself.
Hermione’s eyes went vacant like a snuffed-out candle, and she stared at him. He didn’t know what to do, so he stared back and tried to read her expression. He’d never actually seen anything like it before on her face—her lips were twisting into an ugly constrained look, not a pout, more like a grimace. She wrapped her arms tightly around herself.
“Draco. Malfoy,” she said slowly. “You—you’ve—you’re with Malfoy. You. Harry Potter. Are with Draco—”
“We know our own names,” he snapped.
“But he—he’s your—you hate him!” She gave a strangled sort of cry, and then her eyes widened dramatically. “He’s—he’s a—he’s a boy. Harry. You like boys?”
“I, um, yeah,” said Harry in a small voice.
“You’re gay,” Hermione said in an equally small voice.
He said nothing.
“And you’re… with… Malfoy.”
For a long moment he thought she was about to turn away from him, but she did not. After a time she only said, softly, as if she were testing out her voice, “It was after that Quidditch match, wasn’t it?” He couldn’t read her tone at all. Her eyes narrowed. “I remember, you were so tense that week—the two of you were partnered in Potions. It started then, didn’t it?”
Hoarse, he nodded.
“And—and you weren’t… you were never spying on him, you just—you lied to us.”
“No,” he said, starting.
“Whenever you fought with him you were enjoying it.” Her voice was speeding up.
“No, I didn’t,” he said, rather vehemently, but she wasn’t listening.
“Whenever you stared at each other and glared at each other and found excuses to have detentions with one another you were to—together, and I thought you were—that you—oh, Harry, how could you?”
“Hermione, you don’t understand what happened,” he insisted. “You don’t really know him, and you—”
“Oh, I know him,” she hissed, and as she spoke she finally moved towards him, as if she’d just been let out of a starting gate and couldn’t hold back the impulse to jerk forward. She halted a feet away from him, in a pool of light. Now he could see a single line of worry creasing her forehead, could make out the dark anxiety in her eyes and the stubborn way she didn’t even bother brushing her hair back when the wind whipped it into her face. “I know he’s the person who’s made our lives miserable. I know he’s the person who calls me a Mudblood. I know he’s the spoiled brat who tried to have Hagrid sacked and torments Ron mercilessly just because he’s poor, and who’s done his best to humiliate you every way he possibly can. You’re not an idiot, Harry, you can’t stand there and tell me I’m wrong! God, have–have you forgotten what he said to us on the train last—”
“No, I haven’t,” he seethed, feeling his fists clench. “I haven’t forgotten anything, Hermione.”
“Oh, haven’t you? Then why? What are you thinking, Harry?” Now her voice was constricted into one long sob of anger she sounded desperate to hold back. “A couple of looks and gropes and suddenly you’re willing to overlook the last four years?”
“It’s not like that,” he snapped.
“Then how is it?!” she exploded, all color draining out of her face, to a pallor that strongly reminded him of Draco. “Why did you think this was a good idea, Harry? Did you even think about how Ron, how I, would take this when we found out? Why did—”
Harry stopped thinking and took a step forward and found himself screaming into her face.
“Because I don’t care! Because I don’t want to think about Voldemort, and about Cedric, every waking moment of the day and when he’s around I don’t have to and because I know who he is and I know he’s not who he thinks he is and because I love him!”
“And does he love you, Harry?” Hermione screamed shrilly back at him. “How do you know? How do you know he isn’t using you so he can seduce you right into the Dark Lord’s pocket?”
“Because,” said Harry, taking a deep breath, “he isn’t.”
Hermione exhaled and then seemed to freeze in place, her eyes fastened to his.
“He’s never told you that himself, has he.”
Harry had no answer. He clenched his jaw and looked resolutely into her eyes.
“I’ll trade you,” she said, after a tense silence. “A truth for a truth.”
“Okay,” Harry said, swallowing. “Hermione, don’t be—”
“Truth,” she said forcefully, cutting him off. “Ron thinks you’re seeing somebody—a girl. He doesn’t understand why you haven’t told him about it already and he’s hiding his hurt.”
Harry flinched, and nodded.
Hermione averted her gaze and shivered. Impulsively, Harry reached out to touch her shoulder. She went rigid the moment his fingertips brushed against her, and then took a slow, deliberate step away from him. Since he didn’t know what to do with his hands, he stuck them inside his robes and shivered too. The room was getting colder every moment—Harry figured it must be freezing, because he’d been walking around for the last week with a constant aching chill in the pit of his stomach, half-sadness, half-dread, and he barely noticed the temperature around him anymore.
“Truth,” he said. “You’re right about the Quidditch match. I wasn’t upset because he beat me, I was upset because I was starting to realize that I liked him.”
Hermione swallowed. “How can you like him, Harry, let alone love him? What do you see in him?”
“I don’t need to defend myself to you,” he answered hotly.
“I’m not asking you to defend yourself, I want you to explain yourself!”
“You wouldn’t understand anyway,” Harry retorted, feeling a sick swoop of anger overtake him. “You wouldn’t believe me. I know how much you hate each other.”
“It’s not him I care about, Harry! All I care about is making sure he doesn’t hurt you.”
“You’re not my mother, Hermione. I can fend for myself without you having to look after me.”
“Not your mother?” Hermione seethed, incensed. “The way you’ve been behaving these past weeks you wouldn’t even know I was your friend. Me or Ron. All you’ve done is sneak around with Malfoy, behind our backs, and when you can’t do that you mope and sulk and brood and blow us all off until you see him again. Ugh—I can’t believe I didn’t see it all before.”
She sighed, and Harry stiffened defensively. “Well, so what if I do? You’re not me—you don’t know how I feel, how this feels.”
Hermione caught her breath and leveled her gaze at him for a long, long moment. “You’re right,” she said slowly, her voice cool. “I’m not in love.” Her eyes narrowed, and Harry flinched. “Am I.”
Harry blinked at her, and she frowned, pushing her hair back out of her eye. “And of course you can take care of yourself,” she continued. “That’s why you totally ignored the clues for the Second Task last year—”
“Hermione,” he said sharply, because if there was one unspoken agreement between the three of them, it was that they never talked about the Tri-Wizard Tournament. He could only guess how upset she must be to break that code.
“—and that’s why you’re completely ignoring the note from You-Know-Who,” she hissed. He made a noise of disgust at this and tried to brush past her, but she gripped his arm and prevented him from going anywhere; and now the wind was whipping her hair into his face, billowing their robes, a shaft of light trapped between them and throwing her face into stark relief. “Honestly, Harry, if all you’re going to do is brood over Malfoy, then maybe it’s good that you fought. It’ll give you a chance to rethink your priorities a bit.”
