Title: A Change of Heart (Part 1 of 5)
Rating: Light R
Summary: Draco Malfoy’s 7th year at Hogwarts was a time of horror and misery. Nonetheless, embers glowed in the Darkness - as unlikely friendships, as a reluctant mentor opening up his soul; as a world of Light and bliss, revealed by a mysterious mirror in the Chamber of Secrets …
Warnings (if any): Pre-slash, Draco-centric, mild angst
Total word count: ~34,850
Original prompt request number: 49
Disclaimer: This story/artwork is based on characters and situations created and owned by JK Rowling, various publishers including but not limited to Bloomsbury Books, Scholastic Books and Raincoast Books, and Warner Bros. Inc. No money is being made and no copyright or trademark infringement is intended.
Author's notes: _pinkchocolate, my very sincere apologies for the ridiculously late delivery of your fic. I hope you enjoy it - it’s heavily based on canon, including The Tales of Beedle the Bard, and I confess that your beautiful prompt has morphed into something larger in my mind. I hope you don’t mind the longer length and the extra elements in the story.
Beta(s): Thank you so much, vaysh, for the meticulous beta work and encouragement. I also would like to especially thank romaine24 for help with plotting and checking for plot consistency, back when this was still a very messy draft. Many thanks to the CnC and FF ladies also for their opinions and guidance!
A Bluebell flame glowed in the empty water jug, casting a rich sapphire to Luna Lovegood’s hair. On her lap laid a crystal casket, the size and shape of a human heart; its flawless facets held a haphazardly prepared dinner.
“This is delicious,” she said, nibbling on a rose petal. Color had returned to her cheeks, a tinge of life painted by the Manor’s scarlet bloom.
Draco knelt before her. “Eat, don’t talk,” he urged with a whisper. Across the cellar, old Ollivander shifted in his sleep; a deathly stillness permeated the air.
Lovegood ignored him broke the silence once more. “I wonder what The Quibbler’s reporting this week.” Her impossibly wide eyes searched his for an answer. “I miss hearing stories.”
Draco shook his head and looked away. “The usual, I suppose,” he mumbled. It was a lie; The Quibbler had been silenced soon after her capture.
“What about you, Draco? Have you news to share?” she asked; the care in her words was sincere.
No. Nothing since his homecoming for the Easter holidays could Draco wish to revisit.
Lovegood offered the casket to him, as if in consolation; he pushed her hand away. “Oh … well, I’ll tell a story.” She shrugged and picked up another petal. “Something happy will be nice,” she said with a smile.
“Lovegood, please.” Draco raised his voice, only to give in to her curious gaze with a sigh. ”And you haven’t touched the sandwich.”
“I will, after the story.”
“I don’t want you to go. I like friends.”
“Your list of companions excludes me, I hope.” His hostile drawl suffered from lack of use, but its sentiment had been truthful. Almost. The Manor, its splendor once synonymous with the Malfoy prestige, shook constantly to the cries of the tortured, and the clashing of Dark Magic against the ancient charms that had held the structure for centuries. The walls reeked of decay and the stench of blood. He had smuggled the petals in the casket to mask their scent; despised by the Dark Lord, his mother’s beloved roses had long been banished from the living quarters.
Draco must have been staring at the casket – for Lovegood was examining it as well, her one hand lifting it against the soft blue flame while the other held the sandwich.
“It’s just like the one from Beedle the Bard,” she remarked. “Do you remember that story?”
True to his English wizard heritage, The Tales of Beedle the Bard had used to accompany Draco to sleep every night; however, his copy had not seen light for years. He looked at Lovegood in question.
Dreaminess had set upon her gaunt features. “It’s such a sweet story too, you know, the warlock saving his heart in one of these?” She patted the casket lightly. “It’s wonderful for tonight.” She finally took a small bite of the sandwich – a small reward for her discovery.
“That story is ghastly,” replied Draco with a frown. It had been his least favorite, cruel and devoid of stupid Mudbloods. His father had used to play act the Muggle kings and charlatans to perfection and send little Draco into fits of laughter.
