Title: A Change of Heart (Part 2 of 5)
Many times Draco thought of turning back.
The stairs felt never-ending. The thrashing of his heart had weakened to a flutter, and every muscle in his body ached. They would have surrendered if not for the marble railing shining a richer blue as he met the seemingly insurmountable challenge one step at a time.
He finally collapsed at the clearing of the second floor. It was deserted, and the phantom glow guiding him had faded, as the ghosts moved to resume their light-bearing task in the Great Hall. When the last ray of sunlight filtered through the windows, he found a defaced stone bust of a goblin and settled there, arms wrapped around his knees as he tried to calm his furious panting.
In truth, he had no idea where he was heading; there was no escape from the darkness rapidly closing in as the night fell. Within the space confined by his huddled frame, he felt his silver-blond hair and Head Boy badge subdued to shades indistinguishable from the black fabric beneath them, their striking brilliance under the sun a memory, a mockery and a lie. A snake of bile crept its way up from his stomach, and with it, a pressure was building in his nose …
A sudden sensation of being watched siphoned Draco’s tears away. He looked up and his eyes were immediately drawn to the wall opposite to him.
The same poster graced the stone surface at regular intervals, and the presence Draco had felt were its eyes, shifting upon it. A line of bold lettering ran across the centre of the parchment, but its message was a smear in the dark. It bore little significance beneath a pair of glasses that highlighted a look of pure trepidation, unburdened by age, a childlike curiosity sparkling in the irises.
Draco straightened abruptly. He struggled to stand and approach the wall, holding his lit wand tip before him.
UNDESIRABLE NUMBER ONE, the heavy script emblazoned across the midline of the poster, superimposed on a monochrome photo of the youngest champion ever chosen for the Triwizard Tournament. He was fidgeting in the chair with a stiff smile, his spectacles gleaming as they caught and deflected the assault of dazzling camera flashes before him.
Draco remembered every detail of this photo; he had ridiculed it for hours before the Slytherin crowd on its day of release, then hexed that whole issue of the Daily Prophet into bits and pieces on his own bed. Later, he had seen Potter in his dream, the contents of which he had had no recollection of except that he had woken the next morning with morsels of paper stuck on the sodden front of his pajama bottoms. Fuming beyond measure, he had stolen another issue of the newspaper from the library, scrutinised every frame of the photo and placed the most unflattering shot on the “Potter Stinks” badges. His scheme had been a success – a brilliant revenge, and a satisfying one at that.
Despite himself, a smile found its way onto Draco’s lips. The memory served as an unexpected, if temporary, analgesic, and he strolled down the corridor, his wand pocketed and the light on Potter’s glasses as his guide. The row of posters continued in its orderly fashion until it reached a doorway – at least, that was what Draco recalled it to be – for the whole area, every inch of the wooden frame and panel included, was plastered with layer upon layer of posters. Each had been graffitied; the “Un” in “Undesirable” had been crudely crossed out in scarlet, and a kiss of the same shade superimposed onto Potter’s lips.
The lipstick was of the colour that few dared to carry, and even fewer could carry it so well. This was, no doubt, Ginevra Weasley’s handiwork. Whoever had assigned this meagre task of postering to her, to announce to the school that her missing boyfriend had been designated the Wizarding World’s Most Wanted, was either exceedingly cruel or preposterously soft-hearted.
He brushed his hand against the scarlet; the lipstick smudged readily under his fingers – it was still fresh, yet leaving behind an indelible mark of Potter having been kissed. Draco wondered why his mind had immediately set to reverse the effect, to erase all evidences of Weasley’s self-indulgence; perhaps, he could already imagine the punishment to be doled out tomorrow. Which sixth-year would be fortune enough to exercise Unforgivables on the undeniably beautiful Miss Weasley?
Draco shook the frightful image from his head; despite so, the pain returned, cutting even deeper into his chest. He gasped, once again felt his ribcage hollowing beneath his robes, as he stared at the faint tinge of red remaining on Potter’s grey lips, stubbornly bringing to life what had been painted with love; even in his absence, Potter remained what others had long deemed him to be – a saint cherished, heralded by portraits in the halls.
Desperate for a place whether he could recuperate in peace, Draco looked away; what met his vision was a door down across the corridor, which, in striking contrast to the one behind him, was entirely devoid of Potter’s watchful eyes. Head resolutely held low, Draco garnered his last bit of strength and sprinted inside that room, slamming the door behind him.
Light took the place of the absolute darkness he had expected.
It was a girls’ bathroom. The chipped sinks and flaking cubicle doors suggested an out-of-order facility, which might explain why the Death Eaters had neglected to eliminate its light fixtures. Candles flickered on holders, yet their feeble light had never been more radiant to Draco’s eyes; leaning against the wooden door panel for support, he slid slowly to the floor.
It was then that he noticed a sheen on the floor tiles, and a silver silhouette emerging between a slanted door of a stall and its broken hinge; he was greeted by a chill as the ghost almost glided into him.
“Myrtle?” Draco inquired, for the ghost busily smoothing out her school robes bore little resemblance to the Moaning Myrtle he had known. She was still plump, but the once lank hair was neatly braided, her skin pimple-free and the thick glasses missing.
Even more startling was her delighted smile. “Hello, Draco,” she said, batting her eyelashes. “You’ve finally come to visit me.” She squinted to observe Draco’s face. “What’s wrong this time?”
He had sorely missed her concern. “Noth ... nothing,” Draco muttered, “I just need to rest for a bit.”
“You can tell me. You did all those times last year, you know.” Her legs, still elongated to a long silver train, bent and she softly tapped on his wrists with its tip. Draco looked up with a start, and she gasped at his red-rimmed eyes. “Were you murdered again?”
“Drop it, Myrtle.” Draco’s attempt at a haughty drawl failed; he switched tactics and let his eyes flit about the bathroom, looking as carefree as he could manage. “Nothing happened. I’m here to, as you would say, pay you a visit.”
Myrtle tilted her face, her one hand caressing a braid; she would have blushed if not for the glow enshrouding her. “That’s very sweet of you,” she responded; then, faking a sigh as her not-so-slim hips gave a seductive swing, she proclaimed, “Too bad I’ve got so many admirers already.”