“This coming from the girl whose priorities seem to be snooping around and spying on her friends’ private lives.”
“Harry, I’m your friend,” she pleaded, her fingernails digging sharply into his arm, as if she thought the harder she gripped the more he would listen. “We’ve always shared things, and I was worried about you. I still am worried about you. Malfoy may be your—your…” she took a deep breath and tried again, spitting out the word—“your boyfriend, but he’s still the enemy of Muggles and all who befriend them. There’s no guarantee he hasn’t told his father all about you, Harry. Don’t you see—I have to be concerned!”
“Hermione, you’ve always trusted me to make the right decisions before. Why can’t you do it now?”
“I do, Harry. I do. It’s him I don’t trust.”
“I trust him. That should be enough for you.”
“Well, maybe it should be, Harry, but it isn’t,” she snapped. “Maybe if you didn’t keep getting betrayed by people we thought you could trust. Maybe if Malfoy had done a single trustworthy thing in the four years I’ve known him, it would be enough.”
“His name is Draco,” Harry interrupted childishly.
“His name is Malfoy, Harry. Malfoy. It’s who he is.”
“It’s not who he is. He’s not like his father—he only tries to be because he wants to impress him. He may be a Malfoy, but he isn’t bad. I know that.”
“Then why didn’t you tell me, Harry?” Hermione asked, and abruptly she let go of his arm. “If you felt so confident then why didn’t you at least tell me? I know why you didn’t tell Ron—lord—but you could have told me, Harry. What if something had happened to you—to both of you? Anything could have happened, and you were so concerned with protecting one another’s privacy you didn’t even stop to think about the potential consequences!”
Harry looked at her blankly for a moment, taken aback by her vehemence. Awkwardly, he pulled her close, and this time she did not resist. He wrapped his arms around her, and she submitted, hugging him tightly. He kissed her forehead. “We did! I thought about telling you,” he said. “I did—bunches of times. We talked about it—”
“The two of you, talked about telling me? Oh, I’m sure that was a lovely conversation, not to mention polite,” she said dryly.
“Shh. You said you wanted to know. I’m telling you. He wanted to tell Snape—” Hermione snorted. “Yeah, I know. In the end we agreed not to tell anyone unless they found out. Besides, it’s not exactly like it would have been the easiest thing to tell. I couldn’t have just come up to you and said, ‘hey, Hermione, how was your day?—oh, and by the way, I’m shagging Malfoy.’”
Hermione jerked away with a strangled noise. “You’re sleeping together?”
“Uh,” said Harry, and then he shut up with one look at Hermione’s stricken face. He looked hastily down at the floor, feeling the tips of his ears burning in mortification.
“Oh, my lord,” she said. “You—you spent the night together. Didn’t you? The—the night before everybody left—you were late to breakfast. The—the same morning you fought. Oh, my lord.” She clasped her hands together and twisted them without seeming to notice. “I—I didn’t even… I didn’t even know you were gay,” she said blankly.
Harry didn’t think it was possible for him to feel more embarrassed, but if anything he was suddenly twice as awkward. “I—I don’t know for sure whether I am,” he stammered, as a sudden memory of Cho Chang’s black hair glistening in the sun like a raven in flight washed over him.
“But you said you loved him,” Hermione said sternly. The Ravenclaw abruptly transformed into Draco, proud and graceful, outlined against the sky like a swan on a silver-glass lake, and the ripples went all the way to Harry’s heart.
“I do,” he said softly, after a moment. “I love him.”
An indescribable, transcendent freedom stole over him. It was so powerful he decided to say it again. “I love him,” he repeated. “I mean—I still think girls are… well, but—I mean, it’s different with him. I still get attracted to girls. But I—I love Draco.”
“More than you care about your friends?” Hermione replied ruefully.
He stared. “Hermione.”
“Do you know how hard it is to be your friend, Harry, to try and support you and help you and protect you, and then find out that you’ve chosen the one person who’s always treated you like dirt over the loyalty of your best friends?—to know that you’d rather be with him, with someone you’ve always hated, than—”
Abruptly she cut herself off, bent her head, and ran a hand over her temple. He continued to stare, because he was speechless.
“I’m sorry,” she said after another moment. “That was wrong of me to have said. But Harry, you couldn’t have expected me to just accept this and be supportive. I care for you too much to do that. Surely you can understand that.”
Miserably, Harry nodded. Hermione regarded him thoughtfully, and he waited for her next question. For a long moment she said nothing, and silence grew between them, until he thought maybe she wasn’t going to ask anything at all and was waiting for him to speak. He opened his mouth with no idea what he was about to say, and she cut him off before he began.
“Do you think he loves you?”
His throat was instantly very dry. “I… I don’t know.”
“But he’s never said it?” she pressed. “The two of you’ve never talked about it, or, or—”
“Hermione, we’re boys,” he said. “We don’t talk about stuff like that.”
“Oh,” she said, as if this had never occurred to her. “Do you think he knows how you feel? Does he know you’re in love with him?”
Involuntarily Harry’s eyes flitted to the window, and the gray sky beyond it. “I…” he trailed off. “I think maybe he does.”
“Then he has the upper hand,” Hermione murmured. “Figures.”
“Hermione, it’s not like that,” he snapped.
“Maybe not, but one of us has to think strategically if all you’re going to do is moon over Malfoy.”
“I’m not mooning,” he said petulantly.
“Harry, you avoided me for a week and stayed in your room writing letters.” Harry scowled. “I saw the drafts you left lying beside your bed whenever I came to look for you. You weren’t being too careful, Harry. Anyone could have found them.”
“But they didn’t.”
“But they could have! And what about the note from You-Know-Who?”
“I don’t think that’s very important,” he said curtly.
“Harry. The Dark Lord sends Lucius Malfoy to Hogwarts just to deliver you a Christmas card, and you don’t think it’s important?”
“He came to take Draco home,” Harry said. “There’ve been spies—Draco wasn’t safe on the train.”
“Harry, listen to yourself!” Hermione nearly shrieked, and Harry half-expected a stinging slap across the cheek to follow her words. “You’re deluded if you think that picking up Draco was anything more than a ruse.” She began to pace the owlery, her breath coming in quick puffs on the air, and he would have suggested they go back to the Common Room had he not felt sure it would have gained him a slap for sure. “Think,” she said, switching into her problem-solving voice. “What’s here in the castle that Malfoy’s father would want to spy on?”
“The Order,” Harry said blankly. “Half the members are teachers at the school.”
Hermione shook her head. “No,” she said vehemently. “Not the Order. It’s too well-protected. Lucius must have known he’d never have a chance to be alone long enough to gather any useful information to take back to the Dark Lord.”
