Fandom: Harry Potter
Word count: 4328
Notes: Directly after watching the HBP movie I wrote a story called The Game of Kings. This is a sequel to that one, basically, and grew out of a wonderful email exchange with pogrebin. A lot of the good ideas in here are hers :) It sat around half-done for months and months and I've finally dusted it off and finished it; it's set between the events of HBP and DH, so I wanted it completed before the next movie is released.
Title taken from 'Everybody's Got The Right', from the glorious Sondheim musical that is Assassins. Yeah, I figure that's just about the right level of irony for this story.
pick your apple (take a bite)
When Draco comes down to breakfast there's a smell of vinegar in the air and a dead rat on his seat. His heart seizes up before he remembers that Pettigrew is not this large, nor this sleek shade of dark grey, when he transforms. But the hammering in his chest, the momentary terror, has already spoiled his appetite.
"This hardly seems hygienic," he says to nobody, and looks up into his Aunt Bella's sly gaze. She knows what he was thinking: anyone is disposable. As if he needed a reminder.
His mother's mouth twitches into a moue of distate as she glances at the animal's corpse, and her spoon hovers for a moment above the bowl of porridge. Syrup falls from it in a dark thread and pools sluggishly in the milk. "Really, Bella. Not at breakfast."
Bellatrix gives her screw-jiggy smile and twists her hands around the air in a redundant mime. "Positively breeding down there, they are, Cissy. Damp and rot and tiny feet. Anyone would think you hadn't used the dungeons for years."
"Let's not talk housekeeping," his mother says, and puts her hand on Draco's arm. She's never been one for casual touch, but this summer she keeps finding excuses to, as though reminding herself that he exists.
Draco measures the angle of his wrist -- "Wingardiam Leviosa." -- and floats the rat into the nearest bin, then forces himself into his seat without hesitation.
"Sit up, darling," says his mother.
Her own spine is as straight as a human's spine can be, a shape that has very little to do with wands or pokers or any other metaphor, wizarding or Muggle, that could be applied. With her hair swept up on top of her head the gentle curve of her neck can be seen to match that of her lower back, like double parentheses, opening nested clauses but never closing them again.
Draco looks down at his bowl, which is the colour of bleached bone.
The legend is old and has fermented over the years, its morals gone bitter and strong. The details have diverged and even the Muggles know a watered-down version or two, but the core of the apple is this: jealousy, destiny, and a powerful curse that should be deadly but leads instead to an unbreakable sleep. The sleeper is held in a stasis symbolised by glass, or stone towers, or crawling thorns.
Given the tendency of people to remember endings, you’d think the point of the story would be something to do with the restorative powers of love. But you'd be wrong.
The point comes much earlier. The point is the subversion of the inevitable evil: sleep, not death, through the power of a potion.
The first letter begins,
and remains that way for fifteen minutes while Draco hesitates and seethes, his wand poised to destroy the evidence. Logically this kind of idiotic whim should be indulged in his locked room, but he's found a paradoxical privacy out in the open air, on the roof of the Manor, tucked behind an ancient chimney-stack.
It's a dusk of ghoul weather, end-of-the-world weather. The rain tries to fall and only succeeds in forming measly isolated drops, thrown this way and that by the staccato wind; mostly the rain just skulks in the sky, hoping to become a rainbow. As the sun reaches the horizon everything is drenched yellow, the true uneasy yellow of buttercups or of a chip that rises sizzling and golden from a vat of oil. Like everything else in Draco's life the atmosphere breathes tension, unrest; bare treetops swirl the yellow-oil air, which is too cold for the glow of its own colour, clammy like a sea breeze from an invisible ocean.
The saturation only lasts a few minutes before it, too, is tossed aside by the wind, leaving the clouds to darken into a fierce dull blue, simmering above the flames of an untidy sunset. It's getting hard to see. Draco writes quickly, angrily, abandoning any sentence that refuses to behave.
I'd like --
I want you to know that no matter how wonderful the world thinks you are, I know better. I always have. You have no idea do you, absolutely no fucking idea, what it meant for you to walk in on me and fight me and almost kill me like it was nothing at all to you -- like telling Filch, like taking away house points -- nothing. Of all the things you could have chosen to do you decided to tear me apart, and when I had only one choice I --
Do you know how much I --
The Dark Lord should have chosen you for my job. You seem to have a knack for it.