Admirers? Draco would have laughed if he had dared to risk his life to a river of tears; life had, however, felt sufficiently intangible to him just moments ago.
Thus he opted for placation. “Too bad, indeed,” he said, his arms folded tighter against his chest.
Myrtle shot him a long look.
“Something’s going on with you,” she announced, and before Draco could refute, she swept forward, knocking him onto his back and holding him in check. “Men are such liars,” she concluded with a pout.
A vivid reminder this was, of Draco’s inability to resist confiding in her – appeasement never suited either of them. Also, Myrtle’s dramatic flair and recklessness, he admitted to himself, were qualities he himself rather possessed in abundance. Nonetheless, he doubted he would ever dive under anyone’s neckline –
“What are you doing?” he shrieked.
“Checking on you.” The pitch of Myrtle’s voice had sharpened, true to the tapered form of its owner. “I don’t see anything, though,” she continued, jiggling above Draco’s chest, “but I’ve never seen anyone so sweaty, so … slick.” A fit of giggles emerged as a chill crept down to Draco’s stomach, to his belly; a breeze then fluttered and lifted the waistline of his trousers. “Are you sure there’s nothing wrong – ?”
“Fine! I’ll tell!”
Myrtle’s head popped out of his collar instantly and her neck curved impossibly backward; her face hovered a breath away from Draco’s. “I’m all ears.” She faked his drawl.
“Get out first. All of you.”
The ghost vanished again; a cold bolus of air caressed Draco’s torso before she wriggled out from below the loosened shirt end. “The abs can use some work,” Myrtle cooed as she stretched back to human form and retreated, another train of laughter in her wake.
“You’re a perv, you know that, don’t you?” Draco couldn’t help but smile, despite the shivers running along his entire body. The radiant silhouette of Myrtle flipped a quick somersault before settling on the tank in one of the stalls, and fished her glasses from her robes. Her eyes were intent upon him again, large and bright behind the lenses.
“Honestly, I wish I know what to tell you,” Draco began, still lying supine on the floor. “Ever since … that murder,” he inhaled and unclasped the front of his robes, his fingers rubbing against the faint protrusion of his sternum, “I’ve been having problems here; it hurts … all the way up my throat, as if the wound had never healed.”
“But there’re no cuts or scars,” Myrtle offered, “I really did look just now.” Draco nodded; he had always believed her. “I can only tell that there’s something funny inside.”
Draco sat up with a start. “You can feel it?”
“Ghosts can’t feel anything,” a cloud of familiar gloom rolled in when she responded, “but we have good ears and can hear the tiniest movements from the vibrations alone. I usually can tell who’s coming here from floors above just from the signature of his heart; everyone’s unique, you know. Well, just now, I … “
She hesitated, scratching a finger against her scalp; a strand of hair loosened to form a loop on her immaculate braid. Draco read her thoughts.
“You couldn’t tell it was me.”
Myrtle shook her head. “The heartbeats were yours, I recognised them. It’s just that they … weren’t continuous. Some people’s hearts are very hard-to-hear – loads of them in the castle these days, but even theirs don’t come and go. It’s like … like …”
She paused again, and Draco continued for her, eyes shuttering closed. “My heart isn’t there sometimes.”
Myrtle’s silence was sufficiently affirmative; Draco chuckled sadly, his eyes still shut, “I’ve been missing it every now and then.” His voice trailed off, caught at his tongue was his confession that whenever he cast the Cruciatus curse his chest would hollow out, and the blood that was meant to return home would surge and spill, no longer having a place to go. For hours the heart would flit between existence and nonexistence, until exhausted forced it to surrender, broken and despairingly pale in his imagination, to its prison of a ribcage. The accompanying pain, excruciating to begin with, had never ceased to escalate since the day of the Sectumsempra.
How this had come to be was beyond comprehension, and Draco had already paid dearly for the consequences. He was fearful, to say the least – for what force could possibly steal the reins of a heart? What truth, if there was one to be known, could possibly bestow this power? While Myrtle had consoled him, enlightened him in ways he had not thought possible, he had deemed, with little reason, that these questions were meant to be answered only by himself.
He would do so when he was prepared.
Pulling the clasps on his robes back together, Draco remarked casually, “Enough about me. Now it’s your turn. Who are the admirers you’re talking about?”
Myrtle did not fall prey to his diversion tactics; instead, she demanded with a frown, “Did that black professor look at it?” Draco understood that she meant Severus Snape; she had once been a Ravenclaw, after all, and her acute sensibilities had been inseparable from her observational skills and an ability to draw quick analysis.
“No one can heal an invisible wound.” He shrugged lightly. “Headmaster Snape even gave me some dittany essence to prevent scarring –” and he wasn’t aware that the hurt has never stopped.
“Is he headmaster now?” Myrtle appeared almost too interested at the news. “And is he still moving furniture?”
Draco levelled his eyes with the ghost’s, willing her to continue.
“He came with a large mirror that night … an antique … some time around the beginning of the school year, and asked me for the spell to go down there. He –”
She clapped her hands to her mouth.
“His secret is safe with me.” Draco snickered in comprehension. “Where …?”
It took Myrtle a mere second to calm her conscience; the memory clearly brought her tremendous excitement – her eyes were wide and shining. Draco could almost see himself within the semi-translucent pupils.
“Anyway, it took some time for me to say it right. It was decades ago, but every syllable is still clear in my head! Only, it’s difficult to pronounce – all hisses and flicking tongues – but the pipe opened up in the end like it did for Harry and the what’s-his-name redhead and the cute professor –“
Draco would have jumped if exhaustion had not gotten the better of him; still, he could not help but lean towards the cubicle in which Myrtle was sitting. “Wait. This is the entrance to the Chamber of Secrets?”
Myrtle finally remembered to catch her breath. “Is that what that place in the dungeon is? It doesn’t matter, really – it’s nasty,” her nose crinkled with disgust. “Bones and rotten bits lying all over the place. The black professor warned me about touching the fangs of the big dead snake … Right, like I would do that with a ten foot pole. But then,” she dashed out of the stall, her body spiralled in a flourish under the candlelight, “it is there now; he charmed it to levitate behind us when we went inside –¬“
“Myrtle, you’re not making any sense!”