“As it was, Snape was with him the whole time,” Harry said. “I saw him meeting Lucius at the front entrance.”
“I’ll bet Mr. Malfoy wasn’t too happy about it. Look, Harry. There must have been something else—something Malfoy’s father must have known about that none of the teachers did. Something he could have gotten to without anyone suspecting.” She thought. “Something You-Know-Who could have sent him to look for or spy on.”
Harry sighed. “It could have been anything, Hermione. All we know is that he showed up and he left without ever leaving Snape’s company. We don’t know enough to make guesses about why he was here.”
“We don’t. But Malfoy might.”
Harry straightened. “No.” His voice was firm.
“Come on, Harry,” she said, halting her agitated pacing and fixing him with a significant look. “It’s the perfect way to find out whether he’s loyal to you or to his—”
“Hermione, I’m not doing it. He’s never demanded to know what I know about the Order. He’s never even stolen my Quidditch strategies.” Hermione snorted. “I’m serious. He trusts me not to pry into his life, and he doesn’t pry into mine and so far everything’s worked out fine.” He sighed and raked a hand through his hair, and realized it was full of snowflakes. “I knew this would happen. This is why I didn’t want to tell you, Hermione. You or anyone. I’m not going to use Draco to fight a war.”
“He’s already being used, Harry,” Hermione said, and she came back to him, taking both of his hands in hers. “Or didn’t you notice his father passing the torch when he told him to deliver that card to Dumbledore’s favorite son?” Harry winced. “It’s the truth. My guess is he was testing Draco. And Dumbledore. He wanted Dumbledore to know Draco was a threat in the castle.”
In his head, Harry heard himself say, ‘he’s not a threat,’ but he couldn’t get the words to reach his lips.
He looked down at Hermione’s hands as she held his. They were chapped and red, and blazing with cold.
“We need to get you out of here,” he said, blinking back a new wave of emotion. Hermione looked up at him, a tiny noise catching in the back of her throat, and suddenly she removed her hands from his grasp and took his face between her palms.
The scalding contact of her icy fingertips against his hot cheeks left him breathless. He gaped at her, feeling silly beyond description, as she said seriously, “You’re being used, too, you know. Dumbledore, McGonagall, even Snape—they all see you as fighting for them already.”
“That’s because I am,” he said quietly. “I want… what happened to my parents—I have to fight. I’ve always fought. No one’s making me.”
Hermione’s eyes were wide and full of admiration. “Draco Malfoy doesn’t deserve you, Harry Potter,” she said forcefully. “Harry—Harry, what do you see in him?”
Slowly she removed her hands from his face. Harry blanched. “I—I can’t really explain it. It’s just too…” He switched tactics. “I mean, how do you answer that, really? How if I were to ask you what you see in Ron?”
Hermione gaped and stepped backwards in astonishment. “Ron?” she echoed. Harry started to give her a smirk of triumph and then saw that she was genuinely flustered, and the smirk became an awkward grimace. “Just—never mind,” she said hastily. “It’s freezing in here, anyway—we should probably head back to the dormitories.”
“Right,” said Harry, shivering on cue.
Hermione wrapped her robes around her, her hair falling into her face, shielding her eyes. He watched her, observed how her frozen fingers shook as she fumbled with the clasp of her cloak, drawing it tighter around her. Guilt overtook him, and he found himself eyeing her as if he hadn’t looked at her in months; and really, he probably hadn’t. He felt as if all he’d known, all he’d seen, for so many weeks now, was Draco.
He stepped towards her and brushed her hair out of her face. Her head flew up at the touch, and in the light he couldn’t tell whether the brightness of her eyes was due to the effect of the cold, or to the unshed tears he might have been imagining.
“Here,” he said gently. “Let me do that.” He reached up and pulled the cloak tighter around her shoulders, fastening the clasp before she could stop him.
“Harry,” she said, her tone unreadable. “Does he—does he make you happy? Is he good to you?”
Before he could speak the answer burst out of him in a radiant smile that nothing could keep back, a smile so wide it sent a twinge through his chapped lips and cold-stiffened cheeks. Pain darted through Hermione’s expression, and she bit her lips as he told her, “He’s great. He’s—he’s the best. You wouldn’t even know him as the same person when we’re together.”
A tiny corner of his brain refused to feel as glowy and soft as the rest of him did at the moment, and that piece was a sharp pinprick in his mind reminding him of a dislocated jaw and a letter with no promises. But it felt too good to say it aloud, finally, and he couldn’t seem to stop smiling.
Hermione sighed. “I hope you’re right, Harry. I hope so with all my heart.”
Harry gave her a grateful look. Talking to Hermione had thawed out a part of the icy cavern that had taken over his stomach, and the cold of the room did not bother him so much. Hermione shivered again, though, and he wrapped his arm around her shoulder.
“So, uh… did you want to go back to the common room and, uh, talk about that note?”
Hermione turned her head and gave him a long look, and there was something distant in her eyes Harry had never seen before. “No, Harry,” she said after a long moment. “I think… I think I’d like to be by myself for a little while.”
“Oh,” said Harry, insides freezing all over again. “Um, sure.”
“I’ll meet you back there later, and we can talk more, if—if that’s all right,” she said.
He nodded, a little dumbly, and let her move past him. As she reached the door something occurred to him, and he blurted, “Hermione—you won’t tell Ron, will you?”
Hermione turned back to him from the doorway, once again standing in the shadows.
“No, Harry,” she said. “I won’t tell him.” Her voice was cool once more. Harry tried to read her expression, but the shadows around her concealed it from him—everything but the penetrating gleam of her eyes.
“Believe me,” she continued, before turning away for the last time, “this is one thing I would never want Ron to hear from me.”
What a Malfoy wanted most in a place was insulation.
He liked the Slytherin dungeons because from the moment he entered them he felt as if he were being snapped off from the rest of the world, freed to do whatever he liked in the confines of its windowless rooms and dark, firelit stones. Perhaps what he really liked was the lack of windows. He liked the soft glow of candlelight as much as the brilliant sun, and anyway, when one was indoors, one ought to be indoors, without the distraction of the world outside to lure their gaze to wander. When Draco was outside of the dungeons he was in the world—of the world. When he stepped into the Slytherin common room, he was on his own time—his own person.