Night falls a little further. The parchment is obscured and twilight-stained and dotted with spots of rain, like stray tears; ridiculous. Draco whispers a spell under his breath and watches the twisting, ember-chewed scraps of the letter dart away on the breeze. Gone in an instant.
From somewhere under the tiles comes a loud human sound, and Draco thinks: maybe it's a laugh. Maybe something terribly amusing has happened and someone just had to scream with laughter.
He wraps his cloak tighter around himself, leans back, and lets the bricks catch and tangle the fine strands of his hair.
Never before has Draco managed to have recurring dreams, even when he was young and lay in bed with his eyes screwed too tightly shut, trying to fall back into fuzzy dreams of fast brooms and air streaming through his fingers, sugar Snitches that would be so delicious if he could only…
It never worked. His sleep would be stale, or he wouldn't sleep at all. But now he dreams about the birdcage and the bathroom, night after night, with variations on violence, and it's not always Harry Potter. Sometimes it's just Draco and the snakes. Sometimes it's pitch dark and Draco's chest is wet with something, and all he can hear is a hissing sound which could be coming from human or animal tongues.
Fuck off, Potter, he says, tired in his sleep. The hissing stops. That's right. You're not here, you're a dream. One remarkable thing about his summer is the absence of Harry Potter, and it should be a comfort, but it's winding him tight because there's nobody safe to fight with now. Now Draco glares only at empty rooms, and swallows his insults, and picks fights with the creations of his own exhausted mind.
Sometimes dream-Harry accuses Draco of being a person in his dream, which is even worse because it's plausible. Draco's been feeling like his life is someone else's nightmare for a long time now.
Frantic, he says, You're wrong.
Potter doesn't smile. I've always been more real than you, Malfoy.
Draco settles his wand in the hollow of Potter's neck where one end of a long white scar isn't. You're wrong, he says again.
Draco wakes up thinking about the Cabinet, wondering absurdly if anyone pulled the door shut once they'd all gone through, or if it was forgotten in the triumphant ingress. It doesn't matter. The damage is done, Hogwarts is breached; a month ago Draco drove his fist into the fabric of his own life and opened something that could never be closed.
"This'll be fun," says his Aunt Bella, and laughs. "Family fun. Better than a picnic in the countryside."
Personally Draco can't think of anything less resembling fun than finding out what the inside of his aunt's head looks like, but she's the only person who's volunteered to teach him more about Occlumency, and he can't exactly refuse. He sits with his hands closed around the sides of his chair and thinks about stone walls while Bellatrix's eyes turn from glittering jewels into pointed arrowheads.
The first time is embarrassing. Draco's had someone do this once or twice before, he knows the basic concepts, but he's used to minds that attack in straight lines. Bellatrix is all odd diagonals and ooze, and she slides around the simple barrier he's erected with no trouble at all. Draco rocks forward on the chair and shakes, chasing after her, the green-grey watery sensation of her delighted mind zigzagging around his memories. He's not stupid. She isn't giving him lessons out of the goodness of her heart. But he's fairly sure that his usual level of background terror will suffice in the place of enthusiastic obedience, and also come as no surprise; he's not worried that his thoughts will betray anything. It doesn't make the experience any more pleasant.
"Now you," she says.
Draco's head feels sticky on the inside, and he can't stop thinking about fish. Who knows what she was rummaging around in.
"Legilimens," and he even tries to make himself slippery, but all he gets is a brief flash of moonlit countryside and the smell of sour grass, then a rebound that settles behind his eyes and aches.
"Mirrors," Bellatrix says, pushing the tip of her wand thoughtfully into one corner of her mouth and smiling around it. "They have many uses. Hogwarts, always Hogwarts, so dull. Stones leave so little room for imagination."
It's true: he tries a few more times before the headache disables him completely, and her barriers are mirrors, set at angles to one another. He doesn't know how she contructs them, but they work beautifully.
"Bellatrix has always been an accomplished Occlumens," Snape says later. His voice gives away nothing.