Lovegood’s eyes widened. The sandwich hovered awkwardly before her nose as she countered, “But it’s a love story – people used to not believe it, of course, but my dad explained it in The Quibbler several years ago.” Her head tilted for a brief thought. “About the time he sighted the Blibbering Humdingers. I thought everyone knows by now.”
Her matter-of-fact conviction had a calming effect; it was an antithesis to the hysterical pledges sought by the Dark Lord. The leaden weight in Draco’s stomach lifted ever so slightly. “You can tell me what he said then, I suppose?” he asked.
“It’s a conspiracy,” Lovegood began, overjoyed, her voice dipping to a hush. “Beedle died soon after he’d sent off the manuscript, and someone paid the editor to rewrite the plot.”
“It wouldn’t sell. Many readers wouldn’t like the warlock and the others who lived like him; they might find them implausible, too.”
Draco had made himself comfortable by settling against the wall. “But I’d always imagined the warlock to be rich and famous. Didn’t he live in a castle with lots of servants?” As fragments of the tale returned to him, so did the portraits of the characters that he, as a child, had painted in his mind. There had never been a question in little Draco’s mind that the warlock should be well respected. Powerful, even. Perhaps, that explained why he had disliked the tale –
Lovegood nodded. “He did. All he didn’t have was a wife.”
“He was a terrible person, was he not? He was …” Draco swore his memory was failing; it had no recollection of sins committed by the warlock other than the ultimate crime propelled by his deformed heart. “He was arrogant.”
“He had close ties with family and friends. Even his servants worried about him,” Lovegood suggested lightly, her arms wrapped against her legs. “I believe he was a decent person. As for being proud and little odd, people find me odd too, you know.”
It took some effort for Draco to remain expressionless. “Then what had he done wrong?”
Lovegood did not answer right away. She merely offered the casket again, and this time, Draco took a petal. He sucked lightly at the tip, taking in its fresh scent.
Watching Draco with a smile, Lovegood then announced serenely, “The warlock just happened to fall in love with a man.”
The petal slipped from Draco’s fingers; it drifted, rocking steadily like a vessel in calm waters, down onto the dusted floor. “That’s a little far-fetched, isn’t it?” The rose must have parched his throat; his voice came out as a croak.
“Come on,” Lovegood crooked her head in disbelief, “you can even tell from the name of the fairy tale!”
Draco closed his eyes. “It was … The Warlock’s –” he began. His mind blanched, as it had when his chest had split open, or when his eyes had been dazzled by the radiance of the Mirror –
“What happened to him, Draco?” Lovegood clued him in, her words muffled by a mouthful of bread and roast beef.
Draco exhaled; he did remember this – it was the theme of the story, after all. “His heart turned hairy –”
“That’s right!” Lovegood exclaimed. Draco hushed her. Nonetheless, her eyes sparkled and her lips mouthed his answer repeatedly.
The title finally revealed itself. The Warlock’s Hairy Heart. “You think the warlock fell in love with someone called … Harry?”
“Yes,” she affirmed plainly.
Draco could no longer restrain himself. “You’re mental,” he said.
He regretted it instantly. A sliver of hurt tore through her face. “I’m as sane as you are.”
That’s not saying much, Draco thought, but he nodded anyway. “So we’ll assume it was true – that somehow the warlock’s heart turned to a man named … Harry.” The name was difficult for Draco to enunciate, which was not surprising at all. “What about the rest of the story? Unless an entirely different tale was created, which I doubt anyone could have gotten away with.” He could feel a sudden rush of adrenaline; his speech hastened, and so did his heartbeat. “How did it all begin in the first place? The Dark magic, the warlock’s saving the heart in a casket … if forfeiting love isn’t the explanation, then what is? And he and his lover seemed to hate one another – the courtship felt like a challenge on both sides, and it ended with murder …“
“Isn’t that romantic?” Lovegood interrupted, looking rather smitten. “And it’s no murder; they revealed their hearts to one another, that’s all.” She sighed blissfully. “A happy ending.”
“Lovegood, she…or he… died!”
“Nothing’s ever really lost, Draco. Nobody either.” Lovegood was still serene. “They always come back in the end.”
“So did your dad have a way to reason these plot points? Your theory has no grounds without it.” Draco could barely keep his voice down. His breath was catching, his heart pounding heavily in his chest; with excitement came a strong sense of anticipation, a desperate need to reach for something that had inched so close to him. He waited eagerly for Lovegood to launch into another round of story-telling.