He had never known what that was like—to be his own person, on his own time—until he had come to Hogwarts. At the Manor, no matter where he went, someone was likely to send for him, inquire about him, insist on stoking the fires while he read or fluffing his pillows before he went to bed. At Hogwarts, though, he was in full control of his time. In the Slytherin dorms it took only a single quelling glance to let anyone who attempted to approach him know that now was not an appropriate time to speak. The others respected his space, perhaps because they simply didn’t care enough to want to invade it; he spoke to them first, not the other way around. The house-elves left him alone altogether. When Professor Snape wished to speak to him he made an appointment; Professor Vector sent overwritten notes delivered by owl when she needed to see him about Arithmancy. Not a soul intruded on his space.
And then there was Harry, who was welcome to intrude on him any time, though Draco would never, obviously, let him know that. Harry didn’t intrude, though; he would shoot Draco looks, sometimes furtive, sometimes so frantic Draco was both amused and appalled that no one else seemed to notice them, looks Draco could choose to acknowledge or pretend he had not seen. Draco always acknowledged, even when he did not want to; something about Harry’s gaze drew him in like devil’s snare, dragging his eyes to meet Harry’s own and hold them, no matter how much they started out by flitting around the room trying to focus on something, anything else.
Harry, Draco had observed, loved windows. He didn’t make a show of it, but he liked to sit in the window seats of alcoves, or perch himself on the sill and look outside, watching the sky absently. Draco couldn’t count the number of times he had silently entered a room and found Harry on the other end of it, standing still, with his hands flat at his sides, simply looking outside, deep in thought. He couldn’t count the number of times he had gone to him, sliding silently forward on the balls of his feet, and slipped his arms around Harry gently, one arm on the flat of his chest, the other curling around his waist; the number of times Harry had reacted only with a soft sigh, and leaned his head back slowly as Draco buried his nose in his neck and basked in the warmth of him; the number of times he had felt a burning possessive desire to wrench Harry’s mind off of whatever it was he saw out that window, and the pervasive nagging doubt that no matter how many times he was able to turn Harry away and pull the curtains shut around them, he had failed to do it.
Draco never stopped to look out windows. If he wanted to be outside, he’d be outside. If he wanted to think about whatever was beyond the room he was in, then he’d go there. Harry, he had a feeling, never really moved from place to place as much as carried all rooms with him everywhere. Draco knew, because word of these things leaked out somehow, part of the ever-growing and expanding Mystery that was Harry Potter, that Harry had grown up in a cupboard, and had been shut away from the world by force. Maybe that was why: it had always been Draco’s choice to shut himself away; it would always be Harry’s choice never to voluntarily close a door behind himself again.
Perhaps it was better that Harry would not see the Manor. The library, Draco’s favorite room, was the most insulated place he knew, one long stretch of walls where no windows interrupted the endless flow of bookcases and portraits and huge fireplaces that bit with sharp teeth of flame into their stone mantels. The only entrance was through two heavy wooden doors in the room’s center. A few years earlier Draco had enchanted them to lock automatically whenever he entered. The ensuing time it took for the person on the other side to get over their confusion and spell the door open gave him ample time to hide whatever he was reading under the giant cushions of the library sofa. He had gotten in the habit of hiding his books, no matter what they were, at a very early age, and it was still a reflex even though he thought privately that it was a very silly one. The one and only time Harry had casually asked him what he was reading, Draco had reflexively slammed the book shut, cover down, and shot him a look in his flustered alarm that made Harry color, change the subject, and never ask him again.
Reading, to Draco, was a very insulated activity.
It helped that when he was home he did all of his reading in the library. He spent most of his time there, because it was shut off from the rest of the house—located in the southern end of the east wing, opposite the family quarters and well away from the guest rooms. The only access to it was down a drafty, narrow side-passage that led from the main corridor of the wing into a small alcove that opened onto the library. The passage had for many years been prone to sudden upsweeps of wind, which no amount of enchantments had yet to prevent; the house-elves considered it to be haunted, and were so terrified of it that few of them would dare to go there even when summoned. His father never came there, at least not any more—Draco had a feeling his father rarely had need of books, for he had committed more to memory than Draco could hope to learn in a lifetime—and his mother was probably only vaguely aware the room existed. The only person who frequented it at all was Draco, who was perfectly at home there, and basked in the silence, only occasionally jolted by the wind circling and howling through the adjacent alcove.
When he had envisioned his time at home, after the initial disappointment of realizing he would have to go back to the Manor for the holidays, he had seen himself relaxing and having a generally quiet, peaceful time: his father’s absence should have been enough to guarantee that. Draco had assumed he would absorb himself in books, go flying when the weather was clear, take a run through the park in the early mornings. The reality was that he found himself itching every moment to be back at Hogwarts with Harry, and that flying only made him grouchy and irritable because nothing compared to flying and competing with Harry, or for that matter, doing anything with Harry; that his thoughts were so jumbled he couldn’t begin to concentrate on reading because they inevitably found their way back to Harry; that he lay awake until the late hours of the morning, thinking about Harry, worrying whether Harry would be angry with him, if he’d made a mistake in writing to him at all. He had shot his ritual of the morning run to pieces.
The issue of the letter he had not yet received continued to weigh on him. The more he informed himself that he was not about to dwell on it and that worrying was pointless until he heard from him or talked to him, the more he dwelt and worried. Even though it had been only five days since he had written to Harry, he had had more than enough time for him to agonize over every aspect of his letter, which he had begun to regret writing. In fact by this point, the fifth day without word from Harry, he was starting to wonder just whose stupid idea it had been to start a clandestine affair with his worst enemy in the first place. He had learned to ignore the constant seizing of his heart at the thought that Harry might agree with him and decide to end it if—when, when he wrote back. He would write back. And he wouldn’t end anything, surely—at least not in a letter. Would he? But it was just the sort of cold and determined thing that Harry, were he angry enough, might do first and apologize for later.
It was now New Year’s Eve, and he was sitting at home feeling the weight of his uncertainty over Harry where he would any other year have been feeling the affects of too much alcohol. His mother, just as he had predicted, had only remembered at the last minute that she had failed to get Draco invited along with her to the New Year’s gala. He hadn’t really wanted to go anyway, not when there was a chance Harry’s letter might arrive while they were out. He rationalized that he wasn’t really sitting around waiting to hear from Harry as much as he was enjoying a quiet evening at home. It was a deceptively silent night. The air was stiff and thick with the dual hush of winter and of a thousand musty books whose pages had not been leafed in years. Only the crackle of fire and the occasional stirring of one of the family portraits on the walls broke the stillness. Draco was grateful for the silence, because it was hard enough to read over the clatter of confusion in his mind anyway.