Draco much prefers these lessons, the moments few and far between when Snape finds the time to teach him a few potions. There's a room that's windowless enough for a stab of pretence at the Hogwarts dungeons, even though a charm simply copies the external light from a separate room on the corner of the Manor, and the walls are too sleek and decorated. Paint in place of stone.
"She was right about the stones," he says. "I suppose it's what I think of as solid. Safe."
He wouldn't say that to anyone else. But Snape gives him a long glance and then jabs a pale finger at Draco's small cauldron, which has boiled down to half-empty. When he stirs it the contents coat the spoon thickly. This is a poison, of course, a sly one; Snape's time wouldn't be wasted on anything that the Dark Lord might not find useful.
"Done. They should be fine enough."
When Draco looks up this potion in a book, later -- and he will, it's not as though he has anything else to do with his time -- he has no doubt that the instructions will fail to match up exactly to what Snape is telling him. Like a recipe-spell for basic sugar biscuits, the interest comes with the variations; the improvisations. Every poison has its slightly more complicated -- slightly more redeemable -- cousin.
"And every poison has its antidote," Draco recites, and Snape gives the slight twitch of one eyebrow that Draco associates with the awarding of points to Slytherin.
"Precisely," he says. "Even if some of them have been lost to time, or not yet invented. And it's a waste of time to learn one without the other," he adds sternly.
Another of those long, blank looks across the cauldron's steaming brim. Draco wishes his head would cease its fretful ache, so that he might work out what exactly Snape is trying to convey in these dreadfully important silences.
Bellatrix leaves a dead bird in the hallway and Draco summons his broom, the Accio sour like bile in his mouth. There are wards and traps everywhere, nasty ones that show no finesse when it comes to separating friend from foe. As it were. But he kicks off and flies straight up until his eyes are streaming and his mouth is dry, then he levels out and hovers high above the Manor in the gentle warm air. People leave and enter the building like bustling insects, and from this vantage point everything looks busy and peaceful.
There have been other wars in England and the wizarding world has been divided when it comes to involvement. Draco's family have never deigned to fight for anything but themselves, but Draco's heard stories; they sound as though they were loud, these Muggle wars. Loud and immense and muddy. Not this strange sweeping tension that erupts in small pockets of death, people arguing in the halls of Draco's house, treading their sadism and their impatience into the rugs he grew up with.
When he thinks about it he also has to think about the door of the Cabinet opening, and Fenrir Greyback's claws shredding the unicorn tapestry. He has to think about his mother's erect posture in the face of ridicule; the family values have always been pure blood, and power, and standing in society, but nobody in the Dark Lord's circle still places any value on the Malfoys. It's their house and they're being treated as though they're the weakness, the rot in the wood. Pride is almost impossible. But what else keeps the spine straight?
Draco flies a slow spiral down, letting the air brush against his shame-heated face. He's still a Malfoy. It has to mean something, even if it no longer means anything that it once did; even if he feels less real with every passing night. It has to mean something. His father wanted to fight for an idea, but that time has passed: Draco is in this war for no more and no less than the art of preservation. He can't have his old life back but he's fighting, and he'll keep fighting, not to lose any more than he already has.
Draco Malfoy is fighting a war in golden light, a war of silence. These summer evenings of terrible beauty and slow heartbeat.
Charity Burbage's eyes, huge and watering in her pale face, sweep across Draco's in the moments before she dies. When her short and hopeless cry is cut off, Draco looks, without wanting to look, at the way her body now hangs as though suspended from a single awkward rope. All he can think is that he finally understands the meaning of the word complicit.
"I'd have thought you'd be more pleased." Alecto Carrow shoots Draco an expression that is probably meant to be a sneer, but she just looks as though something unpleasant has crept into her soup.
"I never took Muggle Studies," Draco says, topping her sneer with satisfaction.
"The Dark Lord has plans." Alecto drags out the word. "Now that the rubbish has been cleared away, that stagnant old fortress can be filled with more suitable educators of young minds."
Draco casts an automatic glance to the left, where his aunt looks about as normal as she ever does, even if her eyes linger too lovingly on the tines of her fork.
Alecto follows his glance and scoffs. "Not looking so pleased with herself now, is she? Mad old bat. No wonder Rudolphus isn't in any hurry to return from --" She cuts herself off and spoons soup into her mouth; swallows greedily and goes for another sneer. "Well, none of your business, Malfoy."