What he received instead, was an unaffected shrug of shoulders, followed by a simple “No”.
“You mean, that was it?”
“It was good thinking,” she countered coldly, only to melt into her affable self again. “May I show the casket to my dad one day? He’d love to see it –“
Draco stood with a start. “You don’t honestly believe this casket is the one the Warlock possessed, do you?” he spat; but to whom were his words addressed? “The story is only a children’s fable!”
“The Hallows are real,” Lovegood proclaimed. “All the tales are too; they’re bound to happen, if they haven’t already.”
Draco could not think; all his focus had been drained to keep his temper under control. “And how can there be something written about what has yet to occur?”
“Prophecies,” Lovegood answered simply, her large eyes warm and unafraid. “And they’re always cryptic, aren’t they? But don’t worry,” she smiled at Draco, “because someone always figures them out later.”
“You think that someone is your dad? Or you?”
She shook her head. “It takes someone special. Maybe,” her hand gave the casket a small wave, “someone who owns the same relic.”
Silence settled when Lovegood plunged into the depths of her thoughts. The last corner of the sandwich disappeared, morsel by morsel, between her lips.
“Do you have any ideas, Draco?” She inquired in a whisper moments later.
The casket filled up with water as Draco spelled a quiet Aguamenti; the few rose petals left behind sailed on the reflection from the Bluebell flame. Their tranquility infected him.
“Ideas about what?” he responded, still gazing into the fire.
“Why did the warlock have a change of heart?”
The moist heat of late summer pressed upon Draco the moment he had found his footing on the platform, his balance nearly toppled by the shifting soil sodden with rainwater. He dragged his school trunk down the steps, cursing under his breath at its weight.
Storm clouds hung low in the sky, uncertain whether to assault or depart in this windless evening. Even the Hogwarts Express succumbed to their gloom; its bright scarlet dulled to the shade of blood, its once lively swirls of steam spiraled into memories.
Against the darkening horizon, the engine choked out a soft bellow. It sounded like the aging mother of a wounded beast, calling into the night for her lost son who did not dare to respond.
The packs of predators only accentuated the solitude of the missing prey.
“Mr Malfoy, Headmaster Snape would like to see you after the Opening Feast.” Striding into Draco’s path was a Death Eater, one of the many who had stood guard to ensure the safety of incoming students.
“And you should have let that savage take care of your belongings,” she continued, nodding in Hagrid’s direction. The tip of her wand lingered on the black leather of his trunk; Draco was certain a Disillusioned, Silenced hound was sniffing rapaciously. He tightened his grip, imprinting upon his sweated palms the relief of the entwined serpents on the handle; the guardians of the Malfoy coat of arms stretched and curled against the whitened knuckles of their young master.
“I can manage,” he said.
The words sealed the Head Boy’s allegiance to the Dark Lord. Whispers of revulsion and sneers of triumph swept through the platform, whirlwinds of words that stole every bit of air from Draco’s lungs. They died as quickly as they had begun, however, oppressed by the burden of the descending night. Only with all his strength did Draco persist to stand beneath its weight.
He was but a hollow shell, whose core had gone missing in the grief and pain of the past months.
Pushing the Death Eater aside, Draco forged on, his trunk in tow, his chin held high. He passed a neat file of first years, whose names were being checked off on a registry, listing those of proper age and bloodline to enroll.
He heard the carriages outside Hogsmeade Station, but was determined to not look their way.
Under the shadows of trees reaching far into the skies, the narrow path he had tracked seven years ago had become more sinister. His trunk rocked and slipped on the uneven pebbles, and in his effort to steady it, Draco heard his name called. Distracted, he turned to look.
It was Pansy, beckoning him to join her for the carriage ride to the castle. Even from the distance, the glint of her eyes was unmistakable, showing only the slightest trace of bewilderment at his detour.
Draco never answered. For his gaze was locked to the quicksilver eyes focused upon him from behind her, terrible pools of light piercing mercilessly through the pupil-less center. Void as they appeared to be, they were laden with judgment, wordless accusations that scorched like flames.