“The mirror, Draco, the mirror!” Myrtle almost wailed again in exasperation. “Oh, you just have to see it,” she decided, “maybe it’ll show you what’s happening with your heart, too.” She darted towards one of the sinks, her cold mist veiling her reflection on the spotted mirror; a moment later, she began to hiss.
It was Parseltongue. A scene flashed in Draco’s mind, of two young wizards learning to duel on a golden stage, splendid if only for the boys’ innocence. For a moment, he thought the world had been shrunk and placed into the hourglass of a giant time turner, its ancient magic showering everything with white brilliance as the tap before him spun, and the basin below fell out from sight. When all was quiet in the bathroom again, he found himself staring at a large pipe that opened to nowhere.
“Go on,” Myrtle said; without waiting for his response, she swept him off his feet and shoved him inside.
The pipe was as deep as it appeared; it felt like a century had passed when the space levelled, and Myrtle guided him through twists and turns of the tunnel with the confidence and speed of a frequent visitor. The floor was littered with small bones, and once, after almost tripping on a skull, he stretched his arms to steady himself only to realise that the wall was the shed skin of giant snake. However, none of this fazed him; until he passed through an open doorway into a long, dimly lit chamber.
The Chamber of Secrets. He had known of the legendary room for as long as he could remember, and had fought all his glorious, if imaginary, battles there as well – armoured in his soft flannel robe, he had waved a twig as he had screamed “Die, Mudblood, die!” and toddled behind Dobby around in the cellar of the Manor, his very own Chamber of Secrets. It had been where he had always emerged victorious, at the blessings of none other than the spirit of Salazar Slytherin himself – a man he had imagined to look just like his father, sitting majestically on a throne woven by a giant serpent.
And now, the statue of Salazar Slytherin stood before him, its emaciated face undignified with the mouth agape. The serpents in the chamber, aplenty as they were, clung like dried worms on the pillars; whatever magic they once possessed had long deserted them, perhaps with the one they had hailed as King. The slain remains of the basilisk sprawled at the centre of the chamber, its deadly eyes decayed to empty pits, its powerful body rotten to nothing but skin tented by a scaffold of hollow bones.
Personifying the absurdity of it all was, perhaps, the ghost hovering above Draco. Heedless of the past that had terrorised the chamber, Myrtle was flaunting her curves as she gazed dreamily at the floor below; her spectacles were gone once again, and her eyelashes batted ferociously. She was enchanted, captivated –
Draco stepped forward and what charmed Myrtle soon became apparent; half-buried, half enclosed by the carcass of the basilisk was a magnificent mirror. It awakened with a flash, proceeded to radiate soft light that intensified from a deepening pool of white. The surface rippled, as if Draco’s imminent entry set off a breeze in the reflection.
Myrtle did not appear surprised at the changes before her; in fact, she did not seem to notice them, or him, at all.
“Do you see them?” she inquired breathlessly. “The boys … they all like me.”
But Draco was too mesmerised to respond; he stepped over the serpent, his boot meeting the floor sent another stir across the glowing sea; something broke free among the waves and drifted towards his hand that had found its way into the mirror – all it took was one glance of the white against his flesh, and Draco knew.
It was a feather of an albino peacock. He could almost feel the fine fringe of the eye brushing against his fingers, the heavier but still delicate vanes, sparse in their fishbone arrangement, touching upon his palm. The bare wrist above called attention to Draco that his image was unclothed; crossing his forearm over the edge of the ornate, golden frame, he found it unmarked as well. He fell on his knees and leaned forward for a closer look.
Poised, fearless, triumphant – as if a younger Draco Malfoy had returned from the past, disguised as the present man with subtle shades of gold along the jaw, blending flawlessly into the head of blond hair that curled ever so slightly upon the bare clavicles. Supple muscles of the abdomen rose and fell steadily, calm yet vigorous, on a body that seemed to be floating on its bed of illuminated feathers.
One by one, Draco undid the clasps of his robe; he was hyperventilating, his hands trembled. Obliged to mimic his moves, his twin in the mirror swiped his fingertips along the midline of his chest, a lazy dance on a vibrantly beating heart; humour me, challenged the grey eyes above the light smirk. It riled Draco, who, with his arms flexed to their limit, pulled the unfastened parts of his robe down his shoulders with one rough yank.
It was hollow again, where Draco’s heart had been – a concave dipping into his chest; yet, in the mirror, the flesh was bulging, pulsating. Draco stared at the near-replica of himself; it stared back.
“My admirers are cute, but you don’t have to strip for them,” Myrtle’s voice chimed beside his ears. The two of them were close, her silver flow filtering through the air just above him, her threads of cold interlacing with the warmth from the light under his knees.
Draco spoke slowly, disengaged himself from the trance he had been under. “I don’t see anybody in there, except, well, me, I suppose.” He finally turned to meet her eyes. “And there’s nothing around you either.” He hated to break it to her so harshly, but the day had exhausted him. “Sorry.” He choked at the word, still relatively new to his tongue – simply awkward at times, far too heavy more often.
The grin on her face faded into a sad curl of lips. “Oh, I know. I suspected that much,” she said, straightening her Ravenclaw tie in one clean gesture. “A girl can dream though, right? But thanks for checking for me, I’d wanted to make sure.”
“That’s why you brought me here?”
Myrtle glanced at him through her eyelashes. “Well, there’s that …”
Draco narrowed his eyes in mock aggravation.
“Well, and one of the boys … you may actually be more his type. Just in case he could see you too, I thought I’d introduce you,” she chuckled, “and I’m curious at what you see. Did you …?” She tapped a finger against her chest.
“Oh … There’s nothing in the mirror. No scars, no bloody wounds.” He was not lying, was he? His heart heaved feebly within him.
She lowered herself onto the floor, got down to her knees, too, to bring her face level with Draco’s. Silence filled the space between them; did Myrtle know Legilimency? Or was she curious at Draco’s sunken cheeks, the dark bags under his eyes?