He had already skimmed Slytherin’s Memoirs several times on his holiday, but there was far too much information to take in without sitting down and having a fully absorbing read. The book’s pages had been treated with centuries’ worth of magical protection and preservatives, and were much stiffer than any parchment. Once, as a boy, Draco had been allowed to stand barefoot on a Muggle sidewalk, to feel the grit and grime and rough cement under his feet. His father had wanted to show him that the rough hard surface beneath him was indicative of everything Muggles produced, low-grade and inferior. If cement were ever pliable, Draco thought absently, running his fingers over the pages, it would have felt a lot like this. Harry would probably laugh at him for the comparison.
No, that was wrong—Harry would never outright laugh at him, not really. He was much too serious for that. Harry might think he was eccentric; Harry might think his love of windowless rooms was bizarre; he might even suspect that secretly Draco preferred fiction to the volumes upon volumes of non-fiction texts he surrounded himself with; but he would never truly mock Draco. He had always taken Draco seriously—maybe too seriously. But that was part of his charm—perhaps part of his frustrating stubbornness. It wasn’t possible for Harry to see that Draco wasn’t nearly the factor in his fight against Voldemort that he believed him to be. He had been angry, perhaps too angry, in his letter, and he wondered if Harry thought he was trying to push him away. Surely he’d made it clear that that was the last thing he wanted. Maybe he shouldn’t have told him about Malcolm Malfoy. Now he probably thinks my whole family history is full of psychopathic skeletons and mass bloodshed, he thought irritably.
This was ridiculous. Surely he could concentrate on something else for a while. He had to. He shifted on the couch, letting his gaze refocus on the words of the book in his lap:
The Diabolution Solution
I, Salazar Slytherin, created the Diabolution Solution in the year 983, for the purpose of confusing will and emotion, intent and expression.
The uses of this poison are as an immediate and effective toxin for those prized by the brewer; it is also an immediate and powerful protective and restorative tonic for all despised by the potion’s maker.
I used the potion to revive my esteemed colleague, Godric Gryffindor, after the Council of 991, in which an attempt was made upon his life. The power of the potion, considering the strength of the hatred between the maker and its drinker, was such that it rendered Gryffindor invulnerable to injury or harm for several days. He recovered fully, and remained ever after in my debt.
Draco sighed. Some things never changed. It had always been about one-upping each other, edging each other out, with all Gryffindors and Slytherins since. He wondered if it would ever change—if it could ever change; and for a fleeting moment he wondered if maybe being with Harry would change that, if they might lift the ban on inter-House relations just by being themselves. Immediately after this surprisingly rosy thought came several others, each appropriately dismaying: he and Harry were totally closeted and had no intention of telling anyone about their relationship; even if they did tell, there was no way that two people could change centuries-old rivalries; and even if they could, the concept of a life spent without the necessary element of being mean to Gryffindors was the most boring thing imaginable. He chuckled. Gryffindor must have been pissed as hell to learn who had saved his life, and how. Perhaps Slytherin had been on to something, after all.
The Diabolution Solution draws on the purity of the blood, and the essence of the souls of both the potion-maker and the drinker. It is not affected by passion, but by the truest, most honest feelings subsisting between the drinker and the brewer. The potion divides emotion from all other considerations, such as respect, lust, need, or fear. Many a partner planning to do their beloved in, in a fit of rage, has been astonished to discover the intended deceased continue for many days after in perfect good health. Likewise mortal enemies wishing to keep their foes alive for their own nefarious intentions, have been at a loss to explain the death of their supposed arch-nemesis upon administration of the potion—though they are often known to have lamented the loss excessively long afterwards.
Perhaps it is pure cruelty to cultivate such a potion; yet I take no delight in the creation, nor do I overtly wish any of my fellow wizard brethren harm. The effects of the potion are such that its potency—and thus its potential for providing full immunity to the drinker—are only heightened by the polarity of its effects.
Draco sighed. Love, hate, hate, love—Harry, Harry, Harry, Harry. He skimmed over the boring section about the lack of counter-spells, and finally shut the book in irritation. “Screw it,” he said to no one in particular.
On the wall, the portrait of his grandfather, Edgard Malfoy, raised his eyebrow at him.
Draco looked up, grimaced, and snapped, “You don’t have to look at me like that, Grandfather. I know. I’m the one who’s got the rarest book in the world on my lap and the attention span of a gerbil just because I can’t stop thinking ab—” He cut himself off, slid the book to the couch, and rose in frustration, raking his hands through his hair.
All around the room, in between the rows and rows of books, three generations of Malfoy family portraits lined the walls. They did not talk. None of the Manor portraits talked. Draco had never been exactly sure why this was, as there were lively family tales of Wilfred, his great-great uncle, engaging in lively argument with his own portrait. Once things had supposedly gotten so heated he had thrown a bottle of turpentine at himself. But while the portraits acknowledged him with wary, watchful eyes, they never spoke, either to him, or to each other. Normally he made a habit of speaking to them anyway, asking them questions and then answering on his own, telling them about his life, complaining about Harry back when Harry had just been Potter. Now each of them were looking at him intently, their silent inquiries as clear as if they had all shouted Harry’s name back to him in unison. He stood still for a moment, looking around at them, finally resting his gaze on the five portraits hanging over the long low fireplace.
On the wall facing him were all five of his grandparents. His two grandfathers, Edgard and Desmond, possessed the wall space above the fireplace as if it were their private throne and they were prepared to battle it out for the claim of rightful ownership. They spent more time glaring at one another, and occasionally disappearing into the other’s portrait for silent territorial scuffles, than paying attention to their wives, who generally primped and left each other alone, as if they had better things to do than worry about which of them was mistress of the hearth. His grandmother occupied the space to the left of his grandfather, while next to her his step-grandmother Althea held the position on the far end of the mantel, opposite her reserved predecessor, Desmond’s first wife.
He studied them all—each of them so graceful, poised, collected. They each looked in their solemn, dignified portraits, as if they’d never expressed an emotion in their life; the combined effect of the five of them hanging there at once was a little like unexpectedly bumping into an open casket. Many of the other portraits were lively, animated, if silent. These five never lost a modicum of their decorum. The strange heat of shame or indignation or defensiveness, or all at once, flushed the back of his neck as he looked at them. His fists clenched around a number of conflicting desires: to be as collected and controlled as they were, or maybe to have the nerve to defy them and feel whatever he liked. To tell them all about Harry, about what they did together, about how dangerous and exciting and wonderful and intoxicating and stupid the whole thing was.
He wanted to, he desperately wanted to. The only thing that stopped him was the sensation that somehow they already knew—that his face was as open and tell-tale as theirs had never been. Why couldn’t he be that way? Why couldn’t he keep Harry from reaching into his soul and pulling things out that no one should ever be allowed to wrench from him without his control? Why was it that the more he had tried to become a ruthlessly cold replica of his father, the more he had found himself full of passion and fire and yearning? Why was the art of being detached so easy for everyone else and so hard for him?
Was he the only member of his family to fail in the simple task of being an icicle?
He began to pace the room, his thoughts growing more turbulent. He, the last descendent of the Malfoy family, the family noted for its force of will, its strength of resolve, its self-control, could not even go five days before hearing from his boyfriend without degenerating into a pile of nerves and anxiety and frustration. If this was how he behaved about Harry, what hope would he ever have as an adult facing—well, god only knew what he would have to face as the son of Lucius Malfoy. He sighed. His father thought him a coward, he knew that—had always known that; but he had always wondered deep-down if maybe it wasn’t true.
He had never forgotten that night in the Forbidden Forest, with Harry. His first instinct had been to run for safety; and while in retrospect he figured this was a smart idea, having learned from Harry that the figure they saw was the Dark Lord himself, he also cringed to remember how he’d run terrified through the woods. He had never had a chance to show that he was brave about anything else—not really. He thought he might be brave—he hoped he could be brave. But what if he weren’t? What if he were the failure his father thought him to be?
Images of shrouded, shadowy figures in dark hoods rose to his mind, bidden there, he knew, because no matter how hard he tried he had never really been able to escape their hissing, supernatural voices, and no amount of chocolate could erase the imprint they had left on him the day they boarded the train for Hogwarts. He shuddered and tried to close his mind before it pried his memory free, but it was too late, and the words sank their claws into his heart:
With a gasp he tore himself away from the burst of memory, and dragged his mind away from the image of the Dementors. That was two years ago, he told himself firmly, averting his eyes from the portraits lest he see them judging his wan expression or his pale cheeks. You’ve changed. Everything’s changed. Harry wouldn’t want you if you were a failure—and you know you couldn’t deserve him if you were any less a Malfoy.
He repeated this in his head, over and over, until the words had started to make sense. His hands were shaking slightly, and quickly he crossed the length of the room to the wine cabinet. His father kept a liquor stock in each of the major rooms of the Manor; this one was ironically just below a portrait of his great-aunt Ora, who was such a notorious alcoholic that even in her portrait she had a tell-tale face that was too rosy to be natural.
Sighing, Draco poured himself a glass of brandy. He hated the stuff normally, but, well, it was there, and besides, it was December 31st. He could feel the eyes of every portrait in the room on him, and duly he raised his glass to them. He paused, wondering if he should toast, and finally decided on the Malfoy family motto. It was a bit weighty for a New Year’s resolution, but he figured it would do.
“Fortunam arbitratus vincit,” he said, and drank.
At that moment the fireplace began to rumble.
This was unusual. Fireplaces rumbled right before they transported a wizard through the Floo network. This was especially true of older fireplaces, and the one in the Manor library was definitely older. But it also, to Draco’s knowledge, had never been connected to the Floo network. Still holding his drink, Draco moved to the hearth. His grandparents were giving each other glances of significance; his paternal grandparents straightened in their frames and adopted their original portrait poses. His other grandfather followed suit, while his first wife began frantically powdering her nose. His second wife, Althea, looked gravely at Draco, and then stunned him by calmly reaching up and removing her rosary from beneath her robes, clutching it firmly in her hand.
It was this that sent the first real shiver of fear up his spine. The fireplace was rumbling more with each passing second. Draco backed away from it and sat down on the couch in confusion, sloshing the brandy as he did so. He sat it hastily down, clumsily sopped up the mess with his robes, and then, obeying the impulse of years of habit, hastily shoved Salazar’s Memoirs under the cushion.
An instant later he discovered he was no longer alone.
The creature in the room with Draco was not immediately recognizable to him. It was a tall, bony figure, built not unlike Draco himself, and it slunk rather than stepped out of the fireplace. Not a speckle of ash clung to its robes, which were a deep, deep green—like Harry’s eyes, Draco thought before he could help himself. This comparison instantly felt wrong, and a surge of nausea accompanied it, so strong that he grabbed the side of the sofa to keep from giving in to it.
The figure turned away from the mantel and stepped forward into the room, and Draco saw its face. The clench of fear that seized his heart was so violent he nearly cried out. Through a miracle of self-control he didn’t know he possessed, he managed not to make a sound.
In his head, he heard himself say, You’ll pardon my not greeting you properly, but I’m not accustomed to strangers popping up in my library.
What he did was stare.
Draco had grown up hearing the name spoken, in hushed, reverent tones. As he had gotten older, he could detect a faint note of contempt in his father’s voice—contempt for the wizard vanquished by a child. But the veiled respect, the vaguely awed use of the name, had stayed with him, and he had always been confused, disgusted with everyone who had lived in fear of the name, as if it were anything but a shadow of the thing itself. He had never understood the appeal of hiding from the echo of a great memory, of running from a threat that no longer existed, and, in his mind, never really had.
In this moment he finally understood that the thing before him was more than a thing not-to-be-named; it was a thing not to be seen; not to be dreamt of.
It wasn’t so much that the face was hideous—though it was. The thin skin, stretched tight over a jutting bone frame, hanging in loose flabs in all the wrong places, was the pallid chalky color of pigment that had never been infused with sunlight. The nose was flat, snake-like, with wide, flared nostrils—it seemed to be breathing in its surroundings rather than seeing them, as if it had been accustomed to taking its shape from its environment. The tall figure towered over him like something inhuman, and the long, bony fingers twisted and spindled themselves together like feeble imitations of tentacles.
But that was nothing compared to the way the hideous red eyes raked him over. They dug into him, the knife-like slits gouging out his fear, spilling it out into the open. The gaze filled him with an inexplicable onslaught of deep terror, and for a paralyzing instant he was certain that not only his fear, but all of his deepest secrets, had been laid bare before the world.
The shock that shook Draco was almost as deep as the fear. He was here for Harry. He must be. He must have found out and come to question him about Harry. He must be. Why else would he come? He had no use for Draco, and surely he knew Lucius’ whereabouts. What else could it be? But how? No one knew about Harry, no one. Harry was safe. Harry had to be safe.
Harry had to be safe. He had to be.
Harry is safe. Harry is safe. And as long as Draco kept his head, he would be.
He would be.
The thought focused him; it gave him the ability to rise shakily to his feet and face his visitor. He said it over and over in his head, his only mantra, willing himself to stay calm.
The voice that spoke to him was smoother than he ever would have expected, and so icy his whole body was run through with tremors at the sound, jolting him out of the numbness that had overtaken him in the last thirty seconds.
“I seem to have intruded, Mr. Malfoy. How unfortunate—your father had informed me you were expecting my visit.”
His thoughts whirled. This was undoubtedly the surprise (surprise!) his father had mentioned to him, and so his father hadn’t exactly deceived him; yet certainly he had purposely kept him uninformed, unprepared. What was happening?
In his head, Draco heard himself reply, If by ‘expecting’ you mean ‘sitting here in oblivious solitude with no idea that my father had bundled off to Norway leaving me to get chatty with the ruler of all evil,’ then absolutely, yes, I’ve been looking forward to it. Have a spot of tea?
What he did was nod his head feebly, and reply in a shaky voice half its normal volume, “I, um…yes, sir, I’ve been expecting you—just… not tonight.”
His tone made Draco think he was seeing something else altogether.
Draco opened his mouth to speak, feeling like he should have some sort of reply to give, but none presented itself, so he clumsily closed it again, feeling foolish as well as unprepared. His guest did not seem to notice, however, because he had turned back to the fireplace and stood regarding the row of portraits overhead, apparently oblivious to the tension thickening around them.
“Ah, yes,” he said, coming to stand before Draco’s grandfather. “Edgard Malfoy. How well I remember. You and I were housemates—brothers.” He bent at the waist and issued a stately bow to the portrait. Draco looked on, as his grandfather’s portrait returned the bow, reverently clasping both hands firmly in front of him in a gesture of loyalty. Something about this movement filled Draco with a slow dawning sensation of—he couldn’t tell whether it was apprehension, or pride.
“And your exquisite grandmother, Vesta.” He turned to Draco’s grandmother, who was straightening with a very regal air, and dropping into a graceful curtsey.
Graceful—all of his family, so graceful, no matter what they did.
I must do that. Be graceful.
Slowly, with dignity, each of his grandparents’ portraits in turn paid their respects. His mother’s father not only bowed, but dropped to one knee and dipped his head.
Would he be expected to bow? To go down on one knee?
Draco felt his knees buckle, and then lock.
The room around him spun slowly; he fought to stay in control while his visitor’s attention was elsewhere. He barely heard the next words spoken in homage; he could not think, he could barely breathe, everything was blurry, and suddenly too vivid, like stained glass under water. His father had taught him to go into no situation unprepared, and yet he had deliberately left him unprepared for this one. Why? What did they want from him? What did he want?
Focus, he had to focus. For Harry’s sake, for both their sakes, he had to focus. Fuck what his father had done—if he couldn’t handle this situation then he wouldn’t be in it. He would handle it. He would have to.
He stared with a desperate will at the portrait of his grandmother. She did not curtsey. Her gaze was fixed in a hard stare on his visitor, and when her turn came to be addressed, she only bent her head in a stiff nod, her fingers wrapping tightly around the rosary in her hand. Draco stared, and her gazed snapped to his own as she lifted her chin again. The look in her eyes was soft and still hard at once—something Draco knew was meant for him. He did not understand it; did not think he could; but it imbued him with strength.
Yes. He could handle this. He would.
Slowly, as if on some unspoken cue, the rows and rows of portraits on the walls all around him were bowing, all at once.
The slitted red eyes narrowed in approval, the nostrils flared, and Draco averted his gaze.
“You are the product of a worthy family, young Mr. Malfoy.”
He straightened. “Thank you, sir.” He meant it, and he forced himself to meet the red eyes and show that he meant it.
“These portraits, all around you—they are testament to your family’s greatness,” the soft hiss continued. “And to yours.”
Draco thought all at once it would be a good time to drink more alcohol.
He hastily crossed the room, to where his great-aunt Ora was trying not to stare at his guest, and tried to steady his hand once again as he poured two glasses of scotch.
Scotch. He was serving his guest scotch. Yes. He could do this. Right.
“Haven’t you ever wondered why they never speak?”
Draco brought the glass to his guest and tried not to shudder as the long, spindly fingers closed around it. He gulped his own drink down too hastily, grateful for the reality of his throat being scalded from the strength of it. “I’ve always assumed it had something to do with the house. Old houses have their… quirks.” He ventured a glance, found those eyes burning into him relentlessly, took a hasty gulp of scotch, and added, “…sir.”
“Then you must at least have wondered why they stopped when they did.” The voice was slow, deliberate—baiting.
“I… don’t know when they stopped, sir,” said Draco, carefully, getting a sudden flash of how muggle soldiers must have felt prodding their way through mine fields.
“Hmm. It is decidedly—” a sip of scotch “—odd, don’t you think?—that your parents never informed you that the paintings fell silent on the day of your birth, Mr. Malfoy.”
Draco stared. Okay. He was baited. Score one for the Forces Of Evil. His eyes darted over the faces of his ancestors. “Why—why did they stop then?” Maybe, he thought wildly, his throat tightening, they had been ashamed of him. Maybe they couldn’t tell his parents what a pathetic son they had given birth to, so they stopped talking altogether.
“No one knows,” replied the other shortly. “It was unexplained. Lucius should have informed you—it is most dangerous for one not to know their history.”
“I do,” said Draco abruptly, and his own boldness surprised him. “I do know my history.”
“Yes. I am sure you do.”
Draco had no immediate response to this, so he remained silent, his pulse racing.
“I assume you know, for instance, the details of your Choosing.” The voice dropped to a murmur, deceptively casual. Draco’s eyes snapped involuntarily to the other’s face, and then he wished they hadn’t. He wanted to look away, he must look away, he mustn’t look away—
Somehow, he didn’t.
Slowly, he nodded. “I know the wand that Chose me was very powerful. They were afraid to let me use it until I was older.”
“I see. And have you begun using it?”
Another nod. It suddenly seemed important to straighten his shoulders. He did. “I—it’s upstairs,” he said.
The bony fingers contracted in a stiff wave. “You need not show me. I’ve already seen that wand.”
“Oh.” He wondered if it was a bad sign that his guest was starting to look… bored. No, not bored. Patient. He was biding his time.
“Then—then you were there?” Draco asked, his voice rough and chalky.
“Of course,” and the tone was silky, almost gentle, clearly suggesting that it would have been impossible to have been anywhere else on such a momentous occasion, and for a moment Draco was lulled into believing it. “I stood beside your father. I remember the day quite vividly, in fact. As I recall it was only a few weeks before Halloween.”
And then the voice chose to be silent, and it was the most cutting thing Draco had ever heard. He suddenly felt as if he were on a precipice and looking down. The unspoken hovered in the air, a breath away, one step away from a plummet that might never end.
He swallowed, and heard himself ask, “More scotch?”
His guest did not respond to this, only fixed him with a narrow glare and hissed, “See to it that you take care of your wand. It’s not every day a wizard comes into possession of such a valuable, powerful instrument.”
Draco nodded. “I intend to.” He remembered the glass in his own hand, and took a drink.
“I see Lucius has chosen, rather foolishly, to keep you rather uninformed.”
A log exploded on the fireplace, and Draco jumped. Scotch went everywhere but in his mouth. “Pardon?” he said hoarsely.
“Your father did not inform you of my intent to visit you, did he, Draco?”
To visit me.
He took a deep breath and forced his voice steady. “My father is your most loyal servant. If he told you that he would inform me of your visit, I assure you, you have no reason to doubt him.”
“And I see he had no reason to doubt that you would remain loyal to him in all things.”
Although Draco could never have imagined until he heard it that a voice could sound yet more serious, the steady icy tone moved into something much deeper, much more demanding and frightening. “You are loyal, yes.” The word ended on a slow hiss, and Draco held back a shudder. “That will serve you well. But mind you choose your loyalties wisely, Draco.”
A cold chill ran over him.
His guest took a drink, and added almost casually, “You are far too valuable an asset to play into the wrong hands.”
Draco chanced another direct look into those red eyes. They were scrutinizing him, two piercing red pinpoints in a hideous, languid face, like the final smoldering wicks on a candle that had long since turned to a mound of ugly, dripping wax.
He heard himself ask, his voice surprisingly more firm than he expected, “Is that why you’re here?”
“Do you doubt that you could be an asset to me, Draco?”
Draco had no response. None. After what seemed long moments, with silence ringing in his ears, he ventured, “My father has always led me to believe my services would be of no use to you.”
“Your father, for purposes of his own, Draco, has always sought to keep you separated from his affairs. Whether this was a mistake remains to be seen. But I have little interest in discussing Lucius this evening.”
The visitor finally moved to sit down, choosing the huge leather armchair nearest the fireplace, and Draco somehow stumbled back to the couch to do likewise. He realized the moment he sat down that he was sitting on the cushion that concealed Slytherin’s Memoirs, and went rigid all over, afraid to move.
“I am a wizard with very specific agendas, Draco.”
Draco nodded curtly.
“It is vital to me to have as my allies those who have only the strongest dedication to those agendas.”
Another nod. His throat was dry. He wanted another drink, desperately, but he couldn’t bring himself to get up again.
All at once in his mind he heard the echo of words he had not thought about since they had been spoken: I trust you have learned how to distinguish your own ideas from those of your father.
He had. He had. What was happening?
You are close, Draco. Very, very close.
“You have always shown yourself to be very dedicated to destroying the beasts, these muggles who have infiltrated and tainted our world.”
Draco gave one more nod and stared at the upholstery.
You must understand that if you are to remain in your present position, choices must be made. You must not only remain loyal to your father, but to all that he stands for. To nobility and rank, yes, to fortune and ancient lineage, yes—to all these things—but also to a lifestyle of persecution.
“And you would be willing to use any measure to remove them from our society, and keep them out, would you not?”
I’m implying nothing but an awareness of that which you must be prepared to face if you are to follow in your father’s footsteps.
I’ll just have to deal with that when it comes, won’t I.
Draco looked up, feeling his heart pounding in his throat, and stared at empty space and heard himself answer, “I guess I… I guess I would.” He felt suddenly weaker.
I trust that you will make the right decision.
“You could learn. I could teach you. You have many talents, Draco, but you have not been allowed to exercise them as I sense you would wish to. I could teach you to reach your full potential. And, I assure you, your potential is very vast indeed. With the proper freedom, you could be powerful. Very powerful.” He paused, and then went on deliberately, “More powerful, even, than Harry Potter.”
Awareness jolted him like electricity, and he looked up, involuntarily.
You dirty little bastard, do you want me, or do you just want to be me?
“You could? I—I would be?”
The red eyes sparked for a moment like flame. “Of course, Draco.”
That same lulling, deceptively gentle tone. Draco placed his hands on his thighs and dug his fingers into his robes, so tightly his fingernails left bruises even through his robes.
You are close, Draco. Very, very close.
The fireplace began to rumble again.
Actually, it wasn’t so much a rumble as a clatter, and the explanation for it was presented a moment later when a soot-stained owl swooped down the flue, barely missing careening into the flames, and flapped noisily across the room to the side of the couch where Draco sat.
He blinked again. “That fireplace gets a lot of traffic,” he said blankly. “If you’ll excuse me for a moment, um…”
“Certainly,” said his visitor, and then his eyes narrowed sharply, as if a foul, indefinable stench had just reached his nostrils.
Draco fumbled with the owl’s leg, stood quickly, and hastily slipped the letter inside of his robes, moving to the other end of the room on the pretense of fetching a treat for the owl. The owl hooted impatiently, but otherwise the room was suddenly even colder and stiller than it already was. He steadied his nerves by pouring himself another glass of scotch to make up for the one he had previously deposited all over the rug. His hands shook, and he didn’t try to stop them, but he kept his back turned as he took a long drink and reached inside of his robes. He would just place the letter in the desk, until his guest had left, and then he would deal with all of this, yes, he would deal with everything, and—
His fingers met cloth and emptiness, and the world stopped.
He spun so fast the glass hit the floor and shattered, and the crash disguised his gasp.
Even from where he stood across the room, the blank parchment stationery and Hogwarts seal were unmistakable to Draco as he watched the chalk-thin fingers run thoughtfully over the surface of the envelope.
“This letter,” said Lord Voldemort casually, “belongs to Harry Potter.”
*Wicked cackling* Next chapter soon, I promise.
The chapter title is taken from one 20th-century English poet, W.B. Yeats, from his poem “The Second Coming:” things fall apart, the center cannot hold.
The epigram is from another 20th-century English poet, W.H. Auden. The quotes are the first and last stanzas of his poem “Leap Before You Look.” I love that poem.
The Malfoy family motto: “Fortunam arbitratus vincit,” translates to “Will conquers destiny.” Thanks to Lasair, who knows Latin, and told me what to write. :D
Artwork for this chapter was done by Mawaridi and Moya, who rock my world.
I would like to give hearts and candy and slashy bath pearls for my loffly betas Franzi, Debbie, Rach, Casslet, and Erin. I’d also like to give shout-outs to numerous members of the Armchair for encouragement; Kelly for hooking me up; Maya’s mom for missing me in London and Erica for going in my stead; Chris Columbus for The Chamber of Secrets and Tom Felton for making me ship Draco/Mandrake; everyone who made my birthday so wonderful with fics and art and general loffliness; Vic for writing the most lovely inspired-by-LUW song ever; and EQ for bribing me with Georgette Heyer. Can we say irresistible? Oh, yeah.