He stilled. His mind chanted its plea – chains of thoughts that had haunted and threatened to strangle him through the summer. Please … I wasn’t a murderer. I saw death, but I did not kill. I … couldn’t.
The thestral responded by turning to gaze into the sky. Skeletal relief glided beneath a sea of silken black, and leathery wings spread in their desire to fly only to fold back again, the nostrils emitting a heavy puff of vapor.
It was a sigh, Draco thought, as the creature trotted away, the stagecoach in its tow. He let out a sigh of his own and continued his hike to the edge of the lake.
Not a ripple could be seen in the water, except around a lone boat anchored in the alcove. Silver ringlets radiated from the ferrule of a pink umbrella, shadowed by the vessel sunken to near submersion from the weight of its occupant.
Unkempt and barbaric as it was, the familiar face was a calming sight.
“Prepare a boat. I’m crossing the lake,” Draco commanded, with as much confidence as he could muster.
Startled by the voice, Hagrid clumsily stuffed a handkerchief into his pocket. “I’m still yer professor,” he grumbled, the nose carrying a tinge of red as the half giant stood and leapt onto the soil. Waves rolled from the violently rocking boat towards the center of the lake. “An’ yer supposed ter ride the carriages.”
Before Draco could formulate an excuse, the weight of his trunk lifted; Hagrid had scooped it away and was carrying it down the shoreline, towards the fleet of small boats prepared for the first years. Soon the strides shortened, however, and Hagrid spoke into the night without turning, “Yeh’ve met them before, those thestrals. They know yeh …” His words came to a halt, his eyes finally met Draco’s. “They’re dead clever, good at finding their way …“ His words trailed off as the trunk was placed in a boat, and he gestured Draco to board.
“Forward!” A gentle push parted the water at the stern of the boat, and the journey into the heart of Hogwarts commenced. As the shoreline receded into darkness, questions drifted from the rapidly vanishing shadow on the shore. “Were there fights on the school train? Anyone – I dunno – annoying yeh?”
Draco remained silent. The train ride had been the most uneventful he had had for years, he had no nose to break, no insults to trade. In fact, he had not heard anything beyond muffled words and fake snores as he had patrolled the corridors; most students, especially those in the younger years, shifted and petrified into postures of resolute avoidance when he had looked through the compartment doors.
He wondered if this was how one should envision peace.
Peace, Draco had once thought, felt like the water he was gliding upon. He remembered the first time he had traveled this way; it had also been a breezeless evening, but the skies had been lit with stars, casting tiny bright sparkles upon the glass windows of the castle and the surface of the lake; in their light he had caught the reflection of himself, childlike and flush with excitement.
On this starless night, the same mirror no longer showed his face; instead, a dark, featureless shadow raced along the hull of the boat, unidentifiable as it was restless. Trembling with a sudden, overwhelming chill, Draco pulled his trunk towards himself, and with it, his most valued possessions – letters from his parents and friends, childhood keepsakes and trophies. He had refused to shrink it or let others come into its possession, for it was all he could trust to belong to him.
The serpents on the handle flicked their forked tongues and licked his fingers for comfort; the ivy that veiled the entrance of the castle was drawing near.
Like pests, they were.
They putrefied the columns, burrowed to form crevices, gnawed and whittled the foundation away. They bred like wildfire, unstoppable neither by force nor persuasion; for their thoughts were deceptive in their simplicity, their nature savage as beasts’. There was no escape from them.
They were Muggles, snarled Alecto Carrow, Professor of Muggle Studies, spit foaming at the corners of her mouth. They were those with tainted blood, accused the Daily Prophet, its sharp quills cutting into parchments as Avada Kedavra would soon cut into the indicted.
They, too, were rumours about Potter, Draco thought. Words about the Vanished One infested every corner of Hogwarts, blossoming in the darkness enshrouding the school; fervent hero worship, instigated by the rumours’ message, simmered under the intense heat of September. Billowing as they were suffocating, Draco also likened them to the garments of the new headmaster, who had called him into his office to address this issue.