The pleased spite in her voice is an icy charm across Draco's neck, holding him in place, still looking at Bellatrix. With her pinned-back hair turning her cheekbones into knives beneath the skin, and her aristocratic hands playing the table setting like a piano, she is suddenly and painfully the older sister of the woman once called Narcissa Black.
It's this, rather than Alecto's taunt, that shows him what he probably should have seen before, which is that Bellatrix has fallen some distance in whatever quiet, ugly games of cruelty count for status politics amongst these people. A sedate and superstitious space has been left between her and the other Death Eaters at the table, stranding her next to her own blood kin. Even the Dark Lord's favourite has been stained by the ink of Draco's failure.
Draco lifts his goblet and takes a demure sip, managing not to cough as it traces an itchy path down his sand-dry throat. The slowly rotating corpse of Charity Burbage is reflected in the surface of the water, framed by the silver rim of the goblet like a photograph whose subject can only do the one thing over and over again. From a corner of the room comes Nagini's hungry hiss, gliding beneath the sound of human voices.
"Do excuse me," Draco says. He wipes his mouth on his napkin and slips from the table and walks up to his room with the same careful steps he learned in a year of trying to blend into the stones of what Alecto calls the stagnant old fortress.
You'd never catch me admitting this to your ridiculous bespectacled face, but for the very first time I can see how there might be some appeal in eating all of one's meals while sitting alone in a broom cupboard.
This isn't the second letter he's written, nor the third. What he's found is that as soon as Potter's name is at the top of the parchment he finds himself becoming furious, instead of scared, and that's useful in its own way.
"You're not thinking." Snape's voice whips against his flagging attention.
"Sorry, Professor." He swipes his hair back from his face. "I haven't been sleeping well."
"Is that so." But Snape turns to pick up one of his books, flicks through it with careless expertise, and lays it down in front of Draco's eyes. "Perhaps you'd care to channel your excuses into something productive?"
A draught against nightmares. It looks simple enough, but that's often deceptive.
"Can you suggest any improvements?"
Snape's eyes are sharp, hooking. "As I said. I'd prefer you to think."
The realisation has taken weeks to spread over Draco, like a slow tide: Snape's purpose here is more abstract than practical, teaching him how to subvert the instructions without exactly disobeying them. Of all the magical arts, potion-making requires thought. It requires measurement, and patience, and titration, rather than simply flicking a wrist and expecting the world to shift.
In a different hour Bellatrix dances her way into his slipshod mind and sees his dreams in bits and pieces, sees him with his wand at Harry Potter's throat, and he never heard the curse that almost killed him, so in the dream-fragment Harry just says something in Parseltongue and the wound reopens.
Draco shoves her mind away with a feeling like the unfolding of legs crouched tight and ready to spring; at least he can follow her, now, at least he knows what she's looking at. Bellatrix takes two steps backwards and shakes herself all over, like a ragged black dog.
"So much anger." She giggles. Her eyes are alight. "Maybe there's some hope of finding the family spark in you yet, little bird."
Draco doesn't feel angry right now. His stomach is uneasy and he wants to throw up, but his throat is hard and shut. He has one hand pressed against his forehead as though that'll keep her out. He swallows what he wants to say, which is: you're not my family. Ink-stains or no, Draco knows the difference, because he loves his family. He loves his father and he loves his cool, courteous, diamond-willed mother, and that -- that will keep his spine straight, for now.
Hawthorn and unicorn hair, hawthorn and unicorn hair. Draco's fingers are sweaty but tight around his wand. Hawthorn for precision and unicorn hair for power but it's still just a conduit in the end; the true power is his.
What a laughable concept.
Across the room his mother stands with her hands clasped white in front of her, her face a block of ice despite the laughter that buffets her from every side. The attention of the Death Eaters is divided almost equally between Thorfinn Rawle and each of the Malfoys, all of them targets in their own way, but the Dark Lord's attention is fully on him and Draco can feel his own blood fleeing out from the depths of his chest to the tips of his clumsy fingers.
"The anticipation is part of the pain, I do agree," the Dark Lord says. "But too much hesitation could be viewed as -- an unwillingness."