“Whatever and whoever you see, you are welcomed to stay and come back in the evenings. I spend the nights in the Black Lake.”
“Shh.” The ghost hushed him as her braids arched upwards, so that the light surrounding them cupped Draco’s face. “You need to get yourself together. Keep your spirits up.” Her voice was sombre, and her wisdom shone. “I’ve never seen you happy before. If this worked for me, it’s worth a shot for you, too.”
“But what you’ve seen in the mirror is an illusion. You said so yourself.”
“I didn’t know that for the first week. I tried to get inside the mirror; that didn’t work. Then I slung mud on it, hauled rocks at it … nothing could break through the surface and it took forever to clean up the mess; the mirror was so reluctant to show its face. Finally I gave up and decided that, well, I did like what I saw in myself and that I could do something about. So I went to the lake –“
Draco could sense imminent joy in her words; a revelation, perhaps.
“I took a good, long bath … squeezed out the pimples, you know, and primped myself for a bit.” She brushed the braids with her hands and took a breath. “Then I met him.” Her voice fell to a hush.
“Good for you.” Draco smiled.
“We … just started,” Myrtle whispered sweetly. “He’s a selky, and we’re meeting by the southern shore …”
“Go. I can find my way out later.” Draco waved his hand towards the tunnel access of the chamber. “Just one more thing, Myrtle. Don’t you have a care what the mirror shows at all?”
“I wouldn’t say that,” she said as her silver length glided towards the entrance. “I do enjoy having pretty boys fawning over me. The thing is,” she turned and looked at Draco one last time, “who am I to ask for something real? I’m not real myself. But that’s different for you. So what if what you see is an illusion?“
The last of her words echoed in the narrow passageway as she drifted away. “You’re living, Draco. You can make it real.”
Draco collapsed onto the floor, his back flush against the spine of the basilisk beside him; head resting on the frame, he traced a finger along the vine relief on the mirror’s golden frame. His reflection was a thin crescent of carefree features from this angle, rimmed by a feather that caressed the skin as the one eyelid Draco could see drooped with fatigue.
And they slipped into slumber, he who lay beside an illusion and he who lay within it, and neither stirred until the distant songs of the merfolk drifted into from the waters above.
Morning had broken.
Fragile tendrils of smoke rose towards the ceiling of the Potions classroom, lingering among the haphazardly placed jars on the shelves.
Undesirable Number One watched over them from the precipice of the dungeon wall.
“As you must know by now, if any of you know of his whereabouts you’ll have to report to the Headmaster,” Horace Slughorn mumbled absentmindedly as he rummaged through the piles of parchment on his desk. “Honestly, the reasoning behind this massive postering is beyond me! Who would have forgotten him?” He chuckled, as if discussing the latest stretch of beautiful weather, “I certainly remember a fine Potions student … just like his mother,” He continued, overt admiration turned to an emphatic sigh, “just like his mother …” Only then did he lift his reading glasses to study the worn textbook he had finally recovered. “Ah, here it is.”
“Professor,“ Ernie MacMillan piped up, “so the rumours –”
“Oh, those!” Slughorn interrupted with a hearty laugh. “Juicy tales … I love them, every one of them! We’ll compare notes later on what we’ve heard!” He plucked his moustache, his prominent eyes bowed into fine, jovial arches. The fleeting glance he shot towards the Slytherins, however, had not gone unnoticed – not to Draco, at least. McMillan opened his mouth again, only to snap it shut when Michael Corner kicked him under the table.
Unwilling to watch a Hufflepuff any more, Draco’s eyes drifted back to the display of their public enemy, the one person who should have roused every bit of abhorrence in its viewers. So it had been Snape’s idea to convert Hogwarts into a shrine to the Chosen One, to deck the halls with mementos of Saint Potter’s youth and bashful demeanour; Draco could not help wonder how the constant reminder of this face would reflect on the Dark Lord, who now seemed adamant to destroy a schoolboy, one who had insofar eluded him at every turn. Had the headmaster consulted with anyone before proceeding with this plan? Were they truthful with the responses?
Truth, after all, was a luxury few could afford these days; and truth –
“… is, by nature, elusive and perilous; thus defining the appropriate brewing protocol for Veritaserum has reflected similar difficulties.” Slughorn had begun his lecture with a reading from one of the last pages of Advanced Potions Making. “Very appropriate lesson after what we’ve just discussed!” he exclaimed, snapping the book closed. “Now, some may have read already that Veritaserum is in effect a concoction of three antidotes, thus requiring a fortnight from the initial preparation to the end of the brewing process. Who can tell me, for which potions the three are antidotes for?”
Silence ensued before Slughorn bellowed a deep peal of laughter. “How can I forget that we’re missing Granger! Shall we begin, then, with me naming the potions: the Draught of the Living Dead, Polyjuice and Amortentia. So, who can venture a guess of why?”
After a moment of hesitation, Ernie Macmillan and Terry Boot chimed in simultaneously, “Vigilance.” “Unity.”
“Good. Good.” Slughorn nodded his approval, very much enthused. “What about the last one?” Bowed heads and sideway glances met him. “Ah, you’re still at the age when this is embarrass–“
“Amor caecus est,” Draco murmured, not knowing what had compelled him to speak.
“Indeed, Mr Malfoy.” Slughorn’s cheer had given way to surprise; Draco could not blame him, for he had rarely been attentive in this class since sixth year. “You’ve told us instead the effect of the potion itself: Love is blind.; thus its antidote opens the eyes to the truth.” He paused, then announced dramatically, “Theoretically speaking.”
He walked towards his desk and retrieved a glass vial from the drawer. Sealed within it was a small, maroon cube, speckled like rusted iron and suspended in a translucent, viscous liquid.
“This is the proper antidote of Amortentia. Consider yourself very lucky to have seen one.”
Blaise Zabini kicked back his chair. “Love potions and their antidotes are nothing special,” he hollered, “Weas– that ridiculous shop in Hogsmeade sells a whole variety of them.”
“You have addressed an important point.” Slughorn’s brows furrowed; nonetheless, his eyes twinkled with mischief, a clue that Zabini had taken a deliberate bait. Soon, indeed, the Potions Master leaned forward, his sight level with the audience’s for a quiet announcement, “but commercial Love Potions never incorporate Amortentia. No one can afford to sell such a potent potion without offering its antidote.”
He straightened and began to pace slowly across the room, the gold buttons on his waistcoat gleaming in the torchlight.
“Amortentia is the queen of love potions for good reasons. Its effects, as with any other love potions, are strictly imaginary, but it is unfailingly accurate in showing one truth, one that is, perhaps, the most difficult to attain from the brewer - where his heart lies when lust, worldly desires and social constraints fall away. This love is pure, enlightens rather than blinds … and this power of Amortentia to call upon self-knowledge, to relieve the burden of the soul, is surprisingly also the most critical ingredient of Veritaserum.” Slughorn weighed the vial lightly in his palm. “A proper antidote of the potion, therefore, only seeks to inhibit its effects without inducing fundamentals change in the potion’s property. This presents a challenge to teach,“ he sighed, before addressing the class again, “which is exacerbated by the lack of universal recipes for antidotes of a potion that is, by nature, individualised.”
Commotion followed these words. “So we’ll not be able to make Veritaserum after all this talk?” It was Zabini again. “Where’s the serum from if there’s no way to brew it?” He regarded the professor coldly. “I’d think some old fart just want to keep the knowledge to himself, that’s all.”
Slughorn was not offended in the least. He stepped over to a glass cauldron that had been bubbling since the lesson had begun, and stirred the raven black contents inside. “Veritaserum is part of the N.E.W.T. curriculum because hopefully by this time, the students can appreciate that potions is more than a chop-and-cook ceremony. Like all fields of magic, its outcome is highly dependent upon the wizard who follows the instructions; unlike all fields of magic, the act of potion making does not necessarily require magical abilities. Muggles are perfectly capable of brewing some of the most powerful draughts.”
Zabini snorted loudly.
“Potions is, therefore, a study for all men,” Slughorn placed the ladle back onto the dish on the bench-side; both were made of glass and chimed melodiously on contact, effectively stoppering further outpour of disdain, “and Veritaserum has traditionally been honed as the ultimate proof of this point, because when it comes to matters of the heart, the abilities of the wizard really makes no difference. The brewer of the antidote to Amortentia only has to interpret the scent given by the potion correctly and accept it without reservation…”
“That can’t be that difficult, can it?” interrupted Terry Boot, still pondering. “Say, for someone who’s happily married for decades, this knowledge should be automatic. It’s unlikely he would have any problems with it.”
“Ah,” Slughorn nodded in appraisal, “it’s natural to assume, isn’t it? But the human heart is deceiving, and in return, easily deceived by its own intricacies, by ulterior motives … by less than glorious rationales that our mind is all too happy to overlook. A married man may also benefit from the comfort of home, from having a spouse to share his life’s burdens –“
“There’s nothing wrong with that,” Boot argued.
“No, but Amortentia does not take morality or practicality into consideration. Certain magical objects behave similarly as well; for example, the legendary Mirror of Erised –“
Mirror. The one in the Chamber of Secrets, guarded by a lifeless basilisk, became visible in Draco’s mind; his quill slipped and somersaulted onto the floor.
Slughorn gave the lone, fallen feather a furtive glance as he continued, “– thus interpreting the scent is difficult, for it may derive from wishes that the brewer has little knowledge or memory of. By extension, it becomes nearly impossible for him to accept these wishes as his own. This antidote here – “ he gave the vial a small shake; the cube spun peacefully within its glass confines, “– is borne of a volatile, highly toxic concoction; it crystallizes only when such truths of the heart are known.”
A brief pause ensued. “No one has been able to solve this problem, not even the most senior of Potion Masters –” Slughorn’s voice became sombre, light as if it was addressing the antidote alone “– not that the failures aren’t a saving grace for them. For acceptance of the heart’s desires is unlike verbal acknowledgements, which are empty promises, after all; full acceptance requires of willingness to give up all he possesses in the name of those wishes.”
“You mean, like a monk or something?” Zabini jeered.
Slughorn looked up, once again armoured with his usual cheer, “Oh! Material wealth is easy enough to forfeit; it’s relative, of course, there’re certain luxuries I’m frankly quite unwilling to part with myself!” He patted his belly and took a bite of the crystallised pineapple placed on his desk. “But possession is defined in a much broader sense here; one’s family notwithstanding, it also includes his life and his integrity, which one may consider to be even more precious than life itself … ”
Ernie Macmillan fumbled with the notes in his fingers, the parchment crackling at his unease. “That sounds mightily dangerous.”
“Not as dangerous as it is tragic.” Slughorn made no secret of his fondness for MacMillan, who was always mesmerised by the professor’s showmanship in lectures. “It often means that there’s little to live for to begin with. Also, from a historical perspective, few had been able to see and submit to the true longing of their heart until the object of affection was permanently, irreversibly lost; their willingness to give up everything did not change a thing.”
He held up the vial once more and observed the floating cube of antidote imprisoned within. “The ability to brew Veritaserum is therefore both a curse and a triumph. That’s an awful price to pay for any skill; the few brewers who I’ve known, they all seem to have … forfeited a slice of their humanity.” He hesitated yet again. “Hopefully, this isn’t too much to give away.” His face tilted towards a shelf of organized but unlabeled ingredients, the very few that had remained untouched since the end of Severus Snape’s tenure; a shadow fell upon it. “Whether it was a side effect of the potions making or the tragedies that had struck them before, I haven’t dared to ask. They have all died so young as well …”
“Suicide?” Draco wondered aloud; a mysterious force must have struck him –
“Technically, no. But they tend to place little value in their own lives and throw it away in the most imaginative way possible.” Slughorn’s eyes curved into arches again, just prior to a seemingly light-hearted inquiry. “Much enthused in the lesson today, Mr Malfoy? I shouldn’t be surprised … shouldn’t be surprised at all.” Slughorn looked away and shoved the last slice of crystallised pineapple into his mouth. “The Headmaster may be able to impart more wisdom on this subject in your meetings with him! I’ve done enough talking for today.” His sugar-coated fingers dusted his waistcoat as they trailed across his belly. “It’s time for a quick demonstration.”
The students gathered around the cauldron, in which the antidotes of the Sleeping Draught and the Polyjuice Potion had been simmering. Slughorn brought the flames to white heat, and when the concoction began to heave violently, he cracked open the sealed vial and poured its content into the cauldron.
“Must be very careful – the antidote doesn’t survive in air …” he said, wiping his forehead with the cuff of his sleeve. The cube broke as it fell, fractured into residues that battled the violent boils before they all dissolved; the concoction calmed into a colourless fluid, clear as water, and one could see right through it, past the glass cauldron walls to discern every reflection on the buttons of Slughorn’s waistcoat. Draco almost could see himself –
“We’ve never used glass cauldrons,” he remarked.
The Potions Master, who was lowering the flames for aging, paused to address him. “That’s a practical consideration,” he explained, with a sincerity he had rarely offered Draco; proper choice of cauldrons was fundamental to the art of potion making, after all. “Veritaserum certainly looks … inconsequential, but the truth is, it clings irreversibly to all reflective substances – metals, glass, even water.”
“But you can clean this –?”
“Depends on how one defines clean!” Slughorn broke into a hearty laugh before returning to his task and steadied the cauldron on the flames. “The truth is, we throw the glass into the snake pit, so to speak – a tank of the worst and most severe corrosives. The dregs are gone afterwards – only because the former skin of the cauldron has been peeled away.” He wiped a finger against a spilled drop of potion on the curved handle; the dark fluid usurped the clarity of the underlying glass. “Sounds terrible, doesn’t it? But then, a fresh layer of its old self is exposed – one that has never seen light before.”
The first storm of the school year finally struck that late afternoon. Heavy rain pounded on the windows, Obliviating the eastern mountains to a void that seemed to span into the heavens.
Thunder roared in the distance, trailing the sharp lightning that threatened to split open the sky. It was comforting in a way, for there had never been a time when Draco Malfoy had met the Gryffindors without commotion, without so much as a clash. He stiffened, his knuckles white as they gripped the edge of Snape’s wooden desk. Longbottom and the youngest Weasley stood on the other side, his calm and dirty blond hair complimenting her glare and fiery mane. Across the office by the fireplace, Luna was surveying and straightening the silver instruments, humming a soft tune fragmented by the pelting of the rain.
“Introductions are apparently in order.” The Headmaster smirked at the staring match before him and leaned back in his chair, his fingertips drumming against each other. “Miss Weasley and Mr Longbottom, this is Mr Malfoy,” His lips thinned to a line. “He is in charge of your detention today.”
“I know who he is,” spat Ginny; Neville put a hand on her forearm.
Snape paid no attention. “And Mr Malfoy, this is Miss Weasley and Mr Longbottom. You already know that Mr Longbottom is serving detention for defacing school properties with poorly worded advertisements; I had a word with Professor Carrow that a dunderhead who recruits his peers for an army, who chooses a dead man for a mascot should not hinder the progress of his class. As for Miss Weasley –” mockery oozed from every syllable of the name “– she’s demonstrated similar poor taste in a vulgar proclamation of teenage lust …”
Lovegood, still intent upon a miniature steam engine, chimed in airily as she fumbled with a dial, “Oh, professor, but they’re not dating anymore.”
The corner of Snape’s lips curled ever so slightly. “I’m not here to discuss your romantic lives, Miss Lovegood, and may I ask why are you here uninvited?”
The Ravenclaw placed the engine carefully back on the table, watched it chug on merrily as she replied, “I want to see the Headmaster’s office. Nifty. I like it.” Her wide eyes wandered around the room, taking in every relief and embellishment of old before addressing the Headmaster, “They’re my friends; we’re hanging out.”
“I see.” Snape took a sip from his tumbler; the unmistakable fragrance of elderflowers danced lightly in the air. “Then I suppose you would not object to spending time with Mr Malfoy as well.”
A shrug was all that Luna indicated; she traversed the office with a few weightless steps before halting behind Draco, adjacent to the glass case in which the ruby-studded sword was displayed. “That’s the Sword of Gryffindor. Look, Ginny! This is what Harry saved you with.” Her excitement was infectious; she shuffled her feet and a big smile set her face alight.
Surprisingly, the Headmaster did not interfere; perhaps, he was too intent on downing his drink, which he refilled again and again. The strings between the numerous buttons on his robe stretched to their limits as he took in deep breaths between gulps, reining in the last reminders of humanity in a man who had seemed determined to seclude himself from the world.
Or were the laces and buttons there to guard the humanity that had remained inside him, now that he had been so treasured by the Dark Lord? The room was heavy with the wine’s fragrance, as if one could possibly wallow and drown to death with its softness.
The tumbler finally struck against the desk surface.
Snape stood; the train of his black robe no longer billowed, burdened by a weight leaden and invisible as death. When the Headmaster brutally drew the sword away from Weasley’s line of vision, the sallow face fell with frustration, not anger as Draco had expected.
“Enough,” he spat; it further stoked the flame in Weasley’s narrowed eyes. “Detention shall proceed. Draco, you should practice your spell work with Mr Longbottom. As for Miss Weasley and Miss Lovegood …“ he shot a look at Draco, the cold gleam in his eyes warmed to offer just a glimpse of their actual depths, of a buried sentiment that should have no place between the heir of a disgraced family and the man who had usurped its power – namely, trust. “I’ll let you decide on the penalty for such crude declarations of love.”
“Like you know what love is.“ Ginny smirked at both of them; the resemblance of her arrogant defiance to the Golden Boy’s was striking.
Snape turned towards her. “Insolence.” It came as a mere statement, devoid of emotions. The gaze from the black eyes searched the greying horizon, and in that moment Draco saw something he had never seen on the face of the former Potions Master.
Damage beyond repair.
Draco wondered if the Fates had found a Death Eater worthy to behold truths – truths that begot knowledge, knowledge that bred power; yet somewhere on this balance, there weighed an irreconcilable grief unbeknownst to him.
The Headmaster had stepped away to face the window. “I’ll remove the ward from the Astronomy Tower; proceed there for the detention after dinner. Given the pigheadedness of present company, this will, I expect, become a routine for many days to come.” He paused at a stroke of lightning. “And while you acquaint yourself to one another, perhaps Miss Weasley can explain how Potter became Undesirable Number One, how the Ministry believes Potter to have a hand in Professor Dumbledore’s demise.” The black eyes shot daggers towards Draco, colder and sharper than the fissure that had just split the clouds behind him. “I expect you all to learn your lessons. Dismissed.”
Draco could barely keep his composure as he fled the office; his skin was soaked with sweat, and his muscles taut like steel. He twisted his neck with an effort towards the Headmaster; the man’s face was hidden from his view, but its reflection was clear and crisp on the glass, white against the overcast heavens beyond the mountains where the storm had risen and the sun begun its descent from the sky.
As Snape had predicted, Draco began to spend almost every evening with Longbottom, Weasley and Lovegood on the Astronomy Tower. Each night, the two Gryffindors would come up with new methods of rebellion; every day, Lovegood would tag along, simply delighted to be in the company of friends – who, much to Draco’s apprehension, soon included himself as well. “Draco.” She would call his first name, which he had never given her permission to use, as she beamed and skipped towards him from the Great Hall, ready for another night of detention.
He would have befriended the Head Boy too, Draco thought, if he had blatantly ignored every single school rule only to be rewarded with petty punishments and a private headquarters to boot. The Astronomy Tower had been declared off limits due to its unobstructed view of Hogsmeade and beyond, a weak joint in the Dark Lord’s almost seamless wartime defence, a crack in a fortress through which light could infiltrate. Its view of the stars and planets was regarded with even greater distaste, for they offered treacherous foresights that had never failed to instigate the wrath of their Lord. How else could one explain the cancellation of the practical curriculum for Astronomy, a knowledge that pure-bloods had honed for millenniums, or the demise of Divination into an hourly routine of sipping Earl Grey and wild interpretations of tea dregs?
There was fear, and Draco could smell a waft of its stench, carried by the cold wind that spiralled down the roof of the Tower. Merely an hour had passed after dinner, but darkness had already consumed all that was in sight, from the villages to the moors beyond the mountains. It was unseasonably cold for mid-November, and the mist that had cloaked the landscape during the day had frozen into icicles on the crenel. Fragments of dirt lay buried beneath the hardened crust of water, as were carcasses of numerous small spiders. Draco wondered whether it could have been the stench of death that had lured the arachnids there, or the remnant of fear – his own – that had refused to dissipate even when his guilt had been lifted, on the day when Potter’s portrait had become as ubiquitous as Merlin’s over the wizarding world.
It had been exactly a month ago, when he had stood here and sent Ginny to the simple task that had been her first detention – to tear down every poster of Potter in the corridors around the castle. In her blinding rage, she had failed to notice the tremor in his drawl when he had called Potter a near-miss murderer; he had ignored it himself, presuming it to stem from a crazed schadenfreude, from hearing Potter in slandered to fill his own role as a sinner on that fateful night.
Hours later, after he had stolen his way into the Chamber of Secrets again, he had realised it had been but a sign of the metamorphosis of his monster within. Once upon a time, in the din of triumphant shouts from the Death Eaters, Fear had crawled quietly upon his skin, light as Dumbledore’s robe that had flapped and caught on the battlement before tearing away in his violent descent. It had assumed the shape of the predator of criminals – an amalgam of shame and dread of being discovered, and had haunted him until Potter, in his glorious absence, had still managed to transform it into an even more terrifying beast, one that had borne itself so deeply into Draco that he could no longer see it, no longer isolate or distinguish it from himself.
And Draco had seen the evidence of its sharpened fangs and claws in the enchanted mirror; not of its true form but rather of what it had failed to become – a man, a soul unburdened by sins. That night in the Chamber of Secrets, his twin lounged easily in the reflection, looking ever more blissful along the opposite edge of the mirror than Draco had first seen him. The bed of feathers was still present, but then, the feathers had become more orderly, the light more radiant; the blond hair no longer blended into the white vanes; rather, it flowed over them, tracing over dips and curves …
Draco had almost forgotten Myrtle’s advice when he reached forward, there’s something beneath the feathers, his instinct chanted, someone. The softly cascading sheen from the hair of the reflection rocked gently at a rhythm calm as its owner’s heartbeat, but it didn’t beat in time with Draco’s heart; instead, it appeared to respond to another set of contractions, one equally mellow and at peace with the world – as if his twin in the mirror was lying in the arms of a companion, his hair rising and falling to the chest it had fanned upon.
When he caught himself, his hand had already feathered the mirror. Draco expected a cool, impenetrable surface to meet his skin, but it was softness that welcomed him.
He and his twin exchanged a look of amazement; simultaneously, their hands extended just a breath’s distance further towards one another. The tips of their fingers vanished, the middle joints of their digits merged and fused into one.
The reaction was spontaneous and immediate – both men retracted as if they had just touched the vilest of Dark artefacts. To Draco, it brought a burning awareness – an enveloping passion that fired every nerve cell within him, its strength steering his mind and body into overdrive. Meanwhile, in the mirror, the contact unleashed violent tremors beneath the bare flesh of his twin reflection, whittling away the tranquility of the living portrait with what seemed to be an assault of bone-searing chill. The wide-eyed look remained true to Draco’s expression, mired by equal measures of incredulity and trepidation.
Could the mirror be a gateway to a haven? One cleansed from the cold truths of reality, neither knowing the disquiet of war, nor the solitude of those who must live with it?
Draco was no stranger to voices whispering to him in his most vulnerable moments. They spoke of what might have been, of what the future might hold; he used to let rage overtake them, and tantrums mangle his regrets and his dreams. At this moment, however, when the voices' words were illustrated, clear as day, on this magical mirror hidden in the depths of the Chamber of Secrets, Draco was too drained by the trials of the day but to allow resignation to trickle in, to pacify him with something akin to acceptance – he acknowledged that an imprint of himself existed in another dimension, living a life he could neither understand nor want.
Thus he curled himself up into a foetal position beside the golden frame of the mirror, and watched as his reflection followed suit; when the still shivering figure across from him had settled, the peacock feathers that Draco had once thought to amass to a bed lifted and wrapped loosely around its owner, revealing themselves as a vast blanket held together by rays of light. It was then that Draco’s intuition was confirmed; for there, still veiled by the feathers and holding his mirror image from shoulders down towards the waist, was the relief of a pair of lean, muscular arms. Behind the blond head were the almost discernable features of a man, seemingly taking in the scent of the blond hair with the gentle projection of a nose, above lips that pressed, perhaps, in for a kiss.
Regardless of their movements, the blanket of feathers formed an absolute visual barrier between this man and Draco in the mirror; despite the men’s intimacy, it resolutely divided them. Did his twin know in whose embrace he was lying? Draco could not make him turn to face the man; he would have to look away from the mirror himself –
A night of insomnia and scrutiny had ensued; thoughts had woven and unravelled themselves around the images, yet had yielded more speculations than conclusions; Draco had come to suspect that the light might have radiated from the man himself, and the enhanced brilliance he had observed had been due to the man taking form behind the veil of feathers, becoming more distinct from, yet intimate with, his twin in the reflection.
But amidst the confusion and obscurities, certain musings had agglomerated into truths, their emergence inevitable as Draco’s from the Chamber as the sun had risen: he could not allow Potter taking on his own role in the tragedy on the Astronomy Tower; it would have been an infringement of their fates, no doubt destined to be polar in the schemes of this world. And at the feeble workings of his heart, already weary of the new day and the anguish it might bring, Draco had wilfully ignored the last of the mirror’s imparted wisdom.
If Potter shall ever fall from grace by becoming a murderer, then his victim shall be no one but me.
It had been wise to banish those words from contemplation over the past month. The present recaptured Draco’s attention as faint, high-pitched buzzes, which he had learned to associate with Weasley’s fulminations; they traversed the invisible barricade of Muffliato, cast religiously by his convicts every night.
Splinters, sharp as her accusatory shouts, formed an inapproachable armour sheltering her cracking exterior, the last defence to her grief.
Potter would kill. Soon. The moment she would finally shatter would be when he had truly earned the title “Undesirable Number One”, when finally this absurd arrangement of detention would come to its end; the Trio Minor would cease to settle by the landing of the staircase that spiralled to the pinnacle of the Astronomy Tower; he would no longer exile himself onto the ramparts, the howling winds closing in on him like the inescapable realities of war and the memories of his role in its making.
Not once had Draco practiced the Cruciatus on Longbottom, who had repaid him by placating Weasley’s animosity and claiming before Snape and Carrow that Draco’s Unforgivables had incurred formidable damages. The Gryffindor was a second-rate liar at best, yet somehow, he never roused the suspicion of the usually cautious and sceptical Headmaster. Consequently, the spiteful DADA instructor could do little but fume in the background.
These confession sessions held deep in the dungeons were, in effect, revivals of the meetings of the Inquisitorial Squad, except the accused were also brought in, expected to chastise their own crimes, recite epiphanies from recent detentions and express gratitude towards the enforcers. While these meetings had also been the highlights of Draco’s days two years ago, the reasons now were entirely different; his current enjoyment was shared by Longbottom, judging from the quiet pleasure on the round face after dismissal. It had become an unspoken understanding between them, obscure as the task that Draco had finally assigned to them – he would never let them abscond entirely, and as Weasley had duly noted, never allow the chance to enslave them slip through his fingers for once and for all.
The single chime of a bell signalled the official start of curfew, even though the school had long been deserted by this time. For those who surrendered to the Dark, it was time to gratify the Lord and execute his plans; for the few whose resolution to revolt were not deterred by the price there was to pay, it signalled the time to venture into the corridors for their fruitless rebellion, a self-proclaimed candle in the dark in all its naive, juvenile glory. Thus the Muffliato Charm lifted to the usual crescendo of feet shuffling and the clasps of book-bags being fastened, but the quick whispers were replaced by Weasley’s cutting speech.
“He can go camping in hell with whomever –“
The wooden door leading up to the rampart opened slowly, the joints wailing a forlorn soliloquy amidst the howling of the winds. Draco could even hear Longbottom’s hushed response of something that sounded like what Potterwatch said as a dim, speckled sapphire light fanned out into the night.
Lovegood was standing at the apex of it, her hands cupping a small blue flame. It was undoubtedly one of the several that had been providing them with light and warmth since their first evening of detention on the Astronomy Tower, each cradled in a glass jar levitated just above the landing. The spell had been Granger’s gift for them, Longbottom had said. Luna huddled it with the care of a mother for her child as she approached Draco.
“We finished lining these along the fourth floor corridors yesterday,” she reported sweetly, cooing towards the magical fire, “We’ll be starting on the third floor now. The Disillusion charm’s a brilliant idea, Draco! No one’s spotted them and we can find our way around the castle at night.” She leaned in and he felt a soft kiss on his cheek, an innocent one ordinarily reserved for well-thought gifts rather than detention orders. His astonished look apparently did little to faze her; instead, she held out the flame, sapphire petals of joy blossoming on the small face. “It’s getting cold out here. This one’s for you.” She beamed at him as Draco reluctantly took the glass jar from her hands, feeling the heat tingling under his fingers before it spread to warm every cell in his body. The sensation was heartier than any Warming Charm could ever be.
Lovegood’s shadow retreated back towards the inside of the Tower, the flow of her robe in the violent night air still light as wings of butterflies in early spring. For one moment, his eyes met with Longbottom’s; then, as the blue light tapered to a slit by the closing door, Weasley turned abruptly and looked his way.
The distance between them should have forbidden any close scrutiny; the radiance illuminating her face should have blinded his eyes that were accustomed to the dark, but Draco saw it all the same – a shimmering streak free-falling as it reflected the flames’ brilliance.
Ginevra Weasley, the girl who never cried, was shedding a tear for Harry Potter.