Draco was once again aghast by the sight of the man and his office. The buttons on the robes had more than doubled since that fateful day in June; thin, black laces now intertwined between them, drawn so tightly that all indications of the chest rising and falling below were impossible to see. Meanwhile, the circular room had been halved by an invisible line. On one side was a crammed assortment of spindle-legged tables and ornate cabinets, piled with delicate silver instruments laying topsy-turvy against one another, their pistons and swivels creaking angrily in their disabling entanglement; the other side was almost barren save for the mahogany desk relocated from the dungeons. The portraits of the former headmasters had all been turned to face the wall.
One object was distinctly out of place – a glass case propped against the large desk, which displayed a silver sword heavy with a ruby-studded hilt; its gleaming surface stole the only ray of sun that had managed to slither in between the heavy curtains.
“Ignore the gossip,” Severus Snape said without preamble. “Let them run their course.”
“Why?” Draco asked, equally brusque.
“I suppose,” Snape placed his quill into the ink pot as his eyes shot up, “one of the reasons would be to bring the Head Boy some peace.”
“Things are going well.”
The former Potions Master frowned ever so slightly; Draco spelled Occlumens under his breath just in time. “Indeed,” Snape countered, his tone snide. “It doesn’t take Legilimency to see that. Tell me, Mr Malfoy, how many points have you deducted in the past week for conversations regarding The Boy Who’s Run Away?”
Draco tilted his face to a portrait that wasn’t.
“You should be well aware by now, given your past records of engaging the media,” a sneer took shape on the sallow face, “that adolescents are prone to mindless talks and their attention span rivals that of a gnat; your behavior accomplishes nothing but prolongs their interest in the matter.”
“Have you heard what they’re saying? About Potter?” The criticism was certainly uncalled for, thus Draco launched his defensive. “Last week it was his grand break-in into the Ministry, how he single-handedly abducted a good handful of Mudbloods and escaped unscathed, and now, right outside these walls,” Draco pointed to the stairway, his voice raised beyond his customary drawl, “everyone’s talking about how he’s rallied every Muggle for his cause and will come with crates of explosives and metal drills –“
“What do you think of all this?”
The question was unanticipated. Draco stumbled for words.
“Do you believe Potter can pull this off?”
“I … of course not.” The split second of hesitation nonetheless betrayed Draco’s thoughts; Snape feigned amusement.
“Your faith in the Chosen One’s skills and charm is beyond touching, considering,“ his expression darkened, and a wave of his wand split Draco’s left sleeve into two, exposing the Dark Mark, “to whom your allegiance lies.”
“Our Lord wouldn’t want to hear those stories!” Draco shouted, pulling the frayed edges of the torn fabric back together. His face was burning, like the liquor that Draco surmised could only be Firewhisky cascading into the Headmaster’s empty tumbler.
This man had no heart for the meek.
“The Dark Lord would prefer you hone your skills in Defence Against the Dark Arts at your leisure.” A corner of Snape’s pale, thin lips lifted at the mention of the subject. “Amycus Carrow has been most displeased at your abysmal understanding of the Cruciatus curse.”
“I understand it well enough,” Draco muttered through clenched teeth.
“And since when is well enough good enough for a Malfoy?” The Headmaster somehow managed to enunciate every word despite his low voice; he then leaned back in his seat and snickered in mock comprehension. “Of course, since your father received the honour to play host for our Lord, he is also striving for well enough… I see … “
Draco stood with a stomp of his feet; his chair threatened to crash, would have done so if not for his hand just managing to hold on to it. “You do not speak ill of my father.”
“Do you wish to be like him?”
The words, soft as they were, thundered in Draco’s ears. They robbed him of strength. The chair collapsed.
Snape spelled it upright and stood, his gaze meeting Draco’s; his ghostly complexion regained a hint of life in the light reflected from the sword.
“Then listen to me. This will be the first and last time I give you this advice. Keep silent and do whatever is asked and expected of you, nothing less, nothing more. Trust no peers, but make no enemies; observe but let things be, as the way the Fates would have guided them.”
“You’re asking me to become invisible,” Draco murmured, defeated.
Snape picked up the glass and downed the contents. It was only when Draco headed towards the spiraling staircase that he heard an answer.
“I’m asking you to reflect.”
Draco paused. The oak double doors stood before him, their once polished wood lackluster after suffering brutal magic to rip out its prior embellishments – griffins whose scars remained beneath the metallic Dark Marks that had taken their place, appending to each skull a pair of shadowy wings. On the cold silver of these door knockers, his face was distorted beyond recognition. He pushed his palm against it and stormed out of the Headmaster’s office.
It was hours later when Draco recognised the scent lingering on his robes – the gentle, clean sweetness of elderflower wine.
Sunshine filtered through the windows of the Defence against the Dark Arts classroom, its radiance at once apt and ironic. There had not been a day of rain since the term had begun. The rays fell just short of the wooden stakes that Amycus Carrow had erected, but the flashes of Unforgivables cast by the students had more than made up for the diminished light.
Moving paintings covered the walls from floor to ceiling, some trimmed along the edges so to not leave even a breath of space between them. A thousand fold more gruesome than the portraits Snape had shown them a year ago, these depicted torture, violence inflicted by one man to another, wizard to Muggle. The victims’ muted screams were deafening in their silence, their misery conspicuous as the dried tears that would not fall.
Crying was, after all, not as much for the weak as it was for the fortunate, who still entrusted himself to be worthy of an audience. It had been a difficult lesson for Draco to learn, but he had learned it; he had not cried since –
Since. His mind managed a narrow escape, taking refuge into memories that were at once closer and yet more distant – like, perhaps, the lopsided leer, the one Carrow had not been able not suppress during the first class.
“These pictures? The best of what the Dark Arts can do. You’ll figure it out in this class, of course, that’s my promise … and how to – ah – defend against it.” Scorn had consumed the wide face of the Death Eater, his words interlaced with high-pitched, wheezing giggles. “A couple of exercises should do the job. Nothing beats hands-on training, you think?” Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, his small eyes had swept across the class, “someone will volunteer to help.”
On this day, therefore, the only Gryffindor in the class was once again conferred the privilege to help them all; stripped naked waist up, the young man was bound on the stake at the very centre of the room.
Longbottom’s muscles twitched in agony; his lips remained tightly sealed, however, and the only sounds were the occasional drips of sweat on the marble floor. Gregory Goyle waved his wand clumsily in attempt to follow Carrow’s demonstration, but merely singed a hole into the skin already scorched with rope burns; as the orange beam flickered unsteadily across the unlit half of the room, there still was no admission of pain from Longbottom.
“What did I teach you?” Carrow shrieked. “Intention!” His brittle mask of displeasure soon gave way to ecstasy as he fired another spell towards the volunteer. “A careless curse is a useless curse! Crucio, when it’s perfect, sounds like nothing, smells like nothing, looks like nothing! Why waste energy to make a show, when what you need is for one person to feel it all?”
Vincent Crabbe cackled; the rest of the class, however, appeared petrified. The Hufflepuffs had congregated by the window, shaken by the injustice they neither had the courage to fight nor the wits to argue against; meanwhile, the Ravenclaws leaned against the wall, stoically observing the horrendous exercise of human nature unfolding before their eyes.
Carrow regained his familiar leer when he scanned the room and located Draco, whose blond hair remained a conspicuous halo despite his robes blending into the shadows of the corner. “But then,” he continued, “that’s what some people – families even – are only capable of: all show, no substance.” He fished a thin, parchment-rolled cylinder out of his pocket, placed it between his lips and lit the end with a spark from his wand. Head tilted backwards, he inhaled deeply, peering through the smoke that rose towards the ceiling. “Think they’re all that, when they aren’t even qualified to lick … ” He caught himself; a corner of his mouth twitched and his vision re-directed sharply at Draco.
“Malfoy, show them what you’re made of.”
Violent coughs disrupted his words, but did little to halt the drill that had become a daily sighting in this class: Longbottom tied on a wooden pole as Draco approached to face him, summoned to play executor. The hawthorn wand would form a lone bridge between them, trembling at the ready.
Do whatever is asked and expected of you. Snape’s words trailed the tapping of Draco’s boots against on the wooden floor.
Longbottom was watching him, his eyes clear and calm. They had closed before their first encounter in DADA, perhaps even during the second, but afterwards they always remained observant. The hint of trepidation in them had long since dissipated. Draco reached out, attempted to steady his wand by focusing the tip to Longbottom’s nose; Longbottom, who had struggled and squirmed against the rope for the past hour, stood perfectly still.
“What’re you waiting for? Get on your sissy arse and fire the spell!” squealed Carrow, and the hawthorn wand shook violently in the tight grip of Draco’s hand. “Don’t tell me you’ve learned nothing all summer. Although,” Carrow sneered wickedly, “that shouldn’t surprise me at all. He told all of us you’re useless …” He closed in, and something pushed against Draco’s thigh. “You know when?” A shift of weight made apparent that it was a hard cock, and Carrow breathed into Draco’s ear. “When you were threshing about in the cellar, starkers, screaming for mum and peeing on yourself.”
Longbottom tried to keep his face expressionless but failed; his brows furrowed at the overheard conversation, and Draco knew there was no time to spare. He let in what had already been threatening to invade his mind – the shade of the Dark Lord hovering over him in the dungeon, hissing in his cold, merciless voice: Draco, give Rowle another taste of our displeasure … Do it, or feel my wrath yourself.
The threat rang in his ears as it was repeated, louder and louder; it radiated from Draco like dark smoke, blacking out anything and everything – from the lustful gleam in Carrow’s eyes to every torture he had witnessed and endured in the Manor, to the mercy he had rejected on the thunderstruck Tower, and finally, to the one moment when this curse had become his curse, when the splash of water on the bathroom floor had threatened to drown out the fateful spell: Sectum–
“Crucio!” Draco spelled.
It was colourless, odourless, noiseless; like the Cruciatus, like a void.
Then it shattered, whatever it was, into a scream, stifled only by the arch of blood that spilt a split second later from Draco’s mouth.
Longbottom’s eyes, squeezed shut at the last moment, flew open; his breathing quickened, his shoulders that had remained free above the bindings slumped while his hands below twisted and flexed, fingers extending as long as they could in an effort to reach down – for Draco had collapsed against his shin, upon the fabric of his trousers that had turned wet and sticky. A small puddle of scarlet pooled on the floor, overlaying a maroon stain that grew darker and bigger day after day; the hawthorn wand had rolled off to the side.
Carrow growled and yanked on the collar of Draco’s robe. Awareness dawned through the smoke and the blood and Draco willed his hands to move immediately, to seek the demon who refused to leave him, who tore its way under his skin along his face and down his chest. Desperation raided every cell within him; the urge to exorcise the culprit of this invisible assault was so compelling that his fingernails dug into his flesh and clawed deeply into it –
“Please … Professor Carrow.” In his nebulous state, Draco thought he could hear a plea. Longbottom’s. He spoke slowly, his tone appeasing. “Please stop this. Just … just punish me any other way you want.”
A rough kick from Carrow shoved Draco further back into reality; the ghost vanished, if only to emphasise the authenticity of the pain. A bell rang from afar to signal the end of class and Longbottom promptly fell onto the floor, his muscles having weakened from being restrained for so long; nonetheless, his arm extended instinctively, supporting Draco as he would a friend in need.
Carrow smirked at the display. “Malfoy still doesn’t know a damn thing. We’ll try again next time.” Another wave of his wand buried the stakes within the wooden floor; as he turned to leave the classroom, he crooked his neck and smiled a sinister grin.
“And I wouldn’t get so comfortable with him, Longbottom. This pretty boy here? A poofter.” It was not a warning; but rather an announcement, one made with sadistic glee. Wheezing giggles broke out as he left the room, Crabbe waddling in his wake. Goyle hesitated for one moment, taking in Draco’s state of weakness before following suit.
The Ravenclaws stayed put, deep in thought; the Hufflepuffs approached the centre of the room to help Longbottom to his feet. Longbottom reached out for Draco, heedless of Carrow’s words; his square face was an open canvas painted in equal parts with curiosity, concern … and pity.
Draco’s half extended hand fell back onto the floor. He smeared his own blood across the floor as he half crawled, half walked across the room before leaning against a wall to help himself up. The Hufflepuffs grumbled at his poor manners, but Longbottom’s voice could still be heard, his tone still easy.
“You should really go see Madame Pomfrey.”
Draco struggled to step away from the walls that supported him. “You really should mind your own business,” he quipped. The pain was intense as he straightened and escaped into the corridor as quickly as he could, sweat drops tumbling down his skin. Salt stung in his eyes and his vision blurred – not fast enough, however, for him to not see Longbottom’s shoulders set as he watched Draco’s exit with a sigh.
The ceiling rose to infinite heights at the end of the corridor; the marble staircase spread forlornly below, the once grand and welcoming entryway of the castle was now forbidding as Hogwarts herself. The torches had not been lit since the Dark regime had taken over, their charred ends further suffocated by the haze of Peruvian darkness powder dispersed every night.
Draco’s hands, still damp with perspiration, clutched the marble railing. Three more flights of stairs going down and he would be in the dungeons, where he could retire in the safety of his own bed. Instinctively, he pressed a palm against his chest, an unspoken vow to soothe and to heal.
But the promise was short-lived, forgotten in the ensuing terror just as it had been during the many previous days. All it took was a brush of his fingers on his robe, and the shock as they dipped into fabric that burrowed without resistance, as they felt a chill radiating from underlying skin that still burned with pain. It was as if an Arctic storm had ripped its way into his chest, rattling the confines of an empty ribcage already jangling with his quick and shallow breaths.
Draco thought he heard students stumbling upon one another, as he forced his way down the stairs; the marble stretched before him, lit by the pale blue glow of house ghosts who had drifted into the Entrance Hall and perched upon the torches – a tacit effort to uphold the presence of light at this hour of the setting sun. Draco’s shadow on the smooth stones lengthened, then came alive as a malformed beast on the sodden, uneven dungeon floor, twisting and morphing as it trailed its master into the depths of the castle.
The labyrinth of corridors sprawled before him, pitch-black tentacles shrunken to feign homeward shortcuts as they vied for his attention; they confounded the proper path to the Slytherin dormitory to all but its house members, whose knowledge of the motifs engraved along the corridors helped guide their way. Years ago, on his very first evening at Hogwarts, Draco had craned his neck before every intricate curve above the then-bright lanterns, driven by both the desire to outsmart his housemates and an inexplicable dread of losing his way. His reward had been the loyalty of two friends-cum-bodyguards, who in the following years had never needed to master the skill; Draco not only brought them home soundly every evening, but eased their fears by reminding them constantly of the way to safety.
All you have to do, Draco used to drawl, is to follow the echo from the Potions classroom on the other side of the labyrinth. Hear those sounds of water dripping into the gargoyle basin? Let them be your guide.
That discovery, made in his second year, had once been Draco’s pride. Yet, after the summer of perpetual storms, the brisk, clean echoes had been there no more, parched to death upon Snape’s departure from the dungeons. Gone, too, had been those lanterns required for Draco’s navigation among the corridors. They had been confiscated, poisoned by the darkness powder. Lumos had been a shaky replacement, its glow weakened significantly within the confines of the castle and its every use traced to detect night-time activities. It was no match against the Hand of Glory that Amycus Carrow had since raised to lead his fellow Slytherins back to their homes, that had been stripped from Draco for his failure to fulfil the Dark Lord’s demands.
The skeletal digits of the Hand had thus plucked away Draco’s allies – just as they had usurped the light ensnared on the palm. The hollow in Draco’s chest radiated, and with it, the pain; it, too, had been set free by something sinister … by someone whose name had been synonymous to glory.
Potter had gotten away with Dark Magic, had he not?
Draco tore his thoughts away; rage and envy had had their time and place. He had to summon, for the task at hand, all his focus, his control, his patience – here was where all these virtues had been gifted to him, and he would demonstrate them here, in this dungeon, as well.
He could brave this labyrinth.
He could, while being too aware of the humiliation awaiting him in the Slytherin common room, as he half-blindly sought his way in the dark.
He could, and he would make it back to his private alcove for the past six years, to feign rest after casting protective spell upon protective spell from behind the emerald curtains, curling into a foetal position to reminisce upon every item in his school trunk until the sun rose.
He could, or –
Draco turned; the small pool of water on the stone floor sloshed. A dash of bluish glow from the upper levels stole through, blossomed into sapphire splinters that leapt into the air amidst the spray of fluid.
Faint as this light was, Draco chased it, and raised his feet to meet the stair’s ascent.