Smoothly, as though he's commenting on the weather. As though this isn't an object lesson, a spectacle, one more shred of Draco's family's dignity being hoisted for all to see.
Draco doesn't look at his mother again. He doesn't look at Rawle either; that will hardly help. He looks at the drawn-tight desperate glee on his Aunt Bella's face and thinks about mirrors.
"I am willing," he says.
The Unforgivable Curses. Right. Like any good schoolboy he calls up his Defence lessons, which is a bad idea because all he can hear is bloody Mad-Eye Moody talking about the desire to inflict pain, and even the memory of that voice makes Draco's whole body seize up in confusion and nausea and the hypervigilance of all small defenceless things.
Six years of bent rules and petty injustice and disappointment and shame and bitter fights; six years surrounded by people who could afford to laugh.
Draco lifts his wand.
What he needs is sadism and what he has instead is this summertime war making a mockery of his childhood. What he has is all this fear, and tiredness, and yes, anger, and he draws them all into a tiny ball inside himself and transfigures them into a pure and scorching hatred that leaves invisible burns on his tongue when he says, "Crucio."
Rawle screams and now Draco can't find any emotions in himself at all. They evaporated in that heat, and they'll need time to regenerate. He watches the man writhing on the floor and thinks impassively that he can feel his soul becoming brittle, riddled with these hairline fractures, and wonders if anything can protect him now.
Dumbledore, infuriating dead Dumbledore, would probably think so. Harry Potter would think so. They'd tell him about second chances and scars and they'd tell him that there's something stronger than this grubby darkness.
But salvation through love has never been the point of the story, has it? Never.
The evasion of death is all that can be won.
In the mirror is a boy with stone-grey eyes and not enough weight on his frame, buttoning his best shirt from the bottom up. He's used to the scar now that it's faded as far as it ever will, and he watches the slim triangle of his own bare chest shrinking button by button as though the two edges of an entirely new wound are being drawn together and healed.
There are charms for dressing but Draco's not in the mood to use his wand. Ten inches of slightly springy hawthorn, imbued with unicorn hair and the salt of his skin's fear, are now laid carefully on top of the chest that contains his textbooks, quills, ink and parchment.
"We'll expect you for dinner, Draco," his father said.
At the close of every summer, on the eve of his departure for another school year, his parents have insisted on a formal dinner with dress robes and his favourite food. This year they will be dining in one of the small rooms off the kitchens, proud in their exile, but Draco is desperately grateful for the gesture; like Snape's lessons, it's an island of stark normality.
He lifts his favourite robes from the bed, the midnight blue ones that suit him much better than any shade of green, and slides his arms into them.
The thought of Amycus and Alecto striding the halls of Hogwarts is still sinking in, buffered and overshadowed by the fact that Snape will be Headmaster. Draco hasn't dreamed for over a week now, since he perfected the potion, but the last nightmare he had was one of Dumbledore's body falling and falling and striking nothing, the searing warmth of death on Draco's own tongue and his own killing arm outstretched.
He tugs his robes straight and then presses his palms together, hard.
"You've got to stay alive, little bird," he tells his reflection, in a hollow stab at his aunt's amused voice.
He turns to pick up his tie and the robes flap like dead wings.
Changing the world can be an act of titration, or it can be luck, the right words in the right place in the right time -- planets aligning. Astronomy. You might find that amusing. Something about this has to be.
All I've ever been able to achieve has been the wrong thing, at the wrong time.
Don't you understand that, you blind stupid arrogant wanker? Don't you understand that my life is ajar and all I can do now is stand in the gap and try to prevent the dregs of it from leaking out?
Last year I changed the world. I rather think it's your turn.
Draco can admit that he's never been writing for anybody but himself.
Despite this fact, this is the letter he comes the closest to sending. He folds it carefully, as though about to affix a seal, and holds it between two fingers. The sun is setting like melting wax and Draco's whole body is a warm punched-out punch-drunk bruise, fractured and strong, his skin taking up the evening light like parchment hungry for ink.
It's a beautiful moment. Quiet and still. Rain and inevitabilities hover near the horizon, but there are ways of protecting oneself against those, if one is clever. Draco lifts his wand.
The letter hovers in front of his eyes, his magic holding it steady in the face of the wind, until every word has been erased by the